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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.1 Then as now we see the defeat of reason over and over again by the same alliance of primitive instinct, private interest, and technological momentum, in a world without law.

The most powerful and the most respected political leaders of the time were unable to prevail over this still irresistible combination. The most extraordinary manifesto against the arms race was issued in 1857 when the two great rivals of nineteenth-century British politics, Disraeli and Gladstone, joined Lord John Russell and Richard Cobden, the century’s foremost advocate of disarmament, in an appeal for a reduction in military expenditures. These had soared in the just ended Crimean War. All their popularity and influence, however, could not keep Parliament that very year from raising naval appropriations 50 percent above prewar. On two occasions statesmen of the first rank—one Tory, one Liberal—resigned from high office in equally impotent protest against rising arms expenditures: Lord Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston’s father) as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886 and Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1892 after a false war alarm led Parliament to more than double the Admiralty budget.

Such heroic resignations have yet to occur in our time. In all else armament politics remain substantially the same: the hopes and fears, the contending principles in which they are rationalized, even the tactics and the cast of characters. Nineteenth-century Britain had its “gaps” and its Joe Alsops, too. Recurrent appeals to lift the burden of armament and divert the funds to eradicate the slums and other social evils were countered with recurrent panics about enemy build-ups. In these the British Admiralty, the shipbuilders, and the gunpowder manufacturers played a hidden part, making use of frenetic newspapermen in their orbit of influence, as the Air Force lobby with the aviation, electronics, and shipbuilding industries do today. Antiwar political leaders and journalists exposed these scares then as now, but with no permanent effect.

The strongest and safest country in the world, and the one with the largest navy, was a victim of the worst invasion nightmares, just as today the strongest nation on earth seems to spend more time than any other worrying about its security. There were six “panics” between 1847 and 1892, all fomented for their beneficial effect in boosting military and naval expenditures. The earliest exposé of these hobgoblins was Richard Cobden’s Three Panics (third ed., 1862). The last, on the eve of World War I, was The Six Panics (1913) by F. W. Hirst, then editor of The Economist. They still make instructive reading.

These panics illustrate the tactic, still in use today, of projecting some fantastic possibility and treating it as if it were a reality. The earliest precursor of our latest equivalent, the Nixon-Laird scare about the Soviet SS-9, was the panic created by Lord Palmerston and the Duke of Wellington in 1847 when they seized on some dockyard expansion in France to picture England in danger of what we would now call a “first strike.” Palmerston insisted that the shift to steam navigation had “thrown a bridge across the Channel,” suddenly filling the ancient moat which had so long protected England from invasion. The seventy-seven-year-old Duke of Wellington, then doddering, said 50,000 men could be moved across this bridge undetected in a single night from Cherbourg and make a surprise attack on London the next morning! This “bridge of steam” was the first of many graphic but wholly fallacious metaphors which have supplied the melodrama for armament scares ever since.

Experts were mobilized by the peace forces to explain away and to ridicule these fears, as patiently as a psychiatrist trying to deal with a paranoid patient, or a present-day anti-ABM scientist from MIT disentangling fact from fancy in one of Laird’s latest. Of the six synthetic panics between 1847 and 1892, the first five were aimed at France, the last at Germany, which after 1870 replaced France as The Enemy. Sir William Harcourt, who tried unsuccessfully to stem the panic of 1892 as Chancellor of the Exchequer, summed up the techniques still in use today. “The principle of the alarmists,” he said, “is to pile up every conceivable contingency, probable or improbable, on one side and to admit no possible contingency on the other.”

Then as now no level of preparation was enough to satisfy the military. “If you believe the doctors,” Lord Salisbury said of these ever more costly apprehensions, “nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.” So it is now, when weapons systems like Minuteman are sold to us as marvels of invulnerability one day and declared so weak as to be in peril of instant destruction the next. However egregiously mistaken the Generals and Admirals have proven in a century of warfare, they have never failed to earn their medals for salesmanship.

Alfred Vagts, to whose solid and passionate History of Militarism I owe these quotations from Lord Salisbury and Sir William Harcourt, 2 tells us how these tactics spread to the parliamentary politics of the Continent. What he says of Western Europe in the half-century before World War I applies as well to our presidential campaigns since World War II. “Either allied with the bureaucracy or on its own motion,” he writes, “the party in opposition often produced an alarm by accusing the party in power of neglecting the country’s defenses.” These were the tactics of the Democratic party’s alarms about a Bomber Gap in 1956 and a Missile Gap in 1960, and of Nixon’s about a Security Gap in 1968. Their precursors were the Battleship Gaps fomented by Navy Leagues in Britain and Germany before 1914. Their assiduity in exaggerating the other side’s naval strength and in publicizing every aggressive statement on the other side, however obscure or unrepresentative its source, played a major role in bringing on World War I. Their counterparts today could push us down the slope to World War III.

In an effort to reverse the tide before World War I, the first international disarmament conference was held at The Hague in 1899 and a second in 1907. The military and their allies quickly developed the expertise to frustrate them. Both conferences were called on the initiative of the Czar, and this gave hostile propaganda an opportunity along lines which have a quite contemporary ring. The Russian proposal was portrayed as a plot to undermine the security of Western Europe, or alternatively as an effort to halt arms competition in the West in order to free Russian energies for further expansion in Asia at the expense of China.

