Can Our Economy Stand Disarmament?

GERARD PIEL, who served as science editor of LIFE magazine from 1938 to 1944, assumed the presidency and direction of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN at a most strategic moment, and during the past fifteen years his periodical has become one of the most influential expositors of the atomic age anywhere to be read. The Phi Beta Kappa oration which he delivered at Harvard this June, and which we are happy to publish, will not soon be forgotten.



THERE is a tempo in the common experience of our species that is racing ahead of the biological clock. Events all out of scale with the rate and dimensions of life processes have transpired and impend. If mankind had time, I would have no doubt about the outcome. Human heredity, however, is accumulative and selective and is transmitted by teaching and learning. Man, in consequence, has evolved more rapidly than all of the inventions of nature. As the beneficiaries of this late, new phase of evolution, we cannot fail to call it by the name of progress. But, all too suddenly and unprepared, we have come to a fork in the road. The progress of which I speak has disclosed the noblest and most generous ends to human life and has placed in our hands the means to accomplish them here on this earth. In the command of those same means, progress has given the power of irrevocable decision to our historic capacity for cruelty and folly.

The promise of tomorrow is no less convincing than the threat that there may be no tomorrow, and I do not despair. My hope comes from what I know is in the hearts of the best men among us, and my confidence from what I know is in their heads. By one reckoning, we have two years. There were twenty-five years, time for one generation to grow up, between 1914 and 1939. June, 1962, is not quite twenty-three years since August, 1939.

Instability is inherent in the most sensible and humane argument for stability in the present impasse in world politics. Our national security is defended, we are told, by our power to retaliate. The Soviets do not dare to try to overwhelm us with their nuclear striking power, because they know that we could overwhelm them in return. This is the balance of terror. It is said to be secure against rational strategies, at least, on either side. That is, no statesman presently in power is likely to find a reason for attempting the first nuclear strike, which would expose his own constituency to annihilation by the other side.

In recent months, however, even this insecure notion of security has been undergoing serious stress and revision. Unofficial leaks and official disclosures from the highest quarters in our government tell us that there is a considerable imbalance in the balance of terror. From the President himself, from the Secretary of Defense and his undersecretary, from senators and congressmen, and from the back door of the Pentagon, we have learned that our country is equipped with a ready nuclear strike force that dwarfs the Soviet ready strike force in destructive power. In other words, there is no missile gap, nor any bomber gap, and there never was. Throughout the eight years of their stewardship, the Republicans stoutly denied, against the claims of the Democrats, that there was such a gap. Now the Democrats are in office, and they arc denying it in turn. In fact, they have released sufficient information to permit estimates that our ready strike force outnumbers and outweighs that of the Soviet Union by at least five times.

To appreciate the significance of this situation requires some consideration of the technical details. The destructive power of nuclear weapons is commonly expressed on a somewhat misleading scale of tons of chemical high explosives. Thus, a one-megaton nuclear weapon is, by definition, equivalent to a million tons of TNT. Hans Bethe has calculated that this is just a little less than the combined explosive power of all the old-fashioned bombs dropped on Germany in the course of World War II. To a certain extent, the comparison must be discounted. A ten-megaton bomb is not ten million times more destructive than a oneton high-explosive blockbuster, because a nuclear weapon discharges all of its devastating energy at one point in space. The radius of destruction by blast increases only as the cube root of increase in explosive power. The destruction at that point is the more complete, however, because the weapon discharges its energy at a single instant in time.

But blast is only part of the story. The exploding nuclear bomb evolves into a gigantic fireball three and a half miles in diameter in the case of a ten-megaton bomb. The incendiary effect of the thermal radiation from the fireball increases as the square root of the increase in explosive power. In other words, the bigger bombs yield more destruction by fire than by blast.

Thus, the blast from a ten-megaton bomb will obliterate an area five miles in radius, but the heat from the fireball will incinerate an area with a radius of twelve miles. If you draw these circles around the Statehouse in Boston, for example, you will see the central city destroyed by blast and the entire metropolitan region enveloped in fire. With the handy circular slide rule furnished by the government along with the new weapons-effects handbook, you can calculate that an attack with a total weight of about 1000 megatons directed against the 111 largest metropolitan regions in the country could yield up to 100 million casualties. The effects of fallout may be neglected in these calculations, because the airbursts that would maximize the effects of blast and fire produce no local fallout.

