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 “prolonged but limited nuclear war.” The Reagan administration extended and expanded that fantasy even farther with a horrendous document known as the “Defense Guidance” that outlined a strategy for fighting a nuclear war “over a protracted period.” That strategy would have as its objective to assure that American nuclear forces in such a conflict “must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination on terms favorable to the United States.” Such a result would be accomplished by “decapitation,” which means destroying the communication lines within the Soviet Union and rendering ineffective “the total Soviet (and Soviet-allied) military and political structure.” The Defense Guidance document also envisaged the development of ballistic missile defense systems (presumably entailing the renunciation of the ABM treaty) and a civil defense system. It is one of the most appallingly silly documents produced in our time.

Wieseltier recognizes, at least by implication, that if one acknowledges certain fundamental—and to my mind, unassailable—propositions with respect to nuclear weapons the problem of their management is relatively simple and easy to comprehend. The most important of these propositions is that nuclear warheads are not weapons, as one normally understands the term. No nation can use them to achieve a political end, since if its bluff were called, it would be left with the option of capitulating or committing national suicide. Nuclear warheads are unusable to halt a conventional attack since their use would almost certainly lead to an all-out nuclear exchange and the destruction of all that we were trying to protect. Nuclear weapons are useful only in a canceling-out process—to deter the other side from using them.

It follows from this proposition that nuclear war cannot be “won.” But on this point the Reagan administration seems completely confused. The president has hinted more than once that he thought we might win a nuclear war and Vice-President Bush said in so many words that nuclear wars might be winnable. That left Secretary Weinberger to express the ultimate inanity when he stated that, although he recognized no one could win a nuclear war, the United States was “certainly planning not to be defeated.” (If you try to sort that out late at night you may not sleep.)


Wieseltier goes on to argue a second basic proposition, that limited or controlled nuclear wars are a wholly artificial construct. At least the possibility of limiting or controlling a nuclear war is so remote that it cannot be accepted as a rational hypothesis for military planning or operations. Experienced military officers have argued strongly that this is the case but the thought is, of course, anathema to the nuclear theologians, for their superstructures of strategic speculation are sustainable only if nuclear wars can be limited. Edward Luttwak, for example, suggests that a nuclear war is self-limiting, since, as soon as even the first battlefield weapon was fired, the parties would bring the war to a halt. How he can be sure of that I do not know. The sequence of events he envisages not only defies the logic of wartime dynamics, but ignores the primitive desire for vengeance in the hysteria that would follow the breaking of the nuclear taboo.

Wieseltier’s own view—which seems to me irrefutable—is that the entire concept of protracted but limited nuclear war is nonsense. The thought that the contending parties would abide by some undefined Marquess of Queensberry rules and proceed in gentlemanly fashion to lob tactical warheads at one another without escalation may be seductive to scholastic minds but it is far from wartime reality.

Wieseltier’s third proposition is that neither side can achieve nuclear superiority—an idea that seems to make President Reagan acutely uncomfortable. When each side has enough weapons to destroy the other side many times over, the accumulation of weapons beyond that point becomes meaningless. Even parity is without meaning once one side’s arsenal exceeds a certain absolute number.

If these propositions largely destroy the flimsy assumptions out of which elegant nuclear strategies have been spun they also greatly simplify the search for a sensible policy. Wieseltier concludes that our best hope to avoid a nuclear catastrophe is to rely on deterrence. But he recognizes that deterrence by itself is not enough; it must, he writes, be “completed by disarmament, in the form of arms control”; for deterrence serves as “the proper regulating principle for arms control.” As Wieseltier sees it, deterrence “determines how many weapons, and of what kind, may be limited or reduced without…tempting either side to think that there would be a greater advantage in using force than in controlling it.” What we need for deterrence is a secure second-strike capacity, and that is far more obtainable through what Wieseltier calls “a redundancy of structure”—the triad of land-, submarine-, and air-based systems—than a “redundancy of number”—which is what the administration seems instinctively to advocate. There is, in short, no need to match additions to the already redundant Soviet arsenal weapon for weapon. Such vulnerable land-based systems as the MX are a waste of money; we would do far better to improve our invulnerable SLBMs, and to concentrate on the need to improve conventional forces in Europe.

I find little difficulty with the author’s general analysis of the nuclear problem. He has, I think, got it about right. But I find him less satisfactory when he tries to explain the case for the deployment of Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in Europe. He is certainly correct in asserting that the decision had more political than military meaning. The Soviet SS-20s are deplorable but they added only a minor increment to the strategic forces the Soviets were already capable of aiming at European targets; and the NATO forces already included weapons capable of hitting the targets against which the new US missiles will be aimed. Why then have we insisted on straining the alliance by bringing pressure on the Europeans to deploy weapons of only marginal military value? I have difficulty understanding his answer to this question just as I have been wholly unable to follow the convoluted logic of the Reagan administration in making the acceptance of the missiles a test of European will and good faith. At the most we should have told the Europeans: “You can have the missiles if you want them, but we don’t think they add anything to your security.”

