It is not every day, every week, or even every year that a secretary of defense sends a letter to thirty US newspapers and forty foreign publications. It is even rarer that such a letter is used to defend his administration’s policy against alleged inaccuracies and misrepresentations, as if he did not have any other means to put the facts before the public. Yet, on August 23, just such a letter was sent by you on the subject of this administration’s nuclear-war policy. (It is reprinted on the opposite page.)

I realize that you did not send this letter to me personally. But it is an open letter, and, therefore, anyone may answer it publicly. It requires an answer from someone.

One question immediately arises: What provoked your letter?

It was provoked by “leaks” from your top-secret documents. One of them is “National Security Decision Document 13,” adopted by the National Security Council in the fall of 1981. This document was reported by Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times of August 15 of this year to have specifically stated for the first time that it was US policy to prevail in a protracted nuclear war. In the spring of 1982 this policy was then incorporated in a 125-page document entitled “Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance,” parts of which were leaked to The New York Times and disclosed by Richard Halloran, its defense correspondent, on May 30. This “Defense Guidance” is a five-year plan, beginning October 1, 1984, to provide general strategic direction to all the armed services. It was approved by you and represents the official view of the entire US military establishment. Most of the leaks came from it. This document is said to have been elaborated in even greater detail in a “strategic master plan” developed by the Pentagon and sent to the National Security Council for approval in early August. Scheer reported that, according to one member of the Reagan administration, it contemplates a nuclear war lasting as long as six months.

Just how such secret documents get leaked is an even greater secret. You fret and fume about it but seem incapable of locating the culprit or stopping the practice. The leaks must undoubtedly come from sources high enough to know what is in the documents, because the leaks come with exact quotations of just what you did not wish to be leaked. No one has denied the accuracy of these quotations.

That there is a division of opinion in the top leadership at the Pentagon seems clear. When he left as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last June, General David C. Jones of the Air Force repudiated the idea of a “protracted nuclear war.” Money spent to prepare for such a war, he said, would be thrown into a “bottomless pit.” If such a high-ranking officer thought it necessary to express himself so openly and so forcefully on this issue, there must be others who are also appalled by the adoption of a plan to prepare for and prevail in a “protracted nuclear war.” In fact, the possibility cannot be excluded that the leaks have come with more or less official toleration in order to test public opinion before the president gives final approval to the new “master plan.” This technique is not unknown in the American political system.

In any case, in your letter we now have the grave charge that “news accounts” have contained “completely inaccurate” stories about the administration’s nuclear-war policy. We have a blanket denial from you that the administration is “planning to wage protracted nuclear war, or seeking to acquire a nuclear ‘war-fighting’ capability.” But your letter never denies or even mentions what was actually in those news accounts or the documents reported by them. I can only conclude that your letter is intended to distract attention from those documents; it is a blocking operation meant to make itself the statement of policy instead of the authentic statements that are actually dictating policy to the armed services behind the scenes. This attempted sleight of hand would not be so disturbing if it presented a credible, perhaps simplified, version of what is in those documents. But that is exactly what it does not do. The juggling act is performed so clumsily that your letter itself gives away what it is intended to hide.

The account of the “Defense Guidance” by Halloran on May 30 was a front-page story, accompanied by your picture, filling almost three full columns of print, most of it direct quotations from the document. Halloran had obviously been briefed by someone on the way the plan had been drawn up as well as on its contents. What attracted most attention were the references to prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. One passage called on US forces to maintain themselves through “a protracted conflict period.” Another held that US nuclear forces “must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”


In an interview with you on August 9, Halloran reported that you had “assailed those critics of the Administration’s policy who have protested against provisions that call for the United States to ‘prevail’ in nuclear war by ending the conflict on terms favorable to the United States and with some nuclear weapons intact.” Nothing that you said on this occasion seemed to deny that this was actually the policy advocated in your “Defense Guidance”; you merely insisted that it was right to have such a policy. Halloran again quoted verbatim from the original document, including two passages which he had not used in his previous account—which may have annoyed you even more.

