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


There can be peace without appeasement. The attitude of almost the entire American people has been warped by a partial presentation of facts. . . . It is my belief that reactionary elements in both Britain and the United States are strengthening and hastening the development of the forces which they fear. . . . Depending on our decision, we shall become the most beloved or the worst hated nation of all history.

Henry A. Wallace,1 1948

(Vice-President of the U.S., 1941-45)

I have indeed the impression that our nation has gone mad and is no longer receptive to reasonable suggestions. Its whole development reminds me of the events in Germany since the time of Emperor William II: through many victories to final disaster.

Albert Einstein,2 1950

The invocation to historians to suppress even the minimal degree of moral or psychological evaluation which is necessarily involved in viewing human beings as creatures with purposes and motives . . . seems to me to rest upon a confusion of the aims and methods of the humane studies with those of natural science. It is one of the greatest and most destructive fallacies of the last hundred years.

Isaiah Berlin,3 1954


The last two chapters have been forced to conclude that official explanations for American military policies in the 1980s had been based on irrelevant or disingenuous strategic considerations and on false claims about the military balance. The history of the arms race, this chapter will try to show, clinches the case against Cold War America. This is not the place to present a comprehensive history of the arms race. Rather, I shall merely discuss bits and pieces of this history, not necessarily in chronological order, and draw from them some general conclusions. But, from our standpoint here, the brevity of this rough sketch detracts little from the general picture to which it gives rise, for this picture fits well with the entire history of the Cold War. There is, moreover, every reason to believe that this tragic picture does not merely apply to the past and present, but also-barring a cataclysm, lack of barely credible enemies, or a sharp break from past practices-to the future.


Peace or War?

Before evaluating the past, we must resolve a controversial issue which confronted policy makers and the public throughout the Cold War: Should the West pursue, if given a choice, peaceful coexistence with Russia, or should it pursue an indefinite continuation of the arms race? I shall begin by considering arguments against coexistence:

I. To keep its economy going, the West had to import raw materials from the vast underdeveloped regions of the Third World. It had to purchase these materials at reasonable prices and it had to keep open the investment opportunities and markets that these underdeveloped regions provided. To guarantee these economic objectives, and its consequent long-term survival and freedom, the West had to retain its predominant position in that part of the Third World which is already under its influence. To retain its position, it had to close out the hostile Soviet Union. This, in turn, could only be accomplished by keeping the arms race going and by retaining or regaining a favorable asymmetry in the nuclear balance of terror. Although the West paid a high price for this policy (Chapters 2, 3), it was a price it could afford. In contrast, coexistence might have entailed loss of profits and economic decline.

This argument-which has rarely been stated so starkly but which is believed by some observers to account for the nuclear arms race (Chapter 5)-will be appraised in Chapter 8.

II. If we want to preserve peace, we must be prepared for war by continuing the arms race.

This argument ignores nuclear realities. We could abandon the race, substantially diminish its various costs and risks, and still prevent aggression against us and our allies by retaining a minimum deterrent.

This argument only applies to unreasonable aggressors. In the 1930s, Czechoslovakia could not dissuade Nazi Germany from attack. So, small as it was, Czechoslovakia would have done well to be prepared for war, as would Britain, the Soviet Union, and other victims of unprovoked Nazi aggression. But history suggests that if both sides are reasonable and if both are willing to seriously consider bilateral disarmament and the gradual phasing out of the military option, then the best way of preserving peace is by not preparing for war. We consider war between the United States and Canada unthinkable, but things were not always that way. We have a lasting peace because Britain and the United States were farsighted enough to gradually give up the military option. So, even if the overkill argument is rejected, our response to the perceived totalitarian threat should have depended on the totalitarians' interest in mutual disarmament. If they were interested, we could best safeguard peace not by racing with them, but by putting an end to the arms race.

III. The Soviets harbored imperialistic ambitions which could only be contained by force.

During the greater part of the Cold War, Soviet imperialism is undeniable. Likewise, many people point to our record of intervention in the internal affairs of many countries, often against genuine democrats and for bloodthirsty tyrants, and claim that American imperialism is undeniable. But disarmament, not imperialism, is the issue. Again, the question is not what anyone's wish is, but whether the Soviets were rational enough to see that their self-interest required acquiescence to a modus vivendi with the democratic West.

IV. "Why," asked one hardliner, "should they act honorably and nobly towards you when they crush their own people?"4

To begin with, neither Khrushchev nor Gorbachev crushed their people. But let us grant the likelihood of Boris Yeltsin being replaced by a hardliner; or let us recall the times when brutality reigned. What, then, should one do if one's fundamental interests, or even one's life, are tied to those of a knave?

If the knave is rational enough to see that a compromise can serve his interests, earnest negotiations are in order. At the same time, the negotiated agreement should bar the knave from gaining an advantage. Likewise, we should have negotiated, assumed that the Soviets would cheat if cheating served their interests, and put as many safeguards in place as were needed to make sure that it did not. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of powerful knaves that we ought to expect our security, but from their regard for their own interests.

This leaves us with the question: were the requisite safeguards in existence? As a perennial feature of Cold War sophistry, verification deserves a close look. First, a consensus which emerged in a gathering of American experts: "Our verification abilities . . . permit confidence that . . . violations of agreements . . . [cannot] become dangerous to our security."5 Second, the search for absolute certainty about every detail of Soviet military activities (which verification "concerns" often presupposed), like the search for many other absolutes, was misguided in principle. Until 1987, we only needed to strive for "a workable verification system" able to detect "militarily significant violations in time to make an appropriate response."6 Opponents of peaceful coexistence have never been able to describe or imagine a single credible instance of cheating which would have violated this eminently reasonable criterion of verification adequacy. And, from 1987 to 1991, verification disputes lost any shred of relevance to the real world, for by then the Soviets learned to live with intrusive on-site verification measures.

Take, for instance, the endless Cold War disputes regarding a treaty to ban all nuclear test explosions. Leaving aside contrived allegations that only the American stockpile of weapons needed to be tested, that only American weapon makers would suffer declining morale and performance,7a and that the Soviets would conduct clandestine nuclear explosions on the moon,7b verification emerged as the only credible bone of contention. Yet this concern, which appealed to reasonable suspicions of Bolshevism, was just as dissembling as the others. In 1985, according to a U.S. government geologist, it was "clear that political considerations have stood in the way of . . . [the] treaty all along, and verifications problems have been used as an excuse."8 The price for this was not only peace and justice, but national security in its most traditional, hardline sense. Looking back on America's refusal to conclude a comprehensive test ban treaty in 1963, our one-time chief negotiator in the Moscow talks observed: "When you stop to think of what the advantages were to us of stopping all testing in the early 1960s when we were still ahead of the Soviets it's really appalling to realize what a missed opportunity we had."9a

V. The international system is based on anarchy and on the rule that might is right. We cannot, under any circumstance, relax or entertain the notion that peace is possible. We must convince ourselves instead that victory is possible or at least convince the Soviets that we are crazy enough to think so.

This argument is similar to the above. Sadly, its anarchic premise is correct. But, as I have said, this is not an argument against all negotiations, only against careless and naive concessions.

Also, history suggests that this jaundiced view of human nature, which ignores the plasticity of human behavior and its dependence on cultural and social influences, is mistaken. Cannibalism and slavery were probably seen once as uncontrollable sides of human nature. The ancient Scythians used enemy scalps as napkins and enemy skulls as drinking cups. They most likely derided, or scalped and turned into drinking vessels, reform-minded fellow tribesmen wishing to discontinue this practice. Dueling is the subject of historical novels, not TV news. Not so long ago, it was fashionable to ascribe poverty and infectious diseases to bad genes. Our descendants may one day consider the hardliners' belief that wars and nation states are in the nature of things in a similar light. Without unduly risking our individual freedoms, we ought to ease this transition into a better world, not stand in its way.

VI. Totalitarianism is far more efficient than democracy. We must double our efforts and keep up with these efficient monsters, or else we shall become slaves.

Among other things, this argument persistently ignored overkill, the futility of the quest for superiority in the nuclear age (Chapters 5, 6), and totalitarian backwardness (Chapter 1).

VII. Totalitarianism is terribly inefficient: everything they could do we could do better. In the end the West would have achieved a decisive edge, liberated the Kremlin's long-suffering subjects, and made the world safe for democracy.

The premise of this argument is defensible (Chapter 1), its goals commendable, but its application placed civilization at a grave risk. It was too late by the mid-1960s, short of an unforeseeable and extremely improbable scientific breakthrough, to gain a decisive edge (Chapter 5). We would have been wiser to abandon the illusory quest for a successful military showdown and find other means of advancing the cause of freedom. The problem with this approach then (seen from my own anti-totalitarian perspective) was not its goals but its failure to assimilate nuclear realities, its disregard for the enormous costs and hazards of the arms race, its dismissal of evidence which suggested that cooperation was more likely to bring about democratization of the USSR, the short shrift it gave to the observable realities of our common humanity and interdependence, and its presumption that the USA stood for freedom in the Third World (Chapter 8).

