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An Exchange on Nuclear War

In response to:

The Cosmic Bluff from the July 21, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

George Ball’s “The Cosmic Bluff” [NYR, July 21] is first-rate. Its these should be drummed into all of those, in this country and abroad, who have not yet understood that their future is made tenuous by the US and NATO strategy that Field Marshall Lord Carver accurately calls “either a bluff or a suicide pact.”

Ball’s piece does, however, share one unfortunate feature with the recent Scowcroft committee report. The latter made an irresistible case for abolishing the M-X program, and then recommended going ahead with it. Ball makes an equally powerful case for a US No-First-Use declaration, and then, in his last paragraph, opposes it. (He opposes it at least “until an adequate conventional defense is firmly in place.” Since alliance, administration, and military authorities never consider defenses “adequate” nor “firmly in place,” the quoted clause is in fact an exact synonym for “until hell freezes over.”)

Consider some of Ball’s points:

  • It will be hard to induce Europeans to free themselves of the nuclear mystique….”

  • We should…soberly rethink the strategic plans of the Western alliance and take the hard measures necessary to create an effective conventional strategy.”

  • …we should resolutely undertake to build a deterrent that can survive a test of wills….”

  • The incremental economic burden required to raise NATO’s strength is…quite manageable.”

  • …I recognize that any alliance is inherently hard to galvanize into effective common action….”

  • To generate that requisite political will requires facing reality, which will not be easy.”

  • …they [the Europeans] have become habituated over three decades to relying blindly on our nuclear shield; and such hardened habits of thought cannot be easily altered.”

In brief, Ball accurately shows that we face a monumental task. We must change fundamental thought patterns that have driven for a generation and are today driving our strategic concepts, military plans, indoctrination, organization, and programs. We must undertake the manageable but substantial measures that must necessarily follow from the changed concepts: stiffening some elements of the conventional forces; tailoring the nuclear forces to the sole mission of retaliation against nuclear attack; reeducating, retraining, to some degree reorganizing the forces. Ball refers only to effecting these reforms in Europe. In fact, revolutionizing strategic thought and effecting necessary program changes will be as necessary and as difficult in the US.

To carry out such a massive reform demands powerful political will: widespread official and public support continuing over a period of years. The political will cannot be generated and maintained without a clearly stated objective, and pursuing that objective must produce diplomatic and bureaucratic leverage powerful enough to drive the program, generate the support, and give direction and coherence to the hundreds of necessary contributing actions. That objective would be expressed and that leverage applied by a US declaration that this country will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any future hostilities, the No-First-Use declaration. Even the prospect of such a declaration, in the relatively short term, after discussions with allies and initiating necessary military steps, would make the conceptual and program changes Ball advocates inevitable.

Ball’s discussion does not bring out all aspects of the case for No-First-Use; there are other persuasive arguments. His points are enough in themselves, however, to undercut his last paragraph’s dismissal of a No-First-Use declaration. When you reprint the article for the widest possible distribution, here and abroad, an urgent public service that would do you credit, leave out the last paragraph.

Vice Admiral John Marshall Lee

St. Petersburg, Florida

To the Editors:

I have long been a George Ball fan and regarded his views to be among the sanest coming out of Washington but I believe he has gone astray in calling our nuclear threat a bluff. We are in bad shape if it is a bluff but I am rather certain it is not.

There is a well-defined line in Europe separating Soviet and Western spheres of influence. If a Soviet military force should cross that line it would be demolished immediately by tactical nuclear weapons. There the matter would, in all likelihood, end. Neither adversary would have the slightest interest in escalating the affair. Of course it will never happen. To embark on rash adventurism of such grave proportions is probably unthinkable in Moscow. The Soviets are defensively minded, not offensively minded. Throughout history Russia has been ravished by invaders so naturally the Soviets are being extremely diligent about defense, about maintaining a huge military establishment, about consolidating a buffer zone of puppet states on its borders.

