BRITAIN'S testing of thermonuclear bombs and her announced intention of acquiring an "appreciable" capacity for nuclear deterrence mark another stage in the development of what some melancholy observers have called "nuclear plenty." Yet though Britain has joined the select rank of the "atomic haves," she is hardly more than a minor member; and in order to be able to afford this membership she has--as the British White Paper on Defense makes clear--abandoned any attempt to maintain her former position as a world military power, for her ability to take independent military action outside Western Europe will be insufficient for anything but very small and local engagements. Although Soviet Russia's present supply of nuclear bombs and delivery facilities does not equal the American, it provides her with sufficient striking power to cripple the United States as a nation. The risk to both countries of annihilation in an all-out war between them is close enough to put them in the same military class. Britain is unlikely to gain this status. She will possess an appreciable deterrent power of her own and may be able to deal grievous blows to the Soviet Union. But she will find it much more difficult than the Soviets and the United States to protect her retaliatory capacity against surprise attack and she is hardly able to spare the huge sums needed to establish a strategic striking power approaching that of the two "superpowers" in scale, versatility and continuous innovation.

Britain's coming of age as the third thermonuclear power had been discounted for some time, and so caused neither surprise nor alarm. What has been agitating strategists for several years is the question of whether other nations will not follow suit-- the so-called "fourth country" problem. Many shudder at the thought of more and more countries acquiring nuclear arms. Yet it must be assumed that, barring an effective scheme for nuclear disarmament, this will happen, either as a result of "have-nots" receiving nuclear weapons and means of delivery from the "haves" or because they are able to manufacture them themselves. Disregarding the first possibility for the moment, the governing factors will be mainly two: the local availability of the specific resources required, and the ability and willingness to allocate them for the purpose.

Before we can speculate meaningfully on these factors we must specify the kind of atomic capability which is in view. Is it a capability approaching that of the British, based, that is, on a considerably wide family of weapons, including the hydrogen bomb? Or is it a capability limited to the use of what in current jargon are called "nominal" weapons--atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima, that is, with a destructive power of between 20 and 40 kilotons of T.N.T.? Such bombs have a low "yield" compared with megaton hydrogen weapons; but, as Hiroshima demonstrated, they are capable of inflicting far from "nominal" damage, and possesson of them is therefore a matter of consequence.

Since it takes only a few kilograms of plutonium to produce a single so-called nominal bomb, any nation with nuclear power reactors, or even large research reactors, will be able to make a few of these bombs before long. To design and produce a relatively primitive weapon that can be dropped from an airplane is not a task calling for large special facilities or a substantial diversion of scientific or other resources such as would overtax all but the biggest and industrially most advanced nations.

At the present time, France is clearly the first candidate for the honor of becoming a nuclear newcomer without outside aid. Her nuclear and other resources are large enough for her to begin weapons production at any time and, once the decision has been made, to produce several dozen Hiroshima-type bombs within a few years. It can also be taken for granted that without going outside their own resources Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia could begin production of nominal bombs within from five to seven years; and Communist China, Japan, India, Switzerland, Italy and Western Germany probably have similar possibilities. Assistance from allied countries in the form of material or know-how would of course accelerate the process and might add other countries to the list.

However, while developments in the field of nuclear science and technology will give an increasing number of countries the possibility of starting a limited military program, they would face a problem of a wholly different order if they tried to establish a substantial and diversified weapons system, including thermonuclear bombs, and the correspondingly large and complex apparatus needed to deliver these bombs on their targets. This task demands such a huge supply of scarce resources--materials, electric power, fabricating capacity, scientific and engineering skills and finance--that very few nations will be able to undertake it, even within two decades, without substantial help from abroad. France and Western Germany would seem to be the only possible candidates in Europe, and Japan, Communist China and perhaps India the only possible candidates in Asia. Each would of course have to give the task over-riding priority--a condition carrying grave political and economic implications. Even then, none of the countries mentioned can achieve success for a good many years. Possibly new technological discoveries might lessen the difficulties, and of course help from outside would do the same. But for the foreseeable future the fourth (or nth) country problem probably will consist of the likelihood that additional countries will acquire relatively low-yield atomic bombs rather than that they will assume the rank occupied by the three present "haves."