When the Russian Foreign Ministry proposed to forbid the development of more powerful explosives, Secretary of State John Hay objected that this would restrain “the inventive genius of our people.”3 As a brake on pacifist enthusiasm, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, whose Influence of Seapower Upon History was the Bible of American imperialism, was named to the US delegation. When the Czar proposed an agreement to abstain from the use of “asphyxiating or deleterious gases,” Captain Mahan argued as a cheerful old salt that it was no more cruel to asphyxiate one’s enemies than to drown them by torpedoing a vessel.4 Present-day advocates of chemical and bacteriological weapons speak with the same tender impartiality.

Though the first Hague Conference succeeded in setting up the International Court of Arbitration and the second reached an agreement against the use of poison gas in time to be broken in World War I, both managed to avoid even a weapons freeze, much less arms reduction. “All the great powers,” Miss Merze Tate wrote in her authoritative US and Armaments, “considered the Czar’s proposals troublesome, but felt that they had to express their attitudes cautiously in view of the pacific tenor of public opinion.”5 In the private sessions Captain Mahan said “his government will on no account even discuss the creation of any limitation of naval armaments” since the US needed a larger navy “in the struggle for Chinese markets.”6

Loftier considerations were invoked publicly against the popular cry for arms reduction. Teddy Roosevelt, a skeptical and unwilling participant in the 1907 Conference, cautioned that venerable liberal, Carl Schurz, a leader of the disarmament movement, that peace must be “second to righteousness”—quite in the manner a half-century later of that secular parson of the cold war, John Foster Dulles. At the second conference the delegates managed, by tacit agreement, a triumph of diplomacy. They succeeded in limiting discussion of disarmament to twenty-five minutes and their only action to passage of a resolution declaring that because arms expenditures had risen considerably since the first Hague conference, it was “eminently desirable that the governments should resume the serious examination of this question.” This was adopted by unanimous acclamation.7

After these arduous efforts the Conference, before adjourning, resolved to meet again in seven years. The outbreak of war in 1914 made a repetition of the comedy unnecessary. Yet the war itself, the long stalemate in the muddy trenches, and the unprecedented butchery seemed at last to promise the triumph of disarmament when the war was over. As early as 1915 a consensus began to appear, ranging from the socialist movement to men in power like Sir Edward Grey, that the arms race had been a major cause of the war, and that disarmament was necessary if a new war were to be avoided.

In January 1917, Woodrow Wilson in a special message to the Senate termed this “the most immediately and intensely practical question” facing mankind, and said there could be “no sense of safety” among nations if the arms race continued. The fourth of his famous Fourteen Points for peace specified “that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety,” i.e., to what was needed for internal order. A League of Nations was to create a framework of enforceable world law for the settlement of international disputes. To prevent the machinations of the munitions makers, which played so malevolent a role in the prewar arms race, Wilson’s first draft for the Covenant of the League also provided “that munitions and implements of war shall not be manufactured by private enterprise.”

But as the war drew to a close, these brave beginnings soon turned into another comedy on a grander scale. In the Paris peace negotiations the phrase about reducing armament to the lowest point consistent with “domestic safety” was changed to “national safety,” which made it meaningless and opened the door to a new arms race. The British Admiralty—loyal to the ship-building and armorplate industries—led the objections to abolishing private manufacture of arms. Article 8 of the Covenant was diluted to read that members of the League agreed “that manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objection.” Therefore the Council of the League was to “advise how the evil effect attendant upon such manufacture can be prevented,” but with “due regard” for “the necessities of those members of the League which are not able to manufacture” the war materials “necessary for their safety.” It would take a Swift or a Voltaire to match such splendid satire.

The price was the resurgence of a militaristic Germany and World War II. The disarmament of Germany was predicted on general disarmament by the victors. “In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations,” the Treaty of Versailles said, “Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow.” While German power was sharply cut back, negotiations for general disarmament proceeded at a pace which exasperatingly recalled one of the Eleatic paradoxes that deny the reality of motion. Negotiations seemed to be moving—for one could see the experts rustling papers and watch the documentation piling up in the League archives—but when one looked again the crowded train seemed still to be in the station.

In 1920 the League set up a Permanent Advisory Commission to which each member of the Council named an Army, Navy, and Air officer. These soon created a technical thicket calculated to keep exploratory discussions running around in circles. It took six more years before the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments finally convened in Geneva in February 1932. The day it met the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai was already signaling the breakdown of the postwar order. To this Conference, President Herbert Hoover—for once sublimely Quixotic—proposed the abolition of tanks, chemical warfare, and aerial bombardment. But though the smaller countries applauded, England and France would not support what now appears as a last wan hope. Within a few months Hitler had come to power and begun the rearmament of Germany in preparation for World War II.

