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White House Roulette

In opening the box of the atom’s secrets, man did not unleash evil, he merely acquired the capacity to unleash it. This left him with the oppressive burden of free choice—the power to decide whether or not to blow up the world. So the earth’s fate continues to depend on an unanswered question of potentially tragic dimensions: Are men and women sufficiently mature, psychologically and institutionally, to make that decision rationally? Or will history prove Homo sapiens a biological monster with his scientific faculties grotesquely overdeveloped in relation to his political or moral evolution?

Nothing in the history of the race has taught us poor human beings how to cope with such a predicament. The bomb is insensitive to any appeal; it offers us no chance for appeasement through ritual or expiation, no chance for forgiveness or hope for redemption. Once a nuclear war begins, we shall have exercised our free choice and lost it in the exercise, since there will be little, if any, chance of halting the carnage and avoiding ultimate destruction. Events, in Emerson’s phrase, will be irretrievably “in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Although thoughts such as these have obsessed our society ever since Hiroshima, new generations have regarded the power of the atom as a familiar, if vaguely disturbing, phenomenon and have accepted the bomb as an instrument of war. Yet this is a pernicious fallacy; on the day the soviets acquired that instrument and the means to deliver it, the bomb lost its military utility and became merely a means of mutual suicide. Clausewitz would never have regarded it as a weapon; there are no political objectives commensurate with the costs of an all-out nuclear exchange.

We have found that reality difficult to accept. Many—though not all—of our military professionals seek instinctively to treat the bomb as merely another weapon of formidably increased power. President Reagan, who appears uncritically to echo this pattern of thought, would encourage us to pursue the traditional pattern of weapons evolution: the development of defensive weapons to match the offensive, then more offensive weapons to overcome the defensive, and so on.

Even more influential than soldiers in shaping America’s weapons policy has been an elite group of economists, mathematicians, and political scientists who, beginning in the 1950s, preempted the bomb as their special intellectual property, established themselves as a proprietary priesthood, and sought to impose logic on inherently irrational nuclear conflict. Some of these people are still on display in Strobe Talbott’s book, along with the younger men who succeeded them.

The bomb offered them a unique chance for theorizing free from empirical challenge, for, although the practices and doctrines of conventional warfare have been tested in a thousand battles, the conduct and consequences of a nuclear exchange are, and must remain, pure speculation—unless and until such an exchange blows up large parts of the world including the intellectual speculators. Thus the theoreticians did only what came naturally to them; they saw an unprecedented opportunity to deal in the realm of pure abstraction unmenaced by experience. Because no one has seen either an angel or a nuclear exchange, the hackneyed analogy to medieval scholastics is by no means far-fetched.

Establishing themselves in monasteries such as the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute, they have used game theory and higher mathematics to evolve rules by which nuclear wars are to be fought. Although the product of their cogitations is neat and sometimes intellectually elegant, it can also be misleading. The decisions of politicians and ultimately of military commanders are never—and will never be—made in a sterile environment or dictated solely by mathematical possibilities. They will reflect the probability of overhasty, poorly calculated, responses, the pressure of alarmed and uninformed public opinion inflamed by propaganda and factual error, the fears, ambitions, frustrations, and anger of military and political leaders playing by quite different rules, acting and reacting precipitately on the basis of rumor and misinformation.

Since these factors are not susceptible to quantitative appraisal the methodology employed by the priesthood limits the raw material of their speculations to an assessment of the physical capacities of weapons, on which they erect hypothetical “scenarios.” Although some of those constructions can be rationalized within the closed logic of the experts, their inability to factor in political probabilities has unrealistically distorted not only the design of weapons systems but also arms control negotiations, often creating ectoplasmic bogymen.

Preoccupied with their hypotheses, the experts rarely ask the central question: How will the nuclear competition finally end? How long can nations continue on their present competitive course, piling up more and more lethal weapons on both sides until someday, somehow—through accident or blunder—one side or the other breaks the nuclear taboo and the power of the bomb is unleashed?

President Eisenhower was acutely aware of this possibility as early as 1953 when there were considerably fewer than a thousand bombs on the two sides. He had, he said, a “clear conviction that the world [was] courting disaster in the armaments race, and that something must be done to put a brake on the momentum.” Ever since that time, presidents have tried to reach agreements with the Soviets to encourage the exercise of mankind’s free choice in the direction of survival. They have signed more than twenty agreements with the Soviets aimed at that objective.

