What Price Preparedness?



JUNE, 1947



Zealots have been telling us that if we are to win the struggle for the world, we must prepare the country at once for atomic warfare. This Marine veteran, who was wounded in the fighting in the Pacific, and who returned to serve as an Aide to Commander Harold Stassen at the San Francisco Conference, adds up realistically what it will cost us to disperse our industries, to move cities underground, and to build up our stockpiles for atomic bombardment.—THE EDITOR

PEACE through preparedness for war is the promise that is now being held out to the American people by our elected officials and military leaders. We are continually exhorted to remember that aggression is still a possibility and that our only guarantee of safety lies in armed strength. In this second year of “peace,” President Truman has called for a military appropriation of more than eleven billion dollars. After grave warnings from the Secretaries of the War, Navy, and State Departments, this appears to be one item in the President’s budget that the Republicans will not attempt to cut, although it is almost one third of the total.

Similarly, Marshal Stalin has warned the Russian people that “it is necessary to be constantly vigilant, to protect as the apple of one’s eye the armed force and defensive power of our country.” In the Soviet Union, the expected reconversion to the production of consumer goods has been delayed in favor of further expansion of the heavy industries which provide the sinews of war, with particular emphasis on the development of atomic energy. The American and Russian governments are locked in competition for the arms, allies, and strategic bases that each insists are essential to national security.

How are these claims that peace and safety can be assured through competitive arming to be reconciled with the known facts concerning the new weapons? The scientists have been attempting to reach an apathetic public with the knowledge that there is no effective defense against atomic bombs. Two or three bombs are sufficient to destroy even the largest city, crippling or killing most of its inhabitants. They can be delivered by long-range bombers, so mere distance is not the protection that it was.

There is no safety in the fact that we enjoy a temporary monopoly on atomic weapons. Many of the most able scientists insist that within two or three years Russia and a number of other nations may be manufacturing atomic explosives, whether or not we divulge our technical secrets. In the immediate future, Americans will live in justifiable terror of an atomic attack that can devastate our cities and industries at a single blow, just as the people of some other nations already fear such an assault by the United States.

The spectacular quality of the atomic bomb explosion has obscured the equally significant information that there are other new and inhumanly destructive means of warfare available today. Their existence is worth mentioning not because atomic bombs are not sufficient in themselves to devastate a country, but because the international control of atomic energy alone has been allowed to become synonymous with the establishment of peace and security. In pleading the need for funds to be used in scientific research, a member of Congress proved his case last year by stating: “They have developed a weapon that can wipe out all forms of life in a large city. It is a germ proposition and is sprayed from airplanes that can fly high enough, while doing it, to be reasonably safe from ground fire. It is quick and certain death. One operation would be sufficient, for the effects would spread rapidly.” The official Merck Report on biological warfare concludes with the warning: “The development of agents for biological warfare is possible in many countries, large and small, without vast expenditures of money or the construction of huge production facilities.” The factories, workers, and raw materials essential to arms production must also be dispersed among self-sufficient production centers. Moreover, the Capitol, the White House, and the Pentagon Building are as great temptations to a possible aggressor as Oak Ridge or Detroit. The consequence of a bombardment of Washington today

Copyright 1947, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

From these facts, it is evident that once a modern attack is launched, no amount of money, men, and armament can save our country or any other nation from colossal devastation and the ravages of incurable pestilences. How, then, can vast armament expenditures and military preparations be justified?

If our future security is to depend on national armaments, the purpose of the military must not be to win wars but to prevent them from ever occurring, by the obvious size and efficiency of our preparations for a counteroffensive. Not only must this retaliatory force be capable of immediately destroying the cities of all possible opponents, but it must be so distributed and organized as to be able to deliver its blows after our own cities and factories have been leveled by the enemy’s initial assault. Preparedness to defend the nation must be supplanted by preparedness to endure the loss of our urban industry and population and to preserve from the wreckage the ability to strike back in equal force.

