• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Nuclear Temptations

A Postscript

In my exchange with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, in The New York Review of August 18, 1983, I devoted some lines to an article by Albert Wohlstetter in Commentary of June 1983:

This vision of a controlled nuclear war, capable of hitting only military targets “precisely and discriminately,” was recently proclaimed as the new nuclear gospel by Albert Wohlstetter, no stranger to the Pentagon, in the June 1983 issue of Commentary, which has become an organ of the nuclear warriors. Wohlstetter in effect conceives of nuclear war as if it could be a kind of ping-pong game in which nuclear warheads would drop “precisely and discriminately” on each side’s military installations “without mass destruction.” This is the most perverse and dangerous nuclear temptation that has been dangled before us in a long time. It is the apotheosis of the limited, controlled nuclear war that is even less likely to hurt people than the bad, old-fashioned artillery and aerial bombardments which were responsible for vast mass destruction.

I also commented on Wohlstetter’s pose of moral superiority:

Apparently it is moral to bring nuclear war closer by making it more like any other kind of war and even more precise and discriminating. But it is immoral to remove nuclear war from rational calculation for the reason that it is likely to be so mutually devastating that it could serve no useful political end. It is insidious to urge that one type of nuclear war is immoral, but that another, more seductive kind—neatly, cleanly “military”—is by implication moral or at least more morally acceptable. To pretend that moral distinctions can be made between allegedly different types of nuclear wars is already taking a most slippery and menacing step toward breaking the nuclear barrier. If we should bite off our tongues before uttering one word in this discussion, that word is “morality.”

Mr. Wohlstetter has chosen to answer me in the letter columns of the December 1983 issue of Commentary. Wohlstetter also takes issue with others who wrote in about his article, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents,” but I need only comment on the matters that directly concern me. The points in question are fundamental to those raised by the “nuclear temptations,” and, therefore, a confrontation with his views may contribute to a better understanding of what is at stake.

Wohlstetter says that “it’s hard to resist taking just a few well-aimed smacks at such fierce but hollow defenders of this establishment faith [mutual assured destruction] as Theodore Draper, who nowadays appears regularly in The New York Review of Books.” It’s not clear to me why he found those smacks hard to resist, inasmuch as he returns to my alleged transgressions again and again, or what sinister significance there is in appearing regularly in The New York Review. Still, let us see how well-aimed his “smacks” are.

Curiously, one of his best-aimed smacks is by Wohlstetter against Wohlstetter. The Wohlstetter who wrote the reply took just such a smack at the Wohlstetter who wrote the article. In the article of June 1983, the first Wohlstetter came out for nuclear weapons with “the capability to attack targets precisely and discriminately,” and he deplored opposition to “research and engineering on ways to destroy military targets without mass destruction” (italics added). In the reply of December 1983, the second Wohlstetter completely dropped the term “precisely” and fell back on “discriminate and proportionate.” The latter are obviously so vague and general—how discriminate? Proportionate to what?—that they may mean anything or nothing. “Precisely” was evidently too precise to be repeated.

There is also no longer any suggestion of getting nuclear weapons “without mass destruction.” Instead, Wohlstetter now tells us that he has “never been in the slightest bit unclear about the slaughter involved in war, even a nonnuclear war” and that “war would be terrible, even if we were able to confine the destruction effectively to military targets.” Once again Wohlstetter, has silently corrected Wohlstetter, not me.

As for that metaphor about a nuclear ping-pong game, Wohlstetter writes: “Theodore Draper, at his surliest, suggests that I think a nuclear war would be like ping-pong” and “cannot conceive of any use of nuclear weapons in between a neat well-mannered game of ping-pong and total mutual annihilation.” Once more it escapes me why I had to be “at my surliest” to suggest that Wohlstetter’s original version of his preferred nuclear war would resemble “a kind of ping-pong game.” I am sure that I would have written the same thing even if I had been at my sunniest.

It should be recalled that what I wrote was based on Wohlstetter’s original article. If the nuclear war is going to be fought with weapons that drop precisely on other nuclear weapons, and could be developed to do so without mass destruction, the effect would be very much like a nuclear ping-pong game. If one read only Wohlstetter’s reply, one would never know that he had originally espoused nuclear weapons so precise that he could envisage dropping them without causing mass destruction.

Wohlstetter knows better than to pretend that I cannot conceive of a nuclear exchange that is somewhere between a neat well-mannered ping-pong game and total mutual annihilation. But that is not the point. What was originally in question was what Wohlstetter, not I, could conceive. He initially conceived of a neat, if not particularly well-mannered, nuclear ping-pong game, a war of dropping nuclear weapons precisely on nuclear weapons or their installations. It is not particularly hard to conceive, at least in the abstract, of a nuclear war coming somewhere between those extremes, but I do not think that my conception—or his—is all that important. We may conceive of almost any kind of nuclear war, but that is all it would be—a conception. The reality is another matter.

This brings me to the main point. Basically, Wohlstetter has resurrected the counterforce doctrine of fighting a limited, controlled nuclear war in which both sides concentrate on “enemy military power.” He contrasts favorably small nuclear weapons with conventional weapons, on the grounds that the former would do less direct damage and would be better able “to keep the chain of violence under political control.” If both sides limited themselves to such nuclear weapons, he reasons, they could do most damage to each other’s military targets and minimum damage to “non-combatants.” Wohlstetter also contends that anyone who threatens to do much more than that, especially if the policy were based on “mutual assured destruction” or MAD, is bluffing or has no intention of carrying out the threat.

