(The author of this review was formerly a member of the White House National Security Council Staff.)

The universities have become more and more involved with defense policy since the beginning of the cold war. Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia now have sizeable institutes studying questions of defense and so do other universities. The money to finance these studies generally comes from one of the agencies that make up the National Security Establishment—the C.I.A., the Defense Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, or the Office of Emergency Planning. Or it may come from one of the foundations.

Most of the professors who work at these institutes are also paid as “consultants” by the Defense Department and similar agencies at the rate of $ 50 to $ 100 a day. When they work for corporations which are wholly subsidized by the government—the missile industry, for example—they may receive as much as $ 300 a day. A good many are also awarded handsome contracts to write papers for one government agency or another. Beyond this, there is a steady exchange of experts between the universities and those special organizations, like the RAND Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analysis, and the Office of Naval Research, which have been set up by the Defense Department or one of its branches.

What are we to make of these institutes and organizations? After examining a good deal of their work, while I was in the Government and now that I am out of it. I have come to the conclusion that their most important function is to justify and extend the existence of their employers. This is not to say that some of the papers they produce are not valuable contributions to defense policy. But the fact is that most are not, and in the last analysis it must be doubted that they are intended to be.

Mr. Robert A. Levine, the author of The Arms Debate, is very much a part of the world I have been describing. Trained as a professional economist, he wrote this book while a Research Associate at the Harvard Center for International Affairs, and he now works for the RAND Corporation. His purpose is to compare dispassionately the principal public positions that have been taken on the question of a desirable armaments policy—not only by people within the area of officially sponsored thinking, but by those on the edge of it, or outside it altogether. He does not accomplish this, but his way of going about it is worth examining.

He proceeds by categorizing the “debaters” into Schools of Thought:

First, we have the systematic Anti-War School consisting of such people as Bertrand Russell, Erich Fromm, and Paul Goodman. They want to disarm unilaterally—and immediately—either because they don’t view the Soviet threat as real, or because they consider that nuclear arms cannot be an answer to a political threat. They insist that preparation for war results only in forms of totalitarianism.

Second, the Marginal Anti-War School (Arnold Waskow, Charles Osgood, Amatai Etzioni), which proposes that the U.S. maintain some nuclear arms for the present but that it take unilateral initiatives leading to negotiated general and complete disarmament. Although Levine does not characterize them as such, they believe that disarmament, freedom, and national security are not incompatible.

Third, the Middle Marginal School, which Levine finds hard to categorize but in which he includes such people as Herman Kahn, Sidney Hook, Thomas Schelling, Morton Halperin, Edward Teller, and himself. According to Levine, this group wants (a) to prevent nuclear war by having a so-called “second strike” capability so that an attack on our nuclear forces could be answered by an attack on the enemy’s nuclear forces; (b) to ameliorate the effects of war if it occurs by controlling the kinds of thermonuclear weapons used; and (c) to use the threat of thermonuclear war to accomplish political objectives in the classic manner of Clausewitz. This group is closest to the policy-makers of the current Administration.

Fourth, Anti-Communist Marginalists, who think that defense against Communism is more important than the danger which might follow from thermonuclear war. In their view all kinds of wars are appropriate to defend ourselves against Communism, although they would like to keep violence down to “low levels.” Members of this school include Robert Strauss, William Kinter, and Stephen Possony.

And finally, the Anti-Communist Systemists who would use all methods to defeat Communists up to and including thermonuclear war. Here we find (or once found) Barry Goldwater, Major de Seversky, and Fred Schwartz.

Levine tells us that he constructed this spectrum by judging whether the various strategists consider thermonuclear war or Communism the greater threat to the United States and the world. What he has done, in fact, is to manufacture a formula which enables him to classify the differing viewpoints conveniently. Although much of what he says about the “debaters” is accurate, his constricting formula leads him into serious distortions. To take only one example, he misstates the position of Waskow, Osgood, and Etzioni by suggesting that they value disarmament more than political freedom—something they would certainly deny. Since Levine puts these two values at opposite ends of his spectrum, it is inevitable that he will have difficulty in dealing with a theorist like Waskow who believes that they are integrally related.


