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Dear Mr. Weinberger An Open Reply to an Open Letter

You express your sympathy with readers who may not be able to grasp the full import and subtlety of your words. “I know,” you write, “that this doctrine of deterrence is a difficult paradox to understand.” You are wrong. Your version is not difficult to understand, and it is not a paradox. It is a hoax.

Do you really expect any sensible person to believe that all the United States expects to do is to have our strategic forces “survive” Soviet nuclear attacks? No retaliation in kind? No nuclear exchanges? The mere mention of replying to nuclear attacks with nuclear counter-attacks, of fighting the same way the Soviets are presumed to plan to fight, would have given the game away. It would have been glaringly clear that the plan attributed to the Soviets is a mirror image of the plan in your own “Defense Guidance.”

Let us recall what it is that you approved in that document:

—US forces must be able to maintain “through a protracted conflict period and afterward, the capability to inflict very high levels of damage” on Soviet industry.

—Should a Soviet attack “nevertheless occur, United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of a prolonged war.”

—If deterrence should fail, the United States must “deny the Soviet Union or any other adversary a military victory at any level of conflict and force earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

Could anyone reading your letter and your interviews know that this is what you expect the US nuclear forces to achieve in the event of a Soviet attack? Is this what any sensible person would be led to believe by your assurance that our strategic forces need only demonstrate the ability to survive?

Your hoax attributes the key principles in your own “Defense Guidance” document to the Soviet Union. The only time a protracted nuclear war is mentioned in your letter is when you accuse the Soviet Union of believing in and preparing for it. A winnable nuclear war is mentioned only to pin the idea on the Soviet Union. Nuclear attacks over an extended period are mentioned only in connection with Soviet attacks, which our strategic forces would merely try to survive and, by surviving, deter. It may well be that you are right about the Soviet Union. The truth, then, would be that both sides are playing the same game, adopting the same nuclear strategy and blaming the other side for it.

In fact, your letter to those seventy publications attempts to get across the idea that we must do certain things because the Soviets are doing them. There would otherwise be no point in filling the letter with far more about what the Soviets are doing than about what we are doing. The Soviet Union may be guilty of a “frenzied military buildup,” but your purpose in exposing what they are doing is to get us to do exactly the same thing.

Logically, you should have been defending a US war-fighting and war-winning nuclear policy, because that is what you are secretly advocating; and some of your colleagues are advocating it not so secretly. If you had been candid, you might well have asked: What is wrong with such a policy?

It is wrong because it goes far beyond what is necessary for deterrence. In the case of deterrence, as you yourself professed to believe in your guise as a true believer in deterrence, there is a level of arms which is enough for the purpose; if a nuclear power goes beyond that level, we are justified in suspecting that something else is going on. For a nuclear war-fighting policy there is never enough, because it is impossible to determine what a protracted war requires. The very nature of a protracted war makes inevitable an open-ended nuclear arms race; there can never be an end to the development and deployment of new weapons in the effort to gain some fleeting and illusory advantage in the hope of prevailing.

When you were asked about the control of nuclear weapons in a protracted war, you replied: “I just don’t have any idea. I don’t know that anybody has any idea.” You were, for a change, being candid; you might also have admitted that no one has any idea of what a protracted nuclear war would be like, for which reason it permits no limits or restraints in its preparation.

We are now in the midst of a real arms race and an unreal arms negotiation. That is not what the world in general and the American people in particular have been given to understand. The result can only be a huge loss of confidence in the integrity and honor of the American government. The disparity between what you are doing and what you say you are doing cannot be concealed forever.

Unless the kind of protracted nuclear war that you envision actually comes to pass, you are going to engage in the most wasteful expenditure of public funds in American history, perhaps in all history. All those arms that go beyond the necessity for deterrence must be redundant. They cannot serve for deterrence; they admittedly go beyond it.

What, then, is left of your perfectly valid definition of deterrence as making “the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit”? Do you suppose that any benefit could be obtained from a nuclear war between powers so heavily overarmed for it as the United States and the Soviet Union?

You yourself have given the answer: “If the Soviets knew 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.”

Thus, what is necessary is the power to bring on swift nuclear retaliation, a power that we abundantly have in our nuclear submarines alone. If “swift nuclear retaliation” is enough, you have it, or if you need to safeguard it in one way or another, you can manage it within the limits of deterrence.

