Missiles, Brains and Mind
Missiles, Brains and Mind
National Review – February 28, 1959
By Whittaker Chambers
Without a national revolution in our attitude toward creative mind, the mass production of intercontinental missiles and technical brains will not prove enough to assure our survival
“What Does Not Destroy Me . . . “
Thousands, perhaps millions, of us have been following, as closely as possible, the great weapons debate whose epicenter is in the Congress. That debate breathes a rancid tone of political partisanship. This is extremely disquieting. On the other hand, without that political animus it is possible that there would be no debate. That would be more disquieting still. I, for one, hold the belief that at least a majority of literate men and women are pretty shrewd at separating what is politically motivated (or distorted) from the reality of the situation which emerges from the argument. And it is this reality that none of us can afford to miss or widely misunderstand.
This debate goes (as Germans say) um Tod und Leben — for life or death. Not only is the basic reality of the situation it evokes awesome; it is peculiarly perilous because the reality is so novel that many cannot credit it. They simply cannot take it seriously. That reality is, of course, that, for the first time in our history, the nation as a whole is coming under the possibility of direct, annihilative attack. Our continental fortress is no longer unreachable; our ocean moats have shrunk or may serve to float toward us the submarine conveyors of disaster. The rockets have done this.
Therefore, what we are truly debating is our survival as a people that wills to remain sovereign and not subject — as the people that we are and will to be, and not what someone else wills to make us. Let us, for the moment, table all brave talk about our special breed of freedom and this or that high moral issue, as all luxuries go overboard in combat, which, in the resolving clinch, never turns on these, but on the necessity for raw survival. This is what we are debating: survival.
The debate is especially difficult for most of us to follow efficiently because: 1) much of it concerns regions of science and technology which, as laymen, we are simply not competent to grasp; and 2) much of it turns on scraps and echoes of conflicting information which, for good reasons, we are not permitted to know in full, and, again, might well not be competent to evaluate if we did know it. But most of us feel competent to see that the conflict forks out from two main Intelligence questions.
Oldest Rule of War
One of them is what our Intelligence tells us about the state of Soviet weapons progress. The other concerns our own rate of progress, past, present and tomorrow. Neither is clear. In addition, opinions about these matters cannot be simple. Naturally, they involve many more (and much more complex) factors than whether the Russians are ahead of us in certain respects and behind in others; whether, at this moment, they can match us rocket for rocket, or outmatch us, etc., etc., etc. But the oldest, simplest rule of war would seem to dispose of much of this part of the debate. The rule is: never underrate your mortal enemy. Do not, if you can help it, overrate him; but far better to overrate than underrate.
Just here, there emerges from the debate another point which almost any literate layman can claim competence to see and call decisive. The point is this: whatever the precise state of Russian rocketry and missile production, or our own, the Russians have achieved approximate destructive parity with us. This would seem to mean that, whether or not either nation has the power to inflict near total extinction on the other, each has the power to ruin the other. And that would seem, to those who may lie under such ruins or inherit them, to be about all that is necessary.
As someone has remarked, the real horror of an atomic war is not the fate of millions who may be fried in a flash; the real horror will be the fate of those who survive to haunt the ruins. If, as seems to be the case, people exist who still fail to grasp what this apocalypse implies, perhaps it is well to remind them of a colloquy (on TV, several months ago) between Mr. Dave Garroway and one of the top-ranking generals responsible for giving the signal to retaliate in event of atomic attack on us. The Q. and A. went much like this:
MR. GARROWAY: “General, in your opinion could we survive such an attack?”
THE GENERAL: “Yes, I think so.”
MR. GARROWAY: “How long would it take us, after such an attack, to get back to where we are now?”
THE GENERAL: “Perhaps a couple of hundred years.”
They were not trying to frighten little children. They were trying to make big children face reality.
Approximate destructive parity would seem to be all that is necessary for another reason. I happen to be one of those who believe that, barring hideous folly or human failure, these ruins will never come to pass. I cannot possibly document this belief; and neither can anybody else who holds (extremely tentatively, of course) this view. But it is not just fantasy. It derives from conclusions (drawn from Communist theory and decades of Soviet strategy and tactics in action) that Russian missiles are primarily political, not primarily military, weapons. The last thing, in my tentative opinion, that the Russians want to do with their missiles at this time is to launch them against the United States. For parity, by definition, works both ways. The Russians are not romantics, and have no greater whim than we have to become a continental ruin — especially since the ruins after an atomic war will not even be worth looking at.
