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Americans in the Dark on Defense

RIGGED tests may have persuaded Congress to keep funding the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but the American public believed all along that the United States already had a significant defense against a Soviet missile attack. This is the bottom line from surveys that my students, colleagues, and I conducted, 1980 through 1993, among all socioeconomic groups across the US. Our numbers were not high by Gallup Poll standards, but we polled several hundred persons a year in diverse neighborhoods and work

settings. The response pattern was nearly identical, year after year, whatever state we were in.

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Our first question: "If the USSR launched 1,000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) at the US, approximately how many would be shot down - 950, 750, 500, 250, or zero?"

Most people replied that US defenses would shoot down 500 to 750 Soviet ICBMs. Better-educated respondents answered 250, often citing "Murphy's Law" as the reason. Less well-educated and more nationalistic respondents guessed on the high side - 750 or more. Very few, except specialists in national security gave the correct reply: "zero." Told this, most respondents were incredulous or angry: "Do you mean that we have no defense against an ICBM attack?" "You mean that we have been spending big bucks on St ar Wars and have nothing to show for it?"

We explained that to detect, track, and then destroy ICBMs is very difficult, particularly if they arrive by the thousands. We noted that Washington and Moscow agreed in 1972-74 to limit their antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses to 100 launchers, and that many military experts welcomed these accords because they bolstered "strategic stability."

We also explained that no country can protect itself from ICBM attack. Even if SDI could fend off ICBMs, the US could still be attacked by low-flying cruise missiles or "suitcase" bombs. We are all hostage to one another's restraint. Given these facts and Soviet decline, we asked respondents in 1990-91 whether the US should continue to invest heavily in SDI research. The strongest "nos" came from well-educated respondents with high incomes. They were joined by the poorest in our samples, most of whom wan ted military outlays transferred to welfare.

The middle classes were divided: "America-firsters" (usually men) were willing to invest in Fortress America; internationalist (many women and younger people) were reluctant.

The American public has been in the dark about US defenses since our first survey in 1980. In the interim there have been impassioned debates about Star Wars; the Soviet radar at Krasnoyarak which, had it become operational, would have violated the ABM treaty; and the performance of the Patriot missile against Iraqi Scuds in 1991. None of these high-profile stories dissuaded our respondents from the pleasant illusion that America already has a somewhat effective shield against enemy missiles.

How deep these illusions run is suggested by spot checks of persons whom we expected would "know better." Less than 10 percent of about 100 graduate students and professors of political science interviewed knew that the US has no ABM defenses; only two of 25 stock brokers; and not one of four employees at a company that makes Patriots, interviewed after the Gulf war.

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Unless a person works directly in this niche of security affairs, chances are that wishful thinking will prevail. Why do we fool ourselves? We block out unpleasant information, especially when we can't do much to remove the dangers before us. Even well-read people suffer from this Teflon effect: They shed bad news. Despite a plethora of information, most Americans are ignorant about issues of survival.

To seriously debate "defense" we need a public able to distinguish ICBMs from shorter-range ballistic missiles from cruise missiles. To live in an interdependent world Americans also need some inkling of ways that morality and law could temper anarchy to mutual advantage.

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