The Emperor’s Clothes

Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers

by Steven Kull
Basic Books, 341 pp., $19.95

The summer of 1989 finds us in a time of new hopes for the strengthening of a stable peace between the Soviet Union and the West. After a slow and overcautious beginning, George Bush has decided that he did not like that beginning, and has set a new course just in time to win the strong support of his colleagues in the NATO Summit at the end of May. He has also plainly impressed the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose contribution to our new hopes remains the larger, if only because the need for basic change has always been larger in Moscow. Most of all, Bush has succeeded in explaining his new course in language that was most persuasive where it was most obviously his own. His most convincing demonstration was in a long interview with The Washington Post, published on June 2; I will return to it.

Steven Kull’s remarkable book concerns the same overcautious cast of mind from which George Bush has just had a narrow escape. I begin with that escape not only because it reflects great credit on Bush, on his senior colleagues, and on the public pressure that led them to reconsider their views, but also because it is helpful that we consider the findings of Steven Kull in a mood of hope. Kull himself is not a pessimist, believing that there are strong forces on the side of nuclear common sense, but many of his findings on what experts have been thinking are so depressing that it is well to begin with a reminder that we can do—indeed are doing—better.

After more than ten years of practice as a psychotherapist, Kull was drawn to the study of nuclear danger, and after initial academic work he decided to examine the problem through an exercise of his professional skills as an interviewer. It seemed to him that there was a radical disjunction between nuclear reality and the policies advocated by many defense experts. Could he find out by careful and searching interviews whether they had arguments he had not understood, or how far they might be moved by convictions unrelated to their formal argument? The core of his book is an account of what he learned from these interviews. Having traversed much of this terrain myself over more than forty years of participation in the American nuclear debate, I am able to report that the states of mind encountered by Kull are familiar, while his conclusions about them are both fresh and convincing.

Kull set out to interview experts who had made reputations as being “pro-defense” and as being sophisticated in their understanding of questions of nuclear policy. He found eighty-one men and three women who were willing to talk with him, and among them were former secretaries of defense, former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senators, congressmen (two in each category so far), and larger numbers of middle-level officials of the Pentagon, the Arms Control Agency, and congressional staffs. He talked to still larger numbers of analysts from think tanks, as well as to six members of a group that he defines as “original key nuclear strategists from the fifties and sixties.” (He also talked, less intensively and less systematically, to a number of Soviet experts.) All in all, though he names no one, he makes a wholly believable claim to have talked to people who usually argue in favor of new weapons systems, who are generally persuaded that it makes an important difference whether the US is “ahead” or “behind” in numbers and capacities of nuclear weapons, and who also are ready to defend the need for an ability to “prevail” in a nuclear war.

Kull sought out people with these views precisely because of his own deep conviction that in critically important ways their thinking was deeply inconsistent with the realities of nuclear weapons. He believes, as I do, that there will be only losers in any conflict that engages even a small proportion of the nuclear weapons of each superpower. He believes further that once you have forces that are clearly able to survive attack and strike back with a formidable number of warheads—the condition in which both sides have been living for decades—neither side can gain or lose from variations in the relative capacities of elements of their forces. For him as for me—and for Dwight Eisenhower thirty years ago—the imperative of nuclear weaponry is not to keep ahead, not even to keep up, but simply to have enough to deter a nuclear war from breaking out. But Minds at War is not about Kull’s reasons for his own beliefs, although the reader may well find himself drawn by Kull’s account to the conclusions with which Kull himself began. The book is about what happens when serious defense experts are pressed to defend convictions about nuclear policy that seem to their interviewer to be in conflict with reality.

Four opinions prevalent among his eighty-four respondents became the targets of Kull’s questions. Two are related to specific weapons systems: those that would be part of strategic defense—not only Reagan’s SDI but less ambitious defenses against ballistic missiles—and those weapons that would have a combination of accuracy and power sufficient to destroy “hard targets”—heavily protected military assets such as weapons in hard silos or command centers far underground. Kull challenged the experts he talked with to defend these systems. He gives summaries of their arguments and of his own replies, and on balance he wins his case. There is indeed great intellectual confusion surrounding the strategic defense program and also great doubt about the utility of attempts to destroy hard targets when so many of the weapons that would be the most important targets, especially missiles in silos, could be fired before the hard-target killers arrived.

It is not surprising that a number of the analysts Kull talked to turn out to have found these programs so obviously attractive that they did not take the trouble to frame a rational argument for them. Yet judgment on these two programs really depends on technical analysis. Can a system of defense against missiles outmatch a system of deterrent offensive weapons in cost effectiveness and capacity to survive in wartime? How much is accuracy capable of replacing explosive power as a destroyer of genuinely military targets? Because of this dependence on technological assessment, these two subjects are less useful for illuminating the basic psychological questions that Kull is addressing than two more general questions he posed to the military experts. First, what is the importance of maintaining “nuclear balance” with the Soviet Union? Second, what is meant by the commitment to win or to “prevail” in a nuclear war?