Later I will argue that the idea of a Soviet attack on the West is really pure fantasy but for the moment let us indulge in fantasy. Suppose a leader of great imagination and daring has worked his way to the top of the deadliest, most ritualistic bureaucracy in the world; of course the supposition is ridiculous but this is fantasy. Our hero decides to check out George Ball’s theory. First he must convince a number of powerful people (who have moved up through the same bureaucracy) that this is a good idea. Can you imagine him pulling that off? But let us press on. He has persuaded them that it is not really a very risky project. “The West has no interest in a holocaust,” he argues. “It may demolish our expeditionary force or it may not. If not, we expand our buffer zone and demonstrate the weakness of decadent capitalism. If it does, we have lost a small fraction of our military force. That would not be a great loss and the possible gain is quite large.”

The so-called bluff would be tested in some such limited context as that; it would not be tested in an end-of-the-world scenario. Who would risk all to check out the possibility that a threat might be a bluff? Since the test of the threat would have limited consequences, making good on the threat would have limited consequences.

Mr. Ball worries that if a US president used tactical nuclear weapons on a marauding Soviet force we would all suffer a devastating sense of guilt for again unleashing the nuclear monster. He need not worry. The impending Soviet attack would not go unnoticed. In fact, it would generate a state of great tension and partial mobilization. The president would make clear that crossing the line would be an act of war. When, in the midst of this tension, the Soviets did cross the line the shock here would be of the order of that following the attack on Pearl Harbor. We would be outraged at such blatant aggression and would cheer mightily when the Soviet legions were promptly blasted off the map. Any loose guilt lying around would fit very nicely on the Soviets for disturbing the peace. Some may point out that we did not get very excited when Soviet forces moved into Hungary and Czechoslovakia; Mr. Ball would not do that because he knows where the line is. If the Soviets had moved into Poland last year we would have done nothing again; Poland is on the Soviet side of the line.

Now let us turn from fantasy to fact. The Soviet Union has it made as a world power despite being well behind the West in technology, despite having a terribly unproductive economy which is doomed to stay that way until it sees the light and provides its citizens with incentives to work, despite having an antiquated agricultural system that ties up half of the labor force and still fails to feed the nation. Soviet leaders are fully aware of the nation’s backwardness; that has been the millstone around Russia’s neck since the time of Peter the Great. Because of that handicap the Soviets have been haunted by the specter of the nuclear threat and have devoted an inordinate proportion of their resources to trying to match that threat. They have done pretty well but at enormous expense to their society.

They cannot be content though. They continue to be haunted because modern warfare is highly technological. It rests not only on nuclear weapons but on elaborate electronic systems which are vulnerable to electronic countermeasures. In this field the Soviets are no match for the West. Modern warfare cannot get along without great computers; the Soviets are five or six years behind the West in that field. Hence the Soviets must take refuge in the blunderbuss of great missiles carrying great bombs and hope that will ward off any Western thoughts of conquest. Poor old Russia cannot have any dreams of conquest; despite armies of spies it can never be certain what sort of electronic deviltry it will encounter in combat. Will the Soviet weapons be paralyzed? When one cannot calculate the risks one cannot attack.

There is a good deal of fighting going on here and there around the world but none of it is modern warfare. If the West and the Soviets got into combat we would see modern warfare which uses small rapidly moving forces that deliver a big punch with great accuracy. The big punches might be large conventional bombs but more often small nuclear bombs. The West has that sort of military force. The Soviets have a smattering of one also but mostly they have a huge World War II style army; as usual they are behind the times. That ponderous behemoth would be chewed up in short order by modern military forces.

The Soviets doubtless know that their great army would be ineffective in modern warfare. They probably maintain it because they have difficulty providing jobs for all the youths that finish schooling each year. One thing that would make that army more effective would be a ban on nuclear weapons. The Soviets are actively promoting such a ban and have renounced first use of the weapons.

We will not fall for that. That would let them define the rules of the game to their advantage. That would force the West to maintain a huge army of its own. That would bring on the draft with a vengeance. As it is, we are in fine shape. We have neutralized the Soviet army with a great deal of technology and relatively few people.

