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Nuclear Temptations

Thus the technological cure is a form of the disease. It is actually a prescription for a potential first strike, the most dangerous of all nuclear temptations. It is interesting to note that an analysis was made in 1968 to determine the relative number of casualties in the event of a Soviet or an American first strike. The paradoxical result was a finding that there would be more American casualties in the case of an American first strike than in the case of a Soviet first strike. The paradox arose because it was figured that the side striking first would go after military targets, whereas the retaliating side would mainly hit cities.37 All of which suggests that this is not a subject for weak nerves or soft heads.

The ultimate temptation, in my view, is the type of indoctrination we are now getting. It is indoctrination in the feasibility of some kind of nuclear war or at least the use of some kind of nuclear weapons in some kind of war. Feasibility is almost always expressed in terms of the counterforce strategy and the technology necessary to carry it out. As you may suspect, I consider them to be a snare and a delusion. I see no way of getting rid of nuclear weapons; and I see no political purpose served by using them. All the theorizing about limited, controlled nuclear war is just that—theorizing. We may be fortunate that the decisions will be made not by theorists but by practical politicians, who have to ask themselves what conceivable political purpose would be served by running the risk of a devastation that will know no politics.

But there is politics and politics. There are the political rules by which nations decide what weapons they need and political games which they play in negotiations with other nations. In the first case, the governing question is—or should be—“What is enough?” In the second case, it almost invariably becomes “Who’s ahead?” Negotiations between nuclear nations, even in the name of reductions, seem to bring out the worst in them. Since they are overstuffed with nuclear weapons, they can afford to negotiate in the realm of redundancy, so that it makes little practical difference what partial reductions they decide on, if any. The real target is not so much the other side’s nuclear weapons as its political will and unity. It makes little military difference whether the SS-20s are stationed on the western borders of the Soviet Union, from which they can reach all or most of Western Europe, or whether, as the Soviets have recently threatened, they are moved to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The threat is made to be psychologically intimidating, because it cannot be anything else.

The redundancy factor is one of the most tantalizing. It is difficult to establish just where it begins. Yet it is not difficult to recognize that we have long since passed that point, wherever it is. Former Secretary of Defense Brown tells us: “A single 50-kiloton to 1-megaton nuclear explosion over a city will kill several hundred thousand people. The United States and the Soviet Union each have more than 6,000 such warheads, and the vehicles to deliver them, in their stockpiles. Thus each has much more than enough capability to destroy all the large and medium-sized cities in the other’s country.”38 At the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1983, President Mitterrand said that the US and USSR both have “a nuclear system of 2,000 to 3,000 launchers, carrying 8,000 to 9,000 nuclear warheads.” They are enough to “reach and destroy each other seven or eight times over.” The French alone are said to have the ability to wipe out thirty Soviet cities.39 Yet they too are adding to their nuclear armory.

Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet General Staff, has asserted that both the United States and the Soviet Union have the ability to fire at a single launching on the order of 12,000 warheads with a total yield of 3,400 megatons from strategic nuclear weapons, or 170,000 times the yield of the first Hiroshima bomb. Yet it is generally agreed that one thousand warheads would be more than enough for deterrent purposes.40 Presumably Brown, Mitterrand, and Ogarkov have access to the most trustworthy information, denied to ordinary mortals.

Another and more fearsome measure of redundancy has been offered by Professor Carl Sagan on behalf of a distinguished group of scientists. It is usually accepted, according to this study, that both American and Soviet arsenals contain about 18,000 strategic thermonuclear warheads, with an aggregate yield of 10,000 megatons, in addition to about 35,000 tactical and intermediate weapons. Yet, no more than 500 to 2,000 strategic warheads would be enough to trigger a climatic catastrophe threatening the survival of the human race. “In summary,” Professor Sagan writes, “cold, dark, radioactivity, pyrotoxins and ultraviolet light following a nuclear war—including some scenarios involving only a small fraction of the world strategic arsenals—would imperil every survivor on the planet.” Thus the redundancy factor here amounts to a minimum of 16,000 strategic thermonuclear warheads. In addition, a first strike is estimated to require from 2,200 to 4,500 attacking warheads to be effective. This number would clearly approach and possibly overreach the threshold of a climatic catastrophe. The study concludes, “a major first strike may be an act of national suicide, even if no retaliation occurs.” 41

The enormous redundancy of nuclear weapons on both sides has a direct bearing on the efficacy of a nuclear “freeze.” I am not opposed to it; I am simply not enthusiastic about it. The present stocks of nuclear arms would be frozen at such high levels that it would (a) make little difference in the ability of both sides to destroy each other, and (b) operate mainly to keep down the sphere of redundancy. A freeze cannot at best take the place of a mutually deterrent nuclear balance, whatever the level of the freeze might be. The great utility of a freeze or a comprehensive test ban is not so much in itself but in what it might lead to; it might conceivably be a first step in an agreement to stabilize the nuclear confrontation and eventually to reduce the level of forces. There are all sorts of gimmicks and placebos being offered in the nuclear marketplace, but on close examination they all depend ultimately on deterrence to give them a semblance of plausibility.42

The lesson I draw from the entire course of Soviet-American nuclear negotiations is that they have done more harm than good; they increase tensions and mistrust; at best they end up by letting both sides keep what they really want to keep and give up what they really do not need. The greatest nuclear reductions would come about if each side simply decided by and for itself to maintain whatever stable force level was necessary to deter the other side from taking incalculable risks. Neither side will ever negotiate itself below this level anyway, so negotiations ultimately turn on gaining political rather than military advantage.

