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How Not to Think About Nuclear War

The Fate of the Earth

by Jonathan Schell
Knopf, 244 pp., $11.95


Suddenly, “no-first-use” and “the freeze” have become the talismanic slogans of the antinuclear war movement. They have been around for years, but they have recently gained renewed urgency both by having been taken up by outstanding proponents and by increasing popular support. They are not similar, and the freeze may be left for later in another connection.

No-first-use owes its present prominence more than anything else to the plea made in its behalf by four distinguished advocates, McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, in the Spring 1982 issue of Foreign Affairs. As they put it in their admirably measured and tentative approach to the problem, they have aimed “to start a discussion, not to end it.” If I am skeptical about their proposal, it is not for lack of respect for the reasonableness of their effort and the authority they bring to it.

The first thing that strikes one about no-first-use is that it belongs to the declaratory school of diplomacy. The authors refer to it variously as a “policy,” a “pledge,” and a “declaration.” In fact, it amounts to little more than the latter. Nothing would or could enforce it. At best, both the United States and the Soviet Union would jointly declare that they intend to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. They need do nothing more.

The second striking thing about the proposal is that it has one unnecessary or superfluous word. It is really equivalent, if taken seriously, to no-use of nuclear weapons. If no nuclear weapons are ever used first, they will never be used at all. Why, then, should the slogan or declaration be no-first-use? The answer, I suspect, is that no-use would immediately expose the nature of the proposal as a disembodied exhortation rather than as a practical policy. The use of “first” somehow appears to give a specious operational character to the declaration. No-use would make it too clear that we are dealing with a statement of the problem, not a step toward its solution.

If a declaration of peaceful intentions were enough to prevent any kind of war, the deed would have been done a long time ago. The history of war and peace is littered with such professions of virtue. In 1928, for example, sixty-two nations signed a pact outlawing war. Its enforcement was supposed to rest on the moral strength of world opinion. It was signed, celebrated, and forgotten. With evident understatement, the four authors themselves say that “such declarations may have only limited reliability.” The awful truth is that they have no reliability at all.

There has been no first use of nuclear weapons for almost four decades because it has not been in the interest of any nuclear power to use them; and that condition will—or will not—continue to prevail whether or not declarations of self-denial are made. The reliability of that continuing self-interest, not the reliability of any declaration, is what matters. It is, moreover, hard to take seriously the contention that “to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons is to accept an enormous burden of responsibility for any later violation.” Any nuclear power that used such weapons would be moved by such an imperious need or irrational aim that the burden of the responsibility for violating a previous declaration would be trivial, not enormous.

In fact, the main argument for the declaration rests not on its credibility but on its allegedly positive advantages for the United States and the Atlantic Alliance. The first advantage is said to turn on the difference between a first-and second-strike nuclear strategy. The reasoning leaves much to be desired.

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States would still—the authors agree—have to maintain nuclear forces strong enough to launch a second or retaliatory counterattack. The main reason they give for depending on a second strike is that it would require a smaller and cheaper nuclear force. That is a most dubious assumption. It would require the United States to possess sufficiently large nuclear forces to absorb a potentially all-out Soviet first strike and still have enough left over to mount a second strike so punishing that it would deter the Soviet Union from contemplating a first strike.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly—the strategic function of a potential second strike is to deter a first strike, not merely to engage in a mutually suicidal nuclear exchange. When he was still secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara convincingly held that the function of the second strike was fundamentally to deter an enemy’s first strike, and that to do so it would be necessary to be able to “utterly destroy them, and I mean completely destroy them.” Such a second-strike capacity, after taking all possible punishment from a first strike, would hardly be the “more modest program” that is now offered. In fact, the rationale of the first and second strikes makes little difference between whether a nuclear power uses a first strike and absorbs a second or vice versa.

The second alleged advantage is even more questionable. It is claimed that no-first-use “will also reduce the risk of conventional aggression in Europe.” This claim has already been repudiated by various European spokesmen who believe that a commitment to no-first-use would produce just the opposite effect. If no-first-use really means no-use, the field is left open to conventional warfare in which, for the Europeans, a nearby Soviet bloc is vastly more formidable as an enemy than a faraway United States as an ally. But the reasoning behind the claim of a reduced conventional risk is worth considering.