Beyond this, Levine has made a disturbing omission. He fails to link the actual weapons of the arms race—bombs, missiles, chemical and biological weapons, research and development, etc.—to each policy position he describes. We are never told, for example, how many weapons, of what kind, are needed to hold the Middle Marginal position, and what sort of damage they would do. Because such questions are not answered, the reader is left with the impression that the arms discussion is essentially metaphysical, with no reference at all to numbers of weapons, the size of the budget, or the power of the military establishment itself.

But that is not what really offends me about this book. I am more concerned with the fact that Levine has created a debate which is more sham than real—and that should not, in any legitimate intellectual or moral sense, exist at all. It is as if one were to describe a debate between the proponents of cancer and those who want to cure it. Indeed, until fairly recently, discussions of nuclear war were quite rarified and were not taken very seriously. Most of the people who actually made high policy thought that planning for nuclear war was merely an exercise in the theory of annihilation, that it could have no practical consequences. As late as 1959, President Eisenhower said that thermonuclear war was unthinkable: What he meant was that in view of Soviet nuclear power it could not be used to accomplish any political objective of the United States.

And yet during the Eisenhower administration many atomic bombs existed, thermonuclear weapons were in production, and intercontinental missiles were being developed. The various military agencies and their supporters were following their natural inclinations to obtain faster, stronger, and more numerous weapons. At the same time, however, it was reasonably clear to anyone who knew the facts that the Soviet Union could be deterred from attacking us, by a relatively small number of nuclear weapons and missiles. In order to justify the continued large scale production of these bombs and missiles, military and industrial leaders needed some kind of theory to rationalize their use: they had to prove, in short, that nuclear war was a practical enterprise which could serve the political ends of the state.

This became particularly urgent during the late 1950’s when economy-minded members of the Eisenhower administration began to wonder why so much money, thought, and resources were being spent on weapons if their use could not be justified. And so began a series of rationalizations by the “defense intellectuals” in and out of the universities. In 1957 and 1958 Henry Kissinger of Harvard attempted bravely but vainly to rationalize “tactical” nuclear warfare. Then Herman Kahn of RAND, along with Kaplan, Schelling, William Kaufman of M.I.T., among others, argued that thermonuclear war was indeed practical. They developed theories of so-called “controlled counterforce war”—that is, thermonuclear wars which the U.S. would win by attacking specific military targets: or by partially disarming the enemy; or by “counterforce attacks”: the destruction of all the retaliatory or first-strike forces of the opponent, but not his cities (even though the cities and nuclear forces are geographically adjoining). They talked of brandishing nuclear weapons in conjunction with an elaborate civil defense program—a national will-stiffener which the policy-makers could use to threaten an opponent at the bargaining table.

By now all these proposals have been exposed for one reason or another as useless for the conduct of our defense or our international relations; this has been generally recognized by people who are familiar with both the technology of the weapons and the policy processes of government. For example, George Kisiakowsky, President Eisenhower’s science advisor said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

I do not believe that we or any other nation can find any real security in a continuing arms race. It is now evident that the United States and the Soviet Union each have the capability to deliver an utterly devastating attack on each other. To talk of winning such a conflict is to misuse the language; only a Pyrrhic victory could be achieved in a nuclear war. Under the present conditions of unrestrained arms race, it is certain that the numbers of warheads each side might deliver will increase, as will their yields. Perhaps even more threatening is the prospect of an increasingly large number of countries having nuclear weapons, with the concomitant increase in the probability that some will be used and that uncontrolled escalation will follow.

The same thought was expressed by Dr. Herbert York, former Director of Weapons Development for the Department of Defense:


It is my view that the problem posed to both sides by this dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security has no technical solution. If we continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be a steady and inexorable worsening of this situation. I am optimistic that there is a solution to this dilemma: I am pessimistic only insofar as I believe that there is absolutely no solution to be found within the areas of science and technology.

