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Nuclear Sense and Nonsense

This is nonsense. Whatever form war takes, what’s missing from the term is “J”—judgment. Only political judgment could stop a nuclear war from erupting, and only the facts of immediate destruction could stop it. Battlefield nuclear weapons would destroy whole villages and small towns; so-called “theater weapons” big towns and cities. How does a protracted nuclear war proceed? Tit for tat? And how is it contained? We now know that there wasn’t enough C3 in the Pentagon, at the time the plan for protracted nuclear war was leaked, to prevent General David Jones, as he stepped down in June from the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs, from denouncing the whole idea as military rubbish. By so doing, he did far more than Caspar Weinberger could ever do to reassure America’s allies that Washington is not deviously plotting their destruction.

But how on earth could the school of thought to which T.K. Jones, Professor Pipes, and Mr. Perle belong prosper, while that to which men such as George Kennan belong has failed to influence policy? Is it that Reagan’s amateur strategists are really representative of Americans? Are typical Americans so consumed by their hatred of Russians, and so ignorant of the nature of destruction, that they are prepared to hazard the continuity of Western civilization in order to further their personal prejudices in a fantasy about nuclear war? If that is the case, so much must have been forgotten about the significance of nuclear weapons in East-West relations that it’s worth going back to the beginning.

A month after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been devastated, Henry Stimson, then secretary of war, advised President Truman that America’s possession of the nuclear secret could not be used as a weapon to change the communist system.3 Instead he urged that the American government—having consulted the British—should tell it all to the Russians, and so avert a “secret armaments race of a rather desperate character.” “I consider,” he wrote,

the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as not merely connected with but as virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb…. If we fail to approach [the Russians] now and merely continue to negotiate with them, having this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip, their suspicions and their distrust of our purpose and motives will increase.

That was written on September 11, 1945, Four months later, in January of 1946, Secretary of State Byrnes appointed Dean Acheson chairman of a small committee to produce a plan for the international control of atomic energy. The result was a report which, as Acheson tells us in his memoirs,4 was largely the work of Robert Oppenheimer, who himself kept closely in touch with some of his physicist colleagues—C.C. Lauritsen, I.I. Rabi, and George Zaccharias.

Contrary to Stimson’s advice, the Russians were not brought into the exercise. Nor were the British. In June of 1946, Truman’s appointee, Bernard Baruch, presented the Acheson-Lilienthal Report to a newly constituted UN Atomic Energy Commission. The choice of Baruch was greeted with dismay by both Acheson and Oppenheimer, neither of whom seems to have trusted him.5 In December the report was agreed to by ten members of the commission, with the Soviet Union and Poland abstaining, and then in due course it was vetoed in the Security Council. According to some cynical commentators, this result was not unwelcome either to Mr. Truman or to Mr. Baruch.

In retrospect, one cannot regard the Soviet veto as surprising; the USSR was close to completing the development of its own bomb. The United Kingdom’s position was also ambiguous. The UK had been one of the ten that voted in favor of the American plan to “internationalize” the military and civil applications of atomic energy, but it has now been disclosed that two months before the vote was taken, the inner group of Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet had decided to go ahead with the manufacture of a British bomb. The decisive voice in this move was that of Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary. “We’ve got to have this,” he is reported as having said to his colleagues. “I don’t mind for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at or to by the Secretary of State of the United States as I have just been in my discussions with Mr. Byrnes. We’ve got to have the thing over here whatever it costs.”6 Clearly the Russians were not the only ones who were worried by the possibility of American nuclear domination.

A few of the more sophisticated of the senior scientists who had been involved with Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project realized from the start that since no theoretical limit existed to the destructive power of nuclear war-heads, the latter could not be regarded as just a new form of armament. Among the nonscientists who had come to the same conclusion was George Kennan. Stimson had spoken in 1945. In 1946 Henry Wallace, vice-president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had sent an open letter to President Truman advising against the views of “a school of military thinking” which was advocating “a preventative war” against the USSR before it acquired the weapons.7

There were others. In 1947 a book, The Absolute Weapon, had been published under the editorship of Bernard Brodie.8 It spelled out the message that “the bomb” implied a watershed in international politics. Kennan’s initial reaction against the use of the bomb was, as he puts it, instinctive and moral—much the same as that of the Chicago physicists, led by Leo Szilard, whose work had been crucial to the development of the bomb, but who, unlike Oppenheimer, were urging President Truman, before the weapons were used against Japan, that they should never be used. If the Russians too came into possession of the weapon, so Kennan felt,

then it had to be viewed as a suicidal weapon, devoid of rational application in warfare; in which case we ought to seek its earliest possible elimination from all national arsenals. If we were successful in achieving its elimination, fine. If not, then we might, I thought, have to hold a few of these devices for the unlikely event that others should one day be tempted to use them against us.