Before we and the other peoples of the world are finally and irrevocably committed to such a program of mutual intimidation, we had better ask ourselves and our leaders what the consequences will be.


THE first requirement is a stockpile of modern weapons second to none. In the past, the vast peaceful factories which could be converted to the manufacture of weapons were reliable guarantees of strength. No such pause for the realization of potential strength will exist in future conflicts. It will be difficult to preserve beyond the first day even those factories devoted to the most essential war production. Only those weapons immediately available can be relied upon in launching the instantaneous retaliation that will be necessary. The United States, if it intends to intimidate others, has no alternative but to attempt to maintain the world’s largest arsenal of atomic bombs, radioactive poisons, disease-producing germs, and long-range rockets and bombers.

There is another necessity of preparedness which has been completely ignored by those who claim that the United States can remain secure merely by preserving its lead in the arms production race. They forget that the capacity to continue a future war will depend not only on the quantity and potency of the weapons available, but on the relative ability of the warring powers to preserve unharmed vital sections of the national industry and population.

Since there is no sure means of preventing the bombs from landing, the only way to reduce their effect is to disperse the possible targets. Just as Bikini demonstrated the suicidal stupidity of assembling large numbers of ships in a single harbor, so Hiroshima and Nagasaki illustrated the danger of tolerating the continued existence of large concentrations of men and machines on land. Unfortunately, cities are not so easily dispersed as ships.

A tremendous program of enforced decentralization of its industrial centers is a necessity for any nation preparing for future war. Such decentralization has two objectives. The first, which must have the highest priority, is the protection of striking power. The second objective is to provide some security for the city dwellers.

The protection of retaliatory capacity involves the dispersal and sheltering of military personnel, of stockpiles of weapons, of the industries and workers that produce the most vital weapons, and of government executives. In the case of soldiers and their weapons, it is obvious that their concentration in a few large camps invites destruction. They must be distributed throughout the country in secret and self-sufficient centers of resistance, with bombs, bacteria, planes, and rockets in a continuous state of readiness.

would be the liquidation of the entire directing personnel of the government, resulting in confusion of authority and in political as well as material chaos. There is need for the creation of separate command centers, each one capable of directing the resistance if the others are destroyed.

The widest dispersal is not in itself a sufficient protection for these cells. More reliable assurance of their ability to survive attack would be gained if they were located underground. Of course, such shelters would have to be capable of being scaled off against the radioactivity and bacteria the outside atmosphere might carry. The construction of such underground caverns for whole factories and defensive installations would admittedly be a critical drain on the resources of even the richest nation, but, unlike the underground construction of entire cities, it is feasible. When this program has been put into effect, the country may be able to fight on though its cities lie in ruins and the majority of its people are maimed, dying, or dead.

The second objective of a decentralization program is the protection of urban inhabitants. With forty-five million people crowded into our two hundred largest cities, this is a gigantic task. The best guarantee of safety would be the transformation of the cities into scattered subterranean communities, but less radical changes promise some security. The government can enforce the construction of widely spaced suburban areas. Prior arrangements can be made for speedy evacuation at the first warning of attack. Deep underground shelters can be built in the cities to provide some safety for those who cannot escape into the country. In the event of a continuous bombardment with atomic bombs and bacteria, such measures will be like building sand castles to restrain the ocean. But they will reduce the death toll that one or two bombs can cause in a large city, and they will strengthen the morale of the city dwellers with the knowledge that they are not being completely abandoned to their fate.

There is need for a home defense force, which would have the task of organizing the civilian survivors of the initial attack for guerrilla action against the invading airborne armies of the enemy. The only part that the half-trained reserves produced by one year of compulsory military training could play in a future war would be in such localized resistance. In their civilian occupations at the time of the assault, incapable of being mobilized because of the wreckage of the transportation and communication systems, the national guardsman and the ex-draftee would be useful only as guerrillas or relief workers. Their training may be justified as a final means of convincing an aggressor that the nation is prepared to endure to the end. But the real capacity of a country to resist will not be measured by the number of reserves it has trained for infantry action. It will be measured rather by the size of its stockpiles of the most destructive weapons, by the extent of its industrial dispersal, by the number and degree of readiness of its highly specialized professionals who continuously man the bombing fleets and rocket launchers, make up the mobile striking force, and operate the anti-aircraft installations.


