The Inferiority Complex

(The following is Professor Bethe’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13.)

I have been a Professor of Physics at Cornell University since 1935. In 1967 I was awarded the Nobel Prize for studies of nuclear reactions in the stars. I was leader of the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1943 to 1945 when that laboratory developed the first atomic bomb. I have consulted for the Los Alamos Laboratory at least once a year. I was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1957 to 1960, and remained a member of its Strategic Military Panel until 1969 when the panel was dissolved. In 1958 I participated in the Experts Conference in Geneva which discussed the verification of a ban on nuclear weapons tests, and led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. I am testifying on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but the ideas expressed in my testimony are my own.

Several members of the government have stated repeatedly that we are inferior to the Soviet Union in strategic weapons, and that we need to build up our weapons. In my opinion there is no such inferiority. We have more nuclear warheads than the Russians, and I consider this to be the most important measure of relative strength. In addition, as Dr. Kissinger stressed many years ago, at the present level of strategic armaments superiority in numbers or megatons has no meaning.

We are told that there is a window of vulnerability because the Russians might use their large ICBMs to destroy our land-based ICBMs. It is generally agreed that this is not possible now, but with the improving accuracy of Russian missiles it might become possible in a few years. Leaving the question of the technical feasibility aside, I claim that such a first strike would give no significant military advantage to the Russians.

The reason is that ICBMs make up only one-fourth of our strategic nuclear forces, as measured by the number of warheads. One-half of our force is on invulnerable nuclear-powered submarines, and another one-fourth is on bombers, many of which can take off from their widely dispersed airfields in case of an alert. We would therefore have ample striking force left even if all our ICBMs were destroyed.

An attack on our ICBMs would surely arouse the will to fight in the American people. The fallout from such an attack would kill millions of Americans. This would have an even more profound psychological effect than Pearl Harbor, but would have fewer military consequences than Pearl Harbor did.

It is sometimes argued that our submarine-based nuclear missiles do not have sufficient accuracy. However, if a Russian attack on our ICBMs is to make any sense at all, it would be accompanied by a massive invasion of Western Europe. The military installations for such an attack (airfields, munitions, and fuel storage depots); and the staging areas for an invasion, are all …

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