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Numbers Tell Us We Might Find Strength Through Peace

February 07, 1988|JACK BEATTY | Jack Beatty is a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly. and

Are you safer now than you were seven years ago?

That question has not yet come up in the presidential primaries, but it's bound to be an issue in the November election, when the Democrats will be attacking the Reagan-Weinberger profligacy in defense spending, while the Republicans will be defending its peace-through-strength rationale. A just-released report from the Center For Defense Information, a dovish think tank, provides statistics that should figure in the coming debate. (Warning: no taxpayer with a delicate heart should read on.)

Since 1981, according to the report, we have spent $2 trillion on defense. That works out to $743 million per day, $31 million per hour, $516,000 per minute and almost $9,000 per second. We spent $736 billion defending Europe, $294 billion defending Asia, another $294 billion defending the Persian Gulf, $147 billion defending North America and $427 billion on the strategic nuclear forces that defend us against the Soviet Union's nuclear forces. While the number of men and women in the armed services has barely increased since 1981 (rising from 2,062,000 to 2,168,000), the Administration has boosted military research 50%, to $400 billion. It has spent $27 billion on the B-1 bomber, $16 billion on the MX missile, $19 billion on the Aegis cruiser, $13 billion on the Trident II missile and $13 billion on "Star Wars" research, to name a few of the weapons systems to which the average American household has contributed $21,000 over the past seven years.

Eighty-five percent of this spending, according to the report, may be locked in place by 1989, so, even if international conditions should permit, the next President will probably not be able to cut the cost of defense significantly.

To return to our question: Has this unprecedented peacetime build-up made us safer than we were before Reagan came to office? (That it has made us poorer is taken for granted: The $1 trillion U.S. taxpayers spent defending Europe and Asia, for example, helped make the world safe for Toyota and BMW, if not for democracy.) No doubt the buildup has gotten the attention of the Soviets, who have been increasing their defense spending by an estimated average of 2.1% since 1979 while we have averaged an annual increase of 5.8%. And no doubt our resolve to outspend them helped make them accede to an arms-reduction agreement as favorable to the United States as the INF treaty.

But the INF treaty affects only European and Soviet security. In the Reagan years the sole reduction in Soviet weapons targeted on the United States has come about as a result of the SALT II agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter, which Reagan observed for a few years, then repudiated. The threat posed by Soviet heavy missile to our survival has increased since that repudiation. The proposed strategic arms-reduction agreement would cut that threat in half. But to get it, Reagan must compromise on Star Wars. Only if he can do that will his build-up have increased our security. Though it's a catchy slogan, "Peace Through Strength" is, ultimately, the wrong way about. "Strength Through Peace" (i.e., arms control) may sound paradoxical, but in the nuclear age it appears to be realism itself.

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