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Nuclear Temptations’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

To make his muddled prescription for deterrence a shred more persuasive, Mr. Draper ignores or misreads a lot of history and grossly misrepresents my own long-held views. My “Bishops, Statesmen and Other Strategists,” in last June’s Commentary, detailed the confusions in the declaratory strategy dominant in the West for twenty years, that to deter any Soviet use of nuclear weapons we must threaten to annihilate civil society in the East, even though that would lead to ending it in the West—and possibly life on earth. If our threats of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) failed to deter a nuclear attack, even one confined enough to leave us an obvious continuing stake in survival, slogans like “Deterrence Only” and “Use, Never” imply directly that we should not use nuclear weapons in response. In short, we’d have to give up; there would be no “exchange,” only the Soviet use. But even without such slogans, threats to bring on the apocalypse have been increasingly transparent, a bluff made only more visible by the relative growth of Soviet nuclear and nonnuclear forces; and by the fact that the US has always intended to deter a nuclear attack (or even an overwhelming nonnuclear attack) on an ally, and not only a nuclear attack on itself.

Even if we were to bite off our tongues, as Draper recommends, rather than talk about moral issues raised by threatening to blow up the world, such a ruinous bluff would be recklessly imprudent. By undermining the credibility that we would respond at all, it raises the chances that the Soviets would choose to use nuclear weapons to avoid some more plausible disaster they might face, for example during the course of unexpected troubles in a conventional invasion. But some proponents of MAD would also increase the chance that we might use our own nuclear weapons by mistake since, to give suicidal threats a semblance of conviction, they have proposed that we launch our ICBMs automatically in response to electromagnetic indications that the Soviets have launched theirs. Finally, advocates of MAD threats who oppose any attempt to increase our ability to set bounds to the harm done to either side, not only increase the probability of nuclear war by accident or choice, but make the devastation that would result more extensive.

To deter attack, instead of threatening to annihilate noncombatants on both sides, we should prepare to respond by targeting combatants and their essential support in ways appropriate to the given contingency: (1) The West has long needed urgently to improve its conventional forces so that they can be expected to defeat a nonnuclear attack on any interest critical for the West. For this purpose we need to improve our ability to deliver nonnuclear weapons precisely on military targets from safer extended ranges. (2) The prospect of losing key elements of their conventional or nuclear power should deter Soviet attack as much as the risk of losing Soviet bystanders: their past behavior makes clear that they value military power at least as much as Soviet bystanders. (3) By attacking key elements of Soviet military power, we would most directly interfere with Soviet conduct of war and so hasten its end. (4) Just as the prospect of losing key parts of their military power would discourage an initial attack, so still greater expected losses would deter continuing attacks. (5) In any case, we don’t want to destroy bystanders in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union: it’s wrong, they do us no harm, and many are potential allies. Finally, (6) such a policy of deterring attack and bringing the war to conclusion quickly by emphasizing response against military targets does not require that the Soviets “agree” to follow the same policy, though Draper falsely claims that is “the nub of my argument.” It is neither the nub, nor any part of it.1 The Soviets have reasons of their own to avoid letting violence mount without limit. They’ve always taken enemy military forces as their principal wartime targets and have never shown an interest in suicide or assuring an enemy that he could destroy them. Even if they waste military effort by destroying our harmless bystanders, we are still better off ending the war as rapidly as we can by targeting their military forces.

In the December Commentary, I said that “even rhetorical wars should be limited and discriminate…I do not hold that proponents of the now standard Western threats to destroy population on both sides of the Iron Curtain would prefer to surrender (or, still less, to execute such threats) rather than to deter. It is their way of trying to deter.” I hoped proponents of MAD threats might avoid saying that those who emphasize response against military targets actually prefer war to deterring it.

A wan hope. Some (not all) contributors to The New York Review persistently suggest just that. So Draper. He thinks it’s odd, since I said it was hard to resist answering his distortions, that I did—at several points. Nothing odd about that. Things that are hard to resist are easy to do. On the other hand, I took careful aim. I wasn’t tempted to make the wildly inaccurate swings that are at the core of Draper’s own angry and blustering polemic.

