Suddenly, “no-first-use” and “the freeze” have become the talismanic slogans of the antinuclear war movement. They have been around for years, but they have recently gained renewed urgency both by having been taken up by outstanding proponents and by increasing popular support. They are not similar, and the freeze may be left for later in another connection.

No-first-use owes its present prominence more than anything else to the plea made in its behalf by four distinguished advocates, McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, in the Spring 1982 issue of Foreign Affairs. As they put it in their admirably measured and tentative approach to the problem, they have aimed “to start a discussion, not to end it.” If I am skeptical about their proposal, it is not for lack of respect for the reasonableness of their effort and the authority they bring to it.

The first thing that strikes one about no-first-use is that it belongs to the declaratory school of diplomacy. The authors refer to it variously as a “policy,” a “pledge,” and a “declaration.” In fact, it amounts to little more than the latter. Nothing would or could enforce it. At best, both the United States and the Soviet Union would jointly declare that they intend to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. They need do nothing more.

The second striking thing about the proposal is that it has one unnecessary or superfluous word. It is really equivalent, if taken seriously, to no-use of nuclear weapons. If no nuclear weapons are ever used first, they will never be used at all. Why, then, should the slogan or declaration be no-first-use? The answer, I suspect, is that no-use would immediately expose the nature of the proposal as a disembodied exhortation rather than as a practical policy. The use of “first” somehow appears to give a specious operational character to the declaration. No-use would make it too clear that we are dealing with a statement of the problem, not a step toward its solution.

If a declaration of peaceful intentions were enough to prevent any kind of war, the deed would have been done a long time ago. The history of war and peace is littered with such professions of virtue. In 1928, for example, sixty-two nations signed a pact outlawing war. Its enforcement was supposed to rest on the moral strength of world opinion. It was signed, celebrated, and forgotten. With evident understatement, the four authors themselves say that “such declarations may have only limited reliability.” The awful truth is that they have no reliability at all.

There has been no first use of nuclear weapons for almost four decades because it has not been in the interest of any nuclear power to use them; and that condition will—or will not—continue to prevail whether or not declarations of self-denial are made. The reliability of that continuing self-interest, not the reliability of any declaration, is what matters. It is, moreover, hard to take seriously the contention that “to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons is to accept an enormous burden of responsibility for any later violation.” Any nuclear power that used such weapons would be moved by such an imperious need or irrational aim that the burden of the responsibility for violating a previous declaration would be trivial, not enormous.

In fact, the main argument for the declaration rests not on its credibility but on its allegedly positive advantages for the United States and the Atlantic Alliance. The first advantage is said to turn on the difference between a first-and second-strike nuclear strategy. The reasoning leaves much to be desired.

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States would still—the authors agree—have to maintain nuclear forces strong enough to launch a second or retaliatory counterattack. The main reason they give for depending on a second strike is that it would require a smaller and cheaper nuclear force. That is a most dubious assumption. It would require the United States to possess sufficiently large nuclear forces to absorb a potentially all-out Soviet first strike and still have enough left over to mount a second strike so punishing that it would deter the Soviet Union from contemplating a first strike.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly—the strategic function of a potential second strike is to deter a first strike, not merely to engage in a mutually suicidal nuclear exchange. When he was still secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara convincingly held that the function of the second strike was fundamentally to deter an enemy’s first strike, and that to do so it would be necessary to be able to “utterly destroy them, and I mean completely destroy them.” Such a second-strike capacity, after taking all possible punishment from a first strike, would hardly be the “more modest program” that is now offered. In fact, the rationale of the first and second strikes makes little difference between whether a nuclear power uses a first strike and absorbs a second or vice versa.


The second alleged advantage is even more questionable. It is claimed that no-first-use “will also reduce the risk of conventional aggression in Europe.” This claim has already been repudiated by various European spokesmen who believe that a commitment to no-first-use would produce just the opposite effect. If no-first-use really means no-use, the field is left open to conventional warfare in which, for the Europeans, a nearby Soviet bloc is vastly more formidable as an enemy than a faraway United States as an ally. But the reasoning behind the claim of a reduced conventional risk is worth considering.

It is important to note that no-first-use is only half of the new equation proposed by the four authors. The other half “would require” a greater conventional defense force in Europe, including a strengthening of the American conventional forces there. No-first-use, then, does not stand by itself; it depends on what happens to the conventional forces of the alliance. This need to compensate for no-first-use suggests that it is not as useless militarily as the authors otherwise imply. The threat of first-use must serve some practical military function if its withdrawal requires an increase in conventional forces.

Actually, the demand for increased conventional forces has been made for years without the spur of no-first-use. The best minds wrestling with this intractable problem have advocated more and better conventional defense irrespective of where they stood on first-use or no-first-use. What has the trouble been? The four authors assure us that the obstacle has not come from budgetary restraints; it is the fault of “political will.” Unfortunately, they do not look deeper into the flaw in Europe’s “political will.”

After two world wars fought in Europe, a large-scale conventional war is a European nightmare second only in horror to a nuclear war. Americans find it much easier than Europeans to contemplate a conventional war in Europe as the alternative to a nuclear war. The European psyche cannot stand the specter of either one. Such security as Europe has enjoyed has been based on a mixture of conventional and nuclear forces for the purpose of preventing both types of war, not merely nuclear war. The present agitation aimed only at nuclear war has obscured this fundamental purpose.

The proponents of no-first-use approve of the original nuclear guarantee, based on first-use, because only a conventional Soviet threat existed at the time. They want the guarantee changed now, though no-first-use would ensure that any Soviet threat would still be conventional. Above all, they seem to be telling Europeans that, if there has to be a war in Europe, let it be a conventional war or anything but a nuclear war. But the original aim of the alliance is not as obsolete as they make it appear to be. It was designed to deter a conventional war in Europe—and that is still the major threat to the alliance and the primary mission of the nuclear deterrent.

Curiously, the question is never raised what is to be done in the event that Western Europe continues to resist providing for an adequate conventional defense. The two policies, no-first-use and an adequate conventional defense, are so closely linked in the authors’ view that they are logically committed to retaining no-first-use if the conventional defense remains inadequate. The decision in the end must be made by the Europeans themselves; they were the ones who originally urged first-use, and the alliance could hold together only if they took the initiative to give it up. Americans are not the best ones to tell Europeans what is good for them. Their decision will be made not on the basis of preferring a conventional war to a nuclear war but rather on the answer to a different kind of question: Is a purely conventional defense or a conventional defense plus the nuclear deterrent more likely to prevent a conventional and a nuclear war in Europe?

If Europeans have to choose between a conventional war and a nuclear war, they would be mad to choose the latter. A conventional defense is really the only kind of defense rationally open to them in the event of an actual war; a nuclear defense can be justified only as a way to prevent all war, conventional and nuclear. Nevertheless, the antinuclear-war movements in Europe are not agitating for a greater conventional defense, and the degree to which they favor such a defense is not clear; the decision is not yet in on whether Europe wishes to be defended one way or the other or both—or neither.

What is really at stake comes out most starkly in the authors’ view of the German problem. They stipulate that some sort of nuclear guarantee is still necessary for West Germany. But they seek to redefine it to mean an American readiness to reply with nuclear weapons to any nuclear attack on the Federal Republic. In effect, the Germans could no longer count on the threat of a nuclear reply to deter a conventional attack. They would first have to suffer a nuclear attack to bring on a nuclear reply, after all the damage had been done.


