From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War
The great still unanswered question left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war is what military power had to do with it. When Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985 the Soviet Union possessed the world’s largest military establishment, including thousands of nuclear-armed missiles acquired at great expense in the twenty-some years since Nikita Khrushchev’s humiliating backdown in a confrontation with the United States over Soviet nuclear forces in Cuba. The details of the surrender had been negotiated by Vasily Kuznetsov with the American official John McCloy, at the latter’s home in Connecticut. “Well, Mr. McCloy,” Kuznetsov said, “we will honor this agreement. But I want to tell you something. You’ll never do this to us again.”
Despite this plain warning, according to Robert M. Gates in his memoir of a life spent watching the Soviet Union for the CIA, “the Agency did not foresee this massive Soviet effort [beginning in the mid-1960s] to match and then surpass the United States in strategic missile numbers and capabilities.” One hesitates even to sketch in the background of this seemingly simple statement. Any attempt to explain Soviet and American nuclear policy during the cold war threatens to become overwhelmed with detail. But it is impossible for anyone to understand why so much money was spent on the arms race for so many years without making it clear why the strategists on both sides never believed for long that ten bombs, or a hundred bombs, or a thousand bombs, were “enough.”
By the mid-1960s each side had nuclear forces in plenty to prevent an unprovoked attack on its cities by the other. Any such attack would have brought a devastating response. What the Soviets hoped to achieve was a level of strategic forces great enough to inhibit the United States from ever using, or threatening to use, its own nuclear weapons for any purpose except retaliation against all-out attack. As a practical matter, that would have meant no first use, which meant no threat by the US to use nuclear weapons to defend American forces in Europe in the event of a conventional military attack. This meant, in turn, that we would extend only a feeble military guarantee to our NATO allies, since our combined ground forces never equaled, or came close to equaling, those of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. The result of any change in US willingness to defend NATO with nuclear weapons, if necessary, would be, in Washington’s phrase, “de-coupling” the defense of the United States from that of Europe.
US leaders were intensely concerned to prevent de-coupling, and they steadily assured their European allies that they would respond with nuclear weapons to an attack on Brussels just as they would to an attack on Kansas. Nuclear policy throughout the cold war always involved terrifying numbers of weapons and strategies for their use which seemed to get crazier by the decade. But readers will be able to understand why things…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.