The MX Missile Fallout
Four months ago, when President Reagan announced his grand compromise on nuclear arms, it was swiftly proclaimed a political masterstroke – a giant fig leaf behind which all sides could hide.
The compromise, engineered by a White House-appointed commission headed by one-time Kissinger aide Brent Scowcroft, was a classic of its kind; it was the sort of made-in-Washington consensus that satisfies selected insiders and ignores everyone else. This plan brushed aside all the popular discontent about Reagan’s arms escalation, and it papered over the profound contradictions that mark U.S. nuclear strategy. “Never mind all that,” the insiders said. “We’ve got a deal – let’s vote.”
In late May, the deal went down. The House of Representatives, which two weeks earlier had piously endorsed the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution by a two-to-one margin, abruptly reversed field and approved the Gipper’s favorite weapon – the 96-ton MX missile, armed with 10 warheads. Thanks mainly to middle-of-the-road Democrats, the MX vote wasn’t even close – it won by 53 votes. A total of 97 House members who voted for the freeze also voted for the MX. These freeze phonies, as they became known, included most of the Democratic leaders.
What they gave the president was quite tangible: the promise not to block deployment of 100 MX missiles. What he gave in return was quite vague: a promise to be sincere in pursuing an arms-control agreement with the Russians and a fuzzy commitment to study a less menacing alternative to the multi-warhead missiles for land and for submarines that are the core of his new arms buildup. Someday, Reagan avowed, after thousands of new nukes have been deployed, the United States can turn to a less threatening approach – a small, mobile, single-warhead missile known as the Midgetman. Then, perhaps even in our lifetime, we can begin to dismantle all the multi-warhead missiles. But before we can take them apart, we have to build them.
The trade-off left most freeze proponents incredulous. Even as an intellectual proposition, the Scowcroft report’s compromise was scandalously at odds with its own findings. The assembled hawks who produced the report conceded, for instance, that the central argument they had used for years to promote the MX – the so-called window of vulnerability that Reagan campaigned on in 1980 – was fallacious. It doesn’t exist. The report also conceded that the new monster missile would have negligible military purposes. Yet the commission concluded: let’s build 100 of them (1,000 new nukes at 10 warheads per missile) and see if it softens up the Russians.
Fortunately, all this unseemly wheeling and dealing created an unanticipated reaction. Betrayal breeds anger, and once again the Washington insiders underestimated the depth of public resistance to another generation of the nuclear-arms race. From across the country, cards, letters, phone calls, radio spots and newspaper ads began to pummel those middle-minded Democrats who thought they had made a safe deal. Many congressional politicians, in truth, have always dismissed the freeze movement as mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality, lacking the political bite to do them harm. This summer, they began to feel the bite.
For six weeks, intense lobbying and agitation in their hometown papers focused on the freeze phonies. In the House corridors and the Democratic caucus, they were denounced for “selling out arms control” and their own party’s claim to the peace issue in 1984. The party grapevine said any Democrat who aspires to a leadership post had better join his troops on this issue.
By late July, when the MX again came up for a vote in the House (for authority to open the production line), the anti-nuke opponents needed to convert 27 members to prevail. They fell just short of victory by switching 20. Largely because of the orchestrated pressure, the MX margin shrank from 53 votes to 13 votes – an unstable majority that soon will be challenged again and again.
The names of those who abandoned the administration are significant. Majority leader Jim Wright of Texas, who would like to be Speaker of the House someday, had an epiphany in which he discovered deep philosophical reasons for voting against the weapon he had embraced two months before. So did Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, the party caucus chairman, as well as Representatives Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Dan Glickman of Kansas and a bunch of other earnest moderates who had originally bought into the president’s deal. No one, of course, ever gets up on the House floor and announces he is changing his vote because he felt the heat: There’s no need to. Everyone understands what’s happened.
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