VIII. Even if we succeeded in turning our swords into plowshares and preserving our freedom, what could we do with the millions of Westerners who would have been thrown out of work? Could the free world's economy survive peace? Was not a Cold War, and a small chance of a diabolically Hot War, better than the economic chaos that would have surely come in the aftermath of peace?

We could, if we wished, have peace and greater prosperity, more leisure, and less unemployment than we had. History tells us that much: the end of World War II brought massive conversion of our economy from military to civilian footing, and greater prosperity. There is no reason to believe that this historical precedent could not be repeated. Common sense tells us as much: After all, from the consumer's standpoint, the military is useless. Soldiers do not put food on our tables nor can tanks get us anyplace in a hurry. If nothing else, we could convert our tanks to bicycles or go on paying these millions of people the same salaries for producing tractors, fighting pollution, teaching in our crowded classrooms, or sunbathing.

We could also overcome some of the challenges of peace by reducing the workweek and sharing the shrinking work and expanding leisure more equally, as some Scandinavian countries have been doing.10 Simple devices like negative income tax could minimize the real costs of peace by setting a floor to the standard of living below which no person's income is allowed to fall.11 Fairly slight increases in corporate taxes could also help us meet the economic challenges of peace.12

Most independent experts would probably agree that although the obstacles to conversion from military to civilian spending in the West are real, they "would not form a serious barrier to disarmament if political conditions were suitable. . . . Cutbacks in the scale likely to be caused by any arms control agreement could be easily absorbed through compensatory policies directed at the industries most affected. . . . While economic considerations play a part in the opposition in the United States towards any policy of disarmament, the most serious obstacles lie elsewhere."13a Similarly, in the Soviet Union, "the difficulties of conversion, although considerable, are not insuperable. They could be overcome if the appropriate political conditions prevailed, and the political will existed to surmount them."13b

IX. The Soviets, according to a former American President, "cannot vastly increase their military productivity. . . . But they know our potential capacity industrially, and they can't match it."14 Because they were poorer than us, we could bring them to their knees by increasing military spending to a point where they could no longer keep up. For decades, their economy has already been wobbly and short on such vital commodities as grain and computer parts. With the added pressure of a revved up military competition, the Soviet Union was bound to either lose this competition or else collapse. A variant of this argument suggests that, by forcing them to spend enormous sums on arms, we prevented them from using the money in ways which could be even more damaging to our interests than their military spending.

Some people go on to suggest that this argument has been vindicated by history. From 1980 to 1985, they say, the U.S. military budget rose by some 53 percent (in real terms). Consequently, in the seven years that followed, both the Soviet empire and its military machine suffered severe setbacks.

It would have taken decades to achieve the point of economic attrition or of meaningful political gains. Was it wise, in the admittedly long intervening period, to undertake the enormous costs of the arms race (Chapters 2, 3)? This argument ignores overkill, for even if they stopped racing and kept their existing arsenal, they would have remained unbeatable. Before they reached the point of economic collapse, they might have acknowledged overkill, and all our lost trillions of dollars would have amounted to nothing. Through a policy of economic attrition, we merely robbed their helpless subjects of leisure and consumer goods. The rulers, no matter what we did, lived comfortably. This, and the entire historical record, strongly suggest that their system was unlikely to perish by whatever level of military spending we saddled it with.

Although the attribution of Soviet setbacks and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself to Reagan's military spending cannot be as readily dismissed, the record is open to other, no less plausible, interpretations. These setbacks can be reasonably ascribed to internal developments in the USSR and to Gorbachev's personality, not to Western pressures. Stalin responded to economic and military pressure through growing intransigence and by speeding up his own Manhattan Project; Khrushchev through a combination of disarmament proposals, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and setting the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis; Brezhnev through a massive missile buildup. It thus could be argued that Gorbachev's program took place despite Reagan's buildup. Indeed, with more cooperative American policies, a similar revolution might have transpired earlier. According to Time:

Gorbachev is responding primarily to internal pressures, not external ones. The Soviet system has gone into meltdown because of inadequacies and defects at its core, not because of anything the outside world has done or not done or threatened to do. Gorbachev has been far more appalled by what he has seen out his limousine window and in reports brought to him by long-faced ministers than by satellite photographs of American missiles aimed at Moscow. He has been discouraged and radicalized by what he has heard from his own constituents during his walkabouts in Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk and Leningrad-not by the exhortations, remonstrations or sanctions of foreigners.15a

As we have already seen, he has also been radicalized by what he has heard from his ecologists about the fate of the earth and from his economists about global interdependence. Memories of life under Stalin, of Khrushchev's brief thaw, and a seemingly extraordinary (for a politician) humanitarian streak must have also played a part.

The 1985-1991 Soviet twilight period shows that proponents of this economic argument against peace were insincere. Now that they have "succeeded," one would expect them to help Russian democratization. Yet, by early 1992, President Yeltsin's repeated warnings that he was feeling "the breath of the redshirts and brownshirts" on his neck were still falling on deaf ears. Proponents of this argument avowed delight in what they saw, but their reluctance to cut "defense" spending and to provide substantial economic assistance to the new Commonwealth betrayed a wish to bring back the days when an enemy was ready at hand. After all, wars against Columbian drug dealers, Japanese car makers, and home-grown flag burners provided too transient a substitute.

So while the argument about economic attrition cannot be dismissed out of hand, it could be utterly mistaken or irrelevant. Hence, it could not by itself justify the arms race.16a

X. By far the most convincing argument against negotiations and disarmament invoked inflexible linkage. This argument stated that we could not conclude any agreement with the Soviets because of the great political differences between the two societies, because of their ruthless behavior towards their subjects, or because of their repugnant foreign policies. Thus, irreconcilability was used to explain our refusal to accept their comprehensive disarmament proposal of May 1955 and their more moderate proposals in the May 1988 Moscow summit; the ban on Jewish emigration explained our opposition to one treaty (SALT I) and to the lifting of trade restrictions (Washington 1990 summit); the invasion of Afghanistan explained our refusal to ratify another treaty (SALT II; see below for details); and the temporary suppression of secessionist movements in the Baltic republics served to justify American conservatism in the disarmament sphere and niggardliness in the economic sphere (1990).

We can begin refuting this argument by observing that although the Soviets viewed some of our actions with aversion and contempt, they rarely let these emotions guide their disarmament policies. One might surmise that our role in subverting an elected democratic government in Guatemala and a popularly elected socialist government in Chile, or our support for the bloodthirsty regimes that took their places, appeared just as contemptible to them as their brutal suppression of the Prague Spring appeared to us. Yet, they have rarely-and then only half-heartedly-let inflexible linkage determine their policies (one possible exception involved the U-2 spy mission episode, see below). According to a former Secretary of Defense:

The SALT I negotiations were concluded despite Soviet concerns about the U.S. mining of Haiphong harbor . . . In the United States, on the other hand, even favorable arms limitation agreements can be derailed by popular and congressional concern about Soviet behavior in other areas, as happened to SALT II when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.17

The historical record strongly suggests that a policy of inflexible linkage tended to undermine its stated objectives.18 In the early 1970s and late 1980s, we were negotiating with the Soviets on disarmament, trade, foreign policy, and internal repression in the Soviet Union, behaving all the while as if we believed that peaceful coexistence was possible. This was accompanied by unprecedented cooperation on their part. For example, under strong pressure from the United States Congress, the Kremlin allowed some 100,000 Soviet Jews and a few thousand ethnic Germans to leave the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. According to one observer of the Soviet scene: "Given the Kremlin's acute sensitivity to the proud image of the Soviet Union abroad as the promised land of socialism, permitting such an exodus was an unprecedented concession."19 In a similar vein, most observers would probably agree that democratic reforms in former Soviet republics were likelier to flourish in the clear air of East-West rapprochement. Some Soviet dissidents urged us to assume an uncompromising stand on linkage. Unfortunately, the corporate media gave their views the widest coverage and ignored the diverging views of many other dissidents. Unfortunately too, some influential Westerners took these various warnings to the West and speeches to the Americans as the New Gospel. Insofar as these dissidents alerted us to the dangers of totalitarianism, their insights merited close attention. Insofar as they took a stand against a repressive system, they deserved our gratitude. But their first-hand familiarity with Leninism and their principled stand should have not prompted us to adopt their tunnel vision as our own. Inflexible linkage satisfied an understandable emotional need to avenge repression, but there are no reasons to believe that it has brought more justice to the Soviet Union and the world.

