Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.


Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature-that child beating its breast with its fist, for instance-in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky1

Life endured under the shadow of nuclear war, and the horrible price humankind will pay if war actually breaks out, are the most obvious costs of nuclear competitions. They are not, however, the only costs. To put our subject in a proper perspective, we need to examine other costs.

For the sake of brevity, this chapter will focus on the costs and risks which the Cold War has exacted from the American people. The reader should bear in mind, however, the many sacrifices endured by other nations. It also goes without saying that the cost of future military competitions may dwarf the price humanity has already paid for the Cold War.


Military Costs

By the mid-1980s, America's postwar military position had steeply declined.

At the end of War World II, the United States was the world's foremost military power. Among other things, it was the only Allied country which fought a large-scale war on two separate fronts, provided vital support to its allies, and developed atomic bombs. As we shall see (chapter 6), since the late 1960s the USA has enjoyed an edge over the USSR in fighting conventional wars, but this edge had little meaning in the nuclear age. Nuclear weapons are the Great Equalizers: any country possessing enough of these fairly cheap bombs, as well as adequate means of delivering them (e.g., missiles), is militarily second to none. Long ago, the Soviet Union had enough; China in the 1990s constitutes a borderline case; countries such as Japan and Germany might acquire a sufficient quantity in the future. So the U.S. had been reduced from a peak of unquestionable superiority to the much less secure position of first among equals.

A second aspect of America's steep military decline is not comparative (our military position vis-a-vis potential adversaries), but absolute. At the close of World War II, the U.S. was impregnable. During the war, it had erected some fortresses on the West Coast in fear of a Japanese invasion and suffered its share of setbacks. Nonetheless, it was the only major combatant whose land and civilian population were virtually untouched. During the 1950s, even though the Soviets possessed perhaps the capability to destroy a few American cities with nuclear bombs, the U.S. would have survived. In the years that followed, however, the Soviets could devastate the U.S. and there was nothing we could do to stop them except make it clear that we could, and would, retaliate in kind. To be sure, this deterrent posture may have decreased our chances of oblivion, but it did not eliminate our essential vulnerability.

Nuclear weapons proliferation posed an even greater security threat. Newcomers to the "nuclear club" (Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan2), prospective members (e.g., Brazil, Argentina), and nations capable of rapidly acquiring nuclear weapons (e.g., Japan, Germany) may act less responsibly than America, Russia, Britain, France, and China. If visited by economic hard times, fascist takeovers, or environmental catastrophes, these newcomers may be more tempted to use nuclear weapons. And, while nuclear weapon states have a country to lose and are unlikely

to engage in nuclear blackmail, elusive criminals, terrorists, or madmen may come by a handful of bombs and be more tempted to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons within the military organizations of all nuclear weapon states poses additional threats. In the U.S., for example, at one time nuclear weapons could be fired only from bombers stationed in a few places and handled by a relatively small number of men who belonged to a single service. In the 1980s, these weapons could be launched from all kinds of bombers and missiles located practically anywhere (in one service alone-the U.S. Navy-from some 250 ships and submarines3); they were operated by many more people (some 100,000 in the U.S. alone4); and these people belonged to more independent units of our Armed Forces. Clearly, the chances of accidental or unauthorized firing under such conditions were greater in the 1980s than they were before.

Thus, thanks to the nuclear arms race, the United States' military position in the mid-1980s had declined from clear superiority to equality, and from virtual invincibility to troubling vulnerability.

By lavishing stupendous resources on the arms race, we weakened the economic and educational base upon which our long-term military might depended. The West spent sizable resources, including manpower, on non-productive weapons and on huge standing armies. Had some of these resources been diverted to civilian research and development, industrial equipment, or education, Western economies would have been stronger. The military implications of such spending were more serious for the Soviet Union, whose economy was less than one-quarter as large as the West's. But excessive military spending might still have adverse consequences for Western security, for often in international relations yesterday's friends are today's foes. Thus, twenty years from now, if the U.S. is still around, its chief adversary could well be a country other than Russia. If that other country spent much less on defense than the U.S., and more on its educational and economic base, then its long-term military position and its ability to wage conventional wars might improve more rapidly than either the United States' or Russia's.

