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The Delusions of Deterrence

Weinberger accuses “Soviet propaganda” of suggesting that “the US intends to fight a ‘limited nuclear war’ in Europe,” and he adds that “nothing could be further from the truth.” Dzerzhinsky Square, it should be admitted, has some assistance in this matter from Weinberger’s own organization, as when the Joint Chiefs write in their accompanying report that NATO nonstrategic nuclear forces such as cruise, Pershing II, and short-range weapons would, “if deterrence fails,” make it possible “to escalate the intensity of the conflict in a controlled manner.”25

But it is in the nature of enhanced deterrence that each side should suspect the other of ever more arcane and degenerate plots. Might the Soviet Union believe, as Weinberger fears, that it could “conduct a nuclear war in Europe from a sanctuary in the USSR”? Or that it could achieve the (extremely mystifying) “ability to limit a nuclear war to the sea”? Such suspicions have become the normal life of the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. They should frighten us all, the allies of the superpowers and the neutral countries as well, for what they reveal about the deterioration of a political relationship on which all our lives depend. We should be frightened, too, by the new instruments of nuclear war. But it is hard to see why we should therefore be more coerced; why nuclear weapons should be newly “useful” to either side.

European Wars: The Battlefield. The Reagan administration’s admiration for nuclear weapons extends to the very smallest geegaws. Weinberger writes that “we have also placed high priority on upgrading our stockpiles of nuclear artillery, short-range missiles, bombs, and sea-based weapons.” He goes on to describe a shopping spree through the nuclear arcades which will last well into the next century. NATO has thousands of nuclear warheads ready for battlefield use, or on aircraft which can be armed with nuclear or “conventional” (or in some cases chemical) bombs. These instruments are now primed for what the Defense Department calls “product improvement.”

There will be new bombs with “improved military characteristics” for NATO’s seven kinds of “dual-capable aircraft.” There will be new artillery rounds armed with neutron—known as “enhanced radiation”—warheads and a new neutron warhead for battlefield missiles. The Navy, which already has five different kinds of short-range nuclear weapons, will have a new short-range nuclear missile “for the late 1980s,” and “for the longer term, we are also examining the feasibility of enhancing” new submarine- and surface-launched naval weapons. It is not clear whether the participle “enhancing” here is to be taken in the philosophical or the technical sense: is there to be a neutron Navy? But the Pentagon stylists are evidently enchanted with their new euphemism, with the neutron as metaphor. In three pages dealing with short-range nuclear weapons, no fewer than seven things are described as being enhanced, including nuclear forces, antisubmarine rockets, eight-inch artillery, “electrical features,” and “our retaliatory posture.”

Battlefield nuclear weapons are generally thought to pose special dangers of early use and escalation, as the Palme Commission argued in urging that they be removed from a zone 300 kilometers wide in Europe. 26 NATO itself has expressed skepticism about their usefulness. Yet to the Reagan administration, they are part of the solid enterprise of extended deterrence. They are to be made more “accurate, more “survivable,” and they too are to have their improved command, control, and communications: a more refined nuclear Europe.

Austere Wars. The possibility of global coercion by the USSR dominates even the Reagan administration’s preparations for conventional war. “The gradual shift in the global military balance in favor of the Soviet Union”—as measured, above all, in investment in strategic nuclear forces and military research—“has facilitated, and helped to consolidate, the geographic expansion of Soviet influence and presence in many regions of the world.”

Rapid Deployment Forces, Weinberger writes, are “essential to our ability to deter war.” His account of such forces is largely concerned with South-west Asia (SWA), and the war in question is grandiose. “The scenario we consider most important” starts in SWA, and proceeds thence to Europe; it may later continue into Korea, and “our long term goal is to be able to meet the demands of a worldwide war.” Such a war may well be protracted: “Preparing only for a ‘short war’ would not only weaken the credibility of our deterrent, it would also be imprudent because it would limit the ability of US military forces to restore the peace should deterrence fail.”

SWA is a sort of proxy or “prime example” for other “locations where we might need to project force,” such as “Africa, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.” It is an “austere environment” with “austere ports” requiring “austere combat operations.” But the United States now has eighteen ships “prepositioned” around its edges, and is paying for new military facilities (actually, “an austere cantonment”) in Egypt, Oman, Kenya, Somalia, Diego Garcia, and the Azores.

Weinberger conveys a certain imprecision in his description of SWA wars to come. This is understandable, particularly if he has sought guidance from the map of the region presented as Chart III.E.1 of his report (and reproduced below). Finding one’s way around the Pentagon’s cartography is a little like playing one of those children’s games of spotting the errors in a comic drawing (Djibouti spelled wrong twice in two different ways, the revival of the Central African Empire, and so forth).

