NOTE: In the November 4, 1982, issue, The New York Review published Theodore Draper’s article “Dear Mr. Weinberger—An Open Reply to an Open Letter.” Mr. Draper commented on a letter sent by Secretary Weinberger on August 23, 1982, to thirty US and forty foreign publications in which Mr. Weinberger said he was “increasingly concerned with news accounts that portray this administration as planning to wage a protracted nuclear war, or seeking to acquire a ‘war-fighting’ capability.” Mr. Draper’s article was included in his book Present History, published this spring. In May 1983, Mr. Draper unexpectedly received a reply from Secretary Weinberger, which is published here along with the correspondence that followed.
May 20, 1983
Dear Mr. Draper:
I have read a review of your book entitled Present History, and feel that I must make the following comments.
The United States is not arming to fight, or to “prevail” in a protracted nuclear war. We are under no illusions about the danger of nuclear war. We believe neither side could win. But to deter war it is not enough to convince ourselves. We must convince the Soviets that under no scenario could they gain enough from aggression to justify the tremendous losses they would incur.
Therefore, US contingency planning, to serve deterrence, must also envision the possible employment of nuclear weapons should deterrence fail. Given the large and varied forces of the Soviet Union, and the wide range of possible ways in which they could use them, it would be militarily, politically and morally unsound to confine the President to resorting either to capitulation or massive retaliation. The consequences for the United States and our allies in either case would be unacceptable.
Accordingly, our policy requires that, if necessary, we prevail in denying victory to the Soviets and in protecting the sovereignty and continued viability of the United States and of the Western democracies as free societies. There is no contradiction between deterrence of war and planning to employ nuclear weapons to deny victory to the Soviets if deterrence fails. Neither is there a contradiction between our view that there could be no winners in a nuclear war and our planning to prevail, if war is forced upon us, in denying victory to the Soviet Union. It should be apparent that if our forces cannot be used effectively, if necessary, neither can they credibly deter.
As I have said on many occasions, it is an uncomfortable way to keep the peace. All the same, for thirty-seven years it has kept the United States and the Soviet Union from war.
Casper W. Weinberger
June 4, 1983
Theodore Draper replies:
Dear Mr. Weinberger:
I am sorry that you were moved to write to me on the basis of no more than a review of my book, Present History. The book includes my extended reply to your previous letter of August 23, 1982, to some seventy foreign and domestic publications. If you had read the entire article, originally published in The New York Review of Books of November 4, 1982, you might have faced up to my full critical analysis instead of contenting yourself with a repetition of tired formulas that did not convince me the first time.
I will try to restate the main issue briefly so that the problem with these formulas will at least be clear.
The key document, “Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance” of March 1982, which you approved, states that should a Soviet attack occur, “United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of prolonged war.” It also says that we must “seek the earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.” To “prevail” thus means “terms favorable to the United States,” which is another way of saying that we must seek to end the war with a nuclear victory.
Now you say, in your second sentence, that the United States “is not arming to fight, or to ‘prevail’ in a protracted nuclear war.” But by the time you get down to the end of your letter, you also say that there is no contradiction “between our view that there could be no winners in a nuclear war and our planning to prevail, if war is forced upon us, in denying victory to the Soviet Union.”
The first time, “prevail” is put in quotes, whatever that is supposed to imply. The second time, “prevail” is used without quotes, but seems to mean nothing more than “denying victory to the Soviet Union.” In short, you seem at first to cast doubt on the whole concept of prevailing, only to reinstate it in a peculiarly negative form.
To begin with, there is a glaring discrepancy between the meaning of “prevail” in your “Defense Guidance” and in your present letter. The first is forthright—prevail means “terms favorable to the United States.” The second is evasive and ambiguous, with or without quotes. Prevail now refers to the Soviet Union rather than to the United States or to both.
Why this playing with words? The reason seems to emerge from another sentence in your letter. It reads: “We believe neither side can win.”
Clearly it would be political poison to excite American public opinion with the prospect of fighting to win a nuclear war, as if it were like any other kind of war. So you have resorted to a deceptively negative formula—that of merely denying victory to the Soviet Union.
