Here’s a tragic fact of contemporary history: An overloaded weapons arsenal generates its own momentum toward the use of weapons. Weapons override rational choice. That was the great lesson of August 1914; as Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic account “The Guns of August,” the flood of armaments in Europe before World War I was the single largest factor in unleashing that astonishingly irrational conflict.
The dangers of a too-large arsenal are being flagged this August not by an antiwar writer but by a sitting member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a story published last week, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton A. Schwartz told the Globe that the time has come to sharply reduce the US nuclear weapons cache.
Usually, when Pentagon high priests call for such reductions, they are already retired. A decade ago, for example, General George Lee Butler, retired commander of the US Strategic Command, made news as an advocate of massive nuclear cuts. Indeed, he was a post-facto critic of the entire nuclear enterprise over which he had presided. Last spring, a successor to Butler as commander of Stratcom, General James Cartwright, issued a version of the same call, proposing a total nuclear cut from about 4,500 warheads to about 900 — but Cartwright, too, is retired. Schwartz gives this thinking a new edge because he still exercises the power of command.
World War I remains the cautionary tale. “Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers,” Henry James wrote on Aug. 10, 1914. “The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving us to this its grand Niagara. . . I avert my face from the monstrous scene.” It was not just the grotesquery of the trenches that was set in motion that August, but the Great War’s second act, World War II — as well as the conflicts that continued, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “cascading like a Niagara Falls of history.” Another writer, Jonathan Schell, picked up the Niagara metaphor in his classic study of 20th-century war resistance, “The Unconquerable World.”
Momentum overrode rational choice again and again. At the dawn of the nuclear age, Dwight Eisenhower expressed “grave misgivings” about the atomic bomb, calling its use against Japan “completely unnecessary.” Yet, as president, he presided over the insane accumulation of nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, casting the arsenal in its iron mountain of permanence. John F. Kennedy initiated arms control with the Partial Test Ban Treaty. But to get the Joint Chiefs and congressional hawks to support it, he had to approve lavish new defense spending.
This set a pattern for arms control: When one kind of nuclear escalation was halted (limiting missiles, say), nuclear development not restricted by the treaty would grow exponentially (adding multiple warheads to the reduced number of missiles). Jimmy Carter came into office vowing to reduce the nuclear arsenal. He left office having added to it. The antiwar Bill Clinton preserved the nuclear status quo as a “hedge.” And so on.
The Cold War is over, but we still have Cold War thinking, Cold War levels of defense spending, and Cold War nukes. Why? Don’t look for the answer in rational threat analysis, or authentic national security requirements. The answer is the hideous momentum that runs on, like a deeply submerged current, below the surface of political debate and economic activity. Congressional hawks and defense industry flacks — and now Mitt Romney — work to keep the momentum going, and they are sure to oppose General Schwartz.
Niagara is the context in which to evaluate President Obama’s record as commander in chief. Critics on the left accuse him of presiding over George W. Bush’s third term, but that fails to reckon with what he is up against. He cannot turn back the century-old current, like King Canute ordering back the tide. He can re-channel it, though. Obama’s firm commitment to nuclear abolition is what frees General Schwartz to advocate real cuts in the arsenal. Eventual elimination remains possible.
Momentum is not fate. JFK was famously reading “The Guns of August” as the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out. The lessons of the unnecessary war obsessed him. Surrounded by men at the mercy of the Niagara current, Kennedy refused to be carried by it. This August, that mark stands.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.