Kull himself accepts that each of the superpowers should have adequate deterrent nuclear strength, which he describes as a capacity for a flexible and secure second strike. What he finds unconvincing is the argument that it is necessary for the US to match particular Soviet capacities, for example the throw weight of land-based missiles or the power of mid-range missiles in Europe. He reports that his respondents produced no persuasive evidence for their arguments. That is, they could not show the real consequences for either side, in a real nuclear war, of not matching the throw weight of the other side’s land-based missiles or the precise power of its mid-range missiles. Indeed most of his witnesses were willing to recognize, at least some of the time, that the American capacity for destructive action of all sorts, including missiles launched from the sea or air, was such that the Soviet leaders were amply deterred from undertaking a nuclear attack, in spite of whatever particular advantages they might have in particular weapons.

Nevertheless most nuclear experts insisted on matching specific Soviet systems. For some it was simply a matter of what they took to be elementary good sense—in any conflict the side that has more strength has the advantage. Big kids beat up little kids; big navies beat little navies. And, in the words of one congressman, “strategic ain’t a damned bit different.”

Yet thinking of this kind, as straightforward as it is mistaken, is less important than a quite different argument based not on what the defense analyst himself believes, but on what he thinks other people think. Maintaining this or that aspect of the nuclear balance with the USSR is important, the experts told Kull, because third-world countries, the allies in Europe, or nervous American voters think it is. If any of them conclude that the balance favors the Russians, they may become more fearful of the Soviet Union and more accommodating to it; Soviet power will grow, and American power will shrink. Kull notes that an analyst as experienced as James Schlesinger has argued that if we wish to influence the perceptions of others “we must take appropriate steps (by their lights) in the design of the strategic forces.” A former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Kull that he himself was “not really concerned about the military aspect of nuclear balance, because the effect of exchanges would be so catastrophic to the Soviets, whoever fired first.” Still he believed that for political reasons, especially to impress the third-world nations that estimate relevant strength by numbers of missiles or submarines, we must keep up our end of the balance, because those people “just count.”

For Kull, as for me, the immediate question is whether there are not ways of persuading even the nonspecialist of a quite simple and basic reality: that above the levels of nuclear overkill long since overtaken by both superpowers, mere numbers tell us very little about the quality of nuclear deterrence on either side, so that perceptions based on such numbers are quite simply nonsensical. But Kull’s many respondents generally resisted this elementary notion. Many—perhaps most—accept for themselves the nuclear reality that numbers are not decisive; but they take the different perceptions of others as essentially unalterable, and they argue that to satisfy them there must be a visible and sustained American insistence on new nuclear procurement.

In the end, of course, the Reagan administration in which many of these experts served decided to let words take the place of action. The “window of vulnerability” that troubled so many of the defense analysts in the early 1980s was ended not by building new missiles, but simply by the declaration of Reagan’s Scowcroft Commission that no such window had opened. US “parity” with Soviet nuclear weapons itself was restored not by matching particular numbers that were thought to have produced dangerous perceptions, but by repeated presidential declarations that the job was done. Some of the true believers in the Soviet threat are still muttering today about it, much as some of them muttered about it to Steven Kull a few years ago; but for most people the troubling perceptions of Soviet predominance were dealt with by words from the American government, not by clear-cut changes in the nuclear balance. That solution was available all the time.

In reality, the journey through nuclear fear of the last fifteen years, so largely inspired by the people Kull has sought out, was never necessary. Indeed the false perceptions that these people found threatening were in part the product of their own proclamations of present danger. Kull trenchantly demonstrates that the advocates of new procurement of nuclear weapons systems regularly feel the need to proclaim a perilous imbalance to get their appropriations. These proclamations can be heard abroad, particularly among NATO leaders who worry that Europe will seem weak if the imbalance proclaimed in Washington is not rectified.

At a still deeper level, Kull discovered, the very act of competing for a balance with the USSR, or even for getting ahead, was often found justified for its own sweet sake. It is, some of the experts told him, good for morale to keep up with the Soviets; it is a way of holding up our own side without having to pay the costs of war itself. The arms race, in a sense, becomes the defense analyst’s moral equivalent of war, meeting a requirement for competition that is in the very nature of human beings and states.

