The export of armaments is about to become an essential American industry. This is one conclusion suggested by a new study prepared for the Defense Department by the US Department of Labor. The study makes it possible for the first time to understand the economic consequences of the arms boom. Its estimates, put together with other United States government projections, show the military economy at a point of transition in 1977. Since 1973, military sales have changed from a minor to a major source of employment for Americans. The new study shows that in 1975 each $1 billion in foreign deliveries of military sales required the employment of 51,900 American workers. This year the US is expected to deliver $6.8 billion worth of military goods and services to foreign buyers. Some 350,000 people, these estimates imply, may now be working directly and indirectly to deliver military sales.1

Next year the new “industry” is likely to increase the number of jobs it requires to over 430,000. Four years ago it required only 100,000 people. Such growth is unequaled in the civilian and domestic economy. The entire US economy, from 1973 to 1977, produced five million new jobs. Military sales, the new studies suggest, produced one out of every twenty of these new jobs. Military exports already require the services of more people than are at work in eleven US states. It is as though the entire working population of, for example, Nevada were occupied in fixing missiles to Iranian fighter planes and in other tasks of the arms trade.2

The boom in US military sales began in 1973. But the well-known and spectacular figures reported at the time—$10 billion a year or more of “sales” in 1974 and 1975—measured orders, or agreements to sell military goods and services, rather than actual military exports. What is happening now is that deliveries are catching up with these earlier orders. Fighters that in 1974 were a gleam in the Shah’s eye are now steel and titanium, being assembled by American workers and shipped for export. And the process is only beginning. The United States as of last October had a stock of unfilled military sales orders worth $32.8 billion. As late as 1983, US workers will still be delivering arms from this stock of boom-time orders.

It is against this horizon of real life and real work that the Carter administration’s arms sales policy should be seen. For the Carter policy, which has been concerned initially with the morality and subsequently with the foreign policy of arms sales, will succeed only as it influences the political economy of arms and disarmament.

The object of the new arms policy, as summarized most recently by the President, is to achieve “much greater constraint on arms sales,” and to “reduce the level of arms sales in each succeeding year” after 1977.3 On this modest interpretation, the policy is likely to work. Foreign military sales are already considerably lower in the 1977 fiscal year than they were in 1976. At $5.6 billion for the first ten months of the year, orders are running about 10 percent below the 1976 rate.4

But there are more difficult and interesting aspects to the Carter policy. “The United States will henceforth view arms transfers as an exceptional foreign policy implement,” President Carter’s main statement on arms transfers promises, and “in the future, the burden of persuasion will be on those who favor a particular arms sale, rather than those who oppose it.”5 The statement also forswears, among other practices, introducing advanced weapons into a new region, selling weapons before they are used by the US forces, and developing or transforming advanced weapons solely for export. (NATO and other close allies among developed countries are exempt, and Israel is also considered exceptional.)

These more difficult objectives still seem remote. The distribution of military orders, this year, still recalls the height of the Nixon/Ford arms boom. So far $3.19 billion in sales, or well over half of the total, are to Iran. In July alone, the Carter administration racked up some $400 million in new Iranian orders.6 The administration’s controversial offer to sell Iran planes carrying the latest US radar (seven AWACS jets, or Airborne Warning and Control Systems, costing $1.2 billion) is set to be submitted for congressional approval in September. The government has stalled the Ford administration’s plan to sell advanced F18 fighters to Iran, but favors a sale of F15 fighters, which the Ford government considered too advanced, to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile arms sales and grants continue to poor developing countries. In 1976, the US increased its arms sales to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zaire. Now the Carter administration proposes to supply arms to such new African clients as Somalia, Chad, and the Sudan; a US military mission visited the Sudan in August.

Another object of the Carter policy is to persuade foreign arms sellers—of whom by far the most important are the Soviet Union, Britain, and France—to join the United States in restraining sales. The administration’s new report on arms transfer policy states that Carter, Mondale, and Vance all “raised the question” of restraint during their trips to Europe and the Middle East, while the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to set up a “joint working group on conventional arms transfers.” The part of the report which describes these efforts was deleted because it contained classified information. But the working group will apparently meet in the fall.