Thus the reliability of a declaration of no-first-use is so limited that the four authors must still address themselves to the possible first-use by the Soviets against Germany. Is it conceivable that a second strike by the Americans in these circumstances would be—as the authors themselves demand of their program—responsive to the basic desires of the German people? This scenario is more like an old-fashioned artillery exchange than a foreshadowing of nuclear warfare.

At best, no-first-use offers many fewer and far less obvious benefits than have been claimed for it. At worst, it raises more acute problems than it seeks to solve. It surely merits the discussion which its advocates have sought to arouse, and for that alone we may be grateful to them.


Jonathan Schell’s new book, The Fate of the Earth, also grapples with the problem of the first and second strike. Ironically, his view is directly contrary to that of the no-first-use authors. They insist that the United States must maintain a second-strike capacity in order to adopt a no-first-use policy. He insists that a second strike loses all meaning and rationality in the event of an enemy’s first strike. Both cannot be right.

Schell’s book has received a rapturously favorable reception. Even partially critical reviews have been unduly respectful. The same sort of reception greeted that classic of puerility, The Greening of America, also first published in The New Yorker. They belong to the same genre of political fantasy and millennial daydreaming. They are Zeitgeist books that tell more about their times than about anything else.

About three-quarters of Schell’s book is devoted to a single theme—the horrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons. Those who still need to be taught or reminded of this lesson will undoubtedly find it rewarding. It evidently stirs readers by a type of overkill typical of nuclear weapons—hammering on the same note of doom, as if the reader were so dull that he could not get the message the first time, or the tenth time, or the twentieth time. If the subject were anything other than nuclear destructiveness, the method would quickly pall and exhaust itself as well as the reader. But the subject lends itself to this kind of repetitiveness, and perhaps Schell is right that there are too many people out there who need this incessant, deafening drumbeat to make them pay attention to the threat of nuclear war. The danger is that many of Schell’s readers or disciples will go on mindlessly beating the same drum, as if the threat could be exorcised by shouting hysterically that the threat exists. What is no more than a starting point threatens to become an end in itself.

For Schell’s purpose, it is first necessary to reject and denounce the policy of nuclear deterrence, which rests on the threat of a retaliatory second strike by the victim of a first strike in order to avert both strikes. In brief, he rules out the possibility of a second strike on the ground that an enemy’s first strike would be so totally devastating that it would make a second strike useless or senseless. If a second strike cannot follow a first strike in any circumstances, the reasoning goes, the whole concept of deterrence must be given up.

One thing stands out in this argument—it rests wholly on the assumption of a totally devastating first strike. In Schell’s world, it is always all or nothing, total oblivion or total salvation. At this point, he needs total oblivion. If the first strike should be less—especially considerably less—than totally devastating, the possibility of a second strike would reappear and again deter a first strike from being launched.

Is it wise or prudent to reject deterrence with such finality on the assumption of a totally devastating first strike? Such a strike would have to benefit from total surprise and from the willingness to risk a one-shot, all-out nuclear attack. No one really knows what nuclear war would be like, since one cannot be sure of anything about a type of war that has never been waged. Nevertheless, among the lesser probabilities is the achievement of such total surprise that it would enable a would-be nuclear attacker to launch an annihilating first strike without provoking its equally capable nuclear enemy to get its own attack in first. The time and effort necessary to prepare and launch an operation of such unimaginable magnitude are themselves conducive to deterrence by alerting the intended victim to the danger. One form of deterrence does not entail a second strike at all: it arises from the danger that, without total surprise, a first strike cannot be mounted without inviting a preemptive first strike by the other side. Schell never even considers this aspect of deterrence. Totally devastating first strikes are more easily written about in theory than carried out in practice.

But even on the assumption that a major nuclear power could get away with launching a first strike, it could never be sure that it would be totally devastating. The US and the USSR are large countries. The efficiency of the new nuclear weapons has never been tested. The nuclear agencies of both countries have been straining for decades to guard against just such a totally devastating first strike. The United States possesses a triad of deterrents, one of which, the submarine, is peculiarly difficult to destroy with one blow.

Schell himself recognizes that something less than total devastation might be the result, and that the survivors might be able to manage an equally or substantially devastating second strike. At this point, his argument changes from the impossibility to the irrationality of a second strike. It would not be rational he holds, to go through with a second strike merely for the sake of “revenge” because “national security” would no longer be meaningful and “since the retaliatory strike might be the action that would finally break the back of the ecosphere and extinguish the species.” He concludes: “In these circumstances, it seems to me, it is really an open question whether the leaders would decide to retaliate or not.”

It may or may not be an “open question.” But if it is truly an open question, its deterrent value should not be underestimated. The perpetrators of a first strike could not be sure that there would be no retaliation—and retaliation of a sort that would destroy them as well as the ecosphere and the entire species. To rule out the deterrent force of a second strike on what is admittedly an “open question” begs the question. On this reasoning, it is not only the victims of a first strike that would have to be irrational to launch an annihilating second strike. The first strike would be equally irrational if it put at risk the country that launched it with an unresolved and unresolvable “open question.”

Thus the argument against a second strike is also an argument against a first strike; the one is, in effect, a deterrent to the other. Deterrence is not based solely on the known and determinable; it also rests on the unknown and imponderable. The latter are not always working against us. Schell almost invariably chooses to construe them so as to make our flesh creep and our minds grow dizzy by holding out the worst possible case imaginable.

This contradiction at the core of Schell’s critique of deterrence permeates his entire argument. It is necessary for him to maintain that a devastating first strike is practicable, but that a second strike is not. Yet depending on which part of the book one reads, he makes both equally senseless and irrational. It is not enough for him to demonstrate that the US and USSR could destroy each other. He also undertakes to show that even the “local destruction” following a large-scale nuclear attack would or could or might (one is never sure which one he wants us to believe) destroy all mankind and all living matter on earth through its “direct global effects,” such as depletion of the ozone layer protecting the earth’s surface. Assuming that his scientific data is valid or even plausible, the attacker would pay for a large-scale first strike as high a price as the victim. It may be senseless to contemplate a retaliatory strike if it is assumed that the first one has been carried out successfully; it is not senseless to contemplate a retaliatory strike if it could successfully deter a first strike by making the latter as devastating to the attacker as to the attacked.

Schell is so fixated on the alleged senselessness of a second strike that his mind seems to be hermetically sealed against the full logic of his own reasoning. For example, he writes:

The policy of deterrence does not contemplate doing anything in defense of the homeland; it only promises that if the homeland is annihilated the aggressor’s homeland will be annihilated, too.

Is that doing nothing? If an aggressor has reason to believe that his own homeland will be annihilated, he is well on his way to being deterred from devastating the homeland of the defender. One cannot one-sidedly argue that the threat of annihilation must inhibit the defense if the same threat of annihilation must inhibit the aggressor. Yet Schell obsessively works only one side of the street, almost always confining himself to what the Soviet Union might do to a mortally wounded United States without the latter being able or willing to do anything comparable in return.

Or take another example of Schell’s strange illogic. After devoting most of his book to the threat of nuclear extinction, he tells us that “nuclear weapons, if they were ever used in large numbers, would simply blow war up, just as they would blow up everything else that is human.” This leads him to this unexpected thought:

There is no need to “abolish war” among the nuclear powers; it is already gone. The choices don’t include war any longer. They consist now of peace, on the one hand, and annihilation on the other.

