Robert L. Bartley

Nuclear Freeze Hype

VTR Date: April 6, 1982

Guest: Bartley, Robert L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Bartley
Title: “Nuclear Freeze Hype”
AIR: 6/2/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I also serve as Executive Editor on “The Editor’s Desk”, another program that originates at WPIX here in New York, and that is seen around the country on independent network news stations. One frequent member of our weekly editorial board is Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal. And I’ve always admired the incisiveness of the sharp and probing questions he puts to our distinguished news-making guests. More than that, however, I’ve always wanted to turn the tables, and get him to elaborate on some of the major issues that he asks about and that his Wall Street Journal editorializes about quite as pointedly as it does. And since Bob Bartley has an open mind, he’s here with me today.

Thanks for joining me, Bob. I detect a somewhat more than usually pressing, even acerbic note to the Journal’s editorial policies these days, particularly in relation to such extraordinary matters as our country’s posture on nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets. And so I wrote out a first question: Do you editorials reflect a concern that fear of nuclear holocaust may lead even the Reagan Administration to assume a posture tantamount to appeasement?

BARTLEY: Well, I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but I think that there is a danger that an opportunity will be lost to redress what I have seen as a longstanding deficiency in our nuclear posture, because of what, the kind of an emotional reaction that we’re going through in the nation today, or at least that I read in the newspapers we’re going through.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “emotional reaction”?

BARTLEY: Well, you know, we’re supposed to have an antinuclear movement or a freeze movement; and we see pictures of mushroom clouds on the covers of the news weeklies and so on. And I think this big hype going on in books we’ve got on the stand; two dozen books coming out in six months on the dangers of nuclear war – I don’t know what, you know, in this kind of publishing industry business, I don’t know, it’s gonna be, “How to invest for nuclear war”, you know, “Sex and nuclear war”. I don’t know where the books will end. I think this diverts us from the real serious issues that we face.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting, though, that the prospect of nuclear war doesn’t arouse emotional reactions or shouldn’t arouse emotional reactions?

BARTLEY: Well, we’ve lived now with the prospect of nuclear war for several generations, and why, this spring, is it suddenly a source of such concern? I have my theories on that. They have very little to do with anything about the likelihood of nuclear war.

HEFFNER: What are those theories?

BARTLEY: Well, I think that basically…Well, let’s just say we have – I read about this antinuclear movement; I’m not sure how much it’s actually going to amount to – but I think that, first of all, it’s not a grassroots movement; it’s another…we’ve seen enough of these kinds of events. We’ve seen the antiwar movement in the 60s, we’ve seen the hippies, we’ve seen the stop-nuclear-power movement; and I think we’ve seen enough of them that we know that these are basically a section of the upper middle class. They’re not a real grassroots thing. They’re kind of an upper middle class, intellectual phenomenon. I think also it’s not a serious political program. I mean, we have a nuclear freeze, but what, what’s the proposal? What are we going to argue about? Is it nuclear, unilateral disarmament? If so, let’s say so and we can argue about that. But it never quite comes clear. Is it negotiations? We’ve been negotiating nice 1969. So I don’t think that this current outburst, or whatever you want to call it, is either of those things.

HEFFNER: Bob, if it were demonstrated to you that there was a wide, broad, popular support for the nuclear freeze movement, would you change your mind about the appropriateness?

BARTLEY: About the desirability of it?

HEFFNER: Um hmm.

BARTLEY: No, uh uh. But how would you, how would you demonstrate a wide, broad support? I mean, the way you do that in this country is in elections. We’ve had elections on this issue. We had one 18 months ago, you k now, on the question. And the verdict in that election was we need more defense, not some kind of unilateral freeze.

HEFFNER: Yes, the verdict was that. It seemed that way to me, too. But now, you have not been lacking in some concerns expressed editorially about the President’s reactions to the press for nuclear freeze. I mean, you seem to be saying, editorially at times, “Why is the President…” seem to be asking, “Why is the President responding to this upper middle class demand for more rather than less emotional reaction to nuclear holocaust?”

