The B-1 Bomber: A Case Study of Pluralism

According to pluralists,a good example of policy making in the United States, is the decision to design and produce the B-1 bomber was one of Washington's longest standing controversies. The B-1 battle that began more than 25 years ago and continued well into the 1980s contaied many of the traits of traditional American politics: election promises and back-room deals, grass roots organizations and corporate money, public relations campaigns and private lobbying, lofty rhetoric about national security and crass selfishness. It had been, as is often the case, a David and Goliath struggle. On one side has stood Rockwell International Corporation, a mammoth aerospace firm with more than $1 billion in annual sales, and its ally in the Pentagon, the United States Air Force. Opposing these giants was a loose coalition of pacifists, clergy, environmentalists, scientists, and scholars, inspired and led initially by the tiny American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker-sponsored peace organization.

What did they argue about? Beginning in the early 1970s the air force claimed that its strategic bomber, the B-52, was obsolete. Although modernized several times, the B-52 remained a large, noisy behemoth that lacked the maneuverability to penetrate Russian air defenses. Demanding a plane based on current technology, the air force proposed an awesome (and expensive) weapon, the B-1. An aircraft with a range of 6000 miles, it was to have a low radar profile, a rapid takeoff capability, and the latest in electronic warfare equipment. It would be able to carry conventional or nuclear bombs or cruise missiles while flying over 750 miles an hour at treetop level. On the drawing board, at any rate, it was a plane Buck Rogers would be proud to fly.

The plane's detractors, however, maintained that the Defense Department was buying a white elephant. Put aside its cost--more than $150 million for each plane. Put aside its vulnerability--it could be attacked by "look down, shoot down" enemy aircraft. Put aside cheaper alternatives--many of the B-1's missions could be performed by refurbishing the B-52 or assigning them to fighter bombers. Put aside all these considerations, the critics pointed out, and the fact remained that the B-1 would be out of date almost before the first one lifted off the ground. For within a few years of its deployment, a newer, ultrasophisticated "stealth" bomber (eventually known as the B-2) would be available. The newer plane would incorporate techniques that would make it nearly invisible to enemy radar. Of what use would the B-1 be then? What the air force wanted was really nothing more than an expensive interim antique that would drain funds away from more urgent priorities.

To build or not? It was a question of great national significance, with thousands of jobs, billions of dollars, and enormous institutional resources hanging in the balance. But just as significant was what the handling of the issue revealed about the workings of government in the United States. It particularly well illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the pluralist interpretation of who governs.

When in the late 1960s the air force began planning for the B-52's replacement, the B-1 attracted relatively little opposition. But by 1974, as appropriations for the plane climbed to $500 million, individuals in and out of government began to question its wisdom. In October the Friends Service Committee convened a meeting of like-minded groups to establish a National Campaign Against the B-1. Operating on a shoestring budget, the organization marshaled the free time, energy, and knowledge of hundreds of volunteers who wrote letters, attended marches and vigils, and lobbied public officials. The coalition's leaders thus forged a new force that confronted the titans in favor of the B-1.

As is often the case in pluralist politics, the battle was fought mainly by groups--in this case, the National Campaign on one side, Rockwell and the Pentagon on the other--and, like so many important but technical controversies, was waged out of view of the public. It was a contest of resource mobilization: Both parties recruited new members; both created information networks; both lobbied uncommitted legislators. At first sight it might have seemed an unfair contest: Rockwell and the air force versus a loose collection of Quakers, environmentalists, scientists, pacifists, and other citizens in the National Campaign. But true to the pluralist concept, resources come in different packages. Rockwell and its subcontractors doubtlessly spent more money, but the coalition held more rallies, circulated more studies, contacted more research institutions, and knocked on more doors.

After two years, the B-1's opponents scored a major victory. In July 1976 Jimmy Carter, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced his opposition to the new bomber, and several months after taking office, canceled its production. Many thanked (or blamed) the National Campaign for this decision: "Without their efforts it is very unlikely that the B-1 would have been an issue, and in that sense they performed a very important function....They got Carter to take a stand on the B-1 when he knew little about it, and got him involved in a way that otherwise would not have happened."

President Carter's action did not end the controversy--not by a long shot--but it has been taken as evidence that pluralism works. In this instance a small group working against heavy odds successfully mobilized various resources to thwart a large industrial corporation and its allies in and out of government. It seemed to show that groups emerge to check and balance existing centers of power. And although the public did not participate directly, as in a direct democracy, neither was it under the thumb of a closed ruling body. Vigorous competition among organizations kept the system free and open. Note, finally, that both sides played according to well-established rules of the game.

Of course, not every group in society succeeds: many, in fact, do not even try. Yet the wide availability of unused resources ensures that success happens often enough to keep the ruling groups on their toes.

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