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Nixon and the Arms Race: How Much Is “Sufficiency”?

The annals of the Nixon Administration, in so far as arms are concerned, must begin, like the Gospel of John, with The Word. But Nixon has changed The Word at the very outset. In the campaign it was “superiority.” At his first press conference this was changed to “sufficiency.” The two words seem to move in different directions. One implies an endless arms race. The other seems to promise that at some point we will have enough.

The real meaning of the shift is difficult to evaluate because it came, not in any formal and considered pronouncement, but in an offhand reply to an unexpected question. The correspondent, Edward P. Morgan of the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, long one of the few liberal voices on the air, is not the man the Nixon team would have chosen for a planted question. The meaning of the exchange is further obscured because it involved a double error, on Morgan’s part and on Nixon’s. Morgan wrongly attributed the idea of “sufficiency” to Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon’s chief assistant on foreign policy and national security. Nixon not only assumed that Morgan was correct but briskly and cheerfully accepted the idea. The result seemed to be a reversal of all Nixon had said in the campaign.

The question was framed, like so many reportorial questions, in such a way as to indicate the desired answer and clearly disclosed Morgan’s own bias against the arms race. One would think the very wording would have put Nixon on guard. This is the full text of Morgan’s question, from the official transcript:

Q. Back to nuclear weapons, Mr. President. Both you and Secretary Laird have stressed, quite hard, the need for superiority over the Soviet Union. But what is the real meaning of that in view of the fact that both sides have more than enough already to destroy each other, and how do you distinguish the validity of that stance and the argument of Dr. Kissinger for what he calls “sufficiency”?

Nobody can say that was not a leading question. In a courtroom Nixon’s counsel would have objected to it at once as loaded and the objection would have been sustained. But Nixon waded right in. The answer, too, merits examination in full text:

A. Here, again, I think the semantics may offer an inappropriate approach to the problem. I would say that with regard to Dr. Kissinger’s suggestion of sufficiency, that that would meet, certainly, my guideline, and I think Secretary Laird’s guideline, with regard to superiority.

Let me put it this way: when we talk about parity, I think we should recognize that wars occur, usually, when each side believes it has a chance to win. Therefore, parity does not necessarily assure that a war may not occur. By the same token, when we talk about superiority, that may have a detrimental effect on the other side in giving great impetus to its own arms race.

Nixon then went on to define what he considers sufficiency.

Our objective in this Administration, and this is a matter which we are going to discuss at the Pentagon this afternoon, and that will be the subject of a major discussion in the National Security Council within the month—our objective is to be sure that the United States has sufficient military power to defend our interests and to maintain the commitments which this Administration determines are in the interest of the United States around the world.

I think “sufficiency” is a better term, actually, than either “superiority” or “parity.”

This is the same Nixon who, only three months earlier, had said America’s defenses were “close to peril point” and that we were in “a security gap” which by 1970 or 1971 could become a “survival gap.” “I intend,” Nixon said at that time1 “to restore our objective of clear-cut military superiority.”

The organ of the Air Force Association, the most powerful component of the military-industrial complex, in a pre-inaugural editorial had noted with satisfaction Nixon’s commitment to superiority and to “the role of technology in maintaining such superiority.” “If the new Administration,” it said,2 “is willing to put its money where its mouth is in national defense, some welcome changes are in the offing.” Could it be that an entirely new gap was opening—a Nixon gap, between the campaigner and the President?


Where did Morgan pick up the term “sufficiency” and how is it that the new President was so ready to adopt it? We know the answer to neither question. Morgan later admitted he was in error in attributing it to Dr. Kissinger. It is true that in a symposium by the Brookings Institution, Dr. Kissinger—writing before his White House appointment—rebutted the “superiority” concept on which Mr. Nixon campaigned. He wrote:3

Throughout history, military power was considered the ultimate recourse. Statesmen treated the acquisition of additional power as an obvious and paramount objective…. The nuclear age has destroyed this traditional measure…. No foreseeable force-level—not even full-scale ballistic missle defenses [italics added]—can prevent levels of damage eclipsing those of the two world wars…. The paradox of contemporary military strength is that a gargantuan increase in power has eroded its relationship to policy…. The capacity to destroy is difficult to translate into a plausible threat even against countries with no capacity for retaliation…. Slogans like “superiority,” “parity,” “assured destruction,” compete unencumbered by clear definitions of their operational military significance, much less a consensus on their political implications.

Similar views were expressed by Nixon’s new science adviser, Dr. Lee A. DuBridge, in an interview with The New York Times last December 17, when he said:

If it is a contest in which we have 1,000 hydrogen warheads and the Russians have 900, is that good or bad? Or should we have 1500 to their 900? Or are they going to get 1500 and we only have 1,000? It is an impossible race to see the end of, or to see the validity of, and it is terribly important to find a way of getting out of the rat race of nuclear build-ups and nuclear defense build-ups [italics added].

