In 1980 Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden, brought together fourteen distinguished international figures to form the Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues.1 Two years later they published a book under the title Common Security: A Programme for Disarmament. Its general theme was that
a doctrine of common security must replace the present expedient of deterrence through armaments…. International security must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.
The group continued to meet after Olof Palme’s assassination in 1986, and has now put out a final report with the title A World at Peace. It begins by contrasting the gloomy state of the world at the time that the commission started its work—a period when the relations of the superpowers could hardly have been worse—with that of the present, “a time when reason and common sense seem at last to be taking hold in the world.”
“War,” the commission declares, “is losing its meaning as an instrument of national policy, becoming instead an engine of senseless destruction that leaves the root causes of conflict unresolved.” The commission’s view is that the main hope for the future lies in the reinforcement of the power of the United Nations. Its peacekeeping forces have to be strengthened; major arms reductions should take place in Europe; and all nuclear tests should be banned. “Until an international security regime based on the UN Charter is implemented effectively and reliably,” says the report, “nations will see no alternative but to arm themselves, even at great sacrifice in terms of economic development.” Common security has to be achieved “through economic development, social justice and protection of the planet.” 2
How all this is to come about the commission does not say; nor does it suggest how the UN, with its many and often bitter internal divisions, is to carry out the tasks it would be assigned. Indeed, it would seem that the basis for its present optimism derives largely from the peace initiatives that have been flowing from Moscow, and the responses that the US and NATO have made. Mr. Gorbachev’s disarmament initiatives, and President Bush’s recent proposal for major reductions in US and Soviet forces in Western and Central Europe, have breathed new life into the hope that the East-West confrontation in Europe will not boil over into war, and above all, into nuclear war.
Unfortunately this does not, however, mean that we can afford to forget the lessons of the past. If these are any guide, neither the Vienna negotiations on conventional forces nor the START talks in Geneva are likely to have an easy ride. Up to now, and with the exception of the 1972 ABM Treaty and the 1988 INF Treaty, the history of East-West negotiations to halt the arms race has in fact mostly been a tale of disappointed hope, of unfulfilled promise, and of fruitless bickering about measures to verify that cheating does not take place. Alva Myrdal, at one time Sweden’s deputy foreign minister, was for more than ten years the most prominent member of the Permanent UN Geneva Committee on Disarmament She did not live to see the INF Treaty, but the conclusion to which she was led during the preceding years was that declarations by the superpowers about their “will to disarm” had proved to be little more than hollow rhetoric. “The superpowers,” she wrote, “have indulged in subterfuges and half truths, with their closest and usually most dependent allies following suit or keeping silent…,and with the competitive [arms] race” between the two superpowers steadily escalating.3
It is some ten years since these words were written. Were their author alive today, I can well imagine that she would now be asking whether the conventional arms talks that opened in Vienna in March of this year, and are now continuing, are really going to lead to speedy agreement, as both President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev hope, or end in the same morass that engulfed fifteen years of sterile argument over “Mutual Balanced Force Reductions.” It is not enough for political leaders on all sides to express the hope that war will never again break out on the European continent. It is not enough that they know that if such a war “went nuclear” it could lead only to mutual suicide. What matters now is that President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev should make it their primary and joint business to prevent anything that might prejudice the negotiations that are in progress. Only they have the power to do this. Have they the courage to exercise it?
On paper the aim of the new Vienna negotiations is to bring the conventional forces of the two sides into a state of “defensive” balance—both by reducing numbers and by eliminating “asymmetries.” As a mark of faith, and no doubt because of its vast internal political and economic problems, the USSR decided to start the process unilaterally by declaring that it was immediately beginning to reduce its armed forces by half a million men. It has also proposed that the three-thousand-mile Sino-Soviet frontier should be demilitarized. Major reductions in the Soviet defense budget have also been announced which, according to figures made public by Mr. Gorbachev, amounts to as much as $129 billion a year—as compared with nearly $300 billion in the US, with its much larger GNP.4
With the agreement of his NATO allies, President Bush proposed at the NATO summit in May that a 20 percent cut should be made in the US forces stationed in Europe, leaving behind about 275,000 American military personnel, a figure that he proposes should also be the ceiling for Soviet forces outside the USSR. On this basis, 70,000 Americans would be sent home, while the USSR would have to demobilize about 325,000 of the men now stationed in Warsaw Pact countries. The President also suggested that agreement on these reductions should be reached in Vienna within a year. Mr. Gorbachev welcomed his proposals as “a step in the right direction.” But he has not yet indicated how the President’s figures are to be reconciled with the lower figures the Soviet Union has already proposed in Vienna. A central question would be whether, in view of the current ferment in the Warsaw Pact countries, the Soviets would accept as large a reduction in Soviet forces in Eastern Europe as the President has called for.