But if we truly believe that neither side can win, why does it matter all that much to deny the Soviets a victory which we say cannot be obtained by either side? Do you think the Soviet leaders are so stupid that they cannot understand what you understand? Whatever they may say (and they have said different things at different times, as we have done), the fact remains that preparing for a war which neither side can win is the same as preparing for a war which both sides must lose.
Ironically, what you attribute to the Soviets—the goal of nuclear victory—is just what you have enshrined in your “Defense Guidance”—victory through “terms favorable to the United States.” This little rhetorical trick won’t do. It consists of accusing the Soviets of believing in a nuclear war-fighting policy in order to justify the same policy for ourselves, disguised as preventing the success of the Soviet policy—a success which we say is illusory.
The nuclear war-fighting policy is also slipped into your seemingly innocent remark that our forces must be “used effectively.” But “effectively” for what? The only “effective” use of our nuclear forces can be their ability to prevent their use. Once they are used, they can only effectively destroy both the Soviets and ourselves because, as you say, neither side can win or perhaps survive in any recognizable fashion. A nuclear-deterrence policy is one that seeks to possess enough survivable nuclear force to make nuclear war self-destructive to the aggressor; it is not to beat the Soviets at the same game by attributing to them the aim of seeking to fight an unwinnable nuclear war.
I wondered, as I read that part of your letter which protests against the idea that you want the United States to arm for the purpose of fighting or “prevailing” in a protracted nuclear war whether you are implicitly repudiating just such a doctrine present in your “Defense Guidance.” For you cannot have it both ways forever—denying the aim to “prevail” and affirming the plan to prevail. Your letter betrays the very contradictions which you deny, as if you were uncomfortably aware of them and sought to exorcise the evil by a ritual of formal denial.
I would be interested to know whether, on reconsideration, based on more than a snippet in a book review, you will not feel it necessary to make a choice, instead of doing one thing and saying another, or of saying two things at once.
Princeton, New Jersey
July 13, 1983
Dear Mr. Draper:
I feel compelled to respond to your letter of June 4 in order to clarify, again, the nuclear deterrence policy of this Administration. In doing so, I will address the issues you have raised on their merits and on the basis of facts, and will avoid the ad hominem nature of your letter and of your earlier “Open Letter” of November 1982. (For the record, although I chose not to respond at the time, I read your November piece when it was first published, and thus my note to you of May 20 was based on more than “a snippet from a book review.”) Let me begin, then, by reviewing the major points of both your letters—points which I am prepared to assume you support although you are unwilling to extend the same courtesy to me with regard to statements in my letters.
In your letters you assert that:
—this Administration believes a nuclear war can be fought and a meaningful victory achieved;
—leaks from classified documents confirm the US has adopted a war fighting, war winning strategy;
—we are procuring nuclear forces for war fighting/war winning; these procurement plans clearly exceed the requirements of a deterrent posture;
—the plans we attribute to the USSR are a mirror image of our own; and finally,
—public statements which I and other senior officials have made denying the above are “hoaxes” designed to obfuscate our “true” policy.
While you are clearly entitled to your opinions, the fact is that each and every assertion you have made is absolutely incorrect and at variance with the truth. Your assertions betray a fundamental misunderstanding of US nuclear policy as it has evolved since 1945 and particularly since 1961. Before proceeding further, let me set forth what in fact are the underlying principles of the longstanding US nuclear policy. First and foremost, our basic purpose is a defensive one: to prevent aggression against ourselves and our allies. The role of our nuclear weapons within that policy is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and, in conjunction with our conventional forces and those of our allies, to deter nuclear and conventional aggression against our allies. To deter successfully we must have the capability to respond appropriately to any level of attack against us or our allies and to respond in such a manner that a potential aggressor will recognize that the costs of aggression far outweigh its possible gains. Nevertheless, despite our best efforts, should deterrence fail at whatever level, we must seek to terminate the conflict quickly at the lowest level of destruction possible, to restore deterrence, and to protect the sovereignty and continued viability of the United States and of the Western democracies as free societies with fundamental institutions and values intact.
