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From Napoleon to Armageddon

On my way to the 19th Pugwash Conference at Sochi on the Black Sea, I stopped in Paris and Leningrad. I wanted to see the exhibitions commemorating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth, and I wanted to see Leningrad, which I had not seen before. The impression these detours left in my memory amply compensated for their inconvenience.


Paris put its tribute to Napoleon in three different places: in the Grand Palais, which surveyed Napoleon’s public life and work, in the Bibliothèque Nationale dedicated to the Napoleonic legend, and in the National Archives, which show Napoleon “tel qu’en luimême,” “the development of an exceptional being in the multiple facets of its personality…” Of these three exhibitions, the one in the Bibliothèque Nationale provided one unintended revelation which was abundantly confirmed by the other two.

The exhibition had clearly a debunking intent. It intended to show, and did, how from the very beginning, the victory of Arcoli in 1796, Napoleon was a deliberate artisan of his own legend. He was the first modern leader of a great nation to make use, in a concerted effort, of all the media of communication at his disposal to serve his political ends. “I don’t see in religion,” he wrote, “the mystery of incarnation but the mystery of social order.” Newspapers, books, and plays were not only strictly censored, but Napoleon created both in France and in the conquered countries an official press sustaining French and allied morale, disparaging the enemy, and, as we would say today, “projecting the image” of the great leader. To that same end he assembled a team of historians and painters, the latter receiving instructions as to the number of centimeters to be reserved to each person represented in a particular painting. From 1800 to 1812, eighty different portraits of Napoleon were exhibited in the Salon. He had himself painted touching the plague-ridden of Jaffa as testimony to his compassion and supernatural protection, and he had himself painted crossing the St. Bernard in a snow storm on a fiery horse. “It was not enough,” commented Chateaubriand, “to lie to the ears, he had to lie to the eyes as well.”

Yet while this exhibition reveals the dissembler, the manipulator in Napoleon, it also brings out, almost malgré elle, what the other exhibitions are meant to make visible: his incomparable greatness. Take away the play-acting, the circuses, the military humbug, and what is left of Mussolini? A buffoon and a bluffer who did not survive the first call of his bluff. Take away the parades, the pseudo-religious fanaticism, the totalitarian re-integration of a disintegrating society, and what is left of Hitler? A destructive maniac who for a while prospered on the incompetence of his enemies. Take away the artifices of the Napoleonic legend, and what is left is the greatest man of action the western world has seen.

Napoleon did for the vita activa what Goethe, his contemporary, did for the vita contemplativa. He pushed the human potential for action to the limits of its possibilities and in the process became a tragic hero burning his wings, like Icarus, in the attempt to transcend the confines of humankind. Nobody else has perhaps stated more clearly the strange greatness of that man than Mme. de Staël:

I had met men worthy of respect and had likewise met men of ferocious character but nothing in the impression which Bonaparte produced on me reminded me of either. I soon found, in the various opportunities I had of meeting him during his stay in Paris, that his character was not to be described in terms commonly employed; he was neither mild nor violent, nor gentle nor cruel, like certain personages one happens to know. A being like him, wholly unlike anybody else, could neither feel nor excite sympathy; he was both more and less than a man; his figure, intellect, and language bore the impress of a foreign nationality…every time I heard him talk I was struck with his superiority: it bore no resemblance to that of men informed and cultivated through study and social intercourse, such as we find in France and England; his conversation indicated the fact of circumstances, like that of the hunter in pursuit of his prey. His spirit seemed a cold, keen sword-blade, which freezes while it wounds. I felt a profound irony in his mind, which nothing great or beautiful could escape, not even his own fame, for he despised the nations whose suffrages he sought.—With him, everything was means to ends; the involuntary, whether for good or for evil, was entirely absent…

Napoleon confirmed that judgment, saying of himself: “I am not like other men and the ordinary laws of morality and propriety cannot have been made for me.”