A far more important difference between the positions of the two sides, perhaps the most important, concerns short-range nuclear weapons. At the ceremonial opening of the new Vienna talks, Mr. Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, observed that the USSR cannot see how the goal of the conventional arms negotiations could be achieved were NATO, contrary to the spirit of the 1988 INF agreement, now to proceed to the “modernization” of its “battlefield” nuclear weapons, or were disparities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in naval forces, helicopters, and strike aircraft, whether land-based or carrier-based, not taken into account just as much as are differences in numbers of tanks and guns.
Some of these points have been met—particularly the need to consider the disparities in aircraft—but not the question of modernization. In his Guildhall speech in London on April 7 Mr. Gorbachev raised the matter even more forcibly than had Mr. Shevardnadze. He would like NATO and the USSR to sit down now to negotiate a reduction in the size of their arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, and has declared that he is beginning the process by the unilateral withdrawal of five hundred Soviet warheads. The new Soviet minister of defense also referred to the problem during his visit to the UK in July, all but implying that the Vienna talks will be stymied if it is not settled.
This is an issue that sharply divides the Western alliance. West Germany, Italy, and the smaller members of NATO are either against or at best lukewarm about “modernization” of battlefield weapons such as the Lance missile. They want to negotiate reductions in tactical nuclear weapons now. The US and, in particular, the UK insist that modernization is necessary, claiming that “nuclear deterrence” cannot be maintained with what is styled “obsolete weaponry,” and that tactical nuclear weapons are an essential element in NATO’s strategy of “flexible response.” Contrary to all official statements up to now, a report adapted by the “Heads of State and Government” at the end of the May summit even said, “The allies’ substrategic nuclear forces are not designed to compensate for conventional imbalances.” An ambiguous form of words smoothed over these differences in the communiqué at the end of the summit, but the differences have certainly not been dissipated, nor are they likely to be. What was heralded as a brilliant piece of diplomacy by President Bush—his emphasis on reductions in conventional armed forces rather than modernization—leaves Chancellor Kohl believing that negotiations on short-range nuclear weapons could start soon, and Mrs. Thatcher firm in the belief that they will not start until—and if—agreement is reached in the Vienna talks and the reduction in conventional forces completed, or at least well on the way.
During his successful visit to West Germany in June, Mr. Gorbachev once again asked why nuclear talks cannot proceed in parallel with those on conventional forces. He raised the matter again in his visit to France which followed, and hinted that the peace process could be jeopardized if modernization proceeded. In his Strasbourg speech on July 6, he linked the issue of short-range nuclear weapons to the wider problem of reducing the size of ICBM arsenals. President Bush responded immediately that he did not want to have the short-range problem brought up again after what was agreed on among the Western allies at the NATO summit.
No one can foresee the outcome of all these exchanges. Doubts have been expressed about the possibility of meeting the target date for agreement set by the President. But what is obvious is that the opposing views about short-range nuclear weapons within NATO call in question the basis of NATO’s presumed nuclear policy. This is an issue that cannot be understood without reference to the past, and it needs to be understood if public opinion is to play a part in bringing sense to the debate.
The History of NATO’s Nuclearization
During the early to middle Fifties, NATO thinking held that were war to break out, nuclear weapons would be used just like any other armament. As soon as they became available, free-falling atom bombs, atomic shells, and atomic mines, and then the much more powerful hydrogen bombs, were sent across the Atlantic to form part of NATO’s arsenal. At one moment NATO’s so-called tactical armory contained bombs in the multi-megaton range, any one of which would have been powerful enough to transform the whole of Washington, DC, into a flattened radioactive inferno. This can be called Phase I of the nuclearization of NATO.
Phase II began in 1954 when it was generally accepted that the member states of the alliance were not going to provide the manpower that it was estimated would be necessary to withstand an allout Soviet assault. It then became NATO policy to declare that nuclear fire could compensate for weakness in conventional arms—a fair enough assumption at a time when the USSR was lagging far behind in the nuclear race and had a larger conventional army. Field Marshal Montgomery, Britain’s most prominent wartime military leader, who had been deputy to General Eisenhower, NATO’s first supreme commander, made it
absolutely clear that we at SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe] are basing all our operational planning on using atomic and thermo-nuclear weapons in our defence. With us it is no longer: “They may possibly be used.” It is very definitely: “They will be used, if we are attacked.”5
In those days the word deterrence was rarely heard either in military circles or in the weapons laboratories. Nuclear weapons were for use.
