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50 Years Ago: Taking On the Weapons Industry

Published: June 19, 2018

Nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp helped to develop the atomic bomb before petitioning against its use in 1945. Lapp toured the country in the 1950s and ’60s lecturing about nuclear radiation and civil defense, but in 1968 he penned the Post editorial “The Weapons Industry Is a Menace,” taking acute aim at the so-called military-industrial complex. Lapp decries the burgeoning “defense socialism” in the U.S., claiming Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning had come to bear in a nation whose welfare was “permanently tied to the continued growth of military technology and the continued stockpiling of military hardware.” Lapp’s rebuke of defense spending during the Cold War highlights the problems with weapons excess that are still debated 50 years later.


“The Weapons Industry Is a Menace” by Ralph E. Lapp (June 15, 1968)

The United States is becoming a weapons culture. The health of our entire economy has come to depend on the making of arms. The machinery of defense, lubricated by politics and technology, has become a juggernaut in our society. Pressures exerted by the giant corporations that compose our military-industrial apparatus are felt in the Pentagon, in the White House and in Congress. Congressmen are re-elected depending on their success in winning defense contracts for their constituencies; government funds support vast military research projects on campuses across the country; the scientific community has been largely corrupted or silenced by military domination.

President Eisenhower warned of this ominous trend in his farewell address back in 1961: “In the councils of Government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

That warning has become the present reality. Since the end of World War II, and especially since Korea, the manufacture of arms has ceased to be an emergency measure whereby private firms do their bit for Uncle Sam. Instead. many U.S. corporations have become primarily arms makers. Their business and their profits depend on winning more and bigger contracts from the Department of Defense. Some companies, like North American Rockwell, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas, exist almost entirely on government arms contracts. Without this money many of them would go bankrupt. and places like Southern California or the state of Washington would become economic disaster areas.

Consider, for example, a single company — Lockheed Aircraft. In the past seven years this California-based concern has won a total of $10.6 billion in defense contracts. Uncle Sam provides 86 cents of every dollar of its corporate sales. Lockheed is not just an isolated example. During these same seven years 38 companies each have done more than one billion dollars of business with the Pentagon.

No nation can devote so much of its ingenuity, manpower and resources to the works of war without being deeply changed in the process. Our commitment to weapons making has distorted the free enterprise system of our economy into a kind of “defense socialism.” a system in which the welfare of the country is permanently tied to the continued growth of military technology and the continued stockpiling of military hardware.

This massive “peacetime” commitment to arms is new to the American experience. When one looks back and surveys the postwar years. one startling fact emerges: During these years the United States has devoted one trillion dollars to its national security! And half of this vast expenditure occurred during the Kennedy-Johnson Administrations.

These billions of dollars have meant jobs for many Americans — for electronics specialists in Boston’s Route 128 necklace of defense plants; for rocket men in factories spread out over Utah’s broad valleys; for aircraft workers in Southern California. Texas. Georgia, Washington. Kansas and Missouri.

President Eisenhower omitted any reference to political influence in his indicting phrase, “the military-industrial complex.” but it is the crux of the matter. Powerful members of Congress champion defense systems out of self-interest. Georgia’s defense bounty may be traced, for example, to the power of its Senator Richard B. Russell. who is chairman of the potent Armed Services Committee. Our senators and representatives approve the appropriations that control the fate of many a defense plant. It takes a brave legislator to vote against funds that mean jobs for some of his constituents. He becomes vulnerable not just to the unemployed defense worker but to campaign charges that he failed to support the national security program.

The power of the military-industrial complex has been greatly aided by advanced technology. Science has become the key to modern arms. Today’s weapons systems, especially those involved in hurling nuclear warheads at intercontinental range, are incredibly complex. Nuclear research has fashioned compact packages carrying the explosive power of a million tons of TNT. Chemical and electronic ingenuity have combined to perfect rockets like Minuteman and Poseidon that can carry from 3 to 10 warheads, each dispatched to a separate target. More and more our great national decisions involve complex technology and secret data about weapons.

Consider, for example, the recent decision to build a thin Sentinel system to defend against ICBM’s fired by Red China. This $5 billion project may escalate to $40 billion. Yet the public had precious little to say in this momentous decision. In a sense, even a democracy as modern as ours is dictated to by technology. When a weapons system becomes “ripe,” then it dominates its makers. In the case of ballistic-missile defense, the United States spent $4 billion in research and development, so before the decision to deploy it was made, powerful forces urged its production. Robert S. McNamara, who recently resigned as head of the Pentagon, put it bluntly: “There is a kind of mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry. If a weapons system works — and works well — there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy it out of all proportion to the prudent level required.”

One way to pressure the American people into supporting larger defense outlays is to sound the alarm about Soviet strength. Thus in the 1950s it was alleged that there was a “bomber gap,” and public support was whipped up for mass production of B-47s and B-52s.

Even before the bomber gap vanished into thin air, a “missile gap” was born. John F. Kennedy hammered away at the missile-gap issue in his 1960 campaign, decrying Eisenhower’s years in office as “years the locusts have eaten.” Yet when Kennedy became President and had time to study the available information about Soviet missiles, he discovered that the missile gap was in our favor. Nonetheless, Kennedy pressed Congress for authorization of more Minuteman and Polaris missiles.