Inflexible linkage also dimmed the prospects of international cooperation. To survive in the long run, to prevent the militarization of our societies, to avoid the corrosion of the moral fiber that holds them together, to stop the enormous diversion of resources to unproductive military purposes, the two nations had to cooperate. They also had to work together on global issues which concerned them both, including nuclear proliferation, environmental pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, and rapid population growth. Their common humanity manifestly superseded the conflicts which set them apart. It is inexcusable to sacrifice such goals for a policy which gave vent to feelings of moral indignation but which otherwise aggravated the condition it sought to cure.

Before leaving the subject, I wish to make it clear that it is not the concept of linkage itself which I oppose, but its rigid application. In the long run, only a comprehensive settlement which went far beyond disarmament issues would have safeguarded peace. Such things as human rights in the Soviet Union or widespread unemployment in the United States could have been brought to the negotiation table and both sides should have been willing to make great sacrifices to remedy them. The future of humanity, however, needed not be among them.

No matter what we think of the previous arguments against peaceful coexistence and for the arms race, on balance, the case for

peaceful coexistence and against the arms race was overwhelmingly stronger.

Moderate advocates of peaceful coexistence did not deny the irreconcilability of Soviet socialism and Western plutodemocracies, and they conceded either side's wish to dismantle the other's institutions. They believed that the U.S. had to remain strong enough to defend itself, its allies, and its vital interests, and that continued competition between the two sides in non-military fields (e.g., curbing poverty in the Third World) was likely to linger. But they were also convinced that rivals can remain rivals and yet work toward common goals which benefit both. After all, this is exactly what both sides did during World War II, when they entered into an alliance against the Nazis. There were good reasons to believe that cooperation was even more urgent in the 1980s than it was during World War II, or, for that matter, than it was in any other historical epoch:

I. The threat of total war which hung over both nations (Chapter 2) would have receded with peaceful coexistence. Similarly, the two nations could jointly curb the ominous worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons.

II. Besides nuclear war, the world's people paid an enormous price for the arms race, including trillions of dollars, growing militarism, damaged national security, adverse environmental effects, and nuclear proliferation (Chapter 3).

III. Owing to scientific and technological advances, both sides, and humanity, faced other perils besides nuclear weapons (e.g., depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, acid rain, the new biology, massive extinction of wild species). These perils could be best minimized through effective international cooperation. Similarly, both sides could benefit from cooperation in areas such as space exploration.

IV. Peaceful coexistence would have allowed us to retain our freedom, and would only concede to the Soviets what they already had: control over their own empire. Suppression of the Prague Spring and many other instances of American non-intervention in the internal affairs of the Soviet Empire show that we were likely to make this concession in any event. The early 1990s suggest that

only internal developments were likely to cause the dissolution of this empire.

V. Peaceful coexistence could have improved our international position by advancing our reputation as a peace-loving nation and allowing us to divert enormous resources to enhance living standards, educational levels, and the quality of life in this country and planet.

VI. As we have seen, both common sense and history strongly suggest that successful democratization of Soviet society was more probable with peaceful coexistence than with the arms race. Increased Soviet-Western contacts and the consequent easing of the Soviets' perennial obsession with invasions and conspiracies were likely to strengthen the democratic faction in the Soviet Union.

It is a sad commentary on the Cold War years that, even now, peace and relaxation of tensions must be defended at such great length. However, as the frequently heard arguments against negotiations and disarmament (above) suggest, and the actual history of the Cold War (below) indisputably shows, militarism in America cannot be overkilled.


Atomic Secrecy

Unlike some farseeing scientists, our leaders failed to grasp the futility of trying to conceal the large-scale Manhattan Project from the Soviets. In 1944, for example, physicist Niels Bohr was granted separate interviews with both Roosevelt and Churchill, at which he implored them to inform Stalin about this project and to try to reach an agreement on the international control of atomic weapons.20a Unfortunately, both the distinguished scientist and his wise counsel were summarily dismissed (Bohr narrowly escaped prolonged security surveillance following this "subversive" act).21

The only real secret about the bomb, Bohr knew, was its producibility. Given the temporary nature of atomic monopoly, there was little to lose from cooperation. Moreover, any attempt by a society as open and diverse as ours to hide from view anything as gigantic as the Manhattan Project was inherently futile. We know

now, and we could have surmised then, that the Soviets had spies in Los Alamos and elsewhere; that they knew about the Project; and that they were familiar with many of its scientific details.22 Openness would have helped to dispel the Soviets' deep suspicions of us and mitigate the Cold War and the ever-present prospects of a Sizzling War. As one thoughtful observer put it: "If Russia had been formally consulted about the bomb during the war . . . it might have made no difference. The fact that she was not, guaranteed that the attempts made just after the war to establish international control, which might have failed anyway, were doomed."20b

One typical incident from this era involved an invitation from the Soviet Academy of Sciences to a number of American and British scientists to a celebration of its 220th anniversary. On the eve of their departure, American scientists working on the Manhattan Project were forbidden to go. Similarly, owing to American pressure, eight British physicists who were already at the airport were forced to return home.

The English newspapers gave great publicity to the cancellation . . . All this, of course, was known in Russia, although it was never mentioned in the American press. It is inconceivable that the Russians could have misunderstood these last minute cancellations and the total absence of any American scientist who had anything remotely to do with atomic energy. . . . Russian diplomats could not have misinterpreted so clear a statement of mistrust by their wartime allies.23a

There was another chance for candor in 1945, when Stalin, Churchill, and Truman met at the Berlin suburb of Potsdam to discuss the postwar settlement. What took place there really belongs in a comedy of manners, not at such a momentous crossroads. Though the policy of secrecy failed with the Soviets, it worked wonders with Vice-President Harry Truman, who learned of the bomb's existence only when he became President (a few months before the Potsdam Conference). In contrast, Stalin, thanks to his spies, had reportedly launched a miniature Manhattan Project of his own by 1943. At Potsdam, Truman and Churchill fancied that Stalin knew nothing about the Manhattan Project and that they were facing a quandary: if they tell Stalin about the Project he might ask to get involved; if they don't, he might, upon discovering their secret later, reasonably interpret their silence as bad faith towards an ally.

Their solution to this self-created quandary? After a formal conference Truman approached Stalin, with Churchill intently looking at the proceedings some distance away, and told him (casually, of course), that the U.S. possessed a "new weapon of unusual destructive force."24a Historians still debate Stalin's response. Some believe that he failed to grasp Truman's allusion. Others believe that poker-faced Stalin expected a remark of this sort and pretended not to care less. Stalin, in their view, understood the nature of the new weapon and its implications better than Truman but fooled his English-speaking cohorts into believing that he was unimpressed.25a

The policy of secrecy, attempted monopoly, and beating around the bush was a serious blunder. What exactly was the point of keeping the atom secret two weeks before Hiroshima? By strengthening the Soviets' resolve to speed their nuclear program and to distrust the West, this policy contributed to the growing polarization of the world. In the opinion of one observer, this misstep marks the beginning of the arms race. "Although much is clouded in secrecy," he says, "the beginning of the nuclear arms race can be pinpointed precisely: It was 10:00 P.M. Potsdam time, July 24, 1945."22a

The Baruch Plan

Another opportunity came shortly after the war. Some scientists continued to tell the politicians that the Soviets were likely to acquire the bomb in four years or so, and that it was therefore in America's long-term interest to reach an agreement on the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In 1946, a few of these insights were incorporated into a high-level proposal, the so-called Acheson-Lilienthal Report. But sharing the nuclear "secret" was a bit too much for the press, the public, the politicians, and especially the hardliners. Our folksy president thought that if other nations wanted to catch up with us they would "have to do it on their own hook, just as we did."22b We had the bomb, the Soviets didn't. And besides, some distinguished American generals were saying, it would take the Soviets twenty years to develop a bomb of their own, or they might never develop it at all (the Soviets being, you see, either psychologically or racially unprepared for such a task).

The Acheson-Lilienthal Report was handed over to Bernard Baruch, an astute stock market speculator and politician, who saw his task in terms of "preparing the American people for a refusal by Russia."23b Baruch renamed this report the Baruch Plan, and changed its contents enough to guarantee its palatability to the Western public and its rejection by the Soviets. As Baruch explained the situation to contemporary critics of his provocative plan: "Anyway, we've got the bomb!"24b

To be a bit more specific, the Baruch Plan would have left the United States with decisive nuclear superiority until the details of the Plan could be worked out. It would have nipped the Soviet nuclear program in the bud. And it would have left the U.S. with a monopoly of nuclear know-how, a monopoly that could have easily been converted into a decisive military edge any time the agreement broke down.9b According to one historian, "the Baruch plan did not differ in substance from an ultimatum the United States might have given Russia to forswear nuclear weapons or be destroyed."26 This plan could therefore be reasonably interpreted by the Soviets as a ploy to secure American dominance,27a especially since they knew that a less inequitable plan had been seriously considered at first.