Napoleon told his soldiers during the Egyptian campaign that he would lead them to conquer Turkey and India, and “we shall change the face of the earth.” He did not conquer Turkey and India but he did indeed change the face of the western world. He destroyed feudalism in most of Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, and then laid through his positive achievements the groundwork for the bourgeois nation-state of the nineteenth century. When Napoleon appeared on the stage of world politics, the German empire was composed of about 250 sovereign states; when he left it, the number had been reduced to about thirty-six. He revolutionized warfare and military organization, law and administration; he made Europe ready for the modern age. The Code Napoléon, used in many parts of the world as a model of modern civil legislation, the administrative and financial organization of France, the French educational system, both civil and military, are enduring monuments to his creative genius. What he could not prepare for, he anticipated. So he said of India that “sooner or later the national spirit will liberate these lands from the European yoke,” and he predicted, with nothing but the American experience to go on, that “the colonial system that we have known is finished for all.”

But Napoleon was not only the destroyer of what had become obsolete and the creator of what was historically pregnant. Others have destroyed and created as the unaware and unfeeling instruments of history; he had two other qualities that are rare in men of action and enhanced his greatness as a destroyer and creator: a luminous self-awareness and a capacity for great and pure passion. Both are visible in his handwriting, a composite of enormous drive and spacious clarity which is aesthetically pleasing. In the Grand Palais and the Bibliothèque Nationale I was fascinated by this handwriting and I was therefore pleasantly instructed by the exhibition of the National Archives which starts with a comparative analysis of Napoleon’s handwriting in different periods.

Napoleon was a man of action who was aware of the secret of his success. “I meditate a great deal. If I seem always equal to the occasion, ready to face what comes, it is because I have thought the matter over a long time before undertaking it. I have anticipated whatever might happen. It is no genius which suddenly reveals to me what I ought to do or say in any unlooked-for circumstances, but my own reflection, my own meditation.” But Napoleon was also aware of the pitfalls of action. “When I plan a battle no man is more pusillanimous than I am. I magnify to myself all the dangers and all the evils that are possible under the circumstances. I am in a state of agitation that is really painful. But this does not prevent me from appearing quite composed to people around me; I am like a woman giving birth to a child.”

More moving, because it is unexpected, is the revelation of Napoleon’s capacity to love not only passionately but with compassion. It is unexpected because Napoleon was in the habit, as political leaders are bound to be, of using human beings as means to his ends. When it came to serving his ends, he was without any scruples and devoid even of elementary human considerations. He bled France white in the course of his incessant wars, and in his private life he used women as mere instruments for the satisfaction of his sexual desires. We have eyewitness accounts of the number of minutes elapsed between a woman entering his quarters and leaving them.

But Napoleon was in need of loving someone not as a means to his ends, but for his or her own sake, and it was irrelevant whether that person was worthy of such love. Three persons were so loved: Josephine, Marie-Louise, and his son. Josephine and Marie-Louise were in different degrees unworthy of such love; of the Duke of Reichstadt he knew hardly anything except that he was his son. There is, then, an element of blindness and even foolishness in the passion and compassion heaped upon unworthy or unknown objects by a man whose relations with all other men, his blood relations included, were determined by political calculations.

But there is also something very moving in the outpouring of those pure emotions. To Josephine he writes on July 18, 1796, during the Italian campaign, on the stationery of the commanding general of the Army of Italy: “All night, I have been in the village of Virgil, on the shores of the lake silvery from the moon, and not one hour without thinking of my Josephine…I have seen you asleep, one of your hands was around my neck, the other on my groin. I pressed you against my heart and I felt the beat of yours.” (I cannot convey in English the tenderness of “je sentais palpiter le tien.”) On November 13, 1797, he writes: “I don’t love you any more, I detest you…. Josephine, be careful, one beautiful night the door will be broken down and I will be in your bed,” and then tells her what he is going to do.

After separating from Josephine—we see her honest and moving letter of renunciation, “…having no hope of having children who could satisfy the needs of his politic and the interests of France…”—Napoleon looks around for a successor who is capable of bearing children. His ambassador to Vienna gives a devastating description of the Archduchess Marie-Louise. “…She has however more nobility than grace. One can hardly say anything good or bad about her spirit. One knows only that her education…was bad.” But she has one advantage which proves to be decisive, “…she comes from a family where fertility is almost certain.”