If this were true, it would hold for all nuclear powers, for the aggressor as well as for the victim, for the first strike as well as for the second. By writing off nuclear war in this way, Schell implicitly permits the doctrine of deterrence to return through the back door. For if the choice before all nuclear powers is as stark and simple as that between peace and annihilation, we can take some comfort in the probability that they will seek to avoid annihilation. It may not be foolproof, as little in this world is, but it is not nothing.

All that Schell’s implicit form of deterrence requires is that we should recognize the futility of using any nuclear weapons. He writes:

If we did acknowledge the full dimensions of the peril, admitting clearly and without reservation that any use of nuclear arms is likely to touch off a holocaust in which the continuance of all human life would be put at risk, extinction would at that moment become not only “unthinkable” but also undoable.

Now we know. Nuclear war is, in effect, irrational. It is irrational whether it takes the form of aggression or of defense. A first strike is just as irrational as a second strike. The ultimate rationale for deterrence is, in fact, the elementary rationality required for mutual survival. As Schell himself says, “a world that has embarked on a holocaust is in its nature irrational and out of control.” At least this tells us this much—that rationality is a safeguard, even though it may be less than infallible and decisive, against a nuclear holocaust.

One of the difficulties in reading Schell’s book, however, is that much depends on which page one reads. He is quite capable of asserting that nuclear powers “are ultimately prepared to bring an end to mankind in their attempt to protect their own countries.” But he had previously tried to convince us that it made no sense to try to protect one’s own country if the result could only be the end of mankind. Are we to infer that the best way to prevent an end to mankind is not to attempt to protect one’s own country? Yet, after all this, it turns out that Schell himself is willing to give the present Soviet and American leaders some credit for aversion to nuclear weapons:

I believe that without indulging in wishful thinking we can grant that the present leaders of both the Soviet Union and the United States are considerably deterred from launching a nuclear holocaust by sheer aversion to the unspeakable act itself.

Well, at last Schell tells us that they are deterred by something. But is it merely “sheer aversion to the unspeakable act”? Too many leaders in this century have not been averse to the “unspeakable” to accept this explanation. If the act were not so suicidally dangerous, the aversion to this unspeakable act might not have been any more prohibitive than to any of the other unspeakable acts. Curiously, Schell has to fall back on such a soft psychological term as “aversion” in order to avoid confronting the hard, physical basis of nuclear deterrence.

Schell’s zealotry is so intense that he is not above tinkering with evidence to make it serve his purpose. He cites the statement of former President Carter during the Iranian crisis to the effect that any outside attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf region “will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Schell thereupon accuses Carter of having threatened “to unleash a holocaust in which the life of mankind might be lost.” Immediately afterward, Schell goes on to wonder “what Carter would have done if the Soviets had ignored his threat and invaded Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

A holocaust, in Schell’s terms, means that Carter actually threatened to use nuclear weapons. He did not—“any means necessary, including military force” left Carter so much room that it can be construed as specifically threatening to unleash a holocaust of nuclear warfare only by the wildest and most irresponsible exaggeration. And if we are left to wonder what Carter would have done, how can anyone be sure that he actually threatened “to unleash a holocaust”?

Deterrence is admittedly no total, final, absolute answer to the nuclear problem. No one has ever claimed that it was. But why is it necessary for Schell to reject it totally, finally, absolutely?

The answer lies in Schell’s own panacea for ridding the world of nuclear war. His is a mind that operates only between extremes. If anything like deterrence offers any protection at all against nuclear war, it must be denied and denounced. Nothing must be permitted to hold out any hope that does not pass the tests of eternal peace and everlasting love.

Schell’s solution to the problem of nuclear war calls for an end to “national sovereignty.” To get rid of nuclear war it is necessary to get rid of “sovereign states.” Schell scorns them because they were “not intentional” in their origin; no one wrote a book proposing them; no parliament voted them into existence. They were “simply there, at the beginning of recorded history”—as if it would be more in their favor if they had come about intentionally, if a book had proposed them, or if a parliament had voted them into existence. One would suppose that an arrangement which goes back to the beginning of recorded history would be far harder to get rid of than the kind of institution that Schell seems to find more acceptable.

Once Schell gets rid of “national sovereignty,” he enters a realm of utopian obscurantism. What the world needs is “a political means of making international decisions” and “the invention of political means by which the world can peacefully settle the issues that throughout history it has settled by war.” That is hardly a new or original thought. But then we wait breathlessly for Schell to give us a glimmer, an inkling, of the “political means” that would peacefully settle the issues hitherto settled by force.

Instead, Schell first disclaims responsibility for giving us as much as a glimmer or an inkling. He has not, he coyly explains, “sought to define a political solution to the nuclear predicament.” This abdication comes only a page away from where he distinctly sought to define it. Then follows the listing of quite a few requirements for his new political order. One of them is for universal disarmament, including conventional as well as nuclear weapons. The reasoning here is that nations could still maintain their sovereignty with conventional weapons; therefore, conventional weapons must also go.

Finally we get to Schell’s grand climax: “In sum, the task is nothing less than to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.” How to do it? As a start, Schell recommends that each person should “make known, visibly and unmistakably, his desire that the species survive.” Schell then tells us how to go about doing this—by letting “our daily business drop from our hands for a while” and causing a “disruption in our lives.” By disruption, Schell means something “as simple as a telephone call to a friend, a meeting in the community.” And from this “first, urgent, immediate step” we will get to “global disarmament, both nuclear and conventional, and the invention of political means by which the world can peacefully settle the issues that throughout history it has settled by war.”

This is a travesty of thinking about nuclear war. It is also the most depressing and defeatist cure-all that has ever been offered. If we have to “reinvent the world” to control nuclear war, the chances of saving the human race must be somewhere near the vanishing point. Deterrence is child’s play compared with what Schell demands of us. His prescription is a disguised counsel of despair. It gives up the struggle against nuclear war in the world as it is in favor of chanting and shouting for a world that does not exist. Utopians are like that: they hold out the vision of a feast to starving people, who are never permitted to eat any of it.


Whatever is wrong with no-first-use and reinventing the world is not likely to be set right by official policy.

American nuclear doctrine has always claimed to be based on deterrence. But it has not always been satisfied to stop with that. It has also, of late, been preoccupied with fighting a nuclear war as well as deterring one.

The reasoning goes that it is necessary to prepare to fight a nuclear war, if deterrence fails. As a consequence, American officials say they believe it necessary to be able to fight a nuclear war on all levels, from the most limited and local to the most uncontrollable and widespread. Such a nuclear war is conceived of as if it were an endurance contest, with victory going to the side that lasts the longest. Victory rather than deterrence would dictate preparations for a drawn-out, escalatory nuclear combat. A program of nuclear deterrence could stop at some point deemed necessary to make a nuclear attack mutually impracticable or irrational; a nuclear-fighting program has no such recognizable stopping point, for it requires open-ended preparations in behalf of a war which has no rational boundary and whose nature cannot be foreseen.

The nuclear-fighting doctrine was embedded in Presidential Directive 59, adopted by President Carter in July 1980 and later reaffirmed by President Reagan. This directive was defended by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown on the ground that it was not incompatible with deterrence and gave the United States more “options” than one of simple retaliation. As Brown put it in a speech the following month, “In our analysis and planning, we are necessarily giving greater attention to how a nuclear war would actually be fought by both sides if deterrence fails.” The assumption here is that the failure of deterrence would not be catastrophic; it would rather signal the outbreak of an extended nuclear war.

