A Matter of Survival

The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy

by Lawrence Freedman
St. Martin’s Press, 473 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Soviet Union and the Arms Race

by David Holloway
Yale University Press, 211 pp., $14.95

As the United States faces a series of tangled and potentially divisive choices in its policy toward nuclear weapons, these books by young British scholars make serious contributions to our understanding of central elements of the problem. Lawrence Freedman tells us the history of our good and bad thoughts about nuclear strategy, and David Holloway describes more briefly the history of nuclear strategy on the Soviet side. Each has mastered a formidable and often opaque “literature.” Both have been respectful of the record but bold in judging it, and they write with a clarity and fairness that are distressingly rare in American debates. Neither is peddling a panacea, and citizens trying to find a sensible course between unilateral disarmament and the miscellaneous nuclear expansionism of the Reagan administration will find solid help from both. Moreover, each author is meticulous in giving credit to those on whose works he builds, so that each book is not only a free-standing work of analysis but also an excellent guide to further study.

The central lesson of Mr. Freedman’s magisterial survey is that the realities of nuclear weapons have defied the best efforts of the nuclear strategists. No one in the West has found a good or even an acceptable way to fight a nuclear war against an opponent with thousands of nuclear weapons of his own that are “survivable,” i.e., that can still be used after a first strike. “Those who have responsibility for unleashing nuclear arsenals live by the motto that if they ever had to do so they would have failed. Remarkably, up to now they have succeeded. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la stratégie.”

The absence of a workable strategy for nuclear war-fighting is not the result of inattention or stupidity. Freedman has much to say about the remarkable men who have tried and failed to tame the beast: Vannevar Bush and P.M.S. Blackett claimed that the weapon was not all that destructive, but their arguments were shattered by the hydrogen bomb and the long-range missile. Robert Oppenheimer and Henry Kissinger were attracted in quite different ways by the possibility that nuclear battlefield weapons could be deployed to keep the peace through preparation for a less than apocalyptic war but eventually they were persuaded otherwise. Robert McNamara (for a short while), James Schlesinger, and Jimmy Carter—a strangely assorted trio—also tried to design “limited” uses for nuclear weapons that might somehow be “remotely plausible”; but none of them came close to demonstrating that any such “limited” war could in fact be kept under control. Finally Freedman discusses the much more crude and still less credible dabblers in ideas of meaningful victory, from the theorists of triumphant air power in the 1940s to the brash young civilians still arguing in 1980 that “victory is possible.” It is somehow fitting that Ronald Reagan himself, fearing that he might be supposed to think otherwise, has given that proposition its definitive denial: “A nuclear war cannot …

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