American Strategy: A New Perspective
Escalation and the Nuclear Option
Arms and Influence
On the Uses of Military Power in the Nuclear Age
If war is too serious to be left to the generals, is strategy safe in the hands of the strategists? Nobody, to be sure, knows more about such mysteries as “deterrence,” “options,” and “escalation” than the coterie of intellectual technicians we call defense strategists. At a hundred universities and research institutes—from dingy laboratories in Manhattan to leafy retreats in Cambridge and Santa Monica—they plot the vectors of nuclear mishap and balance the threat of disaster against the opportunities of atomic diplomacy. They are the mentors to generals, the advisers to statesmen, the new elite of our global military establishment. Our reliance on them is exaggerated and seemingly inescapable, for when confronted with the awful complexity of the atom there seems nowhere else to turn but to the “experts” for advice.
Some find comfort in the rising power of defense strategists over military policy, and even over diplomacy. These strategists, trained in such traditional disciplines as economics, mathematics, and even statistics, but now turning their energies to defense theories at such places as RAND, the Hudson Institute, MIT, and the Institute for Defense Analysis, have provided the formulas for “deterrence,” “counterforce,” and “limited warfare” that roll lightly off the tongues of both generals and statesmen. They have, according to the Swiss journalist Urs Schwarz, in his useful survey, American Strategy: A New Perspective, “permitted the creation of a national defense establishment in the modern sense, directed toward the use of all the nation’s resources for the mastery of the infinitely complex problems confronting it.”
Like most of those who take the virtues of the “new strategy” for granted, Schwarz asserts rather than demonstrates, and finds great satisfaction in the fact that “American strategic thought has by now overcome the reluctance to admit power as an element of national policy.” Few would deny the truth of this observation, but many might be tempted to wonder whether American strategic thought has swung so far away from the old reluctance that it has elevated military power to the central element of national policy. When one considers how American power has been used in the military interventions of the past few years there is good reason to question the validity and the wisdom of the new sophistication in the Pentagon. One might even wonder whether the civilian defense strategists, working on government-financed contracts at scores of nominally independent research institutes that could not long survive without such contracts, have performed much of a service in applying slide rules and computers to equations of military power.
We have all learned our Clausewitz, and recite as a catechism the litany that war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means. But perhaps, with the aid of the defense intellectuals, we have learned it too well, and see war as a substitute for diplomacy—particularly where our own military power is so great as to overcome the cautions that would normally be imposed upon it by the demands of politics. To discuss strategy outside a political context is rather like devising theories of birth control without considering how people live. Yet too often this can be found in the writings of even the best defense strategists.
AMONG OUR CURRENT Clausewitz strategists, few are more eminent or influential than Bernard Brodie, former luminary of RAND—the California defense research institute—and now professor at UCLA. In his forceful essay, Escalation and the Nuclear Option, he argues that we must be far more willing to use our tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons in order to be really sure of deterring the Russians. Such refusal to be intimidated by the dangers of escalation, he believes, will also discourage our European allies, who might otherwise be tempted to suspect we would cop out of a European land war rather than face a nuclear exchange with the Russians. No admirer of the McNamara strategy of “flexible response”—which is based on the attempt to meet a Russian probe in Western Europe with non-nuclear weapons as long as possible—Brodie believes that the build-up of conventional forces and the downgrading of nuclear weapons during the Kennedy administration led the Russians to believe they could push us around. The 1961 crisis over Berlin and the Cuban missile affair the following year, he suggests, were our own fault because we gave Khrushchev the wrong clues. Had we been less worried about “escalation” we could have intimidated the Russians more easily since, “unless we are dealing with utter madmen, there is no conceivable reason why in any necessary showdown with the Soviet Union, appropriate manipulations of force and threats of force, certainly coordinated with more positive diplomatic maneuvers, cannot bring about deterrence.”
Unfortunately, it is hard to see how the Russians could be much more acquiescent in Europe than they already are, and thus harder to see why we should adopt Brodie’s prescription for a light finger on the nuclear trigger. This is particularly true since he himself asserts that “it is difficult to discover what meaningful incentives the Russians might have for attempting to conquer western Europe.” Brodie’s strategy of atomic readiness, it would seem, becomes more pressing with each diminution of the Russian threat. And will our allies find much encouragement in a strategy which, if ever actually put to use, would devastate most of Europe? Rather than revitalizing NATO, Brodie’s prescription could be its coup de grâce, and rather than dissuading the already deterred Russians, his project for using tactical nuclear weapons “more abruptly than the Russians seem to have bargained for in launching their aggression” could well lead to the full-scale nuclear holocaust he desires to avoid.
