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Nuclear Sense and Nonsense

The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age

by George F. Kennan
Pantheon, 207 pp., $13.95

With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War

by Robert Scheer
Random House, 285 pp., $14.95

Any European citizen who picks up the two books under review hoping to inform himself about the nuclear dangers that bedevil East-West relations could well be excused were he to gain the impression that George Kennan was brought up within a culture wholly different from the one out of which the characters in Robert Scheer’s pages emerged. How, one might well ask, could a politically sophisticated analysis of American-Soviet relations, of the kind which George Kennan provides, appear in the same country and at the same time as the proclamations of a band of military camp followers who pretend to provide intellectual backing for the controversial defense policies of Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger? How is it that senior and experienced American military leaders who have spoken out have so far failed to refute the martial vaporings of a handful of civilians who offer guidelines for all-out nuclear war, as though its consequences would be little worse than a succession of severe droughts? Can it be that the enormous momentum of the arms race, and the pervasive power of the military machine, have in recent years so conditioned the environment of American opinion that, for all that may be said in favor of free speech, public expressions of dissent have so far had as little impact on the formulation of government policy in the US as the whimpers of dissent have in the USSR?

Whatever the answer, the belligerent noises now coming out of Washington are certainly sharpening the anxieties of ordinary citizens in parts of Western Europe where public expressions of concern can still have an impact on government policies. People are scared by talk of protracted nuclear war; by the fact that there is no let-up in the nuclear arms race; by the lack of progress in the START and “theater weapon” talks. And, however regrettable, and quite apart from differences of view about steel imports into the US, or trade relations with the USSR, strains in the Atlantic Alliance will increase the more it becomes clear that European governments are unable to influence the East-West military confrontation.

The recent admissions that the Pentagon, with presidential blessing, is embarking on preparations that would ostensibly provide the US with the means to fight a “protracted” nuclear war against the USSR have generated a new wave of alarm, and more than a little astonishment, in those European quarters where questions were already being asked about other aspects of nuclear strategy. Caspar Weinberger’s efforts at retraction, culminating in his “open letter” to some seventy newspapers, have done nothing to allay anxiety or to reduce bewilderment. Theodore Draper’s “open reply”1 indicated that the Weinberger letter will more likely than not intensify fear among those of America’s European allies on whose territory such a war, were it ever to occur, would be fought.

But the whole concept of a nuclear war in nonsense, and the purpose of Mr. Scheer’s book is to reveal the degree of nonsense it is. If the subject were not as serious as it is, parts of the book could be read as a skit on the Reagan administration’s foreign and defense policies. Unfortunately, however, it is not a skit. What Scheer writes is backed by tapes of conversations he has had with Mr. Reagan; with Vice-President Bush; with Eugene Rostow, now the head of the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; with members of the group called the Committee on the Present Danger, of whom Rostow, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, and several other members are now officials in the Reagan administration. Half of the book is devoted to notes and appendices, which include transcripts of tapes and of other records. It’s real enough. Europe and North America have every reason to be fearful. So have the Russians.

No one in his senses should dispute the basic assumption that the rulers of the Soviet Union will do anything in their power to prevent the political disruption of their own state, or that of the satellite countries on whose stability they have in part based their own security. The USSR must be expected to do anything that could further its own interests. To that end it will also take risks, such as, for example, its intervention in Afghanistan. On this there is considerable agreement between George Kennan and Reagan’s advisers. But from that point off, their paths diverge sharply.

What is highly questionable in the Reagan doctrine, and certainly to much informed European opinion, is the assumption that the Politburo would deliberately risk intruding into NATO territory, in the near certainty that such aggression would be likely to entail nuclear war. But this is what Reagan’s people seem to believe. They also now say that America has to plan for a “protracted” war because the Russians believe that they could fight and win such a war. The Reaganites point to the development of new Russian nuclear launchers and warheads as proof. But if this is proof, then what is not explained is why the Soviet leaders, while deploying nuclear arms with their forces, publicly declare that a nuclear exchange could never be contained and that, once started, the result would be scores of millions of deaths on both sides. This is not simply propaganda—any more than were the predictions of the nuclear physicists about the amount of energy locked up within the atom.

