Bush's Maginot Line in the Sky

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years ago, when a U.S. participant in an international nuclear arms
control conference proposed a treaty to ban anti-ballistic missile
(ABM) systems, the head of the Soviet delegation said that there
must have been a problem with the translation. He had heard the
interpreter say that the objective was to ban defensive weapons
systems, he remarked, when it was obvious that the danger lay in
offensive weapons. But, in fact, the U.S. delegate had indeed proposed
banning defensive weapons. The 1964 conference was part of a series
of unofficial Pugwash meetings that brought together U.S. and Soviet
scientists for serious discussions of how to halt the nuclear arms
race between their two nations. The U.S. speaker was the physicist
Jack Ruina, who – along with other members of the U.S. delegation – proceeded
to explain that, in the context of preparations for war, when one
nation added a defensive military system, this encouraged rival
nations to build up their offensive military systems. Additional
shields led to additional swords.

officials were also growing worried about the development of anti-ballistic
missile systems. After the Soviet Union began building an ABM system
outside of Moscow, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara went to
President Lyndon Johnson and argued that the deployment of Soviet
and American ABM systems would not only lead to the building of
additional offensive missiles, but would be costly and ineffective.
In this context, the Johnson administration began to press its Soviet
counterpart for a treaty to freeze the construction of offensive
missiles and to ban ABM systems. At first, Kremlin officials were
reluctant to move forward along these lines. But, advised by Soviet
participants in the Pugwash conferences, they, too, began to see
the drawbacks in missile defense and the advantages in bringing
the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race under control.

in 1972 they signed the ABM treaty with the Nixon administration.
Although the treaty did not entirely ban ABM systems, it severely
restricted the development of missile defense. Eventually, both
the United States and the Soviet Union simply shut down the very
limited ABM systems that the treaty left in place. Meanwhile, they
agreed to curbs on their arsenals of long-range ballistic missiles.

actions probably would have brought an end to this dangerous and
costly variant of the nuclear arms race had it not been for President
Ronald Reagan. In 1983, with great fanfare, he announced his Strategic
Defense Initiative (SDI), which became better known as "Star
Wars." SDI, Reagan argued, would destroy all nuclear missiles
fired at the United States, thus sparing the American people the
consequences of nuclear war.

of scientists and members of Congress immediately denounced SDI,
arguing – like their predecessors – that there was no evidence that
this fantastic plan would work, that it was exceptionally costly,
and that it would encourage other nations to build up their missile
forces. They also pointed out that other nations could frustrate
it easily by deploying decoy missiles that would confuse the defenders.
Much of the public viewed SDI, at best, as a crackpot scheme; at
worst, as dangerous.

these circumstances, the Democratic Congress failed to appropriate
the large amounts of money requested for SDI research and development
by the Reagan administration and by the successor administration,
that of George Bush. Even so, the program went forward on a limited
basis. And after the Republican capture of Congress in 1994, missile
defense funding grew appreciably.

by 1999, despite the spending of more than $100 billion on missile
defense, the U.S. government still did not have a workable system.
Indeed, U.S. anti-missile systems had failed fourteen of their last
eighteen tests. Nor did these tests take into account the enormous
difficulties that would emerge in knocking down a missile, moving
at supersonic speed, that would be fired at an unknown time from
an unknown place. Against that discouraging backdrop, President
Clinton announced that he would not authorize the deployment of
national missile defense, but would leave that decision to his successor.

W. Bush, campaigning for the presidency in 2000, was considerably
more enthusiastic about deployment. As a result, after he reached
the White House, he moved forward with it. In December 2001, to
facilitate the building of a national missile defense system, he
gave Russia notice that he was withdrawing the United States from
the ABM treaty. This U.S. action dismayed governments around the
world. It not only demolished one of the pillars of the worldwide
nuclear arms control regime, but effectively scrapped the START
II nuclear disarmament treaty, for the Russian Duma had ratified
START II contingent on the U.S. government’s compliance with the
ABM treaty.

setbacks to nuclear arms control and disarmament, however, have
done nothing to diminish the Republican infatuation with national
missile defense. At present, Congress is considering the Bush administration’s
request for yet another $10.2 billion to continue developing and
deploying a ballistic missile shield. The deployment of a limited
shield is officially scheduled to begin in September 2004.

despite the fact that such a system has yet to be proven effective,
that its future development will cost vast sums of money (current
estimates run as high as $1.2 trillion), and that it seems likely
to spur other nations to build more nuclear weapons to counter it,
the Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress seem
determined to deploy it.

would do well to remember the Maginot Line, a supposedly impregnable
military barrier that the French government erected on France’s
eastern border in the 1930s to block a German invasion. By building
it, the French lulled themselves into a false sense of security.
Ultimately, when war came, German forces simply swept around the
Maginot Line and easily conquered France. Both nations would have
been far better served if they had focused less on preparing for
a future war and more on how to secure a peaceful world.

the Bush administration does not even have the excuse of French
officials in the 1930s. After all, the United States does not face
any nation that comes anywhere near effectively challenging its
military power. And yet the administration seems to have abandoned
all common sense by pursuing a costly, provocative, and dangerous
will o’ the wisp: a Maginot Line in the sky.

14, 2004

S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present
(Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared on the History News
. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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