Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.


It often happens that the universal belief of one age of mankind . . . becomes to a subsequent age so palpable an absurdity, that the only difficulty then is to imagine how such a thing can ever have appeared credible.

J. S. Mill1

Nevertheless, such ideas should not be dismissed out of hand as so obviously simpleminded as not to be taken seriously. Simplemindedness is not a handicap in the competition of social ideas.

Charles Frankel2


Democrats who do not see the difference between a friendly and hostile criticism of democracy are themselves imbued with the totalitarian spirit.

Karl Popper3



Two Interpretations of Western Military and Foreign Policies


Throughout the Cold War, most Americans perceived their country's military policies in something like the following terms. We were caught between a rock and a hard place, and had to choose between the more or less equally distasteful alternatives of either continuing the arms race or laying down our arms. From 1945 through 1991, the free world chose to continue the arms race, and for excellent reasons. Ideally, we would have liked to live without the risks of the arms race and totalitarianism, but the nature of the Soviet state made this impossible. So, in the real world, we could only choose a policy that would have minimized both risks to the greatest extent possible. Unilateral disarmament would have almost certainly cost us our freedom. In contrast, it appeared far less certain that the arms race would have ended up in nuclear war, while its other costs were remote or negligible in comparison to an inevitable totalitarian takeover. Given these unequal probabilities and the equal distaste with which most of us regarded totalitarianism and nuclear war, the choice-unfortunate as it was-seemed clear enough: continue the arms race, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

This interpretation of the historical record holds that American policies have been defensive and that they have been strongly influenced by ethical considerations. It holds that the U.S. and its democratic allies cherished their freedom and national independence, and that their policies were virtually devoid of aggressive and exploitative motives. Though they would have loved nothing better than being left alone by the militaristic and imperialistic Soviet Union, they were realistic enough to know that, in this less than perfect world, freedom must be defended from its external enemies.

Translated into the realm of nuclear weapons, this essentially defensive posture led to deterrence as the cornerstone of the democratic West's military strategy. Both the Soviet Union and the United States possessed the physical means of decimating each other; neither country could prevent its own destruction. Each relied, therefore, not on defense but on deterrence, for the threat of destruction was mutual: each nation could see to it that its destruction was followed by the destruction of the other. In effect, each side cautioned the other: "You can destroy me and there is nothing I can do to stop you from doing so, but I can destroy you too. Therefore, I appeal not only to your humanity in asking you not to destroy me, but also to your self-interest, for, if you destroy me, I can, and will, destroy you."


A radically different interpretation claims that policies of nation states have rarely been influenced by moral considerations or the welfare of the majority of their citizens, and that American policies from 1945 through 1991 were no exception. According to this view, America emerged from the war as the most powerful nation on earth. Its monopoly of nuclear weapons, its military and economic might, its commercial and political foothold in most countries, its belief in itself as a stronghold of freedom, decency, and civilization, its unequal commercial, political, and military relations with most of the world's nations, the dependence that this inequality created for one side and the stupendous profits it brought to the other, and America's willingness to resort to economic blackmail and brute force to achieve its commercial and security objectives, have rendered a good part of the planet's land surface into, essentially, an American empire.

The international goals of the United States have been clear and remarkably consistent since the end of World War II. Since 1945 U.S. policy has never deviated from its support of the status quo in all noncommunist and nonsocialist countries. This policy is designed to maintain control over the allocation of world-wide resources and available labor and to ensure U.S. access to market and investment areas. No alternative forms of government could be allowed to replace existing friendly governments, since successful alternatives could demonstrate that there were different paths to national economic development from those approved by the United States.4

According to this view, the Third World's people did not enjoy illiteracy, malnutrition, malaria, injustice, exploitation, poverty, and hopelessness. If left alone, they were likely to rebel against the dictators who ruled them. With our economic and military assistance, however, our dictatorial friends could easily quench such popular uprisings, provided our support for the dictators was not counterbalanced by another powerful country's support for the rebels. And herein, according to this interpretation, lies the crux of America's Cold War policies.

