CBS vs. Defense
This past June CBS-TV News broadcast “an unprecedented documentary project, more ambitious than any CBS News has undertaken,” entitled The Defense of the United States. The series ran for an hour of prime time on each of five consecutive nights. So pleased was CBS with its product that it took the unusual step of rebroadcasting the entire series in August.
The series’ anchorman, Dan Rather, termed it “the most important documentary project of the decade.” The reviewers agreed, the Washington Post hailing the series as “the first documentary epic in TV history,” Time calling it “not only the longest and most expensive network documentary ever but perhaps the most thoughtful and incisive TV examination of the American military as well,” and the Economist (London) solemnly allowing that “CBS has shown that American television, when freed from the crass commercialism which dominates so much of its output, is a match for anyone.”
Official CBS spokesmen described the series as “balanced,” “fair,” “accurate,” and maintained that it expressed no point of view. Its executive producer, Howard Stringer, qualified this somewhat by acknowledging that the broadcasts “did draw some conclusions.” These conclusions were expressed by the Christian Science Monitor (which also lauded the series as “masterly,” “skillful,” and “thoughtful”):
If the series has one overwhelming message, it is the one that emerges time and time again throughout each segment but is finally verbalized in the concluding segment. . . . “You can’t buy peace simply by spending more and more on arms.”
This jibes with statements by people connected with the show itself. Thus, Howard Stringer told the Christian Science Monitor that “We want to stimulate a debate which . . . [CBS News President] Bill Leonard felt had never been started. . . . Here we were and are about to embark on this colossal defense spending spree with few questions asked and very little debate.” The theme was echoed by Dan Rather who said: “We were about to make the largest peacetime commitment to defense in our history without much debate.” Rather hoped the series would “start the debate rolling in every town and city in America.” According to Stringer, so much money is being spent on U.S. nuclear forces because not enough people are standing up to say “Now, wait a minute!” The problem, Stringer told TV Guide, is that “somehow the opposition just isn’t doing its job.”
CBS’s “message” was not lost on partisans in the defense debate. The staunchly pro-military American Security Council wrote to demand air time for a rebuttal to the series. Others, considerably less “hard-line,” were also put off by the series. In an essay in the Washington Star, John Kester, who served as special assistant to Secretary of Defense Brown in the Carter administration, wrote that CBS had provided an example of “the least honest and most seductive” of the efforts of “the old anti-defense crowd” to “offer a different set of explanations to support an answer that has hardly changed at all: that money spent on defense is wasted.”
On the other side of the defense debate there were cheers. The Christian Science Monitor observed that while “militant individuals . . . may find good reason to object to this series . . . anybody searching for serious peaceful solutions to the world’s problems will welcome [this] innovative use of the public airwaves.” The Village Voice columnist Alexander Cockburn exulted:
The mass media are beginning to swing [against defense spending]. After seven years of almost total silence, we may soon see a return to . . . grim descriptions of cost-overrun scandals and other depredations of the milit-ind-cplx [sic]. Next week . . . CBS is airing a five-part series . . . which should sober people up in fairly short order.
If it is clear that CBS, despite its perfunctory denials, was presenting a point of view, it is also clear that that point of view is rather far from the mainstream of the U.S. defense debate.
The series opened with a film of Ronald Reagan delivering a campaign speech. He is saying:
It is time for us to start a build-up, and it is time for us to build that to the point that no other nation on this earth will ever dare raise a hand against us, and in this way we will preserve world peace.
The exact same segment was repeated in the final program of the series. The message was clear: it is Reagan’s build-up that prompted CBS’s “questions.” Yet the point of view adopted by CBS was almost as distant from that of the Carter administration as it was from the Reagan administration. There is much less difference between the mainstream of the Democratic and the Republican parties today on defense issues than there is between CBS and the bipartisan defense consensus which has emerged on Capitol Hill.
This discrepancy is what explains CBS’s astounding assertion that there has been “no debate” on defense issues when in fact the last few years have been a time of unusually intense discussion. In 1979, the Carter administration’s quest for ratification of its SALT II agreement occasioned an unprecedented debate on U.S. defense policy. (By contrast, in 1972, the SALT I agreements were approved by votes of 88-2 amid, in the words of the Congressional Quarterly, “little controversy.”) Throughout 1980, foreign policy, including defense concerns, was named second only to the economy by voters asked to list the most important problem facing the country. Indeed, for a few months early in 1980 foreign policy surpassed the economy as the number-one issue. These survey results should have been known to CBS: the polls that reported them were CBS News polls. Moreover, it was not a secret that the heart of the 1980 Carter reelection strategy was to question the wisdom of Reagan’s views on defense issues.
When confronted with these facts, Stringer has justified the assertion that “there wasn’t much of a debate” in the presidential campaign on the grounds that the differences between Carter and Reagan were small. “Both presidential candidates last year were enthusiastically endorsing increased defense spending,” said Stringer to the Christian Science Monitor—thereby suggesting as well the distance between CBS and the center of the defense debate in the U.S.
An indication of CBS’s slant can be gained from noting whom it selected as advisers and interviewees for the series. In the dramatic opening-night program, on strategic nuclear weapons, the longest interview was a joint one with Dr. Jack Geiger, identified only as a professor of medicine at CCNY, and Dr. Kosta Tsipis, identified as a professor of physics of MIT. The two professors expostulated in exquisite detail on the horrors of nuclear war, with Dan Rather confiding that “both men worked with us on preparing the film you have just seen” of a simulated nuclear attack on Omaha, Nebraska. After the discussion of the environmental and health effects of nuclear war, Rather asked Geiger and Tsipis whether the Soviet Union believes it can fight and win a nuclear war. Both men explained their strongly held convictions that Soviet leaders do not believe this.