Even though a nation has the capacity for an atomic weapons program it may well hesitate before rushing to join the club of the "haves." The entrance fees are high and so are the liabilities of membership.[i] In most cases, the chief inhibiting factors will be four. First, the experience of the "haves" shows emphatically that anything but a minor atomic arms program will be a strain on the national economy and especially on scarce scientific and technical resources; and since it will work to the detriment of consumption and investment, governments will be confronted with awkward economic and political choices. Second, there is a certain degree of public revulsion, partly moral, against the idea of developing or using nuclear weapons. The sentiment varies from country to country; it is particularly sharp at present in Western Germany, Japan and India. Third, there is widespread apprehension in many countries that by developing a nuclear capacity a nation makes itself a more likely target for nuclear attack. Fourth, some potential aspirants to the nuclear club may pause before incurring the ill will of other countries. Western Germany, for instance, might fear that the hostile Soviet reaction would lessen still further the chances for German reunification. Recent events in Hungary and Poland indicate that Moscow will have to reject the idea of independent atomic arms programs in any of the satellites. Before Communist China went in for a nuclear arms program she would weigh its possible effects on public opinion in the neutralist countries of Asia.

On the other hand, there are powerful considerations working in the opposite direction. One is the economy argument. Though the experience of the United States has been to the contrary, there is still a general assumption that a shift from conventional to atomic defense will yield financial economies. What is politically even more appealing is the hope that it will mean savings in military manpower and hence a cut in the length of conscription, or even the end of conscription. The British White Paper made a great deal of this argument.

Second, and more important, are considerations of international prestige. Certain countries--notably those which formerly ranked as Great Powers--may seek to join the nuclear "haves" as a means of recovering part of the status lost since the last war. At present, this motivation is especially strong in France.

Third, and probably most important of all, is the feeling that unless a nation has its own atomic capacity it is more open than it would be otherwise to acts of aggression or to nuclear blackmail on the part of the "haves." This anxiety has different grounds in different countries. Communist China is obviously concerned by the American deployment of nuclear arms in the Far East, including "Matadors" on Formosa. Neutral Sweden seems at this moment determined to bolster her defenses against a Soviet attack by acquiring some nuclear weapons capable of threatening retaliation against Leningrad. It would be surprising if Switzerland did not also come to feel a similar need for safeguarding her armed neutrality. Canada might become uneasy if she concluded that nuclear weapons from the United States might not be available to her instantaneously in the event of a Soviet attack.

The British White Paper affirms Britain's dependence on collective defense, yet it states that "the only existing safeguard against major aggression is the power to threaten retaliation with nuclear weapons" and that although Britain can make only a modest contribution in comparison with the United States "she must possess an appreciable element of nuclear deterrent power of her own." The motivation behind the British decision is doubtless complex. But a careful scrutiny of British statements, both official and unofficial, reveals two strands of thought which are also encountered in other parts of Western Europe. One is the desire to gain a modicum of freedom from the existing military dependence on the United States and thus to broaden British policy choices whenever the foreign policy interests of the two allies are in conflict. The other involves a doubt so delicate that it is seldom given forthright expression. Would the United States, asks the skeptic, knowing that in the event of full-fledged war with the Soviet Union it would suffer casualties by the tens of millions and a paralyzing blow to its economy, would it in fact be willing to unleash SAC for the protection of all or any part of Western Europe? Some Western European observers believe that no country will ever use nuclear striking power for the protection of another country, no matter how closely allied, if indeed it will even dare to do so for its own protection, and hence that possession of a nuclear deterrent is indispensable to the security of any country.

Finally, once a fourth and then a fifth country come into possession of nuclear weapons, the example will almost inevitably produce further converts; for it will sharply reinforce the considerations of security and prestige described above.

Jules Moch warned the London disarmament conference on July 3 that if the proposed suspension of tests of nuclear weapons did not end the nuclear arms race the French Government would feel free to resume its liberty of action. Another significant straw in the wind was the action July 2 of the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag to prevent the passage of a government bill which, they feared, might jeopardize national security by constitutionally restricting atomic development to "peaceful purposes."