The most searching of the questions Kull asked was what the United States should do if deterrence failed and the Soviet Union made war on the West. He got varied answers, but the ones he found most interesting are those that asserted that the US should pursue the traditional goals of military victory—whether by taking territory, imposing military defeat, or otherwise gaining an advantage. Many respondents recognized that nuclear war could impose such death and destruction that there could be no victory for either side in any traditional meaning of the term. But the same people often remained powerfully attached to traditional logic: wars have winners and losers, and military leaders must aim to win. Fighting a nuclear war for this purpose was repeatedly contrasted with what respondents understood to be the only alternative—the so-called MAD doctrine of mutual assured destruction. They did not assert that this destruction could be avoided, and they did not appear to understand that when Robert McNamara first talked of assured destruction, he was describing what could surely happen, not what should be planned. MAD, for these analysts, was an unacceptable alternative to the proper and legitimate objective of coming out ahead. There were many respondents, even in this group, who were interested primarily in stopping the war “at the earliest possible moment,” not in winning it. I agree with Kull that this objective makes good sense, given the reality of nuclear destructiveness. But it was clearly not easy for many others to think about anything except some recognizable form of victory.

Like the belief in keeping a balance, planning to win a nuclear war was often defended as necessary for its effect on the perceptions of others than the speaker. Americans, some of the experts said, will not back a president who is not determined on victory; allies must believe that the United States means to fight if necessary, and declarations of determination to win are helpful. Most of all, the Soviets, who were themselves often seen by the experts as determined believers in war fighting, must understand that the US leaders are determined to win, even if it makes Americans seem a “little bit crazy,” as one respondent put it. That way the Soviets are deterred.

The intensity of this kind of belief, the power of Kull’s interviewing, and the absurdity of the result are all illustrated in the following exchange. “I” is Kull, and “R” is his respondent:

I: Do you feel we need to have a war-fighting strategy or war-fighting capability?

R: Yeah, deterrence is creating that uncertainty and doubt in the adversary. We are going to be a mirror image, our goal is to be a mirror image of what we perceive to be their doctrine and their force posture. I think we are taking steps to be that mirror image.

I: Why?

R: It comes back to deterrence…. I think they have to perceive that we are prepared just as they are. That our goal is to prevail…. Their [nuclear weapons’] whole purpose is to create this perception that, hey, we’ve got to stay away from that stuff, ‘cause we can’t lick ‘em.

I: Do you think we can lick ‘em?

R: No, and I don’t think they can lick us. I agree it’s a self-defeating goddamn thing…. [But] I think that this is one of their illusions that they believe.

I: So what you’re saying is that we’ve got to act like we’ve got that illusion too?

R: Or we’ve got to act to create that perception in their minds.

I: And we do that by acting as if we do?

R: Right. [laughter]

I: But you don’t really believe we can prevail in a war?

R: I agree with you, it is senseless. I mean, what is there that’s going to be left that really has any value or that is recognizable to us or to them? I mean, I’m not sure there is anything of value in what will remain.

I: But we should do what we can to develop the hardware that makes it look like we are getting ready to fight a war in which we think we could prevail. Because that’s going to have the right psychological effect on them. Is that right?

R: As crazy as it sounds, I think so. I think so….

I: How do you know that the Soviets are not doing the same thing?

R: I don’t [surprised laughter]…. I don’t!…. But if that’s all it is, it sure is a waste of GNP on both sides!

This kind of thinking is even worse than wasteful. While many defense experts believe that the US should seem a little bit crazy, at least some of them know that at the same time there are plenty of people who want to be assured that the United States will not do anything crazy, and so the highest officials, especially presidents, must try to show that they fully understand the danger of nuclear war. They may allow others to sound crazy, but they do not willingly sound that way themselves.

Indeed presidents take considerable care to sound sane, and no occupant of the White House paid more attention to this requirement than Ronald Reagan. Early in his first term he found a phrase that he repeated steadily ever after, first alone and then in joint statements with Mikhail Gorbachev: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Whatever else he said, about the evil empire and the uses of strategic defense, for example, he recurred to this declaration. It is true that it imposed some verbal acrobatics on Caspar Weinberger, who accepted Reagan’s new maxim but insisted that it was wholly consistent with his own announced conviction that any secretary of defense who was not planning to prevail in a nuclear war should be impeached. But discomfiture among subordinates is seldom troubling to self-confident presidents, and Mr. Reagan steadily increased his emphasis on his basic finding. I am not aware that his position was directly criticized by the experts who believe in nuclear victory, but it may be that he was protected by a disposition on the part of defense experts to attribute his statement to politics and not conviction. My own belief is that he meant every word of what he said, that Gorbachev agrees with him, and that each man accepted the sincerity of the other on this basic point.

