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The War Machine under Nixon

In government the budget is the message. Washington’s heart is where the tax dollar goes. When President Nixon finally, and very tardily, presented his first budget proposals in mid-April in a mini-State of the Union message, he said “Peace has been the first priority.” But the figures showed that the first concern of the new Administration, as of the last, was still the care and feeding of the war machine.

Only Nixon’s style had changed. “Sufficiency” rather than “superiority” in nuclear armaments remained the new watchword. But in practice it was difficult to tell them apart. Administrations change, but the Pentagon remains at the head of the table. Nixon’s semantics recalled John F. Kennedy’s eight years earlier. The Eisenhower Administration had waged battle for four years against the bomber gap and the missile gap with the slogan of “sufficiency.” “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt,” was Kennedy’s elegant riposte in his Inaugural, signaling a new spiral upward in the arms race, “can we be certain without doubt that they will never be employed.” The rhetoric was fresh but the idea was no different from John Foster Dulles’s “position of strength.” This is the plus ca change of American government and diplomacy. It emerged intact after Nixon’s first three months in office, too.

At a press conference four days after his budget message, Nixon said again that “sufficiency” in weaponry was “all that is necessary.” But a moment later he was clearly equating it with nuclear superiority. He said he didn’t want “the diplomatic credibility” of a future President in a crisis like that over Cuba’s missiles “impaired because the United States was in a second-class or inferior position.” A press corps obsessed with the latest plane incident off North Korea did not pause to consider the implications. Was “diplomatic credibility” to be measured in megatons? Were we preparing again to play a thermonuclear game of “chicken,” to see who would blink first at the prospect of instant incineration? Was this not the diplomacy of brinkmanship and the strategy of permanent arms race?

No correspondent asked these questions, and Nixon did not spell out the inferences. His tone was softer, his language more opaque, than that of the campaign, but the essential “security gap” theme had not changed. The main emphasis of Nixon’s first months in office, the main idea he tried to sell the country, turned out to be that it was in mortal peril of a Soviet first-strike capacity. The new Administration sought to overcome a mounting wave of opposition to the ABM and to the military generally, by ringing the bells of panic.

True, the Secretary of State often seemed to deny the perils the Secretary of Defense painted. Which was the party line? It was indicative that when visiting editors were given a press kit on the ABM April 7, with a covering letter on White House stationery, signed by Herbert G. Klein as Nixon’s “Director of Communications,” the only thing new in that kit, the only news it contained, and the one bit on which nobody commented, was the “document” the Administration had chosen as the first item. It was a reproduction of a column in which Joseph Alsop three days earlier had exuberantly portrayed the “grim” (a favorite Alsop word) dangers of a first strike from Laird’s new monster, the Soviet SS-9. The leading journalistic Pied Piper of the Bomber Gap and the Missile Gap had been enlisted by the new Administration to help it to propagate a new Gap. If the White House stationery and the Klein signature were not enough to make Alsop’s nightmare official doctrine, the reproduction of the column carried at the bottom of the page this imprimatur, “Prepared under the direction of the Republican National Committee, 1625 Eye St. N.W., Washington, D.C.” The candor was dazzling.

The Budget Bureau fact sheets which accompanied Nixon’s spending proposals sought to create the impression that on the military budget, as on so much else, Nixon in power was reversing the course set by Nixon on campaign. “Military and military assistance programs account for $1.1 billion (27%) of the $4.0 billion outlay reduction [for fiscal 1970],” said one fact sheet, “and $3.0 billion (55%) of the cut in budget authority.” But, as we shall see, while the cuts in domestic civilian programs proved all too real, those in the military budget were either dubious or deferrals.

There was in the Nixon budget one complete and dramatic about-face—on the FB-111. Six months earlier, just before the election, at Fort Worth, where General Dynamics was building this new strategic bomber, Nixon had promised to make the F-111 “one of the foundations of our air supremacy.” Now it was put permanently on the shelf. Procurement of the bomber was cut back sharply for fiscal 1969, which ends June 30, and abandoned altogether for fiscal 1970. Only the F-111D, the Air Force fighter version of this plane, was to stay in production a while longer.

Thus finis was soon to be written to the career of the multi-purpose, multiservice plane originally known as the TFX, one of McNamara’s most costly misjudgments. But on this, as on almost every other item of apparent economy in the Nixon-Laird revisions of the Pentagon’s budget, the few hundred millions saved in fiscal ‘69 and ‘70 were linked to commitments which would cost literally billions more in the decade ahead. Every short step back hid another leap forward in expenditures.

The TFX was McNamara’s effort to stall of the drive of the bomber generals to commit the country to an entirely new manned bomber in the missile age. He gave them the FB-111, the bomber version of the TFX, instead. Laird reduced FB-111 procurement in fiscal ‘69 by $107 million and eliminated altogether the planned outlay of $321 million in fiscal ‘70. But he then added $23 million for fiscal ‘70 to speed “full scale engineering” of the new intercontinental bomber AMSA (Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft) for which the Air Force and the aviation industry have been lobbying for years. “The FB111,” Laird told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 15, in an echo of the lobby’s arguments, “will not meet the requirements of a true intercontinental bomber and the cost per unit has reached a point where an AMSA must be considered to fill the void.”

