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Dear Mr. Weinberger An Open Reply to an Open Letter

It is not every day, every week, or even every year that a secretary of defense sends a letter to thirty US newspapers and forty foreign publications. It is even rarer that such a letter is used to defend his administration’s policy against alleged inaccuracies and misrepresentations, as if he did not have any other means to put the facts before the public. Yet, on August 23, just such a letter was sent by you on the subject of this administration’s nuclear-war policy. (It is reprinted on the opposite page.)

I realize that you did not send this letter to me personally. But it is an open letter, and, therefore, anyone may answer it publicly. It requires an answer from someone.

One question immediately arises: What provoked your letter?

It was provoked by “leaks” from your top-secret documents. One of them is “National Security Decision Document 13,” adopted by the National Security Council in the fall of 1981. This document was reported by Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times of August 15 of this year to have specifically stated for the first time that it was US policy to prevail in a protracted nuclear war. In the spring of 1982 this policy was then incorporated in a 125-page document entitled “Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance,” parts of which were leaked to The New York Times and disclosed by Richard Halloran, its defense correspondent, on May 30. This “Defense Guidance” is a five-year plan, beginning October 1, 1984, to provide general strategic direction to all the armed services. It was approved by you and represents the official view of the entire US military establishment. Most of the leaks came from it. This document is said to have been elaborated in even greater detail in a “strategic master plan” developed by the Pentagon and sent to the National Security Council for approval in early August. Scheer reported that, according to one member of the Reagan administration, it contemplates a nuclear war lasting as long as six months.

Just how such secret documents get leaked is an even greater secret. You fret and fume about it but seem incapable of locating the culprit or stopping the practice. The leaks must undoubtedly come from sources high enough to know what is in the documents, because the leaks come with exact quotations of just what you did not wish to be leaked. No one has denied the accuracy of these quotations.

That there is a division of opinion in the top leadership at the Pentagon seems clear. When he left as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last June, General David C. Jones of the Air Force repudiated the idea of a “protracted nuclear war.” Money spent to prepare for such a war, he said, would be thrown into a “bottomless pit.” If such a high-ranking officer thought it necessary to express himself so openly and so forcefully on this issue, there must be others who are also appalled by the adoption of a plan to prepare for and prevail in a “protracted nuclear war.” In fact, the possibility cannot be excluded that the leaks have come with more or less official toleration in order to test public opinion before the president gives final approval to the new “master plan.” This technique is not unknown in the American political system.

In any case, in your letter we now have the grave charge that “news accounts” have contained “completely inaccurate” stories about the administration’s nuclear-war policy. We have a blanket denial from you that the administration is “planning to wage protracted nuclear war, or seeking to acquire a nuclear ‘war-fighting’ capability.” But your letter never denies or even mentions what was actually in those news accounts or the documents reported by them. I can only conclude that your letter is intended to distract attention from those documents; it is a blocking operation meant to make itself the statement of policy instead of the authentic statements that are actually dictating policy to the armed services behind the scenes. This attempted sleight of hand would not be so disturbing if it presented a credible, perhaps simplified, version of what is in those documents. But that is exactly what it does not do. The juggling act is performed so clumsily that your letter itself gives away what it is intended to hide.

The account of the “Defense Guidance” by Halloran on May 30 was a front-page story, accompanied by your picture, filling almost three full columns of print, most of it direct quotations from the document. Halloran had obviously been briefed by someone on the way the plan had been drawn up as well as on its contents. What attracted most attention were the references to prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. One passage called on US forces to maintain themselves through “a protracted conflict period.” Another held that US nuclear forces “must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

In an interview with you on August 9, Halloran reported that you had “assailed those critics of the Administration’s policy who have protested against provisions that call for the United States to ‘prevail’ in nuclear war by ending the conflict on terms favorable to the United States and with some nuclear weapons intact.” Nothing that you said on this occasion seemed to deny that this was actually the policy advocated in your “Defense Guidance”; you merely insisted that it was right to have such a policy. Halloran again quoted verbatim from the original document, including two passages which he had not used in his previous account—which may have annoyed you even more.

