The Cosmic Bluff

NATO’s nuclear strategy is founded on illusion—with a large component of self-deception: the dubious hope that America’s nuclear threat will permanently deter the Soviet Union from attacking Western Europe with conventional forces. That threat—the pretense of a winning hand in a transcendental poker game—is becoming every day less persuasive. The Soviets know as well as we that, should our bluff be called, whether by accident or design or the momentum of actions and reactions that escape the control of both sides, the president would face two unacceptable options. He could either precipitate mutual catastrophe or capitulate.

Once the Soviet leaders conclude that no president would be likely to adopt the disastrous first option, our cosmic bluff will have lost its deterrent force.

Although the Soviets can never be absolutely certain whether a president would authorize the use of nuclear weapons to repel a conventional assault, they might become sufficiently skeptical to test the issue, influenced in that decision by the mood of America as they perceive it. They know that no president would make the nuclear decision in a vacuum; he would be sensitive to a public opinion that is now imposing a steadily more powerful constraint. Without question, the recent awakening of Americans to the dangers of nuclear weapons is creating a new political fact—a fact with major implications for our strategic calculus.

Such awakened interest in, and concern for, the military use of the atom are long overdue. When the H-bomb was first devised only the technically sophisticated could comprehend its implications. Foreign to the experience of most Americans, it seemed sinister, almost supernatural, fit only for the speculation of a small elite who—following the age-old pattern with mysteries—took over the management of nuclear weapons and enveloped them with a sacerdotal mystique. Except for a conscience-stricken group of dissenting scientists, only a few questioned the metaphysics of the new priesthood.

That widespread detachment endured for many years. So long as Americans regarded the danger of nuclear war as remote and unreal, most were content to leave nuclear weapons to academic experts, military theorists, and sciencefiction writers. Indeed during the brief Indian summer of détente, when America and the Soviet Union ceased to shout at each other, fears of a cataclysm largely disappeared. But that mood shifted with the Carter administration’s overstated reactions to Soviet overreaching, and it abruptly changed when the Reagan administration showed its penchant for anti-Soviet vilification and the political exploitation of fear.

The result was to shock many Americans—though not in the direction intended. Instead of persuading our countrymen to demand new and more sophisticated nuclear weapons it led thousands to reclaim the issue of nuclear policy from the elite and test it against their own values and pragmatic wisdom. Conditioned to the pervasiveness of violence, the American public intuitively recognized that, unlike medieval days, conflicts are no longer conducted under formalized rules as though they were jousting matches. Today a nation on the receiving end of a nuclear barrage will not feel honor-bound…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.