Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.
Chapter 6: THE MILITARY BALANCE
Today, in virtually every measure of military power, the Soviet Union enjoys a decided advantage.
Ronald Reagan1, 1983
(40th President of the U.S.)
The United States is the most powerful country in the world. . . . I believe those who mistakenly claim that the United States is weak or that the Soviet Union is strong enough to run all over us are not only playing fast and loose with the truth, they are playing fast and loose with U.S. security.
Harold Brown2a, 1978
(President Carter's Secretary of Defense)
But the lie about the Soviet "military superiority" . . . is not just the biggest but also the most dangerous lie of our time. . . . It is the biggest lie not only because it is often based on exaggerations, false figures, and pure concoctions, but also because it ignores some major politicogeographic realities. . . . [It] is . . . also . . . the most dangerous lie of our time . . . for at present it is virtually the only rationale for the arms race. This lie is also dangerous because it poisons the political atmosphere and sows fears, hostility, and distrust. . . . Thus, since this real situation is so rudely and persistently distorted, the motives can be only sinister. Is it not logical to assume so?
Georgy Arbatov2b, 1982
(A Soviet strategist)
Overkill has been briefly discussed in Chapter 5. The problem, you will recall, is: How much was enough? According to one view, there was no such thing as enough: we had to have at least as many nuclear bombs and delivery vehicles as the Soviets, if only for nuclear blackmail or psychological reasons.
A second view holds that we only needed the capacity to atomize the Soviet Union once after it had launched the worst imaginable surprise attack against our nuclear forces. Beyond this point of minimum deterrence, any further expenditures on enlarging and modernizing our nuclear forces were wasteful and purposeless. "The very least we can say is that, looking ten years ahead, it is likely to be small comfort that the Soviet Union is four years behind us," Robert Oppenheimer observed in 1953. "The very least we can conclude is that our twenty thousandth bomb . . . will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two thousandth."3 In the world we live in today, Gorbachev observed 35 years later, "striving for military superiority means chasing one's own tail. It can't be used in real politics."4 This second view does not assume that Soviet leaders were civilized, moral, or incapable of the worst crimes. It only assumes a modicum of rationality which we had to grant them in view of their past record and in view of the paradoxical quality of nuclear deterrence. Assuming for the moment that this second view is correct, what kind of damage would ruthless but rational men be unwilling to accept?
They would probably consider unacceptable anything that would have put the survival of the Soviet Union as an organized, modern society at a grave risk, deprived them of power, reduced everything they had worked for to rubble, and jeopardized their lives and the lives of their relatives and friends. Note that I have deliberately made them out to be worse human beings than they were. I am assuming, for argument's sake, that they were totally indifferent to the plight of their people and to their ideals, that there was no special place, say, in Moscow, so dear to their hearts that they would not risk it for anything in the world. I am only granting them one human quality-a minimal degree of rationality.
Relating the number of bombs exploded to the damage they inflict is not an easy matter, so the figure which will be cited here could be on the high or low side by a factor of two. In the late 1980s, about 4 percent of the explosive power in America's total nuclear arsenal would have inflicted a rather unacceptable damage: the annihilation of 125 million Soviets, the cities they lived in, and much of their country's industry.5a
Now, this 4 percent is not the figure we seek. We are interested, rather, in our nuclear firepower after the worst imaginable sneaky Soviet attack. Following such an attack, what percentage of our surviving nuclear power could have inflicted unacceptable damage on the Soviet Union? To be on the conservative side, and to give our hawks the benefit of the doubt, let us ignore the massive American arsenal in places like Europe and aboard aircraft carriers. Let us also ignore the arsenals of our French and British allies. Let us look only at American-based land missiles, missile submarines, and bombers. By the late 1980s, we had some 36 submarines, of which at least 20 were at sea at any given time (and hence invulnerable); just 7 could inflict unacceptable damage.6 Over 300 large bombers were based in the U.S., at least 150 of which were expected to survive a Soviet first strike and at least 75 were expected to reach their destination;7 just 20 could inflict unacceptable damage. Well over 1,000 land missiles make their home in the continental U.S.; even the worst pessimists conceded that 150 would have survived a direct attack, and 150 could take care of this job too. It follows that even if the Soviets destroyed as much of our nuclear arsenal as they possibly could, we would still be able to kill half their people and raze most of their industry 7 times over. It might still be argued that we want to have a large margin of safety. This has already been provided several times in our calculations, but let's play it safe and reduce the estimate by a factor of 2. We are still left with the awkward conclusion that, throughout the 1980s, we possessed at least 3 times the number of nuclear weapons needed to deter a nuclear attack.
Thus, it makes little sense for upholders of deterrence (as opposed to upholders of brinkmanship) to log every bomb, missile, and submarine. If the Soviets could decimate us once over regardless of what we did, would it mattered to them that we could decimate them 3, 30, or 300 times? If any attempt to decimate them just once could have brought an unparalleled environmental disaster upon us even if they did not retaliate, what was the point in putting ourselves at an even greater risk by preparing to triply decimate them? Throughout the Cold War, this bit of simple logic was controversial. Some people insisted that we were better off with overkill, if only for political and psychological reasons. Others refused to believe that a great nation has based its policies for years and years on either reckless brinkmanship (see Chapter 8) or an atavistic notion of military superiority. Given such objections, I would hate to base my indictment of American policies on such a controversial point, especially since I can comfortably make my case on the accepted facts alone. So let us assume for now that, with nuclear weapons, the more you have, the better off you are. Let us also assume that other meaningless technical aspects like pinpoint warhead accuracy really matter. Let us then ask: Who's stronger? To do this, we must take out our balance sheets, outmoded texts on strategic theory, and start counting.
A Note on the Reliability of Data
Before we start the actual counting, we need to examine our sources of information. Until 1985, the Soviets were not given to the habit of disclosing facts about their military machine. Their spy-mania was so deeply rooted that they did not even teach their soldiers how to read topographic maps, let alone issue them such maps.8a Almost all the facts about the military balance originated therefore from official American sources.