Our goal is, therefore, to prevent war, particularly nuclear war. In this regard, our historical objective of deterrence is founded on our belief that there could be no winners in a nuclear war. We are aware of the terrible consequences which a nuclear war would have for the American people, and thus we are under no illusion that a nuclear war would be anything less than an absolute catastrophe. That means that we regard the enormous damage and devastation created by the use of nuclear weapons as having rendered the concept of victory (as it has classically and historically been defined in a political-military context) meaningless. And, for that reason, we do not view nuclear weapons as simply another tool in the arsenal of national power.
The simple truth of the matter, however, is that the recognition on our part alone that a nuclear war is not winnable is not sufficient to ensure deterrence or to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war; it is essential that the Soviet leadership understand this as well.
Unfortunately, we are faced with an adversary who does not necessarily share our abhorrence of war, even nuclear war. In fact, there is ample evidence that the Soviets have a very different view, and that they regard nuclear weapons as no different than other weapons. The Soviet leadership, through its actions, force deployments, and writings, has in fact given us the clear perception that it believes a nuclear war may be fought and won under certain circumstances. Accordingly, our deterrent posture must be based on what deters the Soviets. As the Scowcroft Commission noted in its recent report: “Deterrence is the set of beliefs in the minds of the Soviet leaders, given their own values and attitudes, about our capabilities and our will. It requires us to determine, as best we can, what would deter them from considering aggression, even in a crisis—not what would deter us.” To this end, it has historically been our policy that deterrence is best served by the possession of forces and plans for their use which make Soviet assessments of possible war outcomes, under any contingency and of any duration, so uncertain and dangerous as to create strong disincentives for initiating attack or aggression against us or our allies. This requires that we be convincingly capable of responding in such a way that they would be denied their political and military objectives, and, hence, could not achieve their war aims. Because it is the Soviet leadership—and not the Soviet people—whom we must influence, we must make clear to that leadership that aggression will result in sufficient loss of those assets which they prize most highly: their military forces, their ability to exercise control and the economic capacity to sustain war. This capability on our part will ensure that the Soviet leadership, by their own calculations, will determine that the price of aggression outweighs any potential benefits. Although—judging from your approving quote from Keeny and Panofsky—you believe massive response against the Soviet population is the response necessary to provide for deterrence, for political, military, and, yes, moral reasons, we do not target civilian populations as such. If we are forced to retaliate and can only respond by destroying population centers, we invite the destruction of our own population. Such a deterrent strategy could lack conviction, particularly as a deterrent to nuclear—let alone conventional—attack on an ally.
All of this leads to a discussion of the weapons deployment and procurement programs which support our policy. You contend that we have today “a capacity sufficient for deterrence” and state that our proposed modernization plans build forces which exceed deterrent requirements. Both of these contentions are incorrect. The deterrent value of our nuclear weapons is a function of our ability to retaliate if we are attacked. This means that the mere existence of these weapons is not a deterrent if an aggressor believes that through a well-timed and well-executed first strike he can destroy our ability to retaliate appropriately. You will recall that in 1941 our Pacific Fleet—as powerful as it was—failed as a deterrent because Japan’s leaders believed they could destroy it and, in a single blow, gain victory. Because of our restraint in modernizing our strategic forces during that same period, we now face major vulnerabilities in many areas of our nuclear forces. For example, the aging B-52s will not be able to penetrate Soviet airspace with any certainty for much longer, and our forces lack the requisite accuracy/yield combination to retaliate against Soviet hard targets. This is important, because the Soviet air defenses, and their hardening of their ICBM silos, and their command and control and industrial facilities are a clear attempt to deny us the capability to retaliate. If unaddressed, this risks undercutting deterrence because the Soviet leadership could come to believe they could emerge from a major conflict with their forces, control, and war supporting capabilities intact. Our modernization effort is a measured response which will provide us with a Triad which can retaliate effectively. The modernization program does not seek—nor does it attain—a first strike capability against the USSR’s nuclear forces. Our program stands in sharp contrast to the massive Soviet programs of the 1970s which—due to the fact that the Soviets have deployed between four and five highly accurate SS-18 and SS-19 warheads for each one of our ICBM silos (to say nothing of their other ICBM, SLBM, and bomber weapons)—provide them today with the potential capability to conduct a devastating first strike against our ICBMs and non-alert SSBNs and bombers. Thus I would suggest to you that, while Soviet forces clearly exceed any responsible measure of what is needed for deterrence—ours do not.