The directive also said that, in the event of an attack, “United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of a prolonged war.” And it instructed the US armed forces to maintain “under all circumstances, nuclear offensive capabilities so that the United States would never emerge from a nuclear war without nuclear weapons while still threatened by enemy nuclear forces.”

Then, on August 24, Halloran again reported a protest by you in you office against “continued criticism of his strategy for protracted nuclear war”—of which one example was my own article “How Not to Think About Nuclear War” in The New York Review of Books of July 15. You were disturbed because you had been forced to spend “a very large fraction” of your time defending your policy in speeches, press and television interviews, background briefings, private conversations, and letters to the editor. Halloran’s handling of the interview must again have displeased you. He let you have your say and then deliberately went on to quote once more from the “Defense Guidance” in such a way that you disclaimers were belied by the document. In any case, this meeting, which took place prior to August 22, came before you sent your letter of August 23 to US and foreign publications complaining about inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the news accounts. Your letter did not specify which inaccuracies and misrepresentations in which news accounts, so it is difficult to know who was guilty of what.

What we now have, in substance, are Halloran’s quotations from the “Defense Guidance” in The New York Times of May 30 and August 24 on the one hand and your letter of August 23 together with the comments made by you some days earlier on the other hand. The New York Times and The Washington Post did not see fit to publish the text of your letter, so that readers who depend on them had no way of comparing what was in your public letter and what was in your classified “Defense Guidance.” Comparing them is just what I propose to do.

Your letter of August 23 to the thirty US and forty foreign publications deserves the closest scrutiny, because it is the most carefully worked out public statement of what the new nuclear-war strategy is.

One thing it does not do. It never mentions the official directives, such as the five-year “Defense Guidance.” which it is supposed to clarify. If there were no such documents and no leaks from them, your letter would not have been necessary. Yet we are being told what the policy allegedly is without a word from the actual policy statements themselves.

In your letter, there is only one direct mention of a protracted nuclear war:

But it [American strategic improvement] does not mean that we endorse the concept of protracted nuclear war, or nuclear “war-fighting.” It is the Soviet Union that appears to be building forces for a “protracted” conflict.

The implication is unmistakably clear—only the Soviet Union “endorses the concept” of a protracted nuclear war; the United States does not. If that were the real point of the letter, we would expect you to go on and tell us what is wrong with the concept and why the United States does not endorse it. What we get is something quite different. It is:

We must take the steps necessary to match the Soviet Union’s greatly improved nuclear capability.

But it makes no sense to take these “steps” if we do not also adopt the alleged Soviet “concept” for which these steps were designed. You insist that the Soviet capability and concept are coordinated; if we match their capability, it can only be, according to your own logic, to carry out the same concept.

Is it true that your “Defense Guidance” document did not “endorse the concept” of a protracted nuclear war? The very phrase “endorse the concept” is equivocal enough to be misleading. It may be used to deny that the United States deliberately wishes to engage in a protracted nuclear war. Or it may be used to mean that the United States is prepared to engage in a protracted nuclear war, if necessary. The latter meaning was clearly the one intended in the “Defense Guidance” document, which instructed US forces to be able to maintain “through a protracted conflict period and afterward, the capability to inflict very high levels of damage” on Soviet industry. The same document also maintained that US nuclear forces “must prevail and must be able to force the Soviet Union to seek the earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the US.” This could only refer to a nuclear war that was already taking place and was protracted enough for the US forces to prevail.


No one in his right mind would expect you to say that you want such a war. You would be crazy to want one. But that is not the issue. The question is whether it is only the Soviet Union that, as your letter claims, “appears to be building forces for a ‘protracted’ conflict.” In effect, you deny what you are not charged with in order to cover up what you are actually trying to do.

The same stratagem of obfuscation is used to distort the plain meaning of “prevail” in your “Defense Guidance” document. The dictionary makes it clear that in this context prevail means “to gain ascendancy through strength or superiority.” Ascendancy through superior strength is just what nations have always meant by winning a war. In fact, the idea of a “protracted” war and that of “prevailing” in it are intimately related; it is necessary for a war to be more or less protracted in order to prevail in it. These terms were not used in a fit of absentmindedness in the “Defense Guidance”; one implied the other.

