Robert McNamara’s Speech on “Security in the Contemporary World”

By Joe Campbell

SECURITY IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD

Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense
before the American Society of Newspaper Editors
Montreal, Canada, May 18th, 1966

Any American would be fortunate to visit this lovely island city, in this hospitable land. But there is a special satisfaction for a Secretary of Defense to cross the longest border in the world and realize that it is also the least armed border in the world. It prompts one to reflect how negative and narrow a notion of defense still clouds our century.

There is still among us an almost eradicable tendency to think of our security problem as being exclusively a military problem-and to think of the military problem as being exclusively a weapons-system or hardware problem.

The plain, blunt truth is that contemporary man still conceives of war and peace in much the same stereotyped terms that his ancestors did.

The fact that these ancestors, both recent and remote, were conspicuously unsuccessful at avoiding war, and enlarging peace, doesn’t seem to dampen our capacity for cliches.

We still tend to conceive of national security almost solely as a state of armed readiness: a vast, awesome arsenal of weaponry.

We still tend to assume that it is primarily this purely military ingredient that creates security.

We are still haunted by this concept of military hardware. But how limited a concept this actually is becomes apparent when one ponders the kind of peace that exists between the United States and Canada.

It is a very cogent example. Here we are, two modern nations, highly developed technologically, each with immense territory, both enriched with great reserves of natural resources, each militarily sophisticated; and yet we sit across from one another, divided by an unguarded frontier of thousands of miles, and there is not a remotest set of circumstances, in any imaginable time frame of the future, in which our two nations would wage war on one another.

It is so unthinkable an idea as to be totally absurd. But why is that so?

Is it because we are both ready in an instant to hurl our military hardware at one another? Is it because we are both zeroed in on one another’s vital targets? Is it because we are both armed to our technological teeth that we do not go to war? The whole notion, as
applied to our two countries, is ludicrous.

Canada and the United States are at peace for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with our mutual military readiness. We are at peace-truly at peace- because of the vast fund of compatible beliefs, common principles, and shared ideals. We have our differences and our diversity and let us hope for the sake of a mutually rewarding relationship we never become sterile carbon copies of one another. But the whole point is that our basis of mutual peace has nothing whatever to do with our military
hardware.

Now this is not to say, obviously enough, that the concept of military deterrence is no longer relevant in the contemporary world. Unhappily, it still is critically relevant with respect to our potential adversaries. But it has no relevance what ever between the United States and Canada.

We are not adversaries. We are not going to become adversaries. And it is not mutual military deterrence that keeps us from becoming adversaries. It is mutual respect for common principles. Now I mention this-as obvious as it all is-simply as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the concept that military hardware is the exclusive or even the primary ingredient of permanent peace in the mid 20th century.

In the United States over the past 5 years, we have achieved a considerably improved balance in our total military posture. That was the mandate I received from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; and with their support, and that of the Congress, we have been able to create a strengthened force structure of land, sea, and air components with a vast
increase in mobility and materiel and with a massive superiority in nuclear retaliatory power over any combination of potential adversaries.

Our capabilities for nuclear, conventional, and countersubversive war have all been broadened and improved; and we have accomplished this through military budgets that were in fact lesser percentages of our gross national product than in the past.

From the point of view of combat readiness, the United States has never been militarily stronger. We intend to maintain that readiness. But if we think profoundly about the matter, it is clear that this purely military posture is not the central element in our security. A nation can reach the point at which it does not buy more security for itself simply by buying more military hardware. We are at that point. The decisive factor
for a powerful nation already adequately armed is the character of its relationships with the world.

In this respect, there are three broad groups of nations: first, those that are struggling to develop; secondly, those free nations that have reached a level of strength and prosperity that enables them to contribute to the peace of the world; and finally, those nations who might tempted to make themselves our adversaries. For each of these groups, the United
States, to preserve its intrinsic security, has to have distinctive sets of relationships. First, we have to help protect those developing countries which genuinely need and request our help and which, as an essential precondition, are willing and able to help themselves.

Second, we have to encourage and achieve a more effective partnership with those nations who can and should share international peacekeeping responsibilities.

Third, we must do all we realistically can to reduce the risk of conflict with those who might be tempted to take up arms against us.