The Soviets rejected the Baruch Plan, proposed an unrealistic plan of their own, and the negotiations came to a halt. Seventeen days after Baruch presented his plan to the United Nations, on July 1, 1946, the United States conducted the world's first postwar nuclear test.27a

The Soviets under Stalin would have most likely rejected the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan, but this plan could have served as a basis for negotiations. In contrast, the Baruch Plan, as most insiders then knew, couldn't. This missed opportunity and its foreboding implications were summed up by one patient observer:

The opportunity to bring nuclear weapons under international control had been lost from the beginning. Knowing now the course of history in the decades to follow, we must deem this a tragedy, the enormity of which cannot be exaggerated. . . . The pattern of the superpowers' game of disarmament had been set: both sides would present proposals for disarmament agreement, of often wholesale dimensions, but would be careful to see to it that these would contain conditions which the opposite side could not accept.27b


Developing the H-Bomb

Years passed. The first Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb triggered a heated controversy in the U.S. One school of thinking urged, on strategic and moral grounds, that the U.S. desist from developing the hydrogen bomb, regardless of what the Soviets chose to do. Another path24c,28a,29 was urged by Enrico Fermi and a few other distinguished scientists: develop the bomb, but only after failing to negotiate it out of existence. In this case, verification would be easy, since a test anywhere on earth could be readily detected. An additional safeguard against Soviet cheating would have been provided by the growing American stockpile of Atomic weapons (some two hundred by 194925b). A third path-the one actually taken by the USA and the USSR-urged development without negotiations.

It must be stressed again that, owing to our lead and to the overkill quality of nuclear bombs, no risk was involved in heeding the moderates' advice and making the bomb only after failure of disarmament negotiations. Indeed, Dean Acheson, then Secretary of State, thought the new H-bomb had little to do with the military standoff, and much to do with the domestic standoff between the hawkish Mr. Truman's and his even more militant critics. He didn't see, Acheson reportedly said, "how the President could survive a policy of not making the H-bomb."28b

"Had restraint been practised," one historian summed up this episode "the opportunity might conceivably have emerged . . . for political moves to restrain Soviet-American nuclear arms competition. In the event, the competition . . . continued unabated."20c The Moment of Hope:

May 10, 195530a

This tale begins with a comprehensive set of disarmament proposals which were put forward by the major Western powers from 1952 to 1955. As Soviet attitudes began to thaw following Stalin's death, Canada, France, Great Britain, and the United States advanced a modified joint proposal which met the Soviets' objections half-way. On May 10, 1955 the Soviets dropped a bombshell: a counterproposal which incorporated key components of the joint Western proposal.

Had it been accepted, the Soviet proposal would have led to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere on earth, a comprehensive ban on the testing of all such weapons, a system of verification measures carried out by an international control agency with extensive inspection powers and unimpeded access to all military installations in Soviet and Western territories, dismantling of foreign military bases, and massive reductions in conventional armaments and armed forces.

After three years of trying to convince the Soviets to accept their comprehensive proposals, the Western negotiators could not believe their ears. They knew that the Soviet proposal only marked the beginning of a long and tortuous road, that many details needed to be ironed out, and that the Soviets could be bluffing. All the same, for the first time peace was conceivable. The French delegate's immediate response was that "the whole thing looks too good to be true." After 48 hours of consultation with their governments, his English-speaking counterparts took a similar stand. The American delegate, for instance, said: "We have been gratified . . . that the concepts which we have put forward over a considerable length of time . . . have been accepted in a large measure by the Soviet Union."30b

There are good reasons to suppose that the Soviet proposal was sincere and that Soviet foreign policies after Stalin's death were undergoing radical improvements. The military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam ended in a truce. In May 1955, a Soviet-American accord to end ten years of joint occupation of Austria and ting it to become a neutral, independent democracy was signed.31a The Soviets voluntarily gave up Finnish naval bases which they had appropriated in 1945. Later, the Soviets made drastic unilateral reductions in the size of their standing army. In short, winds of change were unmistakably blowing over the Kremlin.

However, by August of 1955 it turned out that the United States was uninterested in working with the Soviets or its own allies toward peace. It placed a "reservation"30 on its earlier disarmament proposal, and put forward a limited, unfair, irrelevant, and meaningless counterproposal. The Soviet delegate kept reminding us of the larger issues of war and peace, but we were no longer interested. America's counterproposal-Eisenhower's bombastic "open skies" proposal-is still taken seriously by some American historians, so it is important to dispel any doubts by seeing what Eisenhower himself had to say about it: "We knew the Soviets wouldn't accept it. We were sure of that."31b

I must say that when I first read about this brief moment of hope, I simply could not believe my eyes. I still find it hard to admit that what I've just related happened. We had a chance to work toward peace but we, not the Soviets, chose the Cold War instead. Perhaps Dwight Eisenhower was reflecting on this shameful episode of American history and of his own life when he said: "I think people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it."32 Perhaps he had something else in mind (such as the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan democracy), but there is little doubt that in 1955 our government stood in the way of peace. One knowledgeable friend of the open society summarized this episode:

Time is showing that the United States' rejection of the Russian offer of May 10, 1955, may have been a terrible mistake. It may take time before the United States Government comes round again to the belief that equal and balanced armament reductions, under an adequate system of control, do not diminish, but increase, the national security of the signatory States."30c

As we shall see, by 1991, the U.S. had still not come round.33

The Comprehensive Test Ban

The next item is not a brief historical episode but a sequence of events which originated on or before 1954, and which continued through 1991. It concerns efforts to work out a comprehensive test ban treaty: a mutual agreement to stop all nuclear test explosions.

Following the 1954 Bikini incident (Chapter 2), protests against atmospheric testing spread. Despite the undeniable health risks, it was unthinkable for a United States President to make a major peace initiative on his own. Our government and media tried to allay reasonable public fears with the usual denials, misrepresentations, trumpeting the views of respectable but sadly misinformed or compromised scientists willing to publicly endorse atmospheric tests, and muffling the small brave voices of their independent antagonists. It fell to the Soviets to make the first move. The same Soviets who were, we must remember, definitely behind us in the mad race to nowhere and who, according to conventional military wisdom, had more to lose from a test ban (because such a ban would have frozen their relative inferiority).

In 1957, the Soviets proposed a testing moratorium of two to three years. Reportedly, Eisenhower was favorably disposed towards the Soviet move, but was dissuaded by the hardliners. With continued testing, our war party argued, scientists would be able to solve the fallout problem by creating "clean" nuclear weapons in five to seven years. Even now, this promise has yet to be kept. The hardliners were also worried about clandestine tests, of which worries enough had been said earlier. On such grounds, the U.S. decided to turn down the Soviet proposal. But a flat refusal would have made for bad public relations, so we put forward another of our left-handed counterproposals which was inequitable enough to make it totally unacceptable to the Soviets,9c and ambiguous and high-sounding enough to deceive the trusting American people. End round one.

Time passed again in fruitless talks, and one can only wonder at the tenacity of the communists in pursuing peace despite the apparent ill faith of the Americans. Recall too that in those days the Soviets were not only talking but concretely demonstrating a genuine interest in peaceful coexistence. From 1955 to 1958, for instance, they unilaterally reduced their standing army from over 5.5 to 3.5 million men. In 1958 Khrushchev was planning again, against considerable domestic opposition, a further reduction of more than one million.34a

It is against this background that the Soviet Union's 1958 announcement that it would stop testing, provided other nations followed suit, must be judged. Given mounting public opposition at home and abroad, Britain and the United States followed the Soviet lead. Thus, owing to Soviet initiative and the indignation of Western voters, American, British, and Soviet tests ceased for three years.

Nineteen sixty. While the moratorium was still in place, a total test ban was almost agreed upon. American hardliners were scandalized by these feeble rays of hope and appeared eminently capable of dimming them. According to one British official, genuine negotiations were allowed to continue only thanks to a last ditch effort at personal diplomacy by Conservative British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who managed to convince President Eisenhower to respond favorably to the new Soviet plan.