Conventional Wars

All other things being equal, it is plausible to suppose that the more arms a nation has, the likelier it is to engage in conventional wars and military adventures. Armed conflicts can therefore be viewed as one indirect cost of the arms race.

The Vietnam War serves as one powerful reminder of the stupendous costs of major non-nuclear conflicts. This war caused millions of deaths, injuries, and individual tragedies, cost billions of dollars, weakened the USA's international standing, and cast a dark shadow over America's foreign policies. It was also the most notorious case of environmental warfare in history-agricultural crops and natural ecosystems were deliberately destroyed, much of the countryside was disfigured with numerous craters, and some species of wild plants and animals were probably made extinct.5a

The war in Vietnam left in its wake extensive impoverished grassland instead of forests, widespread erosion and dust storms, major declines in freshwater and coastal fisheries, and severe losses of wildlife, especially from the forest canopy-wounds from which the land may not recover for a hundred years. . . . War-damaged environments fostered the spread of bamboo thickets . . . rodent populations, and "bomb crater malaria."6

Although it is too early to assess the consequences of the Persian Gulf War, the few guarded details which have so far escaped the censor's pen are troubling. Heavy casualties, human anguish, and resurgent jingoism have often been associated with military conflicts, but modern technology is introducing additional twists. A conventional war of only a few weeks' duration imprinted itself on the collective memory of the survivors. It killed, maimed, or injured 1-3 percent of the long-suffering Iraqis and Kuwaitis. It craterized the landscape. It set in motion short-lived rebellions, eventually forcing well over 10 percent of Iraq's people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad. If rumors about the bombardment of operating nuclear facilities prove true, this war may have caused long-term radioactive contamination of some tracts of land. This war left in its wake an enormous oil spill which imperils the ogy of the Persian Gulf. In the last days of the war, Iraq's rulers carried out their pre-war threat of setting on fire some 550 Kuwaiti oil wells. Consequently, (1) severe health and ecological problems are expected over hundreds of thousands of square miles in Kuwait and outlying regions, (2) for a few years, the smoke may block sunlight and cause a slight cooling of the northern hemisphere, and (3) over the long term, the vast quantities of carbon dioxide may make a small contribution to global warming.


Economic and Human Costs

In 1986, the world's military spending exceeded $900 billion.7 From 1983 to 1988, America's share of the world's total hovered around one-third.5b,7 By 1987, according to official U.S. statistics, the military establishment cost the average American household some $3,500 a year.8a Others insist that the actual price tag was much higher and that, in fact, the bulk of our tax dollars went into Cold War-related activities. According to one source,9 if we include among these activities interest payments incurred by earlier military spending, veterans' benefits, gifts of foreign arms to our allies, and construction of nuclear weapons, in 1986 the arms race cost the average American household well over $5,000 a year. In the Soviet Union, the burden has been far heavier. First, throughout most of the Cold War, the costs of the arms race had been laughingly under-reported by the Soviet government. Second, owing to the greater poverty and technological backwardness of the Soviet Union, Soviet citizens paid a higher price for the arms race than American citizens.

The figures are just as staggering when you consider the manpower requirements of the military. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense kept over two million Americans in uniform, it employed an additional one million civilians, and it indirectly provided jobs for more than three million workers in war-related industries.8b,10 (These figures do not include retirees, e.g., the 1.5 million military retirees on the public payroll8b). In 1980, some 50 percent of the world's scientists were engaged in war-related search and development. Between them, the military-industrial complexes of just the USA and USSR commanded the services of 750,000 scientists.11

Besides the money and manpower it absorbed, the military establishment consumed non-renewable natural resources. For example, in the mid-1980s, the military accounted for 1.5 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S.

The economic burdens of the arms race could be perhaps brought to life with a few tangible examples. In the 1980s, it cost as much money to construct a single nuclear submarine as to educate 160 million school-age children in less developed countries.12 The U.S. military consumed half a million dollars per minute,7 and every minute 30 children in the world either starved to death or died from diseases that could have been easily prevented through vaccination.