The word “options” in this context conceals as much as it reveals. The requirements for nuclear fighting are far more extensive than for nuclear deterrence. They may to some extent coincide, but only because part of a nuclear-fighting capacity is the same as that for deterrence. The trouble is that planning to fight an extended nuclear war calls for much more than planning for deterrence. The two objectives are not entirely contradictory, but they are far from the same.

In his speech against no-first-use of April 6 last, Secretary of State Haig made an effort to reemphasize the primacy of deterrence.1 But some of his remarks indicated that nothing had really changed in basic nuclear doctrine since Presidential Directive 59. One of his strangest allusions was historical. Since deterrence presupposes that no nuclear power will deliberately destroy itself in order to destroy others, Haig found it necessary to maintain that societies have always risked self-destruction in pursuit of their aims. He said:

Throughout history societies have risked their total destruction if the prize of victory was sufficiently great or the consequences of submission sufficiently grave.

Throughout history? Total destruction? There has not been a war of total destruction since the Third Punic War in 146 BC, and that was brought about by the decision of Rome to punish its old rival, Carthage, rather than by Carthage to gain a sufficiently great prize of victory. If wars of total destruction have been prevalent throughout history, it should be possible to cite a few such wars in the past two or three centuries; none comes to mind. Even the Japanese were unwilling to risk total destruction after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why should a secretary of state in a major pronouncement on the most tormenting problem of our time take refuge in such historical fatuity? The answer manifestly is that he sought to make nuclear wars similar to past wars in order to get across the idea that nuclear wars must be fought, if deterrence fails, as past prenuclear wars were fought. The concept of nuclear war as an endurance contest, in which the last survivor prevails, came out most clearly in this passage:

Rather, deterrence depends upon our capability, even after suffering a massive nuclear blow, to prevent an aggressor from securing a military advantage and prevailing in a conflict. Only if we maintain such a capability can we deter such a blow.

Here again, nuclear fighting and nuclear deterrence are hopelessly muddled. The assumption is that an extended nuclear war can be fought to a victorious finish after we receive “a massive nuclear blow.” We are not in this scenario dealing with a first and second nuclear strike, in which case the first would presumably be “massive” and the second in retaliation as massive as possible. That is the schema of basic deterrence, which makes the first strike self-destructive through the imminence of the second. No aggressor could prevail in such a conflict, thus making unnecessary and nonsensical the idea of preventing the aggressor from “securing a military advantage and prevailing in a conflict.” The idea of “prevailing,” even after suffering a massive nuclear blow, opens up the prospect of an endurance contest, in which massive nuclear blows will be exchanged until one or the other side “prevails”—which is a circumlocution for gaining victory.

Oddly, this notion of our fighting a nuclear war after receiving a “massive” nuclear blow comes at a time when Haig’s colleague, Secretary of Defense Weinberger, is busy trying to convince the American people that the United States is in no condition to prevail in a nuclear war and will not be for years to come. The Soviet Union, according to Mr. Weinberger, holds “a substantial lead in most of the customary measures of strategic forces—total number of systems, total number of ballistic missiles and total destructive potential.” The only US advantage is said to be in total number of “deliverable warheads,” and even that is likely to go in the present decade. This Soviet “degree of superiority and strategic edge,” Weinberger holds, “will last for some years through the decade even if we pursue all the programs the President has sought”—and which he is not likely to get.2

One would imagine that in these circumstances the US government would quietly go about the business of catching up, especially if we even lack “the requisite military capability for adequate nuclear deterrence,” as Mr. Weinberger also claims. Indeed, we are being subjected to a rolling barrage of unprecedented panic-mongering along with the most grandiose plans for actually fighting a nuclear war. A more rational approach would seem to be to make sure of the requisite military capacity for adequate nuclear deterrence before taking on the far more dubious task of actually preparing to fight an extended nuclear war.

Something is out of joint here. A country that is as far behind as the United States is supposed to be would be expected to behave far more circumspectly and far less blusteringly. Or can it be that the American nuclear arsenal is not in as parlous a state as it is now officially advertised to be? We have been through this before—the propaganda of panic to push through a frighteningly expensive military appropriations bill.

On close examination, the immediate problem always seems defined as the theoretical vulnerability of the landbased Minuteman missiles, which are said to be exposed to a Soviet first strike. The alleged solution to the problem—the MX intercontinental missile—has frustrated its backers because they cannot decide where and how to place them. But this is not a quantitative problem; no across-the-board buildup can solve it. It is a qualitative problem, requiring a sufficiently hardened or other type of resistant placement to make these weapons safe from attack. The need here is less for throwing incredible sums of money at the problem than for a new, practical idea.

Even this view of the land-based missile’s vulnerability must be qualified. Two little words always creep into the allegations of vulnerability—“in theory.” For much of the claim that land-based Soviet missiles could knock out land-based American missiles is not based on tests or experience with those Soviet missiles; the exercise is largely theoretical—and the theory is largely derived from American tests and experience transposed to the larger Soviet missiles. To make matters even more confusing, Mr. Weinberger has testified that American missiles could also take out Soviet missile sites in a hypothetical first strike.

The whole subject has been mercilessly confused by deceptive, one-sided propaganda. This campaign emanating mainly from the Department of Defense and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency concentrates wholly on the alleged vulnerability of American land-based missiles. It almost completely ignores the other two-thirds of the American “triad”—the submarine and airborne nuclear arms—which were designed to survive a first strike independently and back up the land-based deterrent if it failed. We now have two redundant systems as an insurance policy; they are hardly mentioned, as if all the effort and expense put into them had been wasted. Yet the submarine system is acknowledged to be the most invulnerable and stabilizing. The doomsday horror stories implicitly presuppose the simultaneous, total destruction of all three American nuclear systems, preventing any of them from playing the deterrent role assigned to each of them.

A different type of deception is being practiced by pretending to equate fighting a nuclear war with deterring a nuclear war. This ambiguity permeated Secretary Haig’s reply to the advocates of a “nuclear freeze.” We are now getting close to the nub of the matter, so that it is worth paying the closest attention to what he said about deterring and “prevailing in” a nuclear war.


Secretary Haig raised the truly critical question in the following way:

Much of the argumentation for a nuclear freeze around the question of how much is enough. Each side possesses thousands of deliverable nuclear weapons. Does it then really make any difference who is ahead? The question itself is misleading, as it assumes that deterrence is simply a matter of numbers of weapons or numbers of casualties which could be inflicted. It is not.

Why not? The answer given by Mr. Haig turns on the contention that “the Soviet leaders do not believe in the concept of ‘sufficiency”‘ and were not likely to be “deterred by a force based upon it.” What do the Soviet leaders believe in? They are arming, he said, to “prevail” in a nuclear conflict. By implication, we must arm in the same way so that, if anyone prevails, it will be us. Thus, slippery step by slippery step, Mr. Haig came to the conclusion that the United States should build up its nuclear arsenal so extensively that, “even after suffering a massive nuclear blow,” it would be able to prevent the Soviet Union from “prevailing” and, inferentially, make sure that the United States would prevail.

