During the past Geneva summit meeting, I went to my bookshelf for another reading of Alva Myrdal's "The Game of Disarmament." The subtitle of this 1976 classic is "How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race." I needed to read Myrdal again as a way to resist the illusions of progress and false hopes for peace that were being passed out at the summit like gumdrops at the circus.
At her death last week in her native Sweden, Alva Myrdal, 84, had earned the world's gratitude for her decades- long work into probing what she called "the reign of unreason." The reigning rulers are the United States and the Soviet Union: "The superpowers have indulged in subterfuges and half- truths, with their closest and usually most dependent allies following suit or keeping silent. On balance, there has been no real advance toward limitation of armaments. The competitive race between the two superpowers has steadily escalated, and the militarization of the economy and national life of almost all countries has intensified."
On the day her obituary appeared, newspapers, as if weighing in with the daily update on Myrdal's book, reported that the militarization of the world continues unabated. The lead story in The Post said that Ronald Reagan wanted an increase of nearly 40 percent in the military budget over five years. Since 1980, military spending has already risen (above inflation) over 50 percent. From Defense News, it was worse. The Indian government is negotiating to spend $1.6 billion on a deal from European arms merchants for towed howitzers and smart ammunition. The headline over another story said that "House Republicans Urge Reagan to Build 50 More B-1B Bombers." A third story was on the Pentagon's sales of $179 million worth of spare military parts to South Korea and Turkey.
Those are samplings of only one day's stories. To Alva Myrdal, they meant moving beyond the conventional view that the arms race is out of control. It is more threatening than that: It has been institutionalized into a "weapons culture." It sanctions, without question or pause, amoral foreign policies that have turned entire countries into armed camps and the whole planet -- and now space -- into a military base. It should be kept in mind that Myrdal was issuing this analysis in 1976, a time in which she said "upwards of $300 billion is spent each year in the armaments race." With a decade gone by, those look like days of pacifism. The sum is now past $800 billion, with $300 billion being spent by one nation -- the United States -- alone.
Alva Myrdal won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. The year before, she received the Albert Einstein Peace Prize. She entered the disarmament field in the early 1960s with no particular sense of alarm or disgust: "I was not from the outset alert to the great risks of an incipient militarization of the world. I was not ready to cry out: Down with the weapons." From 1936 until 1962, when she went to the Geneva disarmament meetings as head of Sweden's delegation, Myrdal had taught nursery-school teachers, directed a UNESCO program and served as her country's ambassador to India.
In 1924, she and Gunnar Myrdal married. He would win the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics. Their marriage lasted for more than 60 years, the secret being, she once said, that "we have never found anybody else so interesting to talk to."
The Myrdals were among the 20th century's great intellectual couples whose love of ideas ran as deep as their love for each other. Similar couples were Jacques and Raissa Maritain and Will and Ariel Durant. More than those other pairs, the Myrdals were activists who kept returning to the devastating effects of a military economy on the social one. "The difference between America and us (in Sweden)," wrote Gunnar Myrdal in words that might have been his wife's, "is that well- planned social reforms are seen here as productive. . . . In America you look on (them) as a big-government activity, expensive, difficult. Here we come to look on social reforms as an investment that works. . . . We have not had a war since Napoleon's time."
No wonder Alva Myrdal could see the absurdities of America and Soviet militarism with such clarity. Her vision was not blocked by the smoke of battles or the fog of war talk. "I felt there were better futures to choose," she wrote, "than the ones of a Russian-led world revolution or an American-led stride forward to a century of unrestrained capitalism."
In a hard age of unprecedented violence and weapons, Alva Myrdal remained a woman of personal gentleness. She read poetry, enjoyed the outdoors and cherished her family. Her opposition to the military came from the desire that everyone else on earth should be free to share the same delights.