Nevertheless, you obviously know that most people are appalled by the prospect of prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. We thus get from you another denial of the line taken in your own document. In your letter, you plead innocence in this way:

It is the first and foremost goal of this Administration to take every step to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, for we do not believe there could be any “winners” in a nuclear war.

The first part of this sentence is a protestation of virtue that is not to the point. The critical question is whether you believe that a nuclear war can be won. If we take you at your word, you do not intend to win—but neither do you intend to lose.

You took this slippery line in two interviews. On August 9, Halloran reported:

Asserting that there was no alternative, Mr. Weinberger declared, “You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.”

Mr. Weinberger reiterated his view that nuclear war was not winnable. But he added that “we certainly are planning not to be defeated.”

On August 24, Halloran again reported:

“We’ve said many times that we don’t think nuclear war is winnable,” Mr. Weinberger said in the interview. Asked how that differed from prevailing, Mr. Weinberger replied: “We certainly are planning not to be defeated.”

Humpty Dumpty also used words in this peculiar way. If a secretary of defense ought to be impeached if he is planning not to prevail in a nuclear war, then he is planning to prevail. He is planning, in other words, to come out ahead, on top, to gain ascendancy, or some other circumlocution for winning the war.

On the other hand, you cannot bring yourself to say that a nuclear war is “winnable.” But when asked how prevailing differs from winning, you were again forced to take refuge in subterfuge. To believe you, nuclear wars are strangely one-sided—they can end in defeat but not in victory, as if defeat could have any meaning if victory does not. Yet in your “Defense Guidance,” you are far more positive and definite, for it gives a fairly clear definition of what it means to prevail—“to seek the earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

The plain truth is that you really “endorse the concept of protracted nuclear war, or nuclear war-fighting” and “appear to be building forces” for just such a war. As a result, you also have trouble with the concept of nuclear deterrence. As in the other cases we have just examined, you again want to have it both ways.

In your letter, you define deterrence quite simply:

…to make the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit. If the Soviets know in advance that a nuclear attack on the United States would bring swift nuclear retaliation, they would never attack in the first place. They would be “deterred” from ever beginning a nuclear war.

Whatever the level of arming is that is enough to make the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit, it is enough for deterrence. The technical details may be disputed; the principle is indisputably clear. There is a stopping point in the accumulation and development of nuclear arms necessary for deterrénce. Beyond that point, a nation is no longer arming for deterrence; it is arming to fight a nuclear war with the expectation of prevailing in it.

You are luminously clear on this principle of nuclear policy so long as it applies to the Soviet Union. But why does it not apply to the United States? The principle of deterrence does not stop at the Soviet border.

That both the United States and the Soviet Union have a nuclear capacity sufficient for deterrence there can hardly be a doubt. In a recent article, I cited the testimony of two of our most knowledgeable and independent authorities, Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., and Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, writing in the Winter 1981-1982 issue of Foreign Affairs: “A devastating attack on the urban societies of the United States and the 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.” There is no shortage of similar evidence that the quotas for nuclear deterrence have long been overfulfilled.

We must take on trust your assurance that the Soviets now have land-based missiles which are “more accurate, more survivable and more powerful than our own.” It presumes an exact knowledge of the most secret of weapons of a country where secrecy is a mania. Whatever justification there may be for your claim that you know just how accurate the Soviet ICBMs are, there can be no justification for the way you deal with these weapons in your letter. You try to make our flesh creep with an array of figures about the presumed Soviet advantage. You make it appear that the Soviets need only have these weapons in sufficient numbers to think of beginning and winning a nuclear war. They are not so dumb, and the American nuclear planners of the 1950s and 1960s were not so dumb either.

The past US decision to concentrate on smaller but more accurate land-based missiles was accompanied by another decision not to trust American nuclear defense to a single type of weapon. Thus came about the present arrangement whereby only about one fourth of the US nuclear force is constituted of land-based missiles. About one half is seaborne and another quarter airborne. The Soviet triad is just about the reverse in its distribution. In addition, the United States has jumped ahead in the development of cruise missiles, which have become the Soviets’ current nuclear bête noire.

