The Arms Boom and How to Stop It

Controlling the Conventional Arms Race

by the United Nations Association
UNA, New York, 87 pp., $2.00

US Military Sales to Iran Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate

A Staff Report to the Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance of the
US Government Printing Office, 59 pp.

There are very many things to be said against Jimmy Carter’s defense advisers. The most important has to do with Vietnam. The people Carter has chosen were involved closely and resolutely in the prosecution of the Vietnam war. These men march through the pages of the Pentagon Papers. They form a group portrait of the forces in America which prolonged the war. They played their parts: Harold Brown, as secretary of the air force, describing bombing targets in 1968; James Schlesinger at RAND, inventing war games; Brzezinski, the academic, debating on television to defend the war; Cyrus Vance, the troubled moderate in the Department of Defense, surviving the 1960s. Not one of the people who influence Carter’s defense policy stood in any public way for opposition to Kennedy’s and Johnson’s war.

But in one specific respect, the new men are different. They come into office committed to ending at least part of America’s involvement in the worldwide arms race, and in the worldwide boom in military spending. They are committed, in particular, to limiting the export of US arms. Carter himself said during the election campaign that he favored international agreements to limit arms sales, and that “I would not hesitate as president to assess unilateral reduction of arms sales overseas.”

An agreement to reduce international arms sales is possibly the most important objective that Mr. Carter could achieve. In 1976, as the newest Defense Department figures show, all the increase in US arms sales came from sales to developing countries, oil-exporting countries excluded. The most destitute countries—Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Pakistan—are important US customers, and the list of clients grows each year. If an agreement to reduce such commerce were the prelude to a lasting international commitment to disarmament—including nuclear disarmament by the US and the Soviet Union—Carter’s government would be honored for many years to come.

Yet even the first steps will be enormously difficult. For the problem of arms sales is not a technical question, nor does it have to do only with foreign policies. It is not, as Carter suggested during the campaign, a matter of “making decisions on individual countries [so as to] effectuate our adopted foreign policy.” The origins of the US arms boom are to be found, rather, in the deepest changes in US economic relations with other countries, in the Nixon/Ford years and before; and in deep changes, too, in the US domestic defense industry.

The arms trade problem goes to the issue of disarmament itself. Throughout the postwar period, and in every civilized country, governments have come into power promising peace and a civil society: an end to the madness of militarism. Yet again and again, their protestations have been forgotten, thrown off as beyond hope. The Carter government, if it is serious about limiting arms trade, will have to find out why these earlier promises failed. It will have to look beyond the sorrows of disarmament to the military and economic power which outlives so many people’s hopes.

The boom in the arms business exploded in the annus mirabilis of 1974. The events of the year derived from choices made long before. But they also marked several sudden changes in the US arms trade.

The value of US exports. US arms sales more than tripled in two years, with foreign countries ordering $10.6 billion worth of US military equipment in 1974, as compared to $3.3 billion in 1972, and less than $1 billion in 1970. The figures for military orders in fiscal 1976, recently made public by the Defense Department, show that the arms boom persists. Foreign military sales orders are still worth more than $7 billion a year, although the figure is lower for 1976 than for 1975.1

US deliveries of arms to foreign countries—actual exports—are also increasing, as the backlog of orders is filled. Since 1975, the US has in fact made a profit on its worldwide military involvement. Twelve years after US combat troops arrived in Vietnam, the US government receives more money for its foreign military sales than it spends abroad on defense. The government’s “cash receipts associated with military sales contracts” were worth $4.1 billion in the first half of 1976, compared to $1.1 billion in the first half of 1974. Meanwhile “direct defense expenditures” overseas fell from $2.4 billion in 1974 to $2.2 billion in 1976.2

The direction of exports. The destination of US arms sales has moved from developed countries to oil-exporting countries and, most recently, to other, poorer developing countries. In the 1960s, European countries were the US arms companies’ leading foreign customers. After the 1973 oil price increases, OPEC countries accounted for 60 percent of US military orders, spending their new riches on missiles and air forces. But since 1975, sales to developed and oil-exporting countries have fallen, while sales to the poorest countries have increased.

According to Defense Department figures, the developing countries that do not export oil accounted for 24 percent of US military orders in 1976, compared to 10 percent in 1975 and only 5 percent in 1974. US orders from these countries increased from $240 million in 1972 to $2.3 billion in 1976. All continents were represented, with Africa the boldest new buyer. US sales to black African countries—almost all to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zaire—increased over 800 percent in one year. These three countries’ orders were worth more than three times the value of all US arms sales to black African countries in their entire previous history. Kenya, in 1976, ordered more US arms than did Britain; Ethiopia, more than twice as many.