What reveals both the greatness of Napoleon’s nature and the irrationality of his emotions is the compassionate and uncalculating love which he transferred from Josephine to that woman, even less worthy of him than Josephine, whom he had selected for the purpose of breeding. Nobody can read the hundreds of letters he wrote hastily, on scraps of paper, to Marie-Louise during the Russian campaign without being moved by the strength and humaneness of his sentiments.

At 3 A.M. of March 31, 1814, on the way from Paris to Fontainebleau where he shall abdicate, he writes: “My health is good. I suffer from what you must suffer (Je souffre de ce que tu dois souffrir.)” And after the abdication, before the departure to the Island of Elba where she refused to follow him, he writes to her: “Your pains are all in my heart; they are the only ones I cannot bear. Try then to overcome adversity…You have at least a house and a beautiful country, while the trip to my Island of Elba would tire you and I would bore you, which is as it should be, since I will be older while you are still young…” Even Marie-Louise’s liaison with Count Neipperg from which a son issued did not extinguish his tender feelings toward her. So in his will he could say that he retained for her “to my last moment, the most tender sentiment.”

Napoleon’s feelings for his son duplicate those toward Marie-Louise. He wanted a son, as he wanted a wife who could bear him a son, for reasons of state. He who destroyed most of the monarchies of Europe and humbled those which he did not destroy, by marshaling against them that self-same popular nationalism that was to be his undoing, wanted to assure his empire monarchical immortality by leaving a monarchically legitimate heir. But once that son, conceived in political calculation, was born, he became the object of a father’s passionate love. Again, Napoleon’s letters from the Russian campaign—curious, concerned, playful in turn—testify to this. Combining the imperial and the personal, he leaves to his son in his will: “My arms, that is, my sword, the one I carried at Austerlitz…My gold dressing case, the one that served me on the morning of Ulm, of Austerlitz, of Jena, of Eulau, of Friedland, of the Island of Lobau, of the Moskwa, of Montmirail. In view of this, I wish that it will be precious to my son.”

What I have said here about Napoleon is made visible in these exhibitions. The profusion of objects, both private and public, lovingly preserved and intelligently displayed, conveys an illusion of immediate participation which is instructive and moving. Here is the bed Napoleon shared with Josephine, here is the bed in which he slept before the battle of Austerlitz, here is the bed in which he died. Here is the briefcase he used as First Consul, the map which served him during the battle of Waterloo, the white hat he wore on St. Helena, the last handkerchief he used before his death, and the report on his autopsy.

For me, the most revealing of all the exhibits is a triple portrait of Napoleon, reproduced on the opposite page, sketched without his knowledge by Girodet on April 13, 1812, in the theatre of St. Cloud. In the first, Napoleon is asleep; in the second, he awakens with a start; in the third, he watches with a Mona Lisa-like smile. Here he is no longer a condottieri of the quatrocento, as he appears in the early pictures, or the performer in the role of general, statesman, or emperor, as in the posed ones of the middle period. He saw himself as the successor of Caesar and Charlemagne. Here he reveals himself, in all the power of his will and mind and in his sybaritic sensuality, as what he really was: the last of the Roman emperors.


I flew from Paris to Leningrad in a Soviet plane, whose passengers were composed of two groups: a delegation of Russian technicians and members of a Soviet youth organization who enjoyed an emotional send-off from their French comrades. While the plane taxied for takeoff, the youth group sang, and it clapped when the plane left the ground. They sang again when the plane descended for landing—between two Russian songs a solo voice rang out to the tune of “We Shall Overcome”—and clapped when it touched ground. I was uncomfortably reminded of the passengers on Spanish and Mexican planes, who on takeoff and landing made the sign of the cross and said special prayers. On both occasions confidence in the technical prowess of the crew obviously needed strengthening from some extraneous quarter.

