Home | News Releases | Calendar | Getting Publicity | Media Lists | | Contact | Sources Select News RSS Feed |

The Myth of Symmetry

By Barrie Zwicker

TWO BASIC VIEWS ABOUT THE ARMS RACE PREDOMINATE. One is that the Soviet Union is militarily superior to the United States, and is "bent on world domination," the Red Menace view. The other view is that the "two superpowers" are more or less equally to blame, that the arms race is basically symmetrical.

As an abundance of evidence in this issue and elsewhere shows, the media overwhelmingly protray the Red Menace as the true state of affairs.

But in longer think pieces, especially on the subject of arms control (which was the subject of the think piece that started on page Dl of the Sunday Toronto Star last Feb. 6 using the art on this page), the image of one evil empire menacing everywhere and one decent one defending truth and liberty everywhere becomes difficult to sustain.

That is where the middle ground comes into focus, and symmetry, or something approximating it, comes into play and is manifest in such as this page's artwork. (The article it illustrated, by the way, stated that American Defence Department documents show a "continuing U.S. advantage in the more important areas" of military capability.)

There appears quite a lot of evidence to justify characterising the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race especially, as the creation of two crazed giants locked in a deadly embrace. It is a powerful model and its imagery lends itself to effective illustration.

Both sides have immense arsenals. Both have satellite countries. Both make threats and counter threats. Both are "superpowers." Both are nationalistic. Both seek to export their culture, their politics, their ideology and their way of life to all parts of the world. Both invade other countries.

Those of us who think of ourselves as reasonable find an affinity for seeing the Cold War as symmetrical. That view gives us a foundation for our bridge-building efforts. It distances us from the rabidness of the Red Menace people, yet provides the safety net of maintaining our required quota of anti-communism. For the reasonable, then, it's a platform, shield and safety net.

Symmetry has appeal, too, for those who don't know much about the issues, and who know they don't know. Symmetry fits the folk wisdom that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle."

Symmetry is also handy for those who would stand above it all. "A plague on both your houses," they can say, and do nothing more (although it doesn't logically follow that they should do nothing more).

Symmetry is a useful club for those who otherwise don't accept it. "Why don't the peace demonstrators ever march to the Russian embassy?" a thousand letters to the editor have asked. (It seems never to be asked of those who demonstrate against martial law in Poland why they don't also demonstrate at the U.S. Embassy against U.S. involvement in Central America, which is far more direct, bloody and repressive than anything the Soviets have done in Poland.)

Pierre Trudeau, typically, has adopted and promoted a symmetrical model of the Cold War for every purpose mentioned. He woos the reasonable with observations about Ronald Reagan that few would attempt to refute, clubs the peace movement as being "anti-American," shields himself from right wing criticism by coming up with his quota of "Soviet threat" rhetoric and in the confusion poses as being in the middle, albeit somewhat elevated.

"Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union will let the other major power install itself in its back yard," he told a student in Toronto in early April (Globe and Mail, "Just What Was Said," April 6). "It's great power politics and the advantage of middle sized countries like Canada is that we can take an even view and condemn both sides. . . But. . . you have to do it in an even-handed way."

Many people in the peace movement either believe in symmetry or would like to believe it. British historian E.P. Thompson, one of the leading disarmament thinkers and activists in the world, has said that "the most critical and decisive point" in the building of a new European peace movement would be whether the anti-militarist publics of Western Europe could link up with their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

Apart from the various uses the idea of symmetry is put to, does it not stand up? These dualities, are they not profound? The existence of "two super powers" is beyond question, is it not? Even the Soviets use the term, as they do the term "arms race" with the "balance" of terror that implies. The threats, the counter threats, the nationalism, the expansionism, — are these not unhappy facts of life about our world? Or are they the surface?

They are less than the surface. They are the appearance of surface.


There are three areas in which any country could qualify for super power status: the economic sphere, the cultural sphere and the military sphere.

The Two Economies

The total value of all goods and services produced by the United States — the Gross National Product or GNP — is twice that of the Soviet Union.

No one in possession of the standard view of the Soviet Union provided in the West should need much convincing of this fact. The under-achievements of the Soviet state have been well chronicled. The relative lack of consumer goods is well known. Just to meet its food needs, the USSR finds it necessary to import millions of dollars' worth of grain from Canada, for instance.

A visit to the Soviet Union will confirm the difference in material living standards. There are not two economic super powers. There is one. It is the United States.

The Two Cultures

The world is increasingly an information culture. The United States is in quality and quantity the leader by a huge margin over all other countries in the production and export of information and entertainment.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of all the information in the world originates in the United States. Hollywood films are shown widely virtually everywhere in the world. American TV productions blanket the world. The furtive importation of American movies on videotape into the Soviet Union is a problem so advanced that the Politburo recently addressed it.

The three U.S. commercial TV networks together import about 12 hours of foreign programming a year. They export 370,000 hours a year; "Bonanza" is still running to weekly audiences of 350-million.