Like many advocates of MAD threats, Draper holds a technological determinism foreclosing choice in nuclear policy and he shares their sloppy treatment of the key role of uncertainties and risks. He presents an extreme version of “launch-on-warning” that suggests we might launch our missiles irrevocably on the basis of signs of reversible preparations by the Soviets to launch an attack.2 He frequently states without qualification that “once they [nuclear forces] are used, they can only effectively destroy both the Soviets and ourselves,”3 and assumes implicitly that even in a regional conflict with Soviet forces, if we respond to their use of nuclear weapons by attacking military targets, we would have to attack all or almost all Soviet military forces and facilities including those inside large cities.4 On the other hand, sometimes he asserts only that “any nuclear war will bring with it the risk of mutual annihilation,”5 that is, it may end that way. Draper says it would be irrational for the US to annihilate itself on behalf of Europe, but fails to note that suicide does no more on behalf of oneself.

Draper never seriously considers the possibility that if the Soviet Union uses nuclear weapons in a limited way, and we respond in kind, we would both continue to have the strongest incentives to keep their use well short of total mutual annihilation. He merely asserts that the losing side is “bound to…overcome some disadvantage by a process of escalation.”6 Even if escalation made things vastly worse? If it meant “suicide”? The end of life on earth? Indeed, in spite of his many statements that any nuclear exchange would lead to mutual annihilation, he also says that should deterrence fail, “it would seem to be the most ordinary prudence and elementary common sense to make sure 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.”7

Draper does not tell us how to make doing whatever we must “sure” (or even a bit more likely) since he also says that the losing side is “bound” to escalate. Nor why we should try if, as he sometimes says, any nuclear exchange will inevitably lead to mutual suicide. He suggests that we can do nothing to limit harm should deterrence fail, because “no one can be sure what such a war would be like.” But the large uncertainties do not mean we can do no better than to prepare a capability simply to assure mutual annihilation. We can improve the odds, reduce the uncertainties about what we should do to limit damage. Draper not only implies that improvements in our capacity to maintain control and discrimination in various contingencies are infeasible, but, even worse, that they would weaken deterrence because they would reduce “uncertainty.”

My June and December pieces dealt with the stereotype that the more uncertain the better for deterring.8 The effectiveness of a deterrent depends not merely on the horror of the sanction promised but on the likelihood that it would be applied. The fact that the West had made no preparation to respond by limiting the catastrophe in case deterrence fails would make it less believable that we’d try. By decreasing the certainty of our response, we would then make it more tempting for the Soviets to believe us when we say that we may threaten suicidal use of nuclear weapons but never actually use them. Verbal nuclear threats hedged by statements that nuclear weapons have no use except as threats erode deterrence. But behavior revealing that we deliberately avoid capabilities or plans to respond in a nonsuicidal way erode it even further.

US political leaders never came anywhere near approving plans for attacking the Soviets when the US had a nuclear monopoly; nor for many years after, when Soviet nuclear forces were highly vulnerable. Yet many proponents of MAD threats believe that Western leaders would be tempted to use nuclear weapons simply because the West might emerge only “severely damaged” by a nuclear catastrophe.9 They assume that only a small risk of nuclear harm would deter the Soviet Union, but that the US would be tempted to nuclear preventive war by any outcome that was less than totally devastating.10 Draper’s “Nuclear Temptations” [NYR, January 19] does not deal with how the Soviets might be tempted to use nuclear weapons to overcome grave difficulties in the course of a conventional war on a critical flank of NATO11—especially if they thought that the West would not respond because its leaders deemed a nuclear “exchange” suicidal. The “nuclear temptations” Draper treats are solely those affecting the West.

With such muddy views, Draper needs to rewrite history as well as the views of his critics to make his own way of trying to deter seem inevitable and “classic.” No mean feat. He suggests (1) that current critics of MAD call for an increased reliance on nuclear weapons, and (2) that they think nuclear wars can be made quite riskless, and hence (3) preferable to deterrence: He draws the “real dividing line…between those who wish to give nuclear weapons a war-deterring and those who wish to give them a war-fighting role”! This involves him in gross falsification.

One key example of the first misrepresentation:

He [Wohlstetter] 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.” [Emphasis mine.]

But the passage from which Draper lifts a phrase says the exact opposite! It contrasts small nuclear weapons unfavorably with advanced conventional munitions in both direct harm and controllability. I said:

…even accurately delivered, small nuclear weapons will by no means make nuclear war, as Mr. Draper suggests in tones of horror, “even more precise and discriminating” than “any other kind of war.” Most obviously, it will be vastly more indiscriminate than a war conducted with the extremely precise conventional weapons now feasible. A thousandth of a square mile subject to destruction by such a “conventional” weapon contrasts with an area three orders of magnitude larger than might be destroyed by a small, relatively accurate nuclear weapon. The contrast, of course, is not merely in the direct damage done, but in the ability to keep the chain of violence under political control. [Commentary, December 1983, p. 18; emphasis added.]

