Nixon and the Arms Race: The Bomber Boondoggle

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine


The No. 1 question for the new Nixon Administration is what it will do about the arms race. If it opts for higher military spending, the consequence will be intensified social conflict. If the new President’s policies in office follow his campaign pledges, the decision has already been made. Nixon has begun by promising to perpetuate one of McNamara’s greatest errors and to undo his greatest accomplishment. The error is that miscarriage of an airplane, the TFX, now known as the F-111, which has already cost the country several billion dollars. His accomplishment was to make the country realize that at a certain point in the awful arithmetic of nuclear power, superiority in weapons became meaningless.

In his Security Gap speech over CBS on October 25, Nixon said one of his major aims would be to “correct its [the Pentagon’s] over-centralization” in order to give greater weight in decision-making to the military as against the top civilians. “I intend to root out the ‘whiz kid’ approach which for years,” Nixon said, “has led our policies and programs down the wrong roads.” But he is following McNamara down his most costly wrong road, just when the military have been proven right and the top civilians wrong, and indeed—as we shall see—on the one issue where the “whiz kids” sided with the military against McNamara. On the other hand, Nixon has set out, in the search for nuclear superiority, to follow the military down a dead-end path where the military are demonstrably wrong and the “whiz kids” are demonstrably right. To examine these two divergent courses is to see the trouble which lies ahead, on many different levels, for the new Administration and the country.

Let us begin with the TFX and with the speech Nixon made November 2 at Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth is where General Dynamics builds the TFX or F-111, the plane that was the focus of the longest and bitterest controversy of McNamara’s years in the Pentagon. “The F-111 in a Nixon Administration,” the candidate said at Fort Worth that day, “will be made into one of the foundations of our air supremacy.” This pledge, which received too little attention, may prove to be the biggest blooper of the campaign, and the beginning—if Nixon tries to keep that pledge—of the biggest fight between the Nixon Administration and the very forces he might have counted on for a honeymoon, the Senate conservatives who specialize in military policy and who were most critical of McNamara in the TFX affair.

This Nixon pledge at Fort Worth will repay patient examination. It is startling that a man as cautious as Nixon should have made so unqualified a pledge to a plane which has become a tragic joke.

Last May, when the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Department of Defense was holding hearings on the budget for the fiscal year 1969, the Chairman,…

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