BARTLEY: Well, I think that – I forget exactly what we may have said any particular day – but our attitude towards the President has been that he really ought to get his act together and take some of these issues to the people more forthrightly than he has; although I don’t think we’ve been terribly critical about any of his stances on…You know, he’s willing to negotiate; okay, yeah, we are negotiating.

HEFFNER: Let’s take this question of negotiations. You have said, editorially, that you’re concerned about an administration that would talk about negotiating with the Soviets about a nuclear freeze – whatever that may mean – at the very same time that it seems, has seemed to be passing by without enough concern, the violations of other treaties that the Soviets have entered into.

BARTLEY: Oh, well, that’s certainly right. I mean, this is something that has to be dealt with as the debate develops. I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to negotiate, although, frankly, I think it is a mistake to suggest that anything, that any meaningful conclusion of these negotiations with the Soviets is very likely, because we have to fact the fact that the administration has now said, quite forthrightly, and presented a whole stack of evidence, that the Soviets have been using biological weapons, or at least their proxies have, and in Southeast Asia and in Afghanistan, apparently, the Soviets have used biological weapons, and almost certainly used chemical weapons. Now, these are all violations of arms control treaties. The biological weapons one was negotiated in 1972 at the height of détente, banning possession of these weapons, the transfer to any third parties; and yet, what the documents read is that there are massive violations of this. Now, if you’re going to go out and negotiate a nuclear freeze, how are you going to make sure that the Soviets don’t violate it? I’m pretty sure – you know, I couldn’t provide any evidence, but just from watching what they’ve done with the biological weapons convention and watching what they’ve done with their other weapons deployments – that they probably have a big missile force of missiles that they’ve deactivated that are stored in warehouses somewhere in the Soviet Union and could probably add 50 percent to their missile force overnight. Well, how do you deal with this when you’re dealing with a closed society? What kind of, you know, this is what their arms control people call the “verification problem”. How do you verify that the treaty is being complied with? And this seems to me that, if you take this seriously, it’s a huge obstacle, and probably insurmountable unless there’s a change in the character of the Soviet leadership.

HEFFNER: You say “insurmountable” unless there is that change.

BARTLEY: Um hmm.

HEFFNER: Insurmountable. What about the President’s attitudes then toward negotiating with the Soviets?

BARTLEY: Well, I don’t think that means you shouldn’t sit down at a table with them and say, “Okay, we’re willing to have these limits on nuclear weapons. We’re willing to stop these programs, and we expect you to do the same; and here is a list of things that have to be done to settle the verification issue, including on-site inspection”. Now, if the Soviets accepted that, I would construe that as a change in the character of the Soviet leadership. But I think, you know, we should make the offer, probably.

HEFFNER: Let me go back, though, a moment, to the point you made. You hinted that you had some sense of why there is this spring fever at this point relating to nuclear freeze. Go further in that, would you?

BARTLEY: Well, I think it’s to be understood, basically, in two ways: I mean, one is trivial and one is profound. The trivial one is that this is Jaws. People like to be frightened, enjoy being frightened. And people can make money out of this by publishing books, making movies, and so on.

HEFFNER: You really meant that, then?

BARTLEY: Yeah, sure I mean that. I mean, we have this cottage industry springing up, you know, churning out these books; and it’s just somehow decreed that the fashion for this year is to be scared about nuclear war instead of to be scared about sharks. That’s the trivial one.

Now, the profound one is that this is really, in essence, a religious revival, that all of us have the kind of urge to escape from the complexities and the moral ambiguities of this world and into something really more certain and more beautiful. And certainly the complexities of, say, this verification issue I have been talking about, you know, it’s very difficult and very discouraging. We want to escape from that sort of thing. Well, this kind of urge for escape in the lower middle class that takes the form of the moral majority – that they want to escape into that kind of other world of certainty. In the upper middle class it takes these kinds of revivalist movements, which the current one is the nuclear freeze movement. And I think it’s, you know, it’s as simple as that.

