IT is hardly too much to say that the future not only of NATO but of the Atlantic Community as a whole depends today on the ability of Western statesmanship to find a politically acceptable and militarily sensible solution to the problem of how to give all the NATO allies a share in a common responsibility for defense of the West in the nuclear age. This is not merely a question of satisfying the amour propre of General de Gaulle; nor of whether or not a future government in Bonn will remain satisfied with the present limited status of Germany in the nuclear field-a question on which some divergence of views in Washington and London is relevant but not critical. It is a problem simple in conception but infinitely complex in definition, which has been stated succinctly by M. Jean Monnet. ". . . the United States," he said in New York on January 23, "must realize that the claims of Europe to share common responsibility and authority for decision on defense, including nuclear weapons, is natural, since any decision involves the very existence of the European peoples. On the other hand .. . Europeans must understand that the nuclear terror is indivisible and that they too must shoulder an adequate share of the common defense."

Note this great European's repeated use of the word "common." He does not say that since our national survival is at stake none but our own governments can assume responsibility for our own national defense. On the contrary, he knows that is impossible-knows that today the only defense policy that makes any sense whatever is an Atlantic defense policy. And he goes on to say that "Europe and America must both acknowledge that neither of us is defending a particular country, that we are all defending our common civilization."

"Common responsibility and authority for decision on defense, including nuclear weapons"-that is the problem of control. But, of course, in those words it is oversimplified. One of our troubles today is that for the first time in history we are having to form judgments about a kind of war of which no one has any experience whatever, and about problems of strategic policy-close to, but short of, nuclear war-of which our experience is very limited, virtually to the single instance of Cuba. It is therefore all the more important that we should clarify our definitions and be quite clear in our minds as to the precise meaning of the words we use.

The object of this article is to attempt such a definition of what we mean- or should mean-when we talk about control of nuclear strategy. But it is necessary first to define what I believe are the only rational meanings of two other terms which are bandied about, often without any clear conception of what they really mean-namely the word Deterrent, and the word Independent in connection with the policy of deterrence.

The first-except when it is used so loosely that, like the word Sin, it means anything or nothing (and that is far too often)-is commonly taken to mean the long-range forces capable of inflicting nuclear catastrophe on the Soviet Union if the Kremlin attempts to inflict any kind of catastrophe on others. General de Gaulle has defined France as a country "that could be destroyed at any moment unless the aggressor were turned from the attack by the certainty that he also would suffer destruction;" and he has implied that the certainty must exist that "a riposte of the same kind and the same degree would be immediately released." How-or indeed whether-he reconciles that with his reliance on 50 medium nuclear bombers to protect France if the Americans were to default on their NATO obligations is a secret which reposes in his own bosom. The point is that that is his idea of a deterrent- and it is far from being only his idea. Actually he does not really believe in the possibility of war in the nuclear age. In spite of his dislike and distrust of America (not altogether unnatural in the light of his treatment by Roosevelt during the war), he obviously believes that the massive American nuclear capacity by itself will prevent war; he even said at his famous press conference that "naturally American arms remain the essential guarantee of world peace"-and he does not believe that anything more is really required for the protection of France against Russia. His force de frappe is really a political stage in his conception of the rearmament of the soul of France and of her world influence.

De Gaulle is a great man in any company, but in this he is profoundly wrong. He used in old days to be a realistic and forward-looking military thinker but today he makes no military sense-partly perhaps because of his years in retreat at Colombey, but partly also because since his return to power he will not listen to anybody or anything but his own "voices." In this context, alas, he makes no political sense either; if the capacity of NATO to defend Europe itself against invasion were still what it was in, say, 1950, it would be an utter fallacy to imagine that American long-range nuclear capacity alone could prevent Soviet domination extending to the Atlantic and Channel coasts.

This is the point. The Deterrent is not merely our capacity to bring destruction upon the heartland of Russia; that is only one of its components. The other, which is of equal importance, is our capacity to present a credible and formidable direct defense of Europe against invasion. It is essential to understand-in fact half our troubles arise from failure, especially in the Elysée, to understand-that the second component of the Deterrent is every bit as important as the first; indeed to an increasing degree every day the credibility and effectiveness of the first component depend more on the credibility and effectiveness of the second.