One may wonder what qualified these two men of science to comment on Soviet military policy. Apparently CBS felt that their views were worthy of air time because the two are not merely scientists but are also active in the “peace movement,” a biographical datum which CBS withheld from its viewers. Tsipis is a member of the board of directors of SANE and is an editorial adviser and prolific contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (in its November 1976 issue he offered this analysis of why the arms race is so intractable: “The Soviet Union appears to base national security on equality in strategic weapons with the United States, while the United States feels secure only when superior”). Geiger is active in Physicians for Social Responsibility and in International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group consisting primarily of American, British, and Soviet doctors working, so they have announced, to inform their respective governments about the horrors of nuclear war. The group’s first conference was featured in the June-July 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which included an article by Geiger and a lead photograph of conference participant Georgi Arbatov. (Arbatov is the head of the Soviet Institue of the USA and Canada. His expertise in the field of medicine was, until the conference, one of Moscow’s best-kept secrets.)
Another interviewee who, like Tsipis and Geiger, was not fully identified by CBS was Roger Molander. Molander expounded on the superfluity of weapons in the U.S. strategic arsenal. He was introduced by CBS as someone who had served in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations (all true), but what CBS did not mention was Molander’s current occupation as executive director of Ground Zero, a new coalition of liberal, church, and peace groups organized to resist a build-up of U.S. strategic forces. Curiously, the CBS segment on strategic nuclear weapons was titled Ground Zero.
Another person who figured in the series was Walter Pincus, listed in the credits as “adviser.” Pincus works both for CBS and for the Washington Post. In 1977 Pincus’s “advocacy journalism” in the pages of the Post helped to stimulate opposition to the Carter administration’s plans to deploy neutron weapons.
The most revealing glimpse of the series’ general attitude was afforded by its choice of a label for the process of arms procurement, the subject of the fourth episode and in many ways the heart of the series. Said CBS’s Richard Threlkeld at the beginning of the show: “The Pentagon is the military part of the military-industrial complex, better known as the Iron Triangle: . . . the Pentagon . . . the Congress . . . the defense contractors.” The term “Iron Triangle,” it turns out, was not coined by CBS but is the title of a book officially released the very week of the CBS broadcast by a group called the Council on Economic Priorities. The book’s author, Gordon Adams, is president of the board of the Corporate Data Exchange, a New Left research organization. The book was financed, according to its acknowledgments, by, among others, Stewart Mott and the Samuel Rubin Foundation, the latter being a principal source of support for a variety of New Left causes.
The Council on Economic Priorities was not the only beneficiary of Stewart Mott and the Rubin Foundation on which CBS appears to have relied as a resource. The Center for Defense Information (CDI), a project of the Fund for Peace which receives support from both Mott and Rubin, is a group which works to stimulate congressional opposition to virtually all new U.S. weapons programs and to persuade Congress that “the U.S. needs a more realistic view of the Soviet Union than the obsessive one that has dominated U.S. foreign policy for many years.” Last year CDI issued a report purporting to demonstrate that Soviet influence in the world has reached a new low. CBS not only repeated this theme, but backed it up with the same erroneous data used by CDI.
Of course not everyone put on the air by CBS was of the same political stripe. The series included interviews with defense specialist Jeffrey Record, a non-dove, and with Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a former dove, but both Record and Hart were questioned exclusively on issues on which they disagree with the defense establishment. There was also a good deal of footage of military brass, but much of this had the same quality as the Reagan footage—to serve as a foil for CBS’s biting critiques. In case any viewer misunderstood how the thoughts of military spokesmen ought to be regarded, CBS’s interviewer Bob Schieffer spelled it out for them: “No general or admiral is ever likely to say enough is enough.”
The insistent ideological slant which informed CBS’s presentation led it to make many erroneous or distorted assertions, but the most important error was one of omission. In five hours given to examining the plans for a U.S. military build-up, there was no mention—none—of the Soviet build-up which precipitated it.
The Soviet build-up was discovered long before the election of Ronald Reagan. The annual report of the Defense Department, delivered by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in early 1980, gave the authoritative view of the Carter administration:
Whether the two defense efforts are measured in the U.S. or the Soviet economy, the general direction of the Soviet programs in real terms is the same—upward. . . . As far as we can tell, the effort accounts for 11 to 14 percent of the Soviet GNP, although some experts put it at 15 percent or higher. Relative to the United States, the Soviet defense effort now appears to be about 50 percent higher measured in dollars, and around 30 percent more measured in rubles. . . .
Even more impressive than the growth in the overall defense budget is the expansion in the investment that has gone into research . . . , procurement, and military construction. [Such] . . . investments . . . exceed those of the United States by about 85 percent. . . . We had hoped that well-balanced, secure, second-strike strategic nuclear forces would satisfy the security needs of the Soviet leaders in that area. They have gone well beyond such a capability, however. . . . They appear, indeed, to be aiming toward some sort of war-winning capability with these forces, however futile that attempt may be.
But the facts of the Soviet build-up, clear as they were to the Carter administration, as well as to its successor, were lost on CBS. Or if CBS was aware of them, it spared its viewers the painful news.
Often CBS seemed to be trying to prevent any hint of the Soviet build-up from slipping out. More than once the network told its viewers that the U.S. has more nuclear warheads than does the Soviet Union, but other measures of nuclear strength, which are at least as important as numbers of warheads and in which the Soviet arsenal has far surpassed that of the U.S., were not mentioned at all. CBS referred to the “giant” MX missile without ever noting that it will only be about as large as “small” Soviet ICBM’s and not nearly the size of the large ones.
The dramatic highlight of the series was a simulation (on which CBS spent $100,000 for special effects) of the detonation of “one 15-megaton bomb” on Omaha, Nebraska. The American Security Council protested that CBS’s scenario was implausible: a 15-megaton bomb is a real monster, and the Soviets would never expend one that size just to destroy SAC headquarters at Omaha. But CBS officials insisted that the Soviet arsenal does indeed contain at least a few warheads of that size. This is probably true. What went unmentioned in all this was the megatonage of American missiles; CBS never told its viewers that there is nothing nearly the size of 15 megatons in the U.S. arsenal. The submarine-based weapons which, as CBS pointed out, provide the U.S. with its most reliable retaliatory power are one three-hundredth that size.
It was not merely by such omissions that CBS sought to spare its viewers the news of the Soviet build-up. “The largest peacetime military budget in our history” is being rationalized, Dan Rather noted skeptically, by reference to “an enemy who, we’re told, is stronger and more dangerous than ever.” But CBS suggested that what “we’re told” is not always true, and the series presented information to show why—information which in many instances was false.
