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Dear Mr. Weinberger An Open Reply to an Open Letter

The same stratagem of obfuscation is used to distort the plain meaning of “prevail” in your “Defense Guidance” document. The dictionary makes it clear that in this context prevail means “to gain ascendancy through strength or superiority.” Ascendancy through superior strength is just what nations have always meant by winning a war. In fact, the idea of a “protracted” war and that of “prevailing” in it are intimately related; it is necessary for a war to be more or less protracted in order to prevail in it. These terms were not used in a fit of absentmindedness in the “Defense Guidance”; one implied the other.

Nevertheless, you obviously know that most people are appalled by the prospect of prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. We thus get from you another denial of the line taken in your own document. In your letter, you plead innocence in this way:

It is the first and foremost goal of this Administration to take every step to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, for we do not believe there could be any “winners” in a nuclear war.

The first part of this sentence is a protestation of virtue that is not to the point. The critical question is whether you believe that a nuclear war can be won. If we take you at your word, you do not intend to win—but neither do you intend to lose.

You took this slippery line in two interviews. On August 9, Halloran reported:

Asserting that there was no alternative, Mr. Weinberger declared, “You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.”

Mr. Weinberger reiterated his view that nuclear war was not winnable. But he added that “we certainly are planning not to be defeated.”

On August 24, Halloran again reported:

We’ve said many times that we don’t think nuclear war is winnable,” Mr. Weinberger said in the interview. Asked how that differed from prevailing, Mr. Weinberger replied: “We certainly are planning not to be defeated.”

Humpty Dumpty also used words in this peculiar way. If a secretary of defense ought to be impeached if he is planning not to prevail in a nuclear war, then he is planning to prevail. He is planning, in other words, to come out ahead, on top, to gain ascendancy, or some other circumlocution for winning the war.

On the other hand, you cannot bring yourself to say that a nuclear war is “winnable.” But when asked how prevailing differs from winning, you were again forced to take refuge in subterfuge. To believe you, nuclear wars are strangely one-sided—they can end in defeat but not in victory, as if defeat could have any meaning if victory does not. Yet in your “Defense Guidance,” you are far more positive and definite, for it gives a fairly clear definition of what it means to prevail—“to seek the earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

The plain truth is that you really “endorse the concept of protracted nuclear war, or nuclear war-fighting” and “appear to be building forces” for just such a war. As a result, you also have trouble with the concept of nuclear deterrence. As in the other cases we have just examined, you again want to have it both ways.

In your letter, you define deterrence quite simply:

…to make the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit. If the Soviets know in advance that a nuclear attack on the United States would bring swift nuclear retaliation, they would never attack in the first place. They would be “deterred” from ever beginning a nuclear war.

Whatever the level of arming is that is enough to make the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit, it is enough for deterrence. The technical details may be disputed; the principle is indisputably clear. There is a stopping point in the accumulation and development of nuclear arms necessary for deterrénce. Beyond that point, a nation is no longer arming for deterrence; it is arming to fight a nuclear war with the expectation of prevailing in it.

You are luminously clear on this principle of nuclear policy so long as it applies to the Soviet Union. But why does it not apply to the United States? The principle of deterrence does not stop at the Soviet border.

That both the United States and the Soviet Union have a nuclear capacity sufficient for deterrence there can hardly be a doubt. In a recent article, I cited the testimony of two of our most knowledgeable and independent authorities, Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., and Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, writing in the Winter 1981-1982 issue of Foreign Affairs: “A devastating attack on the urban societies of the United States and the Soviet Union would in fact require only a very small fraction of the more than 50,000 nuclear weapons currently in the arsenals of the two superpowers.” There is no shortage of similar evidence that the quotas for nuclear deterrence have long been overfulfilled.

We must take on trust your assurance that the Soviets now have land-based missiles which are “more accurate, more survivable and more powerful than our own.” It presumes an exact knowledge of the most secret of weapons of a country where secrecy is a mania. Whatever justification there may be for your claim that you know just how accurate the Soviet ICBMs are, there can be no justification for the way you deal with these weapons in your letter. You try to make our flesh creep with an array of figures about the presumed Soviet advantage. You make it appear that the Soviets need only have these weapons in sufficient numbers to think of beginning and winning a nuclear war. They are not so dumb, and the American nuclear planners of the 1950s and 1960s were not so dumb either.