Let us examine these three sets of relationships in detail.

The Developing Nations

First, the developing nations. Roughly 100 countries today are caught up in the difficult transition from traditional to modern societies. There is no uniform rate of progress among them, and they range from primitive mosaic societies fractured by tribalism and held feebly together by the slenderest of political sinews to relatively sophisticated countries well on the road to agricultural sufficiency and industrial competence.

This sweeping surge of development, particularly across the whole southern half of the globe, has no parallel in history. It has turned traditionally listless areas of the world into seething cauldrons of change.

On the whole, it has not been a very peaceful process.

In the last 8 years alone there have been no less than 164 internationally significant outbreaks of violence, each of them specifically designed as a serious challenge to the authority, or the very existence, of the government in question. Eighty two different governments have been directly involved.

What is striking is that only 15 of these 164 significant resorts to violence have been military conflicts between two states. And not a single one of the 164 conflicts has been a formally declared war. Indeed, there has not been a formal declaration of war anywhere in the world since World War II.

The planet is becoming a more dangerous place to live on, not merely because of a potential nuclear holocaust but also because of the large number of de facto conflicts and because the trend of such conflicts is growing rather than diminishing. At the beginning of 1958, there were 23 prolonged insurgencies going on about the world. As of February 1, 1966, there were 40. Further, the total number of outbreaks of violence has increased each year: In 1958, there were 34; in 1965, there were 58.

The Relationship of Violence and Economic Status

But what is most significant of all is that there is a direct and constant relationship between the incidence of violence and the economic status of the countries afflicted. The World Bank divides nations on the basis of per capita income into four categories: rich, middle income, poor, and very poor.

The rich nations are those with a per capita income of $750 per year or more.

The current U.S. level is more than $2,700. There are 27 of these rich nations. They possess 75 percent of the world’s wealth, though roughly only 25 percent of the world’s population.

Since 1958, only one of these 27 nations has suffered a major internal upheaval on its own territory. But observe what happens at the other end of the economic scale.

Among the 38 very poor nations those with a per capita income of under $100 a year not less than 32 have suffered significant conflicts. Indeed, they have suffered an average of two major outbreaks of violence per country in the 8 year period. That is a great deal of conflict.

What is worse, it has been predominantly conflict of a prolonged nature. The trend holds predictably constant in the case of the two other categories: the poor and the middle income nations. Since 1958, 87 percent of the very poor nations, 69 percent of the poor nations, and 48 percent of the middle income nations have suffered serious violence.

There can, then, be no question but that there is an irrefutable relationship between violence and economic backwardness. And the trend of such violence is up, not down.

Now, it would perhaps be somewhat reassuring if the gap between the rich nations and the poor nations were closing and economic backwardness were significantly receding. But it is not. The economic gap is widening.

By the year 1970 over one half of the world’s total population will live in the independent nations sweeping across the southern half of the planet. But this hungering half of the human race will by then command only one sixth of the world’s total of goods and services. By the year 1975 the dependent children of these nations alone children under 15 years of age will equal the total population of the developed nations to the north.

Even in our own abundant societies, we have reason enough to worry over the tensions that coil and tighten among under-privileged young people and finally flail out in delinquency and crime. What are we to expect from a whole hemisphere of youth where mounting frustrations are likely to fester into eruptions of violence and extremism?

Annual per capita income in roughly half of the 80 underdeveloped nations that are members of the World Bank is rising by a paltry 1 percent a year or less. By the end of the century these nations, at their present rates of growth, will reach a per capita income of barely $170 a year. The United States, by the same criterion, will attain a per capita income of $4,500.

The conclusion to all of this is blunt and inescapable: Given the certain connection between economic stagnation and the incidence of violence, the years that lie ahead for the nations in the southern half of the globe are pregnant with violence.

U.S. Security and the Newly Developing World

This would be true even if no threat of Communist subversion existed is it clearly does. Both Moscow and Peking, however harsh their internal differences, regard the whole modernization process as an ideal environment for the growth of communism. Their experience with subversive internal war is extensive, and they have developed a considerable array of both doctrine and practical measures in the art of political violence.

What is often misunderstood is that Communists are capable of subverting, manipulating, and finally directing for their own ends the wholly legitimate grievances of a developing society.