Nonetheless, as the nuclear arms race now pursues its course, the USSR continues to develop more and more accurate ballistic missiles, in order, as the Pentagon claims, to eliminate America’s equally accurate land-based ballistic missiles, with the object of decreasing the intensity of a retaliatory nuclear onslaught. As further “proof” of the USSR’s aggressive intentions, the Reagan strategists point to an evacuation program which the USSR is said to have ready for its bigger cities, and to a belief that some significant part of its industry has been built underground. It is also said that the USSR has invested in a vast shelter policy. To those who wish to interpret such developments that way, this means that the USSR is bent on a “first strike.” What such interpretations ignore is that regardless of the number of American land-based missiles that might be destroyed, the USSR could still be utterly destroyed by the warheads launched by the airborne and submarine limbs of the nuclear triad of the US.

As seen by the men whom Scheer interviewed, and whom he quotes, the “scenario” of a Soviet first strike necessarily has to be the basis for American policy. Therefore the nuclear arms race must continue, both in quality and quantity. The US must also embark on a shelter policy. It is, of course, admitted that absolute invulnerability of land-based launchers cannot be guaranteed, not even for an MX system. Nor, if there were a nuclear exchange, can there be any guarantee that there won’t be casualties, even when the primary targets are so-called “military” targets. But given a civil-defense policy like that of the Russians, fatal Soviet casualties might be kept down to the level of, say, twenty million, which, Professor Richard Pipes thinks, is a tolerable figure. He also believes that if all Soviet cities with a population of a million or so “could be destroyed without trace or survivors, and, provided that its essential cadres had been saved, it [i.e., the USSR] would emerge less hurt in terms of casualties than it was in 1945.”

Professor Jack Ruina, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, tells us in Scheer’s book that Pipes is a nice man, but that he “knows little about technology and about nuclear weapons.” Jack Ruina certainly does know about both. But he is being overgenerous when he limits Professor Pipes’s ignorance just to technology and nuclear weapons. Scheer describes Pipes as a “notorious anti-Soviet hard-liner” who came to America from Poland. To someone like myself who has seen it happen, it is clear that Pipes has little or no idea of what it’s like when a city is devastated even with conventional bombs; when it is bombed even at the intensity which London suffered at the height of the Blitz. Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo were worse. If the Soviet Union were being hit in a nuclear exchange, the US would also be hit. I shudder to think how America, or for that matter the United Kingdom or the USSR, would react were, say, six of their largest cities to be struck simultaneously by a one-megaton nuclear warhead. Each strike would result in something like a quarter of a million immediate deaths. A one-megaton warhead on Detroit would, in theory, exhaust the medical facilities of the whole United States.2 I say “in theory,” because such facilities couldn’t be mobilized. Have none of the members, past or present, of the Committee on the Present Danger the imagination to translate numbers of warheads, launchers, or megatons into human realities?

Official American forecasts indicate that without the kind of shelter policy that Professor Pipes has in mind the number of deaths that would be caused by an all-out nuclear exchange would be scores of millions on each side. But what shelter policy does he have in mind?

Here we turn to T.K. Jones, now the administration’s deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, strategic theater nuclear forces. To survive a nuclear onslaught, Soviet citizens evacuated to the outskirts of their cities are advised, so he tells us, to dig a hole and to cover it with small saplings, over which is spread three feet of earth. That would be enough to deal with radio-active fallout. Americans should be taught to do the same. “If there are enough shovels to go around”—this is how Scheer got the title for his book—“everybody’s going to make it.” And speaking in what he calls general terms, T.K. Jones is quoted as saying that without protection against an all-out nuclear exchange, recovery time

would take a couple of generations, probably more. You’d lose half the people in the country. With protection of people only, your recovery time to prewar GNP levels probably would be six or eight years. If we used the Russian methods for protecting both the people and the industrial means of production, recovery times could be two to four years.

As I read this passage, I kept thinking that Jones must have been pulling Scheer’s leg. But we are assured this was not the case. That being so, is it necessary to comment further on the thinking behind the Reagan administration’s notions of a “strategic nuclear exchange”?

I am equally hard put to understand what lies behind the concept of a protracted nuclear war. How would it start? How measured a pace does “protracted” mean?

It is a basic tenet of the policy of the Western Alliance that war in Europe could start only if the Russians moved westward from their present positions. Every effort would then be made to halt them with conventional weapons, and resort to nuclear arms would be made only if our defense failed. The next act in this script is “limited nuclear war,” a concept to which no experienced senior European military commander can attach any reality. On the other hand, Scheer reminds us that it is now fashionable in American military circles to talk about “command, control, communications and intelligence” (reduced in jargon to C3I, or C cubed I) as a system whereby a nuclear war could be kept both limited and protracted through measures that would allow the US military establishment to launch and control a war in which nuclear weapons were used and would survive whatever level of destruction took place.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, November 4, 1982.

  2. 2

    The Effects of Nuclear War, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1979.

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