The purpose of the Soviet missiles is, first, to erect a deterrent fence around the Communist heartland. For some reason, some of us seem unable to realize that the Russians are also afraid of us. But, finally, and much more important, the purpose of the Soviet missiles is to impose on the West a truce of exhaustion, taking form in one or another degree of atomic disarmament. No need to recap here the perils for the West of such a truce. My colleague, James Burnham, has long and patiently pointed them out in explicit detail. On the other hand, the depth and ferocity of the world crisis is measured by the fact that the atomic stalemate forced the East-West conflict into space in order to continue it on the scale of that new, fluid dimension.
Two Points Overlooked
The question is inescapable: How long can this go on, how far, and to what end? I find no comfort, because I put little credence, in the complacency of those who say: We can outlast and outplay the Russians at this game. This seems to me to overlook (among others) two instantly visible points. It assumes 1) that the Russians are competing only in the rocket field and not in others, where, in general, they have been more successful than we have been to date. It overlooks 2) that a formidable enemy, seeing itself dangerously outclassed, might be driven to desperation. In that case, the rockets might, at that moment, cease to be primarily political, and become in fact primarily military weapons. With that we are back at those ruins.
The larger probability would seem to be that neither power can long sustain a decisive over-all weapons headway of the other; but that, by spurts, now one, now the other, will draw ahead in some feature of this mortal race. Of course, this leaves out the possibility of the development of a defense, at least partially effective, against rockets. I am told, pretty reliably I believe, that we are in fact hopefully engaged in such a project. If this is true, you can be reasonably sure that so is the vigilant enemy. But such defense, too, works both ways, and would seem again to bring us to a point of partial standoff without, however, ending the weapons and space race.
Obviously, this cannot be ended while either side is racing. For if it is true that Soviet missiles are primarily political, we cannot therefore cease trying to catch up and overtake Soviet progress. To do so would also be hideous folly; would again, instantly, and more certainly than any desperation, convert the Soviet rockets from political to prime offensive weapons of immediate aggression. We can only do our utmost to outmatch the presumed Soviet lead. In this matter, I find myself thinking more like a Democrat than like many of my more tranquilized fellow-Republicans; and this, both as to belief in the necessity of supposing that a Soviet lead exists and may widen, and the necessity of sparing no effort or cost to close the weapons gap.
But, at that unsparing point, certain consequences also appear, which my mind refuses not to face as part of our total reality. As the weapons and space race climbs ever more steeply in cost and effort over years, it is scarcely conceivable that the pull should not begin to be felt by every American in constrictive ways, which, if pushed (and there are plenty of pushers around, gleefully waiting for a pretext) must radically transform our way of life. The Russian missile and space program is paid for directly out of the pockets, hide and hopes of the Soviet citizen. True, Russia began from hunger while we still have wads of affluent fat to melt off before the pinch is cruel; and the strong-arm State must enforce those ultimate sacrifices which State power exists to enforce. Is it conceivable that it will not come to this, even among us? It will be simple necessity; and necessity is its own imperative sanction.
I submit that this is one reason why certain businessmen, who sense clearly enough the grim shape of things to come, appeared to listen with closer attention than did certain hopefully socializing labor leaders, to what Anastas Mikoyan flew so far to tell us, namely: that Russia wants to end the Cold War. I submit, too, that this was what Mikoyan chiefly came to say, and that all else — verbal ticklings of the German question; or talk of trade contingent on credits; or the relaxing of our restrictions on certain exports; or a passionate interest in supermarketing and the packaging of potato chips — was incidental to that one simple statement: Russia wants to end the Cold War. The commissar had only to repeat it as frequently and publicly as possible since, above all, he was saying it over the heads of the Administration to the people as a whole. Nor was this just a random tactic of divisive mischief. This kind of deception applies a tactic rooted in Communist theory and successfully tested in four decades of Soviet practice.
