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The Soviet Threat
Big Lie of the Arms Race

By Richard Barnet


Behind every war there is a big lie. Reality is much too ambiguous, much too complex to elicit the popular enthusiasm needed for modern mobilization. So things must be made "clearer than truth," as Dean Acheson once put it.

The nuclear arms race, with its proliferation of missile stockpiles and its even more expensive supporting cast of aircraft carriers, unilateral strike forces, and aging armies in the center of Europe, is a Thirty Years' War going on forty. To keep it going in the United States it has been necessary at strategic moments to raise the spectre of the Russian horde. The Soviet threat is the big lie of the arms race.

The Soviet Union does indeed pose a threat to the United States. Any power that aims thousands of nuclear warheads at our people is making and intends to make a threat. It is the same threat which the United States in more diverse and more sophisticated ways has been making against the Soviet Union for a longer time.

But the Soviet threat, a national myth used as the rationale for an ever-escalating arms budget and a policy of U.S. military intervention over two generations, is something more than an official dramatization of Soviet missile strength. The Soviet threat pre-existed the Soviet missile arsenal. It is rooted in an analysis of Soviet intentions. The essence of the Soviet threat is this: The Soviet leaders, bent on world domination, will stop at nothing to defeat the United States, by bluff, if possible, by nuclear war, if necessary.

As the years go by the characterization of the Soviet threat has changed. In the early postwar period, the Soviets were dangerous because their ideology was a powerful virus. They were, as one of our ambassadors put it, a cause rather than a country. There was nothing they were not prepared to do, even if they had nothing to do it with.

The threat salesmen of our day stand these ideas on their heads. The Soviet Union is now dangerous because its ideology has been discredited and its economy is a failure. Therefore all it has is military power, and with that power it intends to frighten us into submission.

As World War II ended, the Soviet Union lay prostrate, 73,000 cities and towns smashed, 20 million people dead. The Soviet army was in the heart of Europe, but the Soviet economy was in ruins. In order to build a Center-Right political coalition in Western Europe against the Left (until 1947 French and Italian Communists participated in the cabinets), the spectre of the Soviet invasion was raised.

Winston Churchill stated in 1950 that but for the atomic bomb in America's hands the Russian hordes would be at the English Channel. Most of the panicky public in Europe and the United States agreed. But one searches the historical record in vain for any responsible official of the West who privately shared that belief. James Forrestal, who was obsessed with the Soviet challenge, wrote in his diaries that the Soviets would not move that year — "or at any time." At the founding of NATO, John Foster Dulles, then a senator, underscored his view that the Soviets did not pose a military threat to Europe. The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified in a similar vein.

George Kennan, the architect of the containment policy, has written that NATO was to be a "modest shield" behind which the West could restore its economy. It was not intended as a permanent standing army in the heart of Europe because there was no danger of a Soviet attack. Neither the roads nor the railroad track for a Russian blitzkrieg in Europe existed, even if the still-bleeding Soviet society could have supported one. "The image of Russia poised and yearning to attack the West and deterred only by our possession of atomic weapons was largely a creation of Western imagination, against which some of us who were familiar with Russian matters tried in vain, over the course of the years, to make our voices heard," Kennan has asserted.

By 1955, the Soviet Union had about 350 bombers capable of delivering atomic bombs on the United States; the United States had four times the number, many located in bases close to the Soviet frontier. This was the era of the bomber gap, when Paul Nitze and many of his colleagues in the Committee on the Present Danger first began to sound the alarm.

Then came the famous missile gap. Now Nitze and his friends accused President Eisenhower of being soft on the Russians, and John F. Kennedy campaigned for the White House in 1960 on this theme. In fact, the United States had a huge superiority in nuclear striking power. The Soviets had built very few missiles. But the new Kennedy administration ordered huge new missile programs anyway, increased the military budget 15 per cent, and "won" the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the emplacement of missiles in Cuba in October, 1962.

One result of the United States "victory" was the ouster of Khrushchev, who had tried to substitute bluster and bluff for spending money on missiles, and the beginning of a serious Soviet rearmament program. It is that program which is the basis for the current hysteria about Soviet intentions.