But it would be a gross oversimplification to regard communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped world. Of the 149 serious internal insurgencies in the past 8 years, Communists have been involved in only 58 of them – 8 percent of the total- and this includes seven instances in which a Communist regime itself was the target of the uprising.

Whether Communists are involved or not, violence anywhere in a taut world transmits sharp signals through the complex gangli of international relations; and the security of the United States is related to the security and stability of nations half a glob away.

But neither conscience nor sanity itself suggests that the United States is, should or could be the global gendarme. Quite the contrary. Experience confirms what human nature suggests: that in most instances of internal violence the local people themselves are best able to deal directly with the situation within the framework of their own traditions.

The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so. There have been classic case in which our deliberate non-action was the wisest action of all. Where our help is not sought, it is seldom prudent to volunteer. Certainly we have no charter to rescue floundering regimes who have brought violence on themselves by deliberately refusing to meet the legitimate expectations of their citizenry.

Further, throughout the next decade advancing technology will reduce the requirements for bases and staging rights at particular locations abroad, and the whole pattern of forward deployment will gradually change.

But, though all these caveats are clear enough, the irreducible fact remains that our security is related directly to the security of the newly developing world. And our role must be precisely this: to help provide security to those developing nations which genuinely need and request our help and which demonstrably are willing and able to help themselves.

Security and Development

The rub comes in this: We do not always grasp the meaning of the word “security” in this context. In a modernizing society, security means development.

Security is not military hardware, though it may include it. Security is not military force, though it may involve it. Security is not traditional military activity, though it may encompass it. Security is development. Without development, there can be no security. A developing nation that does not in fact develop simply cannot remain “secure.” It cannot remain secure for the intractable reason that its own citizenry cannot shed its human nature.

If security implies anything, it implies a minimal measure of order and stability. Without internal development of at least a minimal degree, order and stability are simply not possible. They are not possible because human nature cannot be frustrated beyond intrinsic limits. It reacts because it must.

Now, that is what we do not always understand, and that is also what governments of modernizing nations do not always understand. But by emphasizing that security arises from development, I do not say that an underdeveloped nation cannot be subverted from within, or be aggressed upon from without, or be the victim of a combination of the two. It can. And to prevent any or all of these conditions, a nation does require appropriate military capabilities to deal with the specific problem. But the specific military problem is only a narrow facet of the broader security problem.

Military force can help provide law and order but only to the degree that a basis for law and order already exists in the developing society: a basic willingness on the part of the people to cooperate. The law and order is a shield, behind which the central fact of security – development – can be achieved.

Now we are not playing a semantic game with these words. The trouble is that we have been lost in a semantic jungle for too long. We have come to identify “security” with exclusively military phenomena, and most particularly with military hardware. But it just isn’t so. And we need to accommodate to the facts of the matter if we want to see security survive and grow in the southern half of the globe.

Development means economic, social, and political progress. It means a reasonable standard of living, and the word “reasonable” in this context requires continual redefinition. What is “reasonable” in an earlier stage of development will become “unreasonable” in a later stage.

As development progresses, security progresses. And when the people of a nation have organized their own human and natural resources to provide themselves with what they need and expect out of life and have learned to compromise peacefully among competing demands in the larger national interest then their resistance to disorder and violence will be enormously increased.

Conversely, the tragic need of desperate men to resort to force to achieve the inner imperatives of human decency will diminish.

Military and Economic Spheres of U.S. Aid

Now, I have said that the role of the United States is to help provide security to these modernizing nations, providing they need and request our help and are clearly willing and able to help themselves. But what should our help be? Clearly, it should be help toward development. In the military sphere, that involves two broad categories of assistance.

We should help the developing nation with such training and equipment as is necessary to maintain the protective shield behind which development can go forward.

The dimensions of that shield vary from country to country, but what is essential is that it should be a shield and not a capacity for external aggression.

The second, and perhaps less understood category of military assistance in a modernizing nation, is training in civic action. Civic action is another one of those semantic puzzles. Too few Americans and too few officials in developing nations really comprehend what military civic action means. Essentially, it means using indigenous military forces for nontraditional military projects, projects that are useful to the local population in fields such as education, public works, health, sanitation, agriculture – indeed, anything connected with economic or social progress.