Only the Soviet Union could conceivably interfere with the status quo. The Soviets did not depend upon us politically or economically, they seemed able to acquire the capacity to intervene in conflicts far away from their shores, and they disliked America's Third World policies. They might take exception, for instance, to the U.S.-created and supported bloody dictatorships in the Philippines, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, or Greece. They might counteract American culpability in the decades-long imprisonment of the South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.5 They might not sit silently by while the U.S. takes an active part in the massacre of a quarter million Indonesians.6 They might wish to neutralize American support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or for the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea.7 Or they might have curtailed our actions during the Persian Gulf War. Moreover, they might have liked to gain a foothold in these regions for ideological, economic, and balance of power considerations. If left alone, they might have therefore been tempted to provide assistance to Third World insurgents, including, at times, direct military aid and intervention. Our military and foreign policies were aimed at preventing the Soviets from doing so.

Translated into the realm of nuclear weapons, this essentially aggressive posture leads to the unavowed, but nevertheless real, policy of brinkmanship-the policy of pushing a potentially deadly conflict to its limits, of risking a mutual descent into the abyss in order to scare off a more cautious opponent-as the cornerstone of the democratic West's military strategy:

Chiefly, the arms race is justified . . . and sustained by the geopolitical and ideological struggle between the USA and the Soviet Union, and derives its importance from the USA's determination to dominate and control the Third World and sustain its global hegemony. Within this context nuclear weapons are seen by the USA as being a means of threatening the Soviet Union and thus preventing her from challenging US hegemony.8

It is . . . mainly over the freedom of action of the United States to use a few nuclear weapons, selectively and not against cities, that the nuclear competition unfolds.9

According to this view, the use of nuclear weapons in implementing these political objectives falls roughly into three historical periods. During the first, which lasted at least until the mid-1950s, the U.S. enjoyed a decisive nuclear edge. The period started with American atomic monopoly, but the Soviets' first atomic explosion did not even come close to bringing this period of meaningful nuclear edge to an end, for the Soviets still lacked a sufficient number of bombs and delivery vehicles. Until 1955 or so, an all-out nuclear war would have resulted in the virtual pulverization of the Soviet Union, and, at worst, a partial pulverization of the U.S. Throughout this period, according to this view, our military policies were aimed at retaining this military advantage and thereby containing Soviet meddling in our Third World affairs.

In the second period, according to this view, we intermittently employed a more refined variant of this policy. We no longer sought raw nuclear superiority, for the Soviets by now enjoyed a credible nuclear force. Rather, America's military policies were aimed at retaining a more subtle edge over its chief adversary:

The essence of the asymmetry in the U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear capabilities . . . had to do with the credibility of striking first. Until 1966 or 1967, the U.S. intercontinental forces were so superior in every category . . . that it was possible to contemplate a first strike directed against the much smaller Soviet forces, using only a fraction of the U.S. arsenal, in which a large part of the Soviet retaliatory capacity would be destroyed before it could be used. The Soviet leaders would then face the choice of capitulating or launching a relatively weak retaliatory blow, with the latter course sure to result in their country's complete destruction by the sizable remaining forces of the U.S. At the same time, no such "attractive" first-strike option was open to the Soviet Union, because its forces were insufficient to destroy a suitably large fraction of the U.S. forces in an initial blow. This asymmetry-that the United States could and the Soviet Union could not credibly threaten to resort to the first use of intercontinental nuclear weapons against its adversary's homeland-gave meaning to the term "nuclear dominance."10

In the third phase (mid-1960s through 1991), the U.S., by and large, continued on the same course. Depending on one's perceptions of the military balance during those years, our goal, according to this view, was either the retention of this "nuclear dominance" and the political advantages it conferred, or its restoration. "The West," two influential analysts wrote in 1980, "needs to devise ways in which it can employ strategic nuclear forces coercively . . . If American nuclear power is to support U.S. foreign policy objectives, the United States must possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally."11

It must be noted in passing that the two components of this view-America's alleged imperialism and nuclear brinkmanship- are not necessarily linked. Thus, a close examination might show that only one of these two allegations is correct, that both are correct but that no causal relationship exists between them, or that the Third World connection constitutes only one of the roots of nuclear brinkmanship. An appraisal of this view must therefore substantiate three charges: U.S. imperialism in the Third World, nuclear brinkmanship, and a close causal link between them. Nor can we gain much help from consulting high level senior officials. For one thing, they might be disinclined to share the truth with the public. For another, while practicing brinkmanship, they might sincerely believe that they practice deterrence.

The existence of two such radically different interpretations of American policies-and the likelihood that actual policies contained both deterrence and brinkmanship elements throughout this period -considerably complicate efforts of appraising the historical record: one needs to know the aims of a policy in order to judge it.

