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The Prospects of Nuclear War

Because of his concern that an all-out nuclear exchange could result not only in mutual suicide, but also in the kind of global catastrophe now called nuclear winter, Wohlstetter, in the article he has just published in Foreign Affairs, sets out a scenario in which the two superpowers come to some kind of agreement restricting the use of nuclear weapons to military targets only, so as to avoid extensive civilian deaths and to keep the conflict limited. This would be fine—so far as it goes, and given that the actual military world resembled the one that armchair strategists invent so easily, and if there were mutual agreement, indeed international agreement, about what constituted military targets.

The reality is that no military leader, no one who has carried the responsibility of command in the European theater, can genuinely believe that he knows what would happen once one side had fired a nuclear weapon. The initiative would then pass immediately to the opposing side, regardless of what may be written in the tactical handbooks that assume the use of nuclear weapons (both sides have to have such handbooks to accord even abstract meaning or credibility to the deployment of such weapons). Moreover, the belief that nuclear weapons could be used in battle carries with it the implication that the authority vested in the supreme command for their use would have to be quickly delegated to army commanders, corps commanders, and even to divisional commanders. Such authority would have to be delegated right down to the level where the tide of battle had moved in such a way that, at least in theory, what happened next could be influenced by one or more nuclear shots delivered at targets at some distance from one’s own troops. Once this happened, there could be no central control. To the best of my knowledge, every nuclear war game that has been played out realistically on the basis of actual military dispositions in the European theater has shown that the result would be mutual military disaster with, in addition, millions of civilian deaths, even when it was assumed that the nuclear exchange had not become intercontinental. The hard fact is that there is no more reason to suppose that an exchange of nuclear fire could be restrained in a field war than there is to suppose that an intercontinental exchange of destruction could be. One could only hope.

We therefore need to ask whether the civil power could discharge its responsibilities of control in a moment of real nuclear crisis. How would the president know when to delegate the authority that Henry Kissinger is quoted as saying would have to be delegated? Daniel Ford tells us that in addition to the president, SAC and the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon also hold the “codes” for a retaliatory response. But these are the military executive agencies whereby a political decision would be implemented—they are not the elected representatives of the people. In the event of the death of the president, how does authority pass, in conformity with the Constitution, to the vice-president or to the speaker of the House? How does the high military command and everyone else learn that authority has passed—and to whom?

How, indeed, in the event of a crisis—for example a first strike by the USSR—could the president consult or inform the members of Congress? And given the inadequacies of the communications network, how could the president consult his allies, and they one another? When Prime Minister Attlee flew to see President Truman in November 1950, there was time for him to express Britain’s disquiet at the rumor that America might use a nuclear weapon against North Korea in order to prevent the total disintegration of MacArthur’s forces. Today there would be no time.

And what about the disciplined dependence of the military on the political authority? It is a fact of history that the high commands exert their own pressures in times of acute political crisis. General MacArthur did not see eye to eye with President Truman, but the President had time to dismiss him. The Pentagon brought considerable pressure to bear upon President Kennedy in the Cuban crisis—but the President’s judgment was able to prevail. What is the position today? Daniel Ford quotes a former Pentagon official as saying that while Sergeant Bilko can’t start World War III today, General Bilko certainly can. Can he?

Scott Sagan, who participated in the Avoiding Nuclear War project of the Kennedy School, and who is now a member of a Joint Chiefs of Staff directorate which deals with nuclear and chemical warfare, has thrown some light on this question in an article that has been published separately.5 It deals with three nuclear alerts, those of May 1960, at the time of the first U-2 incident, of October 1962, at the time of the Cuban crisis, and of October 1973, at the time of the Middle East war, and is probably the most detailed and revealing analysis of official and now accessible information about nuclear crises that has ever seen the light of day. He tells us that there are five gradations of nuclear alert, beginning with “fade-out” and ending with the most acute, “cocked-pistol.” The three cases of alert that he analyzes were initiated at the presidential level. The Joint Chiefs who received the order in turn issued their instructions in a way that permitted a somewhat higher level of alert than the political authority intended. Base commanders then went even higher. The point Sagan is making is that the civil authority does not appreciate sufficiently the “degree to which alert authority rests in the hands of individual military commanders…who can take what they judge are necessary steps to protect their forces.” He also writes that there is no evidence that the Russians responded in 1973 by alerting their nuclear forces, and that their response in 1962, before they backed off in Cuba, was less menacing than the US response.