Leningrad is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But it is not so easy as it is with other cities to define in what its sublime beauty consists. No single building can be called an architectural masterpiece, but the city as a whole is certainly a masterpiece. First of all, the city has almost complete unity of style. Its austere baroque blends easily into the pure classicism of the buildings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That style is unfailingly graceful and elegant. These qualities are enhanced by the judicious use of color—yellow, brown, blue—on the façade of many buildings. And they are hardly impaired by the existence of a business district on Neva Prospect; for, by virtue of the essentially non-competitive system of retail distribution, stores do not intrude into the physiognomy of the city but rather blend unobtrusively into its architecture. You walk on Neva Prospect and come across a stately mansion whose ground floor is illuminated; you look into a window and see that they sell meat there. Aside from the light, the presence of the queues indicates the opportunity for something to be bought. You enter a church and find yourself engulfed by the hot and humid air of a swimming pool.

Peter the Great conceived the city as a northern Venice (in truth, it is a composite of Venice and Paris). Lenin only worked there, and there is no monument, except posthumous statues, testifying to his presence. But the Soviet government deserves praise for the care and unfailing taste with which it rebuilt the city as well as the palaces outside the city, such as Pushkin, the former Tsarskoe Selo, which suffered such vast destruction in the Second World War.

It is of course obligatory to visit the Hermitage, and for a good reason; the quality and quantity of its holdings compare only with the Louvre. The place swarms with visitors, single and in groups, who concentrate in the classical and Rembrandt galleries. Viewing the Rembrandts, I found myself in the proximity of a score or so of East Germans under the tutelage of a German guide of about thirty years of age. The group paused before the picture of an old man named Goldschmidt, wearing a cap, and the guide explained that Rembrandt had to paint many Jewish types since he was indebted to Jewish usurers. “Probably at 12 percent a year,” one member of the group chimed in and another discoursed gravely on Rembrandt’s stringent circumstances and bankruptcy, implying that the Jews had done him in. I looked into the faces of these people and saw there the same smirking, gleeful hatred from which I had fled thirty-eight years ago. I could not but marvel, as I had done so often before, at the persistence of national attitudes that survive radical changes in ideology and institutions.

The contrast between these galleries and the ones that house the Impressionists, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso is not only artistic. While the former swarm with people, the latter are deserted. I spent more than half an hour in them and encountered just one other visitor. This kind of art is obviously off limits for guided tours.


The first Pugwash Conference was convened nineteen years ago by Cyrus Eaton on his estate in Nova Scotia for the purpose of promoting peace between the United States and the Soviet Union through periodic dialogues of their respective scientists. It is of course fallacious to assume that scientists, presumably having the same intellectual interests, are able to formulate and settle political problems on the common ground of scientific analysis. Science, far from defusing politics, becomes infused with it. This was inevitable from the very outset and became more pronounced with the addition of scientists and social scientists from a great number of different countries. While thus Pugwash conferences could never achieve their original purpose, they have, however, been useful on three counts. Since the rules of the conferences protect the confidential character of the discussions and resolutions. I must limit myself to some general observations.

First, scientists of different nations have been able, by reaching a consensus at Pugwash conferences, to give authoritative weight to evaluations and recommendations of a scientific nature. Second, a politically astute observer, by watching and listening carefully at Pugwash conferences, can isolate the main political interests of the major powers and detect the methods, sometimes quite ruthless, with which they support these interests. This assessment has been particularly revealing in the case of scientists whose statements and votes are coordinated by political authority and closely supervised and directed by the latter’s representatives on the spot. Third, informal discussions between sessions and at social gatherings give one an insight into the thought processes, opinions, and purposes of the representatives of other nations which may support, contradict, or modify the assessments one has made on other grounds.

The 1969 Conference, attended by 101 scientists from twenty-nine countries, was dedicated to “World Security, Disarmament and Development.” Its main contribution was to nuclear arms control and disarmament, and this is of course primarily a matter between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the past, the main quality of the nuclear dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as among other nations has been the gap in sophisticated understanding between the United States and the rest. This gap has been the result of the historic fact that the United States became a nuclear power long before anyone else and, hence, at least some of its strategists were ahead in assimilating into its thinking the unprecedented novelty of nuclear weapons and their military and political consequences.