In short, the only valid definition of the Deterrent is the military means by which the Western Alliance can pursue its own international policies, free from the fear of external attack or internal subversion by Russia-in other words, the military posture and total armed strength of the NATO powers. There seems no reason to imagine that this principle will change with altered circumstances-for instance, if in perhaps 20 years' time China replaces Russia as the major potential enemy.

The second term-Independence in connection with the policy of Deterrence-is more easy to define since, if it means anything, it means exactly what is says. What is disturbing is that so many politicians (and, to be fair, not only politicians) apparently fail to understand that to talk of an independent national nuclear deterrent implies the belief that circumstances could arise in which it would be politically and militarily practicable to involve their country in a bilateral nuclear exchange with Russia, independent of, and by implication even against the wishes of, their allies and especially the United States. That assumption might be valid for the United States-though even that is open to serious doubt when all the implications are considered; it certainly is not valid for Britain or France.

This definition is often rejected by advocates of independent national deterrents on the ground that the object is to deter and not to fight, that it is necessary only to have the capacity to inflict "unacceptable" damage on the aggressor. It is claimed that the Kremlin would never persist in aggressive intentions in the face of a genuine risk of destruction of even half a dozen major Russian cities. This may be so; no one can ever be certain, even when the moment arrives, if it ever does-and that is the point. Those who base their policy on an assumption like that must recognize that the deterrent might fail to deter, and that in such case the forces which they had hoped would be a deterrent would in fact be used for the military purpose for which they are equipped and trained. No deterrent can be effective unless it is credible-unless a potential aggressor were at least in serious doubt whether or not it would in fact be used.

This is not to suggest that every Russian nuclear threat, such as those at the time of Suez and our later intervention in the Levant, should be taken at its face value. On the contrary, it is extremely unlikely that the Kremlin would risk nuclear war on any issue short of a direct threat to Russia herself. But the British Government's theory that some "supreme national interest" might necessitate the withdrawal of British nuclear forces from NATO and compel it to act independently implies the emergence of some unspecified circumstances in which a Russian nuclear threat to Britain might be genuine. In such circumstances Lord Home's contention, in his speech at Ottawa on May 21, would be unanswerable-that the Soviet missile threat to the United Kingdom is so colossal that it could be deterred only by the combination of United States and British nuclear power; and the same would apply, of course, with equal force to France.

Even de Gaulle seems to recognize that there must be something like parity of penalty in this grim context. Neither Britain nor France, nor the two in combination, could face Russia with anything even remotely like equivalent nuclear power. There is such a thing as being too logical. As an academic exercise it might be possible to make a computer come up with the answer that the Kremlin would not risk the destruction of even six cities on some hypothetical issue. But war is still a human activity. And if the chips were down, with America standing aside, and Britain or France alone against Russia, it would not be a computer which would assess whether or not the Kremlin thought the risk of damage was "unacceptable," or decide whether or not the British or French people are to accept the genuine possibility of extermination; it would be a man or a small group of men-almost certainly tired and rather frightened men-with the appalling responsibility for the lives of scores of millions of their compatriots.

In a gamble on that scale it is literally vital to hold the strongest possible cards, and for the stake to be no less than national life or death. October 1962 surely proved-to the eternal credit of Mr. Macmillan- that as an ally of the United States a British government will face up in the last resort to the possibility of nuclear war rather than surrender. The one really supreme national interest is national survival, and no British government will believe that this can be secured by contracting out of the Alliance in a world emergency. But short of that it seems to me equally certain-against a background of personal experience with British and French governments in the infinitely less terrifying circumstances of 1939-40-that no British or French government would in fact be able to take its country into single-handed nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

That means that an independent national deterrent is meaningless; that, as Jean Monnet has said, nuclear terror is indivisible; and consequently that the less powerful allies must use the machinery of the Alliance to ensure- no doubt at some sacrifice of national sovereignty-that they do not get themselves into a position where they find themselves standing alone. They may find that unpalatable, but they can take comfort from the probability (to put it mildly) that on almost any conceivable issue the United States would also be subject to the same compulsion.