This line of reasoning came toward the end of Secretary Haig’s speech. Listeners were evidently not expected to remember that he had earlier denied that “nuclear war can be controlled.” If it cannot be controlled, what sense does it make to prepare for a nuclear endurance contest in which both sides possess so many thousands of deliverable nuclear warheads that they are bound to annihilate each other and perhaps everything in between? What meaning could “prevailing in” a nuclear conflict have? Why, in any case, should we fatuously imitate the Soviet leaders in an effort to “prevail in” a nuclear conflict, if it cannot be controlled and must ultimately result in mutual nuclear destruction?

The core of Haig’s argument is, in fact, that we must do what the Soviets do. If they do not believe in the concept of “sufficiency,” then we must not believe in it. If they are arming to “prevail” in a nuclear conflict, we must also arm for the same purpose. One might almost think that American policy is being made in Moscow.

More significant than anything else was the secretary’s answer to the question that he himself raised: “How much is enough?” He never said that anything is enough. In language that defies clear comprehension, he would have us believe that nothing is ever enough. He made deterrence rest “upon a military balance measured not in warhead numbers but in a complex interaction of capabilities and vulnerabilities.” By this time, the secretary of state must have known that the president in early May was going to propose a plan for the reduction of warhead numbers, just what he said the military balance should not be measured in. In any case, Haig’s version of deterrence is so vague and open-ended that it could be set forth only in such obscure terms as “a complex interaction of capabilities and vulnerabilities.” This jumble of words could have been intended only to evade the real issue.

Speeches and statements by Secretaries Weinberger and Haig, together with a speech by Assistant for National Security Affairs William P. Clark on May 21, prepared the public for the Pentagon’s new strategy for nuclear war, revealed by Richard Halloran in The New York Times of May 30. This strategy, officially adopted by the Reagan administration last April without any public announcement or discussion, made explicit what had formerly been implicit—it is planning for an extended nuclear war. This strategy calls for a nuclear arms buildup in behalf of a “protracted” nuclear conflict. The American nuclear forces, according to this program, “must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

The line of this document represents a monstrous preversion of the doctrine of deterrence. The new policy accepts the need to prepare for waging a nuclear war for an indefinite period, as if it could be limited and controlled by both sides—a condition previously denied by Secretary Haig. It also envisages that the United States could impose favorable terms—a euphemism for victory—on the Soviet Union, after both sides had inflicted horrible punishment on each other.

This program is as futile as it is forbidding. It presupposes that a nuclear war could go on “over a protracted period” without unacceptable and uncontrollable destruction of the countries waging it. It assumes that “favorable terms” would have some human meaning after such a nuclear conflict. Preparations for it would be so astronomically costly that it would make the entire American economy hostage to the Pentagon’s insatiable appetite for the development and production of more, and more advanced, nuclear and conventional weapons—as well as, it may be suspected, a vast and wasteful program of “civil defense.” Anything resembling this plan would amount to the long-term militarization of the American economy. In addition, the Atlantic Alliance could not survive this strategy; no European ally could even contemplate taking part in a “protracted” nuclear war. If anything were guaranteed to drive Western Europe into neutralism, it would be this program. The only conceivable war of this kind would be fought directly by the United States and the Soviet Union, in which case the most devastating long-range intercontinental missiles would be employed, probably from the start.

This scheme has only one saving grace. It is so grotesque and mindless that it is inconceivable that the American people will not rebel against it and make Congress refuse to accept it.

President Reagan’s Memorial Day address merely served to emphasize the duality or duplicity of the administration’s policy. The president talked amiably about “the quest for peace” through negotiations with the Soviet Union beginning on June 29, while the secretary of defense made known that he was preparing for a protracted nuclear conflict. If the negotiations which the president announced on May 31 could be taken seriously, we would hardly have been reading about Weinberger’s new program on May 30 and about the confirmation of it on June 3. One can only infer that the president has told his scriptwriters to cast him in the role of the soft-spoken hero, while the secretary plays at being the hardbitten villain.

In his address of June 3 at the Army War College, Weinberger pretended that preparations for a nuclear fighting strategy were the same as those for a basic nuclear-deterrent strategy and that the former was not meant to imply “that nuclear war is winnable.” This sort of double talk has become routine in the propaganda to sell the new program. To judge from Weinberger’s speech, it cannot be reiterated too often that deterrence requires only as much as is needed to prevent a nuclear attack by making it self-destructive, whereas a nuclear fighting ability requires far more because it presupposes that deterrence has failed. As for the disclaimer that the new strategy aims at victory, words have lost their meaning if, as the still classified document states, the American nuclear forces “must prevail” and be able to force “terms favorable to the United States” on the Soviet Union after the termination of such nuclear hostilities. Victory in past wars has meant nothing more or less than prevailing over and dictating favorable terms to the enemy. A program that requires such verbal flimflam must on the face of it be a snare and a delusion.

The report on June 1 of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, headed by former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, also contributed to confusion about the role of deterrence3 . It tended to play down nuclear deterrence on the ground that it could be “but a temporary expedient” and provide “no permanent solution to international security.” Instead, the Commission urged “sharp reductions and qualitative limitations resulting in essential parity at substantially lower and more stable levels of forces.” It also held out hope of future agreements for “the elimination of international nuclear arms through interim steps”—a consummation devoutly to be wished, but hardly a foreseeable prospect.

Reductions and limitations, even if they were substantial enough to matter, would scarcely be a substitute for or improvement on deterrence. Whatever level of forces is likely to be reached in the present circumstances, it would still be high enough to result in, as the reports puts it, “devastation and suffering of a magnitude which would render meaningless any notion of victory.” In this case, the threat of such devastation and suffering would still have to hold back the nuclear powers from engaging in a mutually destructive conflict. It is pointless and confusing to disparage deterrence if that is all we would be left with, even if the Commission’s recommendations were substantially realized. The report is otherwise useful and sobering.


Yet the question, “How much is enough?” will not go away so easily. If it is not answered, there can be no real stopping point in potential nuclear rearmament. And a stopping point is the very least that any control of nuclear arms requires.

The Reagan administration has entangled itself in a self-made web of palpable contradictions. It has no credible starting point for nuclear disarmament any more than it has a stopping point for nuclear rearmament.

The trouble stems largely from the insistence of the administration that the Soviet Union now has “a definite margin of superiority” over the United States in strategic arms. This supposition has cut the ground from the premise underlying all previous nuclear-arms negotiations. SALT I and II were based on the assumption that both sides were roughly equal. It followed that they could remain in some sort of approximate parity by putting comparable ceilings on different types of nuclear weapons.

This method left both sides with such excessive nuclear power that it hardly touched the problem of reducing their ability to annihilate each other. SALT II also opened itself to the charge that it enabled the Soviet Union to concentrate on precisely those weapons most threatening to the United States—the largest intercontinental land-based missiles with multiple warheads. By setting the quantity of weapons at an unconscionably high level, the SALT-type negotiations made the limit virtually meaningless and, in addition, encouraged a concentration on improving the quality or destructiveness of all the permissible weapons.

The best that could be said for the SALT method was that it was “symbolic” or that it pointed in the right direction. The real symbolism was SALT’s tacit acceptance of an appallingly high level of nuclear weapons on both sides, and the direction pointed right to the present concern with the Soviets’ current advantage in weapons of the greatest possible destructiveness.

