Q&A: JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH

The high cost of fear

October 18 1982
Q&A: JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH

The high cost of fear

October 18 1982

The high cost of fear

Q&A: JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators around the world have taken to the streets in the past year to oppose the world nuclear arms buildup. Still, according to economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith, who has held a series of senior posts in the U.S. government, there are powerful forces within governments that want to see the proliferation of nuclear weapons continue. Canadian-born Galbraith spoke with Maclean’s senior writer Linda McQuaig in Toronto.

Maclean’s: There has clearly been a dramatic surge in interest in the antinuclear movement. Do you see this as something of a passing phase or do you think there has been a real change of attitude?

Galbraith: It’s hard to tell, but I think there has been a sign of this interest for several years and I have always had the feeling that it is anxiety that has been just below the surface. Two things have, brought it to the surface: the general sense of how great the accumulation of nuclear weapons is; and how great the potential for destruction is. Those who have been making this case for a long while have finally achieved an audience, but I think Ronald Reagan and his people provided the major series of shocks that brought the alarm into the open. They did this in a superbly orchestrated effort. That it was not intended does not subtract at all from the achievement. The stage was set by the big increase in military spending, which was linked, in

turn, to the assault on social expenditures. Then came the renewed commitment to the MX missile and the extended debate over its basing. Next came the well-publicized decision to proceed with the neutron bomb, with its emphasis on the destruction of people, as opposed to property, followed by their talk of limited nuclear war and demonstrations of nuclear explosions. Then came the renewed emphasis on civil defence in the United States. The city in which I live, Cambridge, Mass., was greatly aroused by a Civil Defence memorandum telling us of the plans for evacuation to Greenfield, Mass., in the event of a nuclear attack and telling everybody to be sure to bring their credit cards.

Maclean’s: With so many people in favor of disarmament, what do you see as the fundamental problem preventing it from happening?

Galbraith: Well, there are two problems. First, there’s the ability of those who are resisting disarmament to exploit fear. Mention the Soviet Union, and the bravest politician takes to the hills. The other thing is more subtle. There has developed in Washington, and possibly also in Moscow, a small group of people who have made the whole subject of nuclear disarmament into a cult, into a profession, and they have made the issue so complicated that they have excluded the public as a whole. They have come to monopolize the nuclear arms discussion, and it has become for them something between a profession and a chess game. This is why they are so

averse to the idea of a freeze on the production, development and deployment of nuclear weapons, because it is a straightforward proposal that takes the authority out of their hands. These are the people that we have come to call the nuclear theologians.

Maclean’s: Who are these people? Galbraith: Eugene Rostow is one, the head of the Arms Control Agency in Washington, and Paul Nitze, who is head of the U.S. negotiating team at the Arms Control Talks in Geneva—to the extent that they have been negotiating—is another. There is a whole group of less well-known people, including some people who specialize on this issue in Congress, all of whom seek to exclude the public from a discussion. They have a professional vested interest in the subject of arms control and believe that they are the only people who understand it. Whenever someone else comes up with an effective arms control proposal, people in this group reiterate that the Soviets are very dangerous and that this proposal would please them. I think that the proper metaphor of the arms race is two small boys in a garage

We must beware of the people who say that bilateral disarmament is impossible-they accept ultimate destruction

that has six inches of gasoline on the floor. One boy has six matches and the other has seven matches, and the one that has six says that he is inferior. I think that metaphor is precise. Maclean’s: Would you favor unilateral disarmament ?

Galbraith: Perhaps the case could be made, but I have led my life in close association with the political process, and if one has to be persuasive politically, the truth is that anyone who talks about unilateral disarmament is dismissed. I prefer to be realistic on the matter. You must have people with you to be effective.

Maclean’s: But do you think it is realistic to expect that there could be a bilateral disarmament?

Galbraith: What is the alternative? That’s what we must ask ourselves. We must also always beware of the people who say it is impossible. They are the people who accept ultimate destruction.

Maclean’s: To what extent has the nuclear weapons industry played an important role in inspiring the disarmament lobby?