THE danger of atomic or biological sabotage requires a very large security police armed with sweeping powers to search and arrest. Although continuous patrol of the national borders and inspection of every conceivable hiding place in the United States cannot provide absolute protection against the secret introduction of atomic timebombs, an efficient police can decrease the danger, though severely decreasing at the same time the civil liberties we take for granted. Not only will the government have to restrict drastically the rights and movements of its own citizens, but in self-defense it must attempt to maintain the most efficient intelligence system in the world. The advantage an aggressor may gain by a surprise attack makes it imperative that advance warning be obtained from spies.

These measures cannot be taken without deep changes in the nature of our political and economic institutions. How, for example, can intensive armament production combined with industrial and population dispersal be achieved within a system of private enterprise? Certainly there will have to be long-range government planning to a degree never dreamed of in the United States. No privately owned company will indulge voluntarily in the highly unprofitable enterprise of moving its plants out of a city and burying them in the open country. Preparedness on the scale now necessary demands a national defense plan that will have to govern and direct the entire economy. This plan must determine what proportion of the national income is to be devoted to the various protective measures, and the priority in which each step must be taken in order to assure the greatest speed and economy.

This national defense plan will require regimentation in its most extreme form, but its effect and purpose will be directly opposite to the kind of welfare planning advocated by New Deal liberals. Its sole objective must be to create military power greater than that of any possible group of opponents; and as the competition grows in intensity, the individual will have to sacrifice more and more of his material welfare to its unlimited demands. Centralized and autocratic control of the economy is unavoidable, whatever the forms of ownership, so long as the nation must be continuously prepared to resist an atomic attack. The attempt to prepare for another war will defeat with equal finality both the efforts of those who wish to return to the legendary age of competitive private enterprise and the labors of those who have looked ahead to an economy planned for the benefit of the majority and responsible to its will.

There is but one rational argument that can be used to justify these sacrifices. It is undeniable that, in a world of armed states, superior military strength is the only way for a nation to protect its rights and territory. This argument recognizes the consequences of the lawless anarchy in which the sovereign nations continue to exist. But it is much easier to persuade men to fear a particular enemy than it is to convince them that the real danger lies in the institutional pattern of national sovereignty. The tendency of this fear to focus into suspicion of one specific nation has been accelerated by the fact that only the Soviet Union has the potential strength to challenge the armed supremacy of the United States. Because our own country and Russia are the only two states which are physically capable of waging a modern war with any hope of victory, each is the sole threat to the security of the other.

Forced by international anarchy to prepare for another war, the leaders of the only two nations capable of waging such a war tend to exaggerate the points of difference in the two societies as a means of persuading their respective populations of the moral value of their sacrifices. The noblest principles of freedom become fraudulent propaganda when they are used to disguise an amoral competition for brute force and to lash masses of men into a crusading fury against each other. As the burden of armaments grows, the propaganda will have to grow proportionately until the American and Russian people are so indoctrinated with mutual fear, and so convinced of the righteous morality of their separate causes, that they will submit to all that preparedness now involves.

Total preparedness means totalitarianism for American citizens. There is hardly an aspect of human life that will not have to be corrupted to the organized pursuit of force. Together with their loss of the democratic right to determine public policy, the large majority of American citizens stand to lose also their right to choose their work and to live where they please. It is unlikely that the freedoms of speech and assembly can be allowed to survive. Conscripted to serve in the defense forces or to labor in the subterranean factories, regulated by police restrictions in their attempts to travel, subjected to arbitrary search and arrest, forced to work longer hours at less pay, they will become mere instruments of the state. If there is complaint against these staggering sacrifices, the answer will always be that they are necessary in order to preserve the sovereign independence of the United States. This is the monumental irony inherent in the whole policy of modern preparedness.


