We all turn away, however, from the thought that nuclear war may be as inescapable as death, and may end our lives and our society within this generation or the next. We plan and work every day for the twenty-first century-as parents educating our children, as young workers saving for retirement, as a nation that seeks to preserve its physical environment, its political traditions, its cultural heritage. For this larger horizon- encompassing for the younger generation simply the common expectation of a healthy life-we do in fact assume "nuclear immortality." We believe, or we act as if we believe, that thanks to a certain international order, the existing arsenals of nuclear weapons with their almost incomprehensible destructiveness will never be used.

Yet, this order is so constructed that it cannot move toward abolition of nuclear weapons. It demands, as the necessary condition for avoiding nuclear war, the very preservation of these arms, always ready to destroy entire nations.

This ever-present danger once caused great anguish among the informed public in Western countries and evoked a diffused anxiety everywhere. Since the mid-1960s, the concern of both the public and the specialists has become far less acute, even though Soviet strategic forces have grown dramatically. Since 1968, confidence has been encouraged by the prospect of agreement in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and, in May 1972, by the Moscow accords.

These initial agreements are designed, at least from the American perspective, first to preserve mutual deterrence as the strategic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and second, to stabilize it by curbing the build-up of nuclear forces. As seen by a majority of American government officials, congressional leaders and civilian experts, these two objectives should govern our strategic arms- control policy as well as our own force planning for the foreseeable future. Other objectives (such as protecting cities) are held to jeopardize deterrence, and massive arms reductions or general and complete disarmament are considered utopian as well as dangerous.

According to this view, there are no alternatives to our current approach to mutual deterrence that deserve serious consideration. Even though the military services, government agencies and experts may differ on particular points of doctrine and choices of weapons, the dominant view of the workings of mutual deterrence has come to uphold three far-reaching dogmas:

One: our nuclear forces must be designed almost exclusively for "retaliation" in response to a Soviet nuclear attack-particularly an attempt to disarm us through a sudden strike.

Two: our forces must be designed and operated in such a way that this "retaliation" can be swift, inflicted through a single, massive and-above all-prompt strike. What would happen after this strike is of little concern for strategic planning.

Three: the threatened "retaliation" must be the killing of a major fraction of the Soviet population; moreover, the same ability to kill our population must be guaranteed the Soviet government in order to eliminate its main incentive for increasing Soviet forces. Thus, deterrence is "stabilized" by keeping it mutual.

This third dogma dictates not only our desire that Russian cities should remain essentially undefended, but also our willingness to abstain from defending our cities and even to hobble our capability to destroy Soviet nuclear arms. Proponents of this arrangement argue that it will lead to "arms race stability;" critics maintain that guaranteeing capabilities for Mutual Assured Destruction is indeed a "MAD" strategy.

Soviet military writers, by and large, express other views. Above all, they reject the idea that their forces should be designed for retaliation only, stressing instead the need to be prepared for fighting a nuclear war. Among Americans interested in nuclear strategy, however, only a minority now oppose any of these dogmas, and fewer still would reject them all. Absence of any one of these three elements-it is widely believed-would undermine deterrence, stimulate an arms race, or both.

Yet, these assumed requirements of stable deterrence are to a large extent the heritage of strategic policies from prior decades, now obsolete. They are a perilous way to protect ourselves from nuclear catastrophe and harmful to the prospects of strategic disarmament. Happily, they are dispensable for deterrence. Over the decades to come, we can develop and put into effect a safer and more humane strategy to prevent nuclear war.


It was Winston Churchill who in 1955 first expounded the essential ideas of mutual deterrence to the world at large. In that celebrated "balance of terror" speech, he made a "formidable admission," as he himself called it: "The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout. This is a blank." The most disturbing defect, today, in the prevalent thinking on nuclear strategy is the cavalier disregard for this blank.

An almost exclusive emphasis on deterrence could be defended as a satisfactory long-term policy if it could be convincingly argued that successful deterrence was tantamount to prevention of nuclear war. There exists no rational basis for such an argument. No matter how cataclysmic the threatened "assured destruction," those calculated decisions which our deterrent seeks to prevent are not the sole processes that could lead to nuclear war. We simply cannot know which of the various potential causes is most probable-whether it be a coherently calculated decision to attack, or an "irrational" decision or technical accident. Yet the approach now prevailing puts almost all effort into preventing the "rational" decision.

