It is generally agreed that no other set of decisions to be made by the Nixon Administration is more important than that having to do with arms policy. The United States and the Soviet Union are now in the initial stages of a new arms-race spiral which threatens increased uncertainties and even dangers, not to mention vastly increased expenditures. Beyond the decisions about strategic (that is, long-range nuclear) weapons and about negotiating an arms freeze with Russia, there are also significant questions about how the broad issue of spending for military purposes will be approached.
Whatever the question marks or blotches on Robert McNamara’s record at the Pentagon—decisions about the war and about the TFX — F-111 would be at the top of the list —his contributions to a revitalized civilian management of the military, and to public understanding that after a certain point there is no more safety in more arms, were enormous. Both achievements began to be undone, however, during Clark Clifford’s brief tenure at the Pentagon, providing an arresting reminder of their fragility.
There is already taking place here a good bit of positioning for the great pounce on the “post-Vietnam" savings. The military and their friends in Congress are gratified at increased public awareness of the idea that an end to the war will not necessarily mean substantial reductions in military spending.
Two very simple principles govern the making of defense policy: one assumes the worst about the other fellow, and one proceeds with the possible. Thus, even after taking office and finding that the United States had not fallen into a “missile gap” (which was an expression to cover a multitude of frustrations, including Sputnik), the Kennedy Administration proceeded with a massive stockpiling of intercontinental ballistic missiles—more, McNamara later reflected, than was necessary. One consequence was an intensification of the arms race. “A strategic planner must be conservative in his calculations,” McNamara wrote in his book The Essence of Security, “that is, he must prepare for the worst plausible case. . . . Thus, in the course of hedging against what was then only a theoretically possible Soviet build-up, we took decisions which have resulted in our current superiority in numbers of warheads and deliverable megatons. But the blunt fact remains that if we had had more accurate information about planned Soviet strategic forces, we simply would not have needed to build as large a nuclear arsenal as we have today.” Later McNamara points out that “clearly, the Soviet build-up is in part a reaction to our own build-up since the beginning of the 1960’s. . . . That was not, in fact, our intention.” (Italics added.)
McNamara’s intention was that each side would reach a stage of what he termed “mutual deterrence,” at which point the arms race might be leveled off. He thought through and defined what has become known as the “second-strike capability,” wherein each side would have sufficient well-protected intercontinental nuclear missiles to absorb an attack of any intensity by the enemy and still be able to fire back sufficient weapons to wreak unacceptable damage upon him. Safety, if it could be called that, then, lay in both sides’ knowledge that each could survive an attack and destroy the other. In such a context, McNamara argued, “superiority” was meaningless, for at this point a superior number of weapons could not be translated into political control or diplomatic leverage. McNamara wanted to destroy what he called the “myth of superiority,” most particularly in order to create conditions under which the United States and the Soviet Union could agree to level off the arms race. As long as one side or the other maintained a significantly greater number of weapons, this would not be possible. Therefore, the American public had to become acclimated to a condition of rough nuclear parity with the Soviet Union.
That was one view. Clark Clifford, to McNamara’s considerable distress, was not at all reluctant to talk in terms of “superiority,” and believed, as he said in a speech to the National Press Club in September, 1968, that “when and it we negotiate, safety and success demand that we negotiate from strength.” “My own deeply held belief in the importance of dealing from strength,”Clifford explained, “has not resulted from the past half-year alone, but stems also front my experience with the Administration of President Truman in the period following World War II. Those were the years in which our hopes that the Soviet Union would cooperate out of good will and common aims in a world of free nations turned out rapidly to be pure illusion.”
How much Richard Nixon’s coming of political age during the cold war indelibly impressed upon him similar views should become clearer in these early months of his presidency. In an October 24 radio address, he charged the Democratic Administrations with having permitted “a gravely serious security gap,”and he condemned “the peculiar, unprecedented doctrine called ‘parity.’ “ On the other hand, he has taken numerous occasions to point out—and Defense Secretary Laird has echoed him—that we are now in a period of “negotiation, not confrontation.”In his first press conference as President, Nixon said, “ ‘Sufficiency’ is a better term than either ‘superiority’ or ‘parity.’ “ The elusive semantics of the “superiority" issue are complicated by the fact that the United States has maintained a nuclear advantage over the Soviet Union, and no one was propounding the politically untenable position of giving that up.