It will be quite a void. The cost overruns, which had more than doubled the price of the FB-111, now became the excuse for going ahead with a far more expensive bomber. The net saving of $405 million in fiscal ‘69 and ‘70 ($107 plus $321 minus $23 million) will commit the country to a new plane which Senator Proxmire told the Senate April 22 will cost at least $24 billion during the next decade. Such illusory economies place heavy first mortgages on the future in favor of the military and at the expense of social needs.

Even so, there was hidden in the F-111 cutback a $200 million consolation prize for General Dynamics. The formal budget document1 carried an increase of $155.7 million for “Production of F-111D at minimum sustaining rate related to FB-111 cancellation.” I was puzzled by this reference to a “sustaining rate.” What was being “sustained”—military needs or General Dynamics?

I found a fuller explanation when Aviation Week & Space Technology arrived for May 5. It said the revised Nixon procurement plans for General Dynamics F-111D provided $599.8 million for aircraft “plus $56 million for advance procurement and $71.4 million to cover excess costs generated in fiscal 1968.” It said the total of $727.2 million “represented a sharp increase over original fiscal 1970 plans of $518 million.” Indeed this is an increase, though Aviation Week did not say so, of $209.2 million rather than the $155.7 specified in the budget message.

The increase had been approved by Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard—a director of General Dynamics until his Pentagon appointment—to counterbalance a cut of $320.9 million in the FB-111 program. It would “enable General Dynamics to retain its present production facilities.” Not only did thirteen of these fighter planes crash in their twenty-six months of operations2 but Senator Curtis of Kansas, in a comprehensive Senate speech last October 3, said they were not maneuverable enough as fighters. They are effective only as tactical bombers against enemy forces like those in Vietnam, which have no air cover of their own. Yet the government was not cutting back on its original plan to buy 331 of these F-111D’s.

This is only one of many examples in the budget of how easily the Nixon Administration finds millions for such dubious military purposes but not for urgent social needs. The $200 million consolation for General Dynamics is the same amount—a very inadequate amount—Nixon set aside in his budget message for riot-devastated cities. Nixon got a lot of publicity out of his order to give this urban program priority, but it didn’t have enough priority to be a $200 million addition to the budget. It was just deducted from the meager amounts already available for other urban purposes.


Those who still look for the “shape” of the Nixon Administration are bound to remain bewildered. Shape is another word for policy, and policy requires the substitution of decision for drift. The campaign promised decision from one direction, the right. The situation requires decision from another direction, which might be called the left. Nixon turns out to take his stand—though that is too strong a word—in the middle of makeshift compromises. Whether on electoral reform or tax reform or poverty, feeble and inadequate half-measures are the rule. This shapelessness is the shape of the new Administration.

Hand-to-mouth decisions are standard in all governments, and inertia is basic in politics as in physics. But drift is only safe in quiet waters; to let inertia have its way in stormy seas is to risk disaster. Richard Nixon in the Sixties is beginning to resemble Calvin Coolidge in the Twenties, when the country kept cool with Cal, just before going over the brink with the stock market crash and the Great Depression.

To let inertia reign in the American government is also to let the military dominate. The sheer size of the military establishment, its vast propaganda resources and its powerful allies in every business, locality, and labor union affected by the billions it spends every year, gives it momentum sufficient to roll over every other department and branch of the government. In the absence of a strong hand and hard choices in the White House, the Pentagon inevitably makes the decisions. If nothing else, it makes them by default.

But there is more than default, and more than meets the eye, in the military budget. The readiest source of campaign funds and political support for nomination and election as President lies in the military-industrial complex. It is also the most skillfully hidden source. I suspect that the 1968 campaign, like the 1960, was preceded by deals which called for a buildup in military procurement. This would help to account for the steep increase in appropriations by the Kennedy Administration despite its discovery on taking office that the “missile gap” did not exist.3

  1. 1

    House Document No. 91-100. 91st Congress, 1st Session. Reductions in 1970 Budget Requests. Communication from the President of the United States, p. 17.

  2. 2

    AP in Omaha World Herald, March 7, 1969.

  3. 3

    Carl Kaysen, who was Kennedy’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, has given us more precise figures than I have ever seen before in the chapter on “Military Strategy, Military Forces and Arms Control” in the Brookings Institution symposium, Agenda For The Nation (Doubleday, 1969). He wrote (pp. 562-3) that the decisions of 1961 and 1962 by Kennedy “called for the buildup by 1965 of a US strategic force of nearly 1,800 missiles capable of reaching Soviet targets; somewhat more than a third were to be submarine-launched. In addition, some 600 long range bombers would be maintained. This was projected against an expected Soviet force of fewer than a third as many missiles and a quarter as many bombers capable of reaching the United States.” (Our italics.) The “overkill” was worth billions to the aviation and electronics industries.

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