START’s goal of reducing nuclear weapons certainly holds more promise than START’s far more timid aim to limit their increase. But START has given up the premise of “rough equality” as a starting point. If the sides are as unequal as Secretary Weinberger says they are, START negotiations can only achieve equality by subtracting from one side or adding to the other. In this case, the subtraction must come from the Soviet side or the addition to the American side. Yet both START and SALT have in common that they can only seek to put both sides in a state of some sort of equality; nothing else could possibly be the object of nuclear negotiations.

President Reagan’s original program called for building up to obtain equality. Only after perhaps a decade of hectic nuclear rearmament was negotiation contemplated, and then only because some putative status of equality had been reached. The new program, sketched by the president on May 9, seeks to achieve the same goal by the reverse means. In its simplest terms, it wants to get there by means of Soviet reductions, especially in the case of long-range missiles and their warheads most threatening to the United States. The exact figures—at last count 5,500 Soviet against 2,152 American warheads on these missiles—need not concern us here; the Soviet number is no more than an “estimate,” and both numbers are subject to change without notice for technical and other reasons. The important point is that the Soviets are expected to negotiate themselves out of an alleged advantage.

Anyone who has any knowledge of or experience with Soviet policy and their makers can have no illusions about the fate of the Reagan administration’s new proposal. The Soviet leaders do not have a disturbed, defiant public opinion to worry about, no “marches for peace,” no “demonstrations against war,” no retribution at the ballot box. They do not have allies that must be soothed and convinced. If they really believe that they possess “a definite margin of superiority,” as President Reagan has assured them, it would be the last thing they would give away.

Politically and psychologically they have been guaranteed “for some years through the decade” an allegedly priceless advantage, which the United States may or may not be able to whittle away. At worst they can force the United States to spend itself into a military-induced budget deficit of ruinous proportions. The nuclear panic-mongering of the Reagan administration has been a free gift to the Soviets, and the wonder is that it has not done more damage to Western self-confidence and Allied unity. Some people might be convinced by what has been coming out of Washington that the Soviets would have us at their mercy if it really came to a nuclear showdown.

If everyone believed the terrifying news that has been bursting forth from the Department of Defense, there should be unconfined joy in Moscow and unrestrained consternation in Washington. But everyone behaves as if no one believes it. It is as if no one really knows what to do with a margin of nuclear superiority, even if it is assumed to exist. The United States did not know what to do with it when it had it, and the Soviet Union does not show the slightest indication of knowing what to do with the superior status which President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger have awarded to it. If actions speak louder than words, we are getting the wrong message from them.


SALT, START, and a “nuclear freeze” have one thing in common—they require negotiations with the Soviet Union. There’s the rub.

These negotiations cannot take place in a political vacuum. Nuclear negotiations are not only about weapons; they are also about the balance of power. Neither side trusts the other and seeks to guard itself against bad faith and unexpected loopholes. Experience shows that negotiators find ways to give up what they do not want and hold on to what they consider essential. There is even a “fog of negotiation,” as Gerard Smith, one of the no-first-use four and head of the American delegation in the SALT I negotiations, put it in his aptly named book Doubletalk; he was referring to an elementary confusion in the Moscow negotiations about missile volume and silo dimensions. Smith’s authoritative account of those negotiations, the only fully successful one to date, should be required reading for anyone who thinks that they are anything but a battle of wits and a game of perseverance to see which side can get the better of the other.

The very subject of nuclear negotiations is enigmatic and tantalizing. The goal is always parity, but the Soviet and American systems are so different that a mythical parity can be achieved only by a process of ill-defined “trade-offs.” Each side must consider the needs and pressures of its own vested interests before meeting the needs and pressures of the other side. Two sets of negotiations are always going on, the internal and the external, with the former often more difficult and dreary than the latter. Once the trading starts, it can go on for months and even years, until a deal has been reached, if at all, so full of compromises and conditions that no side is finally prevented from doing what it really wants to do or made to give away what it really wishes to keep.

Negotiations with the Soviets must always hinge on what they call the “balance of forces,” of which nuclear weapons are an integral part. On the very day, May 9, that President Reagan made known his negotiating position to reduce the Soviet advantage in intercontinental land-based missiles, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri F. Ustinov wrote in Pravda: “The Soviet Union will not allow the existing balance of forces to be disrupted.” As long as they are satisfied with that balance, it is naive to imagine that they will voluntarily give it up. It took them almost two decades to achieve it, at vast cost and immense effort. They are not the only ones who do not like to give up advantages voluntarily.

The “nuclear freeze” proposal presents the same problem with the Soviets. Its proponents do not advocate a unilateral American freeze; such a onesided gesture would be vulnerable to the charge that it is tantamount to unilateral American disarmament. Thus the recent appeal of the Union of Concerned Scientists—which fatuously featured in the largest type a quotation from Jonathan Schell’s book, as if it needed any free advertising—came out for “an immediate bilateral freeze on the build-up of strategic nuclear weapons, and on the flight testing of new strategic missiles.”

If a nuclear freeze is ever brought about in the United States, it will be caused by popular pressure against official political and military resistance. No such pressure—not even the possibility of such pressure—exists in the Soviet Union. A freeze in the United States will come, if at all, from the bottom; in the Soviet Union it must come from the top. This is a strange asymmetry for a bilateral agreement. It is equally strange to see how it has been dealt with.

Barbara W. Tuchman tackled the problem in The New York Times Magazine of April 18. Here are her suggestions:

One would be a more massive, more purposeful effort than may now be conducted to promote anti-nuclear sentiment and fear of their own policies among the people of the Soviet Union and satellite countries. We are always blaming the Russians for agitating the peace movement in Western Europe. Why should we not do the same behind the Iron Curtain? We could also try what might be called the stuffedgoose option—that is, providing them with all the grain and consumer goods they need in such quantities that they become dependent on us and could not risk the domestic turbulence that would follow if they cut off the source of supply by war.

If the name of a distinguished historian, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, were not signed to these words, they would not be worth noticing. As it is, one does not know whether, as the saying goes, to laugh or to cry. The idea that the United States could successfully wage all-out political warfare within the Soviet Union and its satellites or that the United States should make itself responsible for feeding, clothing, and otherwise caring for the comforts of almost 400 million people in the Soviet Union and its satellites—this makes one despair of intellectuals in politics. If anything could make the Soviet leadership impervious to any antinuclear proposals, it would be a correlated threat to its political and economic control.

If public opinion is the controlling factor in both countries, as Barbara Tuchman suggests, the future of bilateral nuclear agreements, including a freeze, is dark to the point of invisibility. For her conclusion is: “A start might be made if leaders came to power in Washington and Moscow at the same time who both really wanted accommodation. Only both publics can make that happen.” If the Soviet public must make it happen in Moscow as more of the American public is trying to make it happen in Washington, that is virtually a guarantee that it will never happen.

Jonathan Schell tries to get around the Soviet obstacle in still another way. Schell shares the view that a nuclear freeze cannot be unilateral; it “should be concerted, as it eventually must be, in a common political endeavor, reaching across national boundaries.” But how is it going to reach across national boundaries, especially the Soviet boundary? Here is Schell’s answer:

We do not know what the peoples of the totalitarian states, including the people of the Soviet Union, may want. They are locked in silence by their government. In these circumstances, public opinion in the free countries would have to represent public opinion in all countries, and would have to bring its pressure to bear, as best it could, on all governments.

This is another and similarly absurd cop-out. How in the world could public opinion in the free countries “represent” public opinion in all countries? By what conceivable means could free public opinion bring pressure to bear on totalitarian governments? Well, at least this political daydream is somewhat less demanding than reinventing the world.

