Dueling over Defense

This essay was originally published in the September 1, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Carter and Reagan argue about who favors a stronger military

“We have strengthened every element of our strategic deterrent … no potential enemy of the U.S. should anticipate for one moment a successful use of military power against our vital interests.”

—President Carter

“Every single analysis of which I am aware directly contradicts this Administration’s smug assertion that the U.S. is and will remain militarily superior, or at least ‘second to none.’ We are already second to one.”

—Ronald Reagan

Scarcely pausing for the customary post-convention breather, the presidential candidates clashed last week over what could become a major issue of the campaign: national defense. The man who can convince the American public that he is right may well be the winner in what is already looking like a photo-finish horse race. The attention generated by the Democratic Convention collapsed Reagan’s commanding lead in the polls (see chart).

Looking as earnest as recruits entering boot camp, Carter and Reagan, as well as Independent John Anderson, pledged to work for the strongest possible national defense in their speeches to the annual American Legion convention in Boston last week.

Reagan berated the Carter Administration for deserting the defense policies of “Harry Truman, John Kennedy and many contemporary leaders of the Democratic Party.” He quoted President Kennedy to the effect that only by being No. 1 can the U.S. “stop the next war before it starts.” Though Reagan was the clear favorite of the Legionnaires, they had no real complaint with any of the candidates.

Said one member: “They told us what we want to hear.”

The next day, after being referred to by House Speaker Tip O’Neill as “Jimmy Roosev … er … Jimmy Carter,” the President warned that security cannot be attained by “nostalgic or wishful thinking or by bravado.” He got a big hand when he pledged: “If a nuclear arms race should be forced upon us, we will compete and compete successfully.”

The speeches heated up the debate between Carter and Reagan over which party is responsible for the U.S.’s falling behind the Soviets in defense spending. Carter claims that defense expenditures were reduced 35% during the Nixon and Ford Administrations. That is basically correct, since outlays dropped dramatically as the Viet Nam War ended. But Republican White House budget requests were trimmed still further by the Democratic Congress.

Carter is also accurate when he contends that he has boosted defense spending 4% a year in real terms since he took office. But he skims over the fact that he campaigned vigorously in 1976 to trim the Pentagon budget, and early in his Administration boasted of cutting some $7 billion from the defense spending urged by Ford in his last year in office. As Reagan charges, Carter canceled such key weapons programs as the B-l bomber and the neutron warhead. In rebuttal, Carter claims that the B-l was obsolete and that his Administration is considering developing a more effective manned bomber.

Such a bomber would presumably use a new technology, characterized last week by Defense Secretary Harold Brown as “a major advance of great military significance.” Brown said the development would greatly help aircraft avoid being detected by radar or heat-sensing devices.

The Pentagon’s rubric for the new techniques: “Stealth.”

Reagan drew headlines on two other issues. At the Los Angeles airport, where Vice Presidential Candidate George Bush and Foreign Policy Adviser Richard Allen were departing for the Far East, Reagan remarked that while he wanted to improve relations with China, he also favored some “official relationship” with Taiwan. That particular phrasing set off alarm bells in China as well as the American foreign policy establishment. Part of the U.S. agreement with China is that no official relations will be maintained with Taiwan. There is only a “private” U.S. office in Taiwan, a polite fiction that nevertheless satisfies the mainland Chinese.

In his meeting with Chinese leaders, Bush said a Republican Administration would not restore an official relationship with Taiwan. As a former U.S. envoy to China, Bush was politely if coolly received, but Peking later blasted Reagan for “turning the clock back by reviving the extinct ‘two Chinas’ proposition.” Meanwhile, Reagan clung to his earlier statement about favoring official relations with Taiwan. Asked whether he would revive the mutual defense pact with Taiwan, he hedged: “That is one of the things I would rather answer after George gets back.” While using Bush’s absence as an excuse to waffle, Reagan seemed embarrassed and perplexed over his Taiwan policy snafu. He himself brought up the “official relationship” formulation on May 17, but has been unable to explain it satisfactorily after three months.

Reagan was also invited last week to address the Chicago convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which had endorsed his election—the first time in its 67-year history that the V.F.W. has supported a presidential candidate. During a speech in which he emphasized the importance of negotiating arms reductions through strength, Reagan cited the need for the U.S. to recover from its “Viet Nam syndrome” and to realize that the war was “in truth, a noble cause. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful.” Reagan declared that the U.S. should “never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our Government is afraid to win.”

So deep are the public wounds from Viet Nam that even some of Reagan’s advisers questioned the wisdom of reopening them and possibly driving away independents and moderates he needs to win. Sensitive to the political hazards, Illinois

G.O.P. Governor Jim Thompson cautioned the Reagan campaign not to “lay heavy stress” on the issue of Viet Nam.

‘I think that the war is over,” said Thompson, returning the subject to the closet, where most voters would probably like it to remain.

In Dallas, at the end of a busy week, Reagan received a tumultuous reception from some 15,000 Protestant ministers and lay leaders. The candidate promised “a foreign policy which understands the danger we face from governments and ideologies that are at war with the very ideas of religion and freedom.”

While Reagan was winning some and losing some, Carter won a warmer endorsement from Ted Kennedy than at the Democratic Convention. In Boston, when Carter arrived to address the Legion, Kennedy clasped his hand, patted him on the back and, while Carter looked on almost fawningly, declared: “I’m determined that he’ll be re-elected.”

It remains to be seen how hard Kennedy will work for Carter, but in a speech to the American Federation of Teachers in Detroit, he urged its members to endorse the President. When Carter appeared before the A.F.T. later in the week, the teachers welcomed him with chants of “We want Jimmy!”

The President also surmounted his first hurdle in winning crucial labor support, which traditionally supplies money and manpower — though far fewer votes than it once could — for Democratic candidates. The executive council of the AFL-CIO voted to recommend a Carter endorsement at the meeting of the general board next week. But heads of several of the biggest unions did not show up, and some of them abstained from voting. They are worried about persuading their members to turn out for the President. Said a union official: “The educational effort by the unions will probably convince most of their members that Reagan is an ogre.

The question is, will this cause them to vote for Carter?”

As for Anderson, the third man without a theme was struggling to keep his candidacy alive. The latest polls show him to be teetering around the 15% that he needs to be included with Carter and Reagan in the debates that will be sponsored this fall by the League of Women Voters.

This week Anderson is expected to name as his vice-presidential candidate former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey, 62, a Democrat who was appointed Ambassador to Mexico by Carter and later resigned in a policy dispute. Lucey would not balance the ticket geographically for Illinois’ Anderson, but he would help Anderson ideologically: a liberal, he helped direct Kennedy’s fight for the nomination.

And Anderson, like Carter, hopes that some of the Kennedy magic will rub off on him.

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