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The Delusions of Deterrence

Department of Defense Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1984

by Caspar W. Weinberger
US Government Printing Office, 350 pp., $8.00

For 1984, the Department of Defense’s project is the moral regeneration of nuclear weapons. Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s annual report for the 1984 fiscal year is said to have been “painstakingly composed” at the Defense Department and “reviewed” by President Reagan. Its purpose, apparently, is to “combat the impression in some quarters that President Reagan takes too lightly the possibility of nuclear war,” and to “reassure members of the antinuclear movement in the United States and abroad.”1

The nuclear policy of the Reagan administration, the report shows, is unexceptional in several respects. It is subject to “normal” moral constraints. It is concerned with “the effective and responsible use of our nuclear forces,” and with the ability to use nuclear force “responsibly and discriminately.” It seeks to define those nuclear “actions” which the United States could “in good conscience, and in prudence, undertake.” It is, as Vice-President Bush has said of the “zero option” for intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, “steeped in morality.”2

The Reagan policy is “normal,” too, in that it is not particularly new. The administration insists that deterrence remains the “cornerstone” of US nuclear strategy. Its own more refined “concept of seeking to enhance deterrence” is “squarely in the mainstream of American strategic thinking for over two decades,” from Robert McNamara to James Schlesinger to Harold Brown. Even its projects are well worn: “Four Presidents, six Secretaries of Defense and a majority of Members in many sessions of Congress have reached the conclusion that an MX missile should be deployed….”

Weinberger’s demonstration of the Reagan policy’s legitimacy is compelling. The administration strategists, as will be seen later, do in one respect extend the idea that nuclear weapons are useful instruments of national policy. Their discourse about long or responsible or conscientious war is cruder than that of their predecessors. They have more money to spend, in the biggest expansion of US nuclear forces since the Korean War. But the essential principles of the Reagan policy, as Weinberger shows, are those of the doctrinal and technological consensus.

It is this continuity that makes the 1984 report such an exemplary document. Reagan’s defense policies are now the subject of fairly serious criticism in Congress, among America’s allies, and in world opinion. But this criticism is directed to an extraordinary extent against the ornaments of Reaganism: against the crudeness of the Reagan rhetoric or the cost of the Reagan expansion. Should military spending increase by 4 percent, 5 percent, or 7 percent a year? Is it possible to cut $25 billion out of the defense budget by the 1985 fiscal year?

Weinberger’s report demonstrates the futility of such questions. It shows what the Reagan administration believes, in its apparently more sober moments, and how these beliefs are consistent with the thirty-seven-year-old ritual of nuclear deterrence. But it also shows what is wrong with the ceremony itself: with the tattered sacrament of deterrence handed from initiate to initiate with the keys of the code box; with the rite of which Reaganism is the legitimate and perhaps the inevitable inheritor.


We, for our part,” Weinberger writes, “are under no illusions about the dangers of a nuclear war between the major powers; we believe that neither side could win such a war.” But their view of “enhanced” deterrence requires some suspension of this insight.

The administration has “given highest priority to increasing the ability of our strategic force management systems not only to survive but to remain capable of performing their basic functions throughout a sustained sequence of Soviet attacks.” A missile warning system, for example, would “ensure continued operation throughout a nuclear conflict.” But the president’s “airborne command centers” need improvement: “We are concerned, however, about their ability to operate beyond the initial stages of a nuclear conflict.” All this for a war that cannot be won?

The administration’s objective is to deter nuclear war. Yet in its military projects it favors above all the means of fighting such a war. How does it—how are we to—resolve this apparent contradiction?

The answer is to some extent disappointingly trite. As the sky becomes dark with missiles, the Reagan administration’s purpose would be to “restore the peace,” not to win the war. “Should deterrence fail,” Weinberger writes, “we must be able to halt the attack and restore the peace.” The United States armed forces, accordingly, would be engaged not so much in fighting and winning a war, but rather in “employing military force to restore the peace.” Their “objective would be to deny enemy war aims,” to “restore peace on favorable terms” (Secretary Weinberger’s emphasis).

This locution is worthy of the great imperial deceivers of history; of the principles of Roman dominion which Tacitus put into the mouth of the British rebel chieftain Calgacus: “East nor West has glutted them…. They make a desolation and they call it peace.”3 Or, as is written on the walls of the Ministry of Truth in the fictional fiscal year 1984, “War is Peace.” What would constitute “favorable terms” for Weinberger’s peace? What, indeed, would be “enemy war aims”?

But the inconsistency of enhanced deterrence goes beyond semantic chicanery. The contradictions of “warfighting defense” are to be found within deterrence itself. As Weinberger’s history suggests, successive strategists of American deterrence have pursued ever more elaborate preparations for fighting a war that they in some sense recognize to be unwinnable. In this, as in so much else, they resemble their counterparts in the Soviet Union, with their protestations that nuclear war would be an unprecedented catastrophe for humanity, yet a catastrophe from which they are prepared to snatch socialist victory. 4

Deterrence in a more or less pure form consists of the following threat: “Do not attack me because if you do, something unacceptably horrible will happen to you.” Since Hiroshima, this venerable menace has taken on a new vividness: the unacceptably horrible now has a human form, the shadow of a human form scorched on a stone.