I am sure that we would be happy to consider banning all strategic nuclear weapons systems. That would free the world from the threat of destruction and confine military combat to conflicts between military forces. But the Soviets couldn’t agree to that because they can guess how those conflicts would turn out; they need the threat of the blunderbuss to fall back on. The blunderbuss would be very difficult for them to give up anyway because they have made such a great sacrifice to get it. They see no problem with it because they do not intend to use it. The Soviets will confine their aggression to low key, relatively riskless sorts of activities as consolidating their buffer zone and stirring up the barefoot citizens of the LDC’s in the hope of creating a little trouble for the greedy elites that exploit them and possibly picking up a friendly government once in a while.

While we can be reasonably certain that the Soviets would never start a real war with the West, the Soviets have less assurance about us. There are quite a number of shooters-from-the-hip here who are paranoid about communism. One of them may get elected president some time. We have one right now who is paranoid about communism and who prefers to rush military forces to a problem spot rather than get to the root of the problem.

Alexander M. Mood

Former Director,

Public Policy Research Institute

University of California at Irvine

George Ball replies:

I am in accord with many of the comments of Vice Admiral Lee and Dr. Mood. Although both find fault with my final conclusion, they disagree with each other more profoundly than with me.

Vice Admiral Lee supports my conviction that the only use of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by a hostile party and that they are not an effective deterrent against conventional assault. He maintains, however, that I should carry my argument to its logical conclusion and recommend that the United States announce a “no first use” policy.

Dr. Mood takes quite a different position. Although he agrees with me that there is little danger of a deliberate Soviet attack against Western Europe, he contends that, in the unlikely event that “a Soviet military force should cross that line it would be demolished immediately by tactical nuclear weapons,” and “there,” he writes, “the matter would, in all likelihood, end,” because “neither adversary would have the slightest interest in escalating the affair.” He asserts also that, because the Soviets are technologically behind, “their great army would be ineffective in modern warfare.” But he fears that a ban on nuclear weapons might make that army “more effective,” because it would “define the rules of the game to their advantage.”

These letters from distinguished and experienced men have the effect of bracketing my position, since their rockets fall on opposite sides. Vice Admiral Lee chides me for not urging that we ban the first use of nuclear weapons; Dr. Mood complains because, as he interprets my comments, I in essence do urge such a “ban.” Neither, it seems to me, comes directly to grips with my central thesis.

As I try to make clear, I share Dr. Mood’s belief that the Soviets will not deliberately attack across the border separating the Western and Soviet spheres of influence. Should a major East-West conflict ever begin, it would most likely occur, I suggest, because of turmoil in Eastern Europe or “clashes of interest elsewhere in the world.” I mention specifically the Middle East, where the presence of Soviet personnel (sent because Israel gratuitously humiliated the Soviet Union by misusing our advanced weapons to annihilate Syria’s second-class Soviet equipment) and the simultaneous injection of our marines into Lebanon (also the result of Israel’s headstrong adventures) could easily transform “a regional conflict into a phase of the East-West struggle.” Such a dangerous juxtaposition of forces might lead both sides into inept maneuvers and finally into “threats and counterthreats that the competing parties felt required to carry out or else lose prestige.” That, I suggest, is a sequence of events that could produce another war—“ill-considered diplomatic or military moves—such as brought on World War I—rather than…a deliberate aggression—such as that which produced World War II.”

Whatever its proximate causation, a Soviet move against Western Europe would almost certainly be confused and obfuscated by charges and countercharges, ambiguity and deceit. Nor would it occur in a context, such as Dr. Mood describes, where the president would necessarily dominate the propaganda battle. To be sure, any president would, as Dr. Mood suggests, “make clear that crossing the line would be an act of war,” for that is, after all, what the North Atlantic Treaty is all about. But one could expect the Soviets to proclaim even more fiercely that, although they would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, they would respond to our use of even tactical nuclear weapons by destroying the great European capitals—and probably New York.