Moreover, our current strategy explicitly selects for nearly exclusive emphasis a very special type of intended attack. It has thus become the overriding concern of American strategic analysts and force planners to ensure that our intercontinental arms would be capable of "retaliating" after a Soviet attack sought to destroy them. It so happens that the problem of deterring such an attack lends itself to rigorous analysis, provided one postulates that a particular type of rationality governs a Soviet decision whether or not to launch it. The fascinating opportunity for such intellectual rigor-so exceptional in military and political affairs-may partly explain why this problem has commanded so dominant a place in American strategic thinking.

This analysis has now become the canonical way of determining the adequacy of our strategic forces. It uses our ideas about how surprise attacks could be designed, our estimates of what weapons the Soviets have and how they would perform, our latest findings about the performance of our own weapons, and, as soon as we discover a mistake in these calculations, our corrections. That is to say, we impute to the Soviet military leadership our imaginativeness (or lack of it) in inventing "successful" attacks, our state of knowledge (or ignorance) of how the weapons on both sides would perform in the vortex of a thermonuclear war and our diligence (or carelessness) in calculations.

The results of such calculations are taken most seriously by American defense planners. Should they suggest a way in which our "retaliatory" capability might be jeopardized, we institute remedies: we harden, disperse or add penetration aids. Should they show that we could still inflict massive destruction, we conclude that all is well. To be sure, we must consider surprise strikes against us based on our understanding of how the relationship between the two strategic forces might be exploited. But we should not disregard all other risks.

Yet this is what the canonical analysis does. It makes a peculiar assumption about the "rationality" of the Soviet decision we need to deter. On the long slope descending from rationality to irrationality, it postulates that only a short stretch needs to be considered. We must prepare-it is argued-for the possibility that Soviet leaders might move so far down this slope as to be tempted to decide on a surprise attack, provided the calculations that we impute to their military staff indicate the attack would "succeed." That is, we prepare for the event that Soviet leaders might judge how a global nuclear war would turn out by relying on such largely untested calculations, trusting their military advisers to have used unbiased estimates and avoided gross mistakes. But we need not prepare for the possibility that Soviet leaders might be somewhat less "rational" and let a cabal of officers mislead them by twisting the enormously complicated data to show that a surprise attack could "succeed" even where our own analysis clearly indicates it would fail.

Or, to put it differently, our analysis implicitly argues that we have to prepare for a certain type of Soviet leader: a man who could be tempted to launch a surprise attack if the calculations we impute to them promise "success;" who would ignore the dangers of long-term radioactive fallout (which our analysis omits) and expect they could stay on top of the postwar chaos (about which our analysis says next to nothing). But we need not prepare-it is argued-for Soviet leaders who might be "less rational" in an acute crisis and who might rely on their ability to launch an attack so designed as to deter us from retaliating. Such a stratagem of "counter- deterrence" would seek to cripple our nuclear forces in a surprise attack while sparing our cities, in order to deter the U.S. President from reprisal against Russian cities lest withheld Soviet forces then devastate American cities.

When leaders of a powerful country are credited with a willingness to gamble on some scheme for nuclear surprise attack-a scheme whose calculations they cannot validate, whose assumptions they cannot test and whose failure would mean the end of their régime or even their country-how rational a decision are we assuming in our posture of deterrence? When the prevailing American view of mutual deterrence postulates that both the Russian nuclear posture and our own must be designed to deter an opponent of such degraded rationality, why stop at this particular degradation in judgment?

The narrowness of our canonical analysis of what it takes to keep deterrence stable can perhaps be traced to the traumatic American experience of the Pearl Harbor attack. By a few easy protective measures we could have denied the Japanese militarists their success in 1941. This lesson we have learned well, and with good reason. We should not permit such a surprise attack to become easy, lest we invite it during some crisis when our antagonist sees himself forced to choose among deadly alternatives.

To make a surprise attack unsuccessful, however, is not necessarily to deter it. By 1945, after all, the Japanese surprise attack had turned into a failure. Shortly before the attack was launched, Emperor Hirohito anticipated such an outcome and asked his military leaders how they envisaged defeating the United States, given its superior industrial might. His question never received an answer.[i] Would hardening, dispersal and a higher alertness of the American forces in 1941 have made the Japanese military abstain, or merely have driven them to redesign their attack?