HEFFNER: And then there are those of us who sit in the middle being unemotional and unmoved by the need for certainty?

BARTLEY: Well, no. We all feel this temptation, you know; feel this pull. But I think that, you know, what we have to…it’s…if we want to say in contact with the real world and not have some kind of escapist fantasy, you have to deal with these very difficult issues. The most central one is that we’re dealing with the Soviet Union. You see, I’m not very scared of nuclear weapons. I mean, I could…

HEFFNER: You’re not?

BARTLEY: No, as long as they’re in silos out in Montana someplace, I don’t feel threatened by them. I wouldn’t feel safer if they were removed. I am kind of frightened of the Russians in their current mood, and I think that’s to be dealt with. If we took away the nuclear weapons and they still had these biological and chemical weapons, I wouldn’t feel any safer.

HEFFNER: That’s a fairly downbeat posture, isn’t it?

BARTLEY: Well, I think it’s dealing with the real world, and that’s something of a, you know, world of certainty and moralism of some sort.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s possible to deal with that aspect of the real world and survive psychologically, survive in the face of what has to be, to some extent, whether you talk about the spring revival or not, the threat of nuclear holocaust?

BARTLEY: Oh, well, people, settlers on the frontier, threatened by Indians, lived with those kinds of threats; I mean, and we can too. And that’s not to trivialize them, but it’s the human condition.

HEFFNER: The human condition?

BARTLEY: Sure. I mean, when are we in the era of humans, have we lived without some kind of threat?

HEFFNER: You really, you really don’t feel that there is a qualitative difference, an enormous qualitative difference, between this threat and that posed by the Indians on the frontier?

BARTLEY: Well, if you’re sitting there on the frontier, there’s no difference, I mean, on a personal level.

HEFFNER: Hopefully, the people came back from the frontier, or went even further, or survived. And the assumption is, at least on the part of those whom you are looking at somewhat askance, there isn’t going to be survival. Is that an unfair assumption?

BARTLEY: Well I…You get into hypothetical arguments about that. I mean, there have been some studies that, if you had a nuclear exchange, God forbid, I mean, that you would have some sort of survival. But the basic question is how you avoid that. You know, I don’t want a nuclear exchange. I want to avoid it. And I think the way you avoid it is to deal with the real world and to deal with the kind of threat you face in the best way that you can, and try to deter it. I don’t think you avoid nuclear war by getting into some kind of neurotic fit about it; and I certainly don’t think you avoid it by cutting back on your defenses here and turning the world over to Soviet arms and Soviet values. I think that’s you know, to believe that that’s the way you solve the problem, I think is just a total flight from the realities that we face.

HEFFNER: You don’t seem to be very much impressed with the possibility that that attitude is going to prevail, or that that attitude is going to undermine our capacity to negotiate tough with the Russians.

BARTLEY: Well, I have some friends who are quite worried about that, but I’m not as worried as most of them are, you see. I think that what you’ll find is that this too will blow over, probably won’t have as much support as a lot of people think. I think we’re already seeing the formation, even on college campuses, of groups taking the other position; something you didn’t see in the 1960s. We’ve had the election. We’ve had, for that matter – we’ve had a couple of elections before that: We had the Nixon/McGovern election, in which this kind of attitude was pretty resoundingly defeated, then rejected by the Democratic Party and now coming back. I think its prospects are less now than they were in 1968.

HEFFNER: You know, I know you have dichotomized these two protest revivalist movements: the perhaps lower middle class one that you identify with the moral majority; and the upper middle class one with the antinuclear power, or antinuclear weapons group. And yet, some of the more recent polls seem to indicate that there is a more widespread concern – maybe because the questions are wrong that are asked – but a larger, wider spread of concern than just the upper middle class. It’s not just an intellectual concern about the bomb.

BARTLEY: I’m sure that if you go and have a poll, say, and the question of the poll is, “Is peace nice”, you’ll get a big answer, you know…

HEFFNER: But it hasn’t been quite that crude.