The reader will look in vain for any mention of the balance of seaborne and airborne nuclear weapons in your letter or interviews. If your purpose was to clarify instead of to terrify, you would have found room for a few words on the overall balance of nuclear forces. One-sided figures of Soviet nuclear warheads on ICBMs tell only part of the story. They may have increased from about 2,000 to over 5,000 during the past five years. But other increases give a better idea of the overall balance. From 1970 to 1980, according to Hans A. Bethe and Franklin A. Long in The New York Times of September 22, the warheads in the Soviet strategic forces increased from about 1,800 to 6,000 while those in the US strategic forces rose from about 4,000 to 10,000. Instead, you chose to concentrate on the menace of the Soviets’ land-based, long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, as if all that stood between us and the Soviet willingness to fight and win a nuclear war was the improvement of our nuclear capability in these same weapons.

Your failure to put the problem of the ICBMs in the perspective of the total balance of nuclear forces did not result from another fit of absentmindedness. The one-sidedness of your presentation was required to create a mood of popular panic with which to put over your new program.

Something about real deterrence can be learned from the statement on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in a recent issue of Time magazine (September 27) by the six key men around President Kennedy. There has been a myth that the crisis was resolved in favor of the United States because of our nuclear superiority at the time. The six high officials state: “American nuclear superiority was not in our view a critical factor, for the fundamental and controlling reason that nuclear war, already in 1962, would have been an unexampled catastrophe for both sides; the balance of terror so eloquently described by Winston Churchill seven years earlier was in full operation.” In 1962, the Soviets had fewer than 2,000 or even 1,000 missiles, and the United States had many more, but all the Soviets needed to cancel out American nuclear superiority was enough to bring about “an unexampled catastrophe for both sides.”

When it comes to exposing the Soviet Union’s dereliction from orthodox deterrence, however, you are worth heeding. You do not seem to realize it, but you tell as much about your own program as about the Soviets’.

One of the most important lessons your letter teaches us is that arming for deterrence is not the same as arming for fighting or prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. This lesson comes out clearly in one of your references to Soviet policy:

The Soviet Union has engaged in a frenzied military buildup, in spite of their economic difficulties. They have continued to build greater numbers of nuclear weapons far beyond those necessary for deterrence.

I take this to be official confirmation of a key point that I tried to make in a recent article. There is a crucial difference between arming for deterrence and arming far beyond the needs of deterrence. This difference obtains whether it is the Soviet Union or the United States that is doing the arming far beyond the needs of deterrence.

You also said in an interview that planning deterrence “is not planning to fight a protracted nuclear war.” That is another and even clearer way of distinguishing between a “nuclear capability” for deterrence and a “nuclear capability” for a protracted war. It would be even clearer if we turned your words around and said that planning to fight a protracted nuclear war is not planning deterrence.

What, then, are you planning for? There is only one sentence in your letter that tries to answer this question. It reads:

That is exactly why we must have a capability for a survivable and enduring response—to demonstrate that our strategic forces could survive Soviet strikes over an extended period. Thus we believe we could deter any attack.

“Over an extended period” brings us back to the protracted nuclear war. But what are we expected to do in this extended period? You are telling us that the only thing the United States contemplates doing is to “survive” nuclear attacks. You would like us to believe that the only thing needed to deter such attacks is for the United States to be capable of surviving them.

You express your sympathy with readers who may not be able to grasp the full import and subtlety of your words. “I know,” you write, “that this doctrine of deterrence is a difficult paradox to understand.” You are wrong. Your version is not difficult to understand, and it is not a paradox. It is a hoax.

Do you really expect any sensible person to believe that all the United States expects to do is to have our strategic forces “survive” Soviet nuclear attacks? No retaliation in kind? No nuclear exchanges? The mere mention of replying to nuclear attacks with nuclear counter-attacks, of fighting the same way the Soviets are presumed to plan to fight, would have given the game away. It would have been glaringly clear that the plan attributed to the Soviets is a mirror image of the plan in your own “Defense Guidance.”