Finally, let me say that I take strong personal exception to your suggestion that I am deliberately deceiving the American public. I am not prepared to apologize to you or to anyone else for fulfilling my responsibility to safeguard classified information. The “leaked” document to which you refer is published annually, and contains a wealth of policy and programming guidance which is properly classified. As you are also undoubtedly well aware, selective editing and quotes taken out of context can easily distort the intention of any document. United States nuclear policy, as set forth in both classified and unclassified documents, is exactly what I have described herein. If this letter is not sufficiently detailed for your purposes, I would suggest that you read my (unclassified) December 1982 statement on nuclear deterrence policy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the appropriate section of my January 1983 (unclassified) Annual Report to the Congress. I would also suggest that you take the time to read the Annual Reports of Secretaries McNamara, Laird, Schlesinger, Rumsfeld and Brown—after which you will observe that the policy I have annunciated rests squarely in the mainstream of US strategic thought.
I close this letter well aware that you may consider it, as you wrote on June 4, yet another “repetition of tired formulas.” But I would put to you that it is precisely this policy which has preserved peace for nearly four decades. Perhaps once you have read my statements, and those of my predecessors, you will understand how it has done so, and why it must continue to do so.
Caspar W. Weinberger
July 19, 1983
Theodore Draper replies:
Dear Mr. Weinberger:
I should like to begin this reply to your letter of July 13 on a more optimistic note. Your second letter strikes me as doing far more justice to your policy than the first. I have no apologies to make for my remark about your earlier “tired formulas.” I suspect that you decided on a second letter in order to make a more forcible and convincing case.
But to the point: Were the five assertions, which you ascribe to me, “absolutely incorrect and at variance with the truth”? Unfortunately, you make no effort to demonstrate what is incorrect or untruthful about them. Let us go over the points one by one and see whether your charge can be sustained.
Is it true that “this administration believes a nuclear war can be fought and a meaningful victory achieved”?
When I wrote my article in The New York Review last November, the official position was represented by the classified but leaked “Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance,” dated March 1982. In that document, you envisaged a “protracted” and “prolonged” nuclear conflict in which “United States nuclear capabilities must prevail.” You also committed the United States to the “earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.” At that time, therefore, you certainly believed that a nuclear war, even a prolonged, protracted one, could be “fought and a meaningful victory achieved.”
Since then, however, you have evidently thought better of using the terms “protracted” and “prevail.” In your unclassified Annual Report to the Congress of February 1, 1983, which you advise me to read, and which I had read, these two words no longer appear. But you still state that “should deterrence fail, our strategy is to restore peace on favorable terms (p. 32, your italics). In March 1983, you issued a revised “Fiscal Year 1985-1989 Defense Guidance” in which the two give-away terms were again omitted, but it still maintained the strategy “to achieve political objectives and secure early war termination on terms favorable to the United States and its allies” in a limited conflict.
Thus the earlier “terms favorable to the United States” has been retained to the present. If that is not equivalent to a “meaningful victory,” what is? Every country in every war has sought to end it on terms favorable to itself. “Prevail” was sacrificed, but its meaning was not.
A difficulty here is that one of your pages does not always agree with another. On page 51 of the 1983 Annual Report to the Congress, you profess to believe that “neither side could win such a [nuclear] war.” But on page 32, as I have already noted, you want nothing less than “favorable terms.” Such contradictions make it possible for you to deny what you elsewhere affirm.
Do “leaks from classified documents confirm the US has adopted a war-fighting, war-winning strategy”?
My comment on the first point largely covers this one. I have never claimed that you wished to start such a war. Indeed, to make the point emphatic, I said that you “would be crazy to want one.” But the leaked document of March 1982, to which you must be referring, made unmistakably clear that a “war-fighting, war-winning strategy” was adopted in the event of a nuclear conflict. The rest is quibbling.
