In August of 1939, Winston Churchill paid a visit to the Maginot Line, a network of French defenses built to safeguard the country’s eastern border against an invasion from her perennial enemy, Germany. “My first impression, the strongest,” Churchill said upon inspecting the vast expanse of forts, “is that France is protected by a shield of material and, above all, by a shield of men, which should assure you of absolute security in this region and defend you from the horrors of war.” Less than a year later, of course, the German Blitzkrieg swept around the defenses and conquered France, transforming the Maginot Line from military wonder to metaphor.
The Maginot analogy will almost certainly be employed by missile-defense critics this fall when the Bush administration publicly declares operational the first piece of the nation’s ballistic missile defense system. After all, similarities between the two generations of defense are easy to find: The line’s elaborate network of fortresses and underground bunkers were advertised as the technological marvel of their time, just as the “hit to kill” ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system—which by year’s end will consist of six missile interceptors based in Fort Greely, AK, and another four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California—is described by military and government officials. The Maginot Line’s construction contributed to France’s prewar budget deficits, in much the same way that missile defense—at a cost of roughly $10 billion next year and $70-plus billion over the last 20 years—has drained its share of the U.S. treasury.