A Democratic president was calling for the construction of floating arsenals -- ships laden with combat equipment for quick U.S. intervention anywhere around the globe.
And it fell to a Democratic senator to kill the plan with a stern warning, not so much about the cost but, as he wrote:
". . . about the possible creation of an impression that the United States has assumed the function of policing the world and that it can be thought to be at least considering intervention in any kind of strife or commotion occurring in any of the nations in the world."
That was the warning, in 1967, of the late Sen. Richard B. Russell, then the most famous Georgian in Washington and the most powerful hawk of his time. He was explaining why even the hardline Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chaired, was rejecting President Lyndon B. Johnson's proposal.
Now President Carter, who in 1967 was a private peanut warehouser in Richard Russell's Georgia, has proposed virtually the same plan: Rapid Deployment Force, he called it last Wednesday in his speech outlining his proposal for significant increases in defense spending.
But this time, interestingly, there was no loud cry of alarm. Not from the hawks, not from the doves, not from Capitol Hill and not even from the campaign trail (where Carter's nemesis-of-the-left, Edward M. Kennedy, was dodging reporters' queries about specific proposals of Carter's plan for increased defense spending).
And perhaps that tells us more about ourselves than it does about our politicians. Americans' views of their country's role in world affairs have undergone significant changes. In the past year or so, there have been key shifts in public views toward increases in defense spending.
The upcoming issue of Public Opinion magazine includes two surveys taken by pollster Louis Harris that tell the story of the shift in attitudes. tIn 1971, with anti-Vietnam war sentiment running high, only 11 percent of the public said they favored an increase in defense spending.Forty-nine percent said they wanted a decrease and 40 percent said they wanted defense spending to remain at its existing level.
Last October, a whopping 60 percent said they wanted an increase in defense spending. Only 9 percent favored a decrease, and 31 percent favored the existing level.
Other surveys cited in past issues of Public Opinion show that attitudes of Americans on defense spending have swung back to where they were in 1960, in that era when John F. Kennedy created the Green Berets, and when it seemed that world powder-kegs could be defused by just bucking a few swashes.
"The shift in public opinion on defense spending is greater than on any other public issue in the 1970s," says Ben J. Wattenberg, co-editor of Public Opinion and head of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, who comes at these issues with a natural bias of the hawkish Scoop Jackson wing of his party.
The surveys make it clear that the American public has moved significantly in favor of increases in defense spending. But it is far less clear whether the American people will want to move quite as far, quite as rapidly, as the politicians who seek to anticipate their moods want to take them.
The shift in favor of more defense spending has not been accompanied by any large shift in favor of using American troops in combat around the world. Even given the situation in Iran, polls have shown Americans generally restraned in their desire to use military force against Iran.
America's political leaders, known for their adaptability, have shifted significantly in their views on military matters.
Carter, for example, was campaigning in 1976 on promises to cut defense spending by $5 billion to $7 billion and to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. When he was questioned about how all this could be accomplished, he would talk only in generalities of cutting the "fat" in the defense budget.
When pressed for specifics, he would, at times, get testy. On the tarmac of an airport while campaigning in the 1976 Florida primary, as the vein in his temple throbbed in anger, he snapped, "I'll be glad to repeat myself again -- or else you can play your tape back to yourself."
As president, Carter had decided not to withdraw the troops from Korea, and under his administration defense spending has actually increased. But his aides maintained he kept his campaign promise, because he cut back the increase from the higher levels that President Fort had proposed. (It was a bit of politico-logic not unlike former senator George Aiken's plan on how to win the war in Vietnam: just declare victory and get out.
Now wiser after years on the job, a presidental assistant concedes that Carter has changed his view on defense spending. He acknowledges that Carter had hoped to cut the military budget in part through sharp cuts in nuclear arms under an ambitious SALT proposal that the Soviets rejected. But, in refreshing candor, he concedes that Carter has changed his view.
Carter has embraced the "counterforce" concept of strategic planning in proposing the MX mobile missile, which he says will have "the capability to attack a wide variety of Soviet military targets."
At one time, the counteforce concept was proposed by a conservative senator and rejected by the defense secretary. "The Defense Department cannot support the proposed [counterforce] amendments," the department said in a little-remembered position paper. "It is the position of the United Sates to not develop a weapon system whose deployment could reasonably be construed by the Soviets as having a first-strike capability. Such a deployment might provide an incentive to the Soviets to strike first." s
That was the official view in 1971, when Melvin Laird was secretary of defense -- a view that has been quietly set aside by his successors.
So it is that policies evolve and shift in ways that often are concealed by the drifting sands of time. So it is that Carter also has proposed to fund the Rapid Deployment Forces. In his Wednesday defense policy speech -- which administration officials see as the end of the "Vietnam Complex" that dominated public attitudes on defense issues -- Carter explained the concept by saying: "We must understand that not every instance of the firm application of power is a potential Vietnam."
He defined his Rapid Deployment Force as:
". . . a new fleet of Martime Prepositioning Ships that will carry the heavy equipment and supplies for three Marine brigades, and that can be stationed in forward areas where U.S. forces may be needed. With their supplies already near the scene of action, the troops themselves can move in by air. The second innovation will be a new fleet of large cargo aircraft to carry Army tanks and other equipment over intercontinental distances.
"Having Rapid Deployment Forces does not necessarily mean we will use them. We intend their existence to deter the very developments that would invoke their use."
In 1967, Sen. Russell warned against just such a plan, saying on behalf of his hawkish committee, " . . . if our involvement in foreign conflicts can be made quicker and easier, there is the temptation to intervene in many situations."
In 1979, Carter had demonstrated impressive restraint while dealing with the crisis in Iran, and there is every reason to except similar restraint from him should future crises arise. But what is unclear, and unanswerable, is whether Carter or the American people can be confident that his successors in office will act with similar restraint.