For the first time since the war, the hardliners appeared close to defeat. Two weeks before the conference, Eisenhower personally authorized a U-2 plane spying mission over Soviet territory.35 He approved this flight even though, in the words of one American historian, "the President considered violating the airspace of an unfriendly nation tantamount to an act of war," and even though he understood the risks. "If one of these planes is shot down . . ." Eisenhower said, "the world will be in a mess."36 Some cynics suspect that this entire episode was staged and that American hardliners were quite willing to sacrifice a plane and a pilot in order to wreck the talks. Others wonder what on earth could justify, just before such a historic moment, taking this risk. Some suspect hardliners on the Soviet side for the fateful timing of this incident. But maybe these skeptics are going too far, and maybe it was an honest mistake which just happened, as far as the hardliners on both sides were concerned, at the right time.

Imagine, at any rate, our reaction if we shot down their reconnaissance plane over our land just before a summit conference. But Khrushchev wanted detente, understood the madness of the arms race, and staked his reputation at home on Eisenhower's credibility.34 Right after the incident he showed restraint and left the door open for Eisenhower to say that it was an unauthorized mission. Eisenhower, however, took full responsibility for the affair. Two weeks later, in May 1960, the two met at a summit conference. Khrushchev demanded an apology, Eisenhower refused, and Khrushchev stormed out.34b These events probably contributed to the Soviets' resumption of tests in 1961, to be followed in about two weeks by American tests. There are good reasons to believe that, at this point, each side was more interested in testing its adversary and public opinion than in testing nuclear weapons.

Nineteen sixty-three. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev had been deeply shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis of the year before. The negotiators reached an impasse on the issue of on-site inspections, an issue on which the U.S. stood firm. Bear in mind our earlier conclusion that American insistence on such inspections was not traceable to the fear that the Soviets would cheat and go undetected, but to the fear that the hardliners would use this issue to wreck the talks; not, as is frequently alleged, that the risks in rejecting a total ban were greater than the risks of accepting it, but that there were no risks at all. Note also that our national security, even in the narrow sense in which the hardliners define it, would have been immensely improved with the ban. Opponents of the total ban, according to President Eisenhower's science advisor, "concocted elaborate scenarios on the feasibility of clandestine Soviet tests, befogging the central issue that a comprehensive ban would have been to our advantage, in view of our technological lead."37a Still, the U.S. would not budge from its demand of seven on-site annual inspections, each encompassing an area of some 150 square miles.

In the 1960s, the Soviets were unlikely to accept this demand, for theirs was a closed police state well known for the iron curtain which surrounded it, its penchant for secrecy, and its pervasive spy-mania.19,38 Moreover, most independent scientists believed that on-site inspections were unnecessary, so the Soviets could legitimately regard American insistence on such inspections as a thinly disguised attempt to gain military intelligence. Yet, against all odds, Khrushchev agreed to three annual inspections. Although some thorny details remained to be worked out,39a the prospects for a total ban appeared brighter than ever before. It was, one might say, another moment of hope. With so much on the balance, it seemed inconceivable that we would falter over the question of three or seven superfluous inspections.

But falter we did. A total ban required Senate ratification. Despite Kennedy's efforts, a poll taken in the Senate in May 1963 showed that a ban would have fallen ten votes short of the needed two-thirds majority.22c

In this way, another opportunity was missed. Both sides settled for a partial treaty that banned tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and space, but allowed underground tests to continue. This treaty was thus a modest victory for the biosphere, not for peace. Environmentalists would now tackle other critical issues, the coalition for total ban would dissolve, and nuclear tests would continue happily thereafter-underground. And even for this limited treaty Kennedy had to give a pound of flesh. To get Senate ratification for the partial test ban, Kennedy needed the Joint Chiefs' endorsement. To get this endorsement, he had to consent to more tests than before.

Many years passed and nothing substantive happened. Like Kennedy, Carter wanted a total ban. During his tenure, serious negotiations were again under way. Both sides made concessions and an agreement was within sight.40 Seeing, however, no prospects of Senate ratification, Carter let the treaty languish.

The years-long hopeful negotiations were still going on when Carter's successor took office. Here the record is even clearer than before. In 1981, the United States withdrew from the talks because of "verification" difficulties.41 In 1982 the U.S. formally announced that it was no longer interested in negotiating a total ban, on the grounds that a total ban could no longer serve a useful purpose.42a Also in 1982, a call in the United Nations for a test moratorium was accepted by the Soviets and rejected by the Americans and the British.42b Similarly, in December 1982 the U.S. was the only nation (out of 147) to cast a nay vote against the initiation of "substantive negotiations" by the U.N. Committee on Disarmament.39b

In 1985, the USSR unilaterally suspended its nuclear tests, stating that this moratorium will last forever if "the United States refrains from conducting nuclear explosions." But this unilateral action was, according to our government and mass media, merely a propaganda ploy, for, in Mr. Reagan's words, the Soviet Union was "ahead of us in the development and the modernization of nuclear weapons." Besides, Mr. Reagan recited, it was a ploy because the Soviets, unlike the Americans, "just finished their tests," and had nothing to lose from a temporary moratorium.43 Reagan's first charge has been put to rest in Chapter 6. His second is put to rest by the military insignificance of all nuclear tests (Chapters 5, 6) by America's technological lead, and by the fact that, in the seven months before the Soviet unilateral suspension of tests, the USSR conducted fewer tests than the USA (six to nine).

Nineteen months after their unilateral moratorium began, following America's first nuclear test in 1987, the Soviets resumed testing. Throughout these nineteen months, the Reagan Administration clung to the view that a comprehensive ban treaty would harm the national security of the United States. Even by the close of 1991, more than four years after the Soviets proved their willingness to accept Western demands for intrusive verification measures, no substantial progress has been made.

As a result of this Cold War saga, our lives were still in the balance and, by mid-1980s, our military advantage over the Russians, for whatever it was worth in the nuclear age, has narrowed. Evidently, we Americans are a strange people, occasionally putting men who are marginally guilty of compromising our national security behind bars, or, when we really get mad at them, frying them in the electric chair; but always putting in charge of our ship of state men who are indisputably guilty of recklessly imperiling its very existence.


The 1980s

As we have seen, the Soviets were interested in a test moratorium and a lasting treaty, but we weren't. So throughout the decade (with the exception of the nineteen-month-long one-sided Soviet moratorium of 1985-1987), both sides continued to test nuclear weapons. In 1982, the USA conducted eighteen tests (the highest number since 1975), the USSR thirty-one (the highest since 1962). In 1989, the USA conducted eleven tests, the USSR seven.42c

In 1982, the Soviets announced that they would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. This unilateral commitment, they said, would be reviewed if it was not followed by reciprocal announcements from other nuclear-weapon states. The United States, however, refused to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons,42d stating that it might deploy them first for defensive purposes.

In the 1980s, a total test ban would have been a mere drop in the bucket. A slightly more meaningful proposal concerned a bilateral freeze on the testing, development, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, and on the production of all fissionable materials which could be used to make nuclear bombs. Given the rough parity that existed between the two sides, it is clear that a freeze would have placed neither side's national security at risk and that it would have served the interests of both. The USSR, a few Western governments, and many American Congressmen, expressed interest in the idea. The Reagan and Bush administrations, however, were uninterested.

Generalizations about political decisions often fail to capture some of the flavor and real motives behind them. A Committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences captures them through a brief description of a typical episode:

The Soviet Union had formally submitted a freeze resolution at the United Nations in October 4, 1983. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko stated in his speech, which was read in absentia because his plane had not been permitted to land in New York, that the Soviet Union proposed to cease, under effective verification, the buildup of all components of nuclear arsenals, including all kinds of delivery vehicles and nuclear weapons; to renounce the deployment of new kinds and types of such arms; to establish a moratorium on all tests of nuclear weapons and new kinds and types of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles; and to stop the production of fissionable materials for the purpose of creating arms. Gromyko added that the freeze could initially apply to the Soviet Union and the United States on a bilateral basis, by way of example to other nuclear states. The Soviet proposal received little attention in the United States.39c

The United States was opposed to a freeze, because, it said, it would have frozen its relative inferiority. It had to catch up first. During Mr. Reagan's first five years in office, this catching up was implemented on a colossal scale. In real terms, the overall annual defense budget went up by nearly 53 percent, while military purchases rose by a staggering 112 percent. In contrast, during that period Soviet spending was rising far more slowly or not at all.44 Our submarines were far better than theirs, but we have been catching up by building larger submarines whose missiles could level Soviet land-based missiles and cities some fifteen minutes after a war began. Notwithstanding the "huge" lead the U.S. enjoyed in biological weapons, spending in this area underwent "dramatic" increases from 1981 to 1985.45a We were far ahead of them in the supposedly critical area of cruise missiles, but we have been catching up by deploying these missiles, a few years ahead of the Soviets, practically everywhere and on everything. We always had a much greater interventionary capacity in conflicts far away from either country's shores, but we were set on catching up with them on this score too.

