‘Less than 33 minutes away, their whole city, their whole life, could be annihilated.’

Originally published here.

The H Bomb And You (1954)

(Click to enlarge.)

The image above is from a classic Cold War-era propaganda comic book, “The H-Bomb And You“, published in 1954. It’s all about civil defense, and how patriotic Americans could do their part to defend the homeland. A smartly dressed, avuncular civil defense corps representative answers some schoolkids’ questions, and concludes with:

Even with [government military] protection, if World War III comes, enemy planes and missile will get through to American targets.  Loss of life and property damage are sure to be high… Any spot in the United States might quickly become a battleground when war strikes. In every part of our land we need modern ‘Minute Men’ to be alert and ready. Our freedom and everything we Americans cherish is at stake. The risks are too high to leave the job of civil defense to the other fellow. We need help. We need your help!

The comic’s message:  be very afraid of a Commie nuke attack! Look out for enemy aircraft, make sure your underground bomb shelter is well-stocked, report any suspicious planes (or something) to your local civil defense office, and just be a darned good patriot. Spread the word! Duck and cover!

Fast forward to the 1980s.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan gave his infamous “Star Wars” speech, in which he laid out his proposal for a ground- and space-based anti-ballistic missile defense system, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. To help make it more palatable to the American public, it was marketed as the “Peace Shield“. There was even a television commercial for Reagan’s new plan, described here:

Danny Graham’s High Frontier organization made a television commercial that showed a child’s drawing of a house and a family, and the rainbow “Peace Shield” that would protect them. The audio accompanying the cartoon, spoken by a child, said: “I asked my daddy what this Star Wars stuff is all about. He said that right now we can’t protect ourselves from nuclear weapons, and that’s why the President wants to build a Peace Shield. It would stop missiles in outer space so they couldn’t hit our house. Then, nobody could win a war. And if nobody could win a war, there’s no reason to start one. My daddy’s smart.”

In other words, be very afraid of a Commie nuclear attack!

But wait: if you let him, Uncle Ronnie Reagan will protect you with his very expensive “peace shield”. With a “peace shield” in place, you can stop having those awful nuclear bomb nightmares.

You’d think this sort of approach to garnering public support for an expensive, malfunction-ridden, unreliable defense system would get old, but no.

It’s 2008, kids and adults! It’s time to re-live the Cold War.

It’s time to learn about “the very real threat that hostile nations and rogue dictators now pose to every one of us…“.

In February 2009, the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, is coming out with a high-definition film called “33 Minutes”. As Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk points out, it’s basically an infomercial for Star Wars Episode II, the latest missile defense shield proposal.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

Jeff Lewis transcribed it. An excerpt:

Cut back to Edward Feulner [President of the Heritage Foundation], interspersed with sped-up images from urban life—a bustling subway station, a busy sidewalk. “Less than 33 minutes away, their whole city, their whole life, could be annihilated.” Fade to countdown in red digital font, images of missile launches, then Dr. James Carofano, National Security Analyst, Heritage Foundation. “If an enemy of the United States had a ballistic missile they could basically use it to hold America hostage. Then someday there will come a moment when America wants to go forth in the world and do something good, and the enemy will say, ‘If you do that [cut to image of Statue of Liberty, image of Los Angeles, people on the beach], we’re going to shoot this missile at New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco’.”

It’s absolutely classic, slick, right wing fearmongering, with a sizeable dose of Cold War revivalism. It includes clips from Reagan speeches, images of Soviet tanks, and even features Margaret Thatcher.

The trailer is both hilarious and depressing; it’s hard to believe that they think anyone would actually fall for the hyperbole.

Lt. General Robert Gard (USA, ret.), chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, launches a fabulous attack on the ad and the Heritage Foundation.

First, Heritage commits the ultimate faux pas in national security analysis: It proposes a solution that doesn’t achieve their primary objective.
Robert Joseph, a committed arms racer and intellectual heir to John Bolton, says early on in the video that “my number one concern today is a terrorist with a nuclear weapon.” A legitimate fear, to be sure, especially when you consider that the final report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism predicted that such an attack will “more likely than not” occur somewhere in the world by 2013.

The problem, of course, is that missile defense won’t stop nuclear terrorism. How exactly will missile defense interceptors in Europe stop a terrorist with a small nuclear explosive device from entering the United States through Canada? Or prevent a shielded nuclear device, invisible to cargo detectors, from being smuggled into a U.S. port aboard a ship? Missile defense, obviously, is useless against these kinds of terrorist attacks.

Second, Heritage is guilty of fear-mongering without supplying the appropriate facts and context. That is the height of irresponsibility. The video begins by stating that over 20 countries have a ballistic missile capability. Yet, as arms control expert Joseph Cirincione pointed out at a congressional hearing on missile defense earlier this year, nearly all countries that possess ballistic missiles today are allies of the United States and possess only short-range missiles that threaten their neighbors, not the American homeland.

He goes on to discuss some inconvenient facts for which the Heritage guys seem to have a blind spot:

Lt. Gen. Henry Obering raises the specter of the United States only having 33 minutes to respond if Iran or North Korea launches an ICBM at us. Unfortunately, this frightening scenario becomes not quite so scary when you remember that neither country currently possesses a missile proven to be capable of hitting the continental United States. Though U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that North Korea and Iran could develop such an ICBM several years in the future, deploying an unproved and unworkable missile defense system is not the way to change these states’ behavior in the meantime. Currently deployed long-range missile defense systems remain an answer in search of a problem.

Third, Heritage praises missile defense for things it can’t yet do. The reason for this boosterism is simple: missile defense is a theology, not a technology, for many conservatives. Gen. Obering claims that missile defense technology is so advanced that “we now are able to hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet.” Later in the video, however, Kim Holmes confesses that “we do not have enough capability right now to do what we need to do.” Well, which is it guys? Does the system work or doesn’t it?

Gard, and the Center for Nonproliferation, have been answering that last question in multiple policy papers and editorials over the past few years; the latest nailed Obering’s statements at a press conference about a month ago. The basic conclusion?

Obering and his fellow missile defense system fans are not only exaggerating what the system can do, but they’re inflating – indeed, inventing – threats to justify the system.

And now they’ve made a movie about it.

Memo to the Heritage Foundation and other missile defense proponents: scaring people won’t make those interceptors work. I’m looking forward to watching you dance, twist, and contort yourselves, trying to convince us that Star Wars II is what we need to keep us safe.

One last word from our friend at civil defense: don’t forget, kids, we’re always at war!

(And don’t forget to check out the Council for a Livable World’s blog, “Chain Reaction”. Their post on the Heritage Foundation trailer is hilarious.)

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