Modern governments know all too well the close link between information and political power and they do not hesitate to color the truth when they believe it is in their interests to do so.9 We must examine what bias, if any, each side introduces to the information it disseminates about the military balance. As far as the Soviets were concerned, their conduct accorded with common sense, history, and Harold Brown's theory of appearances (Chapter 5). The few facts about the military balance which they used to divulge, and the general picture they tried to portray, downplayed American strength (the Chinese Paper Tiger Tactic) and inflated their own.10a Summarizing the postwar record, one historian explains that Moscow compensated for American superiority
through policies of deliberate deception. It did not reveal the extent of postwar demobilizations. To the contrary . . . it encouraged its adversaries to believe that there remained forces that could be unleashed, yet farther afield if necessary. . . . Stalin belittled the importance of the atom while directing a top priority effort to unlocking its secrets. The first longer-range bombers . . would make flypasses . . . in front of assembled foreign dignitaries, double back, and fly past again to give the appearance of greater numbers. When the first few missiles were developed . . . Soviet leaders made fantastic claims as to their effectiveness . . . long after it was realized that they were in fact so primitive and so faulty that few if any were likely to reach their targets.11
Now, here is a strange thing. The U.S. government-the world's chief supplier of military data-also warped the balance by understating our power and overstating the Soviets'. This consistent bias ran counter to our supposed doctrine of appearances. It ran counter to our general aversion to cooperating with the Soviets in military affairs. It ran counter to our avowed respect for the truth. Above all, it ran counter to our national interest. Nonetheless, our government deliberately distorted the military balance in favor of the Soviet Union.
It would take too much space to recount here our government's lack of candor, or to even marshal the opinions of many independent observers.12 Instead, I shall only quote and comment upon the views of a former Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense:
National security studies almost inevitably . . . tend to cease concentrating on the evidence . . . cease to examine the facts, and concentrate on organizing them to prove something . . . their resulting assessment of the balance . . . is tailored to 'sell,' rather than measure each side's capability.13a
This candid appraisal of the situation appeared in a highly regarded, semi-official analysis of the military balance. Among other things, this publication included forewords by two conservative, high-ranking, Republican senators. The institutionalized falsification of data this publication divulges is critically important to any appraisal of the military balance. The views of this high-ranking official merit therefore close scrutiny: I. Every estimate of the balance was ultimately derived from the U.S. government. Within the government, one agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was the "key link in shaping all free world estimates of Soviet force strength."
II. This "often leads to an exaggeration of Soviet capabilities."
III. DIA experts knew what was expected of them and what was likely to satisfy their superiors. "Both military and civilian bureaucracies need high estimates of the threat to justify force levels, new weapons, and defense research."
IV. Intelligence officers were "usually prevented from comparing U.S. and foreign [read: Soviet] systems by informal pressures" from their superiors.
V. The hardliners' cause was helped by portraying our allies as weak. "Informal pressures" accounted for the tendency to "underestimate Allied capabilities."
VI. Intelligence officers were forced to offer estimates in areas where they could not conceivably know what was going on, thus making falsification easier for their, and everyone else's, consciences. This allowed them to "make guesses which maximize threat capabilities."
VII. Most of their superiors did not seek objectivity, but demanded estimates that would help them "meet their policies and needs."
VIII. These "bureaucratic and career pressures" could be explained by "a long tradition that intelligence is a servant and not a partner." In other words, they were traceable to a long tradition of distorting the truth, intimidating people whose duty it is to tell the plain truth, and of subverting the democratic process and our national security in favor of personal and organizational needs.13a
This prevarication, Soviet reticence, and the de facto Soviet-American collusion in presenting the same one-sided view of the military balance, constrain all attempts to arrive at an objective assessment. Thus, the USA has been almost certainly far stronger, and the USSR weaker, than the open literature suggests.
Before we take out our score sheets, let me restate the position we have just reached. I am trying to show that the link between deterrence and American military policies is tenuous. The overkill quality of nuclear weapons, I believe, makes my case conclusive. But this being a moot point, I have, for argument's sake, conceded it to the opposition. Another popular argument for the arms race invokes Soviet superiority. To be evaluated, this argument calls for a factual analysis of the military balance. We need the true and relevant facts. But the facts which the Soviet and American governments chose to divulge-and these are virtually the only facts we have to go on-twist the military balance in favor of the Soviets. And again, for argument's sake, I shall totally ignore this bias. In other words, I am quite willing to meet the arms racers on their chosen battleground, on their own terms, and with their own prevaricated data. Despite these self-imposed handicaps, I am going to prove now that what they said about the military balance was incorrect: even if we were misinformed enough to think that "a decided advantage" could be enjoyed in the nuclear age, this advantage was enjoyed by the United States of America.
The Nuclear Balance
Number of Deliverable Nuclear Bombs
Some analysts view the number of warheads each side owned "as the single best, if oversimplified, 'figure of merit' in an overall comparison" of nuclear forces.14a The exact numbers throughout the last 46 years are uncertain.5b,c,13-20 One 1988 source attributed 23,400 warheads5d to the USA and 33,000 to the USSR.5e A more meaningful "figure of merit," in my opinion, involved the number of warheads each country could fire at the other in a first strike. In this measure, the U.S. commanded, at the very least, a 40 percent edge. However, our government insisted that only bombs based in one "superpower" and capable of reaching the other should be counted. In this case, by 1990 the American government probably commanded over 12,000 bombs and the Soviet some 11,000, giving the U.S. a 9 percent advantage.21
We must be a bit more realistic, however. In 1983, for example, the USSR could also be razed by some 700 fighter-bombers and a few dozen ground-launched cruise missiles stationed in Europe, South Korea, and on aircraft carriers.14b No comparable Soviet forces were capable of razing the U.S. These American bombers and cruise missiles were equipped with nuclear bombs, they were assigned the task of attacking the Soviet Union, and they alone could decimate the Soviet Union. If we add them, the American advantage in deliverable warheads and bombs exceeded 50 percent.20a
American war plans also called for the use of low-yield nuclear weapons as ordinary bombs, cannonballs, or mines, in anti-submarine warfare, and for other limited objectives. In this category of "tactical" weapons, the U.S. was probably ahead too (by 25 percent to 300 percent, depending on your source).
Given this numerical superiority, one would expect our war intellectuals to have felt secure about this aspect of the nuclear balance. But they didn't. It turned out that, in the early 1980s, for every warhead placed on an American, British, or French missile located in Western Europe and marked for delivery to the Soviet Union, the Soviets may have had about three marked for Western Europe. These feelings of insecurity, and the measures that were taken in the early 1980s to alleviate them by placing all sorts of missiles on European soil, rested on the allegation that we had to be equal or superior to the Soviets in every single aspect of the military balance. This premise is strictly analogous to a basketball team worrying that the average height of the opposing, and emphatically inferior, team is a bit greater. They then recruit a 7'1'' guard for $10 million, just to make sure that even in this single aspect in which the inferior team is ahead-average height-superiority, or the appearance thereof, is achieved.
In conclusion, all through the 1980s Washington could deliver considerably more bombs to Soviet soil than Moscow could deliver to American soil. In Europe and elsewhere the U.S. had an edge in tactical weapons. Through fighter-bombers stationed in Europe, the U.S. enjoyed decisive edge in weapons which could be delivered to the Soviet Union from European soil (compared to weapons that could be delivered to Western Europe from Soviet soil). In the early 1980s, this edge in bombers stationed in Europe and elsewhere outside the United States was offset only in part by Soviet missiles targeted on Europe; by 1988, these missiles were negotiated out of existence. So, in the supposedly critical measure of deliverable nuclear warheads, we were ahead.