It is disappointing, all the same, that seven months after Carter’s “Peacemaker” inaugural, and a year after his election commitment to seek international agreements on arms transfers, there is still no news to be made public about any such agreements. Nor is there much sign that the administration sees arms restraint as an urgent topic in its relations with the Soviet Union and Western Europe, an issue on which to risk its power and influence. Perhaps Britain, France, and the Soviet Union are indeed recalcitrant. But if that is the case, the US administration might soon try to rally public opinion to its cause. “Open diplomacy” seems at least as appropriate in ending the boom in the arms trade as it does in promoting human rights.

The policy report itself sets considerable emphasis on “the role of other suppliers,” whom it describes as “keen competitors,” “acutely interested” in arms sales and eager for hard currency. These sellers, it reports, could “substitute for all US transfers to [developing countries] outside the Middle East,” as well as provide fighters and ships to the Middle East.7 Yet the Soviet Union, America’s closest competitor, does not seem a likely supplier for such clients as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. (The Defense Department insists, however, “that the Soviets are known to recognize and exploit new opportunities as part of their doctrine.”)

Britain and France are certainly keen. But they each account for less than a fifth of the value of US arms exports to developing countries. 8 In order to take advantage of US restraint, they would need to build new defense plants for the express purpose of selling arms to Asia. (There are already, after all, about as many tanks and fighter aircraft in the Middle East as there are with all NATO forces in Europe.)9 They would also need to increase their own military establishments, and to find new technicians to match the 36,000 workers and their dependents who will soon be employed by US military contractors in Iran. Even in Europe there are politicians who would oppose any such multiplication of military production and military recruitment.

The Carter government’s intention to increase arms transfers to Somalia and the Sudan in East Africa is, finally, one of the worst possible precedents for any international agreements about arms sales. The administration is hardly exercising exemplary unilateral restraint when it thunders into a new and perilous region. As the policy report notes, the US has “play[ed] a minor role in Africa,” relative to other sellers, such as the Soviet Union. US efforts to increase this role are not likely to entice the Europeans and the Soviet Union into any very helpful “working groups.”

East Africa is, in 1977, the principal region of the world where people are fighting and dying in wars. Fighter planes there are not playthings but instruments of war to be shot out of the skies. Unquestionably, the region is of strategic importance. The Russians are arming both sides in the conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. (The Chinese also have an acute interest: a Chinese dignitary assured me not long ago that World War III would start in the horn of Africa, spreading rapidly thence to Western Europe.) The US is already involved as a past supplier of arms and spare parts to Ethiopia. By proposing to supply arms to Somalia and the Sudan, it is now risking more than its arms policy for political advantage.

Carter before he became president expressed moral revulsion at America’s role as the arsenal of the world. These feelings seem to have been superseded by a more strategic view of arms and foreign policy. As early as July 1976, Carter said, “We ought to assess every arms sales policy on an individual nation basis. In other words, if we think the sale of arms can better preserve peace in a portion of the world, and carry out our committed foreign policy, then let the arms sales be made on that basis alone.”10

Yet this view, I think, is itself one of the problems of the new arms policy. The administration’s policy is disappointing not so much in its conceptions as in the way it is being implemented. The new report, indeed, is a valuable document, which also provides useful and scarce information about arms sales. But its spirit is not yet evident in the administration’s recent decisions.


Carter’s two objectives, of reducing arms sales and of judging them, case by case, for their effect on foreign policy, are often, as a matter of practice, in conflict. People who want to sell arms find foreign policy arguments easy to win. A case can be made under almost all circumstances that arms transfers to a particular country (Chad, Somalia, Saudi Arabia) help US foreign policy. Kissinger’s arms policy stressed the benefits to US foreign relations, and I am sure that there were people in the State Department who argued persuasively for the most arcane transactions of the Nixon/Ford arms boom. Glimpses of such eloquence can be seen, indeed, not so much in the circumspect new report itself as in various annexes appended to it. Words assume a special official meaning, where “peace” stands for militarism and “stability” for the balance of terror.