Aid and trade. The United States has supplied arms to its allies for generations. Since 1945, it has spent well over $60 billion on foreign military aid. But beginning in the late 1960s, most US arms exports have been sent as trade, not aid.

Most US military sales are still arranged between the US government and foreign governments. The Defense Department and the US armed services promote these sales; they supervise the corporations as they produce arms for export. Thus the factory of a US defense corporation, much like a General Motors plant producing parts for blue sedans and pink station wagons, might make parts for a Jordanian “Main Battle Tank,” a tank for the US Army, an Israeli tank, a tank for Saudi Arabia.3

But the importance of the arms corporations has increased enormously in the new commercial epoch. When most arms transfers were paid for by US taxpayers, Congress exercised much greater control over the export process. Now US companies and government arms salesmen collaborate in selling arms for dollars. It is the pantomime described in such vivid detail in the Senate multinationals subcommittee’s investigations of Lockheed, Northrop, Grumman.

The goods on offer. The US now exports some of its most elaborate military equipment, occasionally to countries which are neither allies nor friends. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s yearbook for 1976, deploring the “spread of sophisticated weaponry,” counts forty developing countries with supersonic aircraft as compared to twelve in 1965, and twenty-four with long-range missiles, up from seven in 1965.

Iran, the US arms companies’ most lavish customer, is buying planes (the F-14 Navy fighter) and destroyers as advanced as or more so than those procured by the US services. The costs of another fairly advanced US weapon, the US Army’s “Lance” missile, are supported in part by sales to Israel, Belgium, and other countries: according to an army expert, the salaries of almost half of all the civilians who work for the army’s “Project Lance” office are paid by foreign buyers…. 4

The importance of exports. Export sales have in the 1970s become a serious part of the US arms companies’ business. Henry Kissinger described the process in the course of a 1975 encomium to the value of arms sales in the pursuit of “prosperity, justice and positive aspirations.” “Security assistance programs,” he explained, “contribute needed jobs to several sectors of our labor force. They help us maintain a more favorable balance of payments. And they permit our defense industries to achieve significant economies through scale of production—economies that are passed along through lower prices to our armed forces.”5

Since their colonial empires fell apart, France and Britain have each relied upon arms exports to support a domestic defense industry.6 The United States now is beginning to feel some of the same pressures. At the height of the Vietnam war, US arms exports were worth $1 billion per year, compared to US defense procurement of over $42 billion a year. Now, with US companies no longer sending planes to US forces in Vietnam (or even to Vietnamese forces), exports are worth some $4 billion a year in actual deliveries and twice that in orders, while procurement for US purposes is still $42 billion.

The arms boom is the fulfillment of a long process. The US arms trade began in earnest when President Kennedy came to power. Lieutenant Colonel David Morse, a former chief of international logistics for the Army Missile Command, suggests in Army magazine that the events of 1961 were decisive, when a former naval officer called Henry Kuss was appointed to head a new office of International Logistics Negotiations in the Defense Department. (“He divided his office into geographical teams, sent salesmen around the world…. He was accused of bullying allies into arms purchases with his gruff and direct manner.”)7

Kuss’s exertions were soon successful. From 1950 until 1963, foreign military sales accounted for only 9 percent of US deliveries of arms abroad, with the rest sent under the Military Assistance Program. By 1968 foreign sales were worth more than aid shipments, and the proportion of exports going as aid continued to dwindle. By the time President Johnson left office, the sales program was worth over $1 billion a year.

President Nixon inherited the arms boom. But he perfected it in his own idiosyncratic way. His policies, Lieutenant Colonel Morse writes, were “interpreted by many in government as giving full approval to an open-ended arms sales effort.” Two decisions were critical. In May 1972, on a visit to Iran with Henry Kissinger, Nixon told the Shah that he could buy either the F-14 advanced fighter, to be produced by Grumman for the US Navy, or the F-15 fighter designed for the air force by McDonnell Douglas; he also told the Shah that he could in the future buy any US weapons he wanted, nuclear arms aside. One year later, in June 1973, Nixon boosted the arms trade in another direction. He allowed the sale to Brazil of a smaller but nonetheless supersonic fighter, Northrop’s F-5E, reversing a long ban on sales of advanced US weapons to Latin America.

