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McGovern vs. Nixon on the Arms Race


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 heighten the dangers and raise the costs of national security.” It criticizes our current defense posture as built upon “conservative planning assumptions—on preparing for ‘greater than expected threats’ “—the far-out possibilities that have padded the Pentagon budget for years. But then it admits that the McGovern alternative “accepts the premise in part.”

The parts it accepts are sizable. The McGovern alternative “starts by assuming that the major communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, will remain actively hostile to US interests, and that there is a real risk of confrontation if one or the other can expect military advantage as a result” (my italics). This sounds like the old “situations of strength” scenario, in which either power would “pounce” upon us if we showed any sign of weakness. The melodrama is matched by the familiar self-righteousness—China and Russia are “actively hostile” to us but we are simon-pure. Nixon has just demonstrated how actively friendly both can be when we begin to abandon our own active hostility to them.

Hence,” i.e., in view of the danger of showing any weakness, the McGovern alternative goes on, “the proposed budget retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for deterrence, as insurance and as a hedge against possible build-ups on the other side.” But what does overkill “insure” except that the other side will seek to match our piling up of more weapons than needed for deterrence? What does overkill “insure” except fear that the surplus of nuclear weapons over those needed for deterrence may move toward counter-force and first strike, thus increasing fear and tension?

Similarly, the McGovern report continues, “General purpose forces are maintained against dangers which are both slight and exceedingly remote [my italics], given the expected military balance and political outlook.” The most striking example of this in the conventional field is McGovern’s treatment of US troops for NATO. He would maintain the eight divisions and fourteen air wings of the currently apportioned US share of NATO’s defenses, of which four and one-third divisions are currently stationed in Europe. The change he would make is to withdraw two and one-third divisions to the continental United States but keep them in readiness “for rapid redeployment in the case of attack or ominous enemy build-ups.” This means maintaining eight of McGovern’s proposed twelve divisions for that same old nightmare about a sudden Soviet sweep into Western Europe. The idea that the Soviets would suddenly make a military grab in Western Europe was bird-brain nonsense in the days after the war when the USSR was bled white, as George Kennan and other cold war architects have now acknowledged. It remains nonsense today when the Soviets have enough problems at home without risking certain nuclear war with the US by any such move.

If there is to be a fresh start on new priorities, the first essential is to get rid of these old nightmares, which have so long supported bloated military expenditures on both sides. A wry insight into this was provided by Senator Symington when Secretary Laird and Admiral Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 20. Discussing our forward-based aircraft in Western Europe, Symington recalled his own instructions in 1946 when President Truman asked him (he was then Secretary of War for Air) to persuade General Eisenhower to take over command of SHAPE in Europe. “I was told,” Symington related, “if he asked how long troops would stay in Europe,” he was to tell lke “the maximum” was eighteen months. “That was over a quarter century ago,” Symington said. Eisenhower was more radical in his views on NATO than McGovern. In The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1963, and soon after on ABC’s “Issues and Answers,” November 17, Eisenhower called for reduction of US troops in Europe to one division, provoking an angry rejoinder next day from Dean Acheson.2

It’s not a very radical alternative military budget which would make changes as few and as minor as McGovern proposes in this old vestigial US military occupation of Western Europe, a generation after World War II has ended—and in the dangerously simplistic and hawkish approach to the problems of Israel and the Middle East he has adopted to outbid Humphrey and Nixon for the Jewish vote. His new conception of US “interests” is fuzzy enough to risk another era of gunboat diplomacy as US oil companies face more take-overs by the Arab countries.

What comes next in McGovern’s description of his alternative budget is, if anything, more serious in its implications. “Intensive research and development efforts are proposed,” the report continues, “to maintain the clear US lead in military technology.” True, the McGovern alternative budget puts research and development at $5.5 billion for fiscal 1975 as compared with the $7.1 billion asked by Nixon for fiscal 1973, a billion more than fiscal 1972. But McGovern’s own estimate is almost $400 million more than fiscal 1971 and $1.2 billion over fiscal 1968. Of course prices have been rising, but in view of the Pentagon’s notoriously profligate habits, a proposal to spend $5.5 billion in fiscal 1975 on R & D is far from radical.

But the figures are not as important as the doctrine. How does McGovern’s formulation differ from Laird’s assertion in his latest annual posture statement, “Any assessment of the future defense needs of the United States must include a program to assure our continued technological superiority”?3 This calls for two observations, one short-range and the other long. Neither is to be found in the McGovern study. Both bring us to the very heart of the arms race problem.

The first has to do with the tyranny of technology, the second with the obsolescence of the international system. The arms race has largely become, especially on our side as the technologically most advanced power, a race against ourselves in our own laboratories. Each new weapons discovery or improvement is followed by the search for a countermeasure, and the discovery of the countermeasure leads to research into the counter-counterweapon. It is assumed—to be “safe”—that the other side has made or eventually will make the same discoveries and then produce the weapons. This fuels perpetual motion in armaments, and once a device has been discovered, it is difficult to prevent its deployment. If the dominant power does not exercise restraint, the doctrine of maintaining technological superiority forces an endless escalation in destructive power, in which mounting costs only buy mounting insecurity as reaction time and time for decision dwindle.

Another general more radical than McGovern put it very graphically almost two decades ago when he said (long before the advent of the ICBM), “Missiles will bring anti-missiles and anti-missiles will bring anti-anti-missiles,” and he warned that in this electronic arms race “we are now speeding inexorably toward a day when even the ingenuity of our scientists may be unable to save us from the consequences of a single rash act or a lone reckless hand upon the switch of an uninterceptable missile.” The general was Omar Bradley speaking in November, 1957, at St. Albans School in Washington.4

This brings me to the longer-range consideration which must be kept in view, however difficult its implications. In a world without law, made up of absolute national “sovereign” states, how can any country trust its rivals? How can it stake its future on trust when it knows that its own generals would welcome, indeed are eager for, some “ultimate” weapon which might enable it to overwhelm or force its rivals to surrender? Without a new world order, there is no way really to stop the arms race. This is what Wilson saw when he launched the League of Nations, and Franklin D. Roosevelt when he led us into the United Nations. And this is what General Bradley dared to touch upon when he said in that same address that the security of the planet now depended on turning our scientific expertise to the problem of achieving accommodation among nations, realizing that this “must be worked out—whatever it may mean even to such sacred traditions as absolute national sovereignty” (my italics).

  1. 1

    Indeed the “government in exile” of ex-Johnson and Kennedy administration officials at Brookings Institution here in Washington includes consignment out of the McNamara era at Pentagon, notably from “systems analysis” and International Security Affairs, the Pentagon’s “little State Department.” They have been holding private seminars for three years, and John Holum, the McGovern assistant in charge of drafting his defense program, has been among those attending. This may explain the strong flavor of what I would call left-wing McNamaraism in the McGovern report. I don’t think McNamaraism of any variety is good enough to meet the needs created in part by McNamara’s own limitations and surrenders.

  2. 2

    Facts on File, 462A3 1963.

  3. 3

    See page 20, Part 3, House Appropriations Committee hearings on the 1973 defense budget, released May 20.

  4. 4

    Never has a prophetic address been given less attention. The full text may be found in I. F. Stone’s Weekly for November 18, 1957, the only place it was published. No mention of these militarily unfashionable views was made, of course, during the recent celebration of General Bradley’s eightieth birthday. He has never repeated them, and in fact expressed displeasure when I printed the text. He told me he was afraid his peers would regard him as a “pacifist” for expressing such views! Such are the perils before which our bravest generals quail.

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