It may be charitable to say that Draper is no marksman, that he swings his polemical popgun wildly and fires blind. His method of quoting falls below journalistic and not merely scholarly standards.

Moreover, contrary to Draper’s claims, I held the same views in June 1983:

Improvements in [midcourse] guidance…make feasible radical reductions in collateral damage. Even more important, terminal guidance…in the late 1980s could further reduce inaccuracies at extended ranges by another order of magnitude. That would permit a conventional weapon to replace nuclear bombs in a wide variety of missions with an essentially equal probability of destroying a fixed military target. It would drastically raise the threshold beyond which one would have to resort to nuclear weapons in order to be effective. It would mean a much smaller likelihood of “escalation” and incomparably smaller side effects.12

And in March 1973:

With the new accuracies, it becomes possible to use nonnuclear munitions in many circumstances where a desperate hope had formerly been pinned on using small nuclear weapons…. The first order effect of increased accuracy is to permit the use of fewer and less destructive weapons. Far from obliterating the distinction between nonnuclear and nuclear weapons, it means that in many more cases we will not be forced to resort to a nuclear response or accept defeat.13

In fact, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” which mainly expounded the second-strike theory of nuclear deterrence, called over twenty-five years ago for “advanced conventional weapons.”14 And its longer version, published in mid-1958 at Rand, attacked the fashionable notion that tactical nuclear weapons favored us and obviated the need for improved conventional forces. Finally, as McNamara’s representative on the Acheson Committee to review NATO strategy in 1961, I wrote the first draft of the NSC memorandum ending massive retaliation and calling for greatly improved conventional forces.

Draper’s charge that I prefer small nuclear to conventional weapons is related to his second key whopper, namely that I think nuclear war can be as harmless and riskless as table tennis. That is pure Draper. Stressing in June the lower risks of escalation and “incomparably smaller side effects” of conventional weapons was the same as saying what I said in December: that nuclear weapons risk much more the loss of control and are “vastly more indiscriminate.” That doesn’t sound like ping-pong. Just as improved nonnuclear weapons can reduce collateral damage by comparison with even small nuclear weapons, new systems (like mid-course guidance) can radically improve our ability to reduce unintended nuclear harm by comparison with systems available in the late 1950s, when prospects for discrimination were at their worst. But even the most accurate small nuclear weapons are far from harmless.

In June I said that attacking military targets on land,

effectively with the huge inaccuracies expected in the late 1950s would have meant filling an enormous area of uncertainty with destruction. That might typically have subjected an area of 1000 square miles or so to unintended lethal effects. By contrast, a current cruise missile, with midcourse guidance and a small nuclear warhead, could be equally effective against a military target while confining lethal damage to less than one square mile. Most important, improved terminal guidance in the next few years could enable a cruise missile with a suitable nonnuclear warhead to destroy a military target and reduce the area of fatal collateral damage to about one-thousandth of a square mile.15

Reducing the area of damage by a factor of 1000 means nothing to Draper. He regards it as a recent outrage that anyone would distinguish among nuclear weapons on moral grounds. However, Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi illustrate the opposite view. They opposed the H-bomb because they thought it would be useful only if it released energy

from 100–1000 times greater than that of ordinary atomic bombs. The area of destruction therefore would run from 150 to approximately 1000 square miles or more. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide. It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country.16

Both opponents and proponents of fusion weapons guessed wrong about the ultimate trends in the destructive yields of weapons using fusion energy, but recognized the issues raised by the use of 20–40 megaton weapons in or near big cities. Both wanted to limit harm rather than depend solely on its frightfulness to deter. Take a proponent, Bernard Brodie, in 1957:

…we must be at least as interested in seeking to control or limit war as we have habitually been in seeking to avoid it altogether. We should, perhaps, be especially suspicious of schemes that seek to accomplish complete avoidance of war through sacrificing at the outset any hopes of limiting whatever significant hostilities may break out—schemes, for example, that seek to rest everything on deterrence. 17

Quite a contrast with the three lines from Brodie’s 1946 essay which Draper and many others like to quote as representing the “strategic essence” of thought on the A-bomb: namely that almost its only purpose is to avoid war. Brodie, in the 1950s, was much less sure than Draper about understanding “strategic essences,” or indeed of assessing the implications of the H-bomb, when “we have not yet succeeded in comprehending the implications of the old” A-bomb.18