Galbraith: There is no question that it

has, but I have always, for what it’s worth, thought the bureaucracy, the defence department and the nuclear theologians, by their monopoly of the discussion, were more important. Maclean’s: You have indicated that all this investment in the nuclear arms race does not really stimulate the economy of the United States. How can that be? Galbraith: This is an extremely important point. The investment in strategic arms, nuclear arms in particular, has a very narrow effect on the economy, on the weapons industry, on marine-sub-

marine building and on some parts of the electronics industry, but very little more. This is one of the reasons why our steel and automobile industries, and other older industries, are in such poor condition. They have been suffering from a shortage of capital because capital has been lavished on the arms industry. Further proof of this is that the Japanese, who have not been concentrating their investment on armaments, have achieved great advantages over the United States in civilian industry. It is obvious that the Soviets have been

weakening themselves in the same way that we have.

Maclean’s: From a Keynesian point of view—the advocacy of monetary and fiscal programs by government to increase employment—doesn't that investment in the economy have a stimulating effect?

Galbraith: The Keynesian system was for the Depression—you had very low interest rates and still a great many idle plants and unemployed people. Under those circumstances, arms expenditure, or any government expenditure, had a stimulating effect. Now, arms expenditure has as its consequence the forcing up of interest rates and the taking away of capital from civilian industry. One has only to look at the interest rates that now exist to see how that is working.

Maclean’s: So even though investment to arm the country during the Second World War had a stimulating effect, it isn't working now?

Galbraith: We fought all of the Second World War with interest rates of five or six per cent. Now, the financing of the deficit is one of the critical factors in the interest rates. If we could get an effective cut in the arms budget and some increase in taxes, interest rates would immediately fall off.

Maclean’s: You have talked about the impact of the arms race on emerging nations. Can you explain your view? Galbraith: Neither we nor the Soviets are exporting nuclear arms to the developing countries, and the vast sales of sophisticated nonnuclear weapons bear very little relationship to military use in these countries—they don’t have

the required logistical organization and technical competence. I particularly cite the case of Saudi Arabia: it has military equipment that it will not be able to use until some time in the next century. Until then it will have to rely on foreigners for expertise.

Maclean’s: You have argued that

supplying weapons to emerging nations often has the effect of propping up military regimes.

Galbraith: There is no question that military aid programs have had a destabilizing effect in the temporary support they have given to military regimes. They also cultivate some suspicion about the regimes. I think, on balance, U.S. military aid to Iran was destabilizing. It can prop regimes up, but it can also destroy them.

Maclean’s: You have given the impression that you have felt there was a need for more action on disarmament on the part of these emerging nations.

Galbraith: I would like to see a much stronger effort made by the new countries toward an embargo on arms imports. The case of India and Pakistan is a fair one. Both are poor countries and both are spending enormous sums on arms imports, even in addition to what the United States is providing to Pakistan. I would like to see a much stronger effort made by those two countries to put aside their tensions and resolve against buying weapons. We and the Soviet Union are asked to put aside our animosities and agree on arms control, but lessons should be carried to the emerging countries as well. Take Venezuela, for instance, arming because of the tension with Guyana, and Guyana

arming because of tension with Venezuela. Both of them are concerned with real estate that nobody would want. This is something that should not be resolved by arms imports.

Maclean’s: Are these countries not in the same position, though? If one gets arms, then the other feels it needs them too? Galbraith: Absolutely. This is exactly how the arms race proceeds between ourselves and the Soviet Union. In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev, in a passage that deserved greater attention than it received, tells of a conversation at Camp David with President Eisenhower. I will read it to you because I think it reflects well the current situation.

“Tell me, Mr. Khrushchev,” the president asked, “how do you decide on funds for military expenditures?” Then, before I had a chance to say anything, he continued, “Perhaps first I should tell you how it is with us. . . . It’s like this. My military leaders come to me and say, ‘Mr. President, we need such and such a sum for such and such a program. If we don’t get the funds we need, we’ll fall behind the Soviet Union.’ So I invariably give in. That’s how they wring money out of me. They keep grabbing for more, and I keep giving it to them. Now tell me, how is it with you?”

Khrushchev’s reply: “It’s just the same. Some people from our military department come and say, ‘Comrade Khrushchev, look at this: The Americans are developing such and such a system. We could develop the same system, but it would cost such and such.’ I tell them there’s no money; it’s all been allotted already. So they say, ‘If we don’t get the money we need and if there’s a war, then the enemy will have superiority over us.’... Then I put the matter to the government and we take the steps which our military people have recommended.”