Pearl Harbor thus provides a lesson beyond that of the danger of forces vulnerable to surprise attack. The Japanese military evidently expected that the United States, if it were disarmed in the Pacific, would not mount the terribly costly effort of striking back. In choosing this gamble, they were even more "irrational" than future Soviet leaders would have to be to gamble on "counter-deterrence," since our striking back after Pearl Harbor did not invite the devastation of American cities. Yet today, our European- based nuclear arms, for instance, are vulnerable to a "counter-deterrence" attack.

Rather recent history reminds us that men can acquire positions of power who are willing to see their nation destroyed in pursuit of causes which only they and their henchmen espouse. In countries that tolerate a dictatorship, a leader might always rise to the top who deems it a virtue, perhaps part of his revolutionary creed, to live dangerously-vivere pericolosamente, as Benito Mussolini put it. What a sad irony that the nations that had to fight Hitler to his last bunker should now rely on an interlock of their military postures, making survival depend on the rationality of all future leaders in all major nuclear powers.


In the 1950s, prior to the missile age and Russia's massive build-up of her nuclear forces, one heard a great deal about the risk of accidental war. Now, when American and Soviet missiles by the thousands are poised in constant readiness, this concern has curiously diminished. To justify this more relaxed attitude, some might point to the fact that no unauthorized detonation has ever occurred, or cite the American-Soviet agreements of 1971 for improving the hotline or recall the elaborate safeguards with which the military seem to protect nuclear weapons.

But nobody can predict that the fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen. The hazard is too elusive. It is inherent not only in the ineradicable possibility of technical defects, but also in the inevitable vulnerability to human error of all command and operational procedures- during periods of high alert as well as during the many years of quiet waiting. So exceedingly complex are modern weapons systems, both in their internal mechanisms and in their intricate interactions, that it seems doubtful whether any group of experts could ever ferret out every unintended ramification, discover every lurking danger. Indeed, the very word "system" misleads in that it suggests a clearly bounded combination of parts, their interactions all designed to serve the intended purpose.

The deadly danger is deepened by the fact that latent hazards can only be corrected if they are sought out. To look, day in and day out, for some hidden risk of accident is not a task, however, that captures the attention of top decision-makers. It is far from unusual in military operations for serious oversights or occasional incompetence to go undetected or uncorrected until after a major disaster. For example, after the North Korean seizure in 1968 of the American reconnaissance ship Pueblo, when the crew had been unable to destroy all the cryptographic material before capture, destructive incendiary devices were suddenly permitted aboard ship. Previously, such devices had been prohibited because of the fire hazard, and the development of safer ones had been neglected. Safeguards rarely come without costs, and often appear to pose counteracting hazards.

Drastic shortcomings in the Defense Department's worldwide communications came to the attention of a congressional subcommittee after the Israeli attack in 1967 on the American ship Liberty. At the beginning of the Six- Day War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to order the Liberty into safer waters. Over a period of 13 hours prior to the Israeli attack, they sent their order in at least four messages. Two of the messages were mis-routed to the Philippines and one of these was thence sent to the National Security Agency in Maryland, there merely to be filed. Another message was routed over two paths to be doubly sure; in the first path it was lost in a relay station, in the second delayed until many hours after the attack. The fourth message also arrived too late. This failure in emergency communications occurred under almost perfect conditions: no facilities had been disabled, there was no enemy jamming, and no restrictions on the use of available communication modes had been imposed.

It can be argued that safeguards for nuclear arms are likely to be more stringent and more carefully designed than arrangements protecting cryptographic equipment or procedures for transmitting top-level emergency commands. But those Russians and Americans who monitor the safety of strategic arms cannot afford to learn from past accidents to probe for and correct critical hazards. When it comes to defects in safeguards that might lead to an accidental nuclear war, our societies cannot survive by learning through trial and error.

Polaris and Poseidon submarines suffer from communication difficulties so serious that "some of the messages never get delivered," as a senior naval officer put it. To permit "retaliation" after a massive surprise attack, officers on American and Russian missile-carrying submarines must be ready, presumably, to launch their enormously destructive loads even after military communications networks have been destroyed. Yet, they must never inadvertently or deliberately misconstrue an order to launch-during all the long years the submarines will cruise the oceans as part of the "stable" deterrent, as well as during the confusion and turmoil of a global crisis. Will this formidable requirement always be met?