Corporate salesmen, in the Nixon years, took on more and more of Henry Kuss’s functions. When the sales program was restricted to a few countries—when the military leaders to be enticed were old pals from NATO exercises—the US military could handle much of the sales effort on its own. But once the US started to sell expensive armaments in thirty or forty countries, from Kuwait to Peru, the US government came to rely more and more upon the energies and expense accounts of salesmen working directly for the arms companies.

The arms export boom also provided Nixon with part of the solution to one of his early economic problems. Military exports, in the 1970s, became a substitute for Vietnam procurement. As US troops left Vietnam, employment in the US aircraft industry fell from around 850,000 late in 1968 to 500,000 late in 1972. Nixon in his first term in office seems to have thought that the way out of the defense recession was to convert defense factories to civilian production. He set up “adjustment” committees, commissioned studies of different kinds of government spending, and convoked aerospace executives to the White House to celebrate the coming of a “Social Industrial Complex.”

But the effort at conversion was more or less abandoned after 1972. Several aerospace companies made efforts to diversify production, converting some of their plants to providing, for example, mass transit cars. Most have now given up such “social-industrial” undertakings. This reversal was made possible, at least for some companies, by the export boom.

It is difficult to estimate how many jobs the US arms boom has created: Lieutenant Colonel Morse suggests—apparently on the basis of remarks by James Schlesinger, who attributed 100 jobs to each $1 million in sales—that more than a million Americans are employed in industry to fill foreign military sales contracts. This seems exaggerated. Many of the jobs are still to come, because the orders signed since 1973 call for deliveries to be made over several years. Yet the defense industries certainly suffered less in the recession of 1974-1975 than most other US manufacturing industries. The aircraft industry, in particular, has kept its employment at more or less the level of 1972, ending the earlier decline.

Even the numbers of jobs fail to reflect the real significance of arms exports. For export profits and export jobs are concentrated in a few corporations and a few states: in Northrop, for example, or Lockheed or Bell Helicopter. And the momentum of defense procurement—its political force—rests on specific sets of local relationships: between, for example, a defense corporation, its lobbyists and Defense Department sponsors, its unions and its congressmen.

For Nixon, finally, the increase in US arms exports fitted a much grander vision of US foreign policy. The Nixon Doctrine sets out the theory behind the arms export boom. According to the doctrine, the United States will no longer send troops to fight for its allies in Asia. Instead, US allies are intended to buy American armaments and to defend themselves with, for example, Northrop F-5E fighters. This year’s increase in US arms sales to poor developing countries is the fulfillment, as the Nixon epoch ends, of Nixon’s vision.

The change in arms sales is part of a more general alteration in US economic relations with other countries, and above all with developing countries. As early as the mid-1960s, the US began to move in its foreign economic business from aid to trade. It sent less food aid and sold more food for dollars. US banks made more foreign loans, as the US government reduced its foreign aid.

Nixon officiated over the completion of the change. The Nixon Doctrine applied by extension to economic as well as to military relationships. America’s Asian allies were meant to buy planes, made in the US. They were supposed to eat Iowa corn and Oregon wheat, buying their food with money borrowed from US banks. The three parts of the doctrine fitted together; for to buy US exports, developing countries went further into debt to US lenders.

The Nixon Doctrine in its strategic version rested on a sort of paradoxical bet: that the US, while cutting the costs of its foreign military involvement, could sustain the various alliances and commitments which this involvement had made possible. There is a similar recklessness in the economic versions of the theory. The Nixon Doctrine did not work in Vietnam or Cambodia. Will it work in the world food economy? Will the world financial order hold, as countries go deeper into debt, buying fighters and bushels of wheat?

The commercialization of US international economic relations is not something that can be turned back. The US is not the economic superpower that it was when the process began. It can no longer sustain the commitments and policies of the 1960s. It needs, instead, to face directly the problem of how to act in a world over which it has less control.

This was what Nixon failed to do. He did not conceive of a different policy for the US government. It was as though, instead, he threw up his hands and delivered US international economic policy to arms corporations and food corporations and banks.


There should be no need to argue against the expansion of the arms race to more continents and deserts. In the last twenty years, military spending by Third World countries has increased more than 10 percent a year, or twenty times as fast as in the US. Arms imports have increased even faster. But it is worth looking at how the modern arms business works in practice. The low farce of military sales is evident in the story of US exports to Iran.