Let us recall what it is that you approved in that document:

—US forces must be able to maintain “through a protracted conflict period and afterward, the capability to inflict very high levels of damage” on Soviet industry.

—Should a Soviet attack “nevertheless occur, United States nuclear capabilities must prevail even under the condition of a prolonged war.”

—If deterrence should fail, the United States must “deny the Soviet Union or any other adversary a military victory at any level of conflict and force earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.”

Could anyone reading your letter and your interviews know that this is what you expect the US nuclear forces to achieve in the event of a Soviet attack? Is this what any sensible person would be led to believe by your assurance that our strategic forces need only demonstrate the ability to survive?

Your hoax attributes the key principles in your own “Defense Guidance” document to the Soviet Union. The only time a protracted nuclear war is mentioned in your letter is when you accuse the Soviet Union of believing in and preparing for it. A winnable nuclear war is mentioned only to pin the idea on the Soviet Union. Nuclear attacks over an extended period are mentioned only in connection with Soviet attacks, which our strategic forces would merely try to survive and, by surviving, deter. It may well be that you are right about the Soviet Union. The truth, then, would be that both sides are playing the same game, adopting the same nuclear strategy and blaming the other side for it.

In fact, your letter to those seventy publications attempts to get across the idea that we must do certain things because the Soviets are doing them. There would otherwise be no point in filling the letter with far more about what the Soviets are doing than about what we are doing. The Soviet Union may be guilty of a “frenzied military buildup,” but your purpose in exposing what they are doing is to get us to do exactly the same thing.

Logically, you should have been defending a US war-fighting and war-winning nuclear policy, because that is what you are secretly advocating; and some of your colleagues are advocating it not so secretly. If you had been candid, you might well have asked: What is wrong with such a policy?

It is wrong because it goes far beyond what is necessary for deterrence. In the case of deterrence, as you yourself professed to believe in your guise as a true believer in deterrence, there is a level of arms which is enough for the purpose; if a nuclear power goes beyond that level, we are justified in suspecting that something else is going on. For a nuclear war-fighting policy there is never enough, because it is impossible to determine what a protracted war requires. The very nature of a protracted war makes inevitable an open-ended nuclear arms race; there can never be an end to the development and deployment of new weapons in the effort to gain some fleeting and illusory advantage in the hope of prevailing.

When you were asked about the control of nuclear weapons in a protracted war, you replied: “I just don’t have any idea. I don’t know that anybody has any idea.” You were, for a change, being candid; you might also have admitted that no one has any idea of what a protracted nuclear war would be like, for which reason it permits no limits or restraints in its preparation.

We are now in the midst of a real arms race and an unreal arms negotiation. That is not what the world in general and the American people in particular have been given to understand. The result can only be a huge loss of confidence in the integrity and honor of the American government. The disparity between what you are doing and what you say you are doing cannot be concealed forever.

Unless the kind of protracted nuclear war that you envision actually comes to pass, you are going to engage in the most wasteful expenditure of public funds in American history, perhaps in all history. All those arms that go beyond the necessity for deterrence must be redundant. They cannot serve for deterrence; they admittedly go beyond it.

What, then, is left of your perfectly valid definition of deterrence as making “the cost of nuclear war much higher than any possible benefit”? Do you suppose that any benefit could be obtained from a nuclear war between powers so heavily overarmed for it as the United States and the Soviet Union?

You yourself have given the answer: “If the Soviets knew in advance that a nuclear attack on the United States would bring swift nuclear retaliation, they would never attack in the first place. They would be ‘deterred’ from ever beginning a nuclear war.”

Thus, what is necessary is the power to bring on swift nuclear retaliation, a power that we abundantly have in our nuclear submarines alone. If “swift nuclear retaliation” is enough, you have it, or if you need to safeguard it in one way or another, you can manage it within the limits of deterrence.

But what the masterminds behind your letter really look for is a final struggle for power by means of a protracted nuclear war in which the United States would ultimately prevail or terminate the hostilities “on terms favorable to the United States.” That is what is behind the new policy. It is masked by attributing the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war to the Soviet Union. But those who want to beat the Soviet Union at their own game have exactly the same end in view. For this reason they believe that there is such a thing as “nuclear superiority” and that we could successfully wage a nuclear war if only we could obtain that superiority.