Even so, General LeMay, a former chief of staff of the United States Air Force, could say in the fall of 1968 that a nuclear weapon is just another weapon, and the present chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Wheeler, has defined United States strategic aims in a nuclear war as “to terminate hostilities…under conditions of relative advantage while limiting damage to the United States.” “Damage-limiting capability” carries the implication of being ahead in a nuclear war even though it is admitted that this is not the same as winning it. On the other hand, Soviet military doctrine at one time maintained that the Third World War would not be decided by the initial nuclear exchange but by the conventional so-called “broken-back war” following it; and one can still read today in Soviet military journals articles by generals asserting that a nuclear war can be won in the conventional sense. I remember how amused I was a few years ago when the chairman of the military committee of the French Chamber of Deputies assured the German participants in a private conference that the French nuclear force would defend Germany against the Soviet Union!

This kind of absurdity has disappeared from the Pugwash discussions. The leading scientists of the Soviet Union are now as fully aware as are those of the United States that nuclear war is tantamount to genocide and suicide. From the identity of that basic analysis the recognition follows that the United States and the Soviet Union have not only interests to defend and promote against each other, the gain of one being the loss of the other, but that they have also interests to pursue in common to the advantage of both. This consensus among scientists has now become at least a part of the rationale underlying the current arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

However, the road that leads from this general recognition of common interests to the translation of these interests into practical measures of arms control and perhaps even disarmament is not a straight one or easy to travel, but rather a kind of obstacle course, the obstacles being mainly the defects of our own minds. Five such obstacles are worth mentioning.

The first is a conceptual confusion. It was paramount in President Nixon’s speech of June 5, 1969. Mr. Nixon addressed himself to this issue in the following terms: “…we must rule out unilateral disarmament, because in the real world it won’t work. If we pursue arms control as an end in itself, we will not achieve our end. The adversaries in the world are not in conflict because they are armed. They are armed because they are in conflict…”

This statement contains a dual confusion. It confounds arms control with disarmament. It also confuses conventional arms control and disarmament, on the one hand, with nuclear arms control and disarmament, on the other. Arms control means stabilization of armaments at a certain level and, hence, an end to the arms race or at least its control on agreed-upon levels. Disarmament means the reduction or abolition of certain or all armaments.

Conventional arms control and disarmament depend on the settlement of the political conflicts which have given rise to the arms race in the first place. So long as the political and military status of the two Germanies remains unsettled, the conventional military competition of the two blocs in the center of Europe is inevitable. So long as the survival of Israel remains a contested issue, a conventional arms race between Israel and the Arab states is equally inevitable. On the other hand, when the peace settlement following the War of 1812 removed Canada from the political competition between the United States and Great Britain, the Rush-Bagot agreement could limit the naval forces on the Great Lakes belonging to the nations concerned. When the United States and Great Britain ended their rivalry on the two oceans and Great Britain severed its alliance with Japan, it became possible for the two major naval powers to impose limited naval disarmament upon the others through the Washington Treaty of 1922.

Thus Mr. Nixon is right with respect to conventional arms control and disarmament. As I put it more than twenty years ago: “Men do not fight because they have arms. They have arms because they deem it necessary to fight.” They are in a position to disarm only when they conclude that there is nothing to fight about, either because the issue has been settled to their satisfaction or it is no longer deemed worth fighting for.

However, Mr. Nixon is wrong with respect to nuclear weapons, for the conventional modes of thought do not apply to them. Nuclear arms control and disarmament are based upon a community of interests of nations which have achieved the ability to destroy each other many times over even under the worst circumstances. While conventional arms control and disarmament indeed depend upon the settlement of issues which give rise to the arms race in the first place, nuclear arms control and disarmament are rational necessities regardless of the settlement of international conflicts, once both adversaries have reached the optimum of nuclear sufficiency. By originally tying nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union to progress in the settlement of substantive issues the Nixon administration misapplied a conventional mode of thought to a crucial nuclear issue.

