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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.

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