Depressing as the news may be, negotiations are not the best way—or even any way—to deal with the intransigent nuclear problem. Negotiations tend to register the progress of the arms race rather than to put an end to it. Any numerical change that leaves intact the ability of each nuclear superpower to destroy the other cannot change the fundamental strategic balance between them; the excess of nuclear weapons is so great that a ceiling or reduction which does not get below the level of redundancy cannot significantly change the basic character of the problem. In the world of political rivalry within which nuclear negotiations take place, the question “Who’s ahead?” almost always takes precedence over that of “What’s enough?” Anyone who expects a great power to give up an advantage in negotiations or not to get the best trade possible for it is already living in Jonathan Schell’s reinvented world. Unfortunately, we have only one real world, and it is not hospitable to illusions or fantasies. This way of thinking about nuclear war is a trap for the innocent and a boon to the nuclear warriors.


Is there no other way?

There is. It is not a new way, but it has been peculiarly neglected, especially in the United States. It has most recently been advocated by Lord Zuckerman, the former chief scientific adviser to the British Ministry of Defence, in Nuclear Illusion and Reality, a short book that contains more useful knowledge and wisdom about nuclear warfare than a small library on the subject. I happened to arrive at the same basic position independently in an article published in the Winter 1981 issue of The Washington Quarterly. Since then, I have become increasingly convinced that it is the best way to cope with the problem of nuclear weapons in the presentday world.

The only cure-all for nuclear war is the complete and absolute abolition of nuclear weapons everywhere and for all time. This said, there is not much more to be said for it; no one believes that it is likely to happen or even that there is the faintest chance that any of us will live to see it. Anything short of this is bound to contain risks and problems. The realistic question is: What policy may contain the least risk and fewest problems? Or to put it more concretely: What policy is most likely to make unnecessary a nuclear arms race and still provide an adequate margin of security?

Parity cannot be the answer. No one knows what it means in terms of different nuclear weapons and systems. The search for parity can go up as well as down, with nuclear rearmament just as feasible as disarmament. Parity is inherently unstable because there is no agreed-on standard of equality and no numerical basis for arriving at any such standard. The quest for parity guarantees a nuclear seesaw, not a state of assured stability. The mirage of parity cannot possibly lead to the promised land of stable deterrence.

Negotiations are not the answer. They invariably hinge on establishing some form of parity. In this world, no one is going to negotiate himself into inferiority or out of superiority. Once different weapons and even different weapons systems must be evaluated and balanced off against each other, negotiations inevitably degenerate into endlessly futile haggling sessions, brought to a close only by agreement on a crazy quilt of trade-offs and loopholes. Negotiations of this sort become more important for the mere consolation that the deadly antagonists are negotiating than for anything the negotiations may bring forth.

The last thing the world needs is deterrence interpreted as the ability to withstand “a massive nuclear blow” in order to “prevail in” an extended nuclear endurance contest. The crucial problem of deterrence is how to prevent such a first blow, not how to withstand it, and least of all, how to exchange blow for blow, as if prevailing in such a contest could have any human meaning. The Soviets could not prevail in such a contest any more than the United States could prevail in it, and there is no point in attributing such an intention to them in order to beat them at the same game. This is a game no one can win; that should determine our policy, not whether the Soviets do or do not believe that they can win.

Indeed, Secretary Haig attributed the doctrine of “prevailing in” a nuclear conflict to the Soviet leaders in a most peculiar way. He said:

Deterrence faces its true test at the time of maximum tension, even in the midst of actual conflict. In such extreme circumstances, when the stakes on the table may already be immense, when Soviet leaders may feel the very existence of their regime is threatened, who can say whether or not they would run massive risks if they believed that in the end the Soviet state would prevail?

On these extraordinary grounds rested the case against nuclear “sufficiency.” It would be difficult to get more confusion and sophistry into two sentences on this subject. The entire object of deterrence is to prevent actual conflict. How can it be said to face a “true test” after actual conflict has broken out? Actual conflict means that it has already failed that test. In such extreme circumstances, the problem before Soviet leaders would not merely be “the very existence of their regime”; it would be the very existence of life in their country. Above all, Haig’s conclusion is put in the form of a question, not a statement of fact. “Who can say?” “If they believed.” This way of putting the question commits him to nothing definite, but is intended to leave the definite impression that the Soviet leaders may be irrational enough to risk “total destruction” in the quest for nuclear “victory,” even though there is no such thing as nuclear “victory.”

A painstaking study of Soviet policy on this question was made not so long ago in the journal International Security (Summer 1978) by Raymond L. Garthoff, a foremost scholar in this field and former US ambassador to Bulgaria. He showed that some Soviet generals used to put forward the same argument as that of American officials to justify a nuclear “war-fighting” and “war-winning” capability as providing the most credible deterrent. “It is of interest,” Garthoff observed, “that the political leaders in their programmatic statements endorse the idea that deterrence requires strong and ready combat capability, but do not go on to discuss meeting requirements for waging and winning a war.” In any case, the basic work on Soviet military doctrine, Military Strategy, edited by a commission headed by Marshal Sokolovsky, stressed “the colossal and unacceptable consequences of a world nuclear war,” not only to the United States but to “the socialist countries.”

Since 1971, Soviet military and political leaders have ceased calling for strategic superiority; the line turned in favor of mutual deterrence, balance, parity, and equal security. Garthoff, no innocent in these matters, disputes the idea that “Soviet statements on such propositions as mutual deterrence and the unacceptability of general nuclear war are ‘for export.”‘ He believes that “the Soviet political and military leadership accepts a strategic nuclear balance between the Soviet Union and the United States as a fact, and as the probable and desirable prospect for the foreseeable future.” Finally, he traces the chief problem not to Soviet disagreement with the fundamental principle of deterrence but rather to “differing perceptions, to suspicions, and to the difficulties of gearing very different military forces and programs into balances and mutually acceptable strategic arms limitations.”

This last point keeps coming up as a major stumbling block in all nuclear negotiations. It is the source of the most tortuous trade-offs and the trickiest loopholes. It makes parity a guessing game. It is the bane of obtaining stable deterrence by anything resembling numerical equality.

And yet, everything that is being done or recommended, from no-first-use to preparing for a nuclear endurance contest, is supposedly in the interest of deterrence. It may yet equal liberty for the number of crimes committed in its name.

Still, short of abolishing all nuclear weapons forever and everywhere, deterrence is all we have. Like many such terms that are abused and misused, it is best to get back to its original meaning. Deterrence is another way of saying that nuclear weapons will not be abolished and will not be used. If they were abolished, there would be no need to deter their use. But they will not be used because they could annihilate both sides using them. It would concentrate the mind wonderfully to hold on firmly to what pure and simple deterrence means.

The crucial point is that any level of nuclear weapons over and above what is necessary to have a devastating effect on the other side is no more than an exercise in redundancy. There may be a dispute about what that level is or how it can be maintained; there should be no dispute about the principle. Yet it is the very principle that is being insidiously undermined and nullified—in the name of deterrence. The most sinister and dangerous perversion is the doctrine, which has its advocates on both sides, that deterrence requires the ability actually to fight a nuclear war and prevail in it.