The peril may well be greater on the Soviet side. Since the American military establishment is relatively open to outside scrutiny, pressures to ferret out safety hazards or institute perhaps costly remedies can come from civilians in the executive branch, congressional committees and even the public. Under the compartmentalized, pervasive secrecy of the Soviet military, however, past accidents and present hazards can be kept not only from the public but from senior civilian authorities as well.

Given that occasional incompetence or malfeasance is predictable in large institutions-whether military or civilian-the safety of nuclear armaments remains a constantly pressing uncertainty. Given the huge and far-flung missile forces, ready to be launched from land and sea on both sides, the scope for disaster by accident is immense. Given that our strategic dogmas demand the targeting of populations and denial of defensive measures, the carnage would be without restraint. And as if all this were not terrifying enough, some proponents of these dogmas want to push matters to the brink.

Various influential people have urged that the United States adopt procedures to launch its missile force upon receipt of a warning that a Soviet surprise attack is on the way. Senator Fulbright, for example, recommended in 1969 that our missiles should be launched "immediately" upon warning of a Soviet attack, "without any fiddling around about it, even without asking the computer what to do," even if the warning indicated a "light attack." Other American senators and government advisers have also advocated that, in the event our forces became more vulnerable, we adopt a policy of launching our missiles on warning. According to at least two of these advocates-Jerome Wiesner, President Kennedy's Science Adviser, and Richard Garwin, member of President Nixon's Science Advisory Committee-it might not even be necessary to wait for the first nuclear detonation before launching.

But what might appear as a deliberate attack within the few minutes before the expected impact could have been a false warning; even an actual nuclear explosion could have been accidental. The short time available to execute a "retaliatory" launch-on-warning of our missile forces would not be enough to resolve this uncertainty.

Advocacy of a launch-on-warning policy might be viewed as a passing aberration in a fluid debate, if it were not for institututional pressures among the military that will keep driving in the same direction. Those branches of American and Russian military services that believe they must continue to press the case for land-based missile forces will-because of the increasing vulnerability of these forces-be ever more tempted to stress launch-on-warning as an option. To make this option more acceptable, new warning systems would be acquired; these in turn would strengthen vested interests in favor of this policy.

In Russia, such pressures may be even more compelling, because Soviet strategic thinking continues to consider favorably "preëmption," that is, striking at the enemy before he can complete-or even start-his attack. For instance, the 1968 edition of Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii's book on Soviet military strategy refers to surveillance systems for detecting "the adversary's immediate preparations for a nuclear attack" as well as his massive missile launch, making it possible "to bar an aggressor's surprise attack and deliver prompt nuclear strikes against him." As recently as 1971, Defense Minister Grechko stressed the importance of speed for "frustrating an aggressor's surprise blows and successfully carrying out those military tasks, especially by the rocket troops. . . which must be fulfilled in a matter of seconds." In a matter of seconds-through technical accident or human failure-mutual deterrence might thus collapse.

President Nixon, in his last two foreign policy messages, has rejected a launch-on-warning policy. However, should one side give the appearance of adopting it, the other might feel compelled to institute faster launch procedures, creating an "arms race" in reducing safeguards against accidental war. Under mounting pressures from Soviet "hawks," and from some American "doves" as well as "hawks," in both countries responsible people in the center may not keep enough influence to halt this race. The very fact that well-informed and well-intentioned advisers now recommend, in essence, that the balance of terror should rest on hair-triggered doomsday machines offers a chilling reminder that we cannot rely on unswerving rationality among those who might affect critical strategic decisions.

The launch-on-warning aberration is only the most conspicuous outgrowth of the belief that to prevent nuclear war we have but to deter it. Our present strategic policy aggravates the risk of accidental war through many less visible practices as well as by its grand design.


While the current overemphasis on mutual deterrence against a "rational" surprise attack dates from the mid-1960s, the other two dogmas of our nuclear strategy are largely the legacy of earlier periods. This is particularly true of the dogma that "retaliation" must be swift, inflicted in an all-out strike.

The world's first nuclear force-the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC)-was established in a period when we did not have to deter nuclear attack, but seriously feared the Red Army might move into Western Europe with its preponderant conventional strength. SAC became the remedy for the weakness perceived in the United States because of our extensive unilateral disarmament following World War II. One cannot appreciate the thinking of American leaders at that time, unless one makes an effort to recall how imminent they judged the likelihood that the Russians would launch an all- out ground attack in Europe.