EVERY argument that American leaders have advanced to prove the need for war preparations applies with equal force to the Soviet Union — and with more immediacy. To understand the present concern of the Russians with national security, one must imagine what the attitude of Americans would be if the United States had no atomic bombs and the Soviet Union had a monopoly of them. Unable to strike back with equal force from the attack which the United States is today technically capable of delivering, the Russians have an incentive for preparedness which we shall be able to comprehend only if we are faced one day with the superiority of a potential enemy.

The actual physical measures of defense necessitated by the new weapons are the same for Russia as they are for the United States. It therefore seems fatuous under present conditions to demand that the Russian leaders replace the strict discipline of the Communist Party with the more representative methods of parliamentary democracy. An increase in regimentation is rather to be expected, and today the Russian people are being exhorted to “the highest pitch of ability and technical skill under iron discipline,” as the official propaganda puts it.

Likewise, the curtain of censorship and travel regulations performs functions indispensable to Russia’s security. By restricting the entrance of foreigners and by keeping continuous watch on them while they are in the country, the Russians can hope to prevent potential enemies from discovering the nature of their defensive preparations. By sifting incoming news and by restricting the travel of Soviet citizens abroad, the government is able to reconcile the Russian people to their lot with the indispensable illusion that workers elsewhere are victims of even worse conditions.

To Americans, the existence of the Russian secret police, the NKVD, is the most damning indictment against the Soviet state. Yet it is difficult to see how so useful an instrument of national security can be eliminated, as long as the menace of attack remains. Far from permitting the abolition of the police, the extreme sacrifices now demanded of a weary people require that it be strengthened.

Like the United States, the Soviet Union is necessarily engaged in the world-wide competition to strengthen its allies, to win over such smaller nations as are still neutral, and to weaken potential enemies. Although its methods are more ruthless and direct than our own, Soviet policy in the Balkans is similar to American intervention in China and Greece. Each competitor seeks to ensure by force that the other does not gain the controlling influence in areas each considers essential to its security.

Every aspect of the Soviet state which the citizens of the Western democracies find objectionable is indispensable to its defense. The one-party dictatorship, the political censorship, the secret police, and the intervention abroad are all essential to a Russian government confronted with the threat of atomic-biological war. Only when that threat, has been removed will the Russian regime have the opportunity to relax its harsh discipline and to provide its citizens with a wider area of civil liberty and political responsibility.

The future into which preparedness must lead the American and Russian people should now be clear. From the mass slaughters of the past, only two colossi have survived with sufficient strength to fight again. Each strives to establish such overwhelming military might that it need not fear the other, and yet these efforts merely multiply their suspicions. Like a malignant cancer, fear insatiably eats away what is best in both societies, as the riches of the land and the minds and bodies of the citizens are hammered into vast machines ready for instantaneous retaliation. When the populations of both states have been reduced to the indoctrinated and disciplined instruments of their respective high commands, preparedness will be complete, and life for the individual will be a drawn-out agony of oppression and suspense.

In spite of this perfectly predictable outcome of their present policies, the two governments continue to promise their citizens peace and security if they will only sacrifice enough for armaments. If in truth the American and Russian people could avoid war by building two opposing citadels of power, the sacrifices they are called upon to make might perhaps be justified. But is this the case?

Those who assert that the United States or the Soviet Union or any nation can avert war today by preparing for it are either blind to the facts or bent on aggression. In the absence of a reliable system of international security, armed strength is a necessity for every nation, but it is no substitute for a workable world organization. No stable and enduring balance of power can result from the growing rivalry. Rather, an inflammable mixture is being created of mutual suspicions and hatreds which must sooner or later explode.