I shall approach this methodological problem by dividing the discussion into two parts. Brinkmanship will be taken up in Chapter 8. In this and the next two chapters I shall assume that universal freedom and deterrence constituted the guiding lights of American foreign and military policies. Here there is little to argue with the general objectives themselves, and the analysis chiefly requires an answer to questions such as: Was deterrence the best way of containing Soviet expansionism? Have our present and past policies afforded the most rational route of achieving their stated objectives of freedom and security?

To sum up. Two radically different views of America's nuclear policies need to be explored. For methodological reasons, I shall assume in Chapters 5-7 that the U.S. practiced deterrence. In Chapter 8 I shall explore the claim that while the U.S. preached deterrence, it either practiced brinkmanship or a combination of deterrence and brinkmanship.

Victory in the 1980s?

One hysterical way of extricating oneself from a straitjacket is to deny wearing it at all. Likewise, some Western strategists have over the years tried to extricate themselves from the twin perils of totalitarianism and the arms race by asserting that victory in an all-out nuclear war was possible. Their assertion was not based on some secret weapon which would have rendered all Soviet nuclear bombs or delivery vehicles inoperative in an instant. It was based instead on the facts that we all know, including the various consequences of nuclear war described in Chapter 2.

To the extent that this position could be taken seriously, we must assume that its proponents were familiar with these consequences. They could not possibly believe, then, that we would be better off as individuals or as a nation after the war, even if its consequences turned out to be the mildest imaginable. Their assertions that victory was possible boiled down to this: both nations would have suffered much in an all-out war, but we could see to it that the Russians suffer more; that perhaps, after 30 years, we would be able to put ourselves together again and they wouldn't.

I must confess that I like Russians and would have hated to see their lives reduced to one long radioactive nightmare. But maybe these war intellectuals didn't, or maybe they didn't allow such sentiments to influence their strategic theories, so let us think only of Westerners. Let us also accept the questionable assumption that the Soviets would have suffered more, and then examine this strategic theory. To see its absurdity, we need only consider the following analogy: if two men fought a duel, and if as a result one died and the other became a quadriplegic, we could indeed say that in one sense the quadriplegic won the duel. But in another, more fundamental, sense we would say that both lost. In this case, both went to battle hoping for a better outcome, and this hope lends their actions a modicum of rationality. However, if both duelists had known the consequences of their deadly encounter in advance, and if the would-be quadriplegic decided to go ahead with it because he was going to win, most of us would have considered him mad.

This analogy suggests that a policy aimed at rendering all of us quadriplegic for the sake of killing the Russians was ill-advised. At the very least, we should have never trusted the human prospect to people who possessed such odd notions of war and politics.


Future Victory?

Those who believed in the possibility of immediate victory have always belonged to a small minority. The belief that we could become strong enough to win a future war with Russia enjoyed a much wider following and has often been used as a rationale for increased military spending. Nonetheless, history suggests that the modern quest for superiority, like the medieval quest for the elixir of life, was misguided in principle.

Though all important military inventions since 1945 have originated in the West, none has meaningfully improved the West's military or political situation. For example, the U.S. developed the technology to put multiple warheads on each missile first, and for a few years the U.S. alone could do this. As a result, we could for a while explode many more bombs in Soviet territory than they could in ours. Yet, even in the short term, this remarkable technology did not improve our military position. Likewise, we have invested enormous resources in upgrading the targeting accuracy of our warheads. As our technological competence in this area improved, we retrofitted old missiles and built new kinds of missiles precisely because we wished to increase their warheads' accuracy. Throughout the 1980s, greater accuracy provided a rationale for building new missiles. However, our lead in multiple warheads, warhead accuracy, and all other breakthroughs in the past 30 years or so, sweet as these breakthroughs were from the technological viewpoint, has not given us a decisive edge. In fact, our only reward for these efforts was this: with every successive stage, each side could be more thoroughly atomized.

It follows that (assuming deterrence as the cornerstone of our military policies) the quest for superiority has been counterproductive. As long as the Soviets maintained a sufficient number of nuclear weapons to decimate the United States after the worse imaginable American surprise attack (a minimum deterrent), and as long as we could not stop them from doing this, the quantity and accuracy of our warheads counted for little. Millions of bullets are useless in a duel, since you can only kill your opponent once. Likewise, a single weapon beyond the number of weapons needed to assure the retaliatory obliteration of Russia was useless. In a duel, a gun only need be accurate enough to kill, not to split an opponent's hairs. Similarly, as long as the bombs aimed at the Kremlin and Capitol Hill leveled them to the ground, it made no difference that one bomb came closer to target than the other.