Yet today, thirty-one years after Eisenhower’s cautionary comment, when the two sides possess not a thousand but more than fifty thousand nuclear weapons, the spiral seems moving faster than ever and intruding into new fields previously regarded as forbidden. The Reagan administration seems eager both to accelerate it even more, moving into outer space, and to push aside existing agreements—notably the ABM agreement—that would slow, or in any way inhibit, that mad progress.

Reagan’s perverse reaction to our nuclear predicament springs largely from his oversimplified view of mankind’s predicament. In the world drama as he perceives it there are only two players deserving top billing—America, with its noble commitment to righteousness and free enterprise, pitted in relentless conflict with Russia, “the evil empire” (“the focus of evil in our time”) that worships the antichrist of Marxism–Leninism. The implication of his Manichaean creed is that one should not do deals with the devil; the only way to cope with evil is to fight it. Thus, as he said in the early 1960s: “We are being told that we can sit down and negotiate with this enemy of ours, that there’s a little right and a little wrong on both sides. How do you compromise between good and evil? How do you say to this enemy that we can compromise our belief in God with his dialectical determinism…? How do you compromise with men who say we have no soul, there is no hereafter, there is no God?”

As president, Ronald Reagan has not abandoned his earlier views. Only nine days after his inauguration, he gratuitously asserted at his first press conference that one can never trust the Soviet leaders who “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to obtain” their objective. After all, as he added later, “Communists are not bound by our morality. They say any crime, including lying, is moral if it advances the cause of socialism. That is Karl Marx as interpreted by Lenin.” Clearly he still believes what he said at an earlier time: “I wouldn’t trust the Russians around the block. They must be laughing at us because we continue to think of them as people.”

The Gospel according to Reagan rejects as naive any hope that the Soviets will rationally pursue their own interests in survival by agreeing on even limited measures to achieve an equilibrium of forces and put shackles on the nuclear monster. Instead he sees the Kremlin constantly striving for the upper hand and yielding only to superior force. So he would have us seek not parity but “superiority”: that, after all, was explicitly called for in the Republican platforms of 1980 and 1984. Until we have reached the level of superiority where we can intimidate our Soviet adversary and settle affairs on our own terms, Reagan’s preference has been to try to avoid any arms control negotiations and particularly any commitments that might in any way inhibit the expansive armaments program he envisages.

In fact, while not yet violating them, he has emphatically opposed every arms control measure so far negotiated by either Democratic or Republican administrations: the Limited Test Ban Treaty signed by President Kennedy; the SALT I treaty signed by President Nixon: the Threshold Test Ban and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions treaties signed by Presidents Nixon and Ford; the Vladivostok Accord negotiated by President Ford: and the SALT II treaty signed by President Carter.

So the question still remains: How does Reagan propose to end the nuclear spiral? By fitting together the different sizes, shapes, and shades of jagged shards from his past utterances, one can construct at least a dim outline of three possible answers.

The first, which he presumably finds most congenial, is the hope that if America only stays strong and resolute long enough the Soviet system will, as he said to the British houses of Parliament, be left “on the ash heap of history.” Hence America need only “hang tough”—to use a favorite phrase of the macho right wing—and wait for the denouement, meanwhile trying to speed the process of Soviet decay by economic pressures and talk of a reunited Europe.

Yet, despite his apocalyptic visions of communism’s grimy end, I doubt that Mr. Reagan foresees any Soviet collapse during his tenure in office. What he seems clearly to believe, however, is that America should be able, by using its superior economic might, to outspend and outpace the Russians in the arms race and thus, by bringing further pressure on their faltering economy, force them to give up their ambitions—a view reinforced by his semimystical faith in the superiority of the free enterprise system. Then, having demonstrated to the Kremlin and to all the world that we can achieve and maintain a clear nuclear advantage in the production and deployment of technologically superior weapons, we should be able to compel the Kremlin either to drop out of the arms race or to negotiate from weakness so great that we can extract concessions on our own terms.

Thus President Reagan’s logic leads to a negation of arms control. If America is in the lead with respect to any new weapons, we should not give up that advantage by agreeing to outlaw or limit that system, but should instead push forcefully ahead. If, on the other hand, we are behind the Soviets in some new generation of weapons, we should reject any limitation until we have caught up and surpassed our adversary.

He would apply the same logic to a third situation, which combines elements of both. Some experts believe that the Soviets are ahead of us in testing and developing missile defenses but that, with our superior technology, we should be able to surpass them. To this Reagan and other administration leaders react, as though by conditioned reflex, with the argument that we should not try to negotiate mutual restraints on missile defenses but should free ourselves of such constraints as the ABM treaty and, despite the treaty on outer space, press on to turn even that forbidden region into a nuclear parking lot.

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