In fact, peace could alter the human condition, if only the one trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000) or so the world still spends each year on wars and war preparations could be diverted to more productive channels. Each year, some 15 million children under the age of five starve to death or fall ill and die because they are underfed or improperly fed; of these 15 million Tiny Tims, 9 million could be saved for a mere $65 million.13a Every year, half a million of the world's children become partially or totally blind because their diet lacks vitamin A; it would cost a mere few million to rid humanity of this scourge.13b A mere speck of the world's military spending could save Brazilian rain forests and African elephants. These funds could be diverted to clean our air and waters, keep the world's growing deserts in check, conserve energy, and protect the biosphere. They could be used to avert the looming crisis of international debts and national deficits. They could be used for space exploration, development of non-polluting energy sources, and medical research. In America, they could be used to raise the U.S.'s international standing in infant mortality from number 24 to number 1, thereby saving every year the lives of some 20,000 American infants. They could help Americans reach the Dutch level of unwanted teenage pregnancies, thereby reducing the number of these yearly individual tragedies from 900,000 to 300,000. They could be used to improve fire safety (currently, the incidence of fire-related deaths in the U.S. is one of the highest in the world). They could be used to rescue most of the 100,000 Americans who die every year from avoidable workplace-related diseases.13c They could be used to combat the scandal of hunger in the world's richest country. By 1985, at least 20 million Americans (including over 10 million children) were hungry, mostly because of cuts in government aid since 1980 (cuts which coincided with the most massive peacetime arms buildup in American history).13d They could be used to bring down America's homicide rate (10 times higher than England's). They could be used to stimulate our economy and save our farms from soil erosion and corporate takeovers. They could be used to put healthy food on our tables. They could be used to renovate our cities, our decaying bridges and highways, and our declining industry. In short, if the money humanity squanders now on warfare and killing machines could only be judiciously diverted to meet human needs, living conditions on this planet could be radically improved.

Some observers suggest other adverse economic costs of the arms race, such as inflation. But because these costs are controversial and uncertain, I shall ignore them here. However, there is no question that brain power, manpower, and other resources which are presently soaked up by the arms race could be used for more productive purposes, thereby vastly enhancing the quality of human life on this planet.14


Environmental Costs

Apart from wars, the most serious environmental impact of the military arises from its nuclear programs:

I. The radioactive waste these programs produce must be stored safely for thousands of years, a problem that has so far proven intractable. Although by 1991 there has been only one major nuclear accident in a military waste disposal site in the Urals and one near-accident in the state of Washington,15 over the next few millennia there will be many opportunities for additional accidents, especially if the quantities of waste and the number of countries producing them continue to rise. By 1988 the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed decades-long charges that nuclear weapon plants and laboratories threaten the environment and public health. In a published report, the Department stated that radioactive and toxic chemicals produced in these sites have often contaminated public water supplies and that they may cause cancers, miscarriages, and other diseases in residents of nearby cities.16 In the U.S. alone, it may cost as much as $150 billion to partially quarantine this kettle of rancid fish.5c

II. As we have seen (Chapter 1), accidental explosions of large nuclear bombs cannot be ruled out.

III. Until worldwide atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs came to a virtual stop, they degraded environmental quality.

IV. Although the environmental consequences of the more recent underground tests are believed to be comparatively light, serious long-term consequences cannot be ruled out.

V. Nuclear submarines routinely release radioactive substances into the oceans.

VI. Accidents involving satellites powered by nuclear reactors may cause radioactive contamination. So far the global impact of such accidents has been negligible. But if space is militarized, and if large nuclear reactors are deployed in satellites, this problem could become more serious.

The environmental impact of the military is by no means confined to nuclear pollution. According to one source, military-related activities accounted for some 20 percent of environmental degradation on this planet.17a Thus, production of bombers deplete non-renewable resources; disposal of poisonous chemicals pollutes the biosphere; and the launch of solid-fuel missiles may deplete the Earth's ozone layer.18 Similarly, in the U.S. alone, by 1989 well over 14,000 military sites suffered from toxic contamination.17b

We may note in passing that the environmental costs of the arms race would have been much higher had the public in the West given the military establishment the freedom to do as it liked to the biosphere and to public health. For example, large-scale atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs would still be an everyday occurrence, an MX missile racetrack would now cover portions of Nevada and Utah, and a military "antenna farm" would cover 41 percent of Wisconsin.19

Moral and Psychological Costs

Though it is impossible to quantify, or prove the existence of, the costs described in this section and the next, they may well be severe.