American music is heard everywhere. You can get it any hour of the day, for instance, on one of the hi-fi channels in the Hotel Pribaltiskaya in Leningrad. You will also hear it on domestic Soviet airliners.

American books are distributed virtually everywhere. The most sought-after reference book about Moscow in the Soviet capital is U.S. Information Moscow, published in Mountain View, California.

The Voice of America broadcasts in 35 languages in 123 countries. It and the other Western transmitters outnumber all the Soviet ones.

AP and UPI are the top two of the "Big Four" news services in the world. TASS doesn't even qualify. AP is the biggest by far, reaching an estimated one-third of the world's population daily with 17-million words transmitted through 48,000 newsmedia offices.

American magazines have long dominated the world, with an American viewpoint, naturally enough. Reader's Digest is the largest circulation magazine in the world but Time with its many editions, National Geographic with its incredibe penetration into the world's school systems and many others, play their part.

Anti-Soviets make much of the alleged perfidy and danger of Radio Moscow. It's taken as a synonym for lies and propaganda. They point to the fact that the United States, however, does not jam Radio Moscow as the Soviets have jammed Western broadcasts.

But few people in North America ever listen to short wave. There's no need to jam Radio Moscow. And the handful who might tune in are so thoroughly warned that very little of what they heard could conceivably pierce their wall of prejudgment.

But shortwave is much listened to in Europe and the Soviet Union, and English is widely understood. (There are as many teachers of English in the USSR as there are people who speak Russian in the United States.)

Not including the billion Chinese, or perhaps including them, English is the most common language internationally. And it's the language of the United States.

Culturally there are not two super powers. There is one. It is the United States.

Relative Military Capacity

At the end of the Second World War, the USSR lay largely wrecked. It suffered greater losses in that war than any other country: 20-million dead, its second and third largest cities (Leningrad and Kiev) in ruins along with thousands of other cities and towns.

It did not have a single long-range bomber. That is because its fight for survival did not call for long-range bombers.

The U.S., by contrast, ended the war undevastated without a bomb dropped on its soil, economically and industrially powerful, without a decimated labour force, and with a fleet of long-range bombers. The U.S. also had a monopoly on the Bomb, and it is a matter of historical record that there were powerful figures including General Douglas McArthur who favoured launching atomic war on the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, who had already been militarily attacked by the United States (and by Canadian soldiers) in an early effort by the West to crush their revolution, developed the ultimate weapon too.

Justified, promoted and spurred always by waves of anti-Sovietism (McCarthyism, the "bomber gap," "the missile gap," the "window of vulnerability") arising from the steady 65-year drumbeat of anti-communism, the United States has unilaterally initiated, led and promoted the so-called arms race in every category — nuclear subs, MIRVS, cruise missiles, the neutron bomb, and so on — during the past 36 years.

The incontrovertible history of the arms race is charted on page 199, reprinted with permission from the Scientific American. More detail about the chronology of American aggressiveness is provided in the accompanying table, prepared by Robert Aldridge, former design engineer for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company for 16 years. (He has joined the resistance movement against nuclear arms.)

The central generating source of untrue and confusing information about the arms race is Washington. Yet even in 1983, a lie uttered by a U.S. president or cabinet member will be quoted in news without question. One example is the extraordinary statement made by U.S. vice-president George Bush in Paris in June: "It is unacceptable that the Soviet Union should be more heavily armed than the rest of the world combined," he said and was quoted in the Globe and Mail (June 9, page 13) and on CBC radio news without question or rejoinder.

Both symmetry and the Soviet Menace theory obscure the centrally-threatening fact of today's world. There are not two military super powers. Except for the nuclear retaliatory power of the USSR there is only one military super power. That is the United States.

And even while the United States, with eight per cent of the world's population, consumes 40 per cent of the world's wealth, even while it influences or dictates policy from Warsaw to Rome to San Salvador to Manila to Ottawa, even while it encircles the Soviet Union (which it has done for 20 years) with nuclear missiles which can reach the Soviet heartland in minutes, even while it has the upper hand in nuclear submarines, bombers, missiles of all kinds, technology of all kinds, even while all of this is true, it also has so much propaganda power that it can successfully persuade the majority of people that it is a pitiful Mr. Nice Guy threatened by an evil omnicompetent monster called the Soviet Union.

That this is the state of affairs as we approach 1984 is exquisite.

Escalation of the Arms Race

U.S. (Action) USSR (Reaction)
First nuclear chain reaction 1942 1946
First atom bomb exploded 1945 1949
First H-bomb exploded 1952 1953
European alliances in effect 1949
(Warsaw Pact)
Tactical nuclear weapons in Europe 1954 1957

Accelerated buildup of strategic

1961 1966
First supersonic bomber 1960 1975

First ballistic-missile-launching submarine


First solid rocket fuel used in

1960 1968
Multiple warheads on missiles 1964 1973
Penetration aids on missiles 1964 None to date

High-speed re-entry bodies

1970 1975

Multiple independently-targeted
re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)
on missiles

1970 1975
Computerized guidance on missiles 1970 1975

Published in Sources Summer 1983


Copyright © Sources, All rights reserved.