At this point, defenders of the quest for superiority might concede the futility of devoting precious resources to such projects as the development of multiple warheads per missile and more accurate warheads. But they might still argue that we have been barking up the wrong tree since 1960 or so. After developing a minimum nuclear deterrent, we should have attempted this: acquiring a decisive edge over the Soviets by inventing and deploying something that would have removed the peril which the Soviet nuclear arsenal posed to our survival.

Unlike any senseless development project which did not remove this peril, this position made sense. It would have been nice to own something that could instantly send all their nuclear bombs to the planet Mars. Under close scrutiny, however, this position collapses. Here, I shall limit the discussion to one American military research and development project (SDI in military jargon, "star wars" in the vernacular) which was purportedly aimed at disarming the Soviets. In the mid-1980s, the strategic quest for victory stood and fell with this single project. For this reason, and because this project has been a typical component of our Cold War strategic thinking, we need to bring its blurry contours into sharper focus.

Certain powerful forms of radiation-especially chemical lasers and particle beams-might be deployed in space or on the ground to burn holes in and destroy ballistic missiles and warheads on their way to target. They could then render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," as an unknown speech writer for President Reagan put it in 1983, thereby eliminating the Soviet threat to our survival.12 In 1987, the Cold War was subsiding, but Reagan's recitations remained unchanged: "All humanity can begin to look forward to a new era of security when the burden of nuclear terror is lifted from its shoulders."13 From the very outset, independent experts insisted that this program constituted a mockery of truth, science, and common sense. This shield, they said, would only be able to incapacitate a fraction of all delivery vehicles. Let us leap into the year 2010 and assume that, as usual, we have succeeded in developing these weapons before the Soviets. American scientists would now inform the President that the long-waited "defensive shield in space,"12 can be deployed. The President would inquire how effective this shield is, and the scientists would say that it can incapacitate as much as 95 percent of all delivery vehicles launched against the U.S. Assuming that this future president is not a Hollywood puppet, the only thing she might be able to do upon hearing this wonderful news is shrug her shoulders, make a few jokes about her predecessors' intelligence, and politely dismiss the scientists, for the remaining 5 percent could still demolish America.

Moreover, early opponents of this program protested, our scientists would never be able to give the system the crucial test it requires: disabling in flight thousands of missiles. They would only be able to say: "Ms. President, most likely 95 percent will be destroyed." "Is there any chance that none will be destroyed?" our intelligent President would ask. And the scientists will say: "Sure, every machine is fallible." "What is the probability that none would be destroyed?" she might ask. If they have done extremely well, they would be able to say, "1 percent." The President would again dismiss them; for what sane woman would risk war against the Soviets if they could pulverize her country once if her plans succeeded, and twenty times if they failed?

For argument's sake, early opponents of this project continued, let us ignore these virtually insoluble technical problems and make the unrealistic assumption that we could be absolutely certain that the new "defensive shield" would be able to destroy all launched Soviet missiles. Let us also ignore this program's enormous complexity and staggering costs and its violations of the spirit and the letter of a couple of then-existing arms control treaties. Either the Cold War is brought to an end (a barely conceived notion in 1983), in which case we needed spend no money on this project, or else the Cold War continued. If it continued, the Soviets would know what we were up to. Since we refused their pleas to demilitarize space, they were likely to go to great lengths to prevent us from achieving this edge. Their list of viable options was certainly long. For example, as long as they were still our equals, they might give us an ultimatum: stop, or we shall obliterate you. They might triple their nuclear forces, or increase the number of delivery vehicles (such as existing bombers and cruise missiles) which were immune to this "shield." They might smuggle small nuclear weapons into a few American cities and keep them there, just in case. Or, if they get really desperate, they might arm missiles with conventional weapons and use them to demolish the laboratories where this research was being conducted. What should we do then? Sink into the Dark Ages because they wished to remain in the race, or acknowledge that they had a legitimate point there and agree at long last to demilitarize space? Won't we be better off if we never have to face such decisions?