In such an atmosphere I do not believe, as Dr. Mood insists, that, if the Soviets threatened to move, “we would be outraged at such blatant aggression and would cheer mightily when the Soviet legions were promptly blasted off the map.” Instead I would foresee thousands of anguished Americans loudly insisting that we must not, under any circumstances, fire the first nuclear shot and thus risk nuclear destruction, while frantic Europeans would be protesting even more shrilly. Under those circumstances, I do not think any president—even the bellicose Mr. Reagan—would take the grim decision to light the fuse that could produce a nuclear holocaust. Thus not only Americans but Europeans would have to face a sudden agony of illumination—the recognition that they had been deceived by relying too uncritically on the efficacy of a threatened nuclear response to deter conventional attack.

I believe, therefore, that—contrary to our prevailing military doctrine—America already has a de facto, though unrecognized and undeclared, “no first use” policy. If we are realistic we will work quietly but persistently to try to persuade Western opinion of the ultimate reality that—no matter what our statesmen say—nuclear weapons are of use only to deter other nations from using them. But such an educational effort would be hampered rather than helped by our immediate renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons.

Vice Admiral Lee has quite properly referred to the “monumental task” of changing “fundamental thought patterns that have driven for a generation and are today driving our strategic concepts, military plans, indoctrination, organization and programs.” But we cannot change such patterns overnight, nor could we hasten such change by announcing an abrupt, publicized reversal of doctrine; instead we would only precipitate consternation and confusion and trigger a divisive debate and accusations of betrayal and timidity that could seriously undermine the West’s unity and common resolve.

Of course, in any realistic sense, these considerations are academic since a sudden doctrinal shift would not be politically feasible. No American government, in my view, could even dare consider such a shift unless and until it could give assurance that an adequate conventional defense was already in place in Europe.

Dr. Mood suggests that I am placing too much emphasis on educating Europeans and that “revolutionizing strategic thought and effecting necessary program changes will be as necessary and as difficult in the US.” Perhaps he is right with regard to the entrenched views of the nuclear experts, but lay Americans are far more ready to accept such reforms than Europeans. If our leaders could understand and clearly articulate the issue—which is certainly not the case at the moment—most Americans could easily be persuaded to abandon a deceptive reliance on nuclear weapons as their security against conventional aggression, since our countrymen have never felt—nor do they now feel—menaced by such a prospect. But a far different history has given Europeans a distinctly different cast of mind; they have known conventional invasion twice in this century and they would not find it easy to abandon their comforting faith in the American nuclear umbrella and depend once again for their security on the deterrent value of conventional arms.

THE FATE OF SARANT

To the Editors:

In a recent exchange between Walter and Miriam Schneir and Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, the fate of Julius Rosenberg’s friends Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr was briefly discussed [NYR, September 29]. Sarant and Barr disappeared behind the iron curtain in the summer of 1950, and until recently, nothing was publicly known of their subsequent fate. As one of the sources for Milton and Radosh’s account, I would like to provide some clarifying information on the fate of Sarant and Barr in the USSR.

I first encountered the unusual story of two American engineers who had made successful careers in military research and development in the Soviet Union about two years ago when I was interviewing Soviet émigré scientists. The names of the engineers I heard about were Filipp Georgievich Staros (not Staris) and Jozef Veniaminovich Berg—respectively, chief designer and chief engineer of a design bureau operating in Leningrad under the auspices of the military.

Both Staros and Berg arrived in the Soviet Union from Czechoslovakia at the end of 1955 or beginning of 1956. Staros came with his American-born wife, who was called Ann; Berg with his Czech wife.

Filipp Georgievich Staros appeared to be the leader of this American pair. On the basis of my research, I feel confident in asserting that American engineer Alfred Sarant and Soviet professor Filipp Georgievich Staros were one and the same person. Some of the most significant pieces of evidence for this claim are as follows:

  1. When I showed a photograph of Alfred Sarant made in 1945 (given to me by his sister, Electra Jayson) to Professor Phillip Morrison of MIT, Professor Morrison easily recognized him and described Alfred Sarant as his next-door neighbor between 1947 and 1950 in Ithaca, New York. I showed the same photograph to Dr. Eric Firdman, a recent émigré from the Soviet Union, who also identified the person in the photograph as his Soviet boss, Professor Filipp Georgievich Staros, an American who came to Russia from Czechoslovakia at the end of 1955.