Draper says that I retreated from the word “precision” to “vaguer” words like “discrimination” between June and December. He is again firing blindly. I used “precision” and “imprecision” and their synonyms, “accuracy” and “inaccuracy,” with even greater relative frequency in December than in June and talked about such related matters as discriminate and proportionate responses in both. More important, Draper reveals only his own vagueness and misunderstanding of the intrinsic relations between precision and discrimination. Precision in destroying a military target is a necessary but not sufficient condition for avoiding undesired collateral harm. If half of a very large number of bombs were likely to fall outside a circle of an area of eighty miles, as in the case of the accuracies anticipated in the late 1950s for Polaris, one could still destroy the military target provided one used enough bombs or bombs releasing enough destructive energy. However, it would kill bystanders in that huge area. It would be neither discriminate nor precise. On the other hand, even if one had near-perfect accuracy and so needed only a nonnuclear weapon to destroy the military target, if one nonetheless used a twenty megaton H-bomb, it would kill bystanders in their homes in a 600-mile area. Precise but indiscriminate. A suitable nonnuclear weapon with near perfect precision could also be very discriminate.

For Draper, there is no moral or political-military difference between a weapon that destroys bystanders within an area of one thousand miles and a nuclear bomb that might confine its destructive effects to a few miles, or a mile. He assumes implicitly that anyone who prefers the latter to the former also prefers a nuclear war to deterring it. That is his third misrepresentation, at once his most venomous and silly. Not only my repeated statements to that effect but my research, starting in 1951, have shown concretely the primacy I have assigned to deterrence. Its best-known aspects have been the elaboration of the second-strike theory of deterrence, and also the devising of a long sequence of methods of operation, facilities, and systems in order to maintain a protected and responsible second-strike force.

A square mile of destruction is quite a lot. I would prefer to avoid it altogether, or if not, to reduce it a thousandfold. Nonsuicidal policies are likely to deter even limited nuclear wars more effectively than promises to commit suicide. But the precision that will make it feasible to use nonnuclear munitions and reduce the collateral damage to as little as one-thousandth of a square mile, makes an even greater difference. It will improve the chance of avoiding both conventional and nuclear war.

Albert Wohlstetter

Theodore Draper replies:

1.

Before going on to the major issues raised by Albert Wohlstetter’s restatement of his position, I wish to clear away some minor annoyances.

  1. I did not present “an extreme version of ‘launch-on-warning’ ” or any other kind of launching.

  2. I did not fail to note that it would be irrational to commit suicide on behalf of oneself as well as on behalf of Europe. If, as Wohlstetter himself notes, I wrote that “any nuclear war will bring with it the risk of mutual annihilation,” I must have included both types of irrationality.

  3. Wohlstetter repeatedly alludes to alleged threats made by such as me—“threaten to annihilate civil society in the East,” “threats to bring on the apocalypse,” “threatening to blow up the world.” No one needs to make such threats or is making them. The danger of annihilation and apocalypse inheres in the destructive capacity of these weapons. The danger is there, threats or no threats. To see a danger is not to threaten it, as if someone like myself were responsible for the danger.

  4. Wohlstetter’s version of Bernard Brodie’s views does a serious injustice to Brodie. Since he and Brodie were often at odds on basic issues, he should know better. Brodie wrestled with the problems of nuclear warfare for over twenty years, not always in the same way. Wohlstetter cites a passage from 1957. In the 1960s, however, Brodie began to go back to his original position of 1946. In February 1963, he cautioned that “violence between great opponents is inherently difficult to control, and cannot be controlled unilaterally” because the level of violence in hostilities once begun “has in modern times tended always to go up.”19 In his last book, War and Politics, published in 1973, Brodie devoted an entire chapter to the principle enunciated in its title: “On Nuclear Weapons: Utility in Nonuse.” 20 Brodie was not a slavish devotee of any fixed position, but he cannot be presented as if he changed his mind once and for all in the 1950s and did not go back in essentials to his original views in the 1960s and 1970s (Brodie died in 1978).

