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Missiles for Europe?

In response to:

Sovietizing US Policy from the February 2, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

George Ball misses the point when he criticizes NATO’s decision to deploy new intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe [NYR, February 2]. Ball argues that the decision was meaningless because a US missile fired from Europe against the Soviet Union would be just as likely to provoke a Soviet strategic attack on the United States as would a missile fired against the USSR from the US homeland.

Ball’s objection, far from undermining the INF decision, actually reinforces it. Two issues need to be considered here: first, the targeting opportunities afforded by the new missiles, and second, the greater credibility of a US response with the INF.

Until now, US missiles based in Europe could not strike the Soviet Union, since they have too short a range to reach beyond targets in Eastern Europe. The new intermediate-range forces, however, will be able to strike positions throughout the northwestern part of the USSR. The deployment of these missiles is therefore intended to bolster allied confidence that, if NATO’s conventional defenses fail, a Soviet attack on Western Europe would incur a US nuclear response against the Soviet Union and not merely against Eastern Europe. This change in targeting is crucial because, as Ball himself states, “from [the Soviet] point of view, the critical point is not where the missiles come from but where they land.” Soviet leaders had displayed little concern about the Pershing I and other short-range missiles capable of striking Eastern Europe which had been based in Western Europe for two decades or more; it was only when NATO decided to deploy missiles that could strike the Soviet Union itself that such missiles suddenly became a source of alarm in Moscow.

Now to the second question: Why should the new European-based missiles be any more credible a response to Soviet conventional aggression than the US strategic arsenal? For the simple reason that Soviet conventional forces, having broken through NATO’s conventional defenses, would threaten to overrun the intermediate-range missiles unless those missiles were fired. A similar situation does not exist with US strategic forces. Thus, once the new missiles are deployed in Europe, Soviet military planners will have to act on the knowledge that a successful Warsaw Pact attack against Western Europe would almost automatically invoke a US nuclear response on the Soviet homeland. That same level of assurance of a US retaliatory strike simply cannot be provided by the strategic forces based in the United States, as Charles de Gaulle and others recognized in the 1960s and as several former US public officials (including Ball) have acknowledged more recently. The new missiles thus “re-couple” the US strategic deterrent to the defense of Western Europe, and guarantee that a nuclear war cannot be confined to Western and Eastern Europe, as could previously have been the case (at least in principle). That will be a major contribution to deterrence of both nuclear and conventional war.

Europeans should therefore welcome the installation of the intermediate-range missiles, for these weapons will decrease the likelihood of a Soviet attack, whether nuclear or conventional, by virtually eliminating the prospect of a nuclear war confined to Europe. The NATO governments have, however, done such a poor job in explaining the rationale for the whole decision (a job which, admittedly, was not easy in view of the misguided albeit politically necessary “dual-track” approach) that protest groups have been able to charge the United States with planning something that the INF deployments are in fact designed to prevent. Indeed, it is regrettable to see that even such a sophisticated observer as George Ball could have misunderstood the decision so thoroughly.

Mark N. Kramer

Balliol College, Oxford

George Ball replies:

Mr. Kramer is, of course, correct in pointing out that the Pershings and Cruise missiles based in Europe will be able to strike the USSR while short-range and battlefield missiles cannot. But I do not follow his conclusion that they will “bolster allied confidence that, if NATO’s conventional defenses fail, a Soviet attack on Western Europe would incur a US nuclear response against the Soviet Union….”

If and when the Soviet Union should ever mount a conventional attack, the Kremlin would no doubt make the same threat whether or not there were missiles in Europe. It would threaten to retaliate to any allied use of nuclear weapons by a full-fledged nuclear blast not only at Europe but at the United States, which must authorize their use wherever the launchers may be based. Thus the considerations facing a president in deciding whether to break the nuclear taboo would be precisely the same whether missiles are in Europe or solely in America. In either event, Europeans would cry as loudly as Americans for the president not to break the taboo.

If I have difficulty with Mr. Kramer’s first point, I have even more trouble understanding his second. He argues that European missiles will be more credible “for the simple reason that Soviet conventional forces, having broken through NATO’s conventional defenses, would threaten to overrun the intermediate-range missiles unless those missiles were fired.” I find that puzzling. We would certainly do our best to pull the Cruise missiles out of harm’s way in any event. But his point has no greater merit when applied to the Pershings. First, no NATO commander in his right mind is going to put the Pershings so far forward that they might be quickly overrun. Second, I cannot imagine the Soviets launching a conventional attack without immediately taking out the Pershings through conventional means. Third, in facing the decision to fire nuclear missiles, I do not believe any American president would push the button just because the missiles might be overrun. Either he would be prepared to risk a nuclear holocaust or he would not. He would not let that decision be forced by the imminent overrunning of some Pershings. If he were not prepared to launch a nuclear war, he would simply order the missiles destroyed.

For all these reasons I think Mr. Kramer is quite wrong in his basic assumptions. But let us suppose he were right. Let us suppose a president might feel under pressure to fire the Pershings to prevent their being overrun. How could anyone be happy to have the most cataclysmic decision mankind has ever faced be determined by the vagaries of the battlefield? Quite contrary to Mr. Kramer I think we should do everything possible to assure that, if the West ever opts to break the nuclear taboo, that decision will reflect a careful, conscious, and informed exercise of human judgment,not the desire to save a few missile launchers from capture.

Finally, Mr. Kramer’s logic seems to favor the equivalent of the Doomsday Machine in Dr. Strangelove where the decision to use the ultimate weapon was made by machinery programmed to react to certain stimuli. I do not know what Mr. Kramer’s preferences may be, but if I am to be blown up, the least I would wish is to have that event result from the deliberate application of human wisdom.

Up to this point I have dealt with the question of reassuring America’s NATO’s allies and have contended that the positioning of missiles in Europe does nothing significant to reinforce the integrity of the nuclear umbrella. To avoid charges that I have missed or evaded the point I should also take note of the issue of deterrence—the contention that the Pershings might dissuade the Soviets from undertaking a conventional attack since they might overrun a missile launcher and hence force America to fire. I am at a loss to know how to answer this since it seems to me fatuous on its face.

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