It has had some impressive results. In the past 4 years the U.S. assisted civic action program, worldwide, has constructed or repaired more than 10,000 miles of roads, built over 1,000 schools, hundreds of hospitals and clinics, and has provided medical and dental care to approximately 4 million people.

What is important is that all this was done by indigenous men in uniform. Quite apart from the developmental projects themselves, the program powerfully alters the negative image of the military man as the oppressive preserver of the stagnant status quo.

But assistance in the purely military sphere is not enough. Economic assistance is also essential. The President is determined that our aid should be hardheaded and rigorously realistic, that it should deal directly with the roots of underdevelopment and not merely attempt to alleviate the symptoms. His bedrock principle is that U.S. economic aid –
no matter what its magnitude – is futile unless the country in question is resolute in making the primary effort itself. That will be the criterion, and that will be the crucial condition for all our future assistance.

Only the developing nations themselves can take the fundamental measures that make outside assistance meaningful. These measures are often unpalatable and frequently call for political courage and decisiveness. But to fail to undertake painful, but essential, reform inevitably leads to far more painful revolutionary violence. Our economic assistance is designed to offer a reasonable alternative to that violence. It is designed to help substitute peaceful progress for tragic internal conflict.

The United States intends to be compassionate and generous in this effort, but it is not an effort it can carry exclusively by itself. And thus it looks to those nations who have reached the point of self-sustaining prosperity to increase their contribution to the development and, thus, to the security of the modernizing world.

Sharing Peacekeeping Responsibilities

And that brings me to the second set of relationships that I underscored at the outset; it is the policy of the United States to encourage and achieve a more effective partnership with those nations who can, and should, share international peacekeeping responsibilities.

America has devoted a higher proportion of its gross national product to its military establishment than any other major free-world nation. This was true even before our increased expenditures in Southeast Asia. We have had, over the last few years, as many men in uniform as all the nations of Western Europe combined, even though they have a population half again greater than our own.

Now, the American people are not going to shirk their obligations in any part of the world, but they clearly cannot be expected to bear a disproportionate share of the common burden indefinitely. If, for example, other nations genuinely believe – as they say they do – that it is in the common interest to deter the expansion of Red China’s economic and political control beyond its national boundaries, then they must take
a more active role in guarding the defense perimeter. Let me be perfectly clear. This is not to question the policy of neutralism or nonalignment of any particular nation. But it is to emphasize that the independence of such nations can, in the end, be fully safeguarded only by collective agreements among themselves and their neighbors.

The plain truth is the day is coming when no single nation, however powerful, can undertake by itself to keep the peace outside its own borders. Regional and international organizations for peacekeeping purposes are as yet rudimentary, but they must grow in experience and be strengthened by deliberate and practical cooperative action.

In this matter, the example of Canada is a model for nations everywhere. As Prime Minister Pearson pointed out eloquently in New York just last week: Canada “is as deeply involved in the world’s affairs as any country of its size. We accept this because we have learned over 50 years that isolation from the policies that determine war does not give us immunity from the bloody, sacrificial consequences of their failure. We learned
that in 1914 and again in 1939. . . . That is why we have been proud to send our men to take part in every peacekeeping operation of the United Nations in Korea, and Kashmir, and the Suez, and the Congo, and Cyprus.”

The Organization of American States in the Dominican Republic, the more than 30 nations contributing troops or supplies to assist the Government of South Viet Nam, indeed even the parallel efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Pakistan-India conflict these efforts, together with those of the U.N., are the first attempts to substitute multinational for unilateral policing of violence. They point to the peacekeeping patterns of the future.

We must not merely applaud the idea. We must dedicate talent, resources, and hard practical thinking to its implementation. In Western Europe, an area whose burgeoning economic vitality stands as a monument to the wisdom of the Marshall Plan, the problems of security are neither static nor wholly new. Fundamental changes are under way, though certain inescapable realities remain. The conventional forces of NATO, for example, still require a nuclear backdrop far beyond the capability of any Western
European nation to supply, and the United States is fully committed to provide that major nuclear deterrent.