BARTLEY: Well, that’s maybe an extreme example. Some of them, I think, have been nearly that crude. “Would you like to live without nuclear war”? Sure. “Should we have a verifiable freeze”? Sure. “Should the Russians, would the Russians cheat”? In other words, would it be verifiable? No. I mean, that’s the kind of answers you get to the polls. And the way you decide these things is to have elections.

HEFFNER: The question again of to what degree does this upper middle class, nicely-nicely attitude toward nuclear threat undermine our capacity to meet squarely what the real threats are? You say you have some friends who are concerned about that. You’re not?

BARTLEY: Oh, yeah. You can’t…Well, you know, I’m concerned about it, but I don’t think it’s going to seep away our abilities. I am concerned, a little bit, about whether or not the administration can put its own posture together. I was concerned about that before the advent of this movement.

HEFFNER: But, you know, that’s the question that I – put poorly – but that I really was trying to get at the beginning. How concerned are you about the capacity of this administration to get its act together in the way you want it to get its act together?

BARTLEY: Well I think that they do have what I consider a management problem in the administration that’s apparent in the economic area in which you have the President and his senior advisors often seeming to work at cross-purposes, in which the senior advisors seem to be lobbying the President to raise taxes, or whatever, and then rejecting their advice. It’s a curious kind of management operation. In the foreign policy field, I think they have done some good things, but they’re – it’s hard to describe it in a few sentences – but I think there’s a certain lack of coherence; that I think they could have done much more, for example, with the yellow rain issue, or moved much earlier on it. They did better with it later, but…

HEFFNER: They did after you pushed them and pushed them and pushed them.

BARTLEY: Oh, sure. I think we had some part to play there.

HEFFNER: Why did it take The Wall Street Journal editorial one, editorial two, editorial three, and then other comments about yellow rain, before anything happened on the part of the administration?

BARTLEY: Well, I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is, except that there is always a lot of inertia in administrations, and the fact that…Well, I guess I would say the answer is this: That no one sat down with a plan for mobilizing support for foreign policy. In other words, there was no one who really had the power and the authority and the ideas to take charge and make the thing move. Because I think if someone had sat down and said, ”Okay, we need a stronger policy. One element of that foreign policy is that we have to have a realistic attitude toward arms negotiations, we have to have a better understanding of the nature of the Soviet leadership, we have to find the issues on which we can make these clear”. If they had come at it from that angle, they’d have come up with the yellow-rain issue. That’s how I came up with it.

HEFFNER: But it took the beating in The Wall Street Journal…

BARTLEY: The point is that there really wasn’t anyone clearly in charge. The foreign policy wasn’t coming together at any one apex. There were too many centers of authority and too many different ideas about how to proceed.

HEFFNER: Talking about different ideas about how to proceed, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that there seems to have been, in recent months, in the last year or so, a kind of media war in which, maybe not for the first time in our history – certainly not for the first time in our history – but in a pronounced way, you’ve taken on The New York Times. You sure took on The New Yorker, at least in one of its series of articles. How do you explain this willingness of the press now to take on its ideological rivals?

BARTLEY: Well, this isn’t the first time we’ve done it. We had, I think, a pretty prominent campaign questioning press coverage in El Salvador; and the thing that surprised me about it was that we got some support. I mean, the Washington Journalism Review had and article by Miami Herald’s press critic, going back over the coverage in Nicaragua and asking the question, “Why didn’t we know from the coverage what the Nicaraguan regime was going to be like? It was really going to be pretty much of a dictatorship, and so on”, and the coverage was all about, she concluded, was all about the past. All about the evils of Samoza, and no hint about what was developing there, which was essentially the same question we were asking about El Salvador. I think that the coverage in El Salvador has gotten much better as a result of this kind of re-examination.

HEFFNER: How much of what you seem to consider the silly season through which we’re going is a function of, if not misleading, then misdirected press presentation of the nuclear freeze, of Salvadoran problems, etcetera? You talked about the mushroom in a weekly newsmagazine.