Some of Chart III.E.1’s innovations might nonetheless be seriously inconvenient in the hands of, let us say, the targeting corps of the Rapid Deployment Force’s “High Technology Infantry Divisions.” Albania, for example, has an extensive land border with the region of southeast Italy around Brindisi; Jordan has a Mediterranean coastline of some 100 kilometers which separates Israel from Lebanon. These improvements could, of course, be planned: something to do with the return of Trieste or an unexpectedly handsome rendition of a Palestinian homeland. How fortunate, in either case, that the 1984 Pentagon research budget contains $30.7 million for four separate items of “mapping, chart and geodesy.”27

The new unified command will not, in any event, be fully ready before the late 1980s. Until then, therefore, the United States will be obliged to fall back on a more familiar position within the universe of enhanced deterrence, and one of which Weinberger acknowledges the “great risk”: “In the near term, however, we must rely heavily upon deterrence, early use of strategic warning, and forces that may have dual commitments for other theaters.”

Celestial Wars. The Reagan administration’s “highest priority” is to improve strategic communications. “Command, control, communications, and intelligence,” known as “Cu3I,” has a privileged and insidious place in modern deterrence. It has inspired the imaginations of Brown, Schlesinger, and Weinberger, of the entrepreneurs of children’s plastic toys, of Weinberger’s critics as well. There is, after all, some charm in the idea of preserving the possibility of free will in the use of nuclear weapons. There is charm, too, in the hope that our chosen decision makers should be alive during a nuclear war; that they should have functioning computers; that they should be able to communicate with their generals and submarines and cruise missiles and airlaunched miniature antisatellite vehicles; that they should even be able to communicate with the enemy. Some critics of Reagan’s security policies consider the provision of “survivable” Cu3I to be, as McGeorge Bundy wrote in these pages, “the most sensible single element in Mr. Weinberger’s program for strategic modernization,” a process which should make the world less rather than more dangerous.28

But the investment in command and control also introduces new dangers. For one thing, improved control may give our leaders the illusion that they can limit or control a nuclear war, and they may therefore be less frightened of fighting one. Weinberger reinforces such concerns when he writes that “command, control, and communications improvements are raising the confidence with which we, and the respect with which our adversaries, view our ability to control nuclear forces.” (I suspect, however, that we may be better protected by the residual sanity of the leaders of the nuclear powers than by the technical specifications of their equipment.)

The control buildup is especially dangerous because of its relationship to offensive nuclear systems. The sort of communications to be secured and controlled with the help of satellites like MILSTAR or NAVSTAR are along the lines of “Drop a bomb on the submarine repair base near Tallinn,” or “Fire a rocket at Upper Heyford.” It is of course critically important that the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union should have the the technical means to say to each other, “Let’s stop for twenty-four hours and think about it.” But there are presumably ways to protect such conversations short of a competition in offensive electronics: by agreement based on mutual interest, as Bundy suggests, or by special arrangement in the Bering Straits.

The new equipment is even more sinister to the extent that it seems to be inextricably linked to the development of weapons to be used against the opponent’s control and communications. These are called by Weinberger Cu3CM, or “electronic warfare and Cu3 counter-measures,” and they are much in favor: “destructive and disruptive operations [are] designed to degrade the enemy’s electromagnetic operations while protecting our own. Over the past year, we have placed considerable emphasis on maintaining a technological advantage in this area of rapidly evolving competition.” The chapter on Cu3I describes new achievements in “offensive electronic warfare,” a new “Electronic Combat Action Plan” for the Air Force, new systems “to degrade directly the enemy’s communications systems,” an “emphasis on a Cu3CM strategy.”

The “rapidly evolving competition” in Cu3I offers, I believe, an extraordinarily revealing image of the inconsistency of deterrence, of the thirty-year-old contest for “deterrent strength.” Nuclear policy is founded, as we saw, on a continual reinterpretation of the deterrent threat, on the quest for certainty in deterrence. “Prudence,” in these circumstances, requires that each side do all it can to secure its own forces. “Morality” requires an effort to be able to fight with precision, to destroy only the enemy’s military forces. “Reason” requires an effort to control the use of force, to preserve free will even in the flying bunker. Together these endeavors promise the unattained and unattainable end of invulnerable deterrence.

The contest may be made even more unstable by the idiosyncracies of the two contestants. Alva Myrdal has proposed the remarkable metaphor of the United States and the Soviet Union locked in “a competition out of step with each other,” in which the “highly experimental, advanced technological quest of the Americans” is mismatched to the “comparatively ‘conservative’ armaments philosophy of the Soviets.” The Soviet Union competes by increasing the size of its weaponry, and the United States by “constant experimentation” with ever more modern inventions: “The very differing emphases between them fuel the sense of insecurity and fear on each side.”29 Each side sees in the other what it fears most, Soviet materialism (materialist expansion) or American spiritualism (spiritual hegemony). Each can never attain what it most desires, the invulnerability of numbers or the invulnerability of innovation.