There is some uncertainty regarding the total explosive yield of the two arsenals in the 1980s. Estimates ranged from rough equality to Soviet superiority by a factor of two. The safest bet might give the Soviets a 50 percent edge.
When long-term radiation and environmental effects are considered, the greater explosive yield of the Soviet arsenal is of some value. But this figure is not as important to the overall destructive balance as it might first appear. A few warheads can cause much more damage than a single weapon whose explosive yield is equal to the sum of their yields, and the U.S. had more warheads. Moreover, a bomb that explodes closer to target causes more damage than a bomb that explodes farther away, and American warheads were more accurate. In fact, American planners made a deliberate choice, precisely because of such military considerations, to gradually reduce the explosive power of the average warhead in their arsenal to one-third of its 1960 levels.5f,22 McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy's special assistant for national security affairs, cites the "misuse" of the sharp reduction in the total yield of America's nuclear weapons, as a "remarkably clear example of the way" Reagan's Pentagon "engaged in strategic flimflam; the reduction in megatonnage it so proudly cited was the incidental consequence of a military decision to multiply the real destructive power of the bomber force."23
Taking into account now both measures-number of deliverable warheads and explosive power-we can still say that the U.S. had a marked edge in the overall destructive balance, or, if the most favorable assumptions about Soviet power, and least favorable about American, are made, that they were equal.
Survivability of Nuclear Weapons
This aspect of the nuclear balance is more directly related to deterrence and politics than other aspects, so it is a far better candidate, I believe, for the title of single best "figure of merit" in the overall nuclear balance. We wish to compare here the nuclear positions of the two antagonists following a massive surprise attack which was aimed at destroying as many of their nuclear weapons as possible. This subject can be approached by comparing the vulnerability of each of the three legs-land-based missiles, bombers, and missile submarines-which made up the strategic triads of both nations, and then summing up these separate figures to compare the survivability of both nations' nuclear arsenals.
Let us begin with land-based missiles. These missiles carried less than 25 percent of the United States' strategic nuclear warheads, but almost 75 percent of the Soviet Union's. This was unfortunate for the Soviets. Over-reliance on land-based missiles was considered unsafe because such missiles were more susceptible than other delivery vehicles to direct attack. Soviet missiles and warheads were less reliable and accurate, so a greater fraction of American land-based missiles would survive a surprise attack. Throughout the 1980s, most American missiles were propelled by solid fuel and could be launched within seconds.24 In contrast, even in the late 1980s, over 80 percent of Soviet missiles were propelled by liquid fuel25a and would have taken minutes to launch. Knowing that American missile silos could be emptied before they were hit, a Soviet planner would have been reluctant to launch a surprise attack. An American planner, on the other hand, hoping that Soviet missiles could be hit before they took off, might have been more tempted to launch a surprise attack.
Missile submarines were the most survivable nuclear weapons system. About 25 percent of Soviet warheads aimed at the U.S. were placed in nuclear submarines, compared to about 50 percent of American warheads. Moreover, Soviet submarines could spend much less time at sea. They were noisier and thus easier to detect. They required longer and more frequent maintenance. Unlike Soviet submarines, each American missile submarine had two alternate crews, allowing it to spend more than half its working life at sea.26 Despite the Soviet Union's long coastline, Soviet submarines encountered more difficulties in going out from homeport to sea. Owing to this limited access and to the technological lead the U.S. commanded in anti-submarine warfare, Soviet submarines at sea were much more vulnerable to direct attack than American submarines. According to one source,27 the USA (but not the USSR) deployed a vast network of sensors spread on the ocean floor, several hundred airplanes, and more than 80 special submarines to follow and destroy missile submarines. These advantages enabled the USA to keep some 60 percent of its nuclear submarines at sea, while the USSR kept only 15 percent. Moreover, America's 60 percent were virtually invincible; the USSR's 15 percent were vulnerable.5g Conservative Soviet planners had to assume then that they would have comparatively little nuclear firepower left at sea following an American first strike; their American counterparts knew that they would have a lot left.
In the 1980s, about 25 percent of America's nuclear warheads were to be delivered by bombers. The Soviets had fewer bombers which could carry fewer bombs, so bombers would deliver less than one-tenth of their warheads. More than one-third of the American force, and probably zero of the Soviet, was on continuous alert. Overall, American bombers were superior to Soviet bombers. So here too, the Soviets had to assume that none of their bombers would survive an American first strike, Americans could safely assume that a sizable fraction of theirs would.
In all these calculations I've ignored cruise missiles, British, French, and Israeli nuclear forces, and the 700 or so American fighter-bombers which carried nuclear bombs and which were stationed at the time in Europe, Korea, and on aircraft carriers.28 These weapons undeniably added to the West's survivability advantage, but, in deference to the Western position that they need not be counted, they will be omitted from the following estimate.
Despite the Soviets' many handicaps, it is still probably true that both sides had a secure second strike. If we accept the claim that quantities are important, the foregoing suggests that the U.S. had a considerable survivability edge. To arrive at a highly conservative estimate of this edge, let us suppose that one-third of the bomber force of each side survived a first strike and that one-sixth reached its targets. Let us further suppose that all submarines at sea survive and that some 15 percent of each side's land-based missiles survived. Finally, let us suppose that American fighter-bombers and missiles in Europe and elsewhere were not used in retaliation and that our allies stayed out of the exchange.
After a surprise attack against them, the Soviets might have been left with over 1,400 warheads, the Americans with over 4,000-an almost one to three ratio. This, as I have said, is a highly generous estimate (one to nine would be a far more realistic estimate20b), but many will take exception even to this. So let us not quibble and just conclude that more American warheads were likely to survive a Soviet surprise attack than vice versa. Therefore, in this critical measure of the nuclear and political balance- the power to deter (or to credibly threaten a first strike)-the United States enjoyed a decided advantage.
Before rounding out the 1980s' nuclear equation, let us consider defensive measures which could be brought to bear against nuclear weapons.
At present, there is no way of effectively defending one's country against modern ballistic missiles. Already in the 1960s, our hawks assured us that anti-ballistic missiles made such defense possible, but the project they urged upon us never got off the ground in either country for many valid technical, tactical, logical, and political reasons. (In the 1990s, they may try to revive this debate by overstating the performance of anti-ballistic missiles during the Persian Gulf War.) In the 1980s, the same hawks wrongly assured us (Chapter 5) that laser devices could do the job. For whatever these devices were worth, by 1991 the U.S. was light-years ahead.