BARTLEY: Some, yeah, sure. Some, some, some, but not…Nuclear freeze thing, I don’t think it would be a predominant thing. The press is always looking for something new. Every magazine and every paper myself included, wants to be the person there with the new thing. And if an attitude can be created that the nuclear freeze movement is the next thing, then the press will cover it, and cover it competitively, and will kind of, because of that, kind of magnify it. In this case, you know, there was some action in Congress. Senator Kennedy jumped in with some resolutions, and there were some debates that were…the tour of European disarmament leaders here, came to launch a big event starting at the UN, and so on. So that…and, of course, we’d been through it all in Europe. So, everybody knew this was going to happen, and it wasn’t, in this case, really created by the press, I don’t think.

HEFFNER: You added “referred to”. Does that mean you don’t seem to feel that there is something more than competitive instincts among newspapers? You don’t seem to feel that there is some definitive effort to undermine our capacity to face up to the Russians on the issue, perhaps, of El Salvador, perhaps on the nuclear freeze?

BARTLEY: By the media?


BARTLEY: No, I don’t think there’s any concerted effort. I think there is a holdover from the Vietnam War and from Watergate that kind of starts with the presumption that the US government is probably lying, and then proceeds from that presumption, and the story is cast in the frame of, “Well, we caught them lying again”. I think that has been a corrosive thing in the press coverage, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as a concerted effort with the purpose of undermining our ability to stand up militarily at any of these…

HEFFNER: Norman Podhoretz pointed out that, purposely or not, in the pre-World War II England, the peace movements, the various peace movements, had undermined England’s capacity to fight, and more than that — making a point that you’ve made, editorially, that The Wall Street Journal has made editorially – if you don’t take a strong posture, you haven’t warned the potential enemy not to monkey with you.

BARTLEY: Oh, I think that’s absolutely true.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s happening here now?

BARTLEY: Oh, sure, sure. Well, yeah. I think that’s a danger that we run. I mean, would Argentina have invaded the Falkland Islands even, you know, if they had really thought that it would arouse the British? You know? They made the invasion because they had some economic problems…problems at home, and thought this would be the easy way to unify the country, and they could probably get away with it. Well, I think you run those kinds of risks if you don’t stand up and get a reasonably credible deterrent posture; and sure, this kind of emotion and movement undermines your credibility and makes it more difficult for you. But I don’t think that it…I wouldn’t want to say that this is even our major problem, let alone our only problem, or that it’s going to sweep away our ability to deal with the problems that we face. It certainly doesn’t make them any easier. I wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s irrelevant.

HEFFNER: Is that the posture that critics of Dean Acheson and others at the time of Korea took, that there hadn’t been enough of a line drawn? In fact, the line was being drawn back further and further?

BARTLEY: Well, in fact, I think if I recall correctly, that Acheson said that South Korea was outside of our defense perimeter, which is almost an overt invitation for an invasion. I don’t know whether it’s necessary or desirable to draw lines on a map, but I think that you do…one of the things that we’re suffering from in the United States now is that, after Vietnam, and after a whole series of reversed, Iran, there is a question about whether the United States will display all its power or will react when its interests are threatened.

HEFFNER: You mean there’s pressure outside of the United States? I mean, there’s a question; there’s doubt outside?

BARTLEY: Oh, yeah, sure. There’s doubt outside the United States.

HEFFNER: How would you answer the question?

BARTLEY: Well, I think that, that what we’re going to find…the danger is that, you know, at some point you get mad. And that’s what our history is as a democracy But the danger is that that’s likely to be too late, and that by then you really can’t salvage a situation without something really terrible happening; without really a major confrontation or a major war. Whereas, if people hadn’t been, people outside the United States hadn’t been led to believe you wouldn’t react, you’d never be faced with the situation.

HEFFNER: I suppose that’s the point to end the program. Thanks very much for joining me today, Bob Bartley of The Wall Street Journal. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.