The second obstacle is the persistence of the quantitative fallacy. It ought not to be necessary, at this point in history and at this stage of the debate, to point again to the fundamental distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. Of the former, in principle, one cannot have enough, while for the latter there exists an ascertainable saturation point beyond which it is utterly irrational to go. If nation A is capable of destroying nation B with nuclear weapons ten times over even in the worst of circumstances, nation A gains no military advantage by increasing the quality and quantity of its nuclear arsenal to the point where it is capable of destroying nation B twelve times over. On the other hand, nation B, which is capable of destroying nation A with nuclear weapons “only” four times over even under the worst of circumstances, is by virtue of that fact not inferior to nation A in any meaningful military sense and would gain no military advantage by narrowing this gap.

Yet our leaders have time and again boasted of our three to four times superiority over the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union has taken our word for it and has narrowed the gap considerably. Our reaction has been twofold. On the one hand, we have argued that now that the Soviet Union has drawn almost “even” with us it can afford to engage in meaningful arms control and disarmament negotiations, which it could not do while it was in a position of “inferiority.” On the other hand, since the Soviet Union is now approximately “even” with us and may soon, according to some estimates, be even “superior” to us, we must counter that assumed actual parity and threatened superiority by developing anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) and multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV), thereby increasing our nuclear capability many-fold.

In truth, of course, the Soviet Union drew “even” with us at the moment when, sometime during the second half of the Fifties, it was capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on us, and nothing has changed and can change in that equation so long as both sides retain their capability of inflicting unacceptable damage upon the other. What has changed by virtue of an utterly irrational nuclear arms race is not the relative military function of the two nuclear capabilities but their absolute quantity and quality. The United States and the Soviet Union possess now many more and much more sophisticated nuclear weapons than they did a decade ago while their relative nuclear posture is still what it was a decade ago. Yet while Americans and Russians talking to each other will agree on this basic truth as self-evident, when it comes to action, the urge, atavistic with regard to nuclear weapons, to gain an advantage over the other side has thus far proven irresistible. American MIRVs and the Russian SS9, a kind of supermissile capable of carrying a nuclear payload of about 25 megatons, are cases in point. This urge has been powerfully supported by the qualitative fallacy and by what has been called the “worst-case analysis.”

The qualitative fallacy can be called a logical extension of the quantitative one. While the unlimited nuclear arms race has been driven forward mainly by the atavistic belief in the linear relationship between the quantity of nuclear weapons and the amount of usable military power, there has been implicit in this belief at least the acceptance of the possibility that superior quantity at some point somehow might be transformed into superior quality. In other words, one or the other side might become superior in quantity to such a degree as to destroy, or reduce to acceptable proportions, the retaliatory capacity of the enemy through a first strike. The insistence of American leaders upon American quantitative superiority throughout the Fifties and Sixties, manifesting itself at present in the development of MIRVs, has created in the minds of Russian leaders the specter of an American first strike capability, and the Russian emphasis on SS9s is being used by American political leaders to produce a similar effect upon American opinion. Secretary of Defense Laird, for instance, declared that he had “no doubt” that the Soviet Union was seeking a first strike capability through the development of SS9s.

The argument is at best speculative and in all likelihood untenable. Even the most painstaking calculations of the damage to the enemy’s retaliatory power to be expected from a first strike is qualified by three inescapable factors: the lack of experience with nuclear war, the human factor, and the contingencies of warfare. What nuclear weapons can accomplish under conditions of active combat we extrapolate from tests and theoretical calculations. What they will actually accomplish, especially against protected or moving small targets, such as hardened missile sites and submarines, nobody knows.

Second, the successful operation of such complex and varied weapons systems requires a degree of reliability and precision on the part of the human operators which thus far has been obtained only in the production and operation of manned spacecraft but not in any branch of the military. Military operations have been traditionally marked by a high degree of unreliability. About ten years ago, I asked a general in charge of the program why so many minute-man missiles did not perform according to specifications. “Human failure” was his answer. “The other day, we found a sandwich in a missile that failed to go off.” Finally, the history of warfare testifies to the frequently decisive role which the unforeseen, the accidental has played in the outcome of military operations. The best-laid plans have gone awry because something happened that nobody foresaw or could have foreseen.