Some of Clifford’s associates said that his break from McNamara over “superiority" was simply the conclusion of a political pragmatist: since we do have the edge, why ask for trouble by making a complicated and politically unattractive argument against superiority? (Moreover, Clifford, having come to the Pentagon a hawk, had accepted after reviewing perhaps the most important briefing papers during the course of the war, prepared by the International Security Affairs staff, the necessity for putting a lid on the U.S. commitment in Vietnam and of negotiating a settlement. In subsequently pushing this position within the government, he was going against the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other important advisers to President Johnson. Arguing against “superiority" seemed tactically impractical.
The point about the United States’s nuclear margin is that it used to be a good deal greater. As of September, 1968, we maintained 1054 land-based Minuteman (in “hardened,”or underground, silos) and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Soviet Union s approximately goo; we maintained 656 Polaris missiles on submarines to their estimated 45; we maintained 646 intercontinental bombers, and the Soviet Union about 150. Russia is expected to catch up or pull ahead on ICBM’s this year, but Johnson officials claimed that the most relevant number was that of deliverable warheads—that is, bombs and missiles held by each side. In this the United States held a 3-to-1 margin (out 4200 to their 1200). The split comes over the question of how much superiority the United States can maintain, and boast about, without spurring more arms racing.
Talks with the Soviet Union over a possible weapons freeze are considered of paramount importance right now because no one can think of any other way to stop the arms race, which has slipped into a new, dangerous, and expensive phase. The effectiveness of the deterrent depended upon neither side having a defense other than its second-strike capability (that is, its surviving offensive weapons) , and upon both having a reasonably accurate count of the others’ weapons. Therefore, the deployment of an anti-ballisticmissile system, and the development of missiles with multiple warheads (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, or MIRV’s, which are supposed to help penetrate an enemy ABM shield), both of which appear now to be under development to varying degrees by both sides, will, escalate the arms race. McNamara ordered the development of MIRV’s early in 1967, at a point when it appeared that the Soviet Union was coming up with an extensive anti-ballistic-missile system. On closer inspection, the Soviet system (Tallinn) turned out to be a conventional air-defense system. Yet the deployment of the MIRV’s went forward nonetheless: because Russia might still set up an ARM, because Russia might develop MIRV’s, and because, simply, MIRV’s had become technically feasible. (One assumes the worst and proceeds with the possible.) In the view of arms-control advocates, the combination of MIRV’s and the ABM constitutes a greatly increased danger to stability.
Once MIRV’s are deployed, each side will have more difficulty in estimating the number of effective missiles held by the other. Moreover, MIRV’s substantially enhance the advantage of the side which strikes first. For one missile containing several warheads might wipe out several missiles containing several warheads. If one side has both MIRV’s to use in a first strike against land-based missiles and an anti-missile defense which is effective against a second strike by sea-based forces, the other side can no longer he certain of its own deterrent. Neither side has yet deployed MIRV’s; the United States is testing them, and the Soviet Union might be. Once MIRV’s have been sufficiently tested, it will be difficult for either side to assess, without very intrusive inspection, whether the other has put them into effect. The time for reaching agreement to ban MIRV’s is before they have been fully tested—that is, soon. There are even some officials within the Pentagon who argue that the Soviet development of an ABM is at such a rudimentary stage that MIRV’s are not needed, and that in fact they constitute an untoward danger. But these men concede that the only politically realistic basis now for undoing the MIRV decision is in the context of an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. For now, they argue that development of both an ABM and MIRV’s should be slowed, because an effective ban on them would be easier to obtain, politically and logistically, at the earlier stage of their development—yet Johnson’s budget sped both projects.