NATO’s policy in that period was thus an extension of the US doctrine of “massive retaliation,” by which was meant that in order to deter or counter Soviet aggression, the US would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate instantly [the understanding being that it would be nuclear] by means and at places of its own choosing.”6
For the chiefs of NATO’s armed services, this meant that if more powerful nuclear explosives could be used in place of ordinary explosives, the better it would be. They did not wait to define just how and where nuclear weapons were to be used. At that time it was the men in the laboratories who set the pace. Without waiting to be asked, they designed warheads, knowing that the services would find a use for whatever they were offered.7 Hiroshima should have been a sufficient illustration of the killing power of an atom bomb. Nevertheless, with money available to pursue almost any idea, studies were carried out to see how nuclear explosives could be used in weapons designed to kill enemy troops in battle, without, it must be said, any realistic idea of the consequences. The technical people designed atomic bazookas that went by the name of Davy Crockett for distribution among noncommissioned ranks. Nuclear land mines were produced and deployed without prior consideration of their acceptability to the US’s European allies. Nuclear anti-aircraft shells were stockpiled. In the late Fifties and early Sixties NATO even wanted to have its own missile forces with which to strike Soviet territory.
NATO’s “tactical” nuclear arsenal grew so fast that by the early 1960s it contained between six thousand and seven thousand warheads. Today we read that it has since been unilaterally reduced to about four thousand. What we are not told is that the weapons that have been withdrawn never did have any rational military use—devices like the prepositioned mines to which the Germans objected, the Davy Crocketts whose use could never have been controlled, and the anti-aircraft shells which would have drenched the landscape with radioactive fallout.
The third phase in the nuclearization of NATO began in 1961. Robert McNamara, the new defense secretary, discovered that he had inherited from his predecessor a program of nuclear weapon development whose size and nature made little strategic sense. He also learned that alarm had spread throughout civilian political circles in West Germany in the mid-Fifties when, after a particular field exercise, it was realized that had the exercise been a real battle, and had real nuclear weapons been used, well over a million “innocent civilians” would have been killed—in addition to service casualties—within the first day or two of operations.
McNamara also learned that realistic war games that were carried out in the UK in 1960 not only corroborated this gloomy forecast. They also showed that since the USSR had now acquired nuclear weapons allowing it to reply in kind, any field war in which nuclear fire was exchanged would quickly grind to a halt, leaving millions of dead and hundreds of square miles of radioactive waste8—with no military gain to either side. Alain Enthoven, an assistant secretary of defense on McNamara’s staff and a specialist in “systems” studies, failed to devise a single scenario for a European war using nuclear weapons that did not confirm what the British war games had revealed. Nuclear weapons can deter. They cannot “defend.”
In the light of the disquiet that then prevailed about NATO’s policy for using nuclear weapons, McNamara set to work to reassure the European members of the alliance that since the USSR was now able to reply in kind, the US would not respond to a Soviet attack by way of a large-scale nuclear strike. It took him five years before the members of NATO agreed that “flexible response” was a more realistic policy. Instead of an immediate “massive” nuclear strike, NATO would meet force with force, and resort to nuclear fire only if a Soviet assault could not be stopped with conventional arms.
What was more important was that integral to the concept of “flexible response” was the understanding that in a European war, all members of the alliance would, at least in theory, share in any decision to use nuclear weapons. There would be more than just an American “finger on the trigger.” Also important was the sense that if nuclear weapons were ever used, the fate of the US was “coupled” to that of Europe. If Europe were destroyed and Soviet territory were hit, the US in its turn could expect to be struck.
Despite all that the war games and analytical projections had shown to the contrary, the understanding that there could be circumstances in which resort would be made to nuclear weapons unfortunately soon became translated into a widespread belief that nuclear weapons were unbeatable, and could be relied upon to stop any Soviet assault. The truth, summed up years later in President Reagan’s statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought, was conveniently forgotten.