At that time, the United States military, eager to ward off pressure for an arms moratorium, concluded that the Kremlin was resigned to being a permanent underdog. (The Pentagon has two rules for negotiating arms agreements: One is "Don't negotiate when you are behind." The other is "Why negotiate when you are ahead?") The Soviets had "lost the quantitative race," Secretary McNamara declared in 1965, "and they are not seeking to engage us in that contest."

Unlike the era of the bomber gap and the missile gap, there is a Soviet military buildup. It has proceeded steadily since the Brezhnev era began in 1964. The rate of buildup appears to have remained the same over the years, though the pace of missile production has slowed somewhat. The current version of the big lie is that the Soviets are out to gain superiority over the U.S. The hawks warn that if present trends continue, the Soviets will have "won" the arms race and will be able to dictate surrender.

Talking about "current trends continuing" is like observing in the midst of a spring rain that if it keeps up the Empire State Building will float away. The Soviets are building to catch up. Every missile in the world not located inside the Soviet Union is aimed at the Soviet Union — those of China, Britain, France, as well as the United States. Russia is the only country in the world surrounded by hostile communist powers.

United States generals and Soviet generals genuinely disagree on how much the Soviet Union needs to catch up. What looks defensive to one looks offensive to the other. The Soviets started far behind the United States. To draw even close to nuclear striking forces their rate of production and deployment over the last 10 years would have had to be greater than that of the United States.

But the huge head start and continued commitment of the United States to the arms race still leaves this country far in the lead. According to a Library of Congress study, the United States leads in strategic warheads, submarine-launched warheads, and heavy bombers. Soviet missiles are less accurate. They suffer from geographical disadvantages. Fifty per cent of the U.S. missile-launching submarine fleet can operate away from port at any one time; only 11 per cent of the Soviet submarine fleet can.

The famous Soviet civil defense program is modest. The cost has been calculated at $4 per person compared with $50 per person for civil defense in Switzerland and West Germany. The program, a July 1978 CIA study concludes, is one in which Soviet leaders "cannot have confidence in the degree of protection their civil defense would give them" and hence "the program is unlikely to embolden the Soviet leadership to risk a nuclear war."

It is the United States, not the Soviet Union, that is approaching a theoretical first-strike capability. The Soviets have most of their striking force in land-based missiles which are becoming increasingly vulnerable to our increasingly accurate warheads. Their submarine force and their bomber force are inferior copies of the United States originals. The introduction of the cruise missile, with the capability of delivering many more warheads, significantly increases the American threat for the Soviet leaders.

Stalin's death camps, the brutality of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, and Soviet mistreatment of intellectuals, Baptists, Jews, and dissident workers elicit and ought to elicit moral outrage, but none of these crimes is evidence of an intention to start a nuclear war.

The Kremlin's worries about the United States are not based on vague historical analogies but on painful experience. The United States participated in a military intervention in the Soviet Union after the revolution "to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle," as Winston Churchill put it. The U.S. conducted a 20-year quarantine of the Soviet Union which in part still continues.

Looking from the Kremlin window, a Soviet leader sees the fast development of a United States-West German-Japanese-Chinese alliance, a collection of historic enemies. He sees a resurgence of anti-Soviet rhetoric and anti-Soviet politics in the United States. He may well be aware of the fact that the reappearance of the Soviet threat always coincides with the emergence of new weapons systems from the drawing boards and the renewed eagerness of one military service or another to make an addition to its bureaucratic empire. (The first wave of anti-Soviet sentiment coincided with the development of the intercontinental bomber, the second with the intercontinental missile, and the present one with the new generation of counterforce technology — MX, Trident, and the rest of the new computerized-war apparatus.) But that is small comfort. The Soviet leader listens to Senator Henry Jackson, who does not speak for himself alone, and he hears the message: We have nothing to negotiate with the Soviet Union.