Wieseltier seems to believe that by putting the Pershings and cruise missiles in Europe we are reassuring Europeans that there will not be a nuclear war limited to their continent. Many Europeans, he suggests, have come to believe that they must have nuclear weapons on their own soil capable of propelling warheads to the Soviet Union. They fear that otherwise the United States, faced with what the president insists is Soviet nuclear superiority, may be unwilling to launch its American-based nuclear strategic weapons in the defense of Europe since that would subject America to a Soviet nuclear response. I have never been able to understand how an American decision to fire missiles from Europe would lessen the chances that the Soviets might fire weapons at America.


The Pershings and cruise missiles, it should be emphasized, will not be under European control; even though they are launched from European soil, the American president must still make the decision to fire them. So I do not see why their deployment in Europe should make a difference in the Soviet reaction. Were the Soviets to launch—or even threaten to launch—a conventional attack, Moscow would almost certainly threaten that, if NATO used American-controlled nuclear weapons, wherever based, the Soviets would destroy cities not only in Europe but also in the United States.

Thus the answer, as I see it, would be the same in either case. The Soviets are not going to say to the United States: “Fire your missiles from Europe and we will not shoot at you but merely at the Europeans.” Instead, they would say: “Fire your missiles from anywhere and we will destroy your cities.” From their point of view the critical fact is not where the missiles come from but where they land.

I have other minor quarrels with the author. In my view, his criticism of George Kennan unfairly misses the point. In calling for a cessation of the “systematic condemnation” of the Soviet Union, Kennan is not, as the author suggests, trying to “put an end to the telling of the truth,” he is expressing concern at President Reagan’s addiction to abusing the Soviet Union with language that competes, in its fanatical tones, with that of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The ayatollah speaks of “the Great Satan”; the president speaks contrapuntally of the Soviets’ “evil empire” and the “forces of evil” it embodies. In order to further their “immoral objectives,” the Soviets, he says, “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat…and hence the Soviets are responsible for all the unrest that is going on.” In almost every speech or press conference, he hurls polemics at Moscow reminiscent of a small boy shouting insults at a neighbor over the back fence.

Such loud and compulsive incivility, implying, as it does, a challenge to the legitimacy of the Soviet system, obviously affects nuclear policy and particularly the arms negotiations. Kennan himself has been one of the most perceptive analysts of the brutality and opportunism of the Soviet system; and since he has been intimately familiar with the USSR ever since Stalin’s day, he understands the oppression inherent in that system far more deeply than some more recent viewers with alarm. What he quite properly warns against is the promotion of an atmosphere of hysteria that makes effective diplomacy practically impossible. It is naive to regard negotiations as an intellectual game conducted by an elite group of experts unaffected by the level of suspicion that prevails between the participants; as anyone knows who has recently been in Russia, or even talked to Russians, our government has done much to create a fear and mistrust of America not known since Stalin’s day.

If the administration’s “systematic condemnation of the Soviet Union”—to use Kennan’s phrase—makes the Russians deeply suspicious and thus in no mood to make concessions, it also has a poisonous effect on American opinion. Cato found a place in the history books by incessantly announcing “delenda est Carthago.” By constant repetition he broke down public resistance to war making and persuaded his countrymen to destroy Carthage. The result was to stifle Mediterranean commerce for two hundred years.

In spite of his curiously obtuse comments on George Kennan’s views, Wieseltier recognizes that the administration’s dream of prevailing in a nuclear exchange is a function of its primitive hatred of the Soviet Union. In the president’s mind the Soviet Union—or, as he prefers to say, since he sees the contest in theological terms, Marxist-Leninism—is lusting “to conquer the world.” Since, in religious wars, a sense of human reality gives way before doctrinal fury, and zeal overrules all qualms, the true crusader may feel tempted to use even nuclear warheads to frustrate the Soviet’s evil ambition. In spite of the president’s pious—or at least political—denials that he believes in nuclear superiority or regards nuclear war as an instrument of policy, the logic of his twilight struggle against the “evil empire” calls into question those disclaimers.

One further point should perhaps be added. Within recent weeks distinguished scientists both in the United States and the Soviet Union have been comparing their findings on the climatic effects of nuclear explosions. An impressive number have agreed that the firing of even a fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenal would be likely to produce a “nuclear winter.” Such a drastic environmental change could well multiply the number of human beings killed by the direct effects of blast and radiation on which nuclear casualty estimates have heretofore been based. If further study confirms these conclusions—as seems very likely—both sides will have to take account of the prospect of a “nuclear winter.” That means that an entirely new set of estimates will have to be factored into the predictions on which not only are nuclear weapons constructed but nuclear arms control negotiations are designed. It will certainly underline the absurdity of foolish talk about protracted nuclear wars.

This Issue

February 2, 1984