The Present Dilemma
NATO’s Supreme Command obviously has extensive plans for the use of nuclear weapons. But the plans have always been so unrealistic that they defy all imagination. I noted in a previous review9 that it emerged in congressional testimony in 1985 that the military arm of NATO has pinpointed 18,000 short- and mid-range Warsaw Pact targets for nuclear strike, of which 2,000 are designated “priority targets.” We may safely suppose that the Warsaw Pact forces have a corresponding map of NATO targets. Let us assume that the average yield of the missiles and free-falling bombs in the NATO arsenal lies in the range of ten to twenty kilotons. Even if it were only ten kilotons, and the warheads in the Warsaw Pact arsenal were the same, an exchange of nuclear fire would simply mean that as nuclear shot followed nuclear shot, or nuclear salvo nuclear salvo, more and more of Europe, including Warsaw Pact countries, would be pockmarked every few hours with scores and scores of Hiroshimas—and covered with a pall of radioactive dust that would kill or poison vast numbers of the population of Western and Central Europe. This is what a nuclear exchange would mean.
I have also once before referred to the difficulty of envisaging the military value of NATO’s nuclear artillery. Here it is essential to refer to something to which too little attention has so far been paid—the account by the military weapons expert Bernard O’Keefe of what happened on the only occasion that a US nuclear artillery shell was tested in the atmosphere. It also helps to put the matter of presumed field warfare into perspective.
O’Keefe had taken part in a number of previous tests, but in this one he was a spectator. The test was carried out by army artillery officers “under operating conditions.” The shell, with a yield of seventeen kilotons, was fired from a 280mm artillery piece, and exploded at a range of six miles at a height of 1,500 feet. The fireball and mushroom cloud were visible for some fifty miles, and the blast rattled windows ninety miles away. Now, to quote Mr. O’Keefe:
What of the soldiers on a battlefield? The first flash would sear the eyeballs of anyone looking in that direction, friend or foe, for miles around. Its intensity cannot be described; it must be experienced to be appreciated. The electromagnetic pulse would knock out all communication systems, the life blood of a battle plan. In addition to its effect on troops in the vicinity, everyone for fifty miles in any direction who lived through it would realize that it was a nuclear explosion. It would seem like the end of the world, and it probably would be, for any man who had a similar weapon under his control, who had a button to push or a lanyard to pull, would do so instinctively. 10
Many have asked why the USSR has gone in for short-range missiles to a greater extent than it has for nuclear artillery. Perhaps they too have carried out a similar test, and have realized that the idea of an exchange of nuclear artillery fire in field warfare is nonsense. The truth is that one cannot fight with nuclear weapons. Nuclear missiles cannot be used against targets of opportunity, such as columns of tanks whose positions could be changed overnight, nor is it possible to conceive of such targets presenting themselves in a moving battle at distances within a range of, say, one hundred kilometers. Some years ago the USSR declared that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons, but that if NATO did, it would reply in kind. That is the Soviet version of flexible response. If nuclear weapons are ever fired, it will never matter who fired first.
It is interesting that McGeorge Bundy concluded his recent review of Steven Kull’s Minds at War11 in these pages by suggesting that pressure for a “modernized” Lance missile for NATO derives from the idea of “coupling”—that the deployment of US missiles in Europe means that in case of Soviet aggression in Europe an American president would be prepared to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. I certainly agree with him that neither history nor common sense justifies the latter belief for, as Robert McNamara has put it, an American president would be no more ready to allow an American nuclear missile to be fired in Europe than he would be to launch a first strike at the USSR from the US.
Coupling was certainly one of the reasons why INF missiles started to be deployed in Europe in 1983, a move that was initially favored by all the members of NATO, with Chancellor Schmidt leading the pack. At the time Schmidt was arguing that the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe indicated a bid for nuclear superiority, against which NATO had to react; and, more important, he was also implying that a US president would be more likely to respond to a Soviet attack by using US missiles fired from Western Europe than from the United States. The deployment of INF missiles therefore was seen as “coupling” the security of the US with that of Western Europe and as a sign that the US was willing to be destroyed if Europe was. In contrast, Chancellor Kohl, Schmidt’s successor, today leads most of the members of NATO in opposing the notion of modernization—and this time Helmut Schmidt is firmly on his side.
But I find it difficult to agree with Bundy that the vague issue of coupling is the reason why it is now argued by some—particularly by Margaret Thatcher—that the present Lance missile needs modernizing. My own view is that she, the major advocate of modernization, has been misled into believing that a new battlefield nuclear weapon is needed, not because of the coupling issue, but to uphold the “strategy” of flexible response, as if the term had some specific military meaning. In fact, all that the proposed Lance replacement would provide is greater range and greater accuracy. Its destructive force could never be “modernized.” Fifty kilotons of nuclear charge carried by the present Lance is no less destructive than the fifty kilotons which would be carried by a new Lance. By today’s standards, Hiroshima was destroyed by a primitive free-falling fifteen- to twenty-kiloton bomb. It would have been no better destroyed if it had been struck by a modernized warhead carrying the same charge. So far as NATO is concerned, it does not matter whether it would be the current Lance or the Pentagon’s new design that would be fired. Once any category of NATO’s nuclear weapons had been detonated, the initiative would pass to the Soviet command, and it, not NATO, would determine what happened next.
