Courtesy Reuters

The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions

The public, on both sides of the Atlantic, is engaged in debate on controversial questions relating to nuclear weapons: the desirability of a nuclear freeze; the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles to Western Europe; the production of the MX missile and the B-1 bomber; the development of the neutron bomb; and proposals to reduce the risk of nuclear war by such measures as the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from forward areas and the declaration of a strategy of "no launch on warning."

These questions, however, cannot be thoughtfully discussed, and certainly not adequately answered, until there has been general agreement on the military role of nuclear weapons. If there is confusion in the public mind on this matter, it only mirrors the disagreement among those most familiar with such weapons and their implications.

I would ask the reader momentarily to guess whether the following three statements come from leaders in peace movements:

At the theatre or tactical level any nuclear exchange, however limited it might be, is bound to leave NATO worse off in comparison to the Warsaw Pact, in terms both of military and civilian casualties and destruction . . . . To initiate use of nuclear weapons . . . seems to me to be criminally irresponsible.

I am in favor of retaining nuclear weapons as potential tools, but not permitting them to become battlefield weapons. I am not opposed to the strategic employment of these weapons; however, I am firmly opposed to their tactical use on our soil.

The European allies should not keep asking us to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean, or if we do mean, we should not want to execute because if we execute, we risk the destruction of civilization.

The answer is that none do. The first is by Field Marshall Lord Carver, Chief of the British Defence Staff from 1973 to 1976; the second by General Johannes Steinhoff, former Chief of Staff of the Federal German Air Force; and the third by former Secretary of State

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