Sovietizing US Policy

Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace

by Leon Wieseltier
A New Republic Book/Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 109 pp., $2.95 (paper)

This book is an impressive tour de force. In a mere eighty-four pages the author tells nonexpert Americans most of what they need to know about our nuclear predicament—and tells it with lucidity, cogency, and quiet persuasion. It is a vastly better book than the nuclear primer prepared by the Harvard experts, Living with Nuclear Weapons,* since it avoids the compromises and ambiguities inherent in a collaboration. Mr. Wieseltier is a good writer and clear thinker and, unlike many other commentators on nuclear strategy, he comes to the subject of nuclear weapons without being a hostage to previous commitments. He examines the nuclear issue in the round, scraping it free of the mystique and technical obfuscation in which it is now encrusted.

The author is not a member of the war party or of the peace party nor is he in any sense a cultist. He cuts up such unilateral disarmers as E.P. Thompson with the same clinical incisiveness as he demolishes the nuclear hawks—Richard Pipes, Colin Gray, Eugene Rostow, and Caspar Weinberger. He quite properly blames the bellicose, confused, and self-contradictory statements of the Reagan administration’s nuclear warriors for inciting and sustaining the disarmament movement both in the United States and in Europe.

Wieseltier has disdain for such writers as Jonathan Schell, who, after describing the enormity of a nuclear catastrophe, recommends only that we must “reinvent politics, reinvent the world.” He has even more disdain for E.P. Thompson who, like Schell, “argues backward from the apocalypse” to arrive at the “disgraceful” solution of unilateral disarmament.

Wieseltier is aware of the tendency of nuclear hawks to reinforce their own bloody-minded views by alarmist talk not merely of Soviet capacities but also of Soviet intentions so malign they require the US to plan for nuclear war. Still, he recognizes that there are differences between the doctrinal approach of the Soviet and of the United States military; we have, he points out, primarily concentrated on the prevention of nuclear war; the Soviets have focused more on the manner in which the war that is not prevented will be fought. Their “approach to nuclear war has not quite broken with the traditional approach to war.” But doctrine, as he points out, “is not all that determines Soviet behavior,” and there is no evidence whatever that the Soviets wish a nuclear war or that they are getting ready to launch a first strike. As Wieseltier suggests, one tactic of the hawks—including the nuclear policy makers in the administration—is to use their reading of Soviet doctrine for their own purposes. They do not attack that doctrine but model their own on it; we are thus witnessing the gradual Sovietization of United States policy.

In fairness to the Reagan administration Wieseltier notes that it was the Carter administration (on the frantic urging of the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and against the opposition of the State Department) that issued Presidential Directive 59 in July 1980, which called for developing a capacity to wage…

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.