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The Cosmic Bluff

NATO’s nuclear strategy is founded on illusion—with a large component of self-deception: the dubious hope that America’s nuclear threat will permanently deter the Soviet Union from attacking Western Europe with conventional forces. That threat—the pretense of a winning hand in a transcendental poker game—is becoming every day less persuasive. The Soviets know as well as we that, should our bluff be called, whether by accident or design or the momentum of actions and reactions that escape the control of both sides, the president would face two unacceptable options. He could either precipitate mutual catastrophe or capitulate.

Once the Soviet leaders conclude that no president would be likely to adopt the disastrous first option, our cosmic bluff will have lost its deterrent force.

Although the Soviets can never be absolutely certain whether a president would authorize the use of nuclear weapons to repel a conventional assault, they might become sufficiently skeptical to test the issue, influenced in that decision by the mood of America as they perceive it. They know that no president would make the nuclear decision in a vacuum; he would be sensitive to a public opinion that is now imposing a steadily more powerful constraint. Without question, the recent awakening of Americans to the dangers of nuclear weapons is creating a new political fact—a fact with major implications for our strategic calculus.

Such awakened interest in, and concern for, the military use of the atom are long overdue. When the H-bomb was first devised only the technically sophisticated could comprehend its implications. Foreign to the experience of most Americans, it seemed sinister, almost supernatural, fit only for the speculation of a small elite who—following the age-old pattern with mysteries—took over the management of nuclear weapons and enveloped them with a sacerdotal mystique. Except for a conscience-stricken group of dissenting scientists, only a few questioned the metaphysics of the new priesthood.

That widespread detachment endured for many years. So long as Americans regarded the danger of nuclear war as remote and unreal, most were content to leave nuclear weapons to academic experts, military theorists, and sciencefiction writers. Indeed during the brief Indian summer of détente, when America and the Soviet Union ceased to shout at each other, fears of a cataclysm largely disappeared. But that mood shifted with the Carter administration’s overstated reactions to Soviet overreaching, and it abruptly changed when the Reagan administration showed its penchant for anti-Soviet vilification and the political exploitation of fear.

The result was to shock many Americans—though not in the direction intended. Instead of persuading our countrymen to demand new and more sophisticated nuclear weapons it led thousands to reclaim the issue of nuclear policy from the elite and test it against their own values and pragmatic wisdom. Conditioned to the pervasiveness of violence, the American public intuitively recognized that, unlike medieval days, conflicts are no longer conducted under formalized rules as though they were jousting matches. Today a nation on the receiving end of a nuclear barrage will not feel honor-bound to reply with weapons of the same limited yield; it will respond with whatever brutal force is necessary to achieve its objective. No chivalric codes or papal bulls limit nuclear combat, and Americans instinctively mistrust the romantic fantasy that leads to such artificial confections as “controlled escalation” (which is implicit in “flexible response”), a “limited nuclear war” (an oxymoron), or a “winnable nuclear war” (a contradiction).

Despite the pronouncements of the scholastics the public intuitively seems to understand that nuclear warheads are not weapons. A weapon is an instrument that can be used to achieve a political objective in the Clausewitzian sense of war as an extension of diplomacy. But the public knows that nuclear weapons are not usable for that purpose; they can only facilitate mutual suicide. For, unlike some professional tacticians, the public instinctively knows that nuclear warheads—however fired or launched—differ not merely in degree but in kind from conventional weapons and that there is no way to reconcile that fundamental difference or make them interchangeable. Conditioned by sickening pictures of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many are now showing their abhorrence of nuclear malignance by opposing even civilian power installations.

That revulsion, which is not limited to Americans, has enveloped nuclear weapons in a rigid taboo.1 Any nation that first broke that taboo by using the H-bomb would suffer universal condemnation. The United States would attract the most violent invective because it already bears the taint of original sin from the two bombs we dropped on Japan.

Today the public’s sprouting concern at even the remote prospect that the button might be pushed is expressing itself in the demand for a nuclear freeze. That is less a procedural proposal than a metaphor expressing a pervasive unease—an unease now given religious and institutional expression in the pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops. That cannot be dismissed as a transient phenomenon; it is rapidly spreading throughout our society and is here to stay. Indeed the polls report that perhaps as many as 60 percent of Americans endorse the freeze. People are increasingly upset by Washington’s insistent harping on new missiles, and its monotonous insistence on America’s inferiority. Their anxiety is heightened by indications that some at high governmental levels believe in protracted and even winnable nuclear wars, and by a gnawing suspicion that our current leaders would rather build more weapons than negotiate arms-control agreements. In a more tranquil time, less filled with bombast, the public could watch television pictures of the president riding off into the sunset on his ranch and discount as pure symbolism the ubiquitous warrant officer toting the legendary box of codes. Few could envisage the president ever pushing the button. But in the current noisy atmosphere people are not so certain.

