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).

To lose sight of these perspectives is to continue down a dead-end road. To accept the doctrine of technological supremacy, and with it the doctrine of the Pax Americana, as McGovern does in his “alternative” budget, is to lose the struggle against the arms race in advance by waging it within the framework of Pentagon policy. To question only the size and cost of the armed forces is to put oneself at the mercy of the greater expertise the Pentagon and the State Department can always muster, of the scare tactics at which they are so expert, of their power to declassify what suits their purpose and keep us in the dark on what argues against it, and to put us constantly in the position of arguing negative propositions.

How do you prove the Russians are not about to develop a laser which can stop an attacking missile, develop an underwater antisubmarine which may make Polaris obsolete, or put some weapon on the dark side of the moon? How many Dr. Tellers and how many lurid whopperoos have we had to combat in the debates of the past two decades? How irresistible has been the pressure which has led us to live with the bomb, and even love it, taking solemnly for granted the bizarre idea of security through an inescapably precarious balance of nuclear terror!

The same kind of grass-roots effort which seems to have won the nomination for McGovern must go into a long-range campaign of education on disarmament if McGovern in office is to cut loose from these old and costly delusions, indeed even if he is to succeed in reducing military expenditures on anything like the scale he proposes, bringing them down from $76.5 billion in fiscal 1973 to $54.8 billion in 1975. A group of former Pentagon officials, led by Dr. Herbert York, who was its director of research and development under Eisenhower, signed a joint statement May 27 saying that the McGovern alternative budget represented “a sound, constructive, and fully adequate level of military spending.”

But McGovern’s reception by the Joint Economic Committee when he testified before it June 16 shows how difficult it would be to get any such program through Congress without a wholly new dimension of pressure from the country. Even this normally liberal committee showed little interest and less understanding of what McGovern was trying to do. The chairman, Senator Proxmire, who has been battling Pentagon waste, opened the hearing by telling McGovern he did not think his budget “adequate,” without specifying how or why.

Proxmire began by deriding Laird’s smear attack on McGovern’s $55 billion proposal as a “surrender” budget (though $5 billion more than the last Kennedy budget in fiscal 1964 before Johnson stepped up the Vietnam war). Even for Laird this was a high mark for hyperbole. But Proxmire’s questioning soon showed that he had bought Laird’s “bargaining chip” theory and believed that McGovern’s reductions would deprive the Soviets of any “incentive” to negotiate further. Two of the half-dozen new “bargaining chips” Laird wants—the new B-1 bomber and the new Trident or ULMS submarine—will cost upward of $25 billion, and McGovern tried hard to counter Proxmire’s fears:

Well, Mr. Chairman [he said], my thesis is that the capability of increasing our defense strength is just as good a bargaining chip as starting construction, and it is a whale of a lot less expensive. I think it is quite possible that the decision to proceed on the construction of the ABM accomplished nothing other than the waste of money; and even Senator Jackson now says that it would be very foolish to proceed with the second ABM site construction unless we are going ahead with the whole system. So I think it is both frivolous and unnecessary for us to assume that in order to negotiate an understanding on arms we have to begin the construction of every conceivable system.

At this point Proxmire wandered off into the inarticulate. “Well, I certainly follow that,” he began, but then he wondered “if your position, however, in a dramatic and drastically different way, wouldn’t put us into a position with the Soviet Union of at the end of five years having very little incentive left for them because wouldn’t they have such a demonstrably clear superiority if they do go ahead, that we wouldn’t be in a very strong position to negotiate.” Actually, at the end of the five-year agreement, the US will have 11,000 warheads as compared to 2,600 for the Soviet Union.5

The main incentive for limiting or reducing arms is that the USSR as well as the US badly needs funds for domestic purposes. McGovern tried to make that point but Proxmire only went on to “wonder” again whether McGovern’s proposal to cut the armed forces to 1.7 million (still 200,000 above the pre-Korean point) would deprive us of “leverage.” If as knowledgeable a man as Proxmire, so often critical of the Pentagon, can be that confused, what can one expect from stodgier Democrats in Congress?

Or what is one to make of how Mansfield, the Senate Democratic leader, was conned into sponsoring a SALT resolution (with the Republican Senate leader, Scott) that would give Congressional approval to the very escalation Nixon and Laird are asking at the price of what were supposed to be arms limitation agreements? And approval of the costly “bargaining chip” policy to which McGovern rightly objects?

Fulbright put in SJ Res 241, which would merely give the required Congressional approval to the five-year interim agreement on offensive weapons. But Mansfield for some strange reason put his name on SJ Res 242, the Administration resolution. This would not only approve the agreement but commit Congress to the proposition that the SALT agreements “were made possible by the maintenance in the United States of a strategic defense posture second to none” and the further proposition that “the attainment of more permanent and comprehensive agreements is dependent upon the continuing maintenance of that strategic posture and a sound strategic modernization program.” This would pave the way for the new escalations Nixon and Laird are asking for. When we examine these—see the box on page 9—we can see how wide a gulf there is between McGovern’s approach, for all its compromises, and that of Nixon and Laird. We have great faith in McGovern’s humanity and decency, and believe that in office, given enough popular pressure, he would move toward the more radical transformation of military and foreign policy he seemed instinctively drawn to before the campaign.

The Big Build-up Nixon Is Putting Over On Us


Six months ago, in presenting the military budget for fiscal 1973, Nixon and Laird were asking for certain escalations as a hedge in case the SALT talks failed. Now they are asking for the same escalation on the ground that the SALT talks succeeded. An exasperated Fulbright in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the SALT accords told Laird he had “a genius for semantic confusion.” There could be no better illustration than the use of “strategic arms limitation agreements” as an excuse for—literally—billions of dollars worth of new weapons. The total bill cannot yet be added up but the specific projects and policies could easily cost a hundred billion in this decade.