Long before the conclusion of the race to the moon, and despite some unfortunate setbacks, we have had a more promising space program. All the same, we have been catching up with the Soviets in the presumably critical area of space militarization, instead of taking them up on their proposals to demilitarize space. Space militarization continued through 1991, despite years of virtually unanimous assessments by independent experts that the key component of this project was likely to "suffer a catastrophic failure."46

After many years of haggling, American and Soviet negotiators worked out a treaty (SALT II) which had, for whatever it was worth, somewhat improved America's comparative military position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.37b,47,48 President Carter's valiant efforts to get it ratified failed (owing in part to false allegations about a new Soviet combat brigade in Cuba49a). The Reagan Administration claimed that this treaty was "fatally flawed" because this treaty accepted the nuclear status quo and created a "window of vulnerability."50a Until late 1987, this apparently was a matter of faith-any treaty with the Soviets, even if it left them with only hammers and sickles, was "fatally flawed." This discrepancy between fact and fiction had strange consequences. According to a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and his co-author, in 1982 both sides continued to observe this "fatally flawed" treaty, "with the result that only the Soviets appeared to benefit from American failure to ratify: they would have been required to dismantle several hundred of their weapons on ratification, and the United States would not have been required to dismantle any."51 This anti-American impasse ceased in 1986, when the U.S. broke this treaty.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration put forward a new plan, which, it said, was going to better achieve the goals of SALT II and the freeze. But this plan did not come close to a bilateral freeze in its scope, and can only be regarded as a left-handed public relations effort. As Mr. Reagan himself recited in a candid moment: "Any controversy now would be over which weapons the United States should produce and not whether it should forsake weaponry for treaties and agreements."52 Former Senator Fulbright put it better: "this President's not serious about arms control. The negotiations . . . are a charade, a cover-up while he builds more weapons."53

These quotations speak for themselves, but let me cite one more observation in favor of Mr. Fulbright's conclusion. As we have seen, the USA was deploying long-range cruise missiles by the thousands and the USSR was considerably behind in this area. So, naturally, American 1980s' proposals simply defined these missiles out of the talks and insisted, despite strenuous Soviet opposition, that they were irrelevant. When these missiles are taken into consideration, it turns out that these proposals did not, as alleged, signal a fresh start. Rather, they continued the time-honored American game of putting forward vacuous and unfair proposals. In this case, our bombastic proposal was this: if you agree to reduce your total nuclear arsenal, we shall agree to enlarge ours.54 In other words, heads you lose, tails we win.

In a 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, according to the New York Times' Washington bureau chief, the Soviets made "significant concessions."50b "Reagan needed a gambit to match Gorbachev's call for a halt to nuclear testing and for the elimination of all strategic weapons by the year 2000." Reagan proposed the elimination of all strategic missiles (missiles based at one country and aimed at the other) from the two countries' arsenals. Characteristically, Reagan's speechwriters had him hail this package as "perhaps the most sweeping and important arms-reduction proposal in the history of the world."50c In reality, this proposal "cut the heart of the Soviet nuclear arsenal (ninety percent of Soviet nuclear warheads are on ballistic missiles), but it left us with a big advantage in nuclear bombers and cruise missiles."50b All the same, by now the U.S. had learned from bitter experience that the Soviet Union might accept ludicrous proposals. So, to be on the safe side, Reagan's proposal was backed with a "safety catch"-it was "deliberately vague" and it included "no actual commitment to get rid" of ballistic missiles.50d

In the 1987 negotiations on European missiles, the West again took a stand which, by conventional standards, gave it a 400-mile head start in the Indianapolis 500. It put forward a proposal which "many Reagan Administration officials were convinced that Moscow would never accept." In fact, many Western commentators "proved" that Moscow would reject this proposal because it gave the West nuclear "superiority" in Europe. But the Soviets would not play the game of disarmament by the old rules and caught the West "off guard" by their "accommodating policy."49b In addition to numerical asymmetries, the Soviets gave up the eminently reasonable idea that European missiles should be viewed in the larger context of the nuclear balance. (As we have seen, the U.S. would have had to give up a great many nuclear toys for the two sides to approach parity.) The Soviets also accepted unprecedented verification measures, even though they had good reasons to regard them as superfluous. They made a few other surprising concessions, while the West did not substantially revise its negotiating position on a single point. As a result, the USA and USSR agreed to destroy some land-based European missiles and to remove 1600 Soviet, and 450 American, nuclear warheads.55a It is to the great credit of the Reagan Administration, perhaps its single achievement in eight years, that it did not back away at this point. To be sure, at America's insistence, this treaty did not eliminate nuclear bombs from either side's arsenal.56 Nor did it change by one iota the meaningful balance of terror. It did however accomplish the first physical destruction of a functional part of humanity's means of delivering nuclear weapons. It thereby held up the hope that, despite the obstacles, America might one day stop living by its sword.

In late 1988, the USSR announced plans to reduce Soviet troops by 500,000 and cut conventional weapons by a substantial amount, thereby lowering their nation's military expenditures by over 14 percent. In June 1990, the U.S. announced that by 1995 it planned to cut its troops by 442,00057 and its expenditures by 0 percent.

Once ballistic missiles are launched, they cannot be recalled. Hence, an accidental or unauthorized firing of nuclear missiles, or the firing of missiles which are wrongly believed to be under attack, could have disastrous, unintended, consequences. It is critically important therefore to provide such missiles with remote control devices which would enable the country which launched such missiles to destroy them in flight. By 1989, the U.S. showed no interest in retrofitting its missiles with such devices even though this would have not degraded their destructive potential or operational readiness. Soviet missiles, in contrast, may possess such devices.16b

In 1989, the Soviets' peace offensive continued apace. Among other things, they announced a 5 percent unilateral cut in their country's arsenal of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe. They also proposed massive reductions in both sides' conventional forces in Europe. President Bush's speechwriters conceded that "a new breeze is blowing across the steppes and cities of the Soviet Union" and promised to match "their steps with steps of our own." One step: a revived version of Eisenhower's meaningless "Open Skies" proposal. Another step: increased trade, provided the Soviet Union changed its emigration laws to allow its citizens to emigrate at will.

By 1990, the USSR granted genuine national independence to its Eastern European satellites, recognized Finnish neutrality, allowed massive Jewish immigration despite protests from its Arab allies, and continued to implement far-reaching democratic reforms. In contrast, China reverted to a more ruthless authoritarianism. Yet the Bush Administration insisted on retaining relaxed barriers on trade with China (according to Time, this policy "dishonored the martyrs of Tiananmen"15b), while adding a new condition before even considering granting similar status to the Soviet Union. Granting such status, Bush implied, hinged on the Soviets' favorable response to secession moves by the three Baltic republics.

Moreover, the Bush administration remained committed to a nuclear program which, according to Time, amounted to "expensive, redundant, and provocative . . . monuments to old thinking."15c This was all the more surprising in view of the Pentagon's opinion that the Soviets' planned cutback would virtually eliminate the possibility of a surprise conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe.15d

By 1988, even prestigious institutions within the American war establishment were saying that something like 70 percent reduction of the strategic nuclear weapons of both sides would reduce the chances of nuclear war without diminishing the "strong existent deterrent effect" of nuclear weapons.58 Hence, bilateral massive reductions-which the Soviets had been vigorously pursuing for years-could improve U.S. security. All the same, in 1990 the U.S. was only considering 11 percent reductions in its strategic stockpile.59 If one day such reductions are carried out, they would leave the United States with more nuclear weapons than it had when President Reagan first announced his plans for radical reductions of these same weapons.

Throughout Gorbachev's term in office, Soviet concrete disarmament proposals encountered stiff American resistance. According to President Bush's National Security Adviser, Gorbachev's overtures were not aimed at peace, but at creating dissension within the Western alliance. Also, conventional reductions posed a problem for they could reduce forces "below the point at which effective defense can be maintained." To be sure, in 1990 some people in the Bush administration admitted that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev did not pose a threat to Western security. Mr. Bush, however, chose to side with those who averred that U.S. military spending "must remain high to assure the United States can defend itself against any threat posed by a Soviet Union reverting to its pre-Gorbachev role."60 While this explanation may puzzle logicians, it came as no surprise to Gorbachev, who had earlier observed: For "the U.S. ruling class and the military-industrial complex . . . disarmament spells out a loss of profits and a political risk; for us it is a blessing in all respects, economically, politically and morally."61 "What more," he asked elsewhere, "can one do when all one hears is the same stereotyped, cheerless 'No.'"60

One can wait and hope for the best. If Russian, Ukrainian, and other reformers manage to hang on to power for a few more years, American policies may change. Beyond a certain point, even the average voter may perceive the absence of one enemy and the presence of another.