Are we “procuring nuclear forces for war fighting/war winning” and do “these procurement plans clearly exceed the requirements of a deterrent posture”?
You yourself have made the distinction between the requirements for fighting and winning a nuclear war and those for merely deterring it. But you made this distinction in reference to the Soviet Union. In your letter to foreign and domestic publications of August 23, 1982, you charged that the Soviets “have continued to build greater numbers of nuclear weapons far beyond those necessary for deterrence.” So there is a difference.
If we are going to match the Soviet nuclear buildup, as you want to do, we are also going to exceed by far the weaponry necessary for deterrence. Moreover, in an interview with Richard Halloran of The New York Times, you said that planning for deterrence “is not planning to fight a protracted nuclear war.” But you have also said you are planning to fight a nuclear war if necessary and even to have enough nuclear force to come out of such a war “on favorable terms.” It is idle, therefore, to deny that you favor “procuring nuclear forces” exceeding “the requirements of a deterrent posture.”
Is it true that “the plans we attribute to the USSR are a mirror image of our own”?
In all the rationalizations for the present nuclear policy by administration spokesmen, including yourself, the Soviet buildup has been used and abused to justify a similar buildup of our own. Your letter of August 23, 1982, was almost entirely based on this cause-and-effect cycle of nuclear arming. In that letter, you said: “We must take the steps necessary to match the Soviet Union’s greatly improved nuclear capability.”
Oddly enough, even in your present letter, you provide confirmation that a “mirror-image” effect has entered into your own planning. If only the Soviets were like us, you imply, we could limit our nuclear forces to what is necessary for deterrence. But they are not like us, you go on, because their leadership believes that “a nuclear war may be fought and won under certain circumstances.” Therefore, it follows, according to your logic, that we must be more like them. There would be no point in telling us how much the Soviet leadership differs from our leadership if you did not make this difference the primary rationale for your policy.
Have the public statements by you and other senior American officials been ” ‘hoaxes’ designed to obfuscate our ‘true’ policy”?
I used the term “hoax” in reference to your sympathy for those who may not be smart enough to understand the “difficult paradox”—as you put it—of your doctrine of deterrence. You called linking the two ideas of deterring and fighting a nuclear war a “paradox”; I called it a “hoax.” By that I meant that anyone who is led to think that there is no difference between planning to deter and planning to fight a nuclear war is being deceived. Even your term—”paradox”—betrays that it is not easy to combine these two ideas without considerable strain.
So much for the absolute incorrectness and variance from the truth of those five points. Now let us try to go a little more deeply into the substance of the problem.
A strange exchange of positions has taken place between the Soviet Union and the United States. Soviet doctrine had previously held, though not consistently, that a protracted nuclear war was possible. Such a war could only be advantageously prolonged if it were limited and controlled. Ostensibly faced with Soviet planning for a protracted nuclear war, we began to plan for the same kind of war.
Not long ago, however, Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet General Staff, gave an interview to Leslie H. Gelb of The New York Times (March 17, 1983). Marshal Ogarkov used the occasion to change his position. Logically, he said, “to keep such a war limited will not be possible” and “inevitably, such a war will extend to all-out war.” Yet, according to your letter, the United States is planning to be able to fight just such a limited war, at least in the sense that it would be limited to military targets and avoid civilian populations. If an all-out nuclear war is inevitable or even likely, it matters little, however it may begin, whether its early stages are limited and controlled.
On other matters, however, Marshal Ogarkov might be accused of plagiarism. He complained: The Soviet landbased missiles are becoming vulnerable to attack. The United States is seeking to obtain an increase in its strategic nuclear arsenal relative to that of the Soviet Union. If the United States should start a nuclear war, the Soviet Union would be forced to retaliate in kind. Change the names of the countries, and all this must be painfully familiar to you.
One of the most worrisome aspects of your policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union is your belief that the United States does not now have “a capacity sufficient for deterrence.” This invitation to panic is linked to the eventuality that “the Soviet leadership could come to believe they could emerge from a major conflict with their forces, control, and war supporting capabilities intact.”