But “what if deterrence fails?” This question is often asked, with an air of triumph, as if the possible failure of deterrence were a reason for rejecting it. Such an attitude is comparable to that of rejecting a life-support system in a hospital because it may fail or be inadequate to keep a mortally ill patient alive. Yet the possibility of failure does confront us with the fearful problem of what to do if some sort of nuclear war should break out. Toward the end of his life, Bernard Brodie gave the answer that the main goal should be “to terminate it as quickly as possible and with the least amount of damage possible—on both sides.”43 That was the attitude of one who had thought that almost anything was better for mankind than total nuclear war.44 I have also been driven ineluctably to this conclusion, without, however, pretending to know how it will be possible to terminate a nuclear war with the least possible damage. Yet Brodie’s view is infinitely preferable to one which calls for a “Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory”45 or of another which claims that the Soviet Union has found a theory of victory by way of nuclear “superiority.”46

To my mind, the obvious answer to the question “What if deterrence fails?” is that we do not know what will happen. We have no experience with the failure of nuclear deterrence, and without experience we have little or nothing to go by. Wars have been notoriously unpredictable, and nuclear wars must surely be the most unpredictable of all. We do not know how, where, by whom, or to what extent deterrence would fail. It would seem to be the most ordinary prudence and elementary common sense to make sure that we are not responsible for its failure, that we do whatever we must to limit the damage to ourselves and our allies, and to induce the other side to terminate the conflict as quickly as possible in its own interest. But all this is so far in the realm of the contingent and unpredictable that no one can be sure what such a war would be like or how the antagonists and the world at large could even survive it in recognizable condition. This very uncertainty is an element of deterrence. If it is any comfort, we know more about how to deter a nuclear war, judging from almost half a century of some sort of deterrence, than we know how to fight one.

I am, therefore, a believer in the lesser evil of nuclear deterrence. I believe in it because it is by far the lesser evil, not because it is good. The main enemy at present is not a nuclear balance that results in mutual deterrence; it is the propaganda about the feasibility of nuclear war by way of precise and discriminating weapons allegedly capable of avoiding mass destruction. The main reason nuclear weapons have not been used thus far is precisely the belief that they cannot be launched for any useful political purpose and that mutual mass destruction can be of no conceivable benefit to either side. But now the Pied Pipers of a protracted nuclear war and of precise and discriminating nuclear weapons are trying to lure us to break through the psychological and political barriers to nuclear war.

Lord Henry Wotton told Dorian Gray that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Clearly that would not do in this case. The only way for us to get rid of this temptation is to know it for what it is and to reject it precisely and discriminatingly.

To use or not to use”—that is the “to be or not to be” of our time and for as long as we can now foresee.

  1. 37

    Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough? (Harper and Row, 1971), p. 189. This view still seems to have a place in American nuclear planning. Admiral Stansfield Turner, USN (Ret.), has recently said that “every calculation I have seen indicates that even if the Soviets were to make a surprise all-out attack on our strategic forces, we would still be able to respond with a counterattack that would level the entire urban area of the Soviet Union” (The American Oxonian, Spring 1983, p. 88). As a recent director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Admiral Turner must have seen quite a few such calculations.

  2. 38

    Brown, Thinking About National Security, p. 59.

  3. 39

    The New York Times, May 8, 1983.

  4. 40

    The New York Times, December 11, 1983.

  5. 41

    Carl Sagan, “Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications,” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1983/84), pp. 260, 276-277, 292. We now have a new definition of an optimist. At Harvard University recently, Professor Teller said: “I do not think that nuclear war necessarily means the end of the human race” (The New Leader, November 28, 1983, p. 10).

  6. 42

    I have already dealt at some length with the similar problems presented by the “no-first-use” proposal (see The New York Review, July 15, 1982).

  7. 43

    Bernard Brodie, International Security (Spring 1978), p. 79.

  8. 44

    Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton University Press, 1959; paperback, 1965), p. 269.

  9. 45

    Colin S. Gray, in International Security (Summer 1979). Mr. Gray is now president of the National Institute for Public Policy, a consultant to the US Department of State, and a member of the General Advisory Committee of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

  10. 46

    Robert Jastrow, “Why Strategic Superiority Matters,” Commentary (March 1983), pp. 27-32.

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