National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library The 1962 Sedan nuclear test formed a crater 330 feet deep.

The Folly of Arms Control

WHY THERE IS NO NUCLEAR MIDDLE GROUND

History often places before the world a problem whose solution lies outside the bounds of contemporary political acceptability. Such was the case, for example, in the 1930s, when the rise of Hitler posed a threat to the European democracies that they lacked the resolve to face. To check Nazi aggression, most historians now agree, the democracies would have had to oppose it early and resolutely, as Winston Churchill advocated. But Churchill's prescriptions were beyond the pale of mainstream political thinking at the time, and he was forced "into the wilderness," as he famously put it. Not until the late 1930s did his ideas win political acceptance, and by then the price of stopping Hitler was World War II.

Vietnam offers another example. In retrospect, among the many outcomes under discussion at the time, only two were really possible. One was war without end -- the open, unlimited occupation of Vietnam by American forces. The other was withdrawal and defeat. But the political costs of either -- on the one hand, of frankly imposing American rule on that country for an indefinite period; on the other, of "losing" Vietnam -- were considered prohibitive. Deception and self-deception abounded on all sides. Those who opposed the war counseled withdrawal, but usually without admitting that this meant defeat. Those who supported the war pretended that victory was near -- that light was dawning at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Only temporizing, middling policies -- first, surreptitious escalation, then "Vietnamization" -- that postponed the hard choice were within political bounds. The price was paid by the people of Vietnam and the United States.

A contrast is often drawn between idealistic and realistic policies. But the choices posed by Hitler's rise and the Vietnam War were different. They were between political realism -- bound hand and foot by a conventional wisdom out of touch with events -- and the reality of those events, which we might call circumstantial reality.

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