The histories of the two nations have traditionally led the United States to place more emphasis on offense, the Soviet Union on defense. Thus in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union did begin to place a very limited, and some say primitive, anti-missile system (Galosh) around Moscow. For some time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been recommending that the United States build an ABM, and McNamara had been rejecting their recommendation. His arguments were that the system needed more technical improvement, and that deployment of an ABM to protect American cities from Soviet missiles did not make sense; such a system would cost at least $40 billion, and if the United States did deploy it, the Soviet Union would simply deploy more warheads and other devices to penetrate the ABM, intensifying the arms spiral but adding to no one’s security.
It is too soon to know what the precise balance of political and security considerations was that went into the Johnson Administration’s decision in 1967 to proceed with a limited “thin” anti-ballistic-missile system. The Administration said the system was to protect cities against a Chinese missile. If President Johnson instructed McNamara to go ahead with some kind of ABM in order to relieve the military and congressional pressures—which has been the prevailing assumption in Washington—their conversation has been a well-kept secret. McNamara’s associates insist that the Secretary concluded to his own satisfaction that deployment of a limited ABM made sense, a decision which McNamara himself uncharacteristically kept referring to as “marginal.” The Sentinel, or “thin” ABM, system, actually was to have two purposes: to protect cities against Chinese missiles or missiles from potential nuclearequipped nations, and also to protect the Minuteman missile sites against Russian missiles. (The decision to use an ABM to protect the Minuteman, like that to develop MIRV’s, was taken partly to deflate military demands for an assortment of entire new strategic weapons systems. Both decisions were seen as a means of postponing those new systems. MIRV’s were simph new warheads on old missile systems; thus Minuteman II equipped with MIRV’s would he called Minuteman III, and Polaris with its new warhead, to make the change appear more fundamental, would be called Poseidon.) Yet the missile-protection aspect of Sentinel was not implemented. One explanation is that shortly after the announcement, McNamara took a trip to Europe, where various defense experts asked if an ABM system to protect U.S. missiles was not in fact an anti-Russian system. The difficulty of getting across that it was not anti-Russian because it did not protect American cities against Russian missiles led to a postponement of the missile-protecting component of Sentinel.
The essential difference between a “thin" and a “thick” ABM is the amount of money that is spent. Knowing what he did about how the pressures upon the Pentagon worked, McNamara warned against “the mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry” in his speech in San Francisco in September, 1967, announcing the Sentinel decision. “If a weapons system works and works well, there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy the weapon out of all proportion to the prudent level required. The danger in deploying this relatively light and reliable Chinese-oriented ABM system is going to be that pressures will develop to expand it into a heavy Soviet-oriented ABM system.”
Sentinel opponents have secured from the Armed Services Committee a commitment to break their usual practice of hearing from Pentagon witnesses only and to hold open hearings on the ABM this year. Among the most vigorous opponents are several physicists, who have been fighting for containment of nuclear power ever since they invented it. Now that the ABM is being deployed and sites selected for it, a number of congressmen are hearing from their constituents that they would just as soon forgo the protection and the accompanying resident nuclear weapons. Therefore, the fight over Sentinel is not over. There is within the Pentagon what one official has described as “schizophrenia” over whether the thing wotdd even work, and some sub rosa opposition to it. Like those of all weapons, its costs are already rising well beyond the original estimates, from $4 billion to $5.5 billion, and they are likely to keep growing. The way the pressures go, arms talks offer the best hope for stopping the inexorable expansion of the ABM, with the consequent expense and spur to the Soviet Union to expand its own ABM and to develop new weapons to penetrate ours. The Russians are said to be anxions to come to an arms-control agreement with the United States. The Soviet Union has now reached a relative level of armaments which makes talking with the Americans feasible, and it suffers budget pressures of its own. Government officials were literally packed and ready to begin talks in Geneva last summer, just as Russia marched into Czechoslovakia. Later in the year, the rescheduling of the talks became complicated, both by President Johnson’s interest in opening them at the summit, and by the coming transfer of power.
