Since 1976 the arms lobby, or what President Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex," has pretty much had things its own way in the United States.
In that year, in March, a group of former government officials from various administrations formed an organization calling itself the Committee on the Present Danger. Its delclared purpose was to expose the "Soviet threat," oppose detente, and promote substantial increases in US defense spending.
From 1976 to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the committee provided much of the brain work behind a massive publicity campaign which has been brilliantly successful. It worked with a number of other organizations all interested in promoting more defense spending. The group included the American Security Council, the Coalition for Peace through Strength, the National strategy information Center, and the American Conservative Union Collectively the group is known in Washington as the "arms lobby."
Their success stands today in the form of the Reagan defense program which calls for Americans spending a trillion and a half dollars over the next five years in order to add to the US military establishment four new Army divisions, 150 new ships for the Navy, five more wings for the Air Force, and an MX missile system to give a longer run to the land-based strategic weapons component of the US "triad."
There it is. A superexpansion program, the biggest and most expensive in all time. Congress favors the overall concept. Public opinion polls show a majority favoring US expansion of its military strength in order to overcome the alleged "gap" between US and Soviet strength.
And it was all so easy, while the administration in office was still clinging to "detente" and still trying to restrain defense spending on the ground that the Soviet menace is not quite that menacing. The easiest propaganda position to take is in favor of more guns when those in office think they already are providing enough.
Wave the flag, allege neglect of the national security, demand "adequate defense," and those in office begin to fall back in disarray.
The campaign led by the Committee on the Present Danger was launched when Gerald Ford was President and Henry Kissinger was secretary of state. Its first success was in forcing the Ford reelection campaign to abandon "detente." It then secured a reevaluation by a panel of their own persuasion of CIA estimates of Soviet military strength. This "B panel" of hawks virtually doubled the alleged Soviet threat. During the four Carter years it worked consistently to build a demand for higher defense spending.
But now, with that campaign triumphant in the form of a presidential and congressional commitment, a new chapter opens. Movements like this tend to operate like the ebb and flow of the tides. The tide ran heavily in favor of more defense so long as there was resistance in high places. Now there is no resistance in high places, and now, for the first time in some five years, the focus swings to doubts and questions.
The questions are interesting. How can you man four new infantry divisions and 150 new ships without conscription? And if the administration asks for conscription will the new defense program continue to be popular in Congress and at large?
What will an extra trillion and a half dollars do to the economy? Can the defense industry in fact use that much money in such a short time? What kind of ships -- big or small?
The New Yorker magazne in its April 27 issue ran one of those massive articles it loves so much which retells the story of the great gun lobby campaign, along with a lot of the questions about elements in that campaign. This is basic research material which is likely to show up in coming months in many a congressional debate and publicity campaign against the proposed defense budget.
Adm. Stansfield Turner, recent director of the CIA, has taken up the cudgels for a modern Navy of small surface control ships armed with cruise missiles instead of going on building supercarriers of doubtful survivability under war conditions -- even if crew could be found to man them.
Newsweek magazine devoted nearly half of its June 8 issue to a detailed examination of the defense program, its lack of coherent strategic concept, and the serious questions about its viability.
The Committee on the Present Danger had a tremendous victory over its opponents when it produced President Reagan's trillion and a half dollar defense program.
But so far it is only a paper program and a paper triumph. The real issue is now joined. How much of it should or can be converted into actual s oldiers, warships, and warplanes?