Many people realized the fundamental irrationality of a race that did violence to all contestants and that could, in principle, be replaced by less suicidal forms of competition. They suspected that this race had nothing to do with its avowed goals of preserving freedom, security, independence, and social justice. In the long run, these irrational and irrelevant aspects of our species' collective behavior could erode such individual standards of morality as truthfulness, tolerance, and fair play, thereby tearing apart essential strands in the delicate fabric that holds our civilization together.

Moreover, we shall remain free only as long as we remain willing to defend our open society against its enemies here and abroad. But if open societies are responsible in part for the madness of the arms race, if they are incapable of showing greater responsibility on this crucial issue than closed societies, are open societies worth defending at all? And if the worst comes, and if human beings can erect a new civilization from the radioactive ruins of the old, would they not relinquish freedom?


Militarism, Imperialism, and Plutodemocracy

The vast standing army the U.S. has kept in place since World War II constitutes a sharp break from the country's historical traditions. This break contributed to an unprecedented, and ominous, militarization of American society.

The military bureaucracy is made up of individuals whose training and habits diverge, in some ways, from democratic practices and ideals. For instance, a distinguished general felt that, should the U.S. find itself in anything like the Vietnam War again, the President should try "to silence future critics of war by executive order."20

The military establishment is a collection of vast and powerful organizations such as the U.S. Navy, the civilian branch of the Department of Defense, and the war-related sectors of the Boeing Corporation. In the absence of adequate safeguards, such organizations are driven to pursue their own narrow interests, not the public's. Some of the needed safeguards are missing and others which are in place are being eroded. Gradually, or abruptly under extreme circumstances, this erosion might lead to a military dictatorship.

As employer of millions of people and spender of billions of dollars, the military establishment enjoys considerable political power. This power leaves its mark even in such unlikely places as academia. In 1982, for example, the Department of Defense funded 13 percent of all university research,21a thereby diminishing academic freedom.22

A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and his co-author tell us that "we are surrounded by distressing evidence that civilian control of today's booming military establishment is a good deal less than a generally prevailing reality."21b This is attested by the military's effective propaganda machine, by the huge cost overruns which plague the system, and by countless incidents. A major general, for instance, conducted an unauthorized bombing campaign during the Vietnam War. Another general conducted an unauthorized espionage operation in the offices of the Assistant to the President for National Security.21b Similarly, in the mid-1980s, military figures played key roles in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

The military establishment skillfully uses the broadcast and print media to enhance its objectives and political power. Coupled with the number and complexity of election issues, this can lead people to vote against their own, and their country's, interests. J. W. Fulbright, former Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, felt that the problem was already grave in 1970:

I had . . . no idea of the extent to which the Pentagon had been staffed and armed to promote itself . . . to shape public opinion and build an impression that militarism is good for you. A most unsettling aspect of these various campaigns was the scant attention the disclosure of their existence attracted. . . . This complaisant acceptance of things military is one of the most ominous developments in modern America.23a

To be sure, the U.S. is not a garrison state, nor is it at a grave risk of becoming one by the year 2020. We have too many safeguards in place, and our generals are as committed to the system (as they understand it) as most of us are. The chief danger might not be a coup, but an insidious, gradual transformation of our values and institutions.

The arms race, then, constituted an experiment. It could have culminated in a dictatorship or a full-fledged plutocracy. Alternatively, even if it continues for another century, Western democracies might survive it unscathed. There are good reasons to believe, however, that the arms race has already weakened Western democracies and that, even now, it may eventually undermine them:

The incursions the military have made in our civilian system . . . muffled civilian voices within the Executive branch, weakened the constitutional role and responsibility of the Congress, and laid an economic and psychological burden on the public that could be disastrous. . . . Militarism as a philosophy poses a distinct threat to our democracy. . . . [A military take-over] may not seem likely now, but it is by no means so inconceivable that we need not warn against it and act to prevent it.23b