NATO does not need another nuclear weapon with which to fight. It dare not use those that it already has without risking total disaster. After the conclusion of the INF Treaty, General John Galvin, NATO’s supreme commander, was asked on British television in November 1987, as I noted in a previous review,12 whether he agreed with his predecessor, General Bernard Rogers, that an INF deal would require a compensatory deployment, No, he replied, he didn’t. To make sure there was no misunderstanding the question was repeated and this time his answer was even more clearcut:
I can carry out my mission of deterrence and defense with the nuclear capability and conventional capability that is left in Europe under NATO after the treaty is ratified.
That General Galvin has since joined with other US generals in asserting an opposite view, even to the extent of saying that NATO needs nuclear weapons with which to fight, is merely a reflection of a deeply entrenched nuclear dogma that NATO generals seldom dare to challenge until they leave office. Since his November 1987 statement, the general has also put forward proposals to reduce his nuclear arsenal by yet a further two thousand warheads. That today both he and the Joint Chiefs are loyally supporting the political call for a new Lance merely shows that there is no military yardstick by which to decide what NATO’s nuclear arsenal should contain. There never has been one, and there never will be. There is no rational military or political justification why the US’s European allies should now contribute financially to a vastly expensive US weapons project that does not serve any rational military purpose.
The split in NATO about “battlefield” nuclear weapons has been smoothed over for the time being. When it resurfaces, I suspect that it will be more obvious than it is now that what many people take “flexible response” to mean has no reality. Were it ever taken to the point when nuclear weapons were actually used, “flexible response” would turn out to be synonymous with “massive retaliation.”
Politicians in Washington and London are now warning us not to be lulled into complacency about Western security by Mr. Gorbachev’s pacific pronouncements. Those who question the wisdom of the program of modernization are far from complacent. They are concerned lest we allow this unreal military issue to jeopardize the opportunity that has presented itself of reducing the chances of war, and of lightening the enormous defense burden which both sides carry.
In the West we have clung too long to the myth that in a war in Europe nuclear weapons could compensate for conventional weakness. NATO’s use of nuclear weapons would not tilt the outcome of a battle in NATO’s favor. What has been convincingly shown, and what is still not sufficiently understood, is that the planned use of nuclear weapons would utterly destroy the battlefield itself and everything on it, including NATO’s own armies. Why NATO needs a new and more refined version of the Lance missile, in addition to more than four thousand nuclear weapons from which it can now choose, remains unexplained. We cannot have it both ways. Let our military leaders tell us now, and publicly, just how, if hostilities were to break out in Europe, a new nuclear ground-launched weapon would help our side to win. If they can produce a plausible and affirmative answer, so be it. If they cannot, let there be an end to an issue that threatens to undermine a treaty on conventional forces that leaders on both sides declare they urgently want.
—August 31, 1989
This is the first of two articles.
September 28, 1989
Cyrus Vance, former US deputy secretary of defense and then secretary of state, and David Owen, former UK foreign secretary, were members of the group. ↩
The second half of the book comprises a report that had been prepared as background material for the commission’s final meeting. ↩
Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament (Pantheon, 1977). ↩
International Herald Tribune, May 31, 1989. ↩
In B.H. Liddell Hart, Deterrent or Defence (Praeger, 1960). ↩
John Foster Dulles, in an address to the Council of Foreign Relations, January 12, 1954. ↩
Herbert York, in Making Weapons, Talking Peace (Basic Books, 1987), gives a useful account. ↩
In these war games, carried out in the UK in 1960, it was assumed that NATO had far more nuclear warheads than the Soviet forces. Even so, it turned out that once nuclear fire was exchanged, it would be impossible to continue operations because of the radioactive devastation. These conclusions were confirmed in a number of other studies. I have never met a single senior NATO military leader who said he believed that a European war could be fought with nuclear weapons. ↩
Lord Zuckerman, “The World Without INF,” The New York Review (June 2, 1988). ↩
Bernard J. O’Keefe, Nuclear Hostages (Houghton Mifflin, 1983). ↩
McGeorge Bundy, “The Emperor’s Clothes,” The New York Review (July 20, 1989). ↩
“The World Without INF,” The New York Review (June 2, 1988). ↩