To make a desert and call it peace: stasis and judgment in the MX missile debate.

Author:Zemlicka, Kurt

It is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine the earnestness with which seemingly minor military technical disputes were debated during the Cold War. With the ever-present threat of nuclear war-real or imagined-hanging over the heads of policymakers and ordinary citizens alike, every military deployment decision seemed to be infused with great importance as the fate of the human race itself hung in the balance. The fear of a Soviet nuclear first strike was commonly deployed in American defense debates, beginning almost as soon as the USSR tested its first nuclear weapon. More aggressive defense partisans tended to stress the fear of "vulnerability" while weapon systems opponents tended to warn of the risks of "provocation" incurred by too threatening an American defense posture. The debate over the MX ("Peacekeeper") missile is instructive because it involved both concerns and revealed their common roots. The vulnerability and provocation arguments did not stem from mutually exclusive underlying values. Rather, they both evolved from a shared topos--"national security," motivated by fear. The two sides of the MX missile debate were forged through their encounter with one another, defined by stasis rather than defining it.

Apart from our interest in the Reagan administration's justification for the MX program from an argument-level standpoint, the President's report on the topic is significant from a theoretical perspective in that it challenges an understanding of public deliberation that relies on an assumption of the fairly static nature of argumentative clash. Because Congress was both a stakeholder and ultimately the judge of this debate in that it had to authorize the MX program, this study problematizes a tripartite division of public debate constituted of two competitors and a separate judge. The rhetorical construction and presentation of arguments in the tripartite model conceives of a unidirectionality in the rhetorical act, from the stakeholders to the judge, with the former attempting to persuade the latter. Instead, the Congressional decision to approve the program demonstrates a necessary recursivity between the two parties, where the Reagan administration and Congress both acted as stakeholders, but Congress also arranged and invented a decision in its capacity as the agent of judgment. Demonstrating that the rhetoricity inherent in the public debate over the MX program stems from both the stakeholders and the adjudicating body is significant in that it alters what we normally perceive as the preconditions for public debate. Instead of establishing the materially relevant facts of the issue at hand in order to provide a point of stasis for formulating competing positions to facilitate argumentative clash, in this case weighing questions of national security against the goal of nuclear disarmament, the decision rendered by the Congress responds to justifications from both positions to formulate its policy. The strategic maneuver deployed in the MX report thus provides insight into the way stasis points are established in public debates by challenging the understanding that they are determined in advance of, and therefore become the precondition for, public debate. Throughout the course of an argument, a competing mass of issues and values arise. Debates are not organized around preexisting points of stasis but rather such a point is established retroactively by the agent of judgment ratifying a point of contact as if this point of stasis had organized the debate all along.

This article proceeds in five sections: First we outline the parameters of the debate over the MX missile. Second, we explore the justifications given by the Reagan administration for pressuring Congress to fund the program. We focus specifically on the "bargaining chip" argument deployed in the administration's report, highlighting how it troubles Aristotelean conceptions of stasis. The goal of the third section follows in two parts: first, we provide a survey of stasis theory from Hermogenes to Aristotle and highlight its inability to account for the way stasis was constructed in the MX debate. Second, we explore an alternative theory of the concept, derived from Hermagoras, which seeks to reconceptualize stasis absent the necessity of the topoi. This, we believe, is necessary to explain the function of judgment rendered by Congress in acceding to the Reagan administration's demands for funding. Next, we revisit the Reagan report, demonstrating how this reformulated theory of stasis better explains the structure of the debate. Finally, we conclude with an exploration of why examining a Cold War era debate over nuclear weapons is still salient today, specifically by drawing parallels with current events and the nature of public deliberation more broadly.


MX was first proposed in the Carter administration as an answer to the perceived vulnerability of American land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Academic proponents of the system were motivated by concern over what appeared to be threatening Soviet strategic modernization (Gray, 1981, pp. v-vi). Apart from technical or budgetary opposition to MX, the most strident opposition came from those who thought that the missile would increase the probability of nuclear war by making nuclear first strikes more feasible and perhaps pressuring the Soviets to attack early in a crisis for fear that the United States might destroy their ability to launch a nuclear attack later. Both positions were united by a desire for stability. Arguments based on Soviet designs for global aggression shared a common basis with arguments based on the danger of provoking nuclear war--both sought the imprimatur of "stability," and both appealed to fear (Glass, 1993, p. 139). An important part of the opposition's claim on stability was the argument that MX would accelerate the arms race and undermine the ongoing strategic arms limitation negotiations with the USSR. Concern for stability thus produced two faces: peace through strength (deterrence) in response to vulnerability, and restraint combined with cooperation (arms control).

A turning point for MX came after the 1983 Scowcroft Commission report that recommended that the missile be developed for a number of reasons. The report included fears of vulnerability but also leaned heavily on an argument that had circulated since the beginning of the MX debate: the "bargaining chip" theory. Although President Reagan had once insisted that the MX was non-negotiable, proponents of the system now sought to break Congressional and popular deadlock by arguing that MX could be traded away in negotiations with the Soviets in exchange for their own reduction in heavy ICBMs. Such a position was a significant change in the administration's public rationale (Dunn, 1997, p. 178). A perception that the Reagan administration was cavalier about the dangers of nuclear war had galvanized the Nuclear Freeze movement and created significant public opposition to the missile system. The bargaining chip argument was "intentionally gauged to defuse the growing sentiment for a nuclear freeze," a sentiment primarily based on the fear of the destabilizing effects of nuclear development (Holland and Hoover, 1985, p. 224). Les Aspin, a Democrat with a history of opposition to Pentagon military developments, proved instrumental in winning limited Congressional support for the Scowcroft recommendations (Fuerbringer, 1985). Aspin's own position was "deliberately vague," relying on shifting arguments rather than a static position (Gordon, 1985). That he was vague is important because it shows that the case for the missile was changeable and not solidified in advance of the decision, leaving the door open for debate that ensued.


On March 4, 1985, the Reagan administration published its most comprehensive advocacy of the MX missile program after a series of debates in Congress over the desirability of the weapon. The document, titled "The President's Report on Continuing the Acquisition of the Peacekeeper (MX) Missile," renders the Executive branch's decision to go ahead with the MX program, effectively completing the debate and demanding Congress remove "restrictions on the Fiscal Year 1985 funds that were authorized and appropriated by the Congress for the Peacekeeper missile program" (United States, 1985, p. 1). The report is significant in that it justifies the MX program on two grounds: First that the program is "essential to national security," an argument forwarded consistently by Republicans to justify defense spending and arms development in the face of a perceived Soviet threat. Second, and more significantly for our purposes here, it also invokes the "bargaining chip theory" to justify the program. This marks the first time the Executive Branch justified the development of a new weapons system with the specific goal to abandon it in negotiations with the Soviet Union over arms control. In the letter to Congress that opens the report, Reagan lays out this position:

My report also concludes that Peacekeeper is an essential element of our arms control strategy. Without the Peacekeeper our chances of reaching an equitable agreement with the Soviet Union to reduce significantly the size of our nuclear arsenals are substantially lowered. Indeed, should Congress delay or eliminate the Peacekeeper program, it would send an unmistakable signal to the Soviet Union that we do not possess the resolve required, nor the continuity of purpose, to maintain a viable strategic triad and the policy of deterrence the triad represents. (United States, 1985, p. i)

The president notes that while Congress has been debating the desirability of the MX program, "the Soviets have deployed over 600 Peacekeeper type missiles. If we are to move towards...

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