General Characteristics of the Arms Race

The history of the arms race is strikingly repetitive: weapons changed but the policies didn't. This repetitiveness was already clear by the late 1940s. One prominent participant remarked in connection with the H-bomb debate that "this whole discussion makes me feel I was seeing the same film . . . for the second time."63 This repetitiveness continued, unabated, in the 1980s. In 1986 another observer remarked: "For those who have followed the evolution of the arms race, President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative has a sense of deja vu about it. The late 1960s also witnessed a preoccupation with strategic defense and, with it, strong pressure from many quarters to build an antiballistic missile (ABM) defense."64 Thus, popular perceptions65 that American policies in the 1980s constituted a sharp break from the past are incorrect: American policies have been remarkably consistent from 1945 to 1991. This consistency enables us to move from individual episodes and case histories to more abstract generalizations:

I. Since 1955, the Soviet Union has been more interested in disarmament than the United States. By now, this observation is conceded by many mainstream analysts: "Of the two countries," says one, "it is the Soviet Union that seems to have made more numerous and more substantial concessions."66 At times the Soviets made unprecedented concessions and even agreed to terms that would have left them (by conventional wisdom) at an inferior position. In contrast, most disarmament controversies in the U.S. ended in victory for the hardliners and in rejection of treaties which would have improved America's military position.

II. In the making of American foreign policies, some scholars believe, Presidents command more power than the original framers of the Constitution intended them to have. This belief is backed up by recent history. For example, from its very beginning in 1950, American involvement in Vietnam was decided upon almost exclusively within the executive branch. Sometimes, as with the infamous Tonkin Gulf resolution, Congress was deliberately manipulated to give the President an almost blank check in committing American troops to that country.67,68 Subsequent events, including Bush's decision in 1990 to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia (biggest deployment since Vietnam), followed the same pattern. These same scholars then go on to trace our deficient foreign policies to this imbalance of power. They go on to suggest that these policies could be considerably improved by restoring a more proper balance between the legislative and executive.

This is not the place to refute this naive perception of our foreign policies. We need, however, take up the related question: Could our disarmament policies be improved by merely restoring the balance of power between the two branches of government?

Historical evidence presented in this chapter conclusively shows that they could not: you can't cure dehydration with a single drop of water. Kennedy, Macmillan, and Khrushchev wanted a total test ban, but all three were thwarted by the American Congress. A similar situation prevailed with Carter, Brezhnev, the total test ban, and SALT II. In American politics, it seems, there is nothing safer than advocating a hard line on disarmament issues.

A more correct generalization would be: in most policy disputes, the militaristic faction prevails. The problem with our disarmament policies is not Imperial Presidency, but Hardline Supremacy.69 Restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government might not be a bad idea on Constitutional and other grounds, but it will definitely not restore sanity to our disarmament policies. To eliminate the needless threat of war, we must do much more than place limits on Presidential power.

III. The West has been the pace setter in the arms race; practically every new military gadget was developed here and only then adopted by the Soviets.70 In 1991 this was clearly the case with anti-submarine warfare, cruise missiles, lasers, space technology, and biological weapons, as it has been in the past with nuclear bombs, heavy bombers, guidance systems, hardened missile silos, multiple warheads, and missile submarines. Even during the 1957 Sputnik launch the U.S. had apparently enjoyed "a substantial lead . . . in almost every area of missile and rocket technology."55b By 1956, according to one historian, the United States could launch a more advanced satellite than Sputnik but refrained from doing so for political reasons.

It is even possible that without our help the Russians would have never been able to develop many weapons they now possess. Through our semi-open political process and publications, and through their extensive spy network, the Russians could often put their hands not only on the kinds of new weapons that could be built, but their exact blueprints. Moreover, until 1985 they conducted this catch-up exercise as if their lives depended on its outcome; no sacrifice, they seemed to believe, was too great. The five years or so lag time between America and Russia can be interpreted then as the time it took the Russians to gain hold of our blueprints and apply their newly acquired knowledge to the development of the new weapon.

At any rate, though it could perhaps be reasonably argued that the Russians would have been able to develop all these weapons without us, it is inarguably true that we have always been ahead, and that they have always managed, by hook or by crook, to trail along.

IV. Curiously, it is often our old ex-officials who show the courage, civic responsibility, and patriotism which are apparently needed to take the hardliners to task. Their ranks include retired presidents, congressmen, ambassadors, generals, weapon scientists, and other senior officials. This can be explained by assuming that retirement gives powerful people a better perspective on history, or, as appears more likely, that the penalties for taking the hardliners to task when one's political career is over are more bearable.

The fact itself-outspokenness of retired officials-is widely acknowledged. For instance, after carefully documenting the need for fundamental military reforms, one hardliner71 remarks that when the time comes for the preliminary hearings,

no help can be expected from military officers on active duty. Any number of retired generals and admirals will readily . . . [denounce] the present system, but it is idle to expect confirmation from the inmates of the present service-dominated structure. With their careers at stake, on the ground of service loyalty, they cannot criticize the system unless they are totally certain that it will be changed, and very soon.

V. The West's economic and technological primacy and the respective strengths of the peace and war parties in the Soviet and Western blocks throw some light on another curious generalization: The fate of every international disarmament debate has been almost exclusively determined by internal political developments in the U.S. That is, in virtually every case in which a strictly domestic controversy was decided in favor of disarmament, the Soviets went along. This suggests that, as long as the former Soviet republics remain rational (and God knows that we were doing little to strengthen the peace factions in these republics), comprehensive disarmament only required a radical change in American policies.

VI. Contrary to popular perceptions, the arms race has continued practically unabated throughout the Cold War. All the so-called treaties and successes, despite the fanfare with which they have been announced by decision-makers and the enthusiasm with which they have been greeted by some war-weary people, have amounted to little more than the institutionalization of the arms race. Even by 1991, not a single weapon, technical improvement, or new military development has been given up. SALT I, the defunct SALT II, the threshold test ban treaty, the non-binding non-proliferation treaty, the treaty on intermediate-range missiles, the ban on chemical weapons, held the hope of meaningful cooperation in the future and reduced prospects of a fatal confrontation, but were militarily trivial.

The atmospheric test ban treaty was an important environmental victory,72 but not a victory for peace on earth. By the time this treaty was signed, all important tests could be performed underground. To be sure, this treaty ruled out tests of near-simultaneous explosions in the same area, thereby further reducing the chances of a deliberate preemptive strike against military targets. But given the magnitude of the overall threat, such treaties resemble the crow's diligent efforts to drain the ocean by removing its contents one drop at time: "When negotiated agreements have managed to close off certain avenues of the arms race, the result usually has been simply to divert the efforts of the weaponeers into the other channels still available."73

VII. Throughout the Cold War, hardliners have been opposed to any settlement whatsoever. The atmospheric test ban and SALT I, according to them, posed the gravest risks imaginable to our freedom, our republic, and the world. The ten foot tall Soviets, we were told, would not sign a fair agreement, they would cheat, or, in general, they would have something devious up their sleeve.

On the few occasions when the hardliners were overruled, their dire prophecies failed: the hardliners' crystal gazing record is unsurpassably dismal. The claim that Sputnik was "a greater defeat for America than Pearl Harbor,"55b and the national hysteria the Sputnik launch caused, were as grounded in objective reality as the panic which followed the broadcast of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The 1963 atmospheric test ban treaty was concluded despite the hardliners' vehement opposition, and has been in force ever since. Observably, it did not lead to our subjugation, as they prophesied. In fact, even some in their ranks now admit that its passage only prevented needless deterioration of public health. Precisely the same can be said about anti-ballistic missiles, an antennae farm that would have covered a significant portion of Wisconsin, the biological weapons treaty, or the ban on chemical weapons.

VIII. Taken together with Hardline Supremacy, this dismal record strongly suggests that the arms race has been a strikingly irrational enterprise. This irrationality is also evident from the repetitiveness of every debate, the enormous costs whose only official rationale is not preparation for war but its prevention, the net decline in the national security of both sides, the near-exclusive preoccupation with Russia in an obviously multipolar and multifaceted world, and the steep decline in America's meaningful military edge over Russia and other potential adversaries. IX. Like the nuclear chain reactions that made it possible, the nuclear arms race tended to fuel itself.

This self-perpetuating tendency is evident in each side's fears of what the other side might be up to. Assuming the worst about the other's intentions and capabilities, an old-fashioned military planner typically braced himself for every contingency. It is just possible that the Soviets will beat us in the race to develop an H-bomb, therefore we must produce an H-bomb in all possible haste. It is just possible that the ineffective (or even bogus38) ring of anti-ballistic missiles around Moscow can really, somehow, defend it, and therefore we must be prepared to meet this peril to our nuclear deterrent through the manufacture of "smarter" weapons.