The Iranian story shows, in particular, the political costs of the export business, and the folly of the view—Henry Kissinger’s, for example—that arms transfers are a “foundation stone” of US “foreign policy design.” Kissinger: “The United States cannot expect to retain influence with nations whose perceived defense needs we disregard. Defense supply links to these countries can significantly strengthen efforts to achieve cooperation on other issues—whether political, economic or cultural.”

Nixon came to Iran in 1972 as the Santa Claus of the Persian Gulf. And since May 1972, Iran has ordered more than $10 billion worth of US armaments. A recent report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explores the intrigues and deceptions that made this spree possible, as the US Army and Navy, the Departments of State and Defense, competed for the Iranians’ dollars.

Each of the US services,” according to the study, “sought to persuade Iran to buy its weapons, in part because a large Iranian ‘buy’ of an item in a US service inventory could (1) reduce the per-unit costs to that service and (2) enable the service to recoup some of its prior investment for research and development.” The “sales competition” was “fierce.”

Civilians in the US government were almost as combative. The study describes State Department officials, together with the staff of the US Embassy in Tehran, as particularly relentless salesmen. They were not prepared “to tolerate open debate on possible adverse implications of unrestricted arms sales to Iran.” The Defense Department, by contrast, was divided over the wisdom of the program, with critics fretting that the military’s obsession with Iranian procurement was denying spare parts to the US services themselves. Kissinger’s salesmanship, some of the Defense Department critics felt, might eventually hurt “the regional security posture” in East Asia.

James Schlesinger plays a curious part in the comings and goings of Americans in Iran. As secretary of defense, he emerges as an opponent of the wilder excesses of the sales program. For example, he seems to have “expressed his view that the [Defense Department] should act as an ‘honest broker’ between the [government of Iran] and US industry, fending off the inherent pressures from the US services and industry to sell sophisticated arms, regardless of whether Iran needed or could handle them.”

The consequence of the Nixon-Ford arms boom is that the Iranians own an arsenal of advanced American weapons which they cannot possibly use without American help. They will be dependent on the United States not only for spare parts but also for soldiers and “technicians” to service their planes, fly their helicopters, and shine the gas turbines on their new destroyers. There are already at least 1,400 military and civilian Defense Department employees in Iran, and almost 3,000 people working for US military contractors; the Senate study suggests that by 1980 US contractors will have 36,000 employees and their dependents in Iran.

If the Shah ever decides to go to war—to enjoy more fully his planes and missiles—these people would be part of his military effort. US experts in Iran believe, according to the Senate report, that Iran could not use its more sophisticated weapons during the next five to ten years “without US support on a day-to-day basis.” In a war, therefore, the United States would become either Iran’s military ally, or the enemy responsible for subverting the Iranian war effort.

In most wars that Iran might fight, US technicians would find themselves directing missiles against other foreign technicians, either from the Soviet Union or from the US itself. Both sides would usually require spare parts from US factories. Indeed, there are few wars anywhere in the world in which one US company, Northrop, would not be involved through its F-5E fighter. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—and most South American countries—have ordered this plane. In Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, and Ethiopia also have it on order. In East Asia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have it as well, while Vietnam presumably maintains the F-5Es it inherited in 1975 along with billions of dollars worth of other American armaments.

The possibility of a war between Iran and its Arab neighbors has attracted some attention in the US. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait together have ordered almost as much from the US military as has Iran (although more of the Saudis’ spending goes for such projects as the construction of barracks and ports, engineering works by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and soon, apparently, a plant for desalting sea water). But there may be a more likely war to the east.

Much of Iran’s recent military expansion is intended for the extreme southeastern corner of the country, near the Pakistan border. A large air base and an army base as well are being constructed there; and the destroyers Iran is buying from the US will be based nearby in the Arabian Sea. The enemy to the east would be India. “Iran is especially concerned,” the Senate report says, “about the centrifugal tendencies within the Baluchistan regions of southeast Iran and Pakistan…. The Shah has stated that Iran would regard any attempt by India or another power to further dismember Pakistan as a threat to its own security.”

Iran, with its US helpers, could thus become part of the next war over the divided inheritance of British India. It would face Indians armed by the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Poland, and possibly even the US, Much of India’s recent orders are for sophisticated Soviet naval equipment, anticipating, perhaps, the Iranian naval buildup in the Indian Ocean. And India also, unlike Iran, has a domestic defense industry, now turning out frigates and rockets. India may soon start buying fighters from the US, for one of the Ford government’s last gestures in military salesmanship was to permit McDonnell-Douglas to promote its A-4 fighter in India.