“Approximately 100 countries,” according to the report, are eligible for foreign military sales, a “Presidential Determination” having in each case been made to the effect that “sales to that country will strengthen the security of the United States and serve world peace.” The Defense Department notes that arms sales achieve “enhancement of…total force objectives and regional stabilization.” The Agency for International Development, in a particularly distasteful annex to the report, considers that defense spending in developing countries leads to “the opening up of minds to new management and technical ideas,” it also suggests that students trained under the US International Military Education and Training program—most of whom come from and leave for military dictatorships—“return to become leaders in civilian as well as military life, inculcated with principles and skills that can make important contributions to many facets of a developing economy.”

The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, finally, makes the startling pronouncement that in “1972-1976 the US pursued a policy of selective restraint” in arms sales. The US, it suggests, was particularly concerned with “snuffing out…local conflict,” notably between “Mali and Upper Volta” in 1975, two countries whose joint share of US military assistance and foreign military sales has amounted to rather less than $200,000 over the last ten years.

Anthony Sampson’s new book about the arms trade provides a most useful view of the political economy of arms which such government rhetoric obscures. Wars, he shows, are fought with armaments; countries which buy weapons have often used them. He describes corporations and politicians; the aerospace economy of California; a California United Auto Workers union official who tells him that “workers can’t have pride in making low-cost housing,” while “as for exporting arms,…without arms those countries would be totally defenseless.”

Sampson writes interestingly about the early history of the arms trade. He shows Sir Basil Zaharoff, the famous salesman of the arms boom which preceded the First World War, justifying arms sales on the grounds that “they provide the connections and intelligence that enable the major powers to extend their influence and keep links with their clients.” In his account of the recent US arms boom, he draws extensively on the work of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s now defunct Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations. (He provides even more information than did the subcommittee about the private lives of arms salesmen.)

One of the several virtues of Sampson’s book is that it deals in detail with British and French arms sales, although not, unfortunately, with the Soviet Union’s even more covert efforts. Sampson describes a display of British armaments in the tranquil marquees of Aldershot, with mortars and guns laid out for potential buyers on the “clipped grass,” and displays of visibly Iranian “waxwork soldiers.” His conclusion, however, is that the United States dominates the arms trade, and that the US should assume the same role in reducing arms sales that Britain played in the nineteenth-century campaign to end the slave trade. Only the US “can take an effective lead” in ending the arms boom.

There is, I think, a basic confusion in the Carter administration’s decisions about arms sales. The administration is evidently serious in its wish to “take the lead” in limiting arms sales. But it has not, I think, determined what is its purpose in such restraint. Does Carter dislike the arms boom because it is wrong, or because it is bad for US foreign relations? When he says that the burden of persuasion in arms decisions should lie with those who favor sales, what does he mean? His suggestion seems to be that arms sales should be considered guilty until they are proved to benefit US foreign policy. Yet those who argue for guiltlessness in this sense tend to prevail, as strategists from Zaharoff to Kissinger have shown.

The point is of great importance. For a policy which seeks to limit arms sales because they are wrong is often likely to worsen the foreign relations of the United States. There are always benefits for presidents and secretaries of state, as we saw earlier, in saying “yet” to the Shah or to the military rulers of Somalia. By saying “no,” the United States might well cause the Iranians to become more intransigent on oil prices, or Somalia to depend further on the Soviet Union. The United States might in effect be sacrificing its own cherished foreign policy interests to the cause of peace and disarmament.