Returning to Bush and the leadership of NATO, we can see that what almost trapped him was exactly the kind of thinking, deeply set in the minds of NATO experts, that Kull has examined and exposed. Before Bush himself took charge, his administration had accepted as imperative for NATO a “modernization” program for the Lance missile in Germany called “Follow-on-to-Lance”—a deceptive title, because the range of the follow-on would be some four times that of Lance. The new missile was needed, it was asserted, not to attain balance with the Soviet Union’s forces, and still less for victory, but for “coupling,” a NATO notion that gives to nuclear weapons based in Europe the role of making it believable, for both friends and adversaries, that the American president will initiate nuclear war if it is needed to stop Soviet aggression in Europe.

According to the argument, the US will be seen as unlikely to come to Europe’s help if it must fire its strategic weapons from North America, thereby risking retaliation within the US; the willingness of the US to sponsor a nuclear response becomes plausible, so the argument runs, only when NATO has short-range missiles such as the Lance at its disposal in the “European theater.” The belief that short-range missiles have this value has no basis in historical evidence. American missiles based in Europe did not prevent protracted crises like the one over Berlin in 1961 and 1962, and no such missiles were in place during the relatively calm years between 1964 and 1972. But in Brussels, Washington, and perhaps especially London there are analysts that make it an article of faith that without such weapons the alliance will become uncoupled. Their passion is intensified when such systems are opposed by citizens and statesmen whom they perceive as soft, and the modernization of Lance is opposed by such people in Germany. The impasse that hardened on this subject in May threatened to make a shambles of the NATO Summit until George Bush took charge.

What Bush did, fundamentally, was to change the subject from the modernization of Lance to the prospect for a new kind of peace in Europe. He did not directly overrule the nuclear zealots, and indeed the NATO communiqué contains a number of ritual pieties about the need for maintaining land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear systems in Europe. Moreover Bush backed the pronuclear side in rejecting any prospect of removing all short-range missiles on both sides. But he explicitly accepted both future negotiations on this subject and a timetable under which negotiations will begin before Lance is modernized. His central decision was to put conventional arms reductions at the top of the agenda, and he made his point decisively clear by proposing specific American troop reductions and the inclusion of combat aircraft in the bargain. The allies accepted his proposal, and the first paragraph of their joint communiqué, which would have been impossible two weeks earlier, puts the priority of NATO where it belongs—on the achievement of a new and stable balance in reduced conventional forces, East and West.

The achievement of a low-level conventional balance will not be easy, but it is possible now as never before, and if it can be achieved, the nuclear problems of NATO will fade into the background. What has led to complex and unpersuasive notions like the one that coupling with the US depends on particular pieces of hardware is the genuine requirement to find some persuasive counter to Soviet conventional superiority. It was entirely natural that nuclear weapons should be given this role in the days of clear-cut American strategic superiority, but in later decades the concept of “extended deterrence”—deterrence of conventional attack by the threat of nuclear response—has been much more difficult. What we can now reasonably call the Bush solution is much the best: remove the problem by removing its cause. There will be nuclear weapons on both sides for a long time to come, and in many different systems, but in a world of stable conventional balance the amount of frustrated nonsense in the responses of sober defense analysts to questions like Steven Kull’s will be greatly reduced.

The new direction set in Brussels will not be maintained without continuous attention from the Bush administration. Traditional attitudes are stubborn, and they can be reinforced by the interests of particular military services as well as by tendencies in Brussels to argue for weapons controlled by NATO headquarters. But what the President revealed in this episode is more than a quick-fix response to criticism and to the risk of failure—though it is not wrong for presidents to respond to such immediate stimuli. Talking to The Washington Post after his success, Bush showed a breadth of view and a reflective confidence that seemed new to me. He would still be careful, but also eager to bring about a new consensus; and the prospect he put forth is one that goes “beyond containment” to a new kind of Europe, especially through change in Eastern Europe. It will take time, but it is a genuine vision of genuine possibility. The President himself remains wary of what he calls “the vision thing,” but he joked about that in The Washington Post interview, and he can be comforted by the thought that, especially when prospects are bright, vision and prudence are not enemies but friends.

Steven Kull is also hopeful, in the end. He does not stop with demonstrating the internal contradictions that come from making a balance with the USSR the justification for weapons procurement and victory the object of nuclear war. From his own arguments with his respondents, he became aware that many of them, even though selected from the hawkish end of the spectrum, have a sober understanding of nuclear reality and know, whatever they may say in public, that these weapons do not fit the rules of inherited conventional military thinking. His overall conclusion is that “a greater adaptation to nuclear reality not only is possible but to some extent is already occurring,” and among Soviets as well as Americans. It is just this adaptation that can be both cause and effect of the progress now in sight between the governments of Gorbachev and Bush.