The Soviet submarine fleet is the largest in the world, but Walter Cronkite implied that there is little need for the U.S. to worry about it, since “their submarines are plagued by ports that are frozen-in most of the year.” In fact, the major Soviet bases on the Kola and Kamchatka peninsula provide year-’round facilities. Years ago the Soviet surface navy was equipped and structured to conduct short-range operations in the Baltic and North Seas. In the last decade, however, the Soviet Union has built large surface combatants and aircraft carriers which now enable the Russians to fight on any ocean and deliver military power to any continent. This naval build-up disturbs some Americans, “but,” said Cronkite reassuringly, “only 10 percent of these ships are ever actually out at sea.” One would be better assured if Cronkite could guarantee that in the event of war the Soviets would only use 10 percent of their fleet.
The USSR has an armed force of 4.8 million, and a mandatory draft which requires of all young men two years of military training with further years in reserve units. The United States has an armed force of 2.1 million volunteers, and most American young men never receive a day of military training. CBS, however, listed Russian military personnel at 3.5 million, which was roughly accurate as of fifteen years ago, before the Soviet build-up began. Again Cronkite had reassuring news. Of the Soviet forces, “half-a-million men . . . are trained as border guards or construction workers.” He did not mention that Soviet border troops are equipped as infantry with automatic weapons, armored vehicles, light artillery, and combat aircraft. (During World War II the Soviet Union used its border troops and internal security troops as regular combat formations of the Red Army.) Soviet military “construction workers” are the equivalent of the U.S. Army’s engineer battalions, or the Seabees. Construction troops are military assets, not a uniformed job corps.
Just as the figure for the size of the Soviet armed forces was fifteen years out of date, so too was CBS’s information on the quality of Soviet military equipment. In the segment about weapons procurement, correspondent Richard Threlkeld delivered this statement without qualification or substantiation:
Naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know about Soviet weapons, but what evidence there is seems to indicate that their weapons really aren’t all that sophisticated—certainly not as sophisticated as ours. . . . In war planes, as in warships and tanks and the rest of their hardware, the Russians still seem to be going for quantity over quality.
The truth is that the Russians have been going for both quantity and quality, and that the once-solid U.S. lead in quality has dissipated. According to a special report to the Congress in 1978 from the Carter administration’s Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, William J. Perry, of thirty-three principal categories of military technology the U.S. led in eighteen, the Soviets led in twelve, and three were too close to call.
Toward the end of the series, Walter Cronkite sought to blow away the entire specter of the Soviet build-up with one great pontification:
As for the military spending, the figures are also misleading. Our two systems, our two economies, are so different that to compare the costs of tanks and rocket launchers is just about as meaningful as comparing the costs of a college education.
In truth, the military-spending figures are not misleading precisely because they do not naively “compare the costs of tanks and rocket launchers.” The standard, nonclassified analyses of Soviet military spending which are published from time to time by the CIA and other government agencies give two sets of figures. One set attempts to gauge how much actual money or value, as a proportion of GNP, the Soviets are devoting to their military. The second set is not concerned with how much they actually spend, but rather with how much they are buying. This set is calculated by adding up all their tanks, rocket launchers, etc. (as best we can count them), and estimating what it would cost to buy these in dollars.
The first set of figures helps us to learn about Soviet priorities, and is ordinarily calculated in rubles. The second set of figures tells us how large their forces are, or how fast their stockpiles are growing, as compared with our own. From the first set we have learned that the Soviets spend from 11 to 15 percent of their GNP on the military. The U.S. spends 5 percent. From the second set we have learned that their annual defense effort in recent years has been about 50 percent larger than ours. If this latter comparison is misleading in any way, it is in understating the Soviet advantage (because it is an aggregate figure—the Russians spend a much larger proportion of the total on hardware and a much smaller on amenities for personnel than we do).
In addition to denouncing the comparisons of Soviet and American defense spending as misleading, CBS took another step to make sure that viewers were not alarmed by them; it did not show them. At no point in the five-hour documentary did CBS allow viewers to see or hear the figures Cronkite criticized.
If it ignored the Soviet build-up, CBS did not entirely ignore the Soviet Union. The fifth and final show was entitled, The Russians. It began with film clips counterposing President Reagan, making a speech about the Soviets, with President Brezhnev, making a speech (presumably) about the United States. Then entered Walter Cronkite, like a long-suffering parent of quarrelsome children. He lamented “the voices coming out of the Kremlin and the White House today,” with their “angry words about American warmongering and Soviet threats and dire intentions.” This set the theme for the rest of the hour, filmed with Cronkite in Moscow, where he discovered that the Russians are people just like us. At one point viewers saw footage of U.S. Air Force “Red Flag” exercises, in which American airmen practice against other Americans imitating Russian tactics. Said Cronkite:
The Air Force created the Red Flag exercise to train against Soviet aggression. The Soviet Union sees Red Flag as proof of American aggression. They look at each other in the same mirror and each side sees what it wants to see.
How can this mirror-image symmetry be reconciled with the Soviet emphasis on military power and the glorification of military service which is altogether absent in the United States? Cronkite explained that the answer can be found in “World War II. The moral to the Russians . . . is simple: We must arm ourselves now to protect ourselves in the future.” Cronkite did not explain why self-protection requires arming with overwhelmingly offensive weapons.
The “mirror” metaphor broke down entirely when CBS showed footage of the Soviet military parading through Red Square before the assembled Soviet leadership. Cronkite remarked, “You can see in this film an awesome commitment to tanks and rocket launchers, or you can see a typical military parade that lasts about twenty minutes. Take your pick.” There was little doubt about which view Cronkite took. But one wonders what CBS would think or say if President Reagan held a nationally televised military parade, complete with masses of tanks and missiles, in front of the White House.
Elsewhere in Moscow Cronkite interviewed a Soviet general, Mikhail Milshtein. General Milshtein said that today there is military “parity” between the Soviet Union and the United States, but that this is endangered by “some people in the United States” who “are trying to get . . . military superiority.” Such superiority, said Milshtein, “is impossible” and “only leads to the arms race” which is “very dangerous.” Milshtein also asserted that “nuclear war is impossible,” but he was worried because in the United States there has been some “very dangerous . . . propaganda of the possibility of such a war.”