Defensive measures are no longer distinguishable from preparations for attack. The same military and political precautions necessary to ensure a country’s capacity to retaliate would be equally essential if it planned an offensive war of conquest. In compelling nations to rely on the threat of retaliation to deter aggression, the new weapons have placed a time-bomb under the already unstable structure of international anarchy. The most elementary defensive precautions of a peaceful government are sufficient to spread terror and provoke desperate countermeasures. The impossibility of discovering the real intentions behind the physical necessities of preparedness makes it inevitable that what one state legitimately regards as an essential measure of self-defense, another will interpret as nearly equivalent to a declaration of war.


THREE stages in the progress of the rivalry can be distinguished. The first stage exists at the present time. It is the period during which the United States has atomic weapons and the Soviet Union, so far as we know, has none. By 1950, this stage will probably have ended and the Russians will have begun to manufacture atomic explosives. So long as the United States thinks itself the sole possessor of the new means of destruction, it is open to a peculiar temptation.

That temptation is preventive war. Before it is dismissed as a monstrous fantasy into which the citizens of the United States would never permit themselves to be led, the arguments for such a course of action must be considered, because they are heard with increasing insistency. The proponents of the preventive attack base their case mainly on the argument that the United States is today at the height of its power and will never again be capable of winning an atomic conflict with so little damage to itself. They warn that Russia’s potential strength in industry and manpower and its crusading ideology make it a redoubtable opponent in any prolonged struggle for armed supremacy.

Those who oppose preventive war cannot rest their case on the comfortable conviction that the American people would never permit their government to begin a war. The magnitude of the new forces of destruction has introduced an entirely new element into the historical process, and it is not safe to use the past as a basis for predicting how a terrified people will employ the tremendous power of which they momentarily find themselves the sole possessors. Only when a majority of Americans understand the full consequences of such a war, and are given a practical alternative to the continuation of the arms race, will there be a real assurance that the temptation to attack will be resisted.

Morally, preventive war is a polite name for aggression. The suspicion that our victim was planning to attack us at some future date could not mitigate the guilt of having destroyed many millions of innocent human beings. That section of world opinion which had previously tended to support the American version of democracy against the ruthless violence of Russian methods would stand appalled and alienated. No American could then maintain that his country had defended the traditional Christian respect for the human personality against Communistic materialism. The speechless dead would make a ghastly mockery of such pretensions to morality. Preventive war is the act for which we executed the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. Let those who actively urge such a policy, and those who aid it by their silence, realize that if successful they will be as responsible for the mass execution of millions of defenseless men, women, and children as if they personally shot them down one by one.


PRACTICALLY, the preventive war does not promise the cheap and easy victory claimed for it by its supporters. The dropping of the first American atomic bomb would be the signal for a sweep of the Russian infantry to the English Channel. A similar assault would be launched through Turkey and the Middle East, and another drive would be begun by the Siberian army to gain control of Manchuria and China. A long and costly land campaign cannot be avoided by exploiting a monopoly on atomic bombs. In the course of the struggle, the civilization of Western Europe would be totally destroyed. It may be that the Russians already possess biological weapons, and they would have no hesitation in using them against North America if we attacked them.

Having conquered Russia and its allies, the United States would have no alternative but to rule the world with an iron hand. Occupation armies would have to be maintained throughout the conquered area for an indefinite period. The danger that the survivors might secretly construct weapons for vengeance would be continuous so long as the memory of the attack remained alive in them and their descendants. Eventually, this American Empire would ignominiously collapse, ruined by internal dissension and smoldering rebellion.

If we postpone a preventive war and if the arms race continues, the second stage will be reached when the Soviet Union has produced sufficient atomic bombs to devastate the major American cities. Russia will then be in a position to wreak such terrible retaliation that the temptation to attack it will be considerably reduced. However, it is probable that war will occur during this second stage, even though both nations are capable of atomic offensives.

A number of situations may develop during this period, any one of which could conceivably lead to conflict. One government or the other may become convinced, as the competition proceeds, that it is falling behind in the construction of weapons and in underground dispersal of industries. This knowledge might provoke the losing side to attack in order to deny the advantage of the initiative to its opponent, and in fear that further delay might add to the other’s power. There is the danger that both governments might commit themselves to a sequence of events from which neither could retreat. Incident can lead to incident and concession to concession, until finally, in desperation, a nation decides that to yield once more is to lose forever the ability to defend itself.