There has never been a time since the Cold War began when privately expressed and official, public views of the Soviet Union in the United States have so diverged. Public expressions of alarm about Soviet military spending, activities in Africa, and the missile buildup conceal a growing off-the-record assessment of Soviet weakness. CIA analyses point to a serious labor shortage, mounting difficulties in exploiting the rich mineral potential of the Soviet Eurasian land mass, and perennial problems with agriculture. There is mounting dissatisfaction with the system and a loss of ideological elan.

There is a consensus among Sovietologists about the mounting problems of the Soviet Union, but considerable difference of opinion on what conclusion to draw. Some, like former Secretary of State Vance, see the Soviet problems as providing a powerful incentive for the leaders in the Kremlin to press detente, to reduce the expenditures of the arms race, and to turn their attention to their own systemic crisis.

But there are others who still hold the dreams of "rollback" cherished by John Foster Dulles. Senator Henry Jackson, for example, apparently believes that this is the time to push the Soviets hard. Perhaps they cannot be physically pushed out of

The introduction of the cruise missile, with the capability of delivering many more warheads, significantly increases the American threat for the Soviet leaders.

Eastern Europe, but their world influence can be undercut and they can be pressed hard in an escalating arms race in which all the advantages lie with the United States.

To be obsessed by the Soviet threat in a world in which more than one billion people starve, half the global work force is projected to be without a minimally paying job by the year 2000, and industrial civilization is close to collapse because political paralysis and greed have kept us from solving the energy crisis is, quite literally, to be blinded by hate.

Every time we read a statement by a general or a senator or a president that we are prepared to threaten or launch a nuclear war in order to keep the Soviet leaders from doing something we don't

No one asks what motive they would have to drop bombs on us other than the fear that we were about to do it to them.

like, a threat to recreate a hundred Auschwitzes has been made in our name. But we are blind to it. If we do not have the clarity of moral vision to see that the Russian people cannot ever deserve a hundred Auschwitzes whatever their leaders do, then our faith rests not on reverence of God and his world but on power fantasies and fear.

The characteristic of sin is confusion. We become possessed by irrational fears. Our minds stop working. The Russians stop being people and become hated

The Pentagon has two rules for negotiating arms agreements: One is "Don't negotiate when you are behind." The other is "Why negotiate when you are ahead?"

symbols. No one asks what motive they have to drop bombs on us other than the fear that we were about to do it to them. There is no worldly prize worth the destruction of the world, or the Soviet Union, or the city of Minsk for that matter, and there is a good deal of evidence that the Russian leaders believe that. No one knows how many Russians would die from the radioactivity floating back from a Soviet attack on the United States.

The insanity of the arms race is underscored by the fact that even the most avid hawks do not believe in the eventualities against which we are pouring out our treasure and poisoning our spirit. It seems rather evident that the Russians, however depraved they may be, would rather trade

The SS-20 cannot reach the United States and does not, therefore, constitute an upset of the balance of strategic power equivalent to the new NATO system (cruise and Pershing missiles). — Soviet dissidents Roy and Zhores Medvedev

with Western Europe than occupy a smoking and uncontrollable ruin.

This reality puts us very far from the choice with which the arms race enthusiasts taunt us: Red or Dead? But the question does at least force us to examine the values we think we are promoting by posing the threat of a hundred Auschwitzes.

The biblical injunction to love one another does not rest in the idea that people are lovable in a human sense. The mystery and the burden of Christian love can be traced to the stubborn fact that love is

As World War II ended, the Soviet Union lay prostrate, 73,000 cities and towns smashed, 20 million people dead.

difficult — people are hard enough to love one by one, and harder still to love by the millions. Yet the injunction is inescapable because creation cannot be sustained without it.

The choice is between love and hate, and hate is death. Hate demands an enemy. The identity hardly matters. Enemies change, but the spirit of enmity and fear remains.

The big lie behind all murder, from the random street killing, to the efficient ovens of Auschwitz, to the even more efficient hydrogen bomb, is that the victims deserve to die.

— Reprinted from the August 1979 issue of Sojourners.


Published in Sources Summer 1983