The War Machine under Nixon

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

In government the budget is the message. Washington’s heart is where the tax dollar goes. When President Nixon finally, and very tardily, presented his first budget proposals in mid-April in a mini-State of the Union message, he said “Peace has been the first priority.” But the figures showed that the first concern of the new Administration, as of the last, was still the care and feeding of the war machine.

Only Nixon’s style had changed. “Sufficiency” rather than “superiority” in nuclear armaments remained the new watchword. But in practice it was difficult to tell them apart. Administrations change, but the Pentagon remains at the head of the table. Nixon’s semantics recalled John F. Kennedy’s eight years earlier. The Eisenhower Administration had waged battle for four years against the bomber gap and the missile gap with the slogan of “sufficiency.” “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt,” was Kennedy’s elegant riposte in his Inaugural, signaling a new spiral upward in the arms race, “can we be certain without doubt that they will never be employed.” The rhetoric was fresh but the idea was no different from John Foster Dulles’s “position of strength.” This is the plus ca change of American government and diplomacy. It emerged intact after Nixon’s first three months in office, too.

At a press conference four days after his budget message, Nixon said again that “sufficiency” in weaponry was “all that is necessary.” But a moment later he was clearly equating it with nuclear superiority. He said he didn’t want “the diplomatic credibility” of a future President in a crisis like that over Cuba’s missiles “impaired because the United States was in a second-class or inferior position.” A press corps obsessed with the latest plane incident off North Korea did not pause to consider the implications. Was “diplomatic credibility” to be measured in megatons? Were we preparing again to play a thermonuclear game of “chicken,” to see who would blink first at the prospect of instant incineration? Was this not the diplomacy of brinkmanship and the strategy of permanent arms race?

No correspondent asked these questions, and Nixon did not spell out the inferences. His tone was softer, his language more opaque, than that of the campaign, but the essential “security gap” theme had not changed. The main emphasis of Nixon’s first months in office, the main idea he tried to sell the country, turned out to be that it was in mortal peril of a Soviet first-strike capacity. The new Administration sought to overcome a mounting wave of opposition to the ABM and to the military generally, by ringing the bells of panic.

True, the Secretary of State often seemed to deny the perils the Secretary of Defense painted. Which was the party line? It was indicative that when visiting editors were given a press kit on the ABM April 7, with a covering letter on White House…

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