MY OBJECT in presenting these figures is to show that the civilian population is highly vulnerable to nuclear attack. This means, in turn, that a purely deterrent strike force need be of no more than modest size. Fewer than 1000 megatons — a few hundred megatons — emplaced in secure or hardened bases have enough retaliatory killing power to keep the enemy from striking your population first. If both sides would commit themselves to a second-strike strategy, the arms race could terminate in a draw with relatively small deterrent forces on each side.

Most citizens, I suppose, have been under the impression that we have no more than a deterrent force, one that just about offsets its Soviet counterpart. It comes as a surprise to realize that we are armed on a different scale entirely. Our nuclear force is of a size, in fact, that brings into the realm of feasibility another kind of strategy. The objective of this strategy is to knock out the enemy’s deterrent. To appreciate what this implies, we must return to the technical details.

Against a hardened target, such as an underground missile-launching silo, the blast and fire of an airburst are of little avail. The attacker must ground-burst his weapon in the hope of engulfing the target directly in the crater or of bringing it at least within the so-called “plastic zone” of disrupted terrain surrounding the crater. When a ten-megaton bomb is employed for such a purpose, its effective radius shrinks to less than a mile. To be confident of success, an attacker must be prepared to dispatch two or more big weapons to every hardened target. The destruction of the 1000 hardened Minuteman missile installations contemplated in the Administration’s present military program, for example, would require an attack with the astronomical dimension of 20,000 megatons. A hit at each target calls for pinpoint location of the target, a continent away, and fantastically accurate guidance of the missiles. The preparation of such a counterforce attack, therefore, implies resolute intelligence work and endless research and testing, as well as a huge preponderance of striking power.

Now, there is a school of military strategists and publicists who argue for a counterforce strategy in justification of our overwhelming nuclear superiority. As a matter simply of engineering, they say that it is possible for us to strike first and disarm our antagonist. We could then hold his civil population hostage under the threat of a second strike, to be aimed at his cities. On moral grounds, they claim, we are entitled to such a pre-emptive strike because our antagonist would do it to us if he could.

But the pre-emptive strike, also known as “retaliation in advance,” is still not a rational strategy. Its proponents concede that we would have to be ready to absorb some “acceptable” number of casualties — up to one third of our population, say — because we cannot be sure of knocking out all the Soviet nuclear striking power, That is why the pre-emptive strategists are numbered among the most ardent advocates of civil defense. On the other hand, the popular apathy toward civil defense would indicate that ordinary citizens have not yet adopted this approach to the solution of world problems.

I do not believe that the advocates of the preemptive strike have had any significant influence on U.S. military planning. Certainly no responsible civilian or uniformed official of our government has ever voiced such a proposal.

The official justification for our present military posture takes a different line. Thanks to our superiority in nuclear striking power, it is said, the second-strike capability that would remain to us after a first strike by the enemy would be vastly greater than his first strike. The built-in contradiction that makes nonsense of this statement scarcely calls for explicit exposure: an enemy so heavily outgunned could not conceivably be contemplating a first strike.

So long as the game of nuclear war is played on paper, however, there is never a last word. It can still be argued that our overwhelming nuclear power promotes our security because it interdicts a first strike from the other side. A corollary to this argument is that the other side should also feel more secure in our possession oi a potential firststrike capability. They have been given to understand, in fact, that we would never strike first, except on some intolerable provocation.

Yet, somehow, our nuclear armament has tailed to promote stability in world politics. The Soviet Union called off the moratorium on nuclear testing last year and reversed the hopeful downward trend in its military expenditures. when disarmament talks resumed this year at Geneva, the Russians proved to be more than ever obsessively concerned with their geographical security and resistant to early inspection.

Our enormous armament also complicates outown approach to disarmament. We would have to do so much more disarming than anyone else that ratification by the U.S. Senate would constitute a bigger miracle than an agreement at Geneva.

