Seventy years ago this month, on April 16, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave an historic address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors titled “The Chance for Peace.” The speech offered a searing indictment of the policies of nuclear buildups and excessive military spending:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
Eisenhower went on to underscore the costs through a series of stark comparisons:
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
Eisenhower made these comparisons in the early years of the Cold War, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin. As he told his speechwriter at the time, he was “tired…of just plain indictments of the Soviet regime.… [J]ust one thing matters. What have we got to offer the world?” He was looking for a positive alternative to what he described as the “dread road” the world was then on, which in his view could only lead to one of two outcomes: atomic war or immiseration tied to perpetual military buildups. He described the outcome of continuing with the status quo as “not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
The harsh trade-offs Eisenhower cited 70 years ago are even more extreme today.
For the cost of one current US B-2 bomber, $2.1 billion, we could pay for 80 high schools at $24.3 million each.
One F-35 combat aircraft costs $126 million. For the cost of two F-35s we could double the $247 million federal budget for railroad safety. And for the cost of six F-35s, the United States could double the Centers for Disease Control’s budget for fighting infectious diseases.
One modern Arleigh Burke Destroyer costs $2.1 billion. That’s enough to pay for 18,000 emergency room beds, and pay the salaries of over 8,900 nurses and pay for over 4,400 emergency room doctors; or save over 300 at-risk rural hospitals from closure.
Advocates of ever-higher Pentagon budgets will argue that these tradeoffs are required by the demands of great power competition. But they fail to acknowledge how enormous the resources currently devoted to the Pentagon and related agencies are in historical terms. The Biden administration’s latest budget request for national defense—$886 billion—is far higher than US spending at the peak of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the height of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. The Pentagon budget request for next year is hundreds of billions of dollars higher—adjusted for inflation—than the level that pertained when Eisenhower gave his speech in 1953.
The immense human costs associated with near-record levels of Pentagon spending are avoidable, if our leaders adopt a revised defense strategy that takes a more balanced approach to addressing the full range of risks to our lives and livelihoods, many of which are not military in nature. A strong defense starts with a healthy, well-educated citizenry and a stable democracy.
On the military front, a new approach to defending the country should be grounded in a more realistic view of the potential military challenge posed by China, a diplomacy-first approach to dealing with major regional conflicts, an expectation that allies will take greater responsibility for the defense of their own areas, and a more restrained nuclear posture that focuses on what is sufficient to deter an attack on the United States or its allies. These measures could save hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come, funds that could be invested in other urgent national needs from addressing climate change to preventing the spread of disease to reducing poverty and inequality.
Our current emphasis on war and preparations for war over diplomacy and dialogue is a recipe for a costly global arms race and an era of new, more devastating conflicts—up to and including a possible nuclear confrontation.
Just as President Eisenhower took a pause at the outset of the Cold War to try to envision a more peaceful, secure future, so must this generation of global leaders try to forge a path away from confrontation toward cooperation, and toward a world where military excess no longer robs vast numbers of the world’s people of the basic prerequisites of a decent life. The question of how to do so should be front and center in every discussion of global security in every world capital and every community. The alternative is to continue down the “dread road” Eisenhower described 70 years ago.