If the foregoing arguments are accepted, they lead inescapably to certain conclusions about control of nuclear strategy. They underline, in the first place, the validity of Jean Monnet's conception of the problem of control: "common responsibility and authority for decision on defense." The first thing to understand here is that the crowning decision on defense is, in the last resort, whether or not to go to war. Involved with that overwhelmingly important decision are certain others, notably of course, what sort of war we should be committed to wage and, above all, when nuclear weapons are first to be used. The word "when" is used advisedly. If or when it really comes to the point of war-major war between great nations as opposed to a situation like that in Cuba week or even the hypothetical period of what Norstad used to call the "pause" following a limited aggression in Europe-it is surely only realistic in this nuclear age to recognize that the question inevitably will be when and not whether nuclear weapons are to be used. The real, breath-taking decision will be that which President Kennedy would have had to make in October 1962 if Khrushchev had not bowed to the inevitable when he did-namely, when and in what way to break off negotiations and accept the inevitability of war.

Surely we create unnecessary difficulties for ourselves and build up unnecessary strains and resistances within the Alliance by trying to draw detailed blueprints in advance of just how decisions would be made or control exercised in circumstances about which the only reasonable certainty is that they would be quite different from anything we now envisage. This is far from saying we should not improve the machinery of decision-making, or that we should not frankly accept certain limitations on our national sovereignty in the interests of the Alliance. It is to say that our system must above all be flexible, that we must not take a stand on rigid national positions in advance. It means we must understand that the solidity of the Alliance and the willing loyalty of all its members are far more important for all of us, including the United States, than any constitutional arrangement for command and control in conditions which, if the Alliance remains solid and strong, will never arise. It involves also the realistic acceptance by the less powerful allies of the truth that, while there may be certain disadvantages purely from the point of view of national sovereignty in being a member of a great coalition like NATO, they are far outweighed by the security which membership in the Alliance and partnership with the most powerful nation on earth alone can provide.

My own experience in the operation of the Anglo-American alliance from 1942 to 1945 convinces me that in an alliance command and control can in fact be exercised only on a basis of willing coöperation. Free nations cannot be coerced. This, of course, must be qualified by the need for some deference to the views of the most powerful partner who is bearing the greater part of the burden. He who pays most of the piper's wages must inescapably be able in some degree to call the tune; if we do not accept that fact of life, there will be no tune. But experience has shown that almost any system of allied command organization will work-however untidy it looks on paper-if we are really allies and interested first and foremost in our joint success; it is equally true that no system, however theoretically perfect, will work if we are not.

The major practical issue in relation to control of nuclear strategy and the one which has caused and is causing strains within the Alliance is the American insistence that the decision as to the use of nuclear weapons, which basically means the decision whether or not to go to war, must rest with the President of the United States, subject only to a somewhat tenuous agreement with the British Government. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that the American Government should decline to accept a position in which the enormous proportion of allied nuclear capacity that is in American hands could be committed against its will by the action of its less powerful allies. In this connection the extraordinary idea of the British Labor Party that Britain should acquire some right to a share in the control of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, in return for contracting out of the nuclear business altogether, is only a degree less unrealistic than the theory in some French quarters that the force de frappe could be used to "trigger off" American nuclear power.

This brings us to a consideration of whether in fact any ally could in the last resort commit the others to war against their wills. Let us first ask ourselves the question which American insistence on its own control of all nuclear weapons makes particularly relevant: namely, could the United States be committed to nuclear war against its will by the action of an ally? And for the sake of example let us assume that the ally might be France-an assumption which de Gaulle's attitude makes less improbable than some. Suppose in the preliminary discussions the United States had made it clear that it did not regard the issue as one justifying nuclear war, and had no intention of unleashing its own nuclear power. Is it really conceivable that even de Gaulle would find himself able to say, in effect, "All right-then I shall go it alone and attack Russia with the force de frappe?" Would he be supported by Britain or Germany or Italy? Would the Americans bow to the inevitable and submit to joining him or following him against their own convictions? These questions, admittedly oversimplified, surely have only to be asked for it to be obvious that anything but a negative answer would be fantastic.