Even if we managed somehow to get through this self-inflicted via dolorosa, early opponents of this proposal said, we would still be faced with the question of real superiority itself. Superiority did us little good after World War II, and no sound plan exists for deriving from it meaningful political gains in the future. Suppose we acquired the ability to protect our country from nuclear destruction while still retaining the ability to atomize Russia. Suppose, moreover, that we could somehow know in advance that we could raze Russia without bringing upon ourselves and the world an unparalleled environmental catastrophe. Suppose we presented them with an ultimatum on some international issue like South Africa or Indonesia and they refused to budge. Would we demonstrate our resolve by obliterating Moscow? As long as the U.S. remains a democracy (which allegedly is what the fighting is all about in the first place), this was unlikely.

Thus, early opponents of this program argued, in a few years the Russians would catch up with us, as they always have in the past. Now, for the first time, you might say, we need no longer dread their nuclear weapons, nor they ours. Unfortunately, this is not so, and not only because 100 percent effectiveness and certainty are not given to man. For, especially if they were, we would be in the gravest danger imaginable. Long before either side acquires

anything resembling a "defensive shield," it would acquire the capacity to disable satellites. So by the time the "shield" is in the sky, both sides would only need to knock out a few dozen satellites in a surprise attack in order to achieve immediate superiority. Now, each side in this make-believe world would be apprehensive that the other might put its satellites out of commission. So scared in fact, if we were to believe our mid-1980s' war intellectuals, as to be tempted to launch a preemptive strike and knock the other's satellites out. If we were lucky, both sides would have either overcome this temptation or confined the reply to space. If we were not lucky, this game could have unleashed an unthinkable disaster here on earth.

Five years after this costly program was launched, even the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment joined the ranks of its opponents. After a two-year study, it concluded that the proposed missile-defense system would probably "suffer a catastrophic failure" as soon as it was needed.14 By late 1989, even President Bush's Defense Secretary conceded that this project had been "oversold" and that its chances of success were "extremely remote."15 Consequently, in 1990 the USA spent a mere $3 billion on this project. Were our politicians, then, only caught up in starry-eyed nonsense, or were they pork-barreling our future?

We may safely conclude that the quest for decisive military superiority in the nuclear age has been based on a delusion. Short of magic wands or some spectacular scientific developments, we could never acquire it. We had nothing to gain and much to lose, then, from our decision to turn this quest into a key component of our military policies.


New Nuclear Weapons?

A seemingly more reasonable school of thought urged us to improve our nuclear arsenal not for victory's sake, but for the sake of keeping up with the Russians. In this context, we may wish to remind ourselves first that we have always been at least one step ahead of them (see Chapters 6, 7). However, we still need to

dispose of the argument that the next time around they might be ahead, and therefore that we could take no chances and had to continue to develop new weapons and improve the old.

What would have happened, for instance, if we had not developed multiple warheads? To begin with, we could have reached an agreement with the Soviets that neither side deploys such warheads, and they almost certainly would have agreed-if for no other reason than they were lagging behind us. But for argument's sake, let us say that the Soviets had agreed to negotiate them out of existence and then cheated, or that they refused to sign a fair agreement and we then decided, unilaterally, not to go ahead. In either case, they would not have been able to rely on spies and open publications to see how we actually did it, so it would have taken them much longer to develop multiple warheads.16 Let us be generous and say that they would have started their deployment by 1980 and completed it in 1995. The only result: we would have been in the same position they were in just a few years earlier. Because the Soviets retained a credible nuclear deterrent, multiple warheads did little to improve our military or political situation.

The drive for more sophisticated nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles was misguided in principle. To be relevant to the military equation in the nuclear age, a new weapon had to eliminate the Soviet nuclear threat. No such weapon was in sight. Therefore, our alleged struggle against totalitarianism would have benefited from diverting elsewhere the resources which nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles purposelessly blotted up.

Some proponents of weapons development conceded that the fraction of our nuclear arsenal which was sure to survive the worst imaginable surprise attack was enough to deter rational men from attacking us in the first place. But they still urged us to develop new weapons on the grounds that, as former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown put it, "perceptions can be as important as realities in the international arena. . . . Indeed, in some sense, the political advantages of being seen as the superior strategic power are more real and more usable than the military advantages of in fact being superior in one measure or another."17

By this, I conjecture, Mr. Brown meant that, in any confrontation, the comparatively greater atomization his side could wreak in a first strike against military targets, his side's more thoroughgoing potential of razing the other, or his side's ability to do so with more sophisticated weapons,18 would have given America a psychological advantage. That is, when we came eyeball-to-eyeball again, they would have backed off, or better still, they would have treated us with greater respect so that we wouldn't come eyeball-to-eyeball at all.