Meanwhile, the prolongation of the arms race darkens the prospects of the world. If the present conference at Geneva should break down, it cannot be reconvened without the presence of China, which is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. By that time, there will be other new nuclear powers demanding or resisting invitations to the conference. France is the first second-class power to realize that the nuclear weapon is the ultimate equalizer and to adopt this dangerous route back to the summit. As the number of players in the game approaches the nth number, the hazard from irrational strategies, or from mere accident, must increase. In the words of C. P. Snow, “We know, with the certainty of statistical truth, that if enough of these weapons are made — by enough different states — some of them are going to blow up!”

As CITIZENS responsible for our sell-government, we are confronted by grave questions concerning our responsibility in the creation of this dangerous situation. How did we come into the possession of such overwhelming capacity for violence? Since there is no rational military or political justification for it, we must look elsewhere for the answer.

I think the answer is not difficult to find. Beyond any doubt, the history of the last decade of our domestic life shows that the ruling compulsions were economic. Any student of the stock market can tell you what happens on the rumor that peace is breaking out. The oscillations of the business cycle since the Korean War can be traced, every one of them, to variation in the rate of government expenditure for arms. Military expenditure has taken up more than hall of the federal budget and fully a quarter of our manufacturing output throughout this period. In the fiscal management of our economy, in other words, armament has played the same role as public works in the first two Administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After ten years of this kind of pump priming, is it any wonder that our magnificent industrial establishment should have burdened us with such an enormous surplus of weapons?

Now we have to ask ourselves another question. How did our economic housekeeping fall into such disarray as to create this threat to our continued existence? To approach the answer this time, we must turn from economics to technology.

During the past twenty-five years our technology entered upon the era of automatic production. The real work of extracting nature’s bounty from soil and rock and transforming it into goods is no longer done by human muscles, and less and less by human nervous systems. It is done by mechanical energy, by machines under the control of artificial nervous systems, by chemicals, and by such subtle arts as applied genetics. While the impact of these developments upon industry has attracted most of the attention, their impact upon agriculture has amounted to a revolution. Since 1939, employment on the farm has dropped from one fifth of the labor force to less than one tenth, from one worker out of five to one out of eleven. A mere six million farm workers, working fewer acres, arc bursting our granaries, year after year, with unconsumed abundance. Adding up all the farmers and miners and all of the construction and factory workers, we find that not much more than one third of the labor force is engaged in producing all of the abundance that chokes the channels of distribution. Most of the rest is employed in the task of distributing the abundance, keeping books on it, and repairing and servicing its component parts. To complete our census of the labor force, we must face the most portentous of all the consequences of automatic production: more than 25 percent of the labor force today finds employment outside the normal, domestic, private sector of our economy. These people are employed in the arms industries or on the public payrolls, in uniform or in civilian clothes — or they find no employment at all.

Mention of unemployment brings us back to economics. The most critical problem confronting our economic system is the insidious growth of unemployment. With each ripple in the business cycle, the number of workers left high and dry on the beach has increased. Yet, for everyone else, this has been a period of ascending prosperity. It is apparent that the disemployment of workers, both blue-collar and white-collar, has overtaken the growth of the economy and the now “classical” techniques for administering the cycle of recession and recovery from Washington.

Since no one can tell us how to get these surplus workers back to work, perhaps the time has come to ask why we must find jobs for them. Surely the aim is not to increase production. On the contrary, a little reflection shows that the objective is to increase consumption. Economists agree that the maintenance of a high level of consumption is the key to the health of the economic order. Jobs must be found for the jobless, therefore, in order to qualify them as consumers of abundance.

Our economic system and our economics are confounded by abundance because they have their roots in the history of scarcity that lies back in time beyond the industrial revolution. That revolution has come suddenly to fulfillment in our lifetime. We find it difficult to achieve equitable distribution of abundance precisely because our economic institutions are designed to secure inequitable distribution of scarcity. In the more distant past, such inequity sustained the glory of civilization. Under the management of capitalism, it financed the industrial revolution.