  2. According to Dr. Firdman, Staros had curly black hair, brown eyes, and was around 5‘6” or 5‘7” tall. Electra Jayson gave me, independently, the same description of Alfred Sarant.

  3. The name “Staros” is Greek and, indeed, Filipp Staros claimed to be Greek-American. According to his Soviet colleagues, he enjoyed watching Greek movies in the USSR. His Russian patronymic Georgievich indicates that his father’s name was George. According to Electra Jayson, Alfred Sarant’s father’s name was Epamenonda George Sarantopoulos, later changed to Nonda George Sarant. The family on both sides was Greek Orthodox.

  4. According to Eric Firdman, Filipp Staros claimed to know Professor Hans Bethe, saying that Professor Bethe had given a present to his child. Walter and Miriam Schneir write in their book that Hans Bethe had given the Sarants’ newborn child a presend made of silver.

  5. Filipp Staros mentioned to his Soviet colleagues that he had participated in the construction of an American cyclotron. Alfred Sarant in fact participated in the construction of an American cyclotron at Cornell in 1948.

Those were only several of many facts which coincide in the biographies of Alfred Sarant and Filipp Staros. There are also discrepancies. Alfred Sarant was born on September 26, 1918. Filipp Staros was born, according to the yearbook of the Soviet Encyclopedia, in 1917, and, Dr. Firdman claims, in the USSR his birthday was celebrated on February 24. Moreover, the first name of Alfred Sarant’s girlfriend, with whom he left the US, was Carol. The name of Mrs. Staros in the USSR was Ann. The name of Alfred Sarant’s close friend and colleague, who also disappeared in 1950, was Joel Barr. The name of Professor Staros’s deputy was Joseph V. Berg. But such discrepancies are of the sort that naturally tend to occur when a person, or a group of people, is given a new identity.

Why did Alfred Sarant need a new identity? The answer, which may seem obvious, is that the Soviet authorities felt that Alfred Sarant/Filipp Staros rendered valuable services to the USSR and deserved protection. Of course, that he enjoyed the confidence of the Soviets does not necessarily mean that he violated American laws in a serious way. Schneir has already referred to the statement of US Attorney Saypol: “There is insufficient evidence at the present time to warrant filing a complaint against Sarant…on any possible federal charge.”

From the incomplete information we have about Sarant, a relatively benign hypothesis concerning his behavior is still possible. Perhaps he simply panicked after being interrogated by the FBI. Personal problems stemming from his marriage and involvement with another woman may also have contributed to his decision to leave the United States after he came under FBI suspicion. The portrait of Alfred Sarant’s personality that emerges from interviews with his American friends and colleagues—who repeatedly described him as fiercely independent and radical in his personal habits, as well as political views—is consistent with his having acted impetuously. This aspect of his personality is also illustrated by the events of his career in the USSR.

Whatever the reasons, real or supposed, an American engineer by the name of Staros managed to become an active member of the Soviet military R & D community—an extremely rare occurrence. A Soviet scientist or engineer would need second-class clearance from the KGB, only to find himself a subordinate of an American engineer! The Soviets were evidently able to create a situation in which an American specialist could be productive in the Soviet Union, but as we shall see, their flexibility had its limits.

Filipp Staros successfully developed one of the first Soviet automatic control machines that operated on semiconductors, not on vacuum tubes as previous Soviet machines had. His design bureau expanded rapidly, gaining support from the highest government authorities in the USSR, including Nikita Khrushchev.

An official biography of Filipp Staros appeared in the yearbook of the Soviet Encyclopedia. According to this yearbook, Filipp Georgievich Staros, a Soviet specialist in microelectronics, was born in 1917, graduated from a university in Toronto in 1941; was director of a laboratory in 1956–1960; and from 1960 on had the position of chief designer at a design bureau. He was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1962, a doctor of technical sciences from 1967; in 1969 he was awarded the State prize for the development of a small size process control computer.

