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Our Defense Requirements

February 20, 1988

In a thought-provoking column ("Numbers Tell Us We Might Find Strength Through Peace," Op-Ed Page, Feb. 7), Jack Beatty asks whether we feel safer now than seven years ago, and then reminds his readers that since 1981 "we have spent $2 trillion on defense."

Through his use--in my opinion, misuse--of the word defense Beatty has weakened the force of his message. The figure he mentions, whose mind-boggling magnitude might have become more easily grasped if it had been written as $2,000,000,000,000, represents a sum spent in ways which bear little relationship to genuine defense requirements.

In making the distinction between defense spending and military (or Pentagon) spending, am I guilty of indulging in semantic quibbling? An incident that occurred 20 years ago seems to argue otherwise. As I was being introduced to an influential U.S. senator, he said: "Before we begin this discussion, it's only fair for me to inform you that if circumstances were to make this necessary, I would vote to allocate 100% of our federal budget for the defense of our country." The senator seemed surprised, and his expression softened, when he heard me say that I would applaud such a vote, and that my intention was to discuss, not legitimate defense expenditures, but excessive military spending. For me the incident was a vivid reminder of the semantic coup that had been scored in 1947 when our country's War Department was renamed Department of Defense. In a more current context, the point I am trying to make is illustrated by the fact that opponents say "Star Wars" while the people in favor invariably refer to the "Strategic Defense Initiative."

In a Los Angeles Times article (Dec. 13), William A. Niskanen Jr., a former member of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, was quoted as saying: "Unlike most people who vote Republican, I'd cut a lot out of defense. To start with, I would cut $50 billion--we are now spending in real terms 20% more than we were spending at the peak of the Vietnam War." In his role as a presidential economic adviser Niskanen had access to enough information--and possessed enough courage--to say what he did even with the use of the word defense as part of his statement. For most Americans, however, the word becomes a mental barrier that blocks objectivity, a sort of sacred cow. A phrase like Pentagon budget is, on the other hand, a useful reminder that this particular department, like all government bureaucracies, always wants all the money it can get.

It seems to me that Beatty's message implies the clear need for still another semantic shift: a redefinition of national security . As his column points out, "The average American household has contributed $21,000 over the past seven years to pay for the Reagan-Weinberger profligacy." During that same period our economic strength has been deeply damaged, and we have not been able to pay for the pressing need to repair our country's crumbling infrastructure--roads, bridges, etc. And all the while it has become increasingly clear that the destiny of a nation is much more likely to be determined by economic power than by military power.

Unlike President Reagan, President Dwight Eisenhower understood, and underscored, the relationship between economic vitality and national security. It is worth recalling one of his little-known statements on the subject: "There is no way in which a country can satisfy the craving for absolute security--but it can bankrupt itself, morally and economically, in attempting to reach that illusory goal through arms alone."

To redefine what we mean by national security; to redirect our view of thermonuclear devices; to reorder our spending priorities, we need to "think anew and act anew"--in Abraham Lincoln's words of 1862. Our ability to do that will be immeasurably enhanced if we begin to set the terms of the national debate with words and phrases which help rather than hinder the achievement of these vital goals.


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