The latter consideration of deterrence remains to this day the basic and logical rationale against the concept of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

In 1949 the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. President Truman then decided to proceed to the development of the hydrogen warhead. Like Oppenheimer, Kennan opposed the decision. He spelled out his views in a paper which in January 1950 he addressed to Dean Acheson, by then secretary of state. How, he asked, were these new weapons to be regarded?

Were they to be seen as “an integral and vitally important component of our military strength, which we would expect to employ deliberately, immediately, and unhesitatingly in the event that we became involved in a military conflict with the Soviet Union”? Or were we holding them solely as a deterrent? In this last case, we must take care “not to build up a reliance upon them in our military planning.” Our public position should then be that “we deplore the existence and abhor the use of these weapons; that we have no intention of initiating their use against anyone; that we would use them only with the greatest of reluctance and only if this were forced upon us by methods of warfare used against us or our allies….” We would, in other words, eschew the first use of such weapons ourselves; and we would try to inculcate into others the assumption that they would never again be used.

I left no doubt in Mr. Acheson’s mind as to which of these alternatives I favored. If we were to adopt the first alternative—if, that is, we were to base our military strategy upon the use of nuclear weapons—then, I wrote, it would be hard “to keep them in their proper place as an instrument of national policy.” Their peculiar psychological overtones would render them “top-heavy” for the purpose in question. They would impart “a certain eccentricity” to our military planning. They would eventually confuse our people, and would carry us “towards the misuse and dissipation of our national strength.” Before launching ourselves on this path we should, in any case, make another effort to see whether some sort of international control could not be devised and agreed upon by the international community.

Kennan’s doubts were brushed aside. Since then, all that he and others feared has come to pass. East and West now face each other with tens of thousands more intercontinental nuclear warheads than would be needed to assure a state of mutual deterrence. Warheads have been elaborated for use as battlefield and so-called “theater” weapons. On paper at least, their deployment has become part of tactical doctrine, regardless of the fact that no responsible army commander has the slightest idea of how, given political authority, their use could ever be controlled. Only deskwarriors who have never seen action, only computer specialists who can trade the deaths of millions in war games between the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers, can devise the world of fantasy where nuclear weapons have a role in active warfare, as opposed to being weapons which, because of their limitless and suicidal destructive power, deter states with nuclear weapons from taking military action against each other. Nuclear weapons deter; they cannot defend.

Here, to European eyes, lies the irony of present American policies. In 1947, at a time when Europe was tottering as it tried to overcome the grievous economic, political, and social problems by which it was then confronted, the US generously came to Europe’s aid with the Marshall Plan. In 1948 Soviet hostility to the West reached a peak with the coup in Czechoslovakia and with the blockade of Berlin. A fragile European defense organization was set up under the Brussels Treaty, to be underpinned a year later by the formation of NATO, with the US as its main military partner.

Then, alas, the distortion of military planning began, the “certain eccentricity” which George Kennan foresaw the bomb would bring in its train. The European members of NATO were still far too exhausted even to try to implement the 1952 Lisbon Conference goals for conventional forces. The Federal Republic of Germany, whose contribution in manpower is today bigger than that of any other member of NATO, was not even a member. And in any event, the idea had already taken root that disparities in numbers of troops could be compensated for by the provision of battlefield nuclear weapons—an idea which Robert Oppenheimer misguidedly supported, and which Kennan opposed on political grounds.

Twenty years ago, long before President Reagan assumed power, this notion was openly challenged in NATO circles on direct military grounds,9 but to no avail. Because it suited Western economic and political circumstances, the European members of NATO have, over the years, preferred to stick their heads into a mass of nuclear verbiage rather than face the truth that the more they do so—and the more they ignore NATO’s weakness in conventional forces—the more defenseless we become in fact, should war ever break out with the Warsaw Pact powers. Of course, we could make the ridiculous assumption that the Russians are so irrational as to risk an uncontainable nuclear exchange, which could only end in the total destruction of Western Europe, of Warsaw Pact territory west of the Urals, as well as of the United States and, presumably, Canada. But what would be the point of that?

Up to the mid-Seventies, not a single one of the military leaders who had been involved in NATO planning had spoken out in public to declare his doubts. Since then several have.10 Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten, chief of the British Defence Staff for six years, said that the belief that nuclear weapons could be used in field warfare without triggering an all-out nuclear exchange, leading to the final holocaust, is more and more incredible. One of his successors, Admiral Hill-Norton, said that he knew no informed observer who believed that war with nuclear weapons is credible. His successor, Field Marshal Lord Carver, observed that “no sensible, responsible military person” believes that a war could be fought in Europe in which nuclear weapons were used without avoiding a strategic nuclear exchange.

