April 16, 1953 (a Thursday)

On this date in Washington D.C., President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “The Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which was also broadcast nationwide by radio. In his address, he contemplated a world permanently perched on the brink of war and he appealed to Americans to assess the consequences likely to ensue.

There were two themes to this speech. Delivered in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death, the speech offered the new Soviet leadership a five-point plan for ending the Cold War.  As seen from the perspective of the U.S.S.R., Eisenhower was “demanding unconditional surrender.” The president’s peace plan quickly vanished without a trace.

However, a second theme was woven into his speech and it is this:  Spending on arms and armies is inherently undesirable. Even when seemingly necessary, it constitutes a misappropriation of scarce resources. By diverting social capital from productive to destructive purposes, war and the preparation for war deplete, rather than enhance, a nation’s strength. And while assertions of military necessity might camouflage the costs entailed, they can never negate them altogether.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Eisenhower also spoke in specifics:

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

Eisenhower gave a memorable metaphor and sounded a note of hope:

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point to the hope that comes with this spring of 1953 [emphasis added].

Unfortunately, despite Ike’s popularity and eloquence, Americans had no intention of choosing between guns and butter: they wanted both. The 1950s brought new bombers and new schools, fleets of warships and tracts of freshly built homes spilling into the suburbs. Pentagon budgets remained high throughout the Eisenhower era, averaging more than 50 percent of all federal spending and 10 percent of GDP, figures without precedent in the nation’s peacetime history. In 1952, when Ike was elected, the U.S. nuclear stockpile numbered some 1,000 warheads. By the time he passed the reins to John F. Kennedy in 1961, it consisted of more than 24,000 warheads, and it rapidly ascended later that decade to a peak of 31,000.

This arms buildup was driven by an unstated alliance of interested parties: generals, defense officials, military contractors, and members of Congress, all of whom shared a single perspective. In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, named this perspective “military metaphysics”. Those embracing this mind-set no longer considered genuine, lasting peace to be plausible. Rather, peace was at best a transitory condition, “a prelude to war or an interlude between wars.”
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The beneficiaries of military spending rationalized the arms buildup with — and  vigorously promoted a belief in — the existence of looming national peril.  Whether or not the threat was real, every ominous advance in Soviet capabilities was justification for opening the military-spending spigot wider.  The discovery during the 1950s of a “bomber gap” and later a “missile gap,” for example, provided political ammunition to air-power advocates quick to charge that the nation’s very survival was at risk.  That both “gaps” were fictitious was irrelevant.  Ultimately, appropriations poured forth.

[On 7 February 1961, The New York Times ran a two-column headline on its front page that read: KENNEDY DEFENSE STUDY FINDS NO EVIDENCE OF A ‘MISSILE GAP’. Ike had always insisted there was no such gap; now JFK’s own Secretary of Defense, the former Ford Motor Company president Robert S. McNamara, had no choice but to admit that Eisenhower had been right. Not only could the United States survive a full-scale Soviet ICBM attack, it could come out of it with enough weapons left to destroy every city in the U.S.S.R., kill 180 million Soviet citizens, and take out 80 percent of Soviet industrial capacity. Indeed, studies conducted in 1963 indicated that actual Soviet ICBM strength in 1961 amounted to only 3.5 percent of the official U.S. estimate.]

Knowing at the time that the United States enjoyed an edge in bomber and missile capabilities, Eisenhower understood precisely who benefited from fear-mongering.  Yet to sustain the illusion he was fully in command, Ike remained publicly silent about what went on behind the scenes. Only on the eve of his departure from office did he inform the nation as to what the federal government’s new obsession with national security had wrought.

A half century after Eisenhower summoned us to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship, we still refuse to do so.  In Washington, an aura of never-ending crisis still prevails — and with it, military metaphysics.  Ike is someone we should have listened to then and — with the U.S. today mired in perpetual war and flirting with insolvency and long term economic stagnation — we should listen to even more intently now.

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