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The Soviet Union: The Country That Stayed Out in the Cold

After the collapse, maybe you thought the cold war was over. You were wrong

Soviet, SS-25, missiles, Moscow, Red Square

Soviet SS-25 missiles are shown to the public for the first time on Moscow's Red Square on November 7th, 1990.

ANDRE DURAND/AFP/Getty

Perhaps you’ve seen the news on TV that the Soviet Union has disintegrated. Or you’ve read something in the papers about huge cuts proposed for the U.S. defense budget. Maybe you assumed that after forty years of costly struggle against communism, the United States could at last get on with the business of peace and prosperity at home. Maybe you thought the cold war was over. You were wrong.

The enemy may have vanished, but the political engine that powered the cold-war extravaganza for four decades is still very much in place and chugging purposefully forward. The members of the military-industrial complex, along with their frontmen and apologists in government and the media, have no intention of retiring gracefully. Instead, they’re busy devising new “threats” to scare Americans into tolerating a bloated defense budget. Despite revolutionary events around the world, American politics is still frozen in time, and the arms industry is still winning important victories on the home front.

Remember Star Wars? Ronald Reagan’s loopy vision of space-based weapons promised to shield the United States from Soviet nuclear attack. But once the Gipper returned to his ranch and the Evil Empire collapsed, most people assumed that Star Wars would be quietly buried. And in fact, its research budget was cut drastically. But last fall Congress brought it back to life — a born-again defense system with a new design and an entirely new rationale. Now hundreds of ground-based interceptor missiles are to be deployed around the country to protect us against Saddam Hussein or some other tin-pot dictator who might launch a nuke at us. The ultimate price tag? As much as $60 billion. That’s $60 billion that won’t be spent on schools, roads, health care or restoring a prosperous economy.

In its particulars, this version of Star Wars is as nutty as the first. But the arms industry, facing inevitable shrinkage, is desperate for new contracts; and conventional thinking in both political parties still views defense spending as a reliable and popular way to create jobs. “The military-industrial complex will take it any way it can get it,” says David Cohen, an arms-control lobbyist and former president of Common Cause. “It will defend pork. It will defend pork rind. It will chase any exotic idea it can to get a contract.”

Specifically, last fall Congress ordered the actual deployment of 100 new missiles around Grand Forks, North Dakota, by 1996 — the first step in the construction of a national missile defense system. The initial cost will be $8 billion to $10 billion, but even the sponsors concede that there will have to be six or seven of these missile groves in order to shield the entire country. As it stands, the North Dakota grove might protect the upper Midwest from terrorist attack, but not the East and West coasts, where most Americans live.

Students of defense boondoggles will recognize this project as a new version of a very old idea. The new deployment revives the ABM (antiballistic missile) system first promoted in the Sixties by LBJ’s defense secretary Robert McNamara, who claimed it was needed to defend us against rockets launched from Red China. Nixon presumably killed the concept when he signed the 1972 ABM treaty with the Soviets, in which both countries agreed to limit the deployment of expensive and destabilizing defense systems.

Then in 1983 the Gipper revived the scheme with fantastic new gizmos — including lasers — and dubious scenarios for high-tech combat in space. The Strategic Defense Initiative has already been a very expensive fantasy, consuming $25 billion for research despite the widespread skepticism about whether it could ever work.

Just when the venture once again appeared dead, Saddam Hussein gave it new life. Saddam’s televised Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia — mostly foiled by Patriot missiles — popularized the capabilities of missile interceptors. That, combined with his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, enabled imaginative defense thinkers to invent a new threat — the Third World dictator who decides to commit flamboyant suicide by attacking the United States with an intercontinental nuclear missile.

Thus did arms manufacturers manage to convert an issue that has concerned the arms-control movement for thirty years — international nuclear proliferation — to their own pork-barrel purposes. In Congress the leading Democratic hawks — Congressman Les Aspin and Senator Sam Nunn, chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees — embraced the notion and manipulated a legislative victory for the rocket makers.

The project is lunacy for a nation that is deeply in debt, losing its competitive edge in the world economy and grossly neglectful of domestic Investment priorities. But lunacy is still in the saddle. As arms-control expert Paul Warnke drolly observes, the missiles planned for North Dakota are America’s insurance policy against a Scud attack from Canada.

THE REBORN VERSION OF STAR WARS would pour a lot of concrete for missile silos in North Dakota and create thousands of Jobs there. This sort of economic pressure is the central reason why the lunacy continues — defense spending is political pork with a patriotic aroma. But Congressman Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, is resisting.

“The people in the northeast quadrant of the State are a little sore at me for not being more enthusiastic about the jobs,” says Dorgan. “The construction folks are a little upset and perplexed.”

Instead of leading cheers, Dorgan has expressed his skepticism. “What I’ve said to people is that if the govemment has $8 billion to $10 billion to spend, I think there are a lot better ways to spend it for the good of the country,” he explains.

That position neatly summarizes the debate about national priorities that ought to be unfolding but so far isn’t. Given everything else that has happened in the world, given America’s weakened condition, what should have first claim on the public treasury? In earlier times, it would have been extremely difficult for an incumbent congressman even to raise this question, since the national-security state automatically preempted every other public need. Byron Dorgan may be defining the brave new politics that the country needs for the post-cold-war era.

“I’m not General Patton leading a tank charge against [the new SDI],” Dorgan says, “but I am opposed. The technology doesn’t yet exist to do what they want to do. And there’s no way in hell they can deploy the missiles by 1996. It’s more likely to be 1998 or 2000. So it’s not like these are jobs in hand.”