Now a new gap is in the making — a “megaton gap.” A megaton means a million tons of TNT, or 75 times more power than the A-bomb that eviscerated Hiroshima. At some time in the future the Soviet Union may be able to hurl more megatons at the United States than we can fire back in return. This does not and cannot alter the fact that a small fraction of the present United States nuclear firepower can knock the Soviet Union out of the 20th century. Having excess kill power — overkill — is not militarily meaningful.

The heart of our strategic policy is our capability to inflict unacceptable losses on the enemy’s homeland. It’s damage, not megatons, that counts. I have calculated that as few as 45 ballistic missiles can strike at 60 million Russians living in 200 Soviet cities. No, my arithmetic is not nutty — each missile can be armed with from 3 to 10 nuclear warheads targeted on individual cities. The total megatonnage in this hypothetical attack amounts to only 21 megatons — roughly one thousandth of that once carried by our SAC bombers. But 21 megatons is the equivalent of 21 million tons of TNT, or 620 times the explosiveness of the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

If my figure of 45 missiles seems too low, then let’s triple it. That figure would amount to less than a tenth of the actual number of missiles in our strategic strike force. Adding more ICBM’s to the U.S. arsenal, or magnifying the megatonnage, does not really alter the nuclear balance of power.

But the very concept of “enoughness” in military power is a punishing blow to the solar plexus of the military-industrial-political complex. Defense affluence is based on open-endedness on there never being enough of anything, even megatons. The United States has already stockpiled over 50,000 nuclear weapons and has a capacity to double this number rather quickly.

The man in the street is not supposed to question matters of national security. But whose judgment is he to trust? The politicians are themselves deeply implicated in the military-industrial complex; the generals traditionally don’t know what the word “enough” means, and industrialists covet contracts.

There is sound reason for gloomy forecasts about defense socialism. The United States cannot afford to lay down its nuclear arms until it is safe to do so — and that day is far from dawning. Force of arms still rules, and the United States has no choice but to maintain its armed vigilance. Moreover, it cannot become complacent about its power to deter war by depending on the status quo. For this reason, military research and development should never cease.

But the need for weapons improvement should not be viewed as a carte blanche for defense industry. Rational determination of force levels is of paramount importance to the nation’s security. Excessive weapons deployment may not only be wasteful, it may provoke competitors to unplanned arms increases, and thus escalate the arms race with no real gain in our national security. But “how much is enough” is the perplexing question that this country has avoided facing squarely.

I admit that precise definition of “enoughness” is impossible. No single person or computer can be relied on to spell out how much is enough. There must always be an insurance factor — a margin for error, but not for irrational excess. Even if by some magical process we could find a neat answer to how much military power is enough, we lack the mechanism in our democracy for a techno-military consensus. Our democracy depends on a system of checks and balances, but such restraints are lacking for the military industrial complex. Our Congress is ever ready to vote for larger defense appropriations; not once since Hiroshima has the Congress failed to fund a weapons system. It has even pushed some that the Defense Department did not want. Under congressional insistence the U.S. spent about $1.5 billion on a nuclear-powered airplane — against the best advice of scientists. When the project was finally abandoned, the money turned out to be a complete loss.

Both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were pressured by Congress to deploy a ballistic-missile defense system. Had they yielded and authorized the system in the late ’50s or early ’60s, the resulting radars, computers and missiles would have had to be scrapped as useless. Yet when more advanced systems gave some hope of a thin defense shield, and the Sentinel system was authorized, what did members of Congress do? They immediately demanded a “thick” system — one which Defense Secretary McNamara was careful to point out would he worthless against a massive Soviet attack. Furthermore, McNamara warned it would encourage the Soviets to accelerate their ICBM program, and thus add a new spiral to the arms race.

Twenty-three years of the postwar era have failed to educate the Congress in the realities of nuclear power. We should be considering arms cutbacks, not increases, but this prospect frightens Congress and terrifies the aerospace industry, which is becoming a kind of national industrial welfare program.

There is no easy panacea for correcting America’s techno-military ills. But we must begin by recognizing the inherent dangers to our society if we do not control our arms industries. Public exposure of the problem is essential. The Congress must provide itself with authoritative independent advice on techno-military problems. To this end I would urge the creation of a National Analysis Council to study and report on many of the problems that Congress is now handling in a horse-and-buggy manner. For example, the Congress may soon be asked to fund a new Advanced Manned Strategic Bomber. I would urge that it subject this proposal to a concentrated and objective analysis by a National Analysis Council. so that its full significance and value can be determined for the benefit of all members of Congress.

I would urge that the growth of defense socialism be curtailed by applying geographic and contract controls to all new prime military awards. For example, it might be feasible to limit a corporation’s involvement with defense work by prohibiting the awarding of new contracts when a company already does more than half of its business with the Defense Department.

These are, I admit, inadequate approaches to the overall problem. We cannot treat a cancerous condition so superficially, but we must begin somewhere — and soon. If we perpetuate our weapons culture, we will turn ourselves into a veritable Fortress America, questing for evanescent security and, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “forever racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.”

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