Would the converse be true? Supposing America's allies were unwilling to go to war on any particular issue, could they be committed against their will by the action of the United States? Curiously enough, this is a question which has seemed in recent years, from the discussions in the Atlantic Congress of 1959 to the present day, to cause less concern to America's allies than the first. It is not so easy to answer with the same confidence. It might be argued that if the Americans were bent on going to war anyway, regardless of allied opinion, they could do so, and that there is very little the allies could do about it; their only course would be to make the best of it and go along with America, since they would inevitably be involved sooner or later. But is that necessarily true? It is far from certain even on the Cuba issue whether the President would have been able to maintain his courageous resolution to the point of nuclear war but for the support of his allies in NATO and the Organization of American States. Surely it is much less certain that any American president could do so on a European issue in the face of opposition from his European allies. To insist in advance that the power of decision on these issues must remain in Washington alone only inhibits willing cooperation in the Alliance, without serving any compensating practical purpose.

Although it is highly desirable that control of the actual nuclear weapons should be centralized, from the point of view of allied unity it is politically and psychologically undesirable that such control should remain as it is now, solely in American hands-except for the relatively few British-made weapons under British control and, in future, the fewer French- made weapons in French hands. There seems no reason why the custody of warheads and control of the permissive electronic link should not be transferred to a corps of specially recruited inter-allied personnel of a NATO Control Commission answerable to the Atlantic Council. Ideally this should be extended to all American weapons including those in the continental United States; but that is too much to expect in present circumstances. It should certainly apply to all weapons, including American, in Europe (including Great Britain); and the British would do well to give a lead by submitting their own weapons to NATO control. It seems unlikely that the French could stand out alone indefinitely, nor- looked at practically-would it really matter much if they did.

It will be observed that all this assumes that there would be time and opportunity for discussion between the allies, even when war appeared imminent. The idea of what has been called a "bolt from the blue"-a sudden, massive threat out of a clear sky in a time of normal international relations-makes no sense, and the popular conception of a few frightened men going into a huddle over the scrambler telephones at the 59th minute of the 11th hour is wholly unrealistic. Indeed if the "bolt from the blue" were to materialize, the situation would be terribly, but almost completely, simplified; no one would then be disposed to argue about the niceties of control and whether this or that weapon should be used to save us from certain destruction.

In reality the situation would surely develop on lines much more like those of Cuba week, and there would be far more time than commonly imagined for discussion and consultation within the Atlantic Alliance. The first essential is that the machinery for consultation, the communications systems and so on, should be as perfect and accident-proof as they can be made. And politicians in the free countries must be educated to understand that a time may come when, in the interest of national survival, normal democratic processes must be temporarily suspended. Cabinets, and especially prime ministers and foreign secretaries, will have to accept an appalling but inescapable burden of responsibility. Parliaments must recognize that, having kept themselves up to date on the developments of policy through the NATO Parliamentarians Conference, and having made sure that they have the right men at the right time as prime ministers and foreign secretaries, they cannot expect to enjoy the luxury of public discussion or parliamentary decision when the chips are really down. It was different in the old leisurely days, when it took weeks to mobilize an army and concentrate it in a theater of war; then there was plenty of time to debate and vote upon the issue of war or peace. Those days are gone forever, and it is paradoxical but unhappily true that in an age when the effects of war upon the people would be unthinkably more catastrophic than ever before, the elected representatives of the people are inevitably bound to have to delegate responsibility in a real crisis to so few of their number.

This is the more unavoidable since the actual negotiation with the potential enemy in a period of crisis can be conducted only from one center- really by one man; and by the nature of things today he can hardly be anyone but the President of the United States. It is vital that he should act in constant, close consultation with his allies, and theoretically this should be done through the Atlantic Council. Actually it seems inevitable that it will have to be done directly with his opposite numbers, and no president would feel able to speak frankly in these circumstances with a prime minister who he knew was bound to reveal to his parliament in public debate, or even in secret session, the day-to-day progress of the negotiations.