Thus it seems likely that unless some substantial move towards disarmament foreshadows clearly the early dismantling of nuclear weapons systems, France will produce atomic bombs, and if so, other nations will sooner or later follow suit. Indeed, as of today the chances seem better than even that a limited pact would only delay the development of a nuclear capacity in a number of nations. The "have-nots" will no doubt appreciate any measures calculated to diminish the likelihood of nuclear warfare. But they will also realize that anything short of a complete solution is likely to freeze the present nuclear status quo. Surely, this is what a simple ban on testing and on further production of nuclear arms would suggest. Furthermore, there is some feeling in Western Europe that the United States may not always be the most realistic guardian of its own interests; that it might too trustingly enter into a far-reaching disarmament agreement with Moscow, the effect of which would be to disarm itself more effectively than the Soviet Union.


Whether or not there is any progress toward limitation of atomic armaments, American and Soviet policies will obviously determine in part which countries obtain nuclear capabilities and how quickly. The two great nuclear Powers can delay or hasten the process as a whole, and specifically they may assist some aspirants while withholding help from others.

We do not know the Kremlin's attitude toward this problem. The mere fact that the Soviet rulers have not made any public statements about it is not conclusive evidence of their indifference. Indeed, since they are aware of the agitation in Washington over the prospect that nuclear weapons will spread, and of the belief held there that the two super-Powers have a common interest in the problem and can therefore collaborate to solve it, a display of unconcern on the part of the Soviet Union would be natural since it would strengthen its bargaining position at disarmament conferences.

The Soviet Union has, of course, warned all the NATO "have-nots"--and Western Germany with special fierceness--against permitting any nuclear build-up on their territories. This is easy enough to understand, since to Moscow such action would appear chiefly as an extension of American power. Moscow may also be quite confident of its ability to prevent the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by its satellites, even though (doubtless reluctantly) it may have to accede to any demands by Peking for assistance in this field. Perhaps Moscow assumes that outside of Western Europe and China the fourth-country problem is actually a minor one, that the existence of a few atomic bombs in South Asia or the Middle East may be dangerous locally but hardly would present an uncontrollable risk for the Big Two.

In other words, it is the immense thermonuclear capacity of the United States which in the eyes of Soviet leaders is the real danger. They may calculate that a minor build-up of nuclear striking power in the NATO countries of Western Europe is only an appendage to American striking power and will add only marginally to this danger. If so, the Soviet Union is unlikely to respond to the spread of nuclear capacities to fourth countries in Western Europe with more than diplomatic fireworks. It might register acute alarm about the development of a national nuclear force by Western Germany, but would be most unlikely to take action which would risk war with the United States. Whether any possible anxiety on this score may eventually make the Soviet Union more eager for the success of disarmament negotiations is uncertain. A ban on testing, strongly favored by the U.S.S.R., would inhibit potential fourth countries; but there are other reasons for the Soviet Union to advocate it.

The United States has been deeply concerned about the fourth-country problem for a number of years. This is shown in the control features of our bilateral agreements for helping other countries to set up research and power reactors. It is no secret that this concern was one reason for the American readiness to do business at the disarmament conference in London. The very idea of atomic bombs at the disposal of, say, Egypt or Israel conjures up a nightmare in American minds. But it is in American relations with Western Europe that the question confronts Washington in its full complexity. NATO's effective ground strength in Western Europe is far from the 30 divisions deemed necessary to serve as a shield; as it stands at present, it constitutes little more than a trip wire. Yet even the 30 divisions are to be only a shield, complemented by the sword of SAC and the British Bomber Command. To be a sturdy enough shield, SHAPE doctrine requires that the 30 divisions be equipped in part at least with nuclear arms. However, trip wire or shield, the security of Western Europe rests essentially on the thermonuclear deterrent.

Under these circumstances, how is the United States to meet whatever desire may be expressed in Western Europe for the possession of a retaliatory capacity, either under West European collective control or that of individual states? One understands why Western European states seek a larger freedom of action, but it is highly dubious that some local nuclear capability would add to it appreciably. If NATO were a real defense community, with one unified military establishment, there would be no military, economic and political sense in adding a minor European deterrent to the big deterrent based primarily, and more safely, on North America. The sensible thing would then be for Western Europe to help maintain SAC in full power. But to create a real defense community would require a fairly complete integration of the foreign policies of all NATO members, and this does not exist today nor does it seem politically feasible as a project for the future.