Public attention and Congressional debate have focused on follow-up projects like the new B-1 bomber and the new nuclear submarine formerly called ULMS and renamed Trident (like Neptune’s, it is to symbolize that we rule the waves). These are to be ready after 1977 when the five-year interim strategic nuclear arms agreement expires. The Senate Armed Services hearings show these two new weapons alone would cost upward of $25 billion.

A new strategic bomber makes no sense when we have developed in SRAM and SCAD nuclear missiles that almost any plane can carry and fire in safety several hundred miles from an enemy’s border defenses. The B-1 bomber is another example of fantastically expensive duplication and overkill. So is Trident or ULMS. It makes no sense to begin constructing what will be underwater battleships (how the Navy still yearns for battleships!), each costing a billion or more, as an answer to antisubmarine devices not yet invented, especially when those devices may well force the world’s navies to concentrate on smaller rather than larger submarines.

In the debate over these new monsters, the Pentagon is escaping challenge on other and more immediate escalations. The first is on ABM. Even the ABM treaty provides for escalation. The Russians, who stopped adding to their obsolete “galosh” ABM some years ago with sixty-eight launchers, will now go to 200 at two sites. We have no ABM launchers yet and will also go to 200 at two sites, at a cost of $8.5 billion. No bagatelle, even on the Pentagon’s computers.

Every person knowledgeable in arms knows the existing ABMs in these quantities are laughably ineffective and obsolete. The proof lies in another escalation the Pentagon is quietly asking: $140 million to start work on a new Hard Site ABM system, which would ultimately cost $25 billion. So we are going ahead with the development of a new ABM system right after signing a treaty in which we pledged ourselves not to deploy a new system, though we are allowed to develop one. This means pressure to opt out of the treaty as soon as the military finds a better ABM.

The biggest and least noticed escalation of all is in the number of our MIRVed warheads. Ambassador Gerard Smith, our chief negotiator at the SALT talks, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 19, “We have doubled the number of warheads in our arsenal in the last three years,” and “they are programmed to be again doubled in the next two or three years.”

In mid-1977, at the expiration of the five-year agreement, we will have 11,000 deployed warheads to the Soviet’s 2,600. This is the result of MIRV and of SRAM and SCAD, which do for the bomber what MIRV does for the ICBM and the nuclear submarine. But since 200 warheads would be enough to cripple the Soviet Union, what is all this mad overkill for? The excuse for developing MIRV was to overwhelm and saturate a full-scale Soviet ABM, when and if deployed. But they have just signed a treaty which forbids them to deploy any such system, so why continue MIRVing?

The idea behind the escalations is that anything the SALT accords do not forbid we must buy, and anything they forbid we must develop and hold ready for deployment in the not too unhappy event that the accords break down. In asking for the escalations, Laird is really making acceptance of this idea his condition for supporting the accords. Nixon says both the accords and the escalations are “equally essential,” a distinction in which it is hard to see a difference.

Senator Cooper suggested a two-year moratorium on MIRVing while we try to negotiate limits on launchers, thus restricting the number of warheads. But nobody seems to be listening. Even Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted to Cooper before the Foreign Relations Committee, June 21, that a two-year moratorium would not jeopardize our security. Indeed, Ambassador Smith had told the committee two days earlier, “Nothing that the Soviets can do,” even if the five-year interim agreement runs a full term, “could upset the strategic balance” in our favor. So why not a pause to see if we can stop this mindless momentum?

A pause is just what the military-industrial complex does not want. When Kennedy signed the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing, the price of military-industrial support was embodied in special “safeguards” asked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These looked harmless enough at the time but turned out to have committed the government to more testing than ever, albeit underground. It was in those tests that a whole series of new monsters, MRVs, MIRVs, ABMs, and many other “improvements” were developed.

Those who remember that have an anguished feeling of déjà vu. Again the Joint Chiefs have put forward similar conditions. This time they ask for three “assurances.” These would close the door on any real progress in the next round of SALT talks.

Assurance number one asks for a race in surveillance satellites; assurance number two for “Aggressive Improvement and Modernization Programs” including plans “for rapid augmentation of strategic forces beyond the constraints of the treaty and agreement to be made in the event of abrogation, withdrawal, or collapse of negotiations.” We suspect the JCS will not be too sad if that happens.

But the most insidious assurance is number three. The most important arms limitation agreement the two sides could reach—the one way they could lock the door on new monsters, the one way they could put a brake on the technological momentum in which both are trapped—would be a comprehensive test ban, an end to all further nuclear testing.

Assurance number three is aimed to prevent this. It would require the government to “maintain weapons system technological superiority” and to “continue testing to insure the effectiveness of new and existing nuclear weapons systems.” When Senator Stennis asked Moorer at the June 20 Armed Services Committee hearing whether this would bar any limits on testing, the admiral replied cutely that it would rule out limits only on the type of testing “necessary to insure that we do maintain this technological superiority.” Secretary Rogers and Ambassador Smith also went out of their way to discount the possibility of a comprehensive test ban in their Foreign Relations Committee testimony the day before. These are the semantics by which SALT spells a bigger and more costly arms race.

  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.

  5. 5

    See the table in the article on the SALT accords by Alton H. Quanbeck and Barry M. Blechman of the Brookings Institution (the former was a colonel in “systems analysis” at the Pentagon) in the Washington Post, June 4.