What should the US government do with the forest of terror that the arms trade has become, its roots so deep in recent American history? Two new books give answers to this question. One is Alva Myrdal’s magnificent The Game of Disarmament, her first major book on the arms race and disarmament, subjects to which she has devoted the past fifteen years. The other, published by the United Nations Association, offers many specific proposals for US policy on conventional arms. It is of particular interest now, having been prepared by a group whose vice chairman was Cyrus Vance, and whose members include such Carter advisers as Robert Roosa, Richard Gardner, and Paul Warnke.

Three kinds of solutions to the problem of arms trade are discussed in these books. There are ways in which the US acting alone can limit the arms trade; ways involving different countries, both sellers and buyers of arms; and ways in which countries can move beyond arms control to disarmament, to the destruction of the international arms trade.

US officials, at least until now, have considered US arms trade policy as one branch of US foreign policy. “Policy level officials,” the Senate study of Iran reported, “believe that a general arms trade sales policy is not feasible and is unwise. They view arms transfers as an instrument of US foreign policy toward specific regions and countries….” This was Kissinger’s view. But it is fairly widely held. Thus Leslie Gelb, in an interesting article about arms sales, writes that the US “should approach arms sales as a foreign policy problem, not as an arms control problem. Sales are so intertwined with other matters that they have to be treated on a country-by-country basis with decisions based on pragmatic tradeoffs….”8

This view is in itself a serious impediment to solving the arms problem. Any arms sale “treated on a country-by-country basis” will appear to offer foreign policy benefits to the US. The benefits may be difficult to predict or control, as in the case of Iran. But the people who make US foreign policy, so long as they wish to influence other countries, will find it difficult to deny themselves particular arms transactions. It is quite understandable, therefore, that Kissinger and other State Department officials should have become the most fervent arms sellers in the US government.

The opponents of arms sales will always, in a case-by-case approach, find themselves arguing against the claims of particular countries. By the time a case becomes a “case,” the US is in the position of opposing, in Kissinger’s words, “the felt needs of countries.” (It is another question, of course, whether the needs are felt or stimulated.) Kissinger himself sets out the problem. As he puts it, the US should in each “arms transfer case” ask itself: “What are the consequences for us if we fail to respond? What are the disadvantages of refusing to sell?”

Congress is in a situation where its veto is almost impossible to use. It has the right to stop all major US arms sales, but this right has seldom been exercised. When it has been—in the case of missile sales to Jordan—it has set off a minor political melodrama. Congress had trouble enough in stopping US military assistance to Turkey after the Cyprus war. To forbid military sales to countries buying US arms with their own money will be even more difficult.

Sweden, by contrast, as Alva Myrdal writes, already adopts “as a general principle the rule of no arms sales abroad, permitting exceptions to be made only in special cases, thus greatly facilitating strict restraint.” “Such a rule,” she comments, “is easier to administer and have accepted, both at home and abroad….”

The new US government should announce that it will sign no new foreign military sales agreements until it has decided and explained its arms trade policy. In the tenebrous world of arms orders, every contract is a precedent—as the Carter government’s first sale would be—and every concession a commitment. The government’s early objective should be to set limits on arms sales which apply to the whole world, or to entire regions.

As a minimum first step, Carter should promise not to sell more arms than the Ford government sold in its last year in office. This would set a ceiling of around $8 billion on foreign military sales orders each year. (Cyrus Vance in 1976 endorsed a bill, vetoed by President Ford, which proposed a $9 billion sales ceiling.) The US should also stop all sales of specified advanced weapons to developing countries; certainly to Africa and to the Near East. The UNA study, for example, concludes that the US should no longer send developing countries “fighter bombers,” “missiles with city-busting capabilities,” or weapons designed to deliver nuclear warheads.

Such exercises in self control have worked in the past. Thus the US Congress in the 1960s limited sales of advanced weapons, and set ceilings on arms exports to certain continents. In the 1950s, the US with other exporting countries restricted arms sales to the Middle East. The Soviet Union, for most of the 1960s, exported considerably more arms to developing countries (excluding Vietnam) than did the US. It derived little political benefit in the process. There is no reason to suppose that restraint would be more perilous for the US in the 1970s than it was in the 1960s.

These limits should be supported by reforms of the way sales are made. Congress should exercise much greater control over the Defense Department’s arms salesmen. It should know more about how much money the US government spends to promote armaments, and where.9 The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967 undertook impressive investigations of foreign arms sales, and of the activities of Henry Kuss and his Defense Department allies. Another such enterprise is needed in 1977.