Nor is it easy to dispel the anxieties felt in Western Europe that in the hour of need SAC might not be available. This is so discomforting a question that Americans have been loath to face it squarely since their monopoly of the hydrogen bomb disappeared. It seems fairly clear that only the protection of the most vital American interests would justify running the risk of thermonuclear devastation of the United States and millions of American deaths. Can Americans guarantee that any President and Congress will unhesitatingly run this risk in defense of, say, West Berlin, or Western Germany, or Denmark? Probably the decision would in fact be that once such a retreat had been accepted the final showdown would be inevitable, and hence that the ordeal had best be faced at once. At any rate, the question fortunately is not likely to arise in this stark form. The United States may continue to feel that its future and that of West Europe are bound together whatever the risks involved. But even if, in the future, our determination to defend Europe should be cast in doubt, Soviet Russia must assume that aggression will probably bring SAC into play as long as our announced policy is not altered and especially as long as American troops and SAC units are stationed in Europe. As long as this condition prevails, the Soviet Union cannot afford to attack Western Europe without simultaneously attacking the United States itself; for to do otherwise would deprive it of the advantage of striking a surprise blow and would expose it to the first attack. The presumption that SAC would be triggered automatically into action should deter an attack on any part of the NATO alliance.


American uneasiness over the nuclear aspirations of NATO countries originates in the fear that if they are satisfied it will be the beginning of a progressive diffusion of nuclear capabilities, with the probability that they will fall into highly irresponsible hands. What Americans really fear is not the "fourth country," but perhaps the tenth or twelfth. They also have a premonition that once NATO countries are less dependent for their security on the United States they will be more tempted to drift away from the alliance; this would produce a degree of Western disunity which the Soviet Union would exploit assiduously. There are other factors also. There is the fear that if Western Germany possessed nuclear arms it might run dangerous risks in the effort to attain German reunification. There is the fear that the development of nuclear deterrence by Western European countries would weaken them economically and in addition lead them to make a further reduction in the ground forces which they are expected to contribute to NATO. Finally, there is the concern that the appearance of additional nuclear countries may complicate the disarmament problem.

These worries are not without justification. Yet it seems that they have not been thoroughly enough analyzed. The present rather ill-defined position of the United States has disadvantages too. Perhaps Washington is foregoing a chance to manipulate in the interests of the United States a development which may very well turn out to be irresistible. Sober reflection may serve to lessen the American apprehensions. In the long run, it is the highly industrialized countries--and this for many years means countries in Western Europe--that can develop a relatively substantial nuclear capacity. Very likely the possession of nuclear arms will have a chastening effect on the leaders of those states instead of encouraging them to rash actions. Furthermore, it is improbable that our NATO allies, even when equipped with nuclear weapons, will feel sufficiently independent of American aid and protection to pursue policies importantly in conflict with vital American interests. Finally, the United States need have no fear that its European allies might use nuclear weapons against it, whereas Moscow has grounds for fearing that satellites possessing nuclear weapons might use them to gain their independence.

In three ways the United States might derive actual advantage from supporting the spread of nuclear capabilities in Western Europe. First, it would add, marginally at least, to the present deterrent power of the United States and the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Soviet preparations for aggression would have to take account of more bases of counterattack, and this would complicate Soviet military planning as well as put an extra load on the Soviet delivery system and defense budget. Second, given the European doubts concerning the certainty of American protective action in a crisis, it might be that some nuclear capability of their own would render Western European countries less susceptible to Soviet nuclear blackmail. Third, for the United States to distrust and disapprove of West European aspirations in the nuclear field would be bound to weaken the NATO partnership, and might impair it seriously; whereas to support those aspirations would conceivably strengthen it.

The complicated repercussions that might follow the development of nuclear capabilities in additional countries are hard to predict in detail; hence it is difficult to estimate the effect on the relative strength of the United States and the Soviet Union. From what has been said, however, it may be inferred, though tentatively, that the net results are unlikely to be very bad for the United States, and may possibly be beneficial. If accepted, this conclusion would mean that American policy should do more than tolerate fourth-power aspirations in Western Europe; it should actively support them, aiming specifically to reduce the possible disadvantages and to increase the possible advantages.

