Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Eisenhower on the Opportunity Cost of War

During the last weeks of the year, as people gather with family and with friends old and new, there is always a hope that that next year, or maybe the year after, will bring joy and peace. In that spirit, here is the famous passage from a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower called "The Chance for Peace," which was delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953.  

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. 
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. 
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. 
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. 
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. 
It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. 
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. 
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. 
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. 
These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that comes with this spring of 1953. 
This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.
It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. 
It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?

For economists, Eisenhower's comment are of course a stirring illustration of the power of opportunity costs--that is, the insight that a choice to proceed in one way involves the tradeoff of alternative choices that could have been made.

For everyone else, the main focus of Eisenhower's speech was to state that the United States  would prefer not to have a buildup of arms and nuclear weapons, and to appeal to the Soviet Union to choose a different course.  Some people who expressed such wishes might be dismissed as impractical dreamers. But Eisenhower had been Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. No one doubted his ability or his resolution to lead a fight, if its was called for. Here's a lesser-known part of Eisenhower's speech. It's interesting to contemplate if there is any modern political figure in the last couple of decades who has had both the desire and the hard-won credibility to offer a similar set of comments--although tailored of course to changes since Eisenhower's 1953 speech and to the realities of the present:
The details of such disarmament programs are manifestly critical and complex. Neither the United States nor any other nation can properly claim to possess a perfect, immutable formula. But the formula matters less than the faith--the good faith without which no formula can work justly and effectively. 
The fruit of success in all these tasks would present the world with the greatest task, and the greatest opportunity, of all. It is this: the dedication of the energies, the resources, and the imaginations of all peaceful nations to a new kind of war. This would be a declared total war, not upon any human enemy but upon the brute forces of poverty and need. 
The peace we seek, rounded upon decent trust and cooperative effort among nations, can be fortified, not by weapons of war but by wheat and by cotton, by milk and by wool, by meat and by timber and by rice. These are words that translate into every language on earth. These are needs that challenge this world in arms. 
This idea of a just and peaceful world is not new or strange to us. It inspired the people of the United States to initiate the European Recovery Program in 1947. That program was prepared to treat, with like and equal concern, the needs of Eastern and Western Europe. 
We are prepared to reaffirm, with the most concrete evidence, our readiness to help build a world in which all peoples can be productive and prosperous. 
This Government is ready to ask its people to join with all nations in devoting a substantial percentage of the savings achieved by disarmament to a fund for world aid and reconstruction. The purposes of this great work would be to help other peoples to develop the undeveloped areas of the world, to stimulate profitable and fair world trade, to assist all peoples to know the blessings of productive freedom. 
The monuments to this new kind of war would be these: roads and schools, hospitals and homes, food and health. 
We are ready, in short, to dedicate our strength to serving the needs, rather than the fears, of the world. 
We are ready, by these and all such actions, to make of the United Nations an institution that can effectively guard the peace and security of all peoples.