Some bombers, unlike ballistic missiles, can be stopped with an adequate air defense system. The Soviet Union had only about 150 antiquated bombers able to reach the U.S. The U.S. had some 1,000 modern bombers, and they carried a much larger percentage of America's total number of warheads. The Soviets had to worry, in addition to their concerns about the United States' nuclear arsenal, about the arsenals of China, Britain, France, and Israel.29 For these and other reasons, the Soviet Union invested much more than the U.S. in its air defense system. Consequently, this system, which included thousands of interceptor aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, was several times larger than ours.
For the most part, however, the Soviet massive air defense system was a gigantic mistake. It was ineffective against ballistic missiles. At best, it might have stopped only about 50 percent of U.S. bombers. It was costly. It could be easily crippled if a bomber attack was preceded by destruction of the main radar and command posts with a few submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It was quickly approaching obsolescence-many U.S. bombers, as well as some ground and naval forces, carried cruise missiles. These missiles could be launched a safe distance from target, were harder to stop than airplanes, and were far cheaper to produce than the air defense system that would have been needed to stop them. A publication of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences politely summed up the situation:
The U.S. military remains confident that its strategic aircraft . . . can effectively penetrate Soviet defenses. Moreover, by upgrading the bomber force it is believed that this penetration capability can be maintained into the foreseeable future. Given this assessment of the limited effectiveness of Soviet air defense and the complete vulnerability of the Soviet Union to ballistic missile attack, continued Soviet emphasis on air defense remains something of a puzzle.30
Having been taught that the world of politics is a rational place, we find it hard to believe that dinosaurs like the Soviet air defense and the American spaced-based "initiative" (Chapter 5) are either meaningless or self-damaging. A little reflection, however, should convince anyone that this textbook dogma of rationality and patriotism is a myth (see Chapter 9).
Another defensive measure is evacuation of cities. The Soviets, we were told, invested much money on this measure; we spent almost nothing. From time to time, this led some sheepish Western strategists to conclude that Soviet evacuation plans gave them a tremendous edge-that, thanks to their awe-inspiring plans, the Soviets had no reason to fear us. To close this frightening civil defense gap, we were urged to hastily invest the needed billions.13b
Surely, we would have known when mass evacuation was afoot and could warn the Soviets to stop it or else. We could re-target our warheads in a few minutes to these new evacuation sites. We might have decided to re-target them to new heights (surface bursts increase radiation damage). What, pray, will happen to the Soviet economy if war did not materialize? What are all these good people going to eat? What about those freezing Russian winters, how will those city people survive in open trenches for weeks if we hit them at Christmastime? And what about that chilling forecast of nuclear winter?
This rhetorical list could be prolonged, but enough has been said to make it clear that evacuation of millions in an all-out nuclear war is a joke. We stopped our politicians from going ahead with such tomfoolery. If they could, Soviet citizens would have stopped their politicians too. Since they couldn't, their rulers betrayed their national interest by spending untold sums on yet another white elephant, while our politicians and their well-paid tacticians betrayed our national interest by claiming that this white elephant was a tiger.
The case of fallout shelters is altogether different. An extensive network of well-built and well-stocked shelters able to accommodate and sustain most people for about one month could considerably raise the fraction of survivors. If, to take an extreme example, we could put all Americans underground within ten minutes after a general alert has been sounded and keep them there for a month, our chances as individuals and as a nation of pulling through would have improved. The Soviets could have countered such a network by building and exploding more bombs, raising the number of surface bursts, or intermittently exploding their bombs for months. Fallout shelters were therefore just one part of a complex equation. As such, they need to be considered in working out the overall nuclear balance.
The USSR was reportedly spending much more on its program than the USA; in the 1980s, it had enough fallout shelters to accommodate about 10 percent of residents of cities whose population exceeded 25,000.31a More important, perhaps, most Soviet citizens knew what to do in times of emergency (walk slowly to the cemetery so as not to create panic, according to a once-popular Russian joke). To be on the safe side, we might conclude that the Soviets had an edge in the fallout shelter portion of their civil defense preparations. But even if it existed, this edge was not decisive in the overall 1980s' nuclear equation, and claims of a "civil defense gap" seriously misperceived reality. As one Secretary of Defense, writing ex cathedra, put it, the effectiveness of the entire Soviet civil defense program was "highly questionable."31a
The Overall Nuclear Balance
By 1991, the broad picture remained unchanged. The USA had more deliverable warheads, more accurate warheads, more reliable delivery vehicles and other equipment, and a more survivable nuclear force. The USSR had greater explosive yield, and, allegedly, a more adequate civil defense program. For all practical purposes a parity-which was unlikely to be altered by any conceivable technical development-prevailed. If we insist on ignoring overkill and on taking all components of the nuclear balance into consideration, measure for measure, we can still say that the U.S. had superior nuclear forces. The claim that the Soviet Union commanded nuclear superiority for a single day from 1945 to 1991, or that it was likely to command it in the next twenty years or so, was without foundation.
The Conventional Balance
A comprehensive review of the military balance must compare conventional forces. For one thing, American and Soviet non-nuclear forces frequently influenced the conduct of small nations. Throughout the 1980s, Nicaraguan domestic and foreign policies were shaped in part by the United States' potential and actual military presence in Central America; French and Hungarian policies took into consideration the Red Army's conventional strength. Moreover, some analysts argued that a strictly non-nuclear Soviet/American war could take place. In 1987, for instance, one influential Pentagon consultant used a variant of this argument to justify the nuclear arms race. This consultant readily conceded the United States' nuclear edge but averred that this edge had to be retained to offset Soviet conventional superiority. Without this edge, he implied, Western Europe and the Middle East would have been run over long ago by the vastly superior Warsaw Pact's non-nuclear forces.32a By 1990, even Time was dismissing such influential "thinkers:" "Scenarios for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe have always had a touch of paranoid fantasy about them."33 But let us, for argument sake, grant the plausibility of such an invasion and examine the East/West 1980s' conventional balance of forces. off
Throughout the Cold War, most Western strategists insisted that the Soviet Union could fight conventional wars better than the United States. They could not possibly mean that the Soviets were superior to us in conflicts far away from the Soviet Union's land mass. It is generally agreed that if a conventional war between the Western alliance and the USSR broke out in Africa or Latin America, if no proxies or guerrillas were involved, and if both sides were willing to push themselves to their limits, that the West would have prevailed.34 According to one American analyst, in 1982 the Soviets were not even up to British standards: "The USSR, had it been in Britain's position, might not have been able to mount an operation to retake the Falklands; the Soviets had very limited naval infantry, no aircraft carriers comparable to the two used by the British, and no island bases in the South Atlantic."25b This Western advantage was underscored by an even greater disparity in the number of reliable Third World military bases-in 1988, 111 for the USA, a mere handful for the USSR.25c The popular claim about Soviet conventional superiority only made sense in connection with areas that could receive supplies and reinforcements via land routes from the Soviet Union-China, other poor countries on the Soviet Union's southern border (like Iran), and Western Europe. As far as China and other southern neighbors were concerned, this claim was perhaps true. Taken by themselves, American conventional forces may have not been able to prevent a Soviet conquest of Iran. However, the Soviet Union's military superiority over its southern neighbors did not tilt the conventional military balance in its favor, because this balance was, at the very least, offset by American ability to invade, blockade, or ostracize countries like Mexico or Cuba.