The past US decision to concentrate on smaller but more accurate land-based missiles was accompanied by another decision not to trust American nuclear defense to a single type of weapon. Thus came about the present arrangement whereby only about one fourth of the US nuclear force is constituted of land-based missiles. About one half is seaborne and another quarter airborne. The Soviet triad is just about the reverse in its distribution. In addition, the United States has jumped ahead in the development of cruise missiles, which have become the Soviets’ current nuclear bête noire.

The reader will look in vain for any mention of the balance of seaborne and airborne nuclear weapons in your letter or interviews. If your purpose was to clarify instead of to terrify, you would have found room for a few words on the overall balance of nuclear forces. One-sided figures of Soviet nuclear warheads on ICBMs tell only part of the story. They may have increased from about 2,000 to over 5,000 during the past five years. But other increases give a better idea of the overall balance. From 1970 to 1980, according to Hans A. Bethe and Franklin A. Long in The New York Times of September 22, the warheads in the Soviet strategic forces increased from about 1,800 to 6,000 while those in the US strategic forces rose from about 4,000 to 10,000. Instead, you chose to concentrate on the menace of the Soviets’ land-based, long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, as if all that stood between us and the Soviet willingness to fight and win a nuclear war was the improvement of our nuclear capability in these same weapons.

Your failure to put the problem of the ICBMs in the perspective of the total balance of nuclear forces did not result from another fit of absentmindedness. The one-sidedness of your presentation was required to create a mood of popular panic with which to put over your new program.

Something about real deterrence can be learned from the statement on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in a recent issue of Time magazine (September 27) by the six key men around President Kennedy. There has been a myth that the crisis was resolved in favor of the United States because of our nuclear superiority at the time. The six high officials state: “American nuclear superiority was not in our view a critical factor, for the fundamental and controlling reason that nuclear war, already in 1962, would have been an unexampled catastrophe for both sides; the balance of terror so eloquently described by Winston Churchill seven years earlier was in full operation.” In 1962, the Soviets had fewer than 2,000 or even 1,000 missiles, and the United States had many more, but all the Soviets needed to cancel out American nuclear superiority was enough to bring about “an unexampled catastrophe for both sides.”

When it comes to exposing the Soviet Union’s dereliction from orthodox deterrence, however, you are worth heeding. You do not seem to realize it, but you tell as much about your own program as about the Soviets’.

One of the most important lessons your letter teaches us is that arming for deterrence is not the same as arming for fighting or prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. This lesson comes out clearly in one of your references to Soviet policy:

The Soviet Union has engaged in a frenzied military buildup, in spite of their economic difficulties. They have continued to build greater numbers of nuclear weapons far beyond those necessary for deterrence.

I take this to be official confirmation of a key point that I tried to make in a recent article. There is a crucial difference between arming for deterrence and arming far beyond the needs of deterrence. This difference obtains whether it is the Soviet Union or the United States that is doing the arming far beyond the needs of deterrence.

You also said in an interview that planning deterrence “is not planning to fight a protracted nuclear war.” That is another and even clearer way of distinguishing between a “nuclear capability” for deterrence and a “nuclear capability” for a protracted war. It would be even clearer if we turned your words around and said that planning to fight a protracted nuclear war is not planning deterrence.

What, then, are you planning for? There is only one sentence in your letter that tries to answer this question. It reads:

That is exactly why we must have a capability for a survivable and enduring response—to demonstrate that our strategic forces could survive Soviet strikes over an extended period. Thus we believe we could deter any attack.

Over an extended period” brings us back to the protracted nuclear war. But what are we expected to do in this extended period? You are telling us that the only thing the United States contemplates doing is to “survive” nuclear attacks. You would like us to believe that the only thing needed to deter such attacks is for the United States to be capable of surviving them.

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