A Century of Futility

For almost a century and a half there has been agitation for disarmament. For almost a century there have been few years in which disarmament of one kind or another has not been under negotiation. During those tumultuous years every other movement for social reform has made striking progress. It has been a century of futility for the struggle against the arms race. As the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) open in Vienna, it is time to cast up this account and ask why.

It was not for lack of understanding or of leadership. The principal arguments we make against the arms race today are the same as those that thoughtful men have used for more than a century. That it raises tension, that it does not change the balance of power but only the level of destructiveness and cost, that it wastes resources needed for social reconstruction—these arguments were as familiar in the nineteenth as in the twentieth century, and proved as futile.

The guns of Waterloo had hardly fallen silent before the first peace societies began to urge disarmament in Britain and America. The Napoleonic Wars, like the two World Wars, had a sobering effect, but then as later this soon wore off. “What is the advantage of one power greatly increasing its army and navy?” the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, asked in a once famous speech against the arms race in 1841. “Does it not see that if it proposes such increases for self-protection and defense, the other powers would follow its example?” The consequence, he went on, is “no increase of relative strength” but only “a universal consumption of the resources of every country in military preparations.” One hundred and twenty-eight years later, Secretary of State Rogers made exactly the same appeal in his speech last November as the preparatory SALT talks were about to begin in Helsinki:

Competitive accumulation of more sophisticated weapons would not add to the basic security of either side. Militarily it probably would produce little or no net advantage. Economically it would divert resources needed elsewhere. Politically it would perpetuate the tensions and fears that are the social fallout of the nuclear arms race.

In the intervening years, only the level of danger and of cost has changed. But these have grown enormously.

The United States, the most powerful nation of the twentieth century, is repeating the experience of Britain, the most powerful nation of the nineteenth. Despite the H-bomb and the ICBM, a British Victorian statesman would find himself quite at home in our current debate over arms policy. The industrialization of war, and the growing militarization of industry, which we now call the military-industrial complex, began in England in the middle of the last century. To dip back into the history of armament agitation before World War I is to experience a strong feeling of déjà vu. Then as now we see the defeat of reason over and over again by the same alliance of …

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