This brings us to the question whether or not the United States should supply nuclear weapons to such of its NATO allies as want them. For some time the United States has actually been edging toward a new position on this matter. Regarding so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons, the United States has been offering to its NATO allies appropriate launching equipment without nuclear warheads. This move foreshadowed a decision to supply the warheads in the event of Soviet attack. On July 17, 1957, Secretary of State Dulles formally announced this decision which was publicly endorsed by President Eisenhower the following day.

The wording and timing of the announcement make it clear that at least one of its purposes was to gain approval from the have-nots in NATO of the American disarmament proposals for stopping the production of nuclear weapons on a fixed date. Mr. Dulles pointed out that no disarmament scheme could assure the controlled disposal of existing weapons and that the United States would therefore not agree to a plan that left it without some means of thermonuclear retaliation. ". . . We do not ourselves want to be in a position," he added, "where our allies are wholly dependent upon us. We don't think that is a healthy relationship. Therefore we are studying ways whereby, through perhaps a NATO stockpile of weapons and various arrangements of that sort, there can be assurances to our allies that if they are attacked, if war comes, that they will not then be in a position of suppliants, as far as we are concerned, for the use of atomic weapons." As Mr. Dulles indicated, the implementation of the new policy has not been worked out fully. He intimated, however, that the weapons concerned, though under an American commander in NATO custody, would probably remain in United States ownership, and that they would be actually handed over to NATO forces only in the event of a war emergency. This is, indeed, as far as Washington can go without new legislation.

Bold as this statement seems, it is doubtful that it is bold enough. In fact it has brought little change to the defense realities of Western Europe, and it is really significant only in so far as it is a first step in the development of a new policy. Our NATO allies are unlikely to be satisfied with an arrangement that gives them only very conditional access to the new weapons. They may not feel sure of receiving nuclear arms when needed as long as they are owned by the United States or are in the custody of American troops in Europe. Furthermore, an emergency may come so suddenly and develop so quickly that there might not be enough time for these weapons to be effectively integrated in the various NATO forces.

The question remains, therefore, whether the NATO allies should not be offered such arms prior to any actual war crisis. To do so would require an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act, and before Congress would agree its members would want to know that safeguards could be established so that military secrets would not pass into the wrong hands. This is a formidable hurdle, but probably not insurmountable. By showing a readiness to make nuclear weapons available to its NATO allies, the United States would act in the full spirit of a close partnership for defense. As already noted, this would strengthen NATO, boost West European resistance to Soviet threats, increase the retaliatory power which is relied on to deter Soviet aggression and diminish the possibility that any Western European states might act inimically to American interests. Furthermore, if it gave or sold ready-made weapons to its allies the United States would save them from the heavy expenditures that they would have to incur in duplicating (in part at least) the research, development and production effort already made by the United States. This would help to keep the national economies of these allies from being subjected to excessive and needless strains. Further, it would minimize the testing of nuclear explosives and thereby its harmful effects. Finally, if the United States supplied nuclear arms to its allies within the NATO framework, it would be in a position to assure that they were under collective rather than individual national control. This would minimize whatever danger there might be that imprudent action on the part of one NATO country would precipitate a deadly crisis for all of them.

Such an American policy would be much more constructive than simply to accept, or even grudgingly to assist, the development and production of nuclear weapons either by single Western European nations or by a West European group of nations corresponding to Euratom or the West European Union. An American policy of drag and drift seems to have nothing to commend it. However, for the bolder policy to have the best chance of showing positive results the United States would have to demonstrate that the move was not in any respect a first step in a withdrawal to Fortress America but a fresh assertion of its understanding of the full implications of the NATO alliance and its realization of the need to keep it vigorous and powerful.

[i] Western Germany in addition faces a legal barrier in the form of the Paris Agreements of 1954.

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  • KLAUS KNORR, Professor in the Center of International Studies, Princeton University; author of "British Colonial Theories," "The War Potential of Nations" and other works.
  • More By Klaus Knorr