His prepared statement, an impressive critique of the military establishment and a set of recommendations for increasing efficiency and economy in the Defense Department, revealed that 82-year-old Adm. H. G. Rickover still possesses his keen analytical mind.
But it was during the question-and-answer session of his farewell to Congress that the retiring "father of the nuclear Navy" showed his true concern for his country.
We are, he told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, in danger of arming ourselves into oblivion.
The U.S.-Soviet arms race is so wildly out of control, he said, that instead of increasing our capacity to defend ourselves we are more likely to wipe out the human race in nuclear war.
His remarks were surprising, coming as they did from a man who has given 59 years of his life to the military, and they reflected a view startingly at odds with the Reagan administration's call for vast new defense outlays, even in the face of a faltering economy.
The Reagan view is that America will never be safe until it can at least match the Soviets in every sort of weapons system. It is a view that never made sense to me, and I was delighted to learn that this widely respected military giant shares my doubts.
"We're spending too much on defense," he said, noting the pointlessness of building more submarines than we already possess. "I see no reason why we have to have just as many as the Russians. What's the difference? We can sink everything they have on the ocean. In general, we are overarming altogether."
And so we are, even if the fact isn't immediately clear from Pentagon releases, which misleadingly state our outlays as a percentage of the gross national product. The rationale for increased military spending is that failure to catch up with the Russians' "massive" buildup will tempt them to attack us, or at least to blackmail us into submission.
But the Soviets have, for years, been increasing their military budgets by a not-very-massive 3 to 4 percent a year, although the figures as a percentage of Soviet GNP are much larger, due to the fact that their GNP is declining. Ours is growing as a percentage of a growing GNP, and at a time when the budget for the domestic needs of Americans is being slashed.
We are, in fact, throwing money at the Pentagon faster than the Pentagon can wisely spend it. As Rickover noted last week, it is buying us more nuclear risk than security.
And it is hurting us in another way as well. The former CIA director, Adm. Stansfield Turner, in 1980 congressional testimony, said the Soviets' increased military spending was having an adverse impact on their overall economy:
"I think you have to say that when you are putting 12 to 14 percent of your gross national product into the defense sector, you have clearly denied yourself an opportunity to put it into investment, and of course into consumption. . . . The lack of their willingness to put it into consumption is hurting their productivity."
If that is true for the Soviets, it must also be true for us, and it seems fair to suggest that it may be one of the key reasons for our staggering national debt, our soaring interest rates and the other problems plaguing our economy.
Even so, it might make sense to spend the money on defense if we were buying security. Rickover says we're not. "I think probably we'll destroy ouselves," he said.
This is no pacifist talking. This is the tough little guy who helped to make the U.S. Navy the strongest in the world. But he sees our warships and submarines merely as a "necessary evil" and told the Congress that he would be willing to "sink them all" in exchange for mutual disarmament.
It is his view--and mine--that the arms race is exactly the wrong way to achieve national security. And reaching the level of armaments sufficient to make us feel secure would, virtually by definition, make the Soviets feel insecure and prompt them to undertake further buildups that we would then feel constrained to match.
And what would give us the security we say we want? Either disarmament or divine intervention, Rickover said. And since he doesn't count on the latter, that leaves disarmament as the only realistic option. "Put me in charge of it," he challenged the committee, "and I'll get you some results." insecure and prompt them to undertake further buildups that we would then feel constrained to match.
And what would give us the security we say we want? Either disarmament or divine intervention, Rickover said. And since he doesn't count on the latter, that leaves disarmament as the only realistic option. "Put me in charge of it," he challenged the committee, "and I'll get you some results."