  5. Wohlstetter’s effort to twist the plain meaning of General Collins’s article for his own ends is another travesty. Collins’s entire article, cited by me at some length, sought to show that “the scenarios for how a tactical nuclear war will be kept limited are just not credible.” Collins’s only qualification was the mere possibility that “a series of limited nuclear exchanges could take place at sea, or possibly in the air over deserts or polar ice caps” where “there are few people and the lifelines of a civilized society are not at risk.” Collins specified limited nuclear exchanges even there—only as a possibility, and only if they stayed there. Wohlstetter may have regarded the use of nuclear weapons in such remote places as “far more likely” than in Europe, but that cannot mean we need only worry about such nuclear exchanges. If, as Wohlstetter has also written, “War would be terrible, even if we were able to confine the destruction effectively to military targets and to combatants,”21 he does not appear to refer to nuclear exchanges at sea or in the air over deserts or polar ice caps. A nuclear-war strategy which cannot stand the test of nuclear war over the Soviet Union, the United States, or Europe, or all three is begging the question.

2.

So much for misreading a lot of history and gross misrepresentations. On one point, however, Wolhstetter is right. I carelessly attributed to him the view that he “contrasts favorably small nuclear weapons with conventional weapons,” whereas he did just the opposite. The point has far less bearing on the main issues than he seems to suggest; and he quickly goes on to make it mean something quite different.

This is how Wohlstetter jumps from my first misrepresentation to a second: “Draper’s charge that I prefer small nuclear to conventional weapons is related to his second key whopper, namely that I think nuclear war can be as harmless and riskless as table tennis.” The issue here is not what he “prefers”; I said nothing about his preference in nuclear weapons; if preference is at all involved, it is with respect to the policy of using nuclear weapons in any circumstances and places, not whether they are small or large.

This “second key whopper” is largely a product of Wohlstetter’s invention. I did not say that he thinks “nuclear war can be as harmless and riskless as table tennis.” This is what I said: “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.’ ” I will have more to say about this, but meanwhile it is enough to note that Wohlstetter’s original term, “without mass destruction,” is far from the same as “harmless and riskless.” The analogy with table tennis hinges on the way the game is played, not on whether nuclear war can similarly be “harmless and riskless.”

My third alleged misrepresentation is that I implicitly assumed that anyone who prefers a weapon with a smaller area of destructive effects “also prefers a nuclear war to deterring it.” Wohlstetter’s language, which is abusive throughout, reaches a howling crescendo with the words “venomous and silly.” I did not assume any such thing. I stated that nuclear weapons “without mass destruction” would increase the “feasibility” of nuclear war. That is where all the venomousness and silliness is supposed to have come from. Nuclear war can be made more feasible whatever Wohlstetter prefers. One is an objective condition; the other is a subjective preference that concerns Wohlstetter, not me.

The difference should be clear and leads me to the major issues between us. These issues are jumbled in Wohlstetter’s statement and need to be disentangled.

3.

  1. In his article of June 1983, Wohlstetter deplored opposition to “research and engineering on ways to destroy military targets without mass destruction” (italics added). The last three words are what originally caused me to react. Wohlstetter has been careful not to repeat them, though they represent the kind of research and engineering in nuclear weaponry that he favors. It is this kind of weaponry that I consider would appeal to governments to make nuclear war more attractive and feasible.

  2. The fundamental deterrence to nuclear war has been the recognition of its devastating destructiveness. If nuclear war can be limited to military targets only or primarily, with its collateral destructive effects limited to a few miles or a mile or even less, as if the collateral distance were acceptable or tolerable, the fundamental element of deterrence would be made to appear drastically, if not fatally, undermined. The alleged reality or early prospect of such a limited, controlled nuclear war would seem to give it a practicable, tolerable role in international conflict, such as it has never yet had.

  3. Even if such a limited, controlled nuclear war should be feasible, it would be necessary for both sides to wage it the same way, that is, limited to military targets. Wohlstetter now inexplicably insists that his viewpoint “does not require the Soviets ‘agree’ to follow the same policy, though Draper claims that is “the nub of my argument.’ It is neither the nub, nor any part of it.” In both his references, his argument turns on the proposition that Soviet leaders value their military power more than their civilians. From this he now concludes: “The Soviets have reasons of their own to avoid letting violence mount without limit.” This can only mean that they have reasons of their own to fight the kind of limited war that Wohlstetter believes we should prepare to fight, that is, one limited to military targets. In a reference which he did not give, Wohlstetter had maintained that “both sides have enormous incentives to control the risks. And both sides are likely increasingly to exploit the new technologies of precision and control.”22 It is absurd to contend, as he now does, that a similar Soviet and American policy with respect to the limited use of nuclear weapons is no part of his argument.

