Current Opinion: The Arms Race vs. Why Disarmament Now?

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Current Opinion: The Arms Race vs. Why Disarmament Now?

by the Disarmament/Energy Group of Boston SftP: Scott Thacher & Mike Teel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 1, January/February 1980, p. 36–38

The two current opinions presented here express divergent views from the Disarmament/Energy Group of Boston Science for the People. It is hoped they will provoke a debate on the need and potential for a disarmament movement today and on the choice of strategy and focus for such a movement.

The Arms Race (by Scott Thacher)

Until recently, the United States has held a commanding lead over the USSR in the variety and number of strategic weapons. The U.S. still leads in the number of warheads; 11,500+ for the U.S. and 3,900+ for the USSR by a recent estimate. However, the USSR carries twice as many megatons on its land-based missiles, and may be approaching the U.S. in such areas as the accuracy of its missiles and thus their ability to make a direct hit on U.S. missile silos. U.S. developments, such as the highly accurate MX mobile missile, or even an effective anti-submarine warfare system, might even tempt the U.S. to consider a first strike during a time of crisis. 

Now more than ever is the time for real disarmament. We hear instead a call for increased military spending and a demonstration of American “national will” abroad. Such a propaganda campaign has preceded major U.S. arms buildups since World War II. Our new armaments, such as the cruise missile or the MX, are to be developed as bargaining chips for future disarmament negotiations. It is ironic that the U.S. has never bargained away any of those chips. For example, in 1972 as part of Salt I, it did not dismantle its hundreds of MIRVs (Multiple Independently-Targeted Re-entry Vehicles) while the Soviet Union still had few or none. Instead the arms race has continued to new levels of danger. If and when Salt II is ratified, the nuclear balance of terror will be less stable than a decade ago because of the first strike capability which each side perceives it has. No longer are ballistic missiles weapons of deterrence based on their ability to destroy major population centers. With technical improvements on both sides they are becoming weapons of attack. 

The use of highly accurate tactical nuclear weapons is proposed by the U.S. to deal with conventional (non-nuclear) arms in Europe. It is logical that Western Europe fears the buildup by the Soviet Union of conventional arms in the East, although it should be noted that a conventional army is far stronger in defense than in attack. The Pershing missile, carrying nuclear warheads and deployed in Germany and two other NATO countries, would do nothing but lead to an utterly devastating exchange for most of the continent. But this level of strategic thinking is the rule in the absence of significant opposition in Europe and the U.S. 

Science for the People can help expose the role the U.S. has played, beginning with the bombs dropped on Japan, in escalating the arms race. It can show how opponents of escalation, especially scientists, were repressed or coopted. It can speak to the human cost of the arms race today as seen in arms exports to poor countries, not to mention the over $400 billion to be spent on arms this year. About half of the scientists and engineers in the world, and in the U.S., work on arms. Projects to convert the military industry to peacetime use may provide help for problems of transportation, housing, or education. Such projects will bring home to many the pervasive economic control of military contractors, which include practically every major U.S. corporation. SftP must not forget that real disarmament, not just the illusion of arms control, is a radical notion not compatible with today’s political and economic system.

Why Disarmament Now? (by Mike Teel)

Disarmament is a growing and urgent international demand. But the voice of the disarmament movement is still weak. Increasing international tension, the SALT debate, and the spreading anti-nuke consciousness are giving it added strength and immediacy. Should Science for the People take part in the disarmament movement? Is disarmament just a utopian demand, doomed to the same futility as the previous attempts after the two world wars? 

World War 

The main argument for organizing around the disarmament issue now hinges on the increasing likelihood of world war. Disarmament is becoming a matter of survival. When the US was clearly the dominant military power in the world, nuclear war seemed unthinkable. But the Indochina wars weakened the U.S., and its superiority is being challenged by the other superpower, the Soviet Union. 