The second category of solutions involves international cooperation. Carter said during the campaign that “my hope would be that we could get a multinational agreement to limit arms sales to reduce the threat of war…my next preference would be a series of bilateral agreements.” In their interminable conferences with Soviet officials, the Nixon and Ford governments apparently neglected to discuss conventional arms sales. US-Soviet relations should in the future involve the arms trade. The two superpowers should in particular, as the UNA study recommends, cooperate in limiting sales to the Middle East.

The US accounts for almost half of all arms exports, and should take the lead in ending the boom. It should see agreements on arms exports as an important part of its relations with France and Britain. If the US bought more of its own weapons in Europe, the UNA study observes, the European countries would find it easier to stop selling arms to developing countries. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, the US could at least set an example of moderation. As Paul Warnke, another Carter adviser, has said, speaking not of the arms trade but of efforts to end “the solemn jog on the [nuclear] treadmill,” the Soviet Union “has only one superpower model to follow.”10

It is essential, too, that the US should see arms trade agreements as a matter to be decided by all countries, buyers as well as sellers. Many developing countries have opposed proposals, at the UN for example, to limit the arms trade. There are exceptions, such as Mexico, which is a leader in disarmament efforts, and spends less of its national wealth for arms than any other large country. Latin American countries have led the world in regional efforts to limit the arms race. But other countries argue that limiting arms exports would discriminate against developing countries and particularly those countries which do not produce any of their own armaments, that it would perpetuate the dominance of the great powers, and divert attention from the much more dangerous problem of the nuclear arms race.

The US should be prepared to consider these issues in a conference of countries that buy and sell arms. Its arms policy should cover the transfer of war technology as well as arms transfers, in order to avoid favoring those countries (Argentina, Brazil, India, Taiwan) which already manufacture armaments. It should, as the UNA study suggests, “place greater restrictions on the export of arms manufacturing equipment and technology to developing countries and should encourage other suppliers to adopt similar restraints.”

Alva Myrdal describes her study of disarmament as “UN-centered,” and she makes several proposals for involving the UN in “reversing the conventional arms race.” She stresses the need for more information about the arms business, and suggests that the UN revive the League of Nations’ practice (which ended in 1938) of publishing an annual yearbook of armaments and the arms trade, with “continual registration” of “all arms transfers in any category.” She comments that developing countries might not object to a register which covered arms production as well as trade, and which involved all countries.

For most of the 1970s, countries concerned about disarmament have been trying to set up a world disarmament conference to be held by the UN. The scheme is now moribund, the victim of long opposition by the United States and China. But in 1978 there will be a special session of the UN General Assembly to consider disarmament. This meeting should at the least be the occasion for the UN to start publishing information about the arms business. It should also—and the role of the US is critical here—be the deadline by which countries will have agreed to end the arms bonanza of the 1970s.


The only way to make arms agreements work is to break the link between military production and prosperity, knowledge, political influence. This means converting the military economy to the uses of civil society, which is the third, and most important, solution to the arms problem. National and international agreements change only the surface of the arms business. Conversion would alter the interior political economy of armaments. In the early 1970s, arms exports were, for some US defense corporations, a substitute for conversion. Restricting exports should be the opportunity to try again.

The benefits could be impressive. A billion dollars spent by the Defense Department, according to US government projections, creates 76,000 jobs, compared to 80,000 jobs for every billion dollars of state and local spending for health, and 104,000 for education.11 Another government study shows that the federal government’s social programs also create many jobs: 89,000 jobs per billion dollars spent on the Veteran Administration’s health care program, and 136,000 jobs for the same money spent on manpower training programs.12

If they are to work, however, conversion plans must be concerned with particular communities, and with the physical conversion of particular plants. The statistics of jobs bought for a billion dollars do not show how difficult it is to beat swords into social programs. Defense dollars buy metalworkers and mechanics, laborers and electrical engineers. They do not buy large numbers of service workers or teachers. They buy people living, for example, in Stratford, Connecticut, who cannot easily become hospital workers in Arizona.

He drove through the factory in a golf cart equipped with loudspeakers and broke the news…. [He] was cheered loudly by many of the plant’s 6,000 employees…. The State Commerce Commissioner…called it ‘the perfect Christmas present.’ ” This was the scene last month as the head of Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut announced one of the Ford government’s last big defense contracts, to buy 1,107 helicopters that Sikorsky will build in Connecticut.13 It is a tragedy that such jubilation should require the procurement of instruments of war. The new helicopters will replace the “Hueys” used by the US Army in Vietnam, and they will probably be exported by the hundreds to the twenty countries which already buy US helicopters. A few years from now, Sikorsky’s Stratford factory should instead be producing machines for people, and for the social good.