  4. If both sides pursued the same nuclear-war policy, they would supposedly destroy the other’s military targets with minimum collateral destruction of civilian lives and social structure. One side’s nuclear missiles would putatively fall precisely and discriminately on the other’s military targets, and the other’s nuclear missiles would fall precisely and discriminately on one’s own military targets. That is the kind of exchange envisaged by Wohlstetter’s nuclear-war plan. That is what I described as “a kind of ping-pong game”—balls or missiles falling precisely and discriminately within a very limited area, each side batting missiles back and forth. That it would resemble table tennis hardly means that it would be “harmless and riskless,” as Wohlstetter would like it to mean. The harm and risk in his plan would be incalculable because nuclear ping-pong is not going to be played on a table and not with hollow, little, plastic balls.

General Pierre Gallois, whose work I love to read for its Gaullist “logic,” has recently presented a vision of nuclear war similar to that of Wohlstetter’s. If both sides “attack military targets without causing extensive collateral damage that would invite reprisals against cities,” he opined, such a war may again become “the way it was in the 18th century: uniformed forces vs. uniformed forces, with the noncombatants on the sidelines.”23 That is another way of making a future nuclear war more acceptable than any of the wars since the eighteenth century. It represents the most extreme temptation for the use of nuclear weapons that I have come across, and flows from the same premises as Wohlstetter’s—though he may feel it goes rather too far.

  1. But Wohlstetter pushes his plan beyond both sides fighting a nuclear war against military targets only. He believes that the Soviets have “enormous incentives” to fight a nuclear war the way he wants us to plan to fight one; but he wants us to plan to fight it his way even if the Soviets don’t choose to play the same game. He wrote: “Even if the Soviets attack our civil society, I believe that we can and should bring the war to an end most rapidly by concentrating on enemy military power.”24 In effect, we would be threatening the Soviets’ military targets only, whereas the Soviets would be threatening our very civil society. Wohlstetter professes that concentrating on enemy military power would “most directly interfere with his conduct of the war.”

Unfortunately, the “interference” would be of little comfort if enough Soviet heavy missiles got through for the destruction of American civil society; it would be necessary to take out almost the entire Soviet nuclear weaponry at once to prevent such a catastrophe. Wohlstetter also sees no need to worry unnecessarily if the Soviets “waste military effort by destroying our harmless bystanders”—a curious way of describing nuclear attacks against the very physical structure of American existence. If such an unequal exchange were ever accepted by the United States, it would almost certainly raise the specter of Soviet nuclear “blackmail”—so much feared by official American alarmists.

  1. The record does not show that the Soviets have a habit of following the American lead in nuclear weaponry or the tactics associated with them. Quite the opposite has been the case. Secretary of Defense McNamara chose to concentrate on relatively small Minuteman missiles in the 1960s; the Soviets chose to develop much larger, heavier missiles, with the result that we have been treated to a campaign that it is necessary to “catch up” by pushing the MX missiles at home and the Pershing missiles in Europe. If it were ever conceded and recognized that the United States intends to destroy Soviet military targets only, whereas the Soviets intend to destroy the human and social fabric of the United States (for which Wohlstetter’s euphemism is “harmless bystanders”), there is no telling what the political and psychological consequences in the United States might be.

  2. Wohlstetter’s assurance that the Soviets “have never shown an interest in suicide” is not very reassuring. Of course not; neither has anyone else. But the two great wars in this century lasted longer and caused more havoc than its initiators ever intended. Wars once started are infernally difficult to limit and control, especially when both sides have now built up such enormous reserves of escalatory nuclear resources. Wohlstetter scoffs at my assertion that the losing side is “bound to overcome some disadvantage by a process of escalation.” It may well be that the losing side would escalate hoping to stop short of suicide, but all that we know about the dynamics of war should make us wary of pooh-poohing the process of escalation in warfare in desperate efforts to avoid defeat. Nuclear escalation could be bad enough even if it went half way to suicide.