Since 1945, most of the Third World's people have not been free. They were severely exploited by a cabal of homegrown tyrants and foreign businesspeople. They lived in abject poverty, with no decent education, medical care, or food. Their lives were comparatively short. Similarly, in the USSR's European satellites, millions were denied fundamental civil liberties, prosperity, and a livable environment. As we have seen, the money spent on the arms race could be used to improve living conditions in the Third World and former Soviet satellites. But the fortunes of these billions of people were tied to the Cold War in more subtle, though no less important, ways. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union attributed the subjugation of its European satellites to the arms race and to its fear of Western invasion. Likewise, the United States used the Cold War to justify its consistent interventions in Third World countries in favor of repressive regimes like Somoza's or Diem's, and against their communist or democratic opponents. For instance, before the CIA toppled a democratic government in Guatemala, the American people were told that Guatemala was a "beachhead for Soviet Communism" in the Americas. The price the world's people paid for such interventions is incalculable. As we shall see later, U.S. policies in Guatemala alone were responsible for the deaths of at least 5 percent of the population, to say nothing of condemning most surviving Guatemalans to a life of quiet desperation. To be sure, imperialism existed before the Cold War started and may continue long after its demise. Without the Cold War, it had, perhaps, a better chance of fading away.

In principle, democracies subscribe to such ideals "as one citizen, one vote," "equality before the law," "government of the people, by the people, for the people." But unlike Israeli kibbutzim or some early Christian communities, they rarely practice economic egalitarianism. The greater economic power of the very rich can in turn be translated into a disproportionate political power. Since ancient times, therefore, democracies were prone to drift or revert into plutodemocracies-democracies in which the rich few enjoy greater political power than the poorer many.

For the last twenty years or so, the United States has been gradually moving in the plutodemocratic direction. It is inconceivable, for instance, that in a functional democracy the great majority would knowingly increase the buying power of billionaires at its own expense. Yet American voters have been electing and re-electing politicians who did just that.

It may be that this drift towards plutodemocracy is traceable in part to the arms race. The arms race creates pockets of wealth and corruption which might not otherwise exist. A preoccupation with external enemies may diminish our vigilance against plutocratic encroachments. A few of the billions used now for war preparation could be used to educate the people and diminish the influence of excessive wealth, demagoguery, and indoctrination in our body politic.


The Arms Race or Totalitarianism?

On the Western side, the specter of a gruesome totalitarian takeover provided the Cold War's most compelling rationale. Moreover, the policies it fueled appear to have been astoundingly successful. We have survived the arms race. We have contained and then rolled back totalitarianism. We experienced hardships and persevered, and now, at long last, totalitarian ideologies have suffered decisive setbacks. We have won the Cold War and set the world free. The USA is finally strong enough to establish a new world order.

But, as we shall see, this self-congratulatory interpretation of history is mistaken. It is also dangerous; if it prevails, it could darken the human prospect for another half a century. Despite its reasonableness and appealing simplicity, despite the indisputable horrors of totalitarianism, the dilemma we purportedly faced between totalitarianism and the arms race had little to do with the real world. In the imaginary, self-serving world of our war intellectuals, the West had to choose between the horrors of slavery and the arms race. In the real world, it had to do nothing of the kind. Throughout the Cold War, the West could have taken a road which would have given humanity greater freedom, peace, and prosperity. At this writing, this road is still open and still not taken.



The United States paid a heavy price for the arms race, in addition to life in the shadow of a nuclear cataclysm. The arms race weakened America's military position by (1) forcing the U.S. to rely on nuclear deterrence instead of relying on its overwhelming military might, (2) making it vulnerable to complete destruction from afar in a matter of minutes, (3) increasing its vulnerability to nuclear blackmail from terrorists and a growing club of nuclear-weapon states, (4) steadily raising the chances of nuclear accidents, and (5) weakening its economic and political system. The arms race contributed to the eruption of numerous conventional wars, thereby helping to bring about deaths, suffering, subjugation, and destruction. By the late 1980s, the Soviet-American arms race still consumed some $600 billion and it still kept millions of people in uniforms and in war-related industrial and research projects. Had all this money and manpower been judiciously diverted, the quality of life of most individuals on this planet, and the human prospect, would have been dramatically improved. The arms race consumed non-renewable natural resources. It contributed to environmental degradation, especially through radioactive pollution. In the long run, the arms race may have undermined individual standards of morality, the resolve to defend freedom and democracy, and the civilian character of our society. The arms race has been used to justify Soviet and American imperialistic tendencies, thereby indirectly killing untold millions of human beings and keeping billions in political, psychological, and economic chains. It may be that the arms race contributed to America's move during the past two decades towards a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.


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