Accordingly, to fight a war seemed at least as important a mission for SAC as to deter one. And in planning to fight a war, American strategists took account of what they had learned from the bombing raids in World War II. Whereas they had found that urban societies could continue to support a war effort as long as the damage was partial and gradual, it still seemed possible that sudden and extensive destruction would produce a collapse. Thus, the strategy that had not fully succeeded against Hitler because of technological limitations now seemed feasible thanks to the atomic bomb. Our new weapons could administer the "knock-out blow" against Russia's cities-the industrial and political centers-in order to halt the Red Army's advance against Western Europe. Hence, to be an effective war-fighting strategy, atomic bombing had to be a concentrated, quick blow.

As the Russians also began to acquire a nuclear capability, American strategists came to fear attack on European or even American cities, as an act of "retaliation" should SAC carry out the attack that would leave the advancing Red Army without support from the homeland. Thus, the first priority for SAC in the mid-1950s became the destruction of the Soviet nuclear capability before it could be used. This priority provided a second reason for our nuclear strike to be prompt and massive.

Initially, our strategic forces for this disarming strike lacked intercontinental range; they had to be based in North Africa or Europe to reach their targets. Later, we assigned an increasingly large role in this mission to our growing intercontinental arms, which meant they had to be capable of reaching their targets early enough to prevent the launching of most of the Soviet weapons. Thanks to the new solid fuel technology, our U.S.-based missiles could be launched in minutes and Minuteman became our principal land-based missile force. The requirement for speed, stemming from the disarming mission of our forces protecting Western Europe and appropriate perhaps for the 1950s and early 1960s, was thereby transferred to the arms that were to remain a principal element in our intercontinental deterrent for the 1970s and beyond.

After 1963, however, our dominant strategic philosophy shifted from the emphasis on the disarming strike to the principle of "mutual assured destruction." This shift was primarily motivated by our view of the arms race: we feared that our efforts to maintain a capability for a disarming strike would stimulate a continuing build-up of Soviet forces; and conversely, we hoped that our restraint would be reciprocated. Accordingly, we began to deny ourselves the capability to defend against those Soviet forces that could escape our quick, disarming strike in behalf of NATO, and- further undermining this earlier mission of our strategic forces-we began to curtail our capability to hit Soviet forces. In 1971, for example, the Senate referred explicitly to this new arms-control thinking in voting against funds to improve the accuracy of our missiles.

As a result of these developments, our current strategic posture is afflicted by a deep but strangely concealed contradiction. Those of our forces that serve to protect our NATO allies are still largely designed and operated in accordance with the earlier strategy threatening, in response to a major conventional attack, a nuclear first strike that would seek to disarm. But our global deterrence posture now has to meet the opposite requirement: to eschew, and through agreement mutually to preclude, a nuclear disarming capability. Meanwhile, some of our allies have come to regard our nuclear forces based on their soil as the most tangible symbol committing our entire deterrent forces to their defense, so that our former technological reason for overseas basing has been replaced by a political one. In the midst of the incompatibility between our nuclear strategy for NATO and our global deterrence policy, our so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons-also a legacy of a bygone era-introduce yet another anachronism of obsolete posture and technology.

To make the historical evolution still more complex, starting about 1960 the growing Soviet nuclear capability seemed to threaten more than just vengeful destruction of our cities so as to deter NATO's nuclear "knock- out" response to a Red Army advance. Soviet intercontinental missiles began to pose the canonical threat that figures so prominently in our strategic analysis-the massive surprise attack to disarm the United States. Given that the major portion of our strategic forces had been designed primarily for the prompt disarming strike in response to a Soviet invasion of Europe, they had not been primarily designed to survive a Soviet nuclear attack. For this new mission-"retaliation" in response to the Soviet nuclear strike- our bombers and missiles had to be launched promptly, before they were all destroyed on the ground. Here was the third reason conspiring to keep our strategic thinking riveted to the notion that "retaliation" had to be swift.


