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Nuclear Temptations

The counterforce strategy was actually adopted by Secretary McNamara in 1962 during the Kennedy administration. But he then quickly backed away from it and became a convert to a form of the classical deterrence doctrine, which he called “mutual assured destruction,” meaning that if both sides were assured of destruction, they would stay away from it as serving no conceivable political purpose.23 In effect, the goal again became how not to fight a nuclear war rather than how to fight one.

The reasons for this shift are just as valid today as they were then. In the first place, for counterforce to work, both sides have to adopt the same policy. No one, however, expects the United States and the Soviet Union to agree on how to fight a nuclear war or to guarantee their adherence to the same strategy in advance.

It was also realized that a counterforce policy was likely to cause such great civilian casualties that the line between counterforce—military—and countervalue—civilian—was purely theoretical and largely illusory. A Department of Defense study in the 1960s estimated that between 30 and 150 million Americans and a comparable number of Russians were likely to die in a nuclear war, even if efforts were made to stay away from highly populated areas. 24 In 1981, a group of UN experts found that a minimum of five to six million immediate civilian casualties and 400,000 military casualties would result if 1,500 nuclear artillery shells and 200 nuclear bombs were used by both sides against each other’s military targets.25 In effect, counterforce targeting was no panacea for what ailed countervalue.


Another reason for the shift away from counterforce strategy was somewhat more complicated and takes us some way into the darker recesses of nuclear war theory. It was the threat of a first strike. This threat has always hovered over nuclear war strategy, but it became particularly acute in the case of counterforce planning, which implies in the first place an attack against the enemy’s nuclear forces.

The trauma of the first strike comes about in the following way: Basically, there are two ways of conceiving a possible nuclear war. One is that it will resemble a conventional, or non-nuclear, war—only more so. There will be one or more fronts; a development of hostilities with some degree of gradualness; a mixture of weaponry; in general, a protracted, more or less controlled escalation. The other conception is peculiar to nuclear war. It can be conceived as an almost immediately catastrophic exchange, with millions of casualties suffered in one, two, or three days.

Neither of these alternatives is particularly appealing—to put it mildly. The protracted nuclear war would be, at best, a protracted agony. As for the nuclear cataclysm, nothing more need be said about it. So the problem presents itself: how to get around both of these unpleasant alternatives?

The logic of the situation points to a way out—to knock out the enemy’s nuclear weapons before they can be fired. If they—or most of them—could be knocked out at the very outset, the enemy would be prevented from waging a cataclysmic or protracted nuclear war. In short, a first strike is, logically, the most effective way to wage a nuclear war. That is what makes it so tempting and dangerous.

But to be successful a first strike must benefit from two preconditions: it must be thorough, and it must come as a surprise. If it is not thorough, it invites retaliation, which would begin a cycle of mutual devastation. If it does not come as a surprise, it would invite a preemptive first strike by the other side.

Of course, no nuclear nation will admit that it has ever contemplated or is even capable of contemplating a surprise attack and an unprovoked first strike. What cannot be denied is that they are inherent in the logic of the nuclear dilemma. That is why both sides fear them so much and charge the other with preparing for them.

But logic does not exhaust reality. The full reality is that a surprise attack and a first strike would be an infinitely risky business. They would have to be totally successful or they would open the aggressor to devastating retaliation and retribution. Without any experience of nuclear warfare, no one knows, and no one can know, what a surprise attack would achieve. It would have to be a go-for-broke operation. In the abstract, the first strike would seem like an attractive proposition. In the real world, it is an almost senseless gamble.

In any case, for these reasons and others, McNamara gave up the counterforce temptation after 1962. But now we are getting it again, and in a worse form than ever before.


The present phase began in 1974, during the Nixon administration. It was sponsored by then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. His new policy was basically no more than a variation on an already old theme—that of “options.” The argument, still in vogue today, maintained that the president should not be limited to choosing between no nuclear war and all-out nuclear war. He should instead be able to engage in all forms and degrees of conventional and nuclear war. Schlesinger’s National Security Study Memorandum of 1974 brought forward the option of threatening Soviet military targets.

After Schlesinger came Harold Brown, secretary of defense in the Carter administration. In 1980, President Carter issued Presidential Directive 59, which played more variations on the theme of “options.” This directive has never been made public, so we are dependent on what Mr. Brown and other insiders have said about it.

According to Mr. Brown: “There is a good chance that any US-Soviet nuclear exchange would escalate out of control.” Nevertheless, the United States must prepare for just such a nuclear exchange, that is, a limited nuclear exchange that would probably escalate out of control. Why? Because the United States must have a “victory-denying” response—“victory-denying” is typical of the fudging language customary in this field—to a Soviet effort to obtain victory in a limited nuclear war.26

Notice: the whole idea is predicated on the assumption that the Soviets may seek some sort of nuclear superiority to obtain victory in a limited nuclear war—the same sort of war that is unlikely to stop short of an all-out exchange. After all this, Mr. Brown also tells us that “superiority is an idle goal.”27 Yet without superiority, victory could not be obtained in a limited nuclear war and it would almost certainly escalate out of control. If Presidential Directive 59 follows Mr. Brown’s exposition, it is a mishmash of contradictory premises and prescriptions.

