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Sowing Nuclear Seeds of Division

by Ira Chernus on Jun 22, 2001

Ira Chernus

George W. Bush is talking about the most radical change in U.S. military strategy since Dwight D. Eisenhower took office as president in 1953. Like Eisenhower, Bush faces an uphill struggle selling the new strategy to Congress, the American people and U.S. allies. Eisenhower’s innovation brought more risks than benefits. Bush’s plans are even more full of dangers.

Eisenhower wanted to limit military spending by reducing conventional forces and basing U.S. security on nuclear weapons. But the military budget rose steadily throughout his eight years in office. The problem, Ike said, was that scientists kept inventing new “nukes” and new ways to deliver them. He felt compelled to build almost all of them, lest the Russians get ahead of us.

Today, the Bush administration wants to harness U.S. security to space technology and the computer revolution. This will lead to another costly trap. The name of the enemy changes, but the technological imperative remains the same. The temptations of new computer and space developments today are at least as strong as those of the nuclear revolution in the 1950s.

Imagine a network of satellites that can tell the Pentagon where every single person and object in the world is at every moment and how best to destroy it. Won’t the generals demand whatever the high-tech wizards can create? What president or Congress will dare refuse them? Yes, many generals are resisting now, as they did early in Ike’s presidency. But now as then, once the program is in place, they will stop carping and start buying.

Generals around the world will want those new weapons, too. Eisenhower’s policies sparked a wave of nuclear proliferation whose end is still nowhere in sight. Missile defense and space-based technologies will surely create a new wave of their own.

In addition to cost and proliferation, there is incalculable diplomatic risk, as Eisenhower learned. Once the Europeans grasped his vision of nuclearized war, they realized that their homes would be the next battlefield. This was a point of constant strain between the United States and its fearful allies throughout the ’50s.

Eisenhower was convinced that the NATO alliance had to be kept firm, or the United States would lose the Cold War. His warnings about nuclear danger, his “Atoms for Peace” plan, and his summit meetings with Khrushchev all had one goal in mind: to convince the allies that the bomb-building Americans were not (in his words) ” skunks, saber-rattlers and warmongers.”

NATO did agree to nuclearize. But ultimately the United States national security establishment paid a very high cost, at home as well as abroad. The antinuclear movement here was tiny until Ike began describing the nuclear threat in lurid terms. A generation grew up in the ’50s amid widespread protests against nuclear testing.

By the end of the ’60s, many in that generation were questioning the whole Cold War enterprise. The president of their youth had been forced to say, over and over, that the United States wanted nothing more than peace. Much to his surprise, in the last years of his life, Ike saw huge numbers of Americans taking his words at face value, damning a war that the U.S. government called righteous. And the Europeans, ever more skeptical about the Vietnam debacle, grew even more alienated from U.S. policies.

Bush is trying to repeat his predecessor’s delicate balancing act: posing as a champion of peace while insisting on a new way to make war. So far, the new warmaking technologies seem higher on Bush’s agenda than new moves toward global harmony. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Bush’s peaceable talk, like Ike’s, is a means to a far-from-peaceable end. But words, once uttered, take on a life of their own, as Ike learned.

This kind of talk creates even greater problems for the Bush administration, because it is dealing with Europeans who are much closer to equals than to vassals. Perhaps the Bush-ites don’t care. They do not seem to have Ike’s intense concern about strong alliances. They seem much more willing to let the United States and the European allies continue splitting apart into separate power blocs. When they insist on missile defense, space-based weapons, and other policies that Europeans oppose, it seems as if they may even want to encourage that diplomatic split.

Bush has already acknowledged that he wants to help the United States compete economically against the Europeans. Will our laser-ray satellites one day be competing against the Europeans, too? An Ike-like revolution in technology, without an Ike-like concern for strong alliances, poses far-reaching dangers. And Bush, like Eisenhower, may be sowing seeds of domestic dissension that will not sprout until he is gone from office.

The costs of the Bush program in money, proliferation and domestic and international harmony are already evident. Surely it makes sense to oppose this dangerous strategic revolution now, before any of its costs have to be paid.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.