John Maynard Keynes told the story in his famous parable of the cake that was never to be consumed. Writing forty-two years ago, at the end of World War I, Keynes observed that “the immense accumulations of fixed capital, built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a society where wealth was divided equitably.” This “remarkable system,” he said, “depended for its growth upon a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the laboring classes . . . were compelled, persuaded or cajoled . . . into accepting a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and nature and the capitalists were cooperating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs . . . on the tacit understanding that they consumed very little of it in practice.”

In drawing the lesson from his parable, Keynes indulged himself in a heretical forecast of the day when the cake might be cut: “when there would at last be enough to go around. . . . In that day overwork, overcrowding and underfeeding would have come to an end, and men, secure in the comforts and necessities of the body, could proceed to the nobler exercise of their faculties.”

For most other economists and for the owners and operators of the system, the perpetual growth of the cake remained “the object of true religion.” It remains so today, sustained by the almost unanimous conviction of the community that high wages are bad (because they increase current consumption) and big profits are good (because they go to increase productive capacity).

THE first portent that the system had fulfilled its purpose came in the 1930s. The economics of scarcity was then confronted by the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. Strangely enough, as Clarence E. Ayres has pointed out, it was Keynes who saved the true religion with his “investment subterfuge.” The Keynesian technique for administering the business cycle calls for increase in the current rate of investment on the downturn of the cycle, with the government supplying the funds, by deficit financing if necessary. Investment creates consumers but no addition to the consumable surplus, and so it delivers a powerful stimulus to the entire economy. The priming of the investment pump by the government was a scandalous notion when first put into practice by the New Deal, but now it is a constitutional function of our federal government.

More investment could not long serve, however, as the remedy for too much investment. Our economic system has found another way to certify citizens as consumers. The production of armaments, it turns out, can serve something like the same economic function as investment: it certifies additional workers with paychecks to consume the surplus, and yet it certainly makes no addition to the consumable surplus. By this device, by dumping a quarter of our industrial output into the sink of armament, we have achieved affluence if not abundance. For a few years, we even attained full employment. But now, in 1962, despite a 25 percent increase in military expenditure, the number of unemployed again exceeds the number of unemployed at the last recovery peak.

There are other signs that the time has come to cut the cake. The progress of technology has stirred a new ingredient into the recipe. It is the sorcerer’s ingredient that so astonished the apprentice. The cake now grows out of its own substance at no cost to the abundance of its consumable output. Despite the huge appetite of the military establishment, no certified consumer goes without any good that he hankers for. Admittedly, some 50 million of us continue to be ill-fed. illclad, and ill-housed, but idle plant and rotting surpluses testify that we have more than enough to go around.

There is no doubt that disarmament would compel the cutting of the cake. The first word that follows disarmament in any economic analysis of the prospect is “depression.” But the authors of these studies hasten to dispel, as they say, “any misconceived or exaggerated apprehensions” about the “potential economic impact of an agreement.” As you read on, you are enthralled to learn what promise the future holds, when we are at last disarmed and freed to cultivate the arts of peace. In the first place, both Republicans and Democrats agree that disarmament would bring no corresponding cut in the expenditures of the federal government. The major portion of the funds released by disarmament is to be invested in the enrichment of our land and our people.

In a memorandum on the economic and social consequences of disarmament addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Kennedy Administration declares that this country has “a backlog of demand for public services comparable in many ways to the backlog of demand for consumer durable goods and housing and producers plant and equipment at the end of World War II.” By way of illustration, the memorandum shows there is demand for an additional $10 to $15 billion in our annual expenditures for education, an additional $4 billion for control of environmental pollution, and $12 billion more each year for conservation and development of natural resources. A parallel study by the National Planning Association sees need for a total annual investment of $66 billion in the realms of education, mass transportation, urban renewal, natural resources, and scientific research; this compares to a current annual investment of $30 billion in the public domain.

To the Eisenhower Administration, we are indebted for a glimpse of what the federal budget might look like after a first substantial step toward disarmament. Such figures as $7.5 billion for education, $3.7 billion for public health, $3.2 billion for urban renewal, $4 billion for resource development, and $3 billion for space research and a total increase in the federal civilian budget of about $30 billion show that Republicans can be as imaginative spenders as Democrats are reputed to be.