But what machines? Converting the nation’s science and technology is almost as important as converting people’s jobs. It is essential to begin to free for other purposes the half share of all federal money for research and development still spent on national security, and the American scientists still working on defense projects. (As late as 1970, one in five of all US engineers, physicists, and mathematicians was working in a defense-related position.)14 A new conversion scheme should ask what happened to the “social industrial complex” of 1971, and how US technology might more successfully be freed from the embrace of the military.

Harold Brown will have memories that will help him to answer these questions. His first Washington job was as head of research and engineering at the Pentagon. In this position he presided over the greatest boom ever in military technology. The Defense Department spent over $30 billion on R & D during his tenure (he was known as a “hardware man”) and invented much of the technology later used in Vietnam. His views of that experience, and his commitment to civilian technology, should be of interest to US senators as they consider his nomination to be secretary of defense.

There are a number of models for the US in setting out to convert the defense industries. Sweden, as Alva Myrdal writes, requires that most defense contractors rely on military work for less than 20 percent of their production. It disperses defense production around the country, and spends considerable sums on devising conversion plans.

Some recent British projects are even more interesting. The unions representing workers at two British aerospace companies—Vickers Shipbuilding and Lucas Aerospace, both large military exporters—support plans for converting existing factories to produce goods used in new energy projects and in public services. One scheme, prepared largely by Mary Kaldor of the University of Sussex, proposes that Vickers shipyards produce wave power generators, oceangoing barges, sea-skimmers for dealing with oil pollution; the Lucas plan, which is part of the union’s collective bargaining, would have Lucas factories produce components for low-energy housing and braking systems as well as devices to help the disabled.

The US itself has considerable recent experience in converting military installations. The Defense Department Office of Economic Adjustment has found jobs for unemployed defense workers throughout the country, and new industries for communities affected by defense cuts. It is concerned with government workers, not people working for defense industries, but its record has been impressive. The US government even succeeded, after Nixon renounced the use of biological weapons, in turning the army’s Pine Bluff Division of Biological Operations into a “national center for food and drug safety evaluation,” and the Fort Detrick Biological Defense Research Center into a “national cancer institute.” (As one investigator reported, “Fort Detrick has an animal farm which can produce large quantities of mice, guinea pigs and rabbits….”)15

Moreover, interesting US legislation, the Defense Economic Adjustment Act, will be introduced again in Congress this year by Senator George McGovern. The act requires that all defense contractors file conversion plans, with the cost of planning included in the contract, and that the federal government provide low-interest long-term loans for defense contractors to undertake such enterprises as developing equipment for recycling scarce materials, or building low-income housing.16

The other leading supporter in Congress of conversion legislation is Representative Andrew Young, the new US ambassador to the UN. His proposals emphasized decentralized planning, with local conversion boards and regional offices responsible for deciding how to convert defense factories and military bases.17 Representative Young may expect frustrating times in his new job. But his work would be worthwhile if he were to achieve a major US contribution to the UN’s special session on disarmament and other disarmament business, and if he were to use his position to work for defense conversion at home.

The question of conversion runs throughout US policy, in domestic and economic concerns as well as in defense. It is only by economic conversion that the US can solve its most urgent domestic problems: of persistent unemployment, particularly in the old industrial regions of the North and East; of an old industrial structure based on the intensive use of energy and on oil-using industries such as the automobile business. The US government needs to find jobs for people in old regions, and new uses for old factories.

One of Carter’s election themes—supported by many of the people whom he has appointed to make domestic policy, such as Juanita Kreps at Commerce and Ray Marshall at Labor—was to use federal money for precise goals in regions of high unemployment and to train many more workers to find new jobs. This endeavor will depend on economic conversion.

The new government should set out a policy of conversion, tied specifically to restrictions on arms exports, which will be a model for reconstruction in the rest of the economy. No workers and communities should suffer lasting hardship as foreigners stop buying, for example, “city-busting” missiles. The conversion plans may eventually be needed on an even larger scale in the defense industries, if Carter manages to cut from the defense budget his promised “$5 to $7 billion,” and if he persists in believing that while research and development for the proposed B-1 bomber should continue, “I don’t favor construction at this time.” A serious conversion policy would be, in any case, a first step toward breaking the politics of military procurement.