Even A.G.B. Metcalf, military editor of the Strategic Review, published by the United States Strategic Institute which is headed by the highest-ranking retired officers, has been fed up with much of the official propaganda about American vulnerability. In the Spring 1983 issue, he denounced the “myth” of the Minuteman silos, the alleged vulnerability of which created the ostensible need for the much tormented MX. What Metcalf says about the 1,000-strong Minutemen would alone make a pipe dream of the Soviets’ “potential capability to conduct a devastating first strike against our ICBMs and non-alert SSBNs and bombers,” especially the first. Metcalf takes us, briefly, behind the scenes of how some of these “vulnerabilities” are concocted.
That the Soviets should be able to “impact” on 1,000 missile silos is, he writes, “an untested and untestable proposition.” It cannot be extrapolated “from our experience with single test shots from Vandenberg AFB to Kwajalein firing different warhead modifications.” Metcalf’s explanation is somewhat technical, but its main points stand out clearly:
To make any inference as to what single Soviet warheads could hit—let alone to make the high-probability prediction of “first-strike vulnerability” of the majority of 1,000 Minuteman silos—is, at the very least, to imply possession of information of Soviet targeting accuracy which, no matter how long we monitor their test shots, is unknowable without their informing us of their test aiming points—an unlikely circumstance. Further, we would have to assume that the meager test data obtained from a statistically insignificant number of individual shots can somehow be used to generate reliable statistics about a massive attack of 1,000 warheads (sometimes the assumption is 2,000 warheads, two for each silo targeted) fired from launchers never before used, over polar trajectories never before tested (for which the catalog of even the “known” uncertainties is lengthy), in numbers never before launched, and within a time frame for which no shred of statistical information on operational reliability exists. Such an assumption represents a grotesque misunderstanding of the statistical principles upon which any belief in Minuteman vulnerability must depend.
The least that can be said of this testimony, from this source, is that the “many who are technically qualified” and “who do not have a vested interest in the matter,” whom Metcalf cited, strongly question the official propaganda about American nuclear vulnerability. The survivability of many Minutemen would make it inconceivable that the Soviets were likely to believe that they could “emerge from a major nuclear conflict with their forces, control, and war supporting capabilities intact.”
And what of our submarine-based nuclear forces? Could they permit all those Soviet capabilities to survive intact? You yourself in your unclassified December 1982 statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which you also advised me to read, referred to the “high survivability currently enjoyed by our sea-based systems.” If their survivability is that high, the Soviets might well expect to emerge from a major nuclear conflict with something less—much less—than all their capabilities intact.
This sort of nuclear hyperbole comes close to panic-mongering. Its most farfetched manifestation is the insistence that all the Soviets have to do to achieve “global hegemony” is to obtain “military superiority.” On March 21 of this year, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth W. Dam told an audience in Oslo, Norway, that the Soviet demand for “a nuclear force as large as that of all countries combined is tantamount to a demand for military superiority over any one nation and thus for global hegemony” (Current Policy, State Department Publication no. 488). On May 28 of this year, a statement put out by the State Department accused Soviet Russia of seeking to achieve “military superiority and thus global hegemony.”
If military superiority—whatever that means in the nuclear age—were enough to get global hegemony, the United States should have had that hegemony long ago, when we had an atomic monopoly and then nuclear superiority for about a quarter of a century.
The clear implication is that all the Soviets have to do is to achieve some undefined level of military superiority—and everyone, including ourselves, is going to acknowledge their hegemony. The astonishing irony is that we already concede military superiority to them. In your Annual Report to the Congress of 1983, you state: “The Soviets have acquired a margin of nuclear superiority in most important categories, while still maintaining superiority in their conventional forces.” It is said that we cannot expect to catch up for years, perhaps in the late 1980s or even 1990s. In theory, you have already conceded “global hegemony” to the Soviets, not in the future but in the present.
If you were to put your theory into practice, we would now be faced with the prospect of abject surrender. In your letter to the foreign and domestic publications of August 23, 1982, you conceived of an eventuality whereby the president of the United States would have to contemplate the possibility of surrendering without a fight. “In short,” you wrote, “we cannot afford to place ourselves in the position where the survivability of our deterrent would force the president to choose between using our strategic forces before they were destroyed or surrendering.”