We can afford to take in our stride such risks in conventional but not in nuclear war. For if a nation is mistaken in one or the other of its assumptions and the enemy’s retaliatory capacity survives in a strength sufficient to inflict upon it unacceptable damage, it will be the last mistake that nation will have made. However, if one leaves these three qualifying factors aside, the calculations themselves are not likely to show in the foreseeable future a quantitative superiority on one or the other side of such overwhelming proportions as to amount to the assured capability of a successful first strike. Thus the qualitative argument in favor of an unlimited nuclear arms race likewise falls to the ground.

The argument derived from the “worst-case analysis” combines the assumption that the capabilities of the other side will be realized to their upper limits with the assumption that one’s own capabilities will sink to their minimum levels. This argument, making for either extreme caution, if not inactivity, on the one hand, or frantic overreaction, on the other, was used first in the late Fifties in support of the so-called “missile gap.” The Soviet Union was supposed to do what it was assumed to be capable of doing: to produce a number of ICBMs vastly superior to ours. The Soviet Union did nothing of the kind for good military and economic reasons. But we reacted to this imaginary threat—now universally recognized as such—with a drastic increase in our production of ICBMs.

The same argument was used against the conclusion of a comprehensive test ban treaty covering underground tests. It was argued that while ordinary underground explosions of military significance could indeed be instrumentally monitored from outside the national territory, the other side could cheat without being detected if it were to dig a “big hole” surrounded by salt in which to detonate a nuclear device. Hence, it was concluded, on-site inspection was essential.

The same argument is used again, and by the same small group of Pentagon technical experts, in favor of an American arms control policy which would condemn the SALT negotiations to failure. The Soviet Union, the argument runs, might transform its ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles into ABMs. In order to counter this potential defensive capability of the Soviet Union, the United States must insist upon the development of MIRVs or else, if there were to be an arms control agreement limiting or outlawing both MIRVs and ABMs, the United States must have the right of on-site inspection. One does not need classified information to ascertain that any kind of on-site inspection which would be more than a symbolic gesture is one thing neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would accept.

The Pentagon argument concludes that what is technically feasible is likely to be realized without raising the decisive question as to the non-technical conditions under which reasonable men will actually do what they are technically able to do. What would be the incentive for cheating by digging a “big hole” in view of the cost, probable results, and risk of detection of such a project? And what would be the incentive for the Soviet Union to launch upon the extremely complex and costly technical undertaking of expanding drastically its ABM system, which for years has been kept strictly limited, after it has learned from experiences we have not yet had how dubious the uses of such a system actually are? Some Soviet Union experts, at least, felt years ago that the Soviet military had sold its government a bill of goods by inducing them to build a limited ABM system.

From the technical ability to do these things, it does not follow that they will be done. There are obviously lots of things people are technically able to do, but they are deterred by the disproportion between cost and probable gain and by the risk of detection. No domestic law-enforcement agency will guard against all socially undesirable actions which are technically feasible but will aim its measures at those actions likely to be committed because the relationship of cost to gain appears favorable and the risk of detection, remote.

Furthermore, whatever risks may be implicit in an arms control or disarmament agreement must be weighed against the explicit risks of the continuation of an unlimited nuclear arms race; for the latter alternative will inevitably result in serious economic and social dislocations and nuclear proliferation, and will greatly increase the likelihood of a general nuclear war. The “worst-case analysis” calls forth a drastic overreaction by A not only to the moves B has made but to the moves B is presumed to be capable of making. B, noting a buildup by A unprovoked by anything it has done or intends to do, reacts with a buildup of its own, which in turn appears to justify a posteriori A’s original anticipation of the “worst case,” and so forth.

At best, this combination will result in a new “balance of terror” on a much higher level of nuclear armaments. At worst, it will have a destabilizing effect upon the “balance of terror” if it creates in A or B or both the illusion of having gained a decisive advantage that will allow them to use nuclear weapons against each other without risking unacceptable damage by way of effective retaliation.