The McMahon Act of 1946 placed America’s nuclear arsenal under civilian control. Today it is under that of the military. This is clearly a dilution of presidential authority, however much the release of nuclear warheads may be held in check by electronic locks and by operational procedures. But again, what degree of authority is delegated to the military so that they can deal speedily with urgent crises? Stephen Meyer believes that in the USSR the KGB, which is an executive arm of the Politburo, has a part in controlling the release of Russian nuclear warheads. It would have helped if the reader were told more about the way this is done.

It would also have helped if we were told something about the exact constitutional authority of the high military command in the US. The military do not start wars. Deciding that events had so developed that military action was called for would be a political judgment, whether the country was the victim of aggression or the government decided to undertake military action in defense of a critical national interest. In the United Kingdom the Chiefs of Staff would have the responsibility to advise whether defense or attack was likely to succeed, or whether, whatever the circumstances, defeat was a certainty. Today it would be absurd to suppose that any top military adviser would encourage his political masters to go to war when success was clearly impossible or when nuclear annihilation of their country was the likely outcome. If the political authority decided to go ahead despite such advice, its military advisers would have to comply—or resign.

President Truman is said to have had on his desk a notice saying “The buck stops here.” The buck is now, to some extent, in the hands of the military, and in consequence, if Mr. Ford has not been misled, the man who might press the doomsday button could well be a general, even if, were he rational, he would know that he had no more than a marginal chance of keeping a nuclear war under control. He would also certainly know that “war” could immediately mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands, of perhaps millions, with disintegrating skyscrapers hurtling through others as they collapsed, in cities where the streets had disappeared. It would be a vision of a hundred or even a thousand Hiroshimas. When the fires died down, a radioactive breeze would soothe the dead in the cooling rubble of Washington, New York, Moscow, Leningrad, and Paris, as winter closed in. The word “war” cannot and should not be used in association with the term “nuclear.”

What the leaders of both sides therefore need to ask is what imaginable political prize would be worth such a risk. Of course it is conceivable that were the US and the USSR to use nuclear weapons against each other, one side might throw in the sponge after a few days—given that anyone was left in authority to do that—after both had suffered millions of deaths. And then what? I suppose that such a war could start as in the scenario suggested in Hawks, Doves, and Owls—with an uprising in East Germany. But who says that in the rumbling phases leading to hostilities NATO would not disintegrate; that France and the United Kingdom would not keep out of the subsequent conflict? In a world of peace, a reunited Germany is an understandable goal, but if a war that might go nuclear were started to bring union about, there would be no Germanies to unite.

President Reagan has said that a nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought. So have Russian leaders. Presumably neither the President nor Mr. Gorbachev would have reached his present high office if those by whom he was elected or selected had felt that their candidates were so simple as to regard nuclear war, with its inevitable consequences, as a military option to be considered seriously in some circumstances, if either had declared publicly that in order to achieve some political purpose he might risk a lightning holocaust that could bring death to scores of millions of his fellow citizens. “Better Dead than Red,” and its converse, “Better the grave than capitalism,” might have been meaningful slogans in the days when the US and the USSR possessed only small nuclear arsenals, when the degree of nuclear devastation might have been limited.

Today they have an empty ring. There is no alternative to peace between the superpowers, which is another way of stating the message of Hawks, Doves, and Owls. The most urgent issue which the United States and the USSR now face is the avoidance of war with each other. Political differences cannot be allowed to drive them there. Neither should be drawn into a catalytic or accidental nuclear war. Both should be concerned to prevent nuclear proliferation. Both have to avoid any step that could lead to the destabilization of the present state of mutual nuclear deterrence. Above all, neither can afford to commit its future to the operation of automated systems of command and control which might either be technically defective or which, by their very perfection, could foreclose the workings of human judgment.

This is the second of two articles.


Nuclear Convictions December 5, 1985

  1. 5

    Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” International Security vol. 9 (1985), pp. 99–139.

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