McGovern vs. Nixon on the Arms Race

George McGovern
George McGovern; drawing by David Levine


The picture created by campaign propaganda is that the choice between Nixon and McGovern is a choice between a moderate strategic arms limitation and a radical recasting of the American military posture. On careful examination it will be seen that the choice really is between a further escalation of the arms race under cover of the SALT accords and a moderate revision downward of the Pentagon budget. While the Nixon program offers no hope of arms reduction and little prospect even of a freeze in the areas which count, the McGovern program implicitly accepts the same doctrines which have fueled the arms race through several administrations, Democratic and Republican. This includes the Pax Americana—the American commitments overseas which account for two-thirds of the military costs—and the idea of maintaining American technological superiority in weaponry, which has been the main motive power pushing the arms race to ever greater levels of destructive power and expense. Nixon’s program is nine-tenths fakery. McGovern’s program is far from radical.

While weariness with the Vietnam war and a growing concern over escalating military costs have pushed US public opinion leftward, making fresh initiatives possible, the inertial power of the huge military establishment and the vested interests it has created in both capital and labor have left political leadership far to the right of where they were two decades ago. Nixon has never once spoken out against the dangers of an arms race in the way Eisenhower often did, and McGovern’s “radical” manifesto of last January, “Towards A More Secure America: An Alternative National Defense Posture,” is radical only from the perspective of the Pentagon. It reads as if it were prepared by rebellious military and civilian officers who accept the basic premise of the war machine but believe the job can be done more efficiently and less expensively with smaller forces.1

Some of those, including myself, who see McGovern as our best and only hope for a recasting of national priorities, have hesitated to say this frankly and openly until it was clear that he had the nomination in his grasp. As between McGovern and Nixon, the former offers a real choice in terms of expenditure but not yet of doctrine. I believe, however, that if elected McGovern will, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, grow in office and be able to lead us out of the trap which the momentum of the arms race and the Pax Americana have created.

The expertise in the McGovern defense program is unmistakable, but so, from the very first page, are its conceptual limitations. The introduction says “We should be able to find the line between conservatism and paranoia,” i.e., conservatism in hedging against possible threats to US security. But “conservatism in planning,” it goes on, “should be able to coexist with realism in understanding changed world conditions, and with caution in adding military forces that can needlessly…

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