It would be quite unrealistic to imagine that the final irrevocable decision to go to war could necessarily be made unanimously by 15 chief ministers or the Atlantic Council. Control in the English sense of actual operation orders and pushing buttons can in the last resort be exercised only by a much smaller group, representing the major allies on whose strength the fate of the minor ones in any event depends. There is no practicable alternative and, if any small nation does not like that, its only course is to leave NATO and find what comfort it may in neutrality. In actuality, however, a decision to go to war would in all probability make itself; that is, it would become virtually inevitable, whether or not the enemy attacked first. And the consequential decision on the first use of nuclear weapons, which must remain with the highest political authority, would depend on the course of events in the opening stages of hostilities.

In the extreme and very unlikely case of a war beginning by a massive nuclear attack on the United States or Europe, there would be no problem. But short of that it is surely vain to imagine that any one partner in the Alliance could claim any special position for itself once hostilities had begun-could, for instance, as sometimes suggested, retain the right to decide whether or not nuclear weapons are to be used on or from its own soil. Britain, for example, could not veto their use from her bases any more than could Germany. Jean Monnet is obviously right in saying that we should none of us be defending any particular country, but all defending our common civilization. It is because this may seem a contradiction in terms in the nuclear age that we must stress the prevention of war-not by running away from it as Britain and France tried to do before 1939, thereby making it more certain, but by being so strong and unified that no enemy will risk it.

Once we are at war, we are all in the same boat. The fact that Germany would probably suffer first and most from the initiation of nuclear action is inherent in her geographical position in the front line of NATO. Her main hope of survival, other than as a Soviet satellite, must depend on the deterrent effect upon a potential aggressor of the knowledge that the Germans, with their allies, are prepared to accept the implications of nuclear action, including the grave risk of escalation, rather than capitulate.

Clearly, the problem of control calls urgently for remolding the machinery by which NATO strategy is formulated and directed. Various suggestions have been fully discussed elsewhere and need not be elaborated here. The real point is this: "Common responsibility and authority" does not and cannot mean 15 fingers on the trigger-or, for that matter, on the safety catch-in the last stages of a critical emergency when the dreadful issue of survival of our civilization is actually at stake. It can and must mean that the man or few men who must decide to pull the trigger or snap on the safety catch are able to do so on a clear basis of agreed policy. It means that all the allies whose lives depend on their action must have a common knowledge of all the factors that should determine their decision if and when the time ever comes; they must have a share in the formulation of the strategic policy to govern that decision, and in the broad planning of the action to follow it.

It would be silly to pretend that all this is simple or straightforward; of course it is not. But a useful start has been made in that direction as a result of decisions at the NATO meetings in Athens and Ottawa, and the task now is to develop those initiatives. This common responsibility and authority no doubt has its disadvantages and difficulties, but the case for it is inescapable in a community of free nations. It is no good objecting on the grounds that it involves the risk of security leaks, and that the enemy will get to know what to expect and be able to circumvent or frustrate it. He probably will get to know a great deal. But the really important tiling for him to get to know is that we have a firm agreed policy, the strength to back it and the machinery to put it smoothly into effect if ever he provokes us to that point.

A final conclusion is unavoidable. Strategic policy must be the handmaid of international political policy if either is to make sense. That means that NATO must develop into a formal Atlantic Community with its own institutions, on the lines unanimously recommended by the representatives of the NATO nations assembled at the Atlantic Convention in Paris in January 1962. The first object of that organization must be-in the words of the Declaration of Paris-"to harmonize political, military and economic policy on matters affecting the Community as a whole." Let no one brush that aside as Utopian idealism. Some kind of confederation of the Western nations is ultimately as inevitable as tomorrow's dawn. Many things that are commonplace today-the Common Market, O.E.C.D., the I.M.F., NATO itself- would have been dismissed as utopian only a quarter of a century ago.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now