We need only point to the difference between deceptions and appearances to see the weakness of this argument. In the case of deceptions, the enemy's mistaken appraisal of the situation often contributes to his defeat. Indeed, many military victories had been won by inferior forces through the brilliant use of guile. But I know of no victory that has ever been won by keeping appearances, for in the case of appearances, the enemy knows that a naked emperor wears no clothes.

Now, the Soviets, like anyone else, could be taken in by guile, but they were not simple-minded enough to treat us with greater respect because of appearances. The elementary fact, which remained regardless of our action, was this: the launching of a war by either side would have led to the destruction of both sides, and beyond that point there was nothing that either side could do to the other.19

Seeing the types of arguments our policy makers resorted to in order to justify nuclear weapons development, one cannot help wondering: Over whose eyes were they trying to pull the wool, the Soviets' or ours?


A Window of Vulnerability?

This popular and recurring strategic theory (the name kept changing but the illogic stayed the same) went something like this. The Soviets were trailing close behind us in the production of multiple, and accurate, warheads. Missiles were expensive, warheads were cheap. Therefore, the Soviets could strike all our land-based missiles with only a fraction of theirs. They would, after such a sneaky attack, be left with more missiles than we would, so we would not dare retaliate. They would then proceed to blackmail us in all kinds of ways, the end result of all this being a gruesome totalitarian takeover.

This contention, like the fictitious missile gap of the late 1950s, was evidently strong enough to carry a man to the White House. It was not, however, likely to sweep informed people off their feet.

In the first place, this argument ignores the obvious survivability of our strategic arsenal. Even if the Soviets could wreck 90 percent of our land-based missiles in a surprise attack, we would have had enough to flatten the Soviet Union at least four times.20 A high-level government commission,21 set up in 1983 by Mr. Reagan to review his Administration's war preparation program, concurred with this conclusion. Although the commission dutifully endorsed most aspects of his program, it rejected the window argument on strictly technical grounds. The Soviets, it pointed out, could not simultaneously destroy American land-based missiles and strategic bombers. There would have been, in other words, enough strategic bombers or land-based missiles left after the worst imaginary surprise attack to undo the Soviet Union. Add to this the invincible missile submarines we had at sea, and you get a zero probability that rational heads of state would have ever contemplated the impossible task of forcibly disarming America (see Chapter 6 for a discussion of the survivability issue).

This perennial contention also ignored the many uncertainties which surround the actual use of missiles and bombs. Anyone contemplating such an attack had to consider potential problems with accuracy, reliability, and the coordination of such a large-scale operation. One independent American expert examined the technical aspects of this program in 1984 and concluded that "calculated outcomes of counter-silo attacks in which only 30 per cent of the attacked silos are destroyed by all-out attack are at least as probable as the calculated outcomes, usually quoted by US officials in congressional testimony, that anticipate 90 per cent destruction of US silos in an all-out Soviet attack."22a

If they were rational, Soviet rulers had to reckon, besides, with the remote possibility that we would launch our land-based missiles before these missiles were hit. In that case, we would be in a "better" position right after they attacked than they would.21

Proponents of this argument also forgot that we would be shocked and outraged. Consider, for example, the reminiscences of a nuclear explosion's survivor. The scene is a hospital ward in the outskirts of Hiroshima a couple of days after the city was atomized:

A man came in . . . with the incredible story that Japan had the same mysterious weapon . . . and . . . had now used the bomb on the mainland of America. . . . At last Japan was retaliating! The whole atmosphere in the ward changed, and for the first time since Hiroshima was bombed, everyone became cheerful and bright. Those who had been hurt the most were the happiest.23

Now, we must assume that the Soviets know some psychology. Would they risk everything on a desperate gamble that we would not avenge the deaths of ten million Americans (give or take eight million) and the partial despoliation of our land? How could they be reasonably certain that, at the very least, we would resist the temptation of giving them a bit of their own radioactive medicine?