It is important to note that no-first-use is only half of the new equation proposed by the four authors. The other half “would require” a greater conventional defense force in Europe, including a strengthening of the American conventional forces there. No-first-use, then, does not stand by itself; it depends on what happens to the conventional forces of the alliance. This need to compensate for no-first-use suggests that it is not as useless militarily as the authors otherwise imply. The threat of first-use must serve some practical military function if its withdrawal requires an increase in conventional forces.

Actually, the demand for increased conventional forces has been made for years without the spur of no-first-use. The best minds wrestling with this intractable problem have advocated more and better conventional defense irrespective of where they stood on first-use or no-first-use. What has the trouble been? The four authors assure us that the obstacle has not come from budgetary restraints; it is the fault of “political will.” Unfortunately, they do not look deeper into the flaw in Europe’s “political will.”

After two world wars fought in Europe, a large-scale conventional war is a European nightmare second only in horror to a nuclear war. Americans find it much easier than Europeans to contemplate a conventional war in Europe as the alternative to a nuclear war. The European psyche cannot stand the specter of either one. Such security as Europe has enjoyed has been based on a mixture of conventional and nuclear forces for the purpose of preventing both types of war, not merely nuclear war. The present agitation aimed only at nuclear war has obscured this fundamental purpose.

The proponents of no-first-use approve of the original nuclear guarantee, based on first-use, because only a conventional Soviet threat existed at the time. They want the guarantee changed now, though no-first-use would ensure that any Soviet threat would still be conventional. Above all, they seem to be telling Europeans that, if there has to be a war in Europe, let it be a conventional war or anything but a nuclear war. But the original aim of the alliance is not as obsolete as they make it appear to be. It was designed to deter a conventional war in Europe—and that is still the major threat to the alliance and the primary mission of the nuclear deterrent.

Curiously, the question is never raised what is to be done in the event that Western Europe continues to resist providing for an adequate conventional defense. The two policies, no-first-use and an adequate conventional defense, are so closely linked in the authors’ view that they are logically committed to retaining no-first-use if the conventional defense remains inadequate. The decision in the end must be made by the Europeans themselves; they were the ones who originally urged first-use, and the alliance could hold together only if they took the initiative to give it up. Americans are not the best ones to tell Europeans what is good for them. Their decision will be made not on the basis of preferring a conventional war to a nuclear war but rather on the answer to a different kind of question: Is a purely conventional defense or a conventional defense plus the nuclear deterrent more likely to prevent a conventional and a nuclear war in Europe?

If Europeans have to choose between a conventional war and a nuclear war, they would be mad to choose the latter. A conventional defense is really the only kind of defense rationally open to them in the event of an actual war; a nuclear defense can be justified only as a way to prevent all war, conventional and nuclear. Nevertheless, the antinuclear-war movements in Europe are not agitating for a greater conventional defense, and the degree to which they favor such a defense is not clear; the decision is not yet in on whether Europe wishes to be defended one way or the other or both—or neither.

What is really at stake comes out most starkly in the authors’ view of the German problem. They stipulate that some sort of nuclear guarantee is still necessary for West Germany. But they seek to redefine it to mean an American readiness to reply with nuclear weapons to any nuclear attack on the Federal Republic. In effect, the Germans could no longer count on the threat of a nuclear reply to deter a conventional attack. They would first have to suffer a nuclear attack to bring on a nuclear reply, after all the damage had been done.

Thus the reliability of a declaration of no-first-use is so limited that the four authors must still address themselves to the possible first-use by the Soviets against Germany. Is it conceivable that a second strike by the Americans in these circumstances would be—as the authors themselves demand of their program—responsive to the basic desires of the German people? This scenario is more like an old-fashioned artillery exchange than a foreshadowing of nuclear warfare.

At best, no-first-use offers many fewer and far less obvious benefits than have been claimed for it. At worst, it raises more acute problems than it seeks to solve. It surely merits the discussion which its advocates have sought to arouse, and for that alone we may be grateful to them.

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