The Delusions of Deterrence

Department of Defense Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1984

by Caspar W. Weinberger
US Government Printing Office, 350 pp., $8.00

For 1984, the Department of Defense’s project is the moral regeneration of nuclear weapons. Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s annual report for the 1984 fiscal year is said to have been “painstakingly composed” at the Defense Department and “reviewed” by President Reagan. Its purpose, apparently, is to “combat the impression in some quarters that President Reagan takes too lightly the possibility of nuclear war,” and to “reassure members of the antinuclear movement in the United States and abroad.”1

The nuclear policy of the Reagan administration, the report shows, is unexceptional in several respects. It is subject to “normal” moral constraints. It is concerned with “the effective and responsible use of our nuclear forces,” and with the ability to use nuclear force “responsibly and discriminately.” It seeks to define those nuclear “actions” which the United States could “in good conscience, and in prudence, undertake.” It is, as Vice-President Bush has said of the “zero option” for intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, “steeped in morality.”2

The Reagan policy is “normal,” too, in that it is not particularly new. The administration insists that deterrence remains the “cornerstone” of US nuclear strategy. Its own more refined “concept of seeking to enhance deterrence” is “squarely in the mainstream of American strategic thinking for over two decades,” from Robert McNamara to James Schlesinger to Harold Brown. Even its projects are well worn: “Four Presidents, six Secretaries of Defense and a majority of Members in many sessions of Congress have reached the conclusion that an MX missile should be deployed….”

Weinberger’s demonstration of the Reagan policy’s legitimacy is compelling. The administration strategists, as will be seen later, do in one respect extend the idea that nuclear weapons are useful instruments of national policy. Their discourse about long or responsible or conscientious war is cruder than that of their predecessors. They have more money to spend, in the biggest expansion of US nuclear forces since the Korean War. But the essential principles of the Reagan policy, as Weinberger shows, are those of the doctrinal and technological consensus.

It is this continuity that makes the 1984 report such an exemplary document. Reagan’s defense policies are now the subject of fairly serious criticism in Congress, among America’s allies, and in world opinion. But this criticism is directed to an extraordinary extent against the ornaments of Reaganism: against the crudeness of the Reagan rhetoric or the cost of the Reagan expansion. Should military spending increase by 4 percent, 5 percent, or 7 percent a year? Is it possible to cut $25 billion out of the defense budget by the 1985 fiscal year?

Weinberger’s report demonstrates the futility of such questions. It shows what the Reagan administration believes, in its apparently more sober moments, and how these beliefs are consistent with the thirty-seven-year-old ritual of nuclear deterrence. But it also shows what is wrong with the ceremony itself: with the tattered sacrament of deterrence handed from initiate to initiate with the keys of the code box; with the rite of which…

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