While an agreement to stop the accumulation of nuclear equipment at something like current levels—deployment of only a limned ABM, and no MIRV’s—would permit a considerable saving in future defense expenditures, it would not make much difference in the current level of spending. Moreover, strategic weapons now account for a surprisingly small proportion of the Pentagon budget—roughly 12 percent. An arms agreement would prevent the strategic budget from doubling or even tripling, but the real savings are to be made elsewhere.
In a chapter on “Military Strategy, Military Forces, and Arms Control,”in Agenda for the Nation, published by the Brookings Institution late last year, Carl Kaysen, formerly of the Kennedy White House National Security Staff and now director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, argues for scaling down United States force levels, and for a post-Vietnam defense budget of about $50 billion. (The current Pentagon budget is $80 billion, of which about $20 billion is directly attributable to costs that would not be incurred if there were no war.) “The proper conclusion of such a reexamination,” says Kaysen, “is that our security interests and needs require great changes in the underlying rationale of our military policy and in the force structures which are the concrete expressions of that rationale. Our policies should determine our weapons, not vice versa.”
Kaysen’s proposals for readjusting our policies are: hold strategic weapons at something like current levels; redefine American security interests so as to reduce the likelihood of intervention; cut active ground forces by four or five divisions, or about 21 percent, leaving enough to meet a large troop requirement in Europe and one small one elsewhere, simultaneously and on short notice; reduce the number of American troops maintained in Europe; put controls on international trafficking in arms; and dismantle outmoded military bases abroad.
This sort of examination is clearly unlikely to take place within the Pentagon. Nor, in light of the predilections and power of the armed services committees, is such a review likely to happen within the Congress.
The capacity of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for promoting their causes through their ability to play upon public fears, and the extent to which politicians are impressed with that capacity, are major factors in the making of defense policy. (Lyndon Johnson was constantly worried about reactions by the military to any moves to scale down the war in Vietnam. Thus he made a deal with the Chiefs that in exchange for their support of the halt of the bombing in North Vietnam, they could do as much bombing of the South and Laos alone after the halt as they had of the North and South together. This was an even better bargain for the military than they had thought, for they found that planes bombing the South needed to carry less fuel and could therefore carry more bombs; the result of the bombing halt was that more bombs were dropped on the South and Laos than had been dropped on the North and South together.) The Chiefs make their position more difficult to oppose by making a series of trade-offs among themselves—an ABM for you, a bomber for us, etc.—and coming up with “unanimous" recommendations.
Each year, the Chiefs present the Secretary of Defense with a “shopping list,”knowing that it will be cut extensively. This year’s list, for example, would have cost $120 billion. “If Nixon and Laird,” said one outgoing Defense official, “think they will get peace in the family by buying $10 billion more than the Chiefs want, they’ll be mistaken.” The Chiefs are pressing for a new manned bomber, an expanded ABM, tactical aircraft, a new land-based missile and a new missile-launching submarine, and other expensive new weapons.
What is intriguing about Nixon and Laird’s position now is that if they should choose to try to curb, to the extent any men can, the forces that propel ever increasing investment in arms, they are well situated politically to do so. They do not have to feel the need to prove things that the Democrats felt they had to, at such great cost. Their credentials as defense-minded, business-oriented, hard anti-Communists are impeccable. It was Eisenhower, not Kennedy or Johnson, who warned about the “military-industrial complex.”Times have changed since the days when Congress whooped at the chance to force more defense spending on the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations. Some members of Congress who were most enthusiastic about filling the “bomber gap” are now chagrined at the costly anachronisms they foisted upon the country. Every indication is that the “security gap" issue was a dud.
During the campaign, the Nixon organization talked about a postVietnam Defense budget of about $80 billion. Former Democratic officials say that it could and should be held to the low $60 billions. Under the Kaysen thesis, the post-Vietnam budget could be about $50 billion. These are very great differences, particularly in light of what else might be done with the money. The budget figure for the Pentagon is a political one, the key part of the politically grounded decision on the level of the federal budget as a whole. The political road to be taken by Mr. Nixon and Mr. Laird in the next few months will determine the fate of a great deaf else.
—Elizabeth B. Drew