Wohlstetter himself reckons with Soviet escalation from conventional to nuclear warfare, and there is no reason to suppose that such an escalation will take place only at sea, deserts, or polar ice caps. If, as Wohlstetter thinks, the Soviet Union or the United States is unlikely to want to commit nuclear suicide, it will resist the temptation to use nuclear weapons in any way, including against military targets only. A nuclear war is not going to be fought by nuclear theorists who will stipulate in advance that only certain targets can be hit; it will be fought by military professionals whose main aim will be to avoid defeat by whatever means they have at their disposal. Or, as Brodie concluded after a lifetime of reflection—“deterring war is the only sure way to deter use of nuclear weapons.”25

  1. We now come to the ultimate delusion. Wohlstetter refers in passing to “avoiding undesired collateral harm.” He indulges in some fancy, fuzzy theorizing about discrimination and precision without directly facing the reality of “collateral harm.”

Just this problem of collateral harm has been addressed in connection with a study entitled Can Nuclear War Be Controlled? by Desmond Ball for The International Institute for Strategic Studies and published in 1981. Here are some of the things said about “collateral harm” in this study:

The accuracy with which long-range strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDVS) can be delivered is now quite remarkable, but the impact of this improved accuracy on potential collateral damage has been marginal….

Numerous attempts have been made to estimate the collateral effects of nuclear exchanges that are limited solely to strategic counter-force targets…. In the case of a Soviet attack against the 1,054 US ICBM silos…the US collateral fatalities came to 18.3 million people [in a Defense Department study in 1975]. The estimate of 50 million fatalities came from a study by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency [based on different assumptions].

The collateral effects of US counterforce attack [i.e., against military targets] against the Soviet Union are likely to be somewhat greater than those of the Soviet counterforce attacks…the Soviet strategic forces are ill-based from the point of view of minimizing collateral damage. About half of the 26 Soviet ICBM fields are located west of the Ural Mountains, and several of them are near some of the most densely populated areas of the USSR….

Here is how he concludes this section of his study:

Nuclear weapons are simply too powerful and have too many disparate effects, not all of which are predictable, and some of which may currently not even be appreciated. Any nuclear attacks of military or strategic significance, beyond those intended merely to demonstrate political resolve, are likely to produce millions of casualties.

Can nuclear war be controlled? Ball’s finding is:

Moreover, the dynamics of a nuclear exchange are likely to generate military and political pressures for the relaxation of restraints, even where both adversaries agreed at the outset that it was in their mutual interest to avoid unwanted escalation.26

Some expert opinion clearly does not share Wohlstetter’s insouciance with respect to collateral harm, escalation, and control. As a distinguished panel of scientists and arms experts recently wrote, citing Ball’s paper:

In the absence of radical cuts in offensive arsenals, damage-limitation could be achieved, in theory, only through deliberate strategies of controlled, limited nuclear strikes, with the bulk of each superpower’s nuclear forces being held in reserve and cities being spared. The nearly unanimous conclusion of those who have studied this issue is that a nuclear war could not in practice be controlled in this manner.27

  1. I do not question Wohlstetter’s past devotion to deterrence. I do question what his present doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons would do to deterrence. Despite all the fanfare and rigmarole, his position boils down to a very simple proposition—the use of nuclear weapons against military targets only. If such use were feasible, it would serve to make nuclear warfare more feasible. Wohlstetter argues that it would deter the Soviets because they value their military targets more than human lives or anything else. It is a debatable proposition because they have been so willing to sacrifice masses of manpower in their past offensives. In any case, that is not the essential point. Both sides must be deterred for deterrence to work. The side that first succeeds in perfecting such weapons—assuming they can be perfected—will face the other side with the alternative of helplessly watching its military targets blow up or retaliating with less precise and less discriminating weapons. What may be weapons of deterrence to one side will appear to be a deadly threat and intolerable disadvantage to the other side. Such technological rivalry is exactly what the nuclear arms race feeds on.

10. If Wohlstetter wishes me to agree that it would be better to have a nuclear exchange over deserts or polar ice caps, I would be happy to oblige him. That sort of reasoning, unfortunately, simplifies the problem of nuclear war to such an extent that it is no longer much of a problem. The real problem is what to do about nuclear war in populated areas, such as the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe. The rest is a cop-out.

  1. 1

    See Commentary, June 1983, p. 27, and December 1983, p. 17.

  2. 2

    How Not to Think About Nuclear War,” NYR, July 15, 1982, p. 36.

  3. 3

    On Nuclear War: An Exchange with the Secretary of Defense,” NYR, August 18, 1983, p. 27. Also see “Nuclear Temptations,” NYR, January 19, p. 42, on the “strategic essence” of the A-bomb.

