The Emperor’s Clothes

Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers

by Steven Kull
Basic Books, 341 pp., $19.95

George Bush
George Bush; drawing by David Levine

The summer of 1989 finds us in a time of new hopes for the strengthening of a stable peace between the Soviet Union and the West. After a slow and overcautious beginning, George Bush has decided that he did not like that beginning, and has set a new course just in time to win the strong support of his colleagues in the NATO Summit at the end of May. He has also plainly impressed the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose contribution to our new hopes remains the larger, if only because the need for basic change has always been larger in Moscow. Most of all, Bush has succeeded in explaining his new course in language that was most persuasive where it was most obviously his own. His most convincing demonstration was in a long interview with The Washington Post, published on June 2; I will return to it.

Steven Kull’s remarkable book concerns the same overcautious cast of mind from which George Bush has just had a narrow escape. I begin with that escape not only because it reflects great credit on Bush, on his senior colleagues, and on the public pressure that led them to reconsider their views, but also because it is helpful that we consider the findings of Steven Kull in a mood of hope. Kull himself is not a pessimist, believing that there are strong forces on the side of nuclear common sense, but many of his findings on what experts have been thinking are so depressing that it is well to begin with a reminder that we can do—indeed are doing—better.

After more than ten years of practice as a psychotherapist, Kull was drawn to the study of nuclear danger, and after initial academic work he decided to examine the problem through an exercise of his professional skills as an interviewer. It seemed to him that there was a radical disjunction between nuclear reality and the policies advocated by many defense experts. Could he find out by careful and searching interviews whether they had arguments he had not understood, or how far they might be moved by convictions unrelated to their formal argument? The core of his book is an account of what he learned from these interviews. Having traversed much of this terrain myself over more than forty years of participation in the American nuclear debate, I am able to report that the states of mind encountered by Kull are familiar, while his conclusions about them are both fresh and convincing.

Kull set out to interview experts who had made reputations as being “pro-defense” and as being sophisticated in their understanding of questions of nuclear policy. He found eighty-one men and three women who were willing to talk with him, and among them were former secretaries of defense, former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senators, congressmen (two in each category so far),…

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