Putting aside areas where either the Americans or the Soviets were clearly superior, and the overall superior interventionary capacity of the U.S. in conflicts far away from either country's shores, we must still deal with the overall conventional balance, and with the important case of the conventional balance in Europe.
Here, our war party placed inordinate emphasis on static indicators of strength. It forgot that history teaches us precisely the opposite lesson-that the fortunes of non-nuclear wars between roughly equal opponents are determined by intangibles like superior strategy, morale, social cohesion, economy, technology, and flexibility.35 In the Persian Gulf War, for example, many forecasts and strategic decisions were flawed precisely because they overrated the importance of static indicators. In Finland's Winter War (Chapter 3), a little David was fighting an oversized Goliath but the little David was more efficient and knew that justice was on his side, and withstood the giant's onslaught for months against all odds. During the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union,14c the Nazis had fewer men and weapons than the Soviets (e.g., 2,434 Nazi for 24,000 Soviet tanks; less than 3,000 Nazi for 10,000 Soviet airplanes). Yet they were clearly winning at first (e.g., after just three months, the Nazis were deep inside Soviet territory and had lost 550 tanks to the Soviets' 17,500).
It is also difficult to share our strategists' grave worries about a deliberate Soviet invasion of Western Europe, loaded as it was with an amazing variety of nuclear weapons, and possessing, as we shall see, so many advantages over the Soviet Union. But let us, for argument's sake, accept the claims that static numbers are critically important and that the Soviets were mad enough to contemplate war in the European "theater," and inquire into the static balance of power in Europe and the world.
Standing Armies and Ground Forces
This subject will be approached through a brief examination of three historical points.
In 1976, NATO outspent the Warsaw Pact, had more soldiers, and (if a commonsense definition of reservists is used) had more reservists.36
In 1982, the U.S. and NATO countries had some 5 million people in uniform,15a the Warsaw "Pact" 4.8 million. The Soviets themselves had only 3.7 million people in uniform, of which one million were stationed on their long border with China. In Europe, NATO had 2.1 million, the "Pact" 1.6 million, and the Soviets less than one million. The respective figures for ready reserves were 5, 7.1, and 5.2 million. So, even if the Warsaw Pact had been a bona fide military alliance, the West had enjoyed ground forces superiority in Europe and the world.
In 1987, NATO had a total of three million active ground forces, of which 2.4 million were stationed in Europe and 0.8 million in the alleged immediate area of conflict (Central Europe). For the Warsaw Pact, the respective figures were 3, 2.4, and 1 million. The numbers of active reservists were also roughly comparable.
There is still another static element which must be introduced into the total equation and which concerns the question: What is a soldier? Their definition was broader than ours, so more support personnel on their side were included in the overall numerical comparisons.13c Thus, even before the massive 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops began, the actual numerical balance was more in our favor than a reading of official statistics suggests.
At the very least, a rough East/West parity in standing armies in both Europe and the world has prevailed in the 1980s. Combined with nuclear overkill and Soviet comparative rationality (Chapters 1, 7) in nuclear and foreign affairs (and not taking into consideration recent pullbacks of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and the recent breakup of the Soviet Union itself), this parity suggests that aggression in Europe was "a high-risk option with unpredictable consequences."15b In other words, and contrary to most official pronouncements on the subject, it would have been insane for either side to launch a non-nuclear attack against the other.37
According to former Defense Secretary Brown, in 1980 we had air superiority "because our airplanes and pilots are superior to those of the Soviets, although their numbers are somewhat greater." By the mid-1980s, however, the qualitative gap was expected to be narrowed and not to be "sufficient to compensate for the quantitative advantage the Soviets will have by then."31b The issue is still controversial, and perhaps the Soviets were our equals by 1991. But it is likelier that our war intellectuals underestimated the importance of quality and that the skies would have been ours in conventional wars by 1991 too. Thus, in one engagement, the Syrians probably had the best equipment and training the Soviets were capable of giving, the Israelis the best the Americans were capable of giving. The final score: some 92 Syrian airplanes and 23 surface-to-air missile sites destroyed for 2 or 3 Israeli airplanes38a and one or two helicopters.39 Similarly, the Persian Gulf War's score sheet suggests a qualitative gap between American and Soviet flying machines.
In central Europe, the Warsaw Pact had many more tanks.40a But this edge was probably offset by NATO's superiority in the air (airplanes can destroy tanks), by the higher quality of its tanks, and by the greater number and superior quality of its anti-tank weapons.
In fact, Soviet over-reliance on tanks could have been a handicap. Former Secretary Brown asserted that anti-tank weapons might have "a revolutionary impact by the mid-1980s."31b Another expert stated that "both technical and cost considerations seem to point to a stronger position for anti-tank weapons in relation to tanks."38b To be sure, these appraisals could be mistaken and the tank might be as important in the future as it had been in the past. All the same, one thing is clear enough: we shall be ill-advised to defer resolution of this aspect of the military balance to mainstream Western pundits.32 In all probability, if the Soviets had more cavalry divisions, our analysts would have lost much sleep over a "cavalry gap."
Despite the Soviet Union's long coastline, it had limited access to the oceans, especially in winter. Owing to geographic limitations, the Soviet Navy has been actually divided into four separate fleets with little ability to provide mutual support.13d Furthermore, the Soviet Union hasn't yet fully developed the traditions of a sea-faring nation and its efforts to develop a navy like our own often began from scratch. Many other factors must be considered in working out the overall naval balance, some of course favorable to the Soviets. But I shall not go into details here since most independent analysts share the view that the "navies of the United States and her Allies have more and better warships and remain more capable than the Soviet Navy."40b
In this century's volatile international climate, a nation's ability to conduct wars far away from its shores is considered important. The U.S. had the logistical network to do this, as shown by its massive interventions in Vietnam and Kuwait. The Soviets were behind.41,42 Moreover, loyal troops were hard to come by in a police state. Soviet troops away from home could be fought with bullets, but they could perhaps also be fought with a standing offer of immigration visas to a country freer than their own. Thus, Soviet foreign adventures entailed higher risks of defection and the consequent blow to both Soviet interventionary effort and international image.
