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False Alarm: The Story Behind Salt II

In the coming months Americans will be facing great decisions about the future of our defense policy and our relations with the Soviet Union. Should we decide to accept in good faith the spirit of SALT II as a limitation on the arms race—a limitation that is in fact already largely known by the public—and introduce the minimum of new weapons consistent with our security? Or, if the SALT treaty is signed, should we stretch its provisions and build as many arms as are not forbidden by it? Or, finally, should we reject the treaty and choose to increase vastly our spending on strategic weapons—for instance on the Trident submarine, cruise missiles, and the proposed MX ICBM, a large mobile intercontinental missile—in an attempt to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union?

In recent months a great many books, articles, speeches, and advertisements—even a privately produced and widely distributed film—have been circulated in order to convince the American public that Soviet strategic power is growing while American defenses are weakening. We are told again and again that our national security is in jeopardy. The Soviet Union, we hear, will soon have the means to destroy our land-based Minuteman and Titan II missiles which are stored in and launched from hardened silos. The Russians would then strike first and destroy our deterrent missiles, thus winning the war with relative impunity. Or, short of actually going to war, they could use the threat of their superior nuclear force for political blackmail.

The hawks who want to convince the American public that the danger is growing severely criticize the SALT II treaty now being concluded under which each side would limit itself to no more than 2,250 strategic missile launchers and bombers between now and 1985. The proposed treaty is said to concede too much to the USSR, perpetuating our weakness and consolidating the Soviet threat.

Such, predictions are indeed frightening, but are they realistic, or even plausible? The past record of the arms race argues strongly that they are not. If we investigate the predictions about the Soviet military threat that have been made during the past twenty years, we find that they have been consistently exaggerated—often by the same people who make such claims today. We also find that complying with these alarmists’ suggestions to expand our arsenal has led us into a spiraling nuclear arms race that is undermining real security—the full assurance of national survival—of the US as well as the Soviet Union. Can it be that history repeats itself, and that if we follow the most recent alarmist demands—for intransigence over the SALT II treaty and an accelerated arms buildup even if it is passed—our national security will be further weakened and we will find that we are headed for a nuclear war?

Since the days when I worked in the White House as special assistant to President Eisenhower, I have seen again and again how disputes over arms control have depended on how we interpret information—often unreliable information—about Soviet military developments. It is true that during the 1940s and early 1950s we knew shockingly little. The iron curtain that Stalin drew around the Soviet bloc, and his draconian security measures within it, baffled our military intelligence. But much of the controversy over SALT II fails to recognize the extent to which systematic and highly ingenious technological advances—in which we continue to have an advantage—have now dramatically improved our knowledge. Nuclear test explosions anywhere in the world can be detected by seismic tests and air sampling; our satellites relay detailed information about the location of Soviet ICBMs, as well as of bombers and submarines in port; other techniques supported by satellite observation provide details about Soviet missile testing and submarine activity, etc.

The Soviet strategists finally acknowledged in 1972 that the policy of secrecy at any cost could no longer work. In the SALT I treaty they agreed in principle that neither the USSR nor the US would interfere with the intelligence technology of the other side. (In the SALT II negotiations, the USSR has also reportedly agreed to give the US regular information on how many strategic weapons it has deployed.) As a result, exaggerated claims about the development and deployment of strategic weapons inside the Soviet Union can sometimes be demolished fairly easily. In December 1977, for example, Melvin Laird, a former secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, published in The Reader’s Digest an article called “The Russians are Cheating.” It gave “incontrovertible evidence” that the Soviet Union was not honoring the commitments it made in the SALT I treaty and Interim Agreement signed in 1972. Mr. Laird predicted dreadful consequences for the security of the United States. A few months later Secretary of State Cyrus Vance discredited Laird’s allegations in a paper approved by the CIA and the Defense Department. He showed in detail that violations by both sides were in fact relatively minor and that they had been corrected.

Somewhat more difficult to disprove are the alarmists’ nearly hysterical assertions that the Soviet leaders consider a future nuclear war as different only in degree from earlier wars. Such hard-line professors as Richard Pipes of Harvard suggest that the USSR may well be planning a war, and they argue that its leaders seem confident of winning it. They point to blustering and aggressive statements in Soviet publications that seem to show that Russian leaders are willing to risk nuclear attack. Yet such able Russian scholars as George Kennan and Raymond Garthoff have shown in detail that this display of Soviet confidence and belligerence is largely domestic propaganda. It conceals a sharp awareness among the Soviet leaders that a nuclear war between the superpowers is certain to have catastrophic consequences for both countries.