Cronkite may or may not have believed all this, but he never challenged Milshtein or evinced the least bit of skepticism, despite the fact that almost everything Milshtein said contradicts published official Soviet military doctrine, which contends that the USSR must be prepared to fight and win a nuclear war.1 Nor did Cronkite fully identify Milshtein to his viewers. He introduced him only as “a member of the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, and a leading officer in the Soviet army for almost forty years.” But according to the CIA’s non-classified directory of Soviet officialdom, Milshtein has been retired from active duty for more than a decade and is employed by the Soviet Institute of the USA and Canada, a fact which CBS knew. This Institute, according to Western intelligence sources, is partially run by the KGB and its job is to gather information about North America and to disseminate disinformation to it. CBS viewers were never told that the Soviet “general” whose peace-loving words they heard has the job not of helping to make Soviet military strategy but of helping to deceive the West about what that strategy is.
To conclude its show about The Russians CBS had Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger making the case for the Soviet Union as an expansionist power, and gave a fleeting glance at a map Weinberger was using to illustrate his point. Cronkite noted: “You can get yourself pretty frightened looking at all of the administration’s maps and charts of Soviet aggression and military spending. But like so many of our perceptions of the Soviet Union, it tells you only half the story, the half the administration uses to press its case for higher and higher defense budgets.” He added: “Since 1960, Soviet influence around the world actually has declined. Their so-called gains, like Afghanistan and Angola, take on a different perspective, particularly when they’re measured against losses, like Egypt and China.”
Although CBS did not allow viewers to examine Weinberger’s map, it did give a close-up of two CBS lists of twelve nations each, one showing Soviet gains and one showing Soviet losses since 1960. In addition to the “so-called gains” of Angola and Afghanistan, CBS listed Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Laos, Libya, Mozambique, Syria, South Yemen, and Vietnam as countries where the Russians have gained influence since 1960. Soviet losses were listed as Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, and North Yemen.
Both lists are in substantial error, understating Russian gains and overstating losses. (The lists repeat most of the same errors of omission and commission that can be found in lists published by the Center for Defense Information.) Since 1960 the Soviet Union has increased its influence in Benin (which officially declared itself “Marxist-Leninist” in 1974), Nicaragua, Grenada, Chad, and Guyana. Bangledesh, inexplicably listed with Soviet losses, probably does not belong on either side of the ledger but certainly cannot be seen as an instance of Soviet loss since 1960. Similarly with North Yemen, whose twisted path since 1960 has most recently come to the point of an understanding with South Yemen, a firm Soviet ally, that the two nations merge at some future date. It may be difficult to see much Soviet gain in this, but it is even more difficult to see how it can be interpreted as a setback.
CBS listed Egypt as a “loss” of Soviet influence. This is accurate, although it should be noted that the Soviet Union never had a significant influence over internal Egyptian politics even in the days of its close military relationship (ended by Sadat in 1972). However, if Egypt is a Soviet loss then India should be listed as a Soviet gain. The Soviet Union is now India’s major supplier of arms; in 1971 India signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Russians; and India cooperates diplomatically with the Soviet Union and has urged accommodation to Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan and Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. (As in the case of Egypt, India’s international diplomatic cooperation with Russia is not paralleled by a significant Communist influence in domestic politics.)
Cronkite closed the program by returning to his opening theme:
Who are these Russians? What are their intentions? No one can say with certainty. But if their perception of America is as flawed as we believe it is, then our perceptions of the Soviet Union could be flawed, too. In the absence of any real dialogue, the same old fears and doubts continue to dominate our relations.
The lesson: we have nothing to fear from the Russians but our own fear of them. This lesson certainly was not lost on the Washington Post, which ran an enthusiastic review under the headline: “The Soviet ‘Threat.’”
If the Russians are people just like us, if there is no Soviet threat, if there has been no Soviet build-up, then what motivates American defense planners? The answer, CBS implied, without ever quite saying, is a “Dr. Strange-love” complex. The subtitle of that 1960’s movie, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was echoed by CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer the first night on the air:
More disturbing, perhaps, is the ease with which strategists talk about first strike. Limited nuclear war has made the horror of a nuclear exchange seem somehow manageable, even commonplace. That suggests we have finally learned to live with the bomb.
Strategists, needless to say, are people whose job it is to keep us safe from nuclear war by assuring our ability to deter it. If they talk about it with ease, this is more likely to issue from familiarity than from indifference to the possibility of millions of deaths. What would CBS make of the fact that oncologists talk with ease about cancer? In any event, CBS apparently could not actually find a strategist who exhibited the requisite callousness; instead it aired an interview with two young crew members at a missile site. Schieffer: “It must be an enormous responsibility . . . to be in charge, as you two gentlemen are, of the most powerful weapon . . . man has ever devised.” One crewman: “Yes, sir, it is a definite challenge. It’s more responsibility than I could obtain in a civilian world. And to me this is job satisfaction.” What was the point of all this, if not to evoke echoes of Dr. Strangelove? The two young men are not in fact “in charge” of anything but certain technical chores.
The Dr. Strangelove image pervaded the series. A segment about tactical nuclear weapons began with Harry Reasoner showing a U.S. tactical medium-range missile, and observing, “Some say a device like this might start World War III.” Some may say it, but the only one of note who does so is President Brezhnev in his campaign to keep NATO from matching the Soviet build-up of theater nuclear weapons in Europe. The idea that the United States would launch World War III is in itself both baseless and insulting; the idea that the U.S. would launch World War III by firing off its small, inaccurate tactical nuclear weapons is preposterous.
In discussing tactical nuclear weapons, Reasoner stated gratuitously: “With U.S. tactical weapons, radiation is what the army calls the ‘main killer mechanism.’” This sounds ghoulish—which may be why it was included—but CBS did not bother to explain that this “mechanism” renders the weapons not more lethal but more accurate, making it possible to avoid casualties to innocent civilians while firing at enemy forces.