Like many of the people in Washington whom he advises, Brodie has apparently over-learned the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis and tends to see American military power as a panacea for a complexity of political ailments. Thus, in a casual footnote to his plea for first use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe against the Russians, he asserts, with regard to the war in Vietnam, that “imaginative use of special types of nuclear weapons much earlier in the campaign might have gone far toward defeating the Viet Cong.” Surely, one assumes, this is meant as a joke—the kind of humor that probably takes place around the water cooler at RAND. Can Brodie seriously believe that a guerrilla war fought by primitively armed peasants in an economically backward country can be defeated by the “imaginative use” of American nuclear weapons? Apparently he does—which leads one to the disconcerting conclusion that Clemenceau’s warning about generals holds true for strategists as well.
SKEPTICISM IS CONFIRMED by repeated exposure. The strategists, it becomes clear on closer inspection, do not really know much more about war and its prevention than do the generals—armchair and real—who actively concern themselves with such problems. Their “scenarios” are fascinating and their analyses enlightening. But they have no political answers, and a good many of their recommendations are based on slide-rule speculation. This is not to deprecate them, for their impact upon defense thinking has been enormous and in many ways beneficial. But it is necessary to try to put them into some kind of realistic perspective.
Among the most perceptive and influential of the civilian strategists is Thomas Schelling, a Harvard-based economist who has pioneered the application of mathematics and games theory to military strategy. Always literate and often witty, Schelling is not unaware of the human element that does, or ought to, determine the choice of strategy. He has learned his Clausewitz well, and recognizes that the rational justification for military force is the attainment of diplomatic ends. In Arms and Influence he examines how the power to hurt can be used as a bargaining lever, how it is reflected in such notions as deterrence and retaliation, and how the “diplomacy of violence” results from the measured application of military force to political ends.
Schelling makes a useful distinction between “deterrence” (designed to prevent an adversary from doing something we fear) and “compellence,” which is meant to force him to do something we desire. Applying his theory of compellence to Vietnam, Schelling defines it as “the direct exercise of the power to hurt, applied as coercive pressure, intended to create for the enemy the prospect of cumulative losses that were more than the local war was worth, more unattractive than concession, compromise or limited capitulation.” All this sounds very reasonable. The only problem, however, is that it doesn’t seem to be working in the one place that it has seriously been applied. Hanoi is not, so far at any rate, being coerced into concession, compromise, or limited capitulation, and indeed has referred to our policy of bombardment today, foreign aid tomorrow, as one of “the broken stick and the rotten carrot.” “Compellence” by air power is not working any better in Vietnam today than did strategic bombing in the Second World War. Perhaps it is the theory rather than the application that is at fault. Further, even if mounting escalation were able to coerce Hanoi into capitulation, what reason do we have to assume that this would end the war in the South—which is why we became involved in Vietnam in the first place? Schelling seems to share the administration’s assumption that this is a simple war of foreign aggression, for otherwise “compellence” is marginal to the real problem of Vietnam. Yet to believe that is to tailor the facts to fit the theory—a process that yields symmetry, but often at the expense of reality.
SCHELLING’S ARGUMENT is powerful and lucidly presented. But his general theory offers no formula for a world that is more puzzling and more intractable than even such an enlightened strategist would lead us to believe. Arms and Influence is a stimulating study and it is perhaps unfair to call Schelling to task for the failure of “compellence” in Vietnam when he is really presenting a general theory. But surely such theories are presented for the purpose of being applied, and, judging from the evidence, “compellence” has not been very successful, or perhaps even particularly relevant, in Vietnam. That war may be an anomaly, but it is a war, we are deeply involved in it, and the ways of dealing with war is what strategy is supposed to be all about.
It is to a large degree, one might suspect, because of the influence of the defense intellectuals, and to their theories of “coercion,” “compellence,” and “graduated escalation” that we have become so deeply involved in Vietnam. Perhaps without the aid of their analysis, without their carefully delineated rungs of escalation, our policy-makers might not have considered it possible to become embroiled in such a conflict without seriously risking a full-scale war with Russia or China. The strategists may be right in their estimation of reasonable “risk-taking,” but would reasonable men, weighing the national interest against situations such as those in Vietnam, normally have been willing to take such risks? Perhaps so, but when one observes them prescribing ways in which the world’s most powerful nation may apply progressive doses of violence in order to achieve the political ends it desires in various weak and backward countries, one may wonder whether the legacy of Clausewitz may not have been a baleful one.
The strategists speak with objectivity of “raising the price of aggression” and “forcing the enemy to behave,” as though this were a formula that would automatically bring about the desired results. Yet when put into practice, their prescriptions appear to be little more than guesswork, and their results almost contrary to what was anticipated. There is a tone of enlightened reasonableness about the “diplomacy of violence” the defense strategists have evolved, and one cannot help being impressed by their seriousness and intellectual acuity. But unfortunately diplomacy cannot be measured in teaspoonfuls of violence, and successful coercion depends upon a good deal more than the threat, or even the application, of force.