  4. 4

    Ibid., p. 33. (He wonders, “how…to destroy military targets without destroying population centers, when, for example, Moscow is most heavily defended by just such military targets.”)

  5. 5

    My emphasis, “Nuclear Temptations,” p. 49.

  6. 6

    Ibid., p. 45, my emphasis.

  7. 7

    Ibid., p. 48.

  8. 8

    See Commentary, June 1983, p. 31; and especially, December 1983, p. 22.

  9. 9

    Cf. Commentary, June 1983, pp. 32, 33.

  10. 10

    Cf. Commentary, December 1983, p. 14.

  11. 11

    Another of Draper’s major misrepresentations has it that the large-scale tactical nuclear battlefield in the center of Europe which a Lt. Gen. Collins doubts can be kept limited is “just the sort of limited nuclear war Wohlstetter has in mind.” In fact, I have long regarded a use of nuclear weapons growing out of an attack confined to the strategic Arctic provinces of Norway, or to the southeastern flank of NATO, or on our carriers at sea in the course of a Soviet invasion of the unstable, but vital Persian Gulf oil region bordering southeast NATO as far more likely. Such an attack would involve more controllable risks for the Soviets, would more likely divide our allies from one another since it would offer some an opportunity to opt out, and could spell the end of the Alliance. (See Commentary, June 1983, pp. 17, 20, 30, and December 1983, p. 21; and “NATO and Turkey After Détente,” NATO in the 1980s, Istanbul, 1983.) Collins, in the very article Draper cites as authority, notes that in precisely such relatively isolated places limitations may be possible. (Collins, “Strategy for Survival,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 1983, pp. 70–71.)

  12. 12

    Commentary, June 1983, p. 22. Emphasis added.

  13. 13

    Threats and Promises of Peace,” presented at the NATO Conference in Amsterdam, March 1973, reprinted in Orbis the following winter, pp. 1122–1127.

  14. 14

    Foreign Affairs, January 1959, p. 230.

  15. 15

    Commentary, June 1983, p. 22.

  16. 16

    Letters of E. Fermi and I.I. Rabi, October 30, 1949, reprinted in Herbert York The Advisors Oppenheimer, Teller and the Super Bomb (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1976), p. 158. Some selective responses to a restricted nuclear attack could destroy “substantially fewer bystanders than a direct attack on population centers” (Commentary, June 1983, p. 17). A long Western tradition supports such discrimination of combatants from non-combatants. But even if we could confine the harm solely to soldiers, their slaughter, as in World War I trenches, can be terrible. When Draper interprets the latter point as a retreat from my June position, he apparently does not think it worth distinguishing the killing of soldiers in battle from the deliberate annihilation of civil society.

  17. 17

    Bernard Brodie, “Nuclear Weapons and Changing Strategic Outlooks,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. XIII, no. 2, February 1957, pp. 56–57.

  18. 18

    Bernard Brodie, “Nuclear Weapons: Strategic or Tactical?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 32, no. 2, January 1954, p. 218.

  19. 19

    Cited by Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 340. Kaplan, the only one who has made a sketch of Brodie’s developing thought (as far as I know), summed up as follows: “Through a long and circuitous route, Brodie had returned to the fundamental principle underlying his essays of twenty years earlier in The Absolute Weapons” (pp. 340–341). Michael Howard has written of Brodie: “In the last article he published, on ‘The Development of Nuclear Strategy’ [1978], he reprinted the passage [in The Absolute Weapon of 1946] and defended it” (The Causes of War, Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 134). Brodie’s post-1950s views have not exactly been a secret.

  20. 20

    Berard Brodie, War and Politics (Macmillan, 1973), especially p. 404 (deterring war), p. 406 (on limited war), and p. 430 (deterring all wars between the major powers).

  21. 21

    Commentary, December 1983, p. 18.

  22. 22

    Commentary, December 1983, pp. 21–22.

  23. 23

    Pierre Gallois and John Train, “When A Nuclear Strike Is Thinkable,” The Wall Street Journal, March 22, 1984.

  24. 24

    Commentary, December 1983, p. 17.

  25. 25

    War and Politics, p. 404.

  26. 26

    Desmond Ball, Can Nuclear War Be Controlled? (Adelphi Paper No. 169, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981), esp. pp. 2, 26–27, 30.

  27. 27

    Space-Based Missile Defense, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, pp. 81–83; published in part in The New York Review, April 26, 1984. The panel included Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin, both former members of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and Admiral Noel Gayler, former director of the National Security Agency.

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