This doctrine inevitably legitimatizes a nuclear arms race. Its advocates invariably protest that they never expect such a nuclear war to be fought, but that the nation must arm for it to prevent the other side from possibly being willing to risk it. This alibi is so untenable that it can only provoke the suspicion that it is a mask for something else. It is untenable because the level of nuclear weapons for pure and simple deterrence is already so devastating that the much higher level for nuclear-war fighting is unnecessary as a deterrent. If the former will not deter, the latter will not deter. All the latter can signify is that there are some people in high places who are interested in fighting as well as—or even more than—deterring a nuclear war.

Even if we agree on the principle of pure and simple deterrence, the much harder question is how to put it into practice. Two things may be said about the practical problem: it is not as hard as it may appear, and it is much easier than that of knowing where to stop in order to fight a nuclear war.

This is what Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., and Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, two eminent authorities with much official experience in this field, wrote in the Winter 1981/82 issue of Foreign Affairs:

A devastating attack on the urban societies of the United States and Soviet Union would in fact require only a very small fraction of the more than 50,000 nuclear weapons currently in the arsenals of the two superpowers. The United States is commonly credited with having some 30,000 nuclear warheads of which well over 10,000 are carried by strategic systems capable of hitting the Soviet Union. It is estimated that the Soviet Union will soon have some 10,000 warheads in its strategic forces capable of hitting the United States. An exchange of a few thousand of these weapons could kill most of the urban population and destroy most of the industry of both sides. [Italics added.]

McGeorge Bundy, the former assistant for national security affairs, who has been devoting himself to a study of nuclear policy, has been convinced that “our numbers of warheads, and their yields, in fact exceed what we really need.” In the Winter 1978/79 issue of International Security, he pointed out that each of the two out of three elements in the American deterrent force, the submarine and the airborne, “independently, has much more than enough explosive strength, just in its alert elements, to constitute a deterrent, and indeed a deterrent in depth.”

In fact, no one has ever disputed what President Carter said in 1979 about “just one of our relatively invulnerable Poseidon submarines,” that made up less than 2 percent of our total nuclear force. It “carries enough warheads to destroy every large and medium-size city in the Soviet Union.” Yet the United States has that much nuclear power multiplied fifty times over.

Lord Zuckerman states that mutual deterrence was clearly working as long as the end of the 1950s. By 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis, he asserts, “the build-up of the American nuclear forces and, correspondingly, those of the Soviet Union, had already gone well beyond the rational requirements of any mutual deterrent threat.” Since then, nuclear weapons have piled up, more and more destructively, with no essential change in the operation of mutual deterrence; the same result could have been achieved had we stopped all production and testing of nuclear weapons two decades ago.

What is new and original in Zuckerman’s account is the blame that he apportions to the scientific and technical weapons experts who work in the governmental defense departments. He holds them mainly responsible for the arms race and the opposition to a comprehensive test ban treaty. He has a chapter on “The Advice of Scientists,” which shows how they have been pushing, the politicians and the military around; the arms race, he warns, can be brought to an end only if the politicians “take charge of the technical men.” This reversal of the commonly understood roles may come as a surprise to most readers.

The nuclear buildup seems to live a life of its own. As nuclear warheads are turned out, Zuckerman notes, they are given specific targets as their assignments, whether they are needed or not. Nuclear targeting, as described by Admiral G.E. Miller, a former deputy director of the US Joint Strategic Planning Staff, at a Pugwash Symposium held in Toronto in 1978, is a curious process. New nuclear warheads, according to Miller, “are not produced in answer to military demand; they are turned out and then have to be assigned targets, whether or not there is a requirement for additional destructive capacity.” This system is dependent on the R and D fraternity within the weapons establishment, and the deadly cycle of research and development thrives on testing new weapons. To reduce the nuclear threat, Zuckerman holds, “the goal should be a halt to all R and D designed to elaborate new nuclear warheads and new means of delivery.” He should know. Unlike the limited test ban treaty, a comprehensive test ban, which he advocates, can be achieved without the trade-offs and loopholes of other nuclear negotiations; it is therefore in a class by itself as a desirable step that should be taken by mutual agreement.

Zuckerman prefers the term “minimal deterrent” for the level of nuclear arms necessary to make nuclear war irrational and self-destructive. It may not be the best term for the principle because it implies that there is also a “maximal deterrent,” though Zuckerman himself recognizes that anything above the necessary minimum is actually redundant, unnecessary, and dangerously provocative because it presupposes something beyond deterrence as such.

This is what President Eisenhower meant back in 1955 when he spoke of hydrogen bombs: “There comes a time, possibly, when a lead is not significant in the defensive arrangements of a country. If you get enough of a particular type of weapon, I doubt that it is particularly important to have a lot more of it.” A related view, given the changed circumstances, was put forward by General Maxwell D. Taylor, the former army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the AEI Defense Review as recently as late 1978. He could no longer see any merit in “the need for rough parity with comparable elements of the Soviet establishment” or “the fixation on weapon numbers,” which encouraged “a senseless arms race for numerical parity or superiority.” A more rational and effective strategic policy could be based on “the destructive potential of our forces”—a potential determined by the level necessary for mutual deterrence, not by “seeking decisive superiority in all categories of military strength, nuclear and conventional.”

Taylor argued against the dependence on intercontinental ballistic missiles and recommended progressive reliance on submarine-launched and cruise missiles. This is not the place to go into details of this sort; the principle of deterrence is what concerns us; and Taylor at that time recognized that the principle was being challenged and ignored.

As Eisenhower had implied almost a quarter of a century earlier, whatever is enough for deterrence is, in effect, a sufficient defense against a nuclear enemy; a “lead” is not significant or particularly important; by the same token, a numerical inferiority in one category or another need not be significant or particularly important. Nikita Khrushchev once said that though the United States “may be able to destroy us two times over, we’re still capable of wiping out the United States, even if it’s only once.” The same holds if the Soviet Union were able to destroy the United States two times over and the United States could wipe out the Soviet Union only once. In fact, only once has any meaning; there would be nothing to destroy the second time.

If only this plain, sober, fairly simple fact of nuclear life could be dinned into the heads of policy makers or, failing that, shouted from the housetops, we might be saved from all the terrifying twaddle that assails us periodically, especially whenever negotiations appear to be imminent. Eisenhower’s principle of “enough” is not that difficult to establish, if we have already gone far beyond any conceivable capability of mutual destruction. The principle has already been put into practice many times over, and when we are told that we still need more, there is more than that principle at stake.

There is no need to establish illusory conditions of numerical parity. There is no point in bartering trade-offs and haggling over loopholes. No negotiations are necessary to establish alleged equalities or equivalences. The nuclear numbers game should mislead no more. Deterrence should not be the cat’s-paw for the type of bargaining called for by SALT and START. At the very least, the arsenal of nuclear arms should be fixed at some rational level by a calculation of the needs of deterrence rather than by competition and rivalry. American policy should not be hostage to Soviet preferences, which, paradoxically, now dictate American requirements.

The best that can be hoped for, in the present circumstances, is a policy of plain, simple, and sufficient deterrence which any nuclear power can determine for itself. Such a course might be contagious, because it is saner, safer, and cheaper. It could also lead to reductions in the present scale of nuclear arms, if both sides calmed down and rationally decided what was best for them. But the main thing is that it does not depend on what others do. It puts the responsibility where it belongs—on each nuclear power, without alibis, scapegoats, tradeoffs, loopholes, declarations of good intentions, bilateral freezes, double talk, or reinventing the world.

This Issue

July 15, 1982