At a time when the Soviets were at a much greater disadvantage, Stalin’s Russia pushed right ahead in Eastern Europe despite our opposition. Never has there been the slightest hint of a possible Soviet surrender in any circumstances. Have we really sunk so low that the American people must now be frightened into supporting the Reagan administration’s nuclear program by confronting them with a choice between it and ignominious surrender?
I have left what is perhaps the most important matter for last. It is not easy to deal with as fully as it deserves in a short space, but something must be said about it because it is coming to the forefront of the entire nuclear debate.
This matter concerns the political, military, and moral reasons for acquiring, as you put it, the capability to destroy the Soviets’ “military forces, their ability to exercise control and the economic capacity to sustain war” instead of their urban centers and civilian population. Your reference to Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., and Wolfgang Panofsky is to their article in the Winter 1981-1982 issue of Foreign Affairs in which they wrote: “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.” Your implication is that a nuclear war can and should be fought in a more limited and controlled way against your preferred targets instead of against urban societies.
This vision of a controlled nuclear war, capable of hitting only military targets “precisely and discriminately,” was recently proclaimed as the new nuclear gospel by Albert Wohlstetter, no stranger to the Pentagon, in the June 1983 issue of Commentary, which has become an organ of the nuclear warriors. Wohlstetter in effect conceives of nuclear war as if it could be a kind of ping-pong game in which nuclear warheads would drop “precisely and discriminately” on each side’s military installations “without mass destruction.” This is the most perverse and dangerous nuclear temptation that has been dangled before us in a long time. It is the apotheosis of the limited, controlled nuclear war that is even less likely to hurt people than the bad, old-fashioned artillery and aerial bombardments which were responsible for vast mass destruction.
Wohlstetter’s conception is the reductio ad absurdum of the school of thought to which you also adhere. He spells out what you touch on briefly. In your present letter, however, you suggest that there is going to be plenty of mass destruction, if the Soviets’ “military forces” and “economic capacity to sustain war” are going to be destroyed. Just how it will be possible to destroy military targets without “destroying population centers” when, for example, Moscow is most heavily defended by just such military targets is something of a mystery. General Bernard W. Rogers, NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe, is one of those who remains to be convinced of the tenability of such a controlled nuclear war. In an interview in The New York Times of July 10, 1983, he asserted that “both sides are uncertain whether this [use of theater nuclear weapons] would lead to a further escalation to a strategic nuclear exchange.” A strategic nuclear exchange would be catastrophic to both sides, and General Rogers is at least uncertain whether it could be avoided once any nuclear weapons are used.
What is at stake here? It is this: We are being indoctrinated in the feasibility of a nuclear war without mass destruction and civilian devastation. If such a limited, controlled, cleanly military nuclear war were feasible, it would become just another kind of war, even less potentially destructive than past “conventional” wars. The more feasible such a nuclear war appears to be, the closer it will come to being a reality.
And—of all things!—the new nuclear dispensation comes recommended as the truly moral course. Moral superiority oozes out of your 1983 Annual Report to the Congress and is even more fulsome in Wohlstetter’s article. Apparently it is moral to bring nuclear war closer by making it more like any other kind of war and even more precise and discriminating. But it is immoral to remove nuclear war from rational calculation for the reason that it is likely to be so mutually devastating that it could serve no useful political end. It is insidious to urge that one type of nuclear war is immoral, but that another, more seductive kind—neatly, cleanly “military”—is by implication moral or at least more morally acceptable. To pretend that moral distinctions can be made between allegedly different types of nuclear wars is already taking a most slippery and menacing step toward breaking the nuclear barrier. If we should bite off our tongues before uttering one word in this discussion, that word is “morality.”
As you see, I have not been persuaded by your letter, and I rather think that you will not be persuaded by mine. But I cannot end without acknowledging my deep respect for your willingness to engage in an open exchange of views with a professedly critical private citizen. It is an act in the best democratic tradition, and I wish to salute you for it, whatever the merits of your case or mine.
East Charleston, Vermont