Clearly distinguishable from the notion that "retaliation" must be a swift, massive strike in any strategy of mutual deterrence is the now equally prevalent dogma that this strike must be designed to kill millions of people. This dogma can also be traced to the technical and conceptual limitations of strategic bombing in World War II. One has to recall the emotions and theories behind Hitler's raids on Coventry and London, and the deliberate bombing of residential areas in Hamburg, Tokyo, Dresden and Hiroshima, to understand how we could have arrived where we are today. After World War II, military experts began to recognize that the immensely greater destructive power of nuclear weapons could compensate for the inaccuracy of aerial bombing, hence permitting destruction of small-sized military targets. But only if these targets were in unpopulated areas could they be destroyed without the killing of civilian populations. A nuclear weapon small enough to avoid vast civilian damage, yet accurate enough to hit most military targets, was not within the technology of the first nuclear decade.

As our strategic planners began to grapple with the role of nuclear weapons, not only was their vision confined by these technological limitations; but their sensitivity to the distinction between combatants and civilians-long cultivated through civilizing centuries-had become dulled by the strategic bombing in World War II. And given that we were then still planning how to fight-not to deter-a nuclear war, the mass killing of noncombatants came to be viewed as a "bonus effect," a useful by- product of the bombing campaign on which we relied to win in the event of World War III. Our "knock-out blow" would paralyze the Red Army not only by demolishing railroad yards, factories and party headquarters, but also by decimating urban populations and thus (perhaps) crushing Russia's "morale."

This history-not reasoned strategic analysis-led us into the habit of thinking that one had to threaten the killing of millions and millions of people in order to deter an "aggressor." None the less, the question of whether or not cities should be the targets of the "retaliatory" strike remained unsettled. In the late 1950s, a few strategists began to make the case that we should avoid hitting Russian cities in our initial strike responding to Soviet aggression. Instead, we should seek to destroy whatever Soviet nuclear weapons had not yet been used as well as other military targets, holding Soviet cities "hostage" to deter attacks on our cities. This strategy, it was then argued, would not only serve us better if nuclear war should break out for whatever reason, but would be just as effective to deter it.

During his first two years in office, Secretary of Defense McNamara came out in support of this new strategy and advocated military efforts consistent with it, such as civil defense and "counterforce" capabilities. Yet, after 1963, he began to promote the concept of "assured destruction." Initially, he perhaps meant to use this concept primarily as a convenient bureaucratic tactic. By pointing out our overwhelming capability for "assured destruction," he had a precise, statistical measurement for arguing against budgetary pressures from the military services, that we had more than enough arms for deterrence.

What began as a budgetary device within the Defense Department, conveniently fitting the need to shift defense dollars from our strategic forces to Vietnam from 1965 on, ended up as one of the dogmas governing our strategic and arms-control policy. We came to view a "retaliatory" threat to kill a major fraction of the Russian population as necessary for deterrence. And we came to believe that forces tailored to this threat were the only alternative to forces that appeared to jeopardize Russia's nuclear deterrent and hence would stimulate an arms race.

As "assured destruction" became the yardstick of nuclear strategy, the underlying calculations adopted a brutally simplifying index of success. It considered only those hostages whose death from the retaliatory strike would be certain and exactly calculable-those killed by the direct blast and heat effects of our weapons. In gauging the excellence of our deterrent- as reflected in statistics presented to Congress-those Russians who would be killed or injured by fires, fallout and famine were excluded. Cognoscenti call this method of calculation the "cookie cutter"-nuclear weapons are assumed to "take out" hostages in a neat circle, like a piece of dough.

Such tasteless jargon helps to conceal the peculiar reasoning that is implicit in the modern approach to deterrence. We impute to the potential aggressor enough rationality or compassion to be reliably deterred by the prospect that calculable millions of his compatriots would meet prompt and certain death from "direct weapons effects;" we somehow do not trust him to be deterred by the prospect of the less easily measured millions who would suffer and die from radiation sickness, untreated injuries or starvation. And while destruction of industry has been mentioned as being part of our "assured destruction," the question whether one could spare people and target only industry has scarcely been raised. Yet, by permitting evacuation, for instance, separation of urban industries and populations might be accomplished.

The Nixon administration properly discontinued flaunting of these gruesome statistics to demonstrate the reliability of our deterrent. None the less, most American strategic experts still use the same calculus.