The way to end the arms boom, I believe, is to interpret Carter’s proposition in a different sense. Arms sales should be considered guilty until they are proved innocent of contributing to war, militarism, and unreason. This criterion would certainly not be easy to apply. Nations tend to identify their political interests with peace and reason. And governments have a persistent aptitude for self-delusion, for believing, as in the instances cited earlier, that peace is much the same as military spending, and militarism the equivalent of “development.” There may also be occasions where arms transfers do help to prevent war. The important point, however, is to distinguish between political interests and the interests of disarmament. A policy that, stressed disarmament would make it easier to resist the blandishments of foreign powers. Decisions about arms sales, in case after case, would then be more likely to add up to a policy of restrain:

An arms policy in this sense is difficult to remove from questions of international morality. For the United States in deciding to adopt such a policy could be acting against its own immediate political self-interest. It would be saying, in effect, that the chance of ending the conventional arms race is worth risks and costs in US foreign policy.

I am increasingly convinced that limiting arms sales should be seen as a problem of disarmament. I believe, indeed, that the effort to reduce conventional arms transfers has a great deal in common with the enterprise of stopping the nuclear arms race. Paul Warnke, who is now head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and chief US SALT negotiator, once suggested that the United States should show its world leadership by stepping off, at least temporarily, from the “nuclear treadmill.”11 The risks involved would be worth taking. Most interestingly, he seems to have made the same argument, in an interview with Sampson, when discussing ways to limit conventional arms transfers. He alluded, as well, to the economic consequences of limiting arms production, suggesting that the US government “must face the task of converting industries” from military to civil production.

Military society has two foundations, political and economic. The enemies of militarism incur two corresponding sets of costs. There are political costs, having to do with the international and military risks of self-denial. And there are economic costs, for the millions of workers and thousands of companies around the world who depend upon a military economy. These propositions about the costs of disarmament apply equally to conventional arms and to nuclear weapons. The question, in each case, is whether one is for or against disarmament.

The Carter administration’s concern, in its conventional arms sales policy, seems so far to be largely with the political costs of saying “no.” The government does seem determined, as its report shows, to resist economic pressures to export arms. Yet these economic pressures cannot so far have been compelling. (US arms corporations already have at least $30 billion in arms orders, and the new arms policy has not yet affected their main foreign customers.) As the scope of the military export economy grows, economic pressures will become harder to resist. And the combination of political and economic risks is deadly, as the dismal history of nuclear disarmament shows.

We are back, full circle, with the economic consequences of the arms boom. This year and next will be of determining importance. For US arms exports, derived from the present stock of orders, are likely to reach a peak in 1978, with over 400,000 people working on foreign military sales. Then deliveries of arms and employment will begin to fall. But if sales orders were to continue at their recent rate (allowing for the consequences of inflation), employment would soon increase again. According to estimates in the arms policy report, arms deliveries under a “constant sales program” would level off at some $8 billion per year in the early 1980s. The prospects for dismantling an industry which has over seven years provided from 250,000 to 400,000 or more jobs would by then look bleak.

The study of defense sales and grants prepared for the Defense Department suggests some of the social consequences of a continuing arms boom. As early as 1975, arms sales accounted for roughly a sixth of all defense jobs in the aircraft industry.12 The proportion seems certain to have increased, since foreign deliveries of military aircraft are still growing fast. Some occupations are particularly involved. In 1975, some seven percent of all American aeronautical engineers were working on military sales.13 The “industry” reaches into all regions of the country. The US Treasury has counted twenty-nine states where a 40 percent reduction in new arms orders would cause the loss of two or more jobs out of every thousand. (Connecticut would be more affected than any other state, followed by Washington and California.)14

The military export boom also touches almost every occupation. The Department of Defense study of sales and grants concluded from its “inter-industry models” that foreign military sales deliveries, in 1975, required the direct and indirect services of 32,952 “clerical workers,” 3,101 “writers, artists, entertainers,” 3,278 welders, 1,983 janitors, 759 lawyers, and five judges. This army of American workers must already have almost doubled in size. It becomes, each year, a more solid and sorrowful presence in the international arms race.

I do not think that the enterprise of finding peaceful work for these people is beyond the power of the United States economy. Nor indeed does it seem to me that the many more millions of people who work in the larger military economy would be lost in a more civil society. The United States is an unprecedentedly mobile country. And the Department of Defense itself has exceptional experience in helping communities to convert from military to civilian life.

