TV REVIEWS : Peace Dividend Turns to 'Ashes'

Now that the Cold War has converted to peace, can the defense contractors follow suit?

The answer in "Frontline's" investigation, "Ashes of the Cold War" (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) is a very soft "maybe," or a very ambivalent "no." It all depends on what state you live in.

But because of the country we live in--where, over the past several years, government and corporations seemed to take pride in not planning for the future--no place is safe from the ravages of an uncoordinated economy shifting from weapons manufacturing to one made up of low-wage service businesses and elite high-tech firms. The vast middle, where the middle class has long lived, is squeezed out, jobless and defaulting on mortgages.

Producer June Cross' report zooms in on where most of the American Cold War ashes have piled up--California, where defense-related industry formed the basis for the state's post-World War II boom. According to the report, California received $3 trillion in defense contracts during the Cold War, which included the network of Pacific Rim bases on the state's vast stretches of open land and in its many natural harbors.

Now, with massive production cutbacks resulting from a shrinking defense budget, what weapons-making there is appears to be consolidating into the hands of companies such as Hughes. And Hughes, still devoting 90% of its budget to defense, is concentrating its operations in corporate-tax-free Arizona.

The two lessons here, both deserving much more emphasis than they're given, are simple and harsh. The first is something writer Jane Jacobs was stressing years before the Berlin Wall fell: Any city and its region dependent on defense-related industry is doomed, because it will be hooked on government handouts, which will eventually end. The second is even harsher: Plans for peace conversion should have begun years ago.

Bill Clinton's scramble to create a conversion policy where none existed before is just one more mess heaped onto this President's already awesome plate of must-do items. He shouldn't have to do it, any more than Hughes shouldn't have to create an electric car on its own, with little help from its partner, General Motors. But in an unplanned, dog-eat-dog economy, desperate scrambling is becoming the only mode of doing business.

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