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is certainly not given to hyperbole. Yet, it concluded that the fears upon which the window argument was based were "unfounded and unduly pessimistic, if not contrived . . . it is simply unwarranted and injudicious to make firm predictions about the outcome of a counter-silo attack. To base defence policy or weapon procurement and planning on such predictions approaches the irresponsible."22b

In short, the inveterate window of vulnerability projection was humbug. It failed to see the folly of the entire situation and it ignored the fact that our survival hinged upon the Soviets' good judgment. What if they suddenly became insane? In that case, both nations were lost and there was nothing we could do about it. The suggested remedies-building more missiles of all kinds, more sophisticated bombers, or quieter submarines-had absolutely nothing to do with this basic vulnerability and with our absolute dependence on their rationality. It follows that our problem was not a window, but a whole sky, of vulnerability, and that the only sure way of removing it was not racing, but negotiating, with the Soviets.

After decades of continuous allegations in the alternative media and presses that first-strike projections bordered on intellectual fraud, cracks were beginning to appear in the mass media as well. In 1990, for instance, one mass circulation magazine opined:

A madman bent on self-destruction is, almost by definition, impossible to deter. It has always required a suspension of disbelief to imagine a sane Soviet leadership, no matter how cold-blooded, calculating that it could, in any meaningful sense, get away with an attack on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.24

The futility of attempting to shut a window through an arms buildup, instead of closing a whole sky of vulnerability through multilateral disarmament, can also be seen by carrying the window argument one step farther. Suppose Seattle's mayor scoffed at the Soviets' Lenin-worship rituals. Suppose they got mad and craterized Seattle. Now, while we are still debating our response, the Soviets warn us that their entire nuclear force is on hair-trigger alert and offer an armistice. Clearly, the balance of power is totally unchanged. In fact, nothing has changed except that Seattle is now gone. What should we do? We have already lost Seattle, but if we go to war with those raving maniacs, we would lose everything! The point of this contrived balderdash? It makes just as much sense as the window argument. As long as the Soviets remained sane, they were not going to raze Seattle or pulverize American missiles in a surprise attack. If they went out of their minds, all bets were off, regardless of how many more trillions we chose to spend on weapon research and development. We were indeed vulnerable, but in a deeper sense of depending on their rationality for our survival. Setting out to replace an imaginary leaky shingle on an utterly roofless house is not the best way of preparing for a downpour.


Launch Under Attack?

Here is another intellectual gem from the strategic jewelry box of that period. The Soviet Union might strike first, disable our nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, and run us over. We could not possibly take such a risk, so we had to empty our silos as soon

as we had good reasons to suspect that our land-based missiles were under attack.

This theory's underlying premise is incorrect. We have always had enough deliverable weapons to roundly decimate the USSR after a no-holds-barred surprise attack. In fact, it is hard to see, from a strictly nuclear point of view, that we would have suffered much from a successful first strike against us (see Chapter 6). We must also bear in mind the very real possibility of false alarms. Bombers on their way to St. Petersburg can be recalled, so it made sense to have them take off when a supposed attack was in progress. Ballistic missiles could be destroyed on their way to target by fitting them with remote control devices. The proposed devices could only be activated by the country that launched the missiles in the first place. Hence, such devices would reduce the chances of catastrophic accidents without weakening a country's retaliatory potential. Such devices may have been present in Soviet missiles but not in American missiles.25 Consequently, once America's missiles were in the air, they could not be recalled.

Let us now add to these facts the highly conservative assumption that the chance of a false alarm leading us to empty our silos in the last twenty years was one in a thousand. Should this small probability be ignored? Consider the alternatives: if it were a false alarm, and if we emptied our silos just in case, the USA, USSR, perhaps even civilization itself, would be in ruins for no reason at all. If it were not a false alarm, we would have had enough left to undo the Soviets after they had wrecked as much of our nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles as they could. So on one hand, we had everything to lose, on the other, nothing to gain, from adopting a "launch-on-warning" policy. It is not clear whether the USA or the USSR have ever adopted this policy.26 But although many of our so-called strategists urged us to adopt this policy, it us transparently obvious that we should have ignored their advice.


Nuclear Retaliation?

Our avowed strategy was based on deterrence. To deter, we had to say that we would retaliate. But, if they actually launched an all-out attack, should we have kept our word? Clearly, we would have lost everything by then, and so the question was: Should we have made them lose everything too?

