Courtesy Reuters

Reconsiderations: Periods of Peril: The Window of Vulnerability and Other Myths

Mankind has a pressing psychological need to explain the world; it has no such need to see it explained correctly.

-Patrick M. Morgan

In the post-World War II era Americans have had a pressing need to come to terms with two critical international uncertainties: the future character of Soviet behavior and the likely shape of the nuclear danger. One recurrent idea that seeks to deal with these uncertainties is the notion that the United States is about to enter a period of peril because of an adverse shift in the strategic nuclear balance. The idea was most in vogue during the 1950s, but it has recently been revived as the "window of vulnerability."

The period of peril theory deals with the two great uncertainties by melding them. The prediction of Soviet behavior is reduced to a set of technological issues relating to the strategic nuclear balance. Projected Soviet acquisition of certain technological capabilities, such as intercontinental bombers or missiles, is assumed to create a new U.S. vulnerability which will change the balance in the Soviet favor. It is argued that the Soviets will exploit the altered balance through actions which pose a wide range of military and political threats to the United States. It is also taken for granted that, when the Soviets acquire such a technology, they will be little constrained by budgetary considerations in the production and deployment of new weapons because they are committed to very high levels of defense spending. It follows that the solution to the problem of the Soviet threat is also a matter of military technology and defense spending.

Such thinking involves an assumption of technological determinism, in the sense that it postulates that the broad aggressive purposes of the Soviets are made operative and given specific content and direction by the Soviet acquisition of new military technologies. Means, in effect, determine goals. By the same token, the Soviets' acquisition of these technologies is perceived as confirming that Soviet intentions are aggressive and

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