After Brown came Caspar W. Weinberger, the present secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Mr. Weinberger is another wholesale options merchant. He has offered the president one of the most treacherous options of all, though the idea may not have originated with him or his advisers.28 This option is the conduct of a protracted nuclear war in which the United States “must prevail” or out of which it must “emerge” with “terms favorable” to us. This policy was enshrined in a document entitled “Fiscal Year 1984–1988 Defense Guidance,” issued in the spring of 1982, which had to be leaked in order for ordinary citizens to know about it.

Ironically, Mr. Weinberger has indirectly criticized his own policy. The idea of a protracted or prolonged nuclear war is so indefensible that he tried to repudiate it in a letter sent to a number of US and foreign publications in August 1982. He also tried to repudiate the concept of a nuclear victory in a letter sent to me in July 1983. What seems to have happened in this: The policy of waging a protracted nuclear war and of prevailing in such a war has been adopted officially but disavowed publicly. The least that can be said of this two-tracked or two-faced policy is that it is a strange way of conducting serious business in a democracy.

Here is Mr. Weinberger on both sides of these issues:

For protracted nuclear war: US forces must be able to maintain “through a protracted conflict period and afterward, the capability to inflict very high levels of damage” on Soviet industry. Should a Soviet attack “nevertheless occur, United States nuclear capabilities must prevail under the condition of a prolonged war.”29

Against protracted nuclear war: “I am increasingly concerned with news accounts that portray this Administration as planning to wage protracted nuclear war, or seeking to acquire a nuclear ‘war-fighting’ capability. This is completely inaccurate….”30

For winning: “…United States nuclear capabilities must prevail…. earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States”.31 “…to achieve political objectives and secure early war termination on terms favorable to the United States and its allies.”32 “You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.”33

Against winning: “…we do not believe there could be any winners in a nuclear war”;34 “…our belief that there could be no winners in a nuclear war.”35

Finally, a still greater temptation has recently been put forward by influential nuclear war theorists. Like most temptations, nuclear or otherwise, there is nothing new or original about it; it merely pushes the temptation further than anyone has dared to do in the past. These tempters advocate the development of nuclear weapons that could attack targets so “precisely and discriminately” that they could safely be used against the enemy’s weapons “without mass destruction.”36 Their nuclear war would be something like a ping-pong game in which each side would “precisely and discriminately” drop its nuclear warheads on the other side’s weapons. Since this scheme holds out the prospect of avoiding mass destruction, it is more tempting than the prospect of repeating the heavy civilian casualties and widespread destruction of the two conventional world wars in this century.

As I have tried to show, we have been through all this before. Targeting the enemy’s weapons or military facilities may reduce civilian casualties at the outset, but these will still be so high—somewhere in the millions—that it is irresponsible and heartless to play around with the likelihood of avoiding mass destruction. The Soviets, at least, have clustered many of their nuclear weapons and installations in proximity to their cities, especially Moscow. There would be no way of adequately testing our precise and discriminating weapons, even if—someday—we should have them. There is no reason to believe that both sides would agree to use precise and discriminating weapons only, especially if one side should be put at a disadvantage in the development of such weapons. There is no reason to believe that either side would trust the other, even if they both agreed to use such weapons only. If those precise and discriminating weapons did not knock out all or most of the other side’s nuclear weapons at once, retaliation could only take the form of a more indiscriminate counterattack. For one thing, the same type of weapon would no longer be available to both sides; for another, one side’s precise and discriminating weapons would already have been shot off, thus no longer offering a useful target to the other.

  1. 23

    McNamara’s choice of words invited the unfortunate acronym MAD. Critics of deterrence theory love to ridicule it as if it were a description of the doctrine. Professor Michael Howard has suggested that a better term would be “mutually assured deterrence,” which would still have permitted the acronym MAD but made it seem less mad (The Causes of Wars, Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 136).

  2. 24

    Michael Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Question (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 112.

  3. 25

    General and Complete Disarmament: A Comprehensive Study of Nuclear Weapons, Report to the Secretary General (United Nations, 1981), cited by McNamara, Foreign Affairs (Fall 1983), p. 71.

  4. 26

    Harold Brown, Thinking About National Security (Westview Press, 1983), pp. 78-79.

  5. 27

    Brown, p. 82.

  6. 28

    Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s assistant for national security affairs, has claimed credit for the concept of waging a protracted nuclear war. It was in a presidential directive in November 1979, according to Brzezinski, that “for the first time the United States deliberately sought for itself the capability to manage a prolonged conflict.” Presidential Directive 59 was “concerned with mobilization, defense, command, and control for a long conflict, and with flexible use of our forces, strategic and general-purpose, on behalf of war aims that we would select as we engaged in conflict” (Power and Principle, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983, pp. 457, 459).

  7. 29

    Fiscal Year 1984–1988 Defense Guidance.

  8. 30

    Letter of Secretary of Defense Weinberger to foreign and domestic publications of August 23, 1982, published in The New York Review, November 4, 1982.

  9. 31

    Fiscal Year 1984–1988 Defense Guidance.

  10. 32

    Fiscal Year 1985–1989 Defense Guidance.

  11. 33

    Interview with Richard Halloran, The New York Times, August 9, 1982.

  12. 34

    Letter of August 23, 1982, published in The New York Review, November 4, 1982.

  13. 35

    Letter of Mr. Weinberger to Theodore Draper, July 13, 1983, published in The New York Review, August 18, 1983.

  14. 36

    For example, Albert Wohlstetter, Commentary (June 1983), especially p. 29.

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