However, the European members of the alliance have a natural desire to participate more actively in nuclear planning. A central task of the alliance today is, therefore, to work out the relationships and institutions through which shared nuclear planning can be effective. We have made a practical and promising start in the Special Committee of NATO Defense Ministers.

Common planning and consultation are essential aspects of any sensible substitute to the unworkable and dangerous alternative of independent national nuclear forces within the alliance. And even beyond the alliance we must find the means to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. That is a clear imperative.

There are, of course, risks in nonproliferation arrangements, but they cannot be compared with the infinitely greater risks that would arise out of the increase in national nuclear stockpiles. In the calculus of risk, to proliferate independent national nuclear forces is not a mere arithmetical addition of danger. We would not be merely adding up risks. We would be insanely multiplying them.

If we seriously intend to pass on a world to our children that is not threatened by nuclear holocaust, we must come to grips with the problem of proliferation. A reasonable nonproliferation agreement is feasible. For there is no adversary with whom we do not share a common interest in avoiding mutual destruction triggered by an irresponsible nth power.

Dealing With Potential Adversaries

That brings me to the third and last set of relationships the United States must deal with: those with nations who might be tempted to take up arms against us.

These relationships call for realism. But realism is not a hardened, inflexible, unimaginative attitude. The realistic mind is a restlessly creative mind, free of naive delusions but full of practical alternatives. There are practical alternatives to our current relationships with both the Soviet Union and Communist China.

A vast ideological chasm separates us from them and to a degree separates them from one another. There is nothing to be gained from our seeking an ideological rapproachment; but breaching the isolation of great nations like Red China, even when that isolation is largely of its own making reduces the danger of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings and increase the incentive on both sides to resolve disputes by reason rather than by force.

There are many ways in which we can build bridges toward nations who would cut themselves off from meaningful contact with us. We can do so with properly balanced trade relations, diplomatic contacts and in some cases even by exchanges of military observers. We have to know when it is we want to place this bridge, what sort of traffic we want to travel over it, an on what mutual foundations the whole structure can be designed.

There are no one cliff bridges. If you are going to span a chasm, you have to rest the structure on both cliffs. Now cliffs, generally speaking, are rather hazardous places. Some people are afraid even to look over the edge. But in a thermonuclear world, we cannot afford any political acrophobia.

President Johnson has put the matter squarely: By building bridges to those who make themselves our adversaries, “we can help gradually to create a community of interest, a community of trust, and a community of effort.”

With respect to a “community of effort” let me suggest a concrete proposal for our own present young generation in the United States. It is a committed and dedicated generation. It has proven that in its enormously impressive performance in the Peace Corps overseas and in its willingness to volunteer for a final assault on such poverty and lack of opportunity that still remain in our own country.

As matters stand, our present Selective Service System draws on only a minority of eligible young men. That is an inequity. It seems to me that we could move toward remedying that inequity by asking every young person in the United States to give 2 years of service to his country whether in one of the military services, in the Peace Corps, or in some other volunteer developmental work at home or abroad.

We could encourage other countries to do the same, and we could work out exchange programs much as the Peace Corps is already planning to do.

While this is not an altogether new suggestion, it has been criticized as inappropriate while we are engaged in a shooting war. But I believe precisely the opposite is the case. It is more appropriate now than ever. For it would underscore what our whole purpose is in Viet-Nam and indeed anywhere in the world where coercion, or injustice, or lack of decent opportunity still holds sway. It would make meaningful the central concept of security a world of decency and development where every man can feel that his personal horizon is rimmed with hope. Mutual interest, mutual trust, mutual effort those are the goals. Can we achieve those goals with the Soviet Union, and with Communist China? Can they achieve them with one another?

The answer to these questions lies in the answer to an even more fundamental question. Who is man? Is he a rational animal? If he is, then the goals can ultimately be achieved. If he is not, then there is little point in making the effort.

All the evidence of history suggests that man is indeed a rational animal but with a near infinite capacity for folly. His history seems largely a halting, but persistent, effort to raise his reason above his animality. He draws blueprints for utopia. But never quite gets it built. In the end he plugs away obstinately with the only building material really ever at hand his own part-comic, part-tragic, part-cussed, but part-glorious nature.

I, for one, would not count a global free society out. Coercion, after all, merely captures man. Freedom captivates him.