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The Arms Boom and How to Stop It


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. 8

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

  2. 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….”

  3. 10

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

  4. 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.

  5. 12

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

  6. 13

    The New York Times, December 24, 1976.

  7. 14

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

  8. 15

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

  9. 16

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

  10. 17

    Priorities, American Friends Service Committee, October 1976.

  11. 18

    The New York Times, December 22, 1976.

  12. 19

    The New York Times, December 22, 1976.

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