But the prospect of political and economic changes among us is not the only transformation we might bear in mind as an ultimate consequence of the space and weapons race. There is another transformation, which is much more certain, and certain to come much faster. Usually, this one is discussed in terms of American education and its inadequacies. In some circles, it has become almost a sport to cite the discrepant figures which tend to show how many more scientists, engineers, etc., etc. the Russians are yearly graduating than are we. It is a deadly sport. For, if the figures are generally accurate (and, again, for our own skins’ sake it is well to assume that they are), they spell out a portent. It is, of course, that in a comparatively short time the Russians will have produced a massively outnumbering elite of the kind on which the security and progress of modem States depend. Nor is this, again, a sudden, spastic lunge on the Russians’ part. Again, the development of such an elite derives directly from Communist theory and the Communist world-view. Those who would like to glimpse what the enemy is up to, could do worse than dip (for a starter) into Friedrich Engels‘ polemical work commonly called the Anti-Duehring.
In general, the problem appears to be viewed as simply one of education, in an almost automatic sense. “Give us the funds, the necessary physical plant and the proper teachers’ pay,” goes the refrain in which can be heard the deep hunting bay of the Education lobby in full cry – “Give us these, and we will mass-produce the brains.” And, certainly, these needs must be met if brains are to be mass-processed.
Yet it seems possible, too, that the problem does not turn wholly on the academic processing of what we loosely call “brains.” It would seem to turn, at least as critically, on the much more difficult problem of what we loosely call “mind.” I suggest that the implied presence in the latter word of reflective and creative imagination, rare and elusive as a trace metal, measures some difference of meaning between the two terms. Practical brains we have always had, and of an organizing genius whose scale and audacity have made America one of the wonders of history. Mind, in the sense I have suggested, is something else again, not, perhaps, because it is necessarily in short supply, but because something like a national revolution in our attitude to it must occur before it can become effective.
Revenge of the Mind
Almost a decade ago, Henry Regnery, the publisher, and I sat with some others in (appropriately, perhaps) the Douglas MacArthur suite of a Midwest hotel. There were no Sputniks in the sky that year. Yet there was a shared feeling that something was radically wrong in the land, which the conversation tried, fumblingly, to get at. Somebody said: “America has always secretly despised the mind. Now mind is taking its revenge. We need it desperately; and it simply isn’t there.” A sweeping criticism, but not nearly so critical or so sweeping as the evidence which has since crested in our missiles lag. The energy of practical brains, backed by the immense resources of our technology, may make good that lag, which, in default of sovereign and imaginative mind, was not foreseen together with much else. It is a basic attitude toward mind, quite as much as education, that needs transforming. Such basic transformations are, admittedly, harder to make, and take longer, than mass-processing a dozen campus generations, or even closing a missiles gap. But there seems no valid reason to suppose that necessity will not breed what survival requires. That is one root challenge of our ordeal.
While we are mastering it, we might do worse than curb those recurrent twinges of fear that secretly (and sometimes openly) beset us, by fixing in our heads the insight that the great diagnostician of this age added to the grammar of courage: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
TagsAlexander Ulanovsky Alger Hiss Arthur Koestler Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand Benn Steil Cold War Communism Dwight Eisenhower FDR George W. Bush Ghosts on the Roof Harry Dexter White Hiss Case House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC Ignatz Reiss John Kenneth Galbraith John Loomis Sherman John Maynard Keynes Joseph McCarthy Joseph Stalin Karl Marx Leon Trotsky Max Bedacht Middle East National Review Nikita Khrushchev Peter the Great Pumpkin Papers Ralph de Toledano Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan Sputnik TIME magazine Tony Judt Vladimir Lenin Vladimir Putin Walter Krivitsky Westminster Whittaker Chambers William F. Buckley William F. Buckley Jr. Winston Churchill Yalta
- B&W Photos from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection
- Life of the People: Radical Impulse + Capital and Labor
- Art of Marxism
- Comrades in Art
- Graphic Witness
- Jacob Burck
- Hugo Gellert + Gellert Papers
- William Gropper
- Jan Matulka: Thomas McCormick Gallery + Global Modernist
- Esther Shemitz Chambers
- Armory Show 1913
Official website of Whittaker Chambers ( >> more )