Other Factors Affecting the Military Balance
Recent wars (e.g., the Persian Gulf War) suggest that, under most circumstances, technological competence would have strongly influenced the outcome of Soviet/American conventional engagements. Similarly, the Soviet-American nuclear arms race has not involved a competition among soldiers, but among scientists, engineers, technologists, and industrialists. In all these professions, the USA far outshone the USSR. As a result, from 1945 through 1991, practically every new military innovation originated in the West.10b,25d,38a
According to Marx and Lenin, military power hinges on economic strength. President Carter's Defense Secretary concurred: "Historically, victory in a long war goes to the side with the greater economic potential."31c Despite a 30 percent larger labor force, the Soviet economy was roughly half the size of ours.43a This does not even begin to tell the story, for the Soviet economy was also far more backward and inefficient (Chapter 1). Peacetime shortages of basic consumer goods were common. The Soviet transportation network was primitive by Western standards. In 1980, for example, the entire stock of Soviet passenger cars was
smaller than the number produced in one year in Japan. Despite the Soviet Union's enormous size, total length of paved roads was a bit shorter than it was in the state of Texas alone.43b As we have seen, the USSR's agricultural sector employed 25 percent of the workforce (compared to our 3 percent) but could hardly meet domestic needs. We could raise defense expenditures sevenfold for a few years and keep better living standards than they kept in 1980. Their system, on the other hand, would have collapsed long before it reached such spending levels. Given these economic considerations, their chances of emerging victorious in a protracted conventional war against the U.S. were close to zero.
Moreover, we were not the only ones to dislike the Kremlin. The Western Europeans, whose combined economy was at least twice as large as the Soviets', bore them a grudge. Japan, with an economy roughly the size of theirs and short a few islands, was a potential enemy too. Everything that has been said in comparing the Soviet economy to the American could be said in regard to Western Europe, and to a certain extent, Japan. So, when we look at the combined economic force of all these nations, the Soviet Union emerges as a bantam cock. One then begin to wonder: Was the claim of a Soviet menace based on objective reality, or was it the cleverest deception of the twentieth century?
Though the American system of government is a far cry from a genuine democracy (Chapters 3, 9), throughout the Cold War it came nearer to this ideal than the Soviet system. Hence, over the long term the U.S. commanded a more effective decision-making process (Chapter 1). This advantage is less obvious, and less consistent with the historical record, than a larger and more efficient national economy. Nevertheless, under some circumstances it could be just as important.
Appreciation for the bond between democracy and military might goes at least as far back as Herodotus:
Thus did the Athenians increase in strength. And it is plain enough not from this instance only, but from many everywhere, that freedom is an excellent thing; since even the Athenians, who,
while they continued under the rule of tyrants, were not a whit more valiant than any of their neighbors, no sooner shook off the yoke that they became decidedly the first of all.44
The Soviets had no friends to speak of, even if one were naive enough to take the Warsaw Pact seriously. In fact, all of the strongest nations on earth were neutral or on our side. Germany alone came close to defeating the Soviets in 1941, and might have done so had it not been fighting on two fronts, had its occupation policies been less heinous, and had the U.S. not been there to help the Soviets. Japan held its own warring with old Russia, as did France. Nothing, as far as I can tell, has conferred a "superpower" status on Russia since its losing war with Japan.
True, the Soviets possessed more nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles than our allies. But France and Britain had already, in my opinion, a credible nuclear deterrent.45 It would have taken a reckless Soviet leader to apply nuclear blackmail to either one, even if that country were to face this blackmail completely alone. Moreover, many of our allies were thoroughly capable of developing a respectable nuclear deterrent of their own within a few years. So the limited French and British nuclear arsenals, and the non-existent arsenals of a few other American allies, may reflect nothing more than a deliberate decision to rely in whole or in part on our "nuclear umbrella," instead of going to the trouble and expense of creating one of their own.
To illustrate this point, let us imagine that by 1985 the U.S. sank into the sea and that American nuclear forces stationed in Western Europe came under European command. Imagine also that the Europeans were willing to defend themselves, and that they decided to completely integrate their military into a single functional unit. Who would be ahead now, they or the Soviets? For a while the Soviets might have enjoyed numerical superiority in nuclear weapons. But this superiority doesn't mean much, for the Europeans would have more than enough to pulverize the Soviet Union in a retaliatory strike. As far as conventional forces are concerned, if the morale of troops, technological lead, democratic efficiency, and like factors are taken into consideration, it is, to say the least, an open question as to who would have been ahead (see below). The Soviets would still have China, Japan, Australia, and Canada to worry about. Couple this with the Europeans' superior economy and other elements in the overall military balance, and in the long run, I'd say, they would have been considerably superior, with or without the Americans.
Another myth which the Soviets invented, and which some of our politicians were all too eager to accept, was the Warsaw Pact. In the event of a conventional war, we were told, soldiers from the then satellite nations of Eastern Europe would have fought along their Soviet comrades. Could anyone ever be reasonably confident that most Czechs, Germans, or Poles would have bravely fought and died in the cause of the nation that trampled their national independence and individual freedoms under foot?46
The Warsaw Pact was not the only myth. Long before 1992, objective analysts insisted that the Soviet Union itself was, in some ways, a myth too. Would the non-Russian half of the population have fought in the Soviet Union's cause against the West if the most likely outcome of defeat would be greater national independence? Would the Estonians, Ukrainians, or Abkhasians have fought us or deserted to our side? And what about the oppressed Russians themselves? Some observers believed that, "if war with the West should break out, Soviet soldiers would surrender by the million. . . . And the politburo has no illusions about this."8b
This view is strongly supported by the historical record. The Nazis were received with open arms when they first invaded the Soviet Union,8c and could have had most of the population on their side. Foolishly and heartlessly, however, they treated the people in the occupied lands even more savagely than the communists did, arousing their hatred and patriotism. Even so, many Soviet citizens fought in Nazi ranks. "This was a phenomenon totally unheard of in all world history: that several hundred thousand young men . . . took up arms against their Fatherland as allies of its most evil enemy."47a
Yet some of our warpath intellectuals ignored this question of morale in working out the military balance. They would have had us believe that, say, in 1983, Hungarians would have fought for the Soviet State just as well as Georgians, Georgians as well as Russians, and Russians as well as Germans or Frenchmen defending their own soil, national independence, and individual freedoms.
Given the Cold War's military and political realities, it was unrealistic to suppose that American territory could be invaded. No one was about to invade Soviet territory either, but this was something that Soviet rulers had to be worried about because their lands had often been invaded, and because many powerful nations (including China, Japan, and Germany) had territorial claims against them.