In discussing the need for an airplane to replace America’s aging B-52, Bob Schieffer observed: “It does not take long to discover every Air Force general’s favorite force deficiency.” Discussing arms procurement, Richard Threlkeld said: “There is a constant plea from the Pentagon: we need more money because we don’t have enough warplanes, enough of all sorts of weapons.” And there was more in this vein, all illustrating the persistence with which CBS sought to project the image of a perverse, even dangerous, military mentality guiding our defense establishment.
In what direction is this mentality leading us now that we have a President willing to lend himself to its purposes? Dan Rather, summarizing three points on which he hoped the series would “stimulate debate,” suggested the direction in which CBS believed we might be heading: toward self-fulfilling plans to fight a limited strategic nuclear war with the Russians; toward a European strategy which will require us to destroy Europe in order to save it; and toward exhausting our national treasure on useless and unnecessary new weapons. CBS devoted one evening to each of these three themes.
In the evening devoted to strategic nuclear weapons CBS sought to discredit concern with the Soviet Union’s growing first-strike capability. Bob Schieffer stated that “when the President worries about a first strike, does that mean we are vulnerable now or that we have lost our nuclear clout? No, says the Navy’s director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare, Admiral Powell Carter, not by a long shot.” Admiral Carter was then shown stating that the United States could today absorb a Russian first strike and still retaliate.
Admiral Carter is correct, but he was answering a loaded question. The Russians are on the verge of becoming technically able to destroy most of our ICBM’s and many of our bombers and submarines in a first strike. That would still leave the United States with the ability to retaliate with many submarine-based missiles, but this is a rather thin margin of safety which could disappear in the event of a technological breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare. Defense planners are seeking to close this so-called “window of vulnerability” as quickly as possible. At the same time, decisions being made in the Congress and executive branch in the next year or so will shape the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the late 1980’s and 1990’s.
CBS denigrated proposals to develop new strategic weapons on the grounds that today “if the Soviets did attack and destroy most of our land-based missiles and bombers, they would still have to take into account those 25 American subs loaded with 400 missiles carrying 3,000 nuclear warheads.” Most of these warheads are carried on Poseidon missiles carried on our 31 Poseidon submarines. Each submarine carries 16 missiles, and each missile carries a MIRV tip with 10 warheads. In contrast, our older Polaris submarines, of which we still have 10 on duty, carry missiles with shorter range, less accuracy, and only one warhead on each missile.
At the time the Poseidon submarines and missiles were being developed, the decision to build them was strongly attacked by American doves. They argued, correctly, that the existing Polaris submarines and missiles were sufficient to deter the Soviet threat as it stood in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; in essence, they made the same argument as Schieffer today. Yet if the governments of the 1960’s and early 1970’s had accepted this logic and refused to build the Poseidon submarine and missile, the United States would now stand exposed to Russian nuclear blackmail, just as it may in a few years if steps are not taken today to modernize our arsenal for the future.
In keeping with its belief that the two superpowers present mirror images of each other, CBS offered this account of U.S. and Soviet nuclear history:
In the beginning of the nuclear age, we had overwhelming superiority, and we wanted to keep it at that. But the Russians don’t trust us any more than we trust them, so these hydra-headed monsters have continued to multiply and the arms race continues—a race with no finish line.
It is simply not true, however, that the United States “wanted to keep it that way.” Indeed, if we have been racing so hard one wonders how the technologically backward Russians have managed to overtake us in this vital field. The answer is that only the Russians have been racing, as Albert Wohlstetter has so convincingly demonstrated.2
Beginning in the Kennedy administration, the view took hold that the United States would be better off if it allowed the Soviets to catch up with us in strategic nuclear weapons. As then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Stewart Alsop in 1962, the chances for keeping nuclear war limited would improve “when both sides have a sure second-strike capability.” In keeping with this notion, the U.S. in the mid-60’s leveled off the size of its nuclear arsenal and waited for the Russians to catch up and then do likewise. Instead, they surged ahead in a way that caught us by surprise and compelled U.S. officials to accept a numerical Soviet advantage in the 1972 SALT I agreement. As Kissinger said in Moscow at the time SALT I was concluded: “If you project the existing building programs of the Soviet Union into the future . . . you will get a more correct clue to why we believe that [this] is a good agreement.”
CBS ignored all of this history, which conflicts with its idea that the Americans and Russians are just like each other. Thus Cronkite posed the question: “What if the United States tried to wipe out the Soviet Union’s land-based missiles in an American first strike?” The question was left unanswered, leaving the viewer with the impression that this is a genuine worry for Moscow. CBS might have told its viewers that for twenty years, encompassing the darkest years of the cold war, when U.S. nuclear superiority was so great that such a worry would have been far more plausible than it is today, no attack came, which suggests strongly that the United States is politically and culturally incapable of launching a surprise nuclear attack.
But even if this inference were wrong, even if the United States were in the hands of the Dr. Strangeloves, the fact remains—again, a fact which CBS did not convey to its viewers—that the United States does not have the capacity to launch a successful first strike. Even the building of the MX missile would not give us that capacity. America’s nuclear forces are equipped and structured to maximize their ability to survive a Russian first strike, not to launch an American first strike. Thus the emphasis on submarines and bombers, both of which are good for retaliation and useless for a first strike. Only accurate ICBM warheads are useful for a first strike, but the United States has not built enough of these to destroy Soviet retaliatory forces on the ground.
The exact reverse obtains for the Soviets, who have built enough ICBM’s to destroy U.S. retaliatory forces on the ground. Now, it is true that ICBM’s are not only the most threatening nuclear weapons, they are also the most open to attack. CBS implied that by putting “almost all their strategic eggs in the missile silos,” the Soviets have left themselves vulnerable. But CBS did not stop to ponder its own implications. Would the Soviets have done what they have done if they fear us as much as CBS suggests they do? If, as Cronkite would have it, the Soviet effort is motivated by an obsession with self-defense grounded in memories of World War II, logic would demand that they invest in secure retaliatory forces which can serve as a deterrent, not in the one kind of weapon which simultaneously threatens and invites a first strike.