Certainly it is more difficult to make assessments of future military power and intentions of the USSR such as those published by the US intelligence agencies in their jointly compiled National Intelligence Estimates (NIE). Soviet defense officials neither publish “posture” statements, nor testify before legislators, nor allow security “leaks” to occur. Since little definite information is available, NIE’s “projections” suggest several possibilities: they describe the probable course of events as the median case, while a threat that is possible but greater than the one expected is called the worst case.

Hard-line commentators such as Albert Wohlstetter have tried to demonstrate that US intelligence agencies consistently underestimate Soviet strength. But the history of the past twenty years shows quite the reverse. Few indeed are the instances when the Soviet military threat later turned out to be greater than the estimated “worst case.” Usually the government’s experts overestimated the danger. A principal reason for the escalation of the nuclear arms race has been the tendency among pessimistic Washington officials to treat “worst case predictions” as if they were the probable figures and then to demand that we arm ourselves to meet what later turn out to be largely imaginary threats. To understand the current opponents of SALT, we must first understand how wrong they have been in the past.

The ABM Scare

Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s US strategic policy was distorted by foolish reactions to a false alarm: that the Soviets were building vast antiballistic missile systems—the ABM—that could destroy most of the deterrent missiles we would launch after the Russians attacked, thus giving them a decisive advantage in a nuclear war.

This alleged threat not only provided the main pretext for our own expensive and useless efforts to set up an ABM system, mainly in the 1960s. It also was one of the main justifications, in the late 1960s, for the MIRVing of our missiles, so that a single missile would carry several warheads, each aimed at a different target.

While working on Eisenhower’s scientific advisory committee in 1959 and 1960 I had to assess some of the early claims that the Russians were developing an ABM system. The Soviets, we knew from our intelligence, had a center for anti-aircraft and anti-missile work at Sary Shagan in Central Asia. Our U-2 planes observed there a large radar installation that might, it was thought, be a device for detecting incoming missiles. Our intelligence experts immediately linked this installation to the Soviet tests of medium-range ballistic missiles at Kapustin Yar, many hundreds of miles to the west. They conjectured that the Russians were putting together the combination of radar (to detect incoming missiles), computers (to track them), and interceptor missiles (to destroy them) that makes up an ABM system.

The evidence was hardly conclusive that an effective ABM system was being tested at Sary Shagan, but it was enough to encourage the US Air Force and Navy to develop “penetration aids” to be used on American missiles in order to confuse a Soviet ABM system. The army justified its campaign for the earliest possible installation of our own ABM project—with the code name Nike Zeus—by citing the tests at Sary Shagan. Notwithstanding pressure from the army, defense contractors, and influential senators, my colleagues and I on the President’s Science Advisory Committee concluded that Nike Zeus defenses, while effective against single missiles, would not be useful against a massed attack. Eisenhower refused to order the Nike Zeus system to be installed.

But this was only the beginning of the Soviet ABM scare. In 1961—after the three-year moratorium on nuclear testing was ended by the Soviets—explosions near Sary Shagan and a defense installation being constructed near Leningrad were interpreted by proponents of the “worst possible case” as evidence that the Soviets were building a huge defense system that would eventually be able to launch thousands of ABM interceptor missiles. During 1961 and 1962 Pentagon officials were making plans to react in kind. They, and their supporters, claimed the Leningrad defense work justified the development and installation not only of Nike Zeus but also of multiple warheads (MRVs). In the mid-Sixties such warheads were indeed deployed on the American strategic missiles in Polaris II submarines—a major step. And although proposals by Senator Strom Thurmond and others for the immediate deployment of Nike Zeus were defeated by the Kennedy administration, these alarms about Soviet ABM armaments encouraged the development of Nike X, a more advanced system designed to defend us from a large number of simultaneous incoming missiles. In fact, later on in the 1960s, it turned out that the constructions near Leningrad were abandoned. The evidence suggested they were merely anti-aircraft defenses. But the damage was done: we had already gone ahead with our plans for MRVs.

Late in the Sixties, a number of senior weapons experts—including W.K.H. Panofsky at Stanford, George Rathjens and Jerome Wiesner, both from MIT—began to assert that no ABM system could defend the US against a determined and sophisticated missile attack. They were opposed by alarmists calling for a vastly increased missile defense system. In an attempt to mediate between the two camps, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced in late 1967 that we would deploy Nike X in a limited way: to defend American cities from a possible “light” attack by Communist China. This decision was welcomed by Pentagon officials who saw it as laying the cornerstone of a vast defensive system that could be used to resist heavy nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. But preparations for the deployment of Nike X near several large American cities—a project code-named the Sentinel system—aroused considerable public opposition, and the incoming Nixon administration canceled the project in early 1969. Thus another project was dropped, but the exaggerated fears of a Soviet ABM that produced it had not been put to rest.

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