But what the masterminds behind your letter really look for is a final struggle for power by means of a protracted nuclear war in which the United States would ultimately prevail or terminate the hostilities “on terms favorable to the United States.” That is what is behind the new policy. It is masked by attributing the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war to the Soviet Union. But those who want to beat the Soviet Union at their own game have exactly the same end in view. For this reason they believe that there is such a thing as “nuclear superiority” and that we could successfully wage a nuclear war if only we could obtain that superiority.

This program is so explosive, if it were generally recognized what this administration is up to, that one of these masterminds, Thomas C. Reed, a special assistant to the president, was sent out to fudge and muddle the issue in a speech that Richard Halloran reported in The New York Times of September 23. “Prevail” is now being represented by Reagan administration officials to mean nothing more than an expansion of previous policy by a combination of military, diplomatic, economic, and propaganda measures, as if previous policy had been very different in any essential respect. The new weasel word, “expansion,” has been pressed into service to hide what is actually being expanded. The real expansion is in the policy of prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. Like your own letter, this public relations hocus-pocus is designed to steer everyone’s mind away from the context in which the term “prevail” was actually used in the “Defense Guidance.” There it specifically referred to prevailing in a nuclear war. From the jumble of words by Mr. Reed and unnamed “Reagan officials,” one would never guess that the issue is whether the United States should aim to “prevail” in nuclear “hostilities.”

If all it takes to prevent a nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union is “to make the cost much higher than any possible benefit,” you must consider the Soviet rulers to be block-heads or madmen to contemplate a nuclear contest which is far more likely to end in mutual devastation. The Soviets, on the contrary, have always tended to go after prizes where the benefits are greatest and the risks the least. Every nation goes to war expecting the benefits to exceed the cost; it may err and pay dearly for the error, but at the outset there is a calculation that benefits would be considerable and costs tolerable. Such calculation is hopeless in nuclear war. If you and your advisers have not understood—as Henry Kissinger, having changed his mind for the second time, recently put it in the Summer 1982 issue of The Washington Quarterly—“that nuclear weapons have added a new dimension to warfare and indeed human existence, that they make obsolete traditional concepts of military victory, that they stake civilized life and perhaps humanity itself”—you have understood nothing of fundamental value for your guidance of American defense.

The search for nuclear superiority, the preparation for a protracted nuclear war, and the goal of prevailing in such a war, all fit together in behalf of a master plan that goes far beyond deterrence; it is the vision of an apocalyptic nuclear war to decide once and for all the issue of world power. Only such an outcome could possibly justify the millions of casualties and the frightful physical destruction that would ensue from such a war. It is an aim that makes no sense in any conceivable cost-benefit calculus, and yet it is the hidden agenda of those on both sides who are plotting to win a nuclear war.

In the end, your policy threatens to harm US foreign relations more than anything else. The nearest thing to a commitment to peace that a nuclear power can make in the present circumstances is a program for deterrence, plain and simple. Such a commitment would signify that the United States regards nuclear weaponry as unlike any other in military history. It is not an instrument for fighting or winning. It is an instrument of such universal devastation that its only use is to prevent any use of it; this is the true paradox of nuclear weapons. Your policy can only envenom already strained relationships, not merely with the Soviet Union but with our closest friends and allies, now tugging at the leash. The political costs of a war-fighting, war-winning program vastly exceed any conceivable military benefits.

For all these reasons it is now necessary to let the American people know what is in your secret documents, especially in the “Defense Guidance,” which has already been leaked in part. Your letter will not do. It is so maladroit that it can only raise suspicions that something is going on behind the scenes that cannot be divulged publicly and must be covered up by confusing and contradictory verbiage. Those leaks to which you object are the very stuff of democratic policy making. The present system of secrecy is designed to put across a new nuclear-war policy as a fait accompli. The policy originates in the Pentagon as Secret, goes to the National Security Council as Secret, and is expected to be approved by the president as Secret.

Why all the secrecy? The passages in your “Defense Guidance” about prevailing in a protracted nuclear war are purely political in nature, not technical. It is one thing to classify as Secret a document on how to make a cruise missile; it is another thing to put the same classification on a document that sets forth a broad policy that should be open to the most searching public discussion. You are not, of course, the first to hide behind this system of secrecy, but you have gone further than ever before in the most dangerous of all spheres of national policy. The challenge before you is whether your new policy can stand the light of day. Can you afford to let the people know?

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