The new technologies often perpetuated the arms race by fueling anxieties. For example, during the 1960s, the Soviets showed an interest in developing anti-ballistic missiles. This prompted the following (and familiar) hardliners' projection. The Soviets may be able to destroy our missiles in a surprise attack. We shall be unable to retaliate because many of our remaining missiles will be destroyed on their way to target by the Soviets' new anti-ballistic missiles; and the few that could reach target will not suffice as a deterrent. Consequently, the Soviets will run us over. One way of overcoming this threat involved fitting our missiles with multiple warheads capable of saturating any conceivable anti-ballistic missile defense the Soviet Union could deploy. We promptly developed this new technology. The Soviets naturally followed suit, and their multiple warheads, along with increased warhead accuracy, were used in turn to raise the unrealistic "window of vulnerability" projection (Chapter 5). And this self-created window, in its own turn, was the chief official justification for the 1980s huge arms buildup.

The arms race is self-perpetuating in the psychological and political sense too. Psychologically, we have come to consider it as a normal, perhaps inevitable, part of life. Politically, as the arms race flourishes, its constituencies in military, industrial, political, academic, and other sectors of our society become more powerful. So, as we divert more resources to the arms race, and as it becomes institutionalized in the fabric of our lives, the task of bringing it to a nonviolent end becomes increasingly harder. Given this self-perpetuating attribute and the Russians' growing distaste for the "arms control" game, some cynics suggest that Western elites would love to see Russian hardliners back in power. Our steadfast refusal to give Russian and other ex-Soviet democrats a helping hand lends a measure of support to this claim. But lack of evidence for covert actions against Russian and other reformers, as well as subdued expressions of delight with their actions, suggest a more ambivalent attitude among Western power elites.

X. Each successive wave of this repetitive, irrational, and self-perpetuating race has led to the erosion of American, Russian, and world security. Despite the hardliners' claims (e.g., anti-ballistic missiles, evacuation plans, space militarization), there has never been an effective defense against nuclear weapons. Barring spectacular and unforeseeable scientific advances, we do not have the faintest idea how such a defense could be developed in the future. Instead, the arms race amounts to a series of improvements and amplifications in either side's ability to destroy the other. The most likely outcome of this absurd situation is greater insecurity for all.

XI. To prop up their view that our policies provide the only appropriate response to the twin perils of totalitarianism and the arms race, the hardliners were willing at times to put veracity and reason aside and to employ an assortment of effective but intellectually dishonest tactics. Only a few recurring variations of these tactics need to be described here.

The Tactic of the Imaginary Gap employed phony claims about Soviet superiority-overall or in a specific area-as excuses for speeding up the arms race. This tactic has a long history. It contributed, among other things, to the election of Kennedy (missile gap) and Reagan (overall gap).74 From 1945 to 1990 we have had the conventional war gap; in the mid-1950s the bomber gap; from 1959 to 1961 the missile gap; in 1960 the chemical and biological weapons gap;45b in the early 1980s a gap in the capacity for military interventions in the Third World was well on its way.75 Naturally, in all these cases there had been a gap all right-in our favor.

Sometimes the gap was alleged in areas where the Soviets were in fact superior, but in which this superiority meant little. It is in this light that their evacuation plans, air defense, tanks, intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and total yield of nuclear explosives should be viewed. In each case, the alleged superiority amounted to little, either because it overlooked the overall balance or because it signaled unwise resource allocation. But time is short and no one can become an expert in everything. So, as a public relations exercise, in order to gain political office, or as a means of speeding up the arms race, the Tactic of the Imaginary Gap has been unquestionably effective.76

The Tactic of the Irrelevant Argument can be illustrated with the following episode. Even if we choose to ignore overkill and dynamic military indicators, we might expect all arguments about the military balance to be concerned with the respective strengths of both nations. But this logical requirement presents a problem for the hardliners, for the USA was, at the very least, equal to the USSR. It is, however, much harder to compare the military expenditures of both nations, so here a lively controversy can be stirred up to make us forget that the issue is not spending, but the military balance.

This tactic assumed macabre proportions one day in 1976 when the CIA revised its estimates upward and concluded that the Soviets have been squandering all along, not 6 percent of their gross national product on defense (roughly the fraction we were squandering), as was believed for a long time, but 12 percent77 (a more recent estimate puts it as high as 20 percent78). This revelation was followed by the usual alarms and admonitions. The hardliners, of course, failed to realize that the 6 percent figure simply made no sense-if the Soviet economy was half as large as ours, if it was less efficient, and if the Soviets' military was as large as ours, than the fraction the Soviets spent on their military machine was at least twice as large as the fraction we spent on ours. (For our war party, it seems, a braying ass in a lion's skin is a lion.) They forgot that this spending was irrelevant, because the important thing is not how much money you spend, but what you get for your money. They also forgot that this revision, as the CIA report which contained it clearly indicated, had no significance to the military balance except in showing that the Soviets were far less efficient than official dogma asserted. As one retired CIA analyst put it, "what should have been cause for jubilation became the inspiration for misguided alarm."77

The Tactic of the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing employs a peace-loving facade to cover up a bias in favor of the arms race. Here you attend meaningless "summit" conferences (e.g., Washington, 1990); or you put forward proposals which are likely to be rejected (e.g., Baruch, START). If you make a miscalculation and the other side accepts your proposal (May 1955), you retract it and then put forward irrelevant or unacceptable proposals. You might portray yourself as a peacemaker by heralding a virtually worthless treaty as a great leap forward (e.g., the 1987 treaty on European missiles); or as a peacekeeper by arguing that weapons which slightly raise the prospects of a final confrontation, and which undermine your country's well-being, safeguard the peace (e.g., space militarization).

The Tactic of the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, history shows, is handiest in bringing about a virtual dissolution of the peace party. Mistakenly believing that their leaders are beyond cynical demagoguery or self-destructive folly, that small beginnings are bound to usher in great events, that a partial victory is better than none, that a compromising attitude is always a virtue, that "thinking globally and acting locally" can get them someplace other than the village green, and that hard work and dedication ought to be rewarded with immediate results, peace activists have traditionally walked straight into the hardliners' jaws by endorsing, or even fighting for, meaningless "arms control" treaties. From Potsdam to Moscow, from 1945 to 1991, the verdict of history is unequivocal: the cause of peace gained precious little from their valiant, well-meaning-but manifestly futile-efforts.



All things being equal and when given a choice, peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union would have been compellingly superior to the arms race. Early episodes at the dawn of the Cold War, including attempts to keep Stalin in the dark about the Manhattan Project, a marked disinclination to negotiate atomic and hydrogen weapons out of existence, and rejections of genuine Soviet disarmament proposals, suggest that the United States was not interested in "equal and balanced armament reductions, under an adequate system of control." Later events, including the decades-long aborted search for a ban on nuclear tests, and every single occurrence of the 1980s decade, similarly suggest that the United States preferred the arms race to peaceful coexistence.

Throughout the Cold War, American military and foreign policies have been amazingly consistent-politicians came and went, but the policies remained. This repetitiveness eases the historian's task of distilling regularities from the myriad of available details: (1) From 1955 through 1991, the Soviets have been more interested in peaceful coexistence than the Americans. (2) The American President's power is often overrated; the correct historical extrapolation is not imperial presidency but hardline supremacy. (3) The West has been the exclusive pace setter of the arms race. (4) Senior retired officials and executives are far more likely to tell the public the truth than their employed counterparts in government, industry, and the armed forces. (5) The fate of every disarmament issue has been determined by internal political developments in the U.S. (6) All meaningful disarmament efforts have failed; all "arms control" treaties merely institutionalized the arms race, created the false impression of movement towards peace, and led to diversion of resources to other warlike channels. (7) The hardliners were even opposed to these cosmetic treaties, wrongly prophesying dire consequences if they were signed. (8) Several military, political, psychological, and economic features of the arms race conferred upon it a self-perpetuating and irrational character. (9) Each successive phase of the arms race eroded the security of all Western nations. (10) To prop up its view that American policies provided the only appropriate response to the twin perils of totalitarianism and the arms race, the Western establishment employed an assortment of effective but intellectually dishonest tactics, including the concoction of imaginary gaps, irrelevant arguments, and peace loving slogans aimed at covering up warring proclivities.

If American policy makers attempted to practice deterrence throughout the Cold War, the historical record could only be regarded as the handiwork of ignoramuses, morons, or lunatics. If they practiced brinkmanship, it acquires a certain degree of coherence.


Chapter 8: Brinkmanship & Imperialism? Back to Main Menu Moti Nissani's Homepage