In another segment CBS turned its attention to the problems of tactical nuclear warfare in Europe. The message of this program was that the use of such weapons by NATO would have the effect of “destroying Europe in order to save it.” The basic scenario was set by Harry Reasoner, who said:
The specter of Soviet tanks rolling through Western Europe has haunted the West for thirty years. The Army insists it must be able to stop such an attack with battlefield nuclear weapons.
The problem with this, explained Reasoner, is that “they don’t have to miss by much to hit a civilian target. . . . If you look at a map of Europe, the way things are crowded together, doesn’t that make fighting a nuclear war almost impossible?”
The problem which CBS devoted the entire hour to examining is precisely the one which neutron weapons were proposed to remedy. They would be small and precise enough—so it is hoped—to be able to thwart an advancing Warsaw Pact tank column without destroying the neighboring village or killing civilian inhabitants. Yet at no time during the program did CBS mention the Carter administration’s efforts to deploy neutron weapons in Europe.
More importantly, it is just not true that “the Army insists” it must use tactical nuclear weapons. Rather, it insists either that its conventional forces be strengthened to the point where they could defend against what is today the superior conventional might of the Warsaw Pact, or else that tactical nuclear weapons be used as an “equalizer” to compensate for our weakness in conventional forces. Given the choice, the Army would almost surely prefer the conventional option, as indeed it should. Now that the Warsaw Pact has developed immense theater nuclear forces, it makes no military sense for NATO to initiate theater nuclear war in order to blunt a conventional Warsaw Pact attack.
But all of these considerations were lost on CBS. After spending one whole program debunking NATO’s theater nuclear weapons, in the next program CBS ridiculed efforts to strengthen NATO’s conventional capabilities. Correspondent Ed Bradley:
In Europe, the line between East and West hasn’t moved in twenty-six years and we could find no one who thought the Warsaw Pact would invade. Even so, the Reagan administration wants to pour enough money into NATO to fight a long-term conventional war—a scenario that most strategists we talked to considered the least likely.
Of course, the reason strategists consider a long-term conventional war in Europe to be an unlikely scenario is that, in the absence of force improvements, NATO could not stave off a Soviet attack for very long.
Perhaps the very heart of the whole series was the program about U.S. weapons procurement, titled The War Machine. The point of this program was stated at the outset by Dan Rather: “Never before in our history have so many of our weapons been behind schedule, over budget, out of order.” How did CBS calculate this startling statistic? When asked, CBS press spokesman Peter Goodman said he did not know. Executive Producer Howard Stringer also did not know. Producer Craig Leake failed to respond to a telephone inquiry.
It was in this program that CBS delivered its basic message. “Do our weapons really make us strong?” asked Richard Threlkeld. Then he answered himself: “That depends on how you define national security.” The “conventional wisdom” is that they do, but “a growing number of economists argue just the opposite.” Defense spending, they say, will destroy the economy. Threlkeld left little doubt about which side CBS believed was right, though he was constrained from saying so plainly. Instead, he offered this “middle-ground” conclusion: if we do increase defense spending, “it’s a sacrifice that will require perfect faith that our government is spending that money wisely on weapons we really need for the sake of national security.”
This seems rather an exacting standard. Indeed, one might wonder whether it is conceivable in a democratic system that the public will have “perfect faith” in any major government program. But measured against this standard, the U.S. weapons-procurement process, as portrayed by CBS, is pure slapstick comedy.
This process, said CBS in the language it borrowed from the book of that name, is dominated by the “Iron Triangle”—defense officials, contractors, and Congressmen. “The Iron Triangle,” Richard Threlkeld asserted, “is obsessed with procurement—getting exactly the new hardware it wants and as much of it as it can.” It “is not only a closed world, it’s incestuous to a degree.” Presumably the military brass are obsessed with more weapons because it is their nature to be so obsessed. As for the contractors, they are after profit. And the Congressmen “like to take new weapons contracts home to their districts.”
The Iron Triangle is an updated version of the “military-industrial complex,” and CBS showed a film clip of President Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he coined that term. Yet an examination of Eisenhower’s speech shows that in it he was not warning about the problems of weapons procurement but about the dangers to the survival of liberty that he saw in an amalgam of public and private power. In the same breath Eisenhower warned that federal support for scientific research was creating a similar menace in the form of a “scientific-technological elite.” CBS also did not think to broadcast the description of Communism which Eisenhower offered in that speech: “A hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.”
The military-industrial complex was a favorite villain of the 1960’s, but as an analytic construct it had a fatal flaw: it ignored the fact that every weapon bought must be authorized by Congress. To make the construct sound more plausible, it has been expanded to include Congress; hence, the Iron Triangle. But the veneer of plausibility is superficial. Richard Threlkeld, speaking from Capitol Hill, made this assertion:
The men in uniform come over here from the Pentagon to ask for more money for their weapons. They know Congressmen and Senators like to take new weapon contracts home to their districts, so it’s all very polite. You don’t hear many hard questions.
In truth, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Congress not only asked hard questions, it also slashed away at military spending. Every year the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittees went over the defense budget item by item. Prior to the Carter years, the Armed Services Committees cut Pentagon budget requests year after year. In 1976, the Senate committee cut the request for funds for the MX by 39 percent and completely deleted a Navy request for a nuclear-powered strike cruiser, while the House committee cut the Navy cruise-missile program by 40 percent. In 1975 the House committee cut funds for AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft by 50 percent and demanded certification from the Secretary of Defense himself that the AWACS had passed certain additional tests before even the money that remained could be spent. The Senate committee that year also voted to delay work on the B-l bomber, a step which helped make possible the eventual cancellation of the bomber by President Carter. In 1974 the House committee halved the request for AWACS and cut advanced-ballistic-missile defense research by nearly 30 percent, while the Senate committee cut Navy shipbuilding funds by nearly 20 percent. At the same time, the Senate committee’s report scolded the Pentagon, saying that “the committee must again stress, as it has in the past three years, its concern that the escalating cost of weapons systems and manpower is keeping the defense budget at a constantly high level.” In 1973 the Senate cut the Navy’s F-14 aircraft request by 73 percent and the Air Force’s B-l by 22 percent, while the House voted major cuts in funding for the F-15 aircraft, ship construction, and the anti-ballistic missile. The House committee also held hearings to investigate cost overruns in weapons.