It is against this background of the public’s swelling participation in the nuclear debate that we must assess the views and behavior of our governmental leaders.

Although some leaders of the American administration repeat, as a litany, their belief in a Marxist-Leninist blueprint for world conquest, there seems little likelihood that the Soviet Union would deliberately push into Western Europe either to spread the communist faith or for territorial aggrandizement. If a Soviet invasion should ever occur—which I doubt—it would be far more likely to result because turmoil in Eastern Europe persuaded the Soviet leaders of the tactical necessity of moving their line of domination farther to the west. On the other hand, war might develop from clashes of interests elsewhere in the world—for example, in such a sensitive but important place as Berlin, or, even more likely, in the Middle East where the expanded presence of Soviet advisers in Syria and of our marines in Lebanon is transforming a regional conflict into a phase of the East-West struggle.

In such tense parts of the world—and there are others—a confrontation neither side wishes or anticipates might occur through inept diplomacy, marked by threats and counterthreats that the competing parties felt required to carry out or else lose prestige. It seems safe to predict that the next war, should one break out, will almost certainly be caused by ill-considered diplomatic or military moves—such as brought on World War I—rather than by a deliberate aggression—such as that which produced World War II.

But, however war might start, one can be sure that the Soviets would marshal all their propaganda resources to play on the fears of civilian populations both in Europe and America. Thus just at the point when NATO’s conventional defenses might be proving inadequate and the president was facing the decision to use nuclear weapons, the Kremlin would be threatening to respond to such use with an ugly nuclear reprisal. The public’s frenzied reaction in the face of this threat would subject any president to excruciating moral, intellectual, and emotional torment.

If the American people interpreted the Soviets’ rhetoric as a serious threat to launch ICBMs against their country, the president would be subjected to a shrill crescendo of domestic outcries demanding a prompt end to the European war. If, on the other hand, the Kremlin—as it might well do—concentrated on threatening to wipe out Europe’s cities rather than on blowing up America, European leaders would themselves be imploring the United States not to use its nuclear weapons. In the face of such a Soviet threat and the inevitable atmosphere of frenetic anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic, I cannot believe that any president would break the nuclear taboo.

That conclusion is reinforced by my own experience during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when I served as a member of the executive committee (the so-called EX-COM) that advised President Kennedy. At no time during that agonizing fortnight, when it seemed that the members of our small group aged ten years, did the president consider the possibility of launching a nuclear attack; nor did any of us believe in our hearts that the actions we were considering would trigger a Soviet nuclear reprisal. We could not, however, free our minds of the awful possibility that if we made even the slightest mistake, we might start our country up an escalator that could lead to a nuclear exchange. Fully sensitive to that possibility, President Kennedy chose the least provocative response available—the declaration of a naval quarantine. But even that decision was made with anguish.

That brings me, of course, to my central thesis: pushing the nuclear button may be easy to contemplate in a war game or in an academic seminar, but a president with imagination would, in real life, find such a decision too agonizing to make. Does anyone believe that any president—whoever he might be—would deliberately adopt a course that could lead toward nuclear destruction for himself, his country, and even civilization? I doubt it.

Yet should one rule out even the remotest possibilities? Presidents are fallible. Few come to office with a deep comprehension of the implications of nuclear bombs, and in their innocence they may find themselves surrounded by advisers who believe their own metaphysics—who have been enthralled by the conceptual fantasy of controlled escalation. So one cannot totally foreclose the possibility that a president, under pressure to act quickly, might impetuously give the authorization to launch or fire some low-yield nuclear weapons.

At that point I could see the Western alliance breaking apart like a melon. Terrified Europeans, bitterly regretting that they had abdicated control of their fate, would turn their resentment against the United States, while demanding that their governments stop the war.

In all probability they would panic even before the president assumed for himself—and for America—the onus of breaking the taboo and firing as much as a single tactical weapon. With the Soviets fiercely threatening to destroy Europe’s major cities if America used even battlefield nuclear artillery, would the peoples and governments of Europe willingly let America precipitate an escalating nuclear exchange? They would find little comfort in the promise that we would, in retaliation, destroy much of the Soviet Union.

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    In an article in the June issue of Commentary, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents,” the veteran scholastic Albert Wohlstetter seems oblivious of the taboo or of the ways public alarm could rule out a neat, well-mannered nuclear war directed at military targets.

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