Former Soviet colleagues of Filipp Staros say that he designed another process control computer, Electronica K-200, which received excellent reviews in the West. He was also leader of a group which made a detailed plan for the Center of Microelectronics in the city of Zelenograd (now a part of Moscow). This center was to include up to seven research institutes, a technical college, and an experimental plant. The activities of the entire superstructure were to be coordinated under the Director General of the Center and his associates. The Soviet government adopted the plan and allocated funds, staff, building material, and equipment to implement it. Staros was appointed Associate Director General of the Center, concurrent with his position as chief of the design bureau in Leningrad. The Center in Zelenograd began developing so rapidly and running so smoothly that Staros’s Soviet colleagues soon realized that they could now run the Center on their own.

Staros’s response (which appears to reflect his personality) was to choose a radical course: he wrote a personal letter to Nikita Khrushchev outlining his grievances and complained about the lack of support from the Minister of the Electronics Industry. The letter arrived at Khrushchev’s office in early October 1964. Unfortunately for Staros, Khrushchev was overthrown on October 14, 1964, and Staros’s letter was forwarded to the Minister of the Electronics Industry, the object of his complaints. As a result Staros was removed from the associate directorship of the Center in 1965.

Staros’s position in Leningrad was still secure. However, with the growth of conservative tendencies in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, Staros came under increasing pressure from local Party authorities in Leningrad. They were uneasy that the director of an important organization conducting research for the military had a foreign background. They also strongly objected to Staros’s policy of hiring people primarily on merit. They felt that as a result of this policy a politically unreliable meritocracy, including Jews and non-Party men, was emerging within the Soviet military R & D community.

Finally, in 1973 a decision was made to merge Staros’s design bureau with the much larger research department of the famous Soviet radio plant, “Svetlana.” Again, Sarant/Staros faced a very difficult choice: he could continue working at Svetlana as senior research fellow, following orders, or he could begin again from scratch. He was offered a laboratory in the newly created Far Eastern branch of the Soviet Academy in Vladivostok, with the prospect of membership in the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences. And, as he had done previously (in Ithaca, the summer of 1950; in Prague in 1954; in Leningrad in 1964), he made a radical decision that would affect his entire life: at the age of 60 he moved across eleven time zones from the western frontier of the USSR to its eastern edge.

This move brought him neither new possibilities for advanced research nor membership in the Academy. After being rejected by the Academy several times, he made one final attempt in 1979. On March 15, 1979, a list of nominees for membership to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was published. Staros still was on the list, but the vote on his behalf was never taken. He was on assignment in Moscow at the time, and the excitement may have been too much for him. According to secondary sources, he died on March 12, 1979, of cardiac arrest while riding in a taxi in Moscow. An obituary which appeared in Izvestia on Monday, March 17, stated:

Soviet science has suffered a heavy loss. In the 63rd year of his life, State Prize winner, Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor Filipp Georgievich Staros suddenly died. Death tore from our ranks an untiring scientist and talented organizer, who for many years devoted all his efforts and his brilliant research to the development of Soviet science and technology. For twenty years the head of a design bureau in the electronics industry, he made significant contributions to the establishment and development of national microelectronics. The vivid memory of Filipp Georgievich will always remain in our hearts.

The obituary was signed, not by members of his family, friends, or colleagues, but by the faceless Soviet bureaucracy: the Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of the Electronics Industry, and the State Committee on Science and Technology.

During the last years of his life, the authorities treated Staros as a spent force, whose services were no longer indispensable. Still, his accomplishments in the USSR are quite impressive. He created a design bureau, designed and produced fine computers, provided the impetus for the creation of the Center for Microelectronics, and helped to initiate a new field of research in the USSR.

Those who use “objective” Marxist terms might say that as a Soviet scientist Staros’s life was a happy one. In a broader, human perspective we may judge otherwise. Speaking in 1920 at the funeral of John Reed, another idealistic American Communist who tied his fate to Soviet Russia, Alexandra Kollontai said: “We call ourselves Communists, but are we really that? Do we not rather draw the life essence from those who come to us and when they are no longer of use, let them fall by the wayside, neglected and forgotten? Let us beware of such communism. It slays the best in our ranks.”

Mark Kuchment

Russian Research Department

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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