We are faced with a situation parallel to what existed before each of the two world wars. Both world wars were part of a redivision of the world, forcibly creating new spheres of influence. The world’s territory had been monopolized, so newer expanding powers (like Germany) had to grab from the declining powers (like England).1 The decline of U.S. imperialism and expansion of the Soviet Union creates the same threatening situation. The dynamics leading to world war are again in motion. 

Neither superpower actually wants war, but war is the historically inevitable consequence of their rivalry over spheres of influence. War could break out in any of a number of areas, but a war over Europe is most likely to escalate to a Third World War. That is where the superpowers have concentrated their forces. U.S. corporations have invested heavily in Europe and reap large profits. If the Soviet Union is to overtake the U.S. and vastly expand its spheres of influence, it needs the mighty industrial economies of Western Europe. The Middle East and other areas may have strategic importance, but they do not generate the wealth of the industrialized Common Market. (However, with the present standoff in Europe, the USSR is currently undertaking a large flanking movement in Africa and Asia to control key materials and trade.) 

This focus on Europe is important because the U.S. has pledged to defend Western Europe with nuclear weapons. In fact, the European war scenarios for both superpowers contemplate the use of nuclear weapons,2 and neither superpower has ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons.3 In its European strategy, the U.S. is relying on “tactical” nuclear weapons and planning for “limited” nuclear warfare. However, the Soviet Union says it does not recognize such concepts as “limited” nuclear warfare. There is no reason to assume that once the nuclear threshold was crossed, the use of atomic weapons would be limited to the European battlefields. 

Can It Be Stopped? 

This is a pretty gloomy picture, but it is better to understand the direction of history than to be overtaken by it. Is there any hope of slowing the arms race? I think there is. 

The most important difference between the present era and the periods prior to the other two world wars is the rise of the Third World. These former colonies are slowly expanding their independence and unity. They are the main force in the non-aligned movement. They have fought to maintain nuclear-free zones, for instance around the Indian Ocean. They joined with the smaller imperialist countries (like France) at the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament to call on the two superpowers to begin real disarmament. This is a just demand because the superpowers pose the greatest threat to the other countries. In order to bolster their positions both superpowers need to increase their exploitation and domination in the Third World. This puts the Third World at the center of the movement against the war preparations of the two superpowers. 

Should SftP Join the Disarmament Movement? 

SftP developed from the anti-war movement of the 1960’s. Disarmament is a major focus of the growing international anti-war movement of the 1980’s. As an organization whose interests cut across many issues, SftP is in a good position to raise the importance of disarmament with many different groups. Along with other groups it can help to make connections between the anti-nuke movement and disarmament. The scientific advances which are making a nuclear first-strike capability more possible are making a nuclear war more probable. The arms race is a horrendous example of science against the people. 

The vast sums spent on defense do not bring us security. They increase our insecurity instead. Moreover, to prepare to defend their holdings abroad, the government and big corporations have to attack us at home. This means higher taxes, even fewer social services, the draft, greater discrimination, disciplining labor, and militarizing the society. The disarmament movement needs to support the people resisting these attacks and involve them in our efforts. 

Full disarmament is not possible without radically changing our social order. But an effective disarmament movement can postpone war, make it less devastating, and organize resistance to it. Neither the American people nor the other peoples of the world have anything to gain from this war. 

Living in one of the two superpowers, we have a special role to play in the disarmament movement. We need to concentrate on our country’s arms build-up and other war preparations, and expose its imperialist nature to all Americans. This concentration, however, does not mean we should be one-sided. We also need to see ourselves as part of the international anti-war movement and call for both superpowers to begin disarming. It is only this international effort that can put off the outbreak of a world war.

>> Back to Vol. 12, No. 1<<


  1. These ideas come out of the debate (and split) in the socialist movement during World War I. They are developed more fully by Lenin in his book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
  2. Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament. Random House, 1978. Chapter II, Sections 4 & 5.
  3. Ibid. p. 323.