Nixon and the Arms Race: How Much Is “Sufficiency”?

Melvin Laird
Melvin Laird; drawing by David Levine

The annals of the Nixon Administration, in so far as arms are concerned, must begin, like the Gospel of John, with The Word. But Nixon has changed The Word at the very outset. In the campaign it was “superiority.” At his first press conference this was changed to “sufficiency.” The two words seem to move in different directions. One implies an endless arms race. The other seems to promise that at some point we will have enough.

The real meaning of the shift is difficult to evaluate because it came, not in any formal and considered pronouncement, but in an offhand reply to an unexpected question. The correspondent, Edward P. Morgan of the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, long one of the few liberal voices on the air, is not the man the Nixon team would have chosen for a planted question. The meaning of the exchange is further obscured because it involved a double error, on Morgan’s part and on Nixon’s. Morgan wrongly attributed the idea of “sufficiency” to Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon’s chief assistant on foreign policy and national security. Nixon not only assumed that Morgan was correct but briskly and cheerfully accepted the idea. The result seemed to be a reversal of all Nixon had said in the campaign.

The question was framed, like so many reportorial questions, in such a way as to indicate the desired answer and clearly disclosed Morgan’s own bias against the arms race. One would think the very wording would have put Nixon on guard. This is the full text of Morgan’s question, from the official transcript:

Q. Back to nuclear weapons, Mr. President. Both you and Secretary Laird have stressed, quite hard, the need for superiority over the Soviet Union. But what is the real meaning of that in view of the fact that both sides have more than enough already to destroy each other, and how do you distinguish the validity of that stance and the argument of Dr. Kissinger for what he calls “sufficiency”?

Nobody can say that was not a leading question. In a courtroom Nixon’s counsel would have objected to it at once as loaded and the objection would have been sustained. But Nixon waded right in. The answer, too, merits examination in full text:

A. Here, again, I think the semantics may offer an inappropriate approach to the problem. I would say that with regard to Dr. Kissinger’s suggestion of sufficiency, that that would meet, certainly, my guideline, and I think Secretary Laird’s guideline, with regard to superiority.

Let me put it this way: when we talk about parity, I think we should recognize that wars occur, usually, when each side believes it has a chance to win. Therefore, parity does not necessarily assure that a war may not occur. By the same token, when we talk about superiority, that may have a detrimental effect…

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