One could go on, but the point is this: the foregoing is a sample of what the hawks on Capitol Hill did. The two Armed Services Committees were chaired during those years by Senator John Stennis and Representative Edward F. Hebert. In each of these years the dovish minority on the two committees—which included Representatives Les Aspin, Patricia Schroeder, and Michael Harrington, and Senators Stuart Symington and John Culver—pushed dozens of additional budget cuts which were not adopted in committee. Every year they filed dissenting views; often they carried these fights to the floor of the House or Senate where sometimes they won.
Thus, CBS’s claim of a “closed society,” and an “Iron Triangle” where “you don’t hear many hard questions,” is blatantly false about the last decade. Is it true of today, with Reagan in the White House and the hawks in their glory? For several years the Pentagon has been drawing up plans for a major new project called the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System. This project would put 18 navigation satellites into space, build a huge ground-control station, and procure a host of user equipment for the military services. The total project would cost around $8 billion with thousands of contractors in nearly every state in the nation receiving a part of the action and every military service getting to use the new equipment. NAVSTAR is the perfect project for CBS’s Iron Triangle. However, in acting earlier this year on the FY 1982 defense budget, the House Armed Services Committee said “the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System is more of a ‘nice to have’ than an ‘essential’ military support system” and cancelled the entire project, all $8 billion worth.
Nor was the NAVSTAR cancellation unique. The Army requested funds to develop a new generation of anti-tank rockets called the Infantry Man Portable Anti-Armor Weapons System. The House committee said it “does not believe the Army can afford to proceed with the $500 million IMAAWS program and recommends that the program be terminated.” The Air Force wanted funds to start a new generation of jet fighters. The House committee, citing the potential for improvements in the existing F-15’s and F-16’s, said “it has not been demonstrated that the development of a prototype aircraft is necessary at this time or even affordable in view of other Air Force requirements”; the committee then denied the request for funds. The Air Force also asked for $60 million to continue development of the Low Altitude Airfield Attack Weapon, a project with potential procurement costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The House committee said it was “concerned about the very significant cost growth that has occurred in the program. Accordingly the committee recommends that the . . . program not be reinitiated and denies the Air Force request.” The Navy requested $121 million to design a new class of ships, called the DDG-X ship. No doubt the shipyards of the Iron Triangle were eagerly awaiting the billions that would be spent building these vessels, but the House committee called the plans for the ship, a new destroyer type, “not capable of meeting the threat” and cancelled the entire project.
In all, the House Armed Services Committee cancelled (not just reduced) all funding for 31 separate weapons projects whose collective potential procurement costs were in the many tens of billions of dollars.
Threlkeld’s assertion that “you don’t hear many hard questions” about weapons on Capitol Hill, that “a new weapons system is rarely cancelled,” and that “the procurement system gives every weapon a life of its own, regardless of what’s happening out in the field” is so contrary to the truth that it might seem just a mistake on CBS’s part. Yet this falsehood is essential to the entire structure of CBS’s argument that U.S. weapons procurement is divorced from any sober assessment of genuine defense needs.
Pursuing this theme, CBS said that Congressman Thomas P. O’Neill and Senator Edward M. Kennedy support the Navy’s F-18 fighter because parts of it are built in Massachusetts. Then Threlkeld added: “Others, too, said they liked the plane, which is not unusual when you consider that parts from the F-18 come from 20,000 companies scattered among 44 states.” Congressmen do of course often favor federal projects in their districts, but if a project is divided among 44 states the effect is likely to be the opposite of what CBS implied: rather than giving everybody a vested interest, diffusion gives almost nobody a strong interest. Moreover, CBS was wrong in a larger sense: defense dollars are spent in every state and congressional district, but despite the omnipresent vested interest thus created, Congress cut proposed spending every year from FY 1968 until FY 1979 for a total cut of approximately $42 billion.
The example on which CBS erected its caricature of the procurement process was the F-18, an aircraft about which the show reached a harsh judgment. In the course of the series the F-18 was called “a crippled plane,” “a flying frying pan,” and “a turkey.” And CBS stated that its aim was to prevent “whatever comes after the F-18 [from being] more of the same.” Although some responsible defense analysts have questioned the wisdom of the F-18 on grounds of cost or technology, there were several things wrong with CBS’s treatment of the topic.
First, the final answer is not yet in on the F-18 and will not be for several years. The plane is just out of development and entering production. As with most new weapons systems, it is experiencing teething problems. CBS was certain that the problems could not be solved. But the Navy, the Armed Services Committees of Congress, and most defense analysts believe that the problems are only the normal ones of a new jet fighter. CBS is safe from any immediate refutation because it will be several years before anyone can know for certain. The network would have been on surer ground had it picked one of the thousands of weapons systems that have passed through the entire cycle of design, development, and procurement over the last thirty years so that the success or failure of the weapon could be objectively evaluated. If it had unearthed a weapon as disgraceful as it claimed the F-18 to be, CBS would have come up with a major scandal. In fact it is rare for the weapons-procurement system to produce “a turkey.” Those projects that develop serious problems are usually dropped before they reach the point of mass procurement.
Second, CBS said that “in all the years the Iron Triangle was preoccupied with the how of the F-18,” nobody asked “why our weapons cost so much.” In fact, in the FY 1977 defense bill the House Armed Services Committee cut F-18 funding by 15 percent, explaining in its report that it was “not convinced that the Navy is developing this plane at the lowest possible cost.” Just this year, in a supplemental appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee denied a Navy request for an additional $95 million for the F-18 with the comment that before more funds are authorized “the few remaining technical problems should be resolved.”
Third, CBS implied that much money could be saved by adopting the strategy sponsored by Senator Gary Hart of building smaller aircraft carriers equipped with Harrier vertical take-off planes rather than more large carriers equipped with F-18’s. But Hart’s proposal is to build a great many more small carriers than we would build large carriers. As he explained last year: “Significantly larger numbers of aircraft carriers” are “vital for effective support of diplomacy. The increasing problems facing us in the Third World suggest we . . . need a sizable force of light carriers.” Harriers, in addition, are expensive aircraft. Whatever the merits of Hart’s proposal, he has not argued that the purpose of his plan is to save money: his concern is strategy, not budgets.