Our arms-control experts and military planners insulate themselves from the potential implications of their labors by layers of dehumanizing abstractions and bland metaphors. Thus, "assured destruction" fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then "assured genocide" would reveal the truth too starkly. The common phrase, "deterring a potential aggressor," conveys a false simplicity about the processes that might lead to a nuclear attack, as if we had to worry only about some ambitious despot who sits calculating whether or not to start a nuclear war. A moral perversity lies hidden behind the standard formula: in the event this "aggressor" attacks, we must "retaliate by knocking out his cities." Tomas de Torquemada, who burned 10,000 heretics at the stake, could claim principles more humane than our nuclear strategy; for his tribunals found all his victims guilty of having knowingly committed mortal sin.

The jargon of American strategic analysis works like a narcotic. It dulls our sense of moral outrage about the tragic confrontation of nuclear arsenals, primed and constantly perfected to unleash widespread genocide. It fosters the current smug complacence regarding the soundness and stability of mutual deterrence. It blinds us to the fact that our method for preventing nuclear war rests on a form of warfare universally condemned since the Dark Ages-the mass killing of hostages.

Indeed, our nuclear strategy is supposed to work the better, the larger the number of hostages that would pay with their lives should the strategy fail. This view has become so ingrained that the number of hostages who could be killed through a "second strike" by either superpower is often used as a measure of the "stability" of deterrence. Our very motive behind the recent treaty curbing the deployment of missile defenses is to keep this number reliably high.

In the long run, preserving a mutual threat of genocide may impede the reduction of tension and distrust between the two nuclear superpowers that we all hope for. It is far better, of course, for major powers to maintain peace between them by planning for deterrence instead of for war. But to stabilize deterrence by keeping ready arsenals for instant and unrestrained slaughter of men, women and children is likely to impose a wrenching perspective on the officialdom of both nations. Such a "stabilization" perpetuates an arms-control philosophy that, at its core, is incredibly hostile. How would American-British relations have developed in the nineteenth century if, instead of the Rush-Bagot agreement, we had negotiated the establishment of armaments on each side permanently primed to destroy most cities in the United States and England?

Despite the arcane jargon of modern deterrence theory, ordinary Americans and Russians cannot escape the realization that their generation and their children's generation are destined to remain the chosen target of the nuclear forces on the other side. Toward each other as a people, Americans and Russians harbor practically no feelings of hostility, but by our theories they must indefinitely face each other as the most fearful threat to their future existence.


Mercifully, no inhuman power condemns us to live perpetually in the grim jail of our own ideas. Alternatives can be found, although it may take decades to construct a better order for the prevention of nuclear war and the task will require the work of many minds. This is all the more reason for beginning today.

A good place to begin is to cast out the dogma that to deter nuclear attack, the threatened response must be the mass killing of people. By taking advantage of modern technology, we should be able to escape the evil dilemma that the strategic forces on both sides must either be designed to kill people or else jeopardize the opponent's confidence in his deterrent. The potential accuracy of "smart" bombs and missiles and current choices in weapon effects could enable both sides to avoid the killing of vast millions and yet to inflict assured destruction on military, industrial and transportation assets-the sinews and muscles of the régime initiating war. Combined with this change in concept and techniques of "retaliation," we must design solutions more stable than in the past to the problem of achieving invulnerable deterrent forces. No matter how accurately each side can aim its own weapons, we want to make it physically impossible for most of the strategic arms to be destroyed by sudden attack.

It is premature to judge whether such a change in capabilities and doctrine might eventually make it desirable for us and the Russians to permit active defenses for urban populations while prohibiting them for military assets other than the nuclear deterrent. If such discrimination were to become technically feasible, its desirability would depend not only on American- Soviet relations at that time, but also on the danger of attack, if any, from other nuclear powers.

The second dogma we have to discard is that response to nuclear attack must be the prompt, even instant, launching of nearly the entire nuclear force. By eliminating the need to design our arms for instant launching, we can reduce vulnerability in many new ways. Precisely how to design forces that are far less vulnerable because they are not meant for instant reaction is a task for future research. We may not now see promising approaches; over all these years we have never made the effort. Arms buried thousands of feet underground come to mind, with provision for reaching the surface-and their targets-weeks or months after attack. By insisting that our strategic arms be capable of swift launch, we have restricted our engineers to such vulnerable arrangements as aircraft in delicately ready conditions and missiles exposed on or near the surface.