One thing is certain in this second stage of the struggle. If war occurs while both nations are able to survive aggression with sufficient force to counterattack, the result will be complete devastation of the cities of both nations and their allies. The victorious state, if it can be called such, will inherit a wasteland through which the starving and maimed survivors will wander in desolation. It may be possible to reconstruct the structure of civilized society on this wreckage, but it is also not beyond conjecture that so much destruction may start a slow decline into a period of violent chaos and brutal ignorance.

If war is avoided during the second stage and the competition for power continues, a third stage may develop. Dr. Irving Langmuir has predicted and defined the nature of this third and final phase. According to him, the time will come when an aggressor may achieve such offensive strength that “atomic bombs or radioactive poisons distributed over the country might destroy practically the whole area of the country, so that no effective retaliation could be offered.” If a hydrogen-helium bomb of a thousand times the power of the present bombs can be constructed in the near future, as responsible officials have predicted, this third phase may soon be reached. Then an attack will be an irresistible temptation. When the fear of retaliation is no longer a deterrent, the only defense will be aggression.


SHOULD the great powers prove unable to agree to an effective system of international security ending their present rivalry, war seems inevitable. By seeking safety in national armaments, the United States and Russia are creating a situation from which there is no escape but war — or surrender at the threat of war.

As popular apprehension grows concerning the consequences of the arms race, the attempt to fix the blame continues. Those who defend Russia insist that the United States began the rivalry by the way it has exercised its atomic monopoly. They point out that two atomic bombs were used in apparently hysterical haste against a country that was nearly beaten already. After this sudden eradication of more than 120,000 civilians of a prostrate enemy, other nations, it is argued, could have little faith in protestations that the bomb was safe in American hands. Those who believe that the United States government is primarily responsible for the development of the arms race can further point out that the United States waited ten critical months before proposing the specific terms on which it would be willing to share in an international control of atomic energy. Our government is said to have left the Russian leaders with no choice but to prepare for another war.

This line of argument is countered by the contention that it was Russia, and not the United States, which originally committed the provocative acts that made the present rivalry inevitable. The United States, according to this view, first pursued a policy of compromise and coöperation, making concession after concession at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam. When this policy only served to increase the Russian demands, the American government was forced to conclude that the insatiable Russian appetite for territory could not be appeased by compromise, and that only by confronting the Soviet rulers with superior force could they be restrained. Therefore, the argument concludes, it is Russia that provoked the arms race, and if war is the outcome, the Russian rulers are criminally guilty.

So the debate rages. In reality, neither of the two governments is immediately responsible for the mounting struggle in which they find themselves engaged. They are both reacting in a natural and predictable manner to the compulsions of international anarchy. The ultimate cause of the struggle must be found in the fatal inadequacy of such international institutions as do exist. Both the American and Russian governments must share the responsibility for this state of affairs, because at the end of World War II neither of them was willing to confer sufficient power and authority on an international organization to make it a reliable instrument for the preservation of peace.

Must we then wait in despair to be crushed by a war that we can do nothing to prevent? I refuse to believe it. There is hope that men are sufficiently rational to acquiesce in their own survival. In the knowledge that another conflict would be the suicide of civilized society, the United States, Russia, and the other nations can find the motive for surrendering the right and means of waging war. By amendment, the United Nations must be given sufficient armed strength to enforce world laws regulating national armament and prohibiting acts of aggression.

As American citizens, we still enjoy the privilege of free speech and free elections. We are under no compulsion to remain silent, docile, and indifferent as we are marched down the steepening road of the armament race to our destruction. We can demand of our government that it propose to the other nations the formation of a world law and a world police to enforce it. Until the United States has indicated its readiness to take this step, the rest of humanity can only wait and watch as its fate is decided before the bar of American opinion.