Incidentally, the use of the Harrier as a foil for the F-18 illustrates the unfairness of judging a weapons system by its initial shakedown problems. A few years ago the Harrier was where the F-18 is today, at the stage of moving from prototype to production aircraft. In the first years of its use by the U.S. Marines, a number of Harriers crashed. Defense critics pounced on the crashes as proof that once again the Pentagon had wasted billions on a piece of junk. However, the Harrier’s early problems were rectified, and today it is a highly regarded aircraft.
Fourth, CBS did not mention that the Canadian armed forces and the Canadian government have compared the F-18 with the F-16 and several competing European jets. After a series of tests, the Canadians decided to buy the F-18 as their first-line fighter for the 1980’s. The F-18 is also a serious candidate for purchase by the air forces of Australia and Spain.
Fifth, CBS implied that the F-18 proves that high technology in weapons is intrinsically a mistake. Threlkeld: “High technology is not much help when things start getting confused. . . . Combat is always confused.” This was proved, said CBS, by Air Force exercises in which less sophisticated F-5 fighters fared well in dog-fights against Navy F-14’s and Air Force F-15’s. But CBS did not tell its viewers that the exercises were designed to train pilots, not to test aircraft. Consequently, one of the ground rules forbade engagement before eye contact was achieved. In actual combat one of the principal advantages of the F-14 and F-15 is their ability, lacking in the F-5, to shoot down enemy aircraft using long-range guided missiles before the enemy aircraft come into visual range.
Cbs extrapolated from the F-18 to all other high-technology weaponry. Said Threlkeld: “It won’t be the first of our weapons trapped by its own technology. There are lots of others.” But of these “lots” CBS could name only two, and primarily the XM-1 tank. CBS criticized the XM-1 as “so heavy, so complex, it gets only three gallons to the mile.” “It can’t go nearly as far as our old tanks,” the show asserted. Threlkeld used the XM-1 to justify his statement that “Every major American weapons system today is the product of the same thinking: build a few complex weapons, instead of a lot of simpler ones.”
In the XM-1 tank, as in the F-18, CBS picked a system in its teething stage where a negative judgment could not be refuted conclusively. The only good thing that CBS could find to say about the XM-1 was that it is fast, an advantage supposedly outweighed by its fuel consumption, its cost, and its mechanical unreliability. CBS did not mention the tank’s “special armor” which will defeat many current Russian anti-tank rockets, its astounding shock-absorber system that allows it to achieve unparalleled accuracy when firing on the move, or its elaborate features to protect the crew from blast and fire.
Even the CBS treatment of the XM-l’s fuel consumption was biased. The XM-1 uses more fuel than existing American tanks because it has a new turbine engine. The Army chose the new turbine over the standard diesel, even though it uses more fuel, for several reasons. First, diesels are notoriously difficult to start in cold weather, whereas the turbine has no problems, an obvious advantage for a tank that is designed for use in a European winter. Second, existing tank diesels are extremely loud, and usually a tank is heard approaching long before it is sighted visually; the XM-l’s turbine is so quiet that the tank’s treads make more noise than the engine. Finally, where existing tanks can often be spotted as they move from a standstill because a diesel engine normally emits a telltale smoke plume, the XM-l’s turbine does not put out a smoke plume when accelerating. Ignoring the advantages of the XM-1 engine, CBS simply dismissed it as a gas guzzler.
CBS suggested that Congress, as part of the Iron Triangle, is hopelessly devoted to high technology. Actually, Congress was nervous about the Army’s decision to adopt a turbine engine for the XM-1. At the insistence of Congress, the Army developed an alternative diesel engine in case the turbine engine failed to live up to hopes. Although experiencing normal shakedown problems, the turbine has proved itself, and Congress has ended funding for the alternative diesel engine.
While CBS criticized extreme technological sophistication in U.S. weapons, it also played the other side of the fence. In its third segment, entitled Call to Arms, CBS touted American technological superiority in order to downplay the Russian threat. After noting the Russian numerical superiority over NATO in tanks (38,000 versus 17,000), in attack helicopters (two to one), in men under arms (400,000 more), and in combat aircraft (200 to 700 more), Ed Bradley minimized the significance of the figures by stating: “But before you put up a white flag, remember that wars aren’t won by fire power alone, and you don’t measure tank against tank, but tank against tank killer. Then there’s technology. In most areas, we’re supposed to have the edge.” This statement was inconsistent with the CBS attack on high technology in its segment on weapons procurement. But the two themes were consistent with CBS’s overall stress: the U.S. should not spend more money on defense.
A viewer who sat through all five evenings of The Defense of the United States would have learned that the United States is not threatened by any external enemy, but rather by the tragic propensity of the two superpowers each to see in the other a mirror reflection of its own fears and hostilities. Guided by these misplaced fears, by the insensibilities of the military mentality, and by the venalities of Congressmen and contractors, the United States is about to spend itself into bankruptcy on weapons which, had we to use them in a real war, would not work, except to kill Western European civilians. Worst of all, our Dr. Strangeloves are pursuing the self-fulfilling idea that nuclear war is indeed possible and are on the way to incinerating us all.
This caricature of U.S. defense policy is a familiar one. It had great currency a decade ago, before it was rejected by most Americans in favor of a more realistic view. Perhaps one reason for its rejection is that it does not stand up to scrutiny, as should be clear from the large number of factual errors, distortions, and misrepresentations to which CBS had to resort in order to bolster its case.
CBS is entitled to its opinions. The Defense of the United States, however, was not presented as an editorial but as a news documentary. As the largest information outlet in the Western world, CBS has a responsibility to impartiality and objectivity which it has seriously failed to meet. For the record (and for the Federal Communications Commission), the network will continue to say that its series presented all sides, but the people at CBS gave every indication that they knew otherwise. They felt that “the opposition wasn’t doing its job,” so they staged their own guerrilla attack against the emerging consensus in favor of rearming America.
1 See Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight & Win a Nuclear War,” COMMENTARY, July 1977.
2 “Racing Forward or Ambling Back?” in Defending America (Basic Books, 1977).