Oct 04

Butter or Guns?

by Sargent Shriver Peace Institute | 10/04/2022 6:00AM | Quote of the Week | War on Poverty

Butter or Guns?

Butter or Guns?

Our Quote of the Week recalls the “butter or guns” debate, which refers to the federal government’s weighing of options between funding social programs (“butter”) or military spending (“guns”). Sargent Shriver suggests that choosing “guns” over “butter” can in and of itself result in violence, as neglecting the well-being of people tends to  cause discontent and civil unrest.

On September 23, 1965, Sargent Shriver gave his Address at the Ohio Catholic Education Association Convention. He opened with a reference to Mississippi then-Senator John C. Stennis, who had made the statement that it was not possible to fight both the war in Vietnam AND to fight poverty at the same time, that it would be necessary to choose to fight the military war. It was in this context that Shriver made the point that in truth, the US could not afford to ignore social spending. Turning to the subject of war, he then said:

“There is only one war – the same war – a war for the self-determination of peoples, and of individuals. A war that has erupted in brush fire after brush fire – in the African Congo – in Panama – in the Dominican Republic – in Los Angeles – this summer – and New York, Philadelphia, Rochester and other cities last summer.”

The reference to choosing between "butter or guns" continues to be poignant today. As a nation, we are told we must choose between "butter" (i.e., supporting people through expanding social programs domestically and providing humanitarian aid internationally) and "guns" (physically defending ourselves from perceived domestic and international threats). This, we would argue, is a false choice. It is true that we must be able to protect ourselves from violent attacks, and for that, we should make every effort to avoid large-scale conflicts altogether through diplomacy. And, it is also true that creating a stable environment for all people, with viable economic opportunities, quality education, accessible health care, adequate nutrition, and a social safety net, will result in a more peaceful society.

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