The morality and wisdom of automatic retaliation were not as immediately obvious as our government and mass media supposed. The attack could be accidental or the brainchild of a deranged individual. Even if deliberate, the decision to attack us would have been made by a few men, not by the billions of men, women, and children that our weapons would have killed or harmed. We would be wise to assume that nuclear war would precipitate the worst environmental disaster and therefore that by retaliating we might increase all humankind's suffering and peril. And, if the main issue that set us apart was indeed freedom or slavery, would not democracy be vindicated by exercising this supreme act of self-control? Before Gorbachev's seven years in power, we could also present the Kremlin with an ultimatum: "Now that you have committed this genocide, even if by accident, you must either dismantle your nuclear arsenal and totalitarian form of government under our strict supervision, or else suffer total destruction." (We could do this because by then we would have little to lose, and they might still have a country to lose-this, ironically, was the one way our quest for superiority could succeed).

Obviously, the USA and the USSR felt it necessary to say that they would pay back in kind. Each side had to make the other believe that it was not bluffing. In the heat of the moment, either side might have retaliated. Each side had to take into account the outside chance of environmental collapse after the war. So each side had to assume that the other side, or nature, would revenge and this was deterrence enough. However, the considerations given above suggest that the wisdom of retaliation should have not been taken for granted even after the most treacherous and cold-blooded surprise attack.


Concluding Remarks

This chapter's treatment of Cold War America's military strategy is obviously incomplete.27 It omits in particular many debates, moot issues, and heated controversies. Throughout the Cold War seemingly intelligent Westerners in position of power were setting their brains to work on such profound questions as: Should we act as if we were slightly out of our minds in order to convince the Soviets that, if they stepped too far out of line, we would blow them and ourselves up? If war breaks out, should we blow up their command, control, and communication centers?

But we can safely assume that these and similar questions were as senseless as the ones we have already discussed. Hence, strategic thinking in the United States utterly failed to provide a rationale for our military and foreign policies. Moreover, if we ever faced the puzzles which so intrigued our war intellectuals, our choice would have made little difference because by then all might have been lost. So, although these never-ending puzzles may have been serviceable as tactical exercises in war academies, although they reportedly propped up a two billion dollar a year think tank industry,28 in the final analysis they cloaked a fundamentally mad exercise with an air of rationality, and they diverted our attention from consequential issues.

The real and significant questions were not "Should we have acted a bit crazy to deter the Soviets from attacking?" but "Were we courageous enough to stop this race to oblivion?" Not "Should we have destroyed their command, control, and communication centers in time of war?," but "Were we really mad enough to needlessly risk self-destruction?"



Modern scholarship offers two radically different interpretations of American military and foreign policies. Deterrence emphasizes the defensive nature of these policies in face of a harsh and ruthless adversary, these policies' overriding preoccupation with freedom and democracy at home and abroad, their essentially peaceful intentions, and their humanitarian interest in the well-being of the world's people. Brinkmanship insists that, like any other empire in history, the United States was primarily concerned with furthering the interests of its ruling class. The U.S. is alleged to have done so by portraying the Soviet Union as inherently evil and warlike, building a sufficiently large war machine to enrich its upper class and to persuade Soviet rulers that it might, if provoked, destroy their nuclear weapons in a surprise attack. It did so by propping up compassionless and subservient dictators in the Third World and by brutally helping them to suppress their communist and democratic opponents. By striving hard to retain an apparent nuclear edge, the U.S. has deliberately projected a willingness to risk total destruction in order to achieve its aims. It thereby kept Soviet encroachments on its highly profitable Third World operations to a minimum. This book does not try to resolve the deterrence/brinkmanship controversy. Instead, it examines American policies under either premise and shows that, in either case, these policies can only be viewed as heartless and unwise.

This chapter highlights a few representative specimens of strategic thinking in Cold War America, including the (1) belief that the U.S. could win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, (2) view that it might have been able to do so through such projects as space militarization, (3) rationales offered for construction of new nuclear weapons and the maintenance of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, (4) window of vulnerability strategic theory, (5) theory that ballistic missiles must be launched if they are believed to be under attack, and (6) commitment to retaliate an all-out nuclear attack. Not a single one of these strategic theories is congruent with the deterrence interpretation of American policies, with rationality, or truth. Their widespread use could be viewed as one more illustration of the belief that simplemindedness is not a handicap in the competition of social ideas, or as a left-handed and eminently successful attempt to disguise their real aims-a smokescreen for brinkmanship. In a properly working democracy, such misconceptions and fallacies could not be successfully used to justify America's military and foreign policies.


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