But because statements of this kind have been made we should not expect that the theorists of the defense establishment will become less active or numerous. Military procurement will continue to flourish, and they will continue to demonstrate why it must. In this respect they are no different from the great majority of modern specialists who accept the assumptions of the organizations which employ them because of the rewards in money and power and prestige. Washington itself may be seen as a city of apparently cautious and responsible men who have mastered sophisticated techniques but rarely concern themselves with basic principles or objectives. They know enough not to question their employers’ right to exist. And so it is with most—not all—of the defense specialists who are paid to justify violence. Because they have accepted the premises of their employers so readily, and applied themselves so energetically to rationalization, they have done much to insure that the present military system will not be challenged, or partially dismantled, by those outside it.

Promotion of this kind should not surprise us. Justifying, selling, and rationalizing are an important part of American commercial civilization, and we are all involved in it. A comparison can be made between the specialists in violence and the Madison Avenue hucksters about whom we have heard so much. We are told that advertising people are often bright and decent men; but they are wholly committed to selling, justifying, and repackaging their clients’ products, whatever they may be. If we wanted to find out about the products, we would learn little by reading the contents of their ads. On the other hand, a student of social psychology might profitably read the ads to understand the audience to which they are directed, and he might well ask to what extent certain prevalent American concerns are reflected, or exploited, in one advertisement or another. Now after reading most of the officially sponsored literature on arms strategy I have come to the conclusion that, like most advertising, it cannot be read for its content because very little of it has any. It must be read for what it tells us about this society, in much the same way that a social scientist might read a Cadillac ad in the New Yorker. In other words, most of this literature can be understood only by examining the motives of the men who wrote it and the basic political and economic situation which has led to the over-production of armaments.

Levine would object to this. Since he believes that serious debate is going on, he insists that all ad hominem argument is unfair, if not pernicious. I think he shows here a common American reluctance to discuss publicly that sticky question: who paid whom to say what, and why? (Note the historic importance and current disarray of our conflict-of-interest laws.) But more than that, there seems to be a positive anxiety on Levine’s part to portray the arms strategists—and particularly those of the Middle marginalist position who are rightly described as being closest to policy making—as people who have important substantive ideas which must be taken seriously.

There are interesting reasons for this. A majority of those who have drifted into the field of defense strategy were trained in more traditional disciplines—economics, applied physics, mathematics, engineering, and, to a lesser extent, the behavioral sciences. It is understandable that the specialists in violence should want to be taken seriously by their old colleagues and to prove that there is some intellectual and moral basis for the way they spend their lives. If this could be proved, the defense specialist could become more than a huckster selling “counterforce” or “minimum deterrence,” and rationalizing the weapons his employer has decided to develop. He would be eligible to share once again in the image which many academic men have of themselves as balanced, independent, disinterested, and good.

But this can be accomplished in only one way. The specialist in violence must find an authentic opponent to engage in debate—not a customer to sell, or a client to please. And for years this was difficult since most of the critical opposition came from small groups who were not to be taken seriously themselves. After all, it was expected that the Quakers and pacifists would disagree.

A few years ago, however, something new began to happen. A quite separate group of theorists including Waskow, Osgood, and others—the group Levine calls the Marginal Anti-War School—emerged. None of its members was tied to the branches of the Department of Defense or to any of the officially sponsored “think factories.” Seeking ways to reduce substantially the level of armaments, while increasing security, they were soon able to pick apart many of the arguments of the defense specialists and to expose their spurious sense of statecraft. Something that must have seemed like a debate started to take place: the abstruse rationalizations were being challenged. The irony, however, is that, by simply finding people to debate, the specialists in violence have dignified their intellectual existence. By assuming that there is a real debate, and by taking seriously books like Levine’s, the academic community and the informed public are led to think of the main antagonists as equally rational and independent in their thinking.

This is not the case. The debate as Levine has cast it is neither the right debate nor the interesting one. A useful arms debate can take place only when we are willing to recognize who is capable of thinking independently and who is not, and why; it will require an almost completely different cast of characters if it is to produce hopeful solutions. A useful arms debate, in short, has not begun. It can only begin when we accept certain stubborn facts: that our defense establishment has swollen to grotesque proportions and is a menace to the national security of a free society.

This Issue

November 14, 1963