The directive also said that, in the event of an attack, “United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of a prolonged war.” And it instructed the US armed forces to maintain “under all circumstances, nuclear offensive capabilities so that the United States would never emerge from a nuclear war without nuclear weapons while still threatened by enemy nuclear forces.”

Then, on August 24, Halloran again reported a protest by you in you office against “continued criticism of his strategy for protracted nuclear war”—of which one example was my own article “How Not to Think About Nuclear War” in The New York Review of Books of July 15. You were disturbed because you had been forced to spend “a very large fraction” of your time defending your policy in speeches, press and television interviews, background briefings, private conversations, and letters to the editor. Halloran’s handling of the interview must again have displeased you. He let you have your say and then deliberately went on to quote once more from the “Defense Guidance” in such a way that you disclaimers were belied by the document. In any case, this meeting, which took place prior to August 22, came before you sent your letter of August 23 to US and foreign publications complaining about inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the news accounts. Your letter did not specify which inaccuracies and misrepresentations in which news accounts, so it is difficult to know who was guilty of what.

What we now have, in substance, are Halloran’s quotations from the “Defense Guidance” in The New York Times of May 30 and August 24 on the one hand and your letter of August 23 together with the comments made by you some days earlier on the other hand. The New York Times and The Washington Post did not see fit to publish the text of your letter, so that readers who depend on them had no way of comparing what was in your public letter and what was in your classified “Defense Guidance.” Comparing them is just what I propose to do.

Your letter of August 23 to the thirty US and forty foreign publications deserves the closest scrutiny, because it is the most carefully worked out public statement of what the new nuclear-war strategy is.

One thing it does not do. It never mentions the official directives, such as the five-year “Defense Guidance.” which it is supposed to clarify. If there were no such documents and no leaks from them, your letter would not have been necessary. Yet we are being told what the policy allegedly is without a word from the actual policy statements themselves.

In your letter, there is only one direct mention of a protracted nuclear war:

But it [American strategic improvement] does not mean that we endorse the concept of protracted nuclear war, or nuclear “war-fighting.” It is the Soviet Union that appears to be building forces for a “protracted” conflict.

The implication is unmistakably clear—only the Soviet Union “endorses the concept” of a protracted nuclear war; the United States does not. If that were the real point of the letter, we would expect you to go on and tell us what is wrong with the concept and why the United States does not endorse it. What we get is something quite different. It is:

We must take the steps necessary to match the Soviet Union’s greatly improved nuclear capability.

But it makes no sense to take these “steps” if we do not also adopt the alleged Soviet “concept” for which these steps were designed. You insist that the Soviet capability and concept are coordinated; if we match their capability, it can only be, according to your own logic, to carry out the same concept.

Is it true that your “Defense Guidance” document did not “endorse the concept” of a protracted nuclear war? The very phrase “endorse the concept” is equivocal enough to be misleading. It may be used to deny that the United States deliberately wishes to engage in a protracted nuclear war. Or it may be used to mean that the United States is prepared to engage in a protracted nuclear war, if necessary. The latter meaning was clearly the one intended in the “Defense Guidance” document, which instructed US forces to be able to maintain “through a protracted conflict period and afterward, the capability to inflict very high levels of damage” on Soviet industry. The same document also maintained that US nuclear forces “must prevail and must be able to force the Soviet Union to seek the earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the US.” This could only refer to a nuclear war that was already taking place and was protracted enough for the US forces to prevail.

No one in his right mind would expect you to say that you want such a war. You would be crazy to want one. But that is not the issue. The question is whether it is only the Soviet Union that, as your letter claims, “appears to be building forces for a ‘protracted’ conflict.” In effect, you deny what you are not charged with in order to cover up what you are actually trying to do.

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