Neither Dr. Kissinger nor Dr. DuBridge actually used the term “sufficiency.” The President may possibly have seen it in an advance copy, perhaps even a special private draft, of a new report prepared by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This was “cleared” before its release with a prestigious panel which included former Secretary of Defense McNamara, General Matthew B. Ridgeway, USA, ret., and Major General James McCormack, USAF, ret., all of whom allowed their names to appear in connection with it.4

This report was prepared by Dr. George W. Rathjens of MIT, tormerly with the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and before that, with the Institute for Defense Analyses. In it Dr. Rathjens said, with no dissent from this panel, “The strategic forces of both sides are too large. Thus, as far as deterrence is concerned, the point has certainly been passed by now where both sides have ‘sufficiency’—probably a more useful concept for describing the present strategic balance than either ‘superiority’ or ‘parity.’ ”

Actually the term “sufficiency” was first used in the context of the nuclear arms race thirteen years ago. There is irony in its origin. It was first used by Eisenhower’s Air Force Secretary, Donald A. Quarles, during the 1956 presidential campaign. In a speech on August 4 of that year, Mr. Quarles, though he was talking to the Air Force Association, had the courage to say, “There comes a time in the course of increasing our airpower when we must make a determination of sufficiency…. There is no occasion in this audience to labor the point that the buildup of atomic power in the hands of two opposed alliances of nations makes total war an unthinkable catastrophe for both sides.”

What he then said of planes applies equally today to missiles and anti-missiles. “Neither side,” he said, “can hope by a mere margin of superiority in airplanes or other means of delivery of atomic weapons to escape catastrophe…even if there is a wide disparity between the offensive or defensive [italics added] strengths of the opposing forces.” The irony is that the Quarles speech was delivered to counter the “bomber gap” campaign then being waged against the Republicans by the Air Force lobby with the enthusiastic support of the Democrats, like the “security gap” campaign waged by Nixon last year.5

Sufficiency” was the Eisenhower Administration theme in fighting off the demands for higher defense spending from the military and its industrial allies. Is Nixon, faced with budgetary problems and an unstable dollar, coming back to it now? That is the question which will soon be answered by his decision on the anti-ballistic missile and by the results of the review he has ordered of the military budget, which is due the latter part of March.

The shift from “superiority” to “sufficiency” may prove to mean little or nothing. But the shift, even if only semantic, offers new leverage to the peace movement. For it raises the question of how much armaments is enough, and it raises it on the highest level and in the broadest forum. When the new President himself adopts the term “sufficiency,” he invites public discussion of the military budget in the simplest and most graphic terms. How much is enough? If Secretary Laird has his way, the budget review will find present military appropriations insufficient. Perhaps the peace movement ought to set up a public hearing board of its own to take testimony from experts on this problem of “sufficiency” and publish both the testimony and the final report. In what follows we will try to give a preliminary sketch of the military monster.


The real word for America’s nuclear arsenal is not sufficiency but lunacy. When the Rathjens report says “the strategic forces of both sides are too large,” that is the understatement of the millennium. Briefly, we have 3 1/2 times as many nuclear warheads as the Soviet Union, and ten times as many as we need—not just to “deter” but to destroy it. The first figure is from Clark Clifford’s final posture statement on the fiscal 1970 budget (p. 42) last January 15. This says we can launch 4200 warheads with our ICBMs, Polaris submarines, and bombers, while the Soviet Union can launch 1200. The second figure is from a table (at p. 57) of McNamara’s final posture statement for the fiscal 1969 budget dated January 22 of last year. This for the first time gave figures on the number of 1-Megaton warheads (one Megaton=1,000,000 tons of TNT) needed to wreck the Soviet Union. The maximum is 400.

As McNamara explains, “further increments would not meaningfully change the amount of damage because we would be bringing smaller and smaller cities under attack.” McNamara figures this would kill 74 million people, or more than three times the total Soviet losses in World War II, and destroy 76 percent of Soviet industry. Give or take any reasonable number for error, this is no longer war as man has ever known it before but instant cremation. Seventy-four million people will be “only” 30 percent of the Soviet population in 1972, the year to which this table is projected. But a footnote (at p. 52) of an earlier McNamara posture statement in January 1967 still applies to these estimates of lethality. The footnote explains that they cover only “prompt” deaths from blast and fallout—“they do not include deaths resulting from fire, storms, disease, and general disruption of everyday life.” So add to the immediate deaths any number for the slow, and then ask yourself again how much is enough? What is sufficiency?

  1. 1

    Nixon’s “Security Gap” speech, CBS, October 24, 1968.

  2. 2

    Air Force and Space Digest, February 1969, which was prepared before the Inaugural.

  3. 3

    Agenda for the Nation, Doubleday, 632 pp., $3.50.

  4. 4

    The Future of the Strategic Arms Race: Options for the 1970s by George W. Rathjens, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, New York, 1969, $.60. This was released two days after the Nixon press conference. The Carnegie Endowment called attention to the fact that its pamphlet had also advocated “sufficiency.”

  5. 5

    Quarles, now dead, was the object of constant denigration by Joseph Alsop, the main journalistic purveyor of this nightmare and of its successor, the “missile gap.” On April 24, 1959, Alsop attacked Quarles as “Mr. Missile Gap,” when Alsop feared Quarles might become Secretary of Defense.

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