One analyst argues that organizational inefficiencies within the American Armed forces constituted the "root cause of America's military decline."48a Other analysts might disagree with this sweeping generalization, but most would probably concur that comparative efficiencies must be considered in any meaningful discussion of the military balance.
Military organizations are perceived in some quarters as models of efficiency. Historians often speak admiringly of Alexander the "Great's" army, or about the awesome Nazi war "machine." Yet some students of the military and other organizations, as well as people who had the dubious pleasure of wasting a few years of their lives inside a typical military unit, know that such organizations are scandalously inept.
My own experiences strongly supports this dim view of military prowess. Years ago, I informally interviewed dozens of active paratroopers of the Israeli Defense Forces-members of an elite combat unit in one of the world's best armies. Yet they were perplexed by the rigidity, inefficiency, and foolishness that afflicted every facet of their unit's operations. They traced their country's swift victories to factors such as superior morale and technology. At the same time, they often felt that these factors would have amounted to very little if the military organizations facing them had not been even more incompetent than their own. According to one writer, the U.S. Department of Defense is characterized by a state of organized anarchy and institutional drift which inhibit efficiency and increase "the likelihood of failure. Parochial service interests still dominate defense decision making . . . the services are led to pursue weapons development programs that serve more to protect their share of the pie than to guarantee the nation's security." Bureaucratic politics in an organized anarchy provide "startling insights" into the 1980 failure to rescue U.S. hostages held in Iran. "Logic and efficiency demand that a complex operation be undertaken by a small, tightly organized force; organized anarchy demands 'a piece of the action' by all services."49 Needless to say, all four services were involved in the abortive operation. According to another Western analyst, "although much of the defence debate is cast in terms of meeting the threat from the Soviet Union, in fact the military services are often more concerned with the threats they pose to each other."50
Another analyst traces the poor performance of the U.S. military in places like Vietnam, Grenada, and Lebanon to "fundamental maladies of our defense establishment." To students of organizational logic, the structural problems this noted analyst sees in the U.S. military are strongly reminiscent of Parkinson's classical description of such decaying organizations as the British Colonial Office.51 For instance, this analyst concludes that the U.S. military defense system is "quite incapable of self-reform." The armed forces also mimic the classical British case with the disproportionate growth in the number of senior officials. On June 30, 1945, there were 2,068 flag-rank officers (senior officers, starting from one-star brigadier general and Navy commodores and going all the way to four-star generals and admirals) in the American Armed Forces. "A good many of them were employed in direct command . . . The supporting organizations . . . accounted for only a small part of the flag-rank total. . . . the ratio of flag-rank officers to enlisted men was 1.9 per 10,000. . . . By 1980 . . . the ratio had increased . . . to 6.4 . . . or more than three times the 1945 level." This analyst goes on to argue that "the increased ratio encompasses the root cause of America's military decline."
A summary of the resultant problems again parallels the British case. "An overhead of greatly disproportionate size had found employment for itself in the systematic overcomplication of every aspect of peacetime defense and of whatever warfare we have had. . . . In the peacetime workings of the defense establishment, the combination of civilian and military overmanagement systematically rejects any simple, direct, and economical solution. . . . When there is fighting to be done . . . bureaucratic compromises displace the tactical ingenuity, operational art, and sharp choices that strategy always demands."48b
Though the point of military efficiency is rarely raised in discussions of the military balance, it contributes to threat inflation. Seeing the all-too-familiar inefficiencies that permeate his side, the typical analyst (who is rarely a student of organizational logic) tends to dismiss evidence that they also afflict the other's military machine. Thus, even independent American analysts were inclined to view the Soviet defense establishment as vastly more efficient and rational than their own.
The Soviets were more secretive. As we have seen, they were also, unlike Americans, strongly committed to portraying their military and civilian organizations in the rosiest possible terms. However, the little evidence that is available about the Soviet military establishment suggests that in this critical measure of the military balance-comparative inefficiency-the Soviet Union was not ahead of the United States.
According to one observer, "a detailed look at the real state of the armies of the two military blocs leads inescapably to the conclusion that neither army is particularly prepared for . . . serious warfare, and that the military men who control their respective machines are not . . . very interested in changing this state of affairs."52 The picture this observer portrays of the Soviet armed forces is, if anything, grimmer than the American picture. Soviet soldiers were chronically underfed and malnourished. Diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies were common. Racial discord, lack of discipline, and physical intimidation were customary. Alcoholism and theft of military supplies were rampant. "The unofficial organization of Soviet units, in which at any time half . . . is being brutalized and exploited by the other half, is hardly likely to foster the trust and mutual confidence that makes for cohesion." At the upper levels, corruption, intrigue, and favoritism were endemic. Officers were usually promoted on the basis of loyalty and connections, not competence. Compared to their Western counterparts, Soviet soldiers, pilots, and seamen on active duty and in reserve units were insufficiently trained. As in agriculture, initiative and decentralization-so critical to successful military performance -were discouraged, and for similar reasons. Though these problems seriously detracted from combat efficiency and readiness of most units, little was done to curb them.
As in the U.S., weapons production suffered from "bureaucratic stagnation." Soviet production would often start and continue for bureaucratic reasons, not to fill a genuine military need. Operational performance of Soviet tanks, airplanes, missiles, and other weapon systems was usually inferior to Western performance. The costly and impractical Soviet civilian defense (evacuating and sheltering civilians from nuclear attack) had "little or nothing to do with actual warfare and everything to do with internal military politics, as is so often true with Soviet (or U.S.) military affairs."
To sum up. Scandalous as the situation within the American armed forces has been, we may safely conclude that, on this critical measure of the military balance (organizational inefficiencies), Americans have not been worse off than the Soviets.
Additional Soviet Advantages
A few Soviet advantages bore directly on the overall military balance:
I. Being more used to privations and hardships, Soviet citizens might have adjusted more readily to war conditions.
II. Soviet leaders were often willing and able to sacrifice countless lives. They could begin and end a war at will. They could increase military spending and starve a fraction of the people with impunity. In politics and war, savagery has its rewards. According to one account,
More than a million Soviet soldiers were killed during the last two weeks of the war for the sake of being the first in Berlin-a priority which was unnecessary for final victory, which was about to be achieved anyway. . . . During the last few weeks of fighting, the Soviet army lost more soldiers and officers than the British and American armies lost during the whole war.53 on
In the "Great Patriotic War," trouble-makers of all sorts, supposed cowards, and others were assigned to penal units. Of these units, the largest were the penal battalions. Each penal battalion was made up of three penal companies, a guard company, and an administrative group. Just prior to an attack, the penal companies were brought to the front and given weapons. The guards lined up behind them with machine guns and the men were ordered to attack. If they stayed put, they were mowed down by the guards; if they attacked, they were mowed down by the Nazis. The few survivors of one such engagement were routinely given another, so wartime assignment to a penal battalion was only marginally superior to outright execution. Some observers believe that these battalions made notable contributions to Soviet victory in World War II and that they could continue to play a key role in future conflicts.8d,47b
III. The Soviet Union's economic and military machine was less dependent than the West's on imports of raw materials (but more dependent on high technology goods).