If we can eliminate the vulnerability of our strategic arms to surprise attack, we will have broken the vicious circle: that they must be ready for prompt launching because they are vulnerable, and that they are vulnerable because they must be ready. Furthermore, should the Russians come to agree with us, we could jointly decide to replace the doomsday catapults invented in the 1950s with arms that are incapable of being launched swiftly. If the strategic order could be transformed in this way, the dominant fear of surprise attack which drives our arms competition would loosen its grip. Weapons incapable of quick launching tend to be less suitable for surprise; and against truly invulnerable nuclear armaments, surprise would have lost its purpose.

Neither we nor the Russians will suddenly scuttle all our hair-triggered engines of destruction. By abandoning the dogma of speed, however, both of us can shift intellectual energies and budgetary resources to develop different nuclear armaments. Strategic weapons have a long lifetime; between the initial concept and the scrap heap, up to 25 years may elapse. What we engineer during this decade will have to prevent nuclear war into the next century.

Discarding the dogma of speed would result in another gain, perhaps even more important than reduced vulnerability. It would go a long way to reduce the danger of accidental war. By eliminating the requirement for launching entire missile forces in a matter of minutes, we can get rid of the triggering mechanisms and sensitive command procedures where some obscure malfunction might lead to cataclysm. Time is the best healer of mistakes, whether technical or human. The insistence on speed leaves insufficient time for double-checking; it denies opportunities for correction. If rapidity becomes the overriding concern, independent monitors tend to get pushed aside. Until about 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission shared in the custody of the nuclear weapons deployed by the military. But the notion that these weapons had to be ready for immediate use led President Truman to turn them over to the sole custody of the military.

Although avoiding the killing of hostages, these changes would not make nuclear war less unacceptable as an instrument of policy. Deterrence would remain: the conventional military might of the aggressor nation-its navy, army and air force with their logistics support-would be the first to suffer "assured destruction." Such a prospect would make even less tempting the planning of nuclear war than today's actual or imagined opportunities for a quick strike to deprive the opponent of his nuclear weapons. And the risk of the destruction of cities would still loom in the background.

Could the Soviet leaders be induced to accept such an evolution? We have lately devoted a major effort to teach our dogmas to the Russians-some feel with considerable success. Certain stubborn positions in Soviet strategic thought, however, manifest a less narrow view of deterrence by showing greater concern for dangers of a nuclear war that cannot be deterred, and reflect a longer time-perspective than we have developed. Once freed from our dogmas, we may discover that the distance in strategic views between us and the Russians is less than it appears today.

The greatest obstacles to the necessary reconstruction of our strategic order may well be intellectual and institutional rigidities. We justify our old habits of thinking because we are so competently familiar with the arguments against change. We are disposed to reject suggestions for improvement by demanding a perfect solution at the outset.

Military services cling to the type of weapons to which they have become accustomed, seeking marginal improvements rather than radical innovation. For instance, the United States Navy in the 1950s was at first reluctant to press ahead with the Polaris program, preferring to stress the strategic mission of carrier- based aircraft. Similarly, the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and the United States Air Force will probably want to hold on to their land-based missile forces well beyond the 1970s. Much is made about the importance of preserving our "triad" of strategic forces, as if the fact that we happened to acquire bombers, missiles and submarines created some sacred trinity. Means outlive their ends among military organizations, for it is to the means that institutional loyalties and intellectual craftsmanship are devoted.

The scholasticism justifying our current policy is full of contradictions. On the one hand, we brush aside the immorality of threatening to kill millions of hostages, assuming that the threat will deter and that to deter means to prevent nuclear war. On the other hand, we argue that we must be poised to carry out "retaliation" swiftly and thus convey determination for irrational vengeance, since all rational purpose of retaliation would have disappeared when its time had come. We want to maintain a vague threat of using nuclear weapons first to deter massive conventional attack; yet, to stabilize mutual deterrence we must not threaten Soviet nuclear arms nor defend against them. . . .

The result of such contradictions is a cancelling out of good intentions. In some years, our arms policy is dominated by our preoccupation with the arms race and the view that we should therefore hobble our forces. In other years, we decide to refurbish our so-called options for attacking Russia's nuclear arms. Left to itself, this pulling and hauling between yin and yang will not lead the world into a safer era. On the contrary, the bureaucratic struggle may result in the worst compromise among the biases of contending factions. While luck has been with us so far, strategic thinking must and can find a new path into the twenty-first century.

[i] Many other examples can be found of aggressive wars that have been planned without at all considering how they were to end. See the author's "Every War Must End." New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

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