In the Defense Department there exists an organization called the Office of Economic Adjustment. Set up in 1961, the group is now charged with assisting “Anytown, USA, suffering economic reversals directly or indirectly due to changes in Defense programs,” when that town wants federal help. From 1970 to January 1977, the group has worked in more than sixty-seven American communities. Officials of the group say that they have helped people to find 108,108 “civilian job replacements.” compensating for 91,392 “civilian job losses” in the communities concerned. The office itself spent an average of less than $1 million a year on these efforts for its payroll, travel, and for studies of, for example, available employment. It channeled money from existing federal programs into the communities—some $400 million during the last four years; it also arranged for the transfer of Defense Department property (including air fields as well as such items as hospital beds) to “impacted” communities.

When I visited the Office of Economic Adjustment at the Pentagon recently, officials of the organization were preparing busily for a project having to do with the cancellation of the B-I bomber. They had been asked by Senator Alan Cranston (D-Cal.) and Congresswoman Yvonne Burke (D-Cal.) to become involved in the “economic reversals” of Palmdale, California, where the B-I bomber was to have been assembled. They were working with the Labor Department on a study of the national consequences of not producing the B-I bomber, and they expected to send a team to California soon. The officials also pointed proudly to a large colored map, showing forty-nine communities where other projects are under way.

The office has dealt mainly with the consequences of US withdrawal from Indochina. Many of its projects have had to do with US government employees, i.e., with places where bases were being closed. One of its main efforts was in the Montana counties where the US government, after the 1972 SALT agreement, stopped building sites for antiballistic missiles. But the group has also gone into communities affected by reductions in defense contracts. At first, most of these reductions were caused by cutbacks in ordnance exports to Indochina. (In 1973, at the height of the Nixon Doctrine in arms, 65 percent of all workers in the US ordnance industry were employed on military exports.)15 Now, the office is increasingly concerned with the aircraft companies. One of its most difficult current projects is in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where the Vertol division of Boeing lost a contest to produce new helicopters for the US army and many foreign clients.

The Office of Economic Adjustment is not charged with finding socially virtuous projects. Its officials say they are “fire fighting” and describe themselves modestly as “ladder-runner-uppers-and-downers.” One official mentioned a colleague who “could have been elected mayor of Mineral Wells,” a town in Texas which the organization helped. Another official recalled his experiences as the manager of a Reynolds Aluminum plant in Louisville converting from military production in 1945. Someone spoke of the experience of standing in an auditorium addressing 500 workers who have lost their jobs. Mr. William Sheehan, the director of the office, said that the group’s general principle is that “communities should control their own local economic destiny.” The projects had shown, at least, that “the federal government can extricate itself from these impacted situations with a measure of dignity.”

An organization like this, with a staff of twenty professional workers, provides only one element necessary to a policy of converting the US military economy to civilian purposes. There should be a national commitment to, and above all national money for, conversion projects that are socially useful. Although Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania is eager to build mass transit equipment in Delaware County, the United States government is, in general, less kind to bus lines and railroads than it is to armies and air forces.

But the principles of the Pentagon’s conversion office seem promising. Its projects often turn out to be virtuous. In Montana, the office encouraged the construction of sewers and watershed projects, as well as elementary schools and old people’s homes, using money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture, HEW, and HUD. And the general proposition that conversion should begin with communities as distinct from corporations is also valuable. The object of conversion policies is often to entice corporations into producing civilian goods. A policy which stresses communities would have the extra advantage of diminishing the deadly political coalition of military society, where companies, unions, and communities fight together for military spending.

Carter should, I believe, begin saying “no” publicly to foreign military sales. He should support these denials with projects for conversion, directed by an expanded Office of Economic Adjustment, with a new mandate to favor useful civilian projects. The endeavor of converting the US economy is crucial to most American national objectives, from energy programs to regional policies. But it is nowhere more important than in conventional—and nuclear—disarmament.

This Issue

September 15, 1977