But as a doctrine deterrence has always been less pure. The deterrent threat is presumed to require exegesis before it can serve as the organizing principle of political and military security, as a method of choosing, for example, among different weapons.

A puritan of “minimal deterrence” might make light of such interpretation, and conclude that to be attacked with nuclear weapons is unacceptably horrible; that the United States and the Soviet Union will under all conceivable circumstances retain the possibility of attacking each other with such weapons; and that while neither opponent can be certain that the other will attack, each can also not be certain that the other will not attack. (The wager of Pascal is turned on its head, and the prudent superpower behaves as though it believed in the possibility not of immortal life but rather of eternal death.)

But this simple view of the deterrent threat has never satisfied responsible men in the nuclear hierarchies. What constitutes an attack on me? What is unacceptably horrible to you? How certain are you that the horror will in fact come about? The answers to these questions depend on both technical and political-psychological judgments. As such, they are necessarily unstable, since both technology and political psychology change. They are also (necessarily) indeterminate, since the people on whose judgments the explication of deterrence depends are themselves the agents of technological and political change.

The transposition of threat into doctrine is thus fraught with uncertainty. One can see why successive nuclear initiates, yearning for an unattainable “certainty” in deterrence, have found it so difficult to choose among different weapons, and have ended by choosing even the instruments of fighting a nuclear war. As Weinberger writes, “Deterrence is a dynamic effort, not a static one.”

In this quest for the impossible achievement of certain deterrence, successive governments have sought to make deterrence more comprehensive, both technically and psychologically. Their essential metaphor is of a “continuum.” Deterrence must be continuous in multiple directions or dimensions. There must be no “gap” or “window” through which the opponent—the person being threatened—might perceive a lack of will or technical proficiency on the part of the threatener.

The quest for comprehensive deterrence has defined a universe that grows more or less steadily over time. The 1984 report provides an invaluable guide to this universe in its most modern form. Deterrence, in the Reagan version, is a doctrine that must be “continuous” in at least seven ways.

  1. It must obtain “at all points along the spectrum of violence”: the United States seeks “to deter military attack,” but also “to deter, or to counter, use of Soviet military power to coerce or intimidate.”

  2. It must be continuous with respect to political relationships in that it protects not only the US but also its more or less close friends; it should deter attacks against “the United States, its allies, and other friendly countries.”5

  3. It must be continuous in time and in particular during the lifetime of a nuclear war: “if deterrence should fail,” the US objective would be “re-establishing deterrence,” or what James Schlesinger used to call “intra-war deterrence.”

  4. Deterrence must be continuous from region to region, as in the effort to “improve the nuclear deterrent balance in Europe,” or to “deter or oppose Soviet aggression in Southwest Asia.”

5.Deterrence must obtain with respect to weapons systems, from the instruments of preemptive nuclear strike through “the lower end of the nuclear spectrum, firmly linking our strategic forces to our conventional capabilities.” If one side possesses weapons of a certain class, the other should have them too. The deterrent to a first strike, for example, itself may be a first strike, for example, itself may be a first strike, or the potential of such. During the 1970s, Weinberger writes, “the United States made a choice to restrict its improvements to the yield and accuracy of its own missile forces so as not to threaten the Soviet Union with a sudden, disarming first strike.” This restraint, while the Soviet Union continued to improve its missiles, “reduced the effectiveness of our earlier deterrent.” But with the MX or “Peacekeeper” missile and the new D-5 submarine-launched missile to come, the threat of a disarming strike by the US is no longer, apparently, to be avoided; it instead constitutes one component of a symmetrical and credible deterrent.6

  1. Deterrence must be complete as measured in the dollar or ruble cost of military investment. “Divergent trends in military investment” are Weinberger’s first example of the threat to “the deterrent strength of the Atlantic Alliance.” (We need not dwell on the details of such comparisons, which purport to be based on “an estimate of what it would cost the US to duplicate Soviet investment activities” such as weapons procurement and military research. Does Weinberger, who alludes repeatedly to the US “qualitative” advantage in military technology, really wish to suggest that the US would have to more than double its spending on military research to “duplicate” Soviet efforts? The investment comparison he makes, curiously enough, does not even support the “divergence” he alleges: Chart I.B.3 in the report shows the military investment of NATO plus Japan increasing between 5 and 6 percent a year in real terms between 1976 and 1981, while that of the Warsaw Pact increases just over 2 percent a year.)

  2. Deterrence must be continuous, finally, with respect to morality. “To talk of actions that the US government could not, in good conscience, and in prudence, undertake tends to defeat the goal of deterrence.” Weinberger’s explication of the thermonuclear conscience is worth citing at length:

  1. 1

    The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 1983; The Washington Post, February 1, 1983.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, February 3, 1983.

  3. 3

    Tacitus, Agricola, translated by Maurice Hutton in Dialogus, Agricola, Germania (Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 81.

  4. 4

    See, for example, David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (Yale University Press, 1983).

  5. 5

    Weinberger does not specify which countries, beyond America’s several dozen allies, are to qualify as “other friendly countries” within the embrace of the US deterrent.

  6. 6

    See, for example, the excellent analysis of “counterforce deterrence” in chapter 2, written by Allan Krass, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 1981 World Armaments and Disarmament Yearbook (London: Taylor and Francis, 1981).

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