IV. In 1946, Stalin said in an "election" speech: "the Soviet social order is a form of organization, a society superior to any non-Soviet social order."10c He said this about a social order that came close to defeat at the hands of a much smaller Germany fighting simultaneously on two fronts; an order that was based on terror, the like of which had rarely been recorded in the annals of our weary planet; an order that was spared disastrous defeat, as he himself acknowledged at one point, in part through the massive support it received from "inferior" democracies. He said this about a country that might have been, without the help of the Bolsheviks, at the forefront of civilization and culture by 1946, but that, thanks to them, was a pathetic backwater. He said all this when the U.S. could have run him and his superior order to the ground with either conventional or nuclear weapons, as he would have probably done, unprovoked, if he could.
The point here is not what this shrewd villain (whose successor would one day describe as "a criminal, an assassin, a mass murderer"54) had to say, but that we took his tiresome boasts seriously. Despite the obvious and observable contradictions, we still listened to propaganda East and West. This Western myopia constituted a major military and political advantage for the Soviet Union. When NATO's Supreme Commanders, one after another, complained for years about Western inferiority, they compromised Western security. When American Presidents, one after another, sang weekly praises of Soviet might and the wonders of totalitarian efficiency, Westerners might have believed them, with cool reason giving way to panic. This curious and consistent lack of objectivity in Western perceptions of Soviet military prowess was an important Soviet asset in the overall military balance.
V. We have seen that the Nazis were unable to make use of the low morale of Soviet troops. Though they realized the nature of the penal battalions, they were unable to adjust their strategy to fit the new circumstances (for example, by letting those unwilling kamikazes through their lines, disarming them without firing a single shot, and treating them well). Likewise, our generals and politicians frequently failed to take advantage of the low morale of our adversaries' troops. This myopia partially offset the lower morale of their troops.
VI. From the military standpoint, the Soviet Union was a monolith. Its equipment was standardized and its rigid command structure went all the way to Moscow. In comparison to this, the West was a veritable motley crew. Owing to national rivalries, NATO's military equipment was not standardized and its command structure relied on semi-voluntary cooperation among all member countries. On some occasions, diversity could prove a handicap. (On others, however, diversity could be a blessing. It permits, for instance, greater initiative to commanders more familiar with actual field conditions, and it entails fewer adverse consequences when a particular weapon turns out to be a dud.)
VII. Top Soviet leaders tended to stay longer in power than American leaders. They were thus, ironically, in a better position to learn from their mistakes. They possessed more varied professional backgrounds than the lawyers and businessmen who made up the bulk of America's political elite. They owed their rise to power to something other than eloquence, youthful looks, a full head of hair, or a firm handshake. They had to go through a far more grueling process of getting to the top and staying there. They had virtually a free hand in foreign and military affairs and could consistently pursue long-term goals. Because they "refer to much broader trends and take a longer perspective than is usual for most Western statesmen,"43c their policies enjoyed greater tenacity and coherence. Considering the gains this consistent edge made possible throughout the Cold War, it could perhaps be viewed as their strongest suit in the overall military balance.
The chief conclusion from the foregoing account is that, at the very least, the United States has been the military equal of the Soviet Union. This conclusion being so clear and irrefutable, it compels the subsidiary conclusion that anyone voicing a different opinion was either misinformed or insincere.55 The following curious anecdote, taken out of hundreds, vividly illustrates the confusion surrounding this subject. In August 1983, Armed Forces Journal International awarded one of its symbolic darts (a slap on the wrist) to the then Secretary of Defense for his "appalling track record in telling Congress and the American public about the strategic balance." "Americans know," the Journal went on, that "there is something wrong with the strategic balance, and so far have supported the President's efforts to fix it. But . . . the day has arrived when the Secretary of Defense must appeal to reason, not just rest on authority."56
I hope that this chapter explains such evasions: from August 6, 1945 to December 25, 1991; from the atomic destruction of Hiroshima to the breakup of the Soviet Union, an appeal to reason would have made a mockery of our government's version of the military balance.
In view of the United States' and the Soviet Union's enormous nuclear arsenals, and in view of the fact that either side could destroy the other after the worst imaginable surprise attack, minute comparisons of their military machines are futile. Moreover, such historical comparisons are still handicapped because they rely on the information both governments wished to share with the world's people, an information which has been consistently distorted in the same direction: both governments massively overstated Soviet power and understated American power. Nevertheless, since claims of Soviet superiority, or near-superiority, fueled the arms race since its inception, they must be examined.
On the nuclear front, the USA had more deliverable warheads, more accurate warheads, more reliable equipment, and a far more survivable nuclear force. The USSR was said to possess a greater explosive yield and a more adequate civil defense system. If the overkill quality of the nuclear arsenals is ignored, a nuclear advantage must be conceded to the United States.
American push for nuclear superiority has been sometimes explained as an effort to counterbalance Soviet advantage in conventional warfare and the consequent Soviet ability to run over Western Europe in a matter of weeks. From 1945 through 1991, such claims had an air of unreality about them. Even in central Europe, roughly equal numbers of troops faced each other throughout most of the Cold War. The Soviets had more airplanes, but the West had better pilots and its airplanes were far more advanced; the West would have probably controlled the European skies in the event of war. The Soviets had more tanks, but the West had better tanks and more and better anti-tank weapons. The U.S. enjoyed decisive superiority at sea, had greater access to many more reliable military bases throughout the world, and a far greater capacity for overseas military intervention. The U.S. was far superior in science and technology, economic performance, efficiency of its political system, strong and reliable allies, cohesion of populace and troops, and invulnerability to homeland invasion. Although the armed forces of both nations suffered from scandalous inefficiencies, the Soviets seemed to fare slightly less well on this critical aspect of the overall military balance. The Soviet people seemed better poised for the privations and hardships of war. The Soviet Union could more easily sacrifice the lives of its citizens for political and military objectives. The USSR benefited from the West's exaggerated portrayal of Soviet power and from the West's reluctance to make internal dissension in the Soviet Union a consistent feature of Western wartime strategy. The USSR derived some benefits from the centralized control of its military machine. In particular, it had a more competent and experienced top leadership and hence, more tenacious and coherent policies.
Thus, even if nuclear overkill and institutionalized biases are ignored, from 1945 through 1991 the USA emerges as militarily stronger than the USSR. Under the deterrence premise, the frequent claims to the contrary make no sense; under brinkmanship, they make perfect sense.