Any consideration of the problem of the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe must depart from the recognition that the nuclear weapon is, for war-fighting purposes, an unusable one. This is now so widely recognized in both East and West that the assertion needs little substantiation. This weapon is not a “defense” against itself. No one has ever found, nor will anyone ever find, a way to attain superiority in the development of it or a plausible defense against it. Attempts to use it as the basis of a national military-political strategy have invariably failed. There is no way of initiating its use in warfare among the major nuclear powers that would not invite upon the initiating party disasters of such enormity that they would make a mockery of all normal concepts of victory or defeat.
These considerations would alone strongly militate against the probability of any actual use by the Soviet Union of the intermediate-range missiles it now has, or might have in future, targeted on Western Europe. They might conceivably serve as instruments of political intimidation; but it takes two to make a successful act of intimidation; and the very improbability of the actual use of these weapons means that no one in Western Europe needs to be greatly intimidated by them unless he wishes to be. Smaller powers than Germany or France have stood up, manfully and successfully, to threats more real than this one.
This improbability of any use of these Soviet weapons is heightened, it might be well to remember, by the strong Soviet commitment against the first use of nuclear weapons generally. To the extent that this commitment has been noted at all in the West, the reaction has generally been one of cynical disbelief and derision. But one may question whether this sweeping dismissal is really justified. The unilateral renunciation of “first use” by the Soviet government has been repeatedly and solemnly stated at the highest levels of governmental and Party authority, where it has been coupled with the most unambiguous recognition that no nuclear war could be anything but a disaster to all the warring parties. Beyond this, the Soviet Union in 1981 introduced in the Assembly of the United Nations, argued for, and voted for, a resolution declaring first use of nuclear weapons to be a crime against humanity. This resolution represented a Soviet commitment not just to us in the West but to the 17 million members of the Soviet Communist Party, to various satellite peoples, to Communist parties across the world, to the third world, and to the majority of the other members of the Assembly who voted in favor of it. The Soviet leaders, whatever else one may think of them, are serious people, not frivolous; and they do not undertake such public commitments lightly, or only for the sake of tricking us.
All this being the case, it may be asked: how much does it really matter whether Moscow has 300 SS-20 missiles trained on Western …
Copyright © 1983 George F. Kennan
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.