Any consideration of the problem of the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe must depart from the recognition that the nuclear weapon is, for war-fighting purposes, an unusable one. This is now so widely recognized in both East and West that the assertion needs little substantiation. This weapon is not a “defense” against itself. No one has ever found, nor will anyone ever find, a way to attain superiority in the development of it or a plausible defense against it. Attempts to use it as the basis of a national military-political strategy have invariably failed. There is no way of initiating its use in warfare among the major nuclear powers that would not invite upon the initiating party disasters of such enormity that they would make a mockery of all normal concepts of victory or defeat.

These considerations would alone strongly militate against the probability of any actual use by the Soviet Union of the intermediate-range missiles it now has, or might have in future, targeted on Western Europe. They might conceivably serve as instruments of political intimidation; but it takes two to make a successful act of intimidation; and the very improbability of the actual use of these weapons means that no one in Western Europe needs to be greatly intimidated by them unless he wishes to be. Smaller powers than Germany or France have stood up, manfully and successfully, to threats more real than this one.

This improbability of any use of these Soviet weapons is heightened, it might be well to remember, by the strong Soviet commitment against the first use of nuclear weapons generally. To the extent that this commitment has been noted at all in the West, the reaction has generally been one of cynical disbelief and derision. But one may question whether this sweeping dismissal is really justified. The unilateral renunciation of “first use” by the Soviet government has been repeatedly and solemnly stated at the highest levels of governmental and Party authority, where it has been coupled with the most unambiguous recognition that no nuclear war could be anything but a disaster to all the warring parties. Beyond this, the Soviet Union in 1981 introduced in the Assembly of the United Nations, argued for, and voted for, a resolution declaring first use of nuclear weapons to be a crime against humanity. This resolution represented a Soviet commitment not just to us in the West but to the 17 million members of the Soviet Communist Party, to various satellite peoples, to Communist parties across the world, to the third world, and to the majority of the other members of the Assembly who voted in favor of it. The Soviet leaders, whatever else one may think of them, are serious people, not frivolous; and they do not undertake such public commitments lightly, or only for the sake of tricking us.

All this being the case, it may be asked: how much does it really matter whether Moscow has 300 SS-20 missiles trained on Western Europe, or only 150, or none at all? Western Europe was not immune from nuclear attack before the SS-20s were mounted. It would not be so immune even if they were all taken away. The fact is that there are today, in this threatened world of ours, no “windows” of vulnerability that could be opened or closed. We are vulnerable—totally vulnerable. There is no way that could be changed. It is today precisely to the intentions of the potential opponent, not to his capabilities (or to ours), that we must look for our salvation.

The greatest danger that faces any of us today is that an actual nuclear exchange might develop among the major nuclear powers when no one really wanted it. That sort of an exchange could be triggered just as easily by the firing of a single nuclear device as it could be by the firing of several hundred of them. From this perspective, one may well ask whether the shortrange tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons now in American hands in Germany do not present a greater danger of unleashing a nuclear catastrophe than all the intermediate-range weapons that we or the Russians may finally choose to mount. Why? For the simple reason that they are more apt to be employed. The layman is of course not fully informed; but from all that one can learn, NATO plans envisage the introduction of the use of such weapons at a relatively early stage of hostilities in a conventional conflict, especially if that conflict should be seen as going against the Western forces. (To which consideration might be added the reflection that a large portion of these tactical nuclear weapons are reputed to be of such short range that they would not only be fired off from German territory but would land on it, with consequences in-calculable safety and well-being of its inhabitants even in the absence of any hostile retaliation.)


In the face of these considerations the question may well be asked: if what one wishes to do is to promote the safety of Western Europe in the face of the nuclear danger, would it not make more sense to seek a real “zero option” for this region in place of the spurious one we are talking about today? This would presumably be one that would bar, for both the NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, not only most of the intermediate-range nuclear missiles now deployed in, or scheduled for deployment in, the Western European region, or trained on that region, but also all tactical weapons of this nature stationed within the area; in addition to which there would presumably have to be some sort of an agreement restricting the numbers and operations of the many floating missile platforms, Soviet and Western, from which intermediate- or short-range nuclear warheads could be fired at the area—in other words, a real nuclear-free Western European zone in place of the not-at-all nuclear-free one which Mr. Reagan’s “zero option” envisages.

It would of course scarcely be possible to achieve any total removal of intermediate-range missiles from this region so long as the French and the British insist on retaining their own. The Russians have a point here which cannot be denied. Either those two powers are NATO allies or they are not. One cannot have it both ways. Particularly we in the United States, who insist on viewing every weapon of Soviet manufacture discovered in Nicaragua as being under direct Soviet control, no matter in whose hands it is encountered, are in a poor position to require of the Soviet Union that the weapons of our allies should not be counted in the balance at all.

Nor would it be possible to achieve any total removal of the various floating platforms. Too many of these latter are actually based in the area. The best one could hope to do would be to place restrictions on their numbers as well as on their freedom to maneuver within, or to pass in transit through, certain maritime areas from which they could unduly threaten the region in question.

Even more important, however, than any of these measures, if one wishes to reduce the dangers confronting Western Europe, would be the determined and imaginative strengthening of NATO’s conventional military potential. This is a much more promising course than a further attempt to rely on so-called nuclear deterrence, which is really not a deterrent at all, since almost everyone now understands that the actual use of nuclear weapons would not be a rational option for any party. The task of providing an adequate conventional deterrence is less formidable than is commonly assumed, because there has been much exaggeration of the Soviet superiority in this respect. That an imbalance exists, in certain forms of conventional weaponry and in other limited respects, no one would deny; but it would take less of an effort from the Western side, particularly financial effort, than is generally supposed to correct it.

Not only this, but if the NATO powers are seriously worried about the conventional balance, they could do more than they have done to date to explore the possibilities for agreement in the so-called MBFR (Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions) talks, in Vienna, on the reduction of the ground forces stationed in the Central European region. The disagreements on which these talks have so long been stymied are of very minor significance. The Russians have recently made interesting new proposals which, so far as the ordinary newspaper reader can ascertain, have not been explored in any serious way from the Western side.

What would seem to be needed, in short, is a little less preoccupation with the various imaginative nightmares of nuclear weaponry and a more serious application to the only real foundations of an adequate military balance, and hence of genuine deterrence, which lie in the conventional, and not the nuclear, field.

Copyright © 1983 George F. Kennan

This Issue

May 12, 1983