Finally, both the United States and the Soviet Union have approached nuclear arms control negotiations at a leisurely pace that is almost grotesquely at odds with the gravity of the issue. That issue is literally a matter of life and death for humanity itself since it is estimated that in an all-out nuclear war most of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere, where 90 percent of humanity lives, will be wiped out in one way or another. In the summer of 1968, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the verge of starting negotiations when, following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, President Johnson stopped all activity in that respect.

That step partakes of the same misunderstanding of the fundamental differences between conventional and nuclear arms control and disarmament of which President Nixon’s address mentioned above provides one example. The interests of the United States and the Soviet Union in nuclear arms control and disarmament are identical, and that identity of interests is not affected by conventional conflicts of interest. This being the case, by punishing the Soviet Union we punish ourselves; by hurting its interests we hurt ours. When in the spring of 1969 President Nixon proposed the start of preliminary talks, the Soviet Union, probably in order to protect itself from Chinese criticism but also in order to “get even” with the United States, played hard to get and agreed only in October to put negotiations on the agenda. Now, as the result of Soviet initiative, the beginning of substantive negotiations has been postponed to April, 1970.

Both attitudes are equally untenable on the theoretical grounds discussed above, and they have greatly increased the hazards of the present negotiations. Until a few months ago, it appeared to be perfectly feasible, in view of the issue of verification, to agree on a limitation or reduction of ballistic missiles. For both the United States and the Soviet Union, primarily through aerial and satellite reconnaissance, are able to account for every land-based missile of the other side. However, once MIRVs have been tested sufficiently to be operational, only inspection at the missile site itself, unacceptable to both sides, will be able to verify the number of warheads available to either side. For a missile equipped with one warhead looks from above exactly like a missile equipped with three or ten. At the moment of this writing, neither side has tested sufficiently to be confident that MIRVs are workable, even though the United States is ahead and has ordered a first group of Poseidon missiles, installed on submarines, to be fitted with multiple warheads. Thus there is still an historic opportunity, necessarily fleeting, for stopping the development of MIRVs by stopping their tests. Such a test ban could be verified through the tracing of the trajectory of test missiles. Once that opportunity has passed and MIRVs have become operational, one could still hope and work for nuclear arms control and disarmament, but without much confidence in their success.

What threatens the nuclear arms negotiations with failure, and in consequence mankind with disaster, is a disjunction between theoretical understanding and action. This disjunction appears to be typical of a situation in which man faces the necessity of quickly and drastically parting with deeply ingrained habits of thought and action. His mind is able to grasp new conditions in theory while his actions continue to conform to the obsolete routines of yesterday. A former high official of our government told me once that whenever he briefed General Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on the polycentric character of Communism, the general accepted the analysis as self-evident, but in the position papers he signed not a trace of that acceptance was to be found.

The same “Wheeler syndrome” is at work in our nuclear policies. What I have said above about the intellectual obstacles to nuclear arms control is so obvious that one hesitates to put it on paper, and it certainly represents the consensus of scientists at Pugwash and elsewhere. Yet when these self-evident principles are to be transformed into action, outworn modes of thought and action, now performing the function of technologically legitimized superstitions, stand in the way of that transformation. Secretary of Defense Laird and some of his technological advisers know as well as General Wheeler what the nuclear score is if the question is put to them in the abstract. But they recommend actions as though they did not know it.

They cannot help doing so because their attitude to action is predetermined not by the rational analysis of objective conditions of unprecedented novelty but by their image of a world populated by cunning and ruthless communist devils, ever ready to try anything technologically feasible in order to do the United States in. Their own indispensability and power is predicated upon the continuing belief in this kind of world.

Thus the present controversy within the Nixon administration over arms control policy is at bottom not only a contest between superstition and reason but also a contest for power. The military, and the academic and industrial institutions serving it, need an external threat of enormous magnitude to justify the preponderant part they play in the political and economic life of the nation. The equation of the technically feasible with the militarily probable has served that purpose in the past; the “missile gap” and the “big hole” testify to its persuasiveness. It is called upon to do its nefarious work again. It must be counteracted today, not only by the reason of the scientists, but by organized political action, if we are to avoid another irreversible step toward nuclear extinction.

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