This program is so explosive, if it were generally recognized what this administration is up to, that one of these masterminds, Thomas C. Reed, a special assistant to the president, was sent out to fudge and muddle the issue in a speech that Richard Halloran reported in The New York Times of September 23. “Prevail” is now being represented by Reagan administration officials to mean nothing more than an expansion of previous policy by a combination of military, diplomatic, economic, and propaganda measures, as if previous policy had been very different in any essential respect. The new weasel word, “expansion,” has been pressed into service to hide what is actually being expanded. The real expansion is in the policy of prevailing in a protracted nuclear war. Like your own letter, this public relations hocus-pocus is designed to steer everyone’s mind away from the context in which the term “prevail” was actually used in the “Defense Guidance.” There it specifically referred to prevailing in a nuclear war. From the jumble of words by Mr. Reed and unnamed “Reagan officials,” one would never guess that the issue is whether the United States should aim to “prevail” in nuclear “hostilities.”

If all it takes to prevent a nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union is “to make the cost much higher than any possible benefit,” you must consider the Soviet rulers to be block-heads or madmen to contemplate a nuclear contest which is far more likely to end in mutual devastation. The Soviets, on the contrary, have always tended to go after prizes where the benefits are greatest and the risks the least. Every nation goes to war expecting the benefits to exceed the cost; it may err and pay dearly for the error, but at the outset there is a calculation that benefits would be considerable and costs tolerable. Such calculation is hopeless in nuclear war. If you and your advisers have not understood—as Henry Kissinger, having changed his mind for the second time, recently put it in the Summer 1982 issue of The Washington Quarterly—“that nuclear weapons have added a new dimension to warfare and indeed human existence, that they make obsolete traditional concepts of military victory, that they stake civilized life and perhaps humanity itself”—you have understood nothing of fundamental value for your guidance of American defense.

The search for nuclear superiority, the preparation for a protracted nuclear war, and the goal of prevailing in such a war, all fit together in behalf of a master plan that goes far beyond deterrence; it is the vision of an apocalyptic nuclear war to decide once and for all the issue of world power. Only such an outcome could possibly justify the millions of casualties and the frightful physical destruction that would ensue from such a war. It is an aim that makes no sense in any conceivable cost-benefit calculus, and yet it is the hidden agenda of those on both sides who are plotting to win a nuclear war.

In the end, your policy threatens to harm US foreign relations more than anything else. The nearest thing to a commitment to peace that a nuclear power can make in the present circumstances is a program for deterrence, plain and simple. Such a commitment would signify that the United States regards nuclear weaponry as unlike any other in military history. It is not an instrument for fighting or winning. It is an instrument of such universal devastation that its only use is to prevent any use of it; this is the true paradox of nuclear weapons. Your policy can only envenom already strained relationships, not merely with the Soviet Union but with our closest friends and allies, now tugging at the leash. The political costs of a war-fighting, war-winning program vastly exceed any conceivable military benefits.

For all these reasons it is now necessary to let the American people know what is in your secret documents, especially in the “Defense Guidance,” which has already been leaked in part. Your letter will not do. It is so maladroit that it can only raise suspicions that something is going on behind the scenes that cannot be divulged publicly and must be covered up by confusing and contradictory verbiage. Those leaks to which you object are the very stuff of democratic policy making. The present system of secrecy is designed to put across a new nuclear-war policy as a fait accompli. The policy originates in the Pentagon as Secret, goes to the National Security Council as Secret, and is expected to be approved by the president as Secret.

Why all the secrecy? The passages in your “Defense Guidance” about prevailing in a protracted nuclear war are purely political in nature, not technical. It is one thing to classify as Secret a document on how to make a cruise missile; it is another thing to put the same classification on a document that sets forth a broad policy that should be open to the most searching public discussion. You are not, of course, the first to hide behind this system of secrecy, but you have gone further than ever before in the most dangerous of all spheres of national policy. The challenge before you is whether your new policy can stand the light of day. Can you afford to let the people know?

This Issue

November 4, 1982