Indeed, judging from our experience in Vietnam, it would seem that the very concept of coercion is inadequate and even self-defeating, regardless of Brodie’s assurance that a conflict which is in large part a civil war can be resolved by the “imaginative use” of atomic weapons, and regardless, too, of Schelling’s prescription for the “compellence” of Hanoi as though this would end the guerrilla activity in the South. Surely a reasonable strategy should be made of more subtle, and politically perceptive, stuff. If the “diplomacy of violence” cannot take the intractability of politics into serious consideration, then the prescriptions of the strategists must be considered as general hypotheses, rather than as specific recommendations of policy. In this sense, the strategists can tell us what we might do—if we wanted to do it, and if the political situation was such that it was politically relevant or possible to do it. This is, perhaps, a more modest role than they might choose for themselves, but it is one which a wise diplomacy ought to insist upon.
IN DELINEATING a “diplomacy of violence” for the nuclear age, the strategists have not made war unthinkable. On the contrary, they have made certain kinds of war quite thinkable, and even possible, by prescribing conditions under which controlled violence can take place. They have taught us not only to think about the unthinkable, but also to engage in a “competition in risk-taking,” to borrow one of Schelling’s phrases, along the fringes of the unthinkable. The strategists have shown that Eisenhower was wrong when he said there is “no alternative to peace.” Apparently there are numerous alternatives, and we are today engaged in exploring some of them. The legacy of Clausewitz hangs heavy over Vietnam.
One notable effort to escape the confines of Clausewitz and to explore the inadequacies of war as an adjunct of diplomacy, has been made by Klaus Knorr in his provocative study, On the Uses of Military Power in the Nuclear Age. An economist by training and currently director of the Center for International Studies at Princeton, Knorr is a strategist whose curiosity ranges beyond problems of defense, deterrence, and retaliation. In this slim but challenging volume, he argues that the cost of warfare has reduced the role of military power, and increased that of non-military means to achieve diplomatic objectives. Although they have not eliminated war, nuclear weapons have made it far more dangerous, and have persuaded nations to pursue their goals by more restrained means. The spread of ideology and of influence is becoming more important than territorial expansion. “War is no longer as acceptable a continuation of politics by other means as it once was,” and even the modern nation-state is losing its old significance as it becomes the greatest threat to the physical survival of its inhabitants. Military technology, Knorr believes, has made essential the creation of a world community that reflects the common history the atom has forced upon all the inhabitants of this planet.
Having learned to accept, and even to glorify in, Clausewitz’s fusion of diplomacy and military power, we are now being faced with the obligation to evolve a theory of politics for a world Clausewitz never knew, and for which his theories are only vaguely relevant, if relevant at all. Only by unlearning the lesson of Clausewitz, by finding a way of channeling and restraining violence, rather than using it for narrow political ends, may we be able to find a way of living at peace in a world that the atom has made too dangerous for a “diplomacy of violence.”
ADDENDUM: Among the innumerable new volumes on strategy and arms control, of particular interest is Jeremy Stone’s thoughtful study, Containing the Arms Race,1 in which this analyst urges a Russo-American accord to reduce strategic missile forces, eliminate heavy bombers, and refrain from developing antimissile defense systems. Avoiding the jargon customary to most debates over strategy, Stone presents his views with clarity and forcefulness, and does not let his desire for widescale disarmament overcome his sense of political realism.
In the field of disarmament is a new study, Khrushchev and the Arms Race2 by a three-man team at MIT’s Center for International Studies. Investigating the changes in the Kremlin from the death of Stalin to the downfall of Khrushchev, the authors seek to determine why the Russians have decided to tone down the arms race and have supported such accords with the United States as the test-ban treaty, the banning of nuclear weapons from outer space, and a freeze on the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations. A useful, though highly over priced, book.
Finally, more in the realm of polemic than of strategy, there is the feverish volume by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1957-60, Nathan F. Twining. Neither Liberty nor Safety3 is neither wise nor temperate, but rather an ill-tempered diatribe against “anti-nuclear amateurs” and civilian defense analysts who see merit in the current Russo-American détente and who believe that a responsible strategy demands something more than an instant readiness to drop the Bomb. General Twining obviously fears and despises the McNamara crowd for taking the decision over nuclear war out of the hands of the generals, and he seems not to realize that the “new strategists,” although a good deal more subtle than the people he is used to, are no less reluctant to use force when they think it will work.
MIT Press, 252 pp., $6.95.↩
By Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Walter C. Clemens, Jr., and Franklyn Griffiths, MIT Press, 338 pp., $10.00.↩
Holt, 320 pp., $5.95↩