The Kennedy Administration has yet to make such a full-dress forecast. But a report issued by the Disarmament Agency finds it possible to pick up some of the slack from disarmament by putting $9 billion into space research. With the Galaxy out there beyond the solar system, we have no cause to worry about depression!

The consensus is clear: we can offset the reduction in the arms budget by worthwhile and overdue investment in the upgrading of our human and material resources and the enhancement of our domestic existence. The possibilities inherent in the expenditure of Pentagon-size sums on these objectives stagger the imagination.

THE prospect of disarmament confronts us, therefore, with a lesson, a vision, and a question. The lesson is that the public sector — comprising the federal, state, and local governments — must continue directly and indirectly to certify a major and a growing percentage of our consumers with purchasing power. From 25 percent today, the figure is bound to go up, not down, on the day after disarmament. There is no return to normalcy in sight. On the other hand, the continued expansion in the scope and power of the government lays serious hazards to self-government. The exercise of citizenship should commend itself in the future to a citizenry blessed with increasingleisure time.

The vision is the vision of the Founding Fathers — the realization of the values, as Ayres has catalogued them, of freedom, equality, security, abundance, and excellence in the life of the people.

The question is, What are we waiting for? If education should indeed command twice the present annual expenditure at some future date, then the children now in school are being cheated. If our cities cry out for $100 billion worth of reconstruction in the course of a half decade, some years hence, we are losing time and corrupting precious human resources in the slums and ghettos of the present. The same reasoning applies to the topsoil now going down the drain and the forests going up in smoke.

A hint of the answer to this question of why we are losing time is contained in the recent economic report of the Disarmament Agency. At one point, the report declares: “the chief obstacles . . . would be political resistance rather than deficiencies in our economic knowledge.” It is difficult for anyone, including even the Secretary of Defense, to resist the demands on the public treasury laid by the armed forces. Those demands are now backed by the substantial economic interest of a giant industry exclusively devoted to armament. No such absolute moral sanction supports the claims of education, for example, and no comparable vested interest stands to gain from them. In many fields, as in natural resources and urban redevelopment, the expansion of governmental activity is bound to bring public and private interests into sharp collision. There are good grounds for the view that it will take disarmament and the threat of a great depression to overcome political resistance to our passage into the age of abundance.

But the politics of the situation can also be stated the other way. We are unlikely to get disarmament unless we are ready to embrace and vigorously advance the economic alternatives to armament. The large round numbers I have quoted from the reports and studies made thus far must be translated into programs and engineering drawings. Local and individual initiative has an important role to play in this effort, especially in those regions and industries in which armament expenditures are now concentrated. While the federal government need not and cannot assume the entire burden, a real commitment to disarmament on the part of the Administration would begin to bring the New Frontier into view on this side of the far horizon.

The choice one way or the other cannot be postponed much longer. The arms budget is losing its potency as an economic anodyne. It is concealing less and less successfully the underlying transformation of our economic system. Progress in the technology of war, as in all other branches of technology, is inexorably cutting back the payroll. With the miniaturization of violence in the step from A-bombs to H-bombs, from manned aircraft to missiles, expenditure on armaments has begun to yield a diminishing economic stimulus. Armament in any case holds out no endless frontier. By some estimates, we are already armed with the equivalent of ten tons of TNT for every man, woman, and child on earth. We acquired this monstrous capacity for destruction by a subterfuge on the investment subterfuge. There is surely little to be gained, economically or militarily, by raising that figure to twenty tons. Even in the postponement of disarmament, the economic and social consequences of abundance must be recognized and accommodated in our politics. If we had acquired the kind of armament most of us thought we had, scaled to the “rational” strategy of deterrence, we would be in the midst of abundance today.

In all that I have said, I have dealt with the state of our nation in isolation from the worldwide political crisis that so heavily conditions our domestic situation. I have done so deliberately, in the conviction that our country’s domestic situation plays no inconsiderable role in shaping the nature of the world crisis. It goes without saying that we do not command all the variables in current history. But we can and must put our own house in order, or we will surely lose what command we now claim. We have come to the fork in the road.