In this asymmetrical and asynchronous arms race, Cu3I is a characteristically American objective. It promises a deterrence that will be invulnerable, moral, controlled. Weinberger even holds out the illusion of the technological absolute, when he predicts that “defense advanced research” will provide a worldwide Cu3 “network virtually invulnerable to destruction.” Reagan himself has shown the seduction of spiritual invulnerability in his now famous speech on the morality of “peace through strength” to the National Association of Evangelicals. America is engaged in a “struggle between right and wrong,” against the “aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” But the source of its strength is “not material but spiritual, and, because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph.”30

It is the search for invulnerability, however, that has led to the present terrors of both sides. Most of the spectacular American military innovations of the past twenty years have seemed, like invulnerable Cu3I, to promise a more secure defense, a more certain ability to destroy the enemy’s offense: accurate missiles and MIRVs, the first glimmers of weapons to be used against nuclear missile submarines, the continuing glimmers of ballistic missile defense. Yet the consequence of these improvements has been that both sides’ nuclear weapons now wander eternally in the seas and the earth and the skies, from silo to silo, in aircraft in flight, always at risk, even in the darkest recesses of the ocean and the most distant darkness of space, never beyond the power of the (other) “evil empire.” In their piteous rovings, they need the star of Cu3 guiding them and going on before, the NAVSTAR or the MILSTAR in the skies. Cu3 is essential to future counterforce; it is essential to future fear.


There is, I believe, only one serious argument to be made in favor of the corrupt ritual of deterrence, the rite of which Reagan and Weinberger are now with their celestial MILSTARS the custodians. This is the argument that deterrence, however imperfect, however decadent in the hands of its present keepers, has nonetheless maintained the peace. It has prevented war between the countries that possess nuclear weapons; it is what separates us from the end.

The argument in this form is impossible to answer. It contains one or more counterfactual propositions that are beyond the powers of historical reasoning to verify: if the great powers had not possessed nuclear weapons they would have gone to war; if the nuclear powers had not in some sense believed in deterrence, they would have gone to war. Weinberger himself demonstrates the indeterminacy of such propositions in his heavily sarcastic defense of deterrence. “When deterrence succeeds, it is easy to attribute the maintenance of peace not to the contribution of the defense that enforces the deterrent, but to a host of more facile assumptions—some imagined new-found ‘peaceful intent’ of the opponent, the spirit of detente, growing economic interdependency, and so forth.” (Weinberger goes on to comment that “when deterrence fails, however…the dividends of a viable warfighting defense are unquestionable.”)

My own guess would be that the existence of nuclear weapons may very well have prevented the nuclear powers from going to war with each other. But to say this is to say something very different from the proposition that “deterrence” has kept the peace. Earlier we distinguished between the deterrent threat and deterrence as a doctrine or way of organizing security. There seems to me no reason to suppose that either the threat or the doctrine has kept the peace. Our protection is rather to be found, if anywhere, in the fact of nuclear weapons: in the circumstance that the leaders of the nuclear powers, being human, have been frightened of nuclear war; that they are not insane.

Both as a threat and as a doctrine, deterrence has proved far more nefarious than the counterfactual argument suggests. It has not prevented the expansion of the instruments of destruction which makes the stakes of war and peace so limitlessly vast. It has not prevented—in fact, it has required—the deterioration of political relationships, and the expansion of fear and hatred, which are most likely, I believe, to bring us to war.

Military expansion, as we have seen, turns out to be inherent in deterrence policies. It is a consequence, apparently, of the uncertain judgments about changing technology and political psychology on which the interpretation of the deterrent threat depends. But the deterrent threat itself—even in its minimal version—has required the expansion of political hatred.

In “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” written shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Freud described the “disillusionment” which people of the “civilized world” felt at the coming of a “war in which we had refused to believe”: “It has brought to light an almost incredible phenomenon: the civilized nations know and understand each other so little that one can turn against the other with hate and loathing.”31

Now, hate and loathing of a demonic enemy are the unending condition of civilization in East and West, not in war but in the war/peace of deterrence. The doctrines of deterrence become more enhanced over time; the politics of deterrence more ignorant; the instruments of deterrence more deadly. In this sense, Reagan and his moralists are not monsters but the legitimate heirs of the nuclear epoch.

We live, all of us, leaders and led, in the unending terror of the “target,” of the victim to be. When one reads the somber writings of McNamara, for example, or Stimson, or even Weinberger, as I have been doing, one sometimes feels close to understanding the reason and the prudence of nuclear targeting. But then, suddenly, one remembers that the outcast, wandering missiles are pointed at people—at people one knows—across the Chilterns from Upper Heyford, or across the Baltic from the Tallinn submarine base.

I do not think there is a great danger in denying the doctrine of deterrence, and in trying to invent a new principle of security for the post-Reagan period: a principle that is founded, instead, on the mutual interest in avoiding nuclear war which has been our, and the Russians’, and the world’s real protection since Nagasaki. For we are protected, in the end, by the sanity of our leaders. Nothing is more likely to drive them mad than deterrence itself.

  1. 25

    Joint Chiefs, United States Military Posture, p. 18.

  2. 26

    The Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival (Simon and Schuster, 1982), p. 147.

  3. 27

    Department of Defense Budget for Fiscal Year 1984, “R,D,T & E Programs (R-1).”

  4. 28

    McGeorge Bundy, “A Matter of Survival,” NYR, March 17, 1983.

  5. 29

    Alva Myrdal, “An American Update,” introduction to the new edition of The Game of Disarmament (Pantheon, 1982), pp. xxi-xxiii.

  6. 30

    The New York Times, March 9, 1983.

  7. 31

    The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, pp. 278-279; the essay was written “round about March and April 1915.”

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