The Pentagon is counting on world disorder — maybe a civil war in the former Soviet Union — to arouse American fears.” — “When people get scared, they like to throw money at the Pentagon,” says John Isaacs, an arms-control lobbyist with the Council for a Livable World.

Meanwhile the arms industry scored a coup by resuscitating the missile program, but the battle has only just begun. The opposition won a big victory by killing the B-2 bomber, though it was caught off guard when Nunn and Aspin cooked up their missile deal. Now peace groups are organizing a counteroffensive for this season, trying to kill SDI once and forever.

Even if one accepts all the Pentagon’s inflated claims about future technology, this missile system would still not protect us against a terrorist nuke — since terrorists aren’t likely to attack via an intercontinental missile. “The nuclear threat, if it develops,” says Dorgan, “is more likely to come in the trunk of a Yugo car or the rusty hulk of a tanker tied to a dock somewhere than it is in an ICBM.”

John Isaacs thinks the Pentagon itself eventually may have to kill SDI in order to save other weapons. “The Pentagon budget is going to start coming down, and that’s going to squeeze SDI,” he says. “When that happens, the Air Force is going to have to decide whether it wants holes in the ground in North Dakota or airplanes that fly.”

On the other hand, this scheme has survived for nearly thirty years despite the facts against it. “If we spend the next five years fighting it, we will have lost,” Isaacs says. “Once the program gets too far along, it will be very hard to turn it off.”

THE PENTAGON AND ITS ALLIED INDUSTRIAL interests have awesome resources on their side, plus the political routines developed over forty years, but the other side is mobilizing too. A broad new coalition of domestic interests — called Campaign for New Priorities — is assembling an effort to provoke the debate that Washington has so far avoided. The goal is to force a historic reordering of national priorities — cutting defense down to size and funneling billions into education, health, R&D for civilian economic enterprise and public infrastructures like roads.

The coalition — launched by the National Education Association, the National Conference of Mayors, the National Council of Churches and a long list of other groups — hopes to build an unprecedented assembly of business, labor and civic voices to support the proposition that the United States must scale back military spending dramatically to catch up on unattended domestic investments.

Despite national elections, most Washington politicians are assuming these issues will be only lightly addressed this year. But New Priorities wants action now — an immediate defense cut of $25 billion beyond President Bush’s timid reductions and a $150 billion reduction during the next five years.

Even then, the United States would remain the world’s preeminent military power — spending over $150 billion a year. “Once you take the Soviet Union out of the mix, since it’s collapsed, the next biggest defense budgets are Germany and Japan, which are about $30 billon,” says Robert Borosage, a New Priorities spokesman. “If we cut our defense budget to $150 billion, we would still be spending more than all of the countries of Western Europe and Japan combined.

“I think there are historic moments when the big questions get put on the table,” Borosage says. “We’ve never had an opportunity like this, not since 1946, to redesign national priorities. The next two years will decide our direction as a country.”

The coalition envisions waves of public actions that keep sending the message until Washington gets it — campus teach-ins, an ad campaign, town meetings with members of Congress, sermons by thousands of clergy addressing the “peace dividend.” This may or may not be enough to dislodge the entrenched cold warriors, but the stakes are enormous.

“This country is in very deep trouble because of the investment that hasn’t been made,” Borosage says. “If we don’t do it now, we are lost.”

THE PREDICTABLE RESPONSE OF THE governing elites who always rally round the national-security state is to denounce those demanding new priorities as isolationists. The accusation is made plausible by Patrick Buchanan’s right-wing America First rhetoric and by Klansman David Duke, who has proposed a seventy-five-percent cut in the defense budget — far beyond anything liberal reformers have suggested. The accusation, however, amounts to cheap slander of the general public and misses what may be an important transformation in how Americans think about the world.

Duke and Buchanan are right about this much: Americans do want to bring their money home. After footing the cold-war bill for decades, defending our allies in Europe and Asia more or less for free, Americans are entitled to feel that way. They are especially skeptical about foreign aid, including military aid. The United States still spends half of its defense budget defending Germany against the threat of Soviet invasion — a threat that no longer exists — and we borrow money from Germans and Japanese to do so. This ought to stop — right now.

But that conviction does not make Americans isolationists. Indeed, it’s more accurate to say that citizens at large are catching up with the new global economic realities more swiftly than are political elites. Long before the Berlin Wall fell, public-opinion polls identified Japan, not the Soviet Union, as the principal national-security threat. A recent survey for the Americans Talk Issues Foundation asked respondents who won the cold war. Twenty-four percent answered Japan.

The same survey series has found that Americans want the United Nations to take the lead on resolving international conflicts, from policing environmental problems to compelling all nations (including the United States) to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. Americans’ approval of the United Nations has risen to an extraordinary seventy-eight percent; half favor giving UN resolutions the force of law over individual countries, including the United States.

These attitudes can in no way be described as isolationist. On the contrary, Americans may be ready for a New World Order of internationalism — but not the one Bush and his fellow cold warriors have in mind. Americans want to reorder international obligations so that the United States is not always first in line to pay the bills and send the troops. But that is not the same as withdrawing from the world into a Fortress America.

The Bush administration’s approach to demobilization has been artful foot dragging. It has announced plans for a twenty-five-percent reduction in troops but only a modest decline in overall defense spending. Most of the major weapon systems Bush has canceled were toys on the Pentagon’s wish list that the nation couldn’t afford even before the cold war ended. In the short term, Bush is playing smart politics — appealing to the hundreds of thousands of defense workers who would lose good jobs if drastic reductions were enacted. What the country needs, however, is a president brave enough to think about the long term.

In This Article: Coverwall, Russia, United Nations

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