German rancor and cynicism over the failure of the other great Powers to keep their promises to disarm were ingredients in the witch’s brew of National Socialism. In justice to the German people, it must not be forgotten that despite the terrible inflation of 1923, the rankling inequality imposed by Versailles, and the world depression, they never gave Hitler a majority in a free election. Had there been general disarmament in the early Twenties, had the Powers then proceeded to set up the machinery of military and economic sanctions the League Covenant envisaged for the punishment of any international lawbreaker, the Weimar Republic might have survived and World War II been avoided. Who has imagination enough to grasp the magnitude of the suffering which might never have happened if…?

Will the same heartbreaking question some day be asked about the pledges made by the two nuclear superpowers in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact? Will the fanfare with which it has just been ratified in Washington, London, and Moscow some day appear to have been another bit of sour “theater”? Will a parallel some day be drawn with the disarmament pledges of the Versailles Treaty? Will it be said that some new monster like Hitler might never have arisen, that World War III might never have occurred, if the United States and the Soviet Union had fulfilled the pledge they gave unwillingly in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Pact? Article VI says—and every word should be read carefully—

Each of the parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

This Article VI was put into the treaty at the insistence of the non-nuclear powers. It was not in the drafts submitted by the two nuclear superpowers. Those contained similar pledges but only in the preamble. Perhaps the non-nuclear powers recalled that the pledge of general disarmament in the Versailles Pact was also in a preamble, and the jurists held that preambles did not embody specific obligations. “One of the most attractive features of this much maligned class of experts,” Salvador de Madariaga once wrote of this quibbling over the 1919 disarmament pledges, was “their natural tendency to put a minimum value on their own words.”8 The non-nuclear powers are as cynical about the NNPT as the Germans were about Versailles. When the US and Soviet drafts were first presented to the eighteen-nation disarmament conference in Geneva in 1965, the UAR delegate commented caustically that a non-proliferation treaty should do more than “bless and perpetuate the nuclear monopoly and supremacy of the five Powers which possess the bomb.” M. Messmer, the French Defense Minister, said with cruel but precise wit that it was aimed merely to castrate the impotent.9

While most of the nations of the earth have signed the pact (the count was 97 as this went to press) and half of them (49 at last count) had ratified it, the half-dozen non-nuclear powers within reach of achieving the bomb on their own are delaying signature or ratification until they see in the SALT talks whether Article VI is to be—in a once famous phrase of sinister history—another scrap of paper. Their cynicism is not allayed by the recollection that almost nine years ago the US and the USSR in a joint report to the United Nations General Assembly on the result of the McCloy-Zorin negotiations had already pledged themselves to general and complete disarmament down to only enough non-nuclear forces sufficient “to maintain internal order” and “provide agreed manpower for a UN peace force,” words which recall Wilson’s original proposals. The McCloy-Zorin agreement today is as vaguely remembered as the law tablets of Hammurabi.

The amnesia of the superpowers is only matched by the prodigality of their pledges. Among other goodies the McCloy-Zorin agreement promised to bring down the nuclear chimney for Christmas were “disbanding of armed forces…[and] bases,” cessation of arms production, “elimination of all stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological and other weapons of mass destruction,” and cessation of their production, “elimination of all means of delivery of weapons of mass destruction,” abolition of military organizations and training, and “discontinuance of military expenditures.”10 One can only wonder how many bottles of vodka were consumed before these top-level negotiators signed on the dotted line for the millennium. The morning after, it was all forgotten! Obviously disarmament talks take place in a realm of discourse in which no words, however solemn and specific, can be taken seriously. Article 26 of the UN Charter adopted a quarter-century ago is as monumental a dead-letter. It provided that—

In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating, with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee referred to in Article 47, plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of the regulation of armaments.

This, too, has for all practical purposes vanished from memory.

The SALT talks will be the fourth, and possibly the last, real opportunity since World War II to bring the nuclear arms race under control. I would like to analyze these failures in a concluding installment, and explain why I have no faith in the outcome of SALT.

(This is the first of two articles on Disarmament)

  1. 1

    For the period to 1907 the best account I have come across and to which I am indebted is Merze Tate’s The Disarmament Illusion published by MacMillan and Harvard in 1942, long out of print but soon to be reissued by Russell & Russell, which has just republished her later book, The US and Armaments (Harvard, 1948) on which I have also relied (312 pp., $11.50). Miss Tate is a Professor of History at Howard University.

  2. 2

    Lord Salisbury is quoted on p. 362 and Sir William on p. 364 of Vagts, A History of Militarism, Civilian and Military (Meridian, rev. ed. 1959), which deserves a better fate than the remainder counter on which I found it.

  3. 3

    Similarly a French Admiral at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 defended the continued use of submarines by saying: “You could not stop the progress of humanity” (Vagts, p. 403).

  4. 4

    Tate, US and Armaments, p. 43.

  5. 5

    p. 44.

  6. 6

    Tate, Disarmament Illusion, p. 292.

  7. 7

    Tate, US and Armaments, p. 58.

  8. 8

    Quoted in Tate, US and Armaments, p. 70.

  9. 9

    Quoted in Elizabeth Young’s Adelphi Paper, “The Control of Proliferation” (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, April 1969), pp. 6 and II respectively.

  10. 10

    Facts on File, 1961, p. 407.

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