One oddity is that he feels it necessary to launch a lengthy attack on MAD, as if it were the “establishment faith,” and as if I represented the “establishment.” He himself acknowledges that MAD “has never been operational policy in the United States” and “could not be.” The declared American policy since the early 1970s has been based on “flexible response,” which has been increasingly interpreted in the past decade in the light of the counterforce doctrine, such as Wohlstetter advocates. Whose “establishment” is he fighting? He is really defending the current official orthodoxy, but one would never know it from his article or reply.

Wohlstetter’s method is entirely conceptual. All that actually comes out of it is the proposition that a limited, controlled nuclear war would be better than a total, uncontrolled nuclear war. He never touches the real question of how feasible or likely a limited, controlled nuclear war may be. It never seems to occur to him that one should be cautious about celebrating the comparative virtues of a limited, controlled nuclear war if it is not likely to remain limited and controlled or even if the risk of its becoming unlimited and uncontrolled is too great to take. Almost no one who has written on the subject believes that a nuclear war can be safely controlled. The most recent skeptic is an old soldier with impeccable military credentials. Lieutenant General Arthur S. Collins, Jr. (US Army, ret.) has contributed an extraordinarily realistic analysis of just the kind of war that Wohlstetter conceives of. Here are some of his reflections:

The scenarios for how a tactical nuclear war will be kept limited are just not credible—at least not to me. Most of those who postulate scenarios for tactical nuclear war have a faculty of describing situations in which understanding, cooperation, and compliance by the enemy make those scenarios credible. There is an unwarranted assumption that compliance will be forthcoming….

But nothing in human history compares to the tactical nuclear battlefield where several hundred—or several thousand—nuclear weapons will be used by both sides. The physical devastation and psychological trauma of the nuclear battlefield will be without parallel….

Many war games and studies have shown that where the first use of nuclear weapons is careful and discrete, the side initiating the nuclear attack would be overwhelmed by a sudden and massive enemy nuclear response….

The lack of an acceptable doctrine for tactical nuclear war contributes to the distortion, but it is not due to neglect. There have been studies and wargames by the hundreds, but still no credible doctrine.47

General Collins’s judgments—there are many more, equally pungent and instructive—particularly apply to Wohlstetter’s type of nuclear scholasticism.

The nub of Wohlstetter’s argument is that the Soviets will follow our example if we assure them that we will use nuclear arms only against their weaponry, not against civilian concentrations. That is what he calls a “non-suicidal response.” An attack against their civilians, who “in any case, do us no harm,” would be suicidal, because the Soviets would return fire in kind. Thus the success of Wohlstetter’s policy hinges on a mutual agreement to conduct a limited, controlled nuclear war only—one limited to military targets and politically controlled from beginning to end.

All depends, then, on these two conditions. How likely are they to be fulfilled? Soviet doctrine has always called for a massive, overwhelming nuclear response. In March 1983, Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet General Staff, gave an interview to Leslie H. Gelb of The New York Times (March 17, 1983). Ogarkov said that “to keep such a [nuclear] war limited will not be possible” logically, and that “inevitably, such a war will extend to allout war.” Most American and almost all European authorities agree with him or consider that no reliance can be put on a barrier between limited nuclear war and all-out nuclear war.

In any case, it matters little what anyone says about intending to wage a strictly limited nuclear war. The dynamic character of war, past and future, makes such self-denial a peacetime luxury or an academic exercise. Wohlstetter has a curious way of venting his spleen on those who, allegedly like myself, “threaten mutual annihilation in order to deter.” This is a strange aberration. I believe that any nuclear war will bring with it the risk of mutual annihilation—hardly an original thought—and, therefore, that the risk itself acts as a deterrent to engaging in such a war. The risk of mutual annihilation inheres in the nature of this beast. It is there whether anyone who is misguided enough to disagree with Wohlstetter threatens it or not. Even if mutual annihilation is too strong a term, the “terrible” destruction to be expected even in a counterforce nuclear exchange, as Wohlstetter admits is the case, would be great enough to amount to a near-suicide pact. No matter how we conceive a nuclear war might begin, we cannot be sure—we can hardly conceive—how it will end.

The real issue is whether the temptation of a nuclear war limited to the assured mutual destruction of nuclear weapons or military targets only makes a nuclear war appear to be more feasible and, therefore, more likely. It is not, as Wohlstetter would like to have it, whether anyone threatens the assured mutual destruction of entire societies. If, as Wohlstetter believes, a policy of MAD cannot be taken seriously anyway, and it has not been American policy for almost two decades, it is hard to understand why Wohlstetter should have worked himself into such an unseemly fit of ill-aimed “smacks.” If MAD should ever come to pass, it will most likely come about as the final stage of a nuclear war that is supposed to be limited and controlled à la Wohlstetter.

There is no necessary moral choice between the admittedly terrible slaughter of a limited, controlled nuclear war and the possible mutual annihilation of an all-out nuclear war, and even less if the terrible slaughter may well end up in mutual annihilation. If morality enters at all, it is in how to avoid such a choice, not in how to make it.

  1. 47

    The Washington Quarterly (Summer 1983), pp. 67-79.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print