The way of reason, in armaments, is deceptively easy. It is a matter, as Alva Myrdal writes, of “common sense and moral values.” But it also opposes the most powerful political and ideological forces of modern times. “There is something fundamentally amiss,” she writes, “when even in democratic countries, disarmament can be such a dead issue.” “How can the irrational policies prevail?” she asks, astonished that there is little public attention to disarmament, even in “the United States, where views are expressed without too much inhibition or fear of reprisal.” Her conclusion is that “the difficulties involved in stopping this world folly are immense, and up till now we have achieved almost nothing.”

Alva Myrdal admits to “a gradually increasing feeling of near despair.” But her values belie this sense. Her words—and her experience as Sweden’s minister of disarmament, acting with moral courage in the real world of disarmament negotiations—break the set of preconceptions that surround US arms policy. I expect that most of Carter’s defense advisers will read her book. I hope they will see how different her way would be.

It is because of the politics of military power that Vietnam is now so important to US policy. The Vietnam war was not a twelve-year dream, a story to be forgotten with the pictures of US soldiers leaving Saigon in April 1975. It had to do, instead, with the political influence of the military, with US preconceptions about arms and about world power. It is at the center of US history in the 1970s: the history, for example, of the US arms trade.

Harold Brown, speaking in Plains, Georgia, after he was designated secretary of defense, described the Vietnam war as “a catastrophic time in American history,” when the US “misjudged the political base for our activities there.” He had learned, he said, that “we must become more cautious about such interventions.”18 But this is not enough. Nor is it enough to say, with The New York Times editorial writers, that “it would serve no useful purpose to try to determine whether Dr. Brown was a ‘hawk’ then and is a ‘dove’ now. President-elect Carter has made it abundantly clear that the United States ought not to go plunging militarily into under-developed countries….”19

The importance of the Vietnam war goes beyond the niceties of intervention. To object only to interventions is to fight the last war, over and over again. The time has come, instead, to remember not the memoranda that government officials wrote in 1968, but the ideology and technologies and the economic forces of those years.

This is the inheritance that makes the effort to change US arms policy so difficult. But it is for this reason, too, that a new arms policy would offer the opportunity to go beyond arms agreements to disarmament, and to the conversion of the politics of war.

  1. 1

    Department of Defense, Foreign Military Sales Agreements, November 30, 1976. Agreements signed in the 1976 fiscal year—which lasted for fifteen months from July 1975 to the end of September 1976, because the US changed in 1976 from a system where the fiscal year begins in July to one where it begins in October—were worth $9,474 million.

  2. 2

    Defense Indicators, Department of Defense, October 1976.

  3. 3

    Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have all ordered the M-60 AI “Main Battle Tank,” according to the 1976 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook.

  4. 4

    Foreign Arms Sales: Two Sides to the Coin,” by Lieutenant Colonel David Morse, Army, January 1976.

  5. 5

    Henry A. Kissinger, “Statement Before the House International Relations Committee on Security Assistance,” November 6, 1975.

  6. 6

    See my “The Boom in the Death Business,” The New York Review, October 2, 1975.

  7. 7

    David Morse, “Foreign Arms Sales,” Army, January 1976.

  8. 8

    Arms Sales,” by Leslie Gelb, Foreign Policy, Winter 1976-1977.

  9. 9

    The Senate study of Iran comments in an intriguing aside that while most senior US visitors to Iran have been military men, the reason “may be merely that there are more general officers with larger budgets than State Department officials….”

  10. 10

    Apes on a Treadmill,” by Paul Warnke, Foreign Policy, Spring 1975.

  11. 11

    Projections of the Post-Vietnam Economy, 1975,” by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1972. The figures are those projected for 1975, using constant 1971 prices.

  12. 12

    Manpower Report of the President,” transmitted to the Congress April 1975: Manpower Impact of Government Policy and Procurement.

  13. 13

    The New York Times, December 24, 1976.

  14. 14

    Occupational Impact of Defense Expenditures,” by Richard Dempsey and Douglas Schmude, Monthly Labor Review, December 1971.

  15. 15

    Problems Associated with Converting Defense Research Facilities to Meet Different Needs: Case of Fort Detrick,” General Accounting Office, May 1972.

  16. 16

    S. 1745, Ninety-fourth Congress, First Session, May 14, 1975.

  17. 17

    Priorities, American Friends Service Committee, October 1976.

  18. 18

    The New York Times, December 22, 1976.

  19. 19

    The New York Times, December 22, 1976.