In the latter half of the Fifties and in the early Sixties public alarm about nuclear weapons was essentially due to fears about the health hazards of radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests; it died down after such tests were banned by the treaty of 1963. Political and military NATO circles continued to base strategy and tactics on the nuclear weapon. All the phrases used over the years to imply to the public that NATO is always updating its policies in the end add up to the same thing—if the Russians launch an attack which cannot be held back by means of conventional weapons, NATO would resort to nuclear arms. What is more, in such circumstances, NATO forces would initiate the nuclear exchange. What per contra would the Russians then do? Obviously, if NATO forces move against them, and if NATO starts to use nuclear weapons, the USSR would most likely respond in kind, even if the risk were that the ensuing exchange could end in hundreds of millions of deaths. There could be no victors in such an exchange. The end would be mutual suicide.

George Kennan perceived all this from the moment he realized that the Russians, come what may, would devise their own nuclear weapon. By 1949, when they exploded their first bomb, and the debate about the “super,” or hydrogen, bomb started, Kennan was certain. A year later his heterodox views led to his resignation from the State Department and to his first attempts to circulate those views in public, culminating in the six BBC Reith Lectures which he delivered in 1957. 11 In one of these lectures he argued forcibly for the withdrawal of American and Soviet forces from Western Europe and for the unification of the two Germanies as a demilitarized state. In another he pointed to the dangers of introducing tactical nuclear weapons into the armory of NATO’s military forces.

Both ideas, as he tells us, “encountered a violently adverse official reaction, particularly in Germany and the United States.” His idea of a demilitarized Germany serving as a buffer between East and West was unacceptable to the Western allies and, by the time he made the proposal, to the Russians. His objection to battlefield nuclear weapons was anathema to military technologists and amateur tacticians. But in retrospect, how right Kennan was when he concluded that if nuclear weapons were treated as battlefield weapons rather than as instruments of deterrence they would intensify military tension in Europe, and

would be bound to raise a grave problem for the Russians in respect of their own military dispositions and their relations with the other Warsaw Pact countries. It would inevitably bring about a further complication of the German and satellite problems. Moscow is not going to be inclined to trust its satellites with full control over such weapons. If, therefore, the Western continental countries are to be armed with them, any Russian withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe may become unthinkable once and for all, for reasons of sheer military prudence regardless of what the major Western powers might be prepared to do.12

It did not help Kennan that when he made this pronouncement the Russians were propounding the same message. Nor did it help that the consequences of his counsel would be a demand for more resources for conventional arms and forces.

In the introductory section to his new book, Kennan pessimistically observes about the nuclear assumptions and strategies of the kind exposed by Scheer that

they are now so deeply and widely implanted in the public mind that in all probability nothing I could say, and nothing any other private person could say, could eradicate them. Only a senior statesman and political leader, speaking from the prominence and authority of high governmental position (in our country, a president, presumably) could have a chance of re-educating the public successfully on these various points, and this is something for which one sees, at this present juncture, not the slightest prospect.

This is obviously true if the present American administration continues to follow the path it has chosen over the past two years. But I think that Kennan forgets that there are other countries in the world besides the US and the USSR. I feel that there may be more force than he or any of us now realizes to the anti-nuclear movement in Europe—which he discusses in his penultimate chapter.

Sure enough, as his title implies, there is a nuclear delusion—or illusion. But there is also a nuclear reality which is undoubtedly better understood in Europe (including, I would say, the Warsaw Pact countries) than it is in the United States—a land mass that has never been ravaged by modern war. There are West European leaders as well as American presidents. I do not despair of the possibility that at some moment one of them could start the process that will remove from today the threat that there will be no tomorrow.

So long as political differences between East and West remain as they are, there is clearly no logic to the concept of unilateral disarmament on either side for either side. But, equally, there is no logic to the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, a race which continues because of a built-in technological momentum, and a race which inevitably increases the danger that, by inadvertence or through mad decision, the weapons could one day be used. The explosive release of the enormous forces which hold together the invisible particles that constitute an atom provides a way of erasing in a flash centuries of human achievement. It is not a means whereby political differences can be resolved.


Nuclear Sense & Nonsense March 31, 1983

  1. 3

    International Herald Tribune, September 11-12, 1982.

  2. 4

    Present at the Creation (Norton, 1969).

  3. 5

    Nuel Pharr Davis, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster, 1968).

  4. 6

    Sir Michael Perrin, The Listener, October 7, 1982.

  5. 7

    P.M.S. Blackett, Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy (London: Turnstile Press, 1948).

  6. 8

    Harcourt Brace, 1947).

  7. 9

    Solly Zuckerman, “Judgment and Control in Modern Warfare,” Foreign Affairs, 40(2), 1962, pp. 196-212.

  8. 10

    Solly Zuckerman, Nuclear Illusion and Reality (Viking, 1982).

  9. 11

    Russia, the Atom and the West (Harper Brothers, 1958).

  10. 12


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