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 adventuresome. This argument projects upon the Russians a way of thinking that is characteristic of American foreign policy. Thus, Stanley Hoffmann and others suggest that the American national style is characterized, on the one hand, by commitments to very broad principles of ambiguous character and, on the other, by an "engineering approach" to problems that emphasizes technique and technology.1 Principles have a reassuring value, but a lesser operational effect. At the point where principles are put into practice, technique and technology tend to dominate policy.

Like myths, the period of peril theory is a self-contained system of thought. If its basic assumption of technological determinism and its projections of Soviet capabilities are accepted, there is almost no way that it can be invalidated. The argument therefore has a powerful persuasive appeal. Its ramifications can be derived in a seemingly logical way. No knowledge of Soviet history or of the complex structure of Soviet political goals and motivations is required. The relevance of history and politics is, in fact, denied by the claim that Soviet international behavior is dominated by Soviet perceptions of the strategic balance. (Of course, the Soviets have their own simplifying myths to explain American behavior.)

There have been many critiques dealing with particular aspects of the window of vulnerability idea. They will not be repeated here. Rather, the approach will be to analyze the period of peril notion as a way of thinking, by comparing the window of vulnerability argument with three earlier major examples of the genre, the famous NSC-68 policy paper of 1950, and two influential statements in the Eisenhower period-the Killian Report of 1955 and the Gaither Report of 1957.

NSC-68 was prepared by a joint State and Defense Department committee in response to President Truman's request for a review of foreign and defense policies, in light of the communist takeover in China, the first Soviet nuclear test, and the prospective development of thermonuclear weapons. Its preparation reflected a mixture of motives: a belief that foreign and defense policies needed to be better integrated; discontent with existing defense policies and programs; a fear by some officials of a major Soviet aggressive move; and the belief by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (David E. Lilienthal) that the State and Defense Departments had not thought through the strategic implications of nuclear weapons.

The Killian Report of 1955 responded to President Eisenhower's request for a technical study of ways of avoiding a surprise attack upon the United States. The study grew out of Eisenhower's persistent concern that, with modern weapons, a closed society could gain a major advantage over an open society because of its ability to plan a surprise attack in secrecy. The report was prepared by an expert panel of the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization.

The Gaither Report, prepared by a similar panel in 1957, was a product of growing concern with civil defense. It began as a study of active and passive defenses against a nuclear attack, requested by the President in response to a proposal by the Federal Civil Defense Administration for a $40-billion civil defense shelter program. It evolved into a broader study of U.S. nuclear retaliatory forces.

The phrase "window of vulnerability" appears to have been coined by a Pentagon analyst about 1978. But the relevant ideas were brought to public notice by the reports of the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization which was created in 1976 by opponents of détente who were alarmed by the Soviet arms buildup and who sought to influence official thinking on arms issues. Several were also members of the officially sponsored "Team B" which in 1976 prepared a more pessimistic alternative to the annual CIA estimate of Soviet intentions and capabilities. The Committee's ideas have now been given a degree of official imprimatur by the endorsement of President Reagan and other top national security officials, a great many of whom, including the President, were once members of the board of the Committee.

Although arguments in support of the period of peril concept have become more complex with the growth in complexity of the nuclear balance and with the development of a more sophisticated literature on Soviet military doctrine, the essentials of the case have changed remarkably little since 1950.

The principal elements of the argument can be briefly stated. The Soviets are assumed to have very ambitious goals which are, at best, very broadly and vaguely described. A period of peril begins with Soviet acquisition of a new technological capability which creates a potential vulnerability for U.S. strategic forces at a date that is typically near at hand, suggesting the urgency of action to deal with it. For NSC-68 the relevant new Soviet capability was nuclear weapons; for the Killian Report, primarily long-range bombers and thermonuclear weapons; for the Gaither Report, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and for the window of vulnerability, a hard-target-kill capability against land-based missiles. The emerging U.S. vulnerability is seen as undermining the American deterrent and as producing a general decline in American power if it is not promptly remedied. Because they will have checkmated our nuclear deterrent, the Soviets, it is assumed, will be emboldened, during the period of vulnerability, to take actions that previously involved unacceptable risks. Such actions may include surprise nuclear attack, employment of coercive diplomacy including nuclear blackmail, and the direct or indirect use of conventional force.

Soviet military programs are generally perceived as going well beyond anything that can be justified on any concept of defense; the Russians obviously plan to take the offensive. The military hardware gap is accompanied by a spending gap. The Russians are becoming stronger because they devote a larger proportion of their gross national product to defense than the United States. Potentially, however, they are relatively weak because they cannot match basic U.S. economic and technological capabilities if those capabilities are mobilized. Reflected here is a characteristic "Russia is strong-Russia is weak" ambivalence. Without Soviet strength there is no threat; without Soviet weakness there is no hope.2

The policy recommendations that flow from this line of argument are either for a general U.S. defense buildup (NSC-68 and the "window") or for more narrowly focused improvements in defense programs, especially strategic programs (the Killian and Gaither Reports). Implementation of the recommendations is designed to end the period of peril by altering Soviet perceptions. There may also be suggestions as to the best time for negotiations with the Soviets.

An elaboration and comparison of this argument in the various studies will suggest some of the general difficulties with it. The critique that follows will concentrate upon its limitations as a mode of thinking. Those limitations often have their roots in peculiarly American cultural traits. Since the focus is upon American thinking, American biases are emphasized. Soviet cultural biases of course also distort the U.S.-Soviet relationship. For example, the historical Russian superiority-inferiority ambivalence vis-à-vis the West causes the Soviets to be unusually preoccupied with the status of the U.S.S.R. as a co-equal global power and may be the source of Soviet statements that are perceived by some, but not all, American analysts as assertions of hegemonial aims.3

Obviously, the interpretation of Soviet behavior is an especially problematic enterprise. As already suggested, that is one of the reasons for the appeal of the period of peril concept. Accordingly, the purpose of this critique is not to offer a different dogma to replace the period of peril dogma, but rather to demonstrate the inadequacies of the latter and to suggest other, more plausible, explanations of Soviet behavior.


Let us look first at the picture of overall Soviet policy and the basic U.S.-Soviet relationship in the four examples.

Prepared in the wake of the increasing sense of Soviet threat in Europe, the unexpectedly early ending by the Soviets of the U.S. nuclear monopoly, and the communist takeover of China, NSC-68 reflected a feeling that we were on the brink of a great discontinuity in international politics. Linked to the Kremlin's imperial designs, the Soviet Union's acquisition of nuclear weapons and its prospective development of thermonuclear weapons were seen as placing the American democratic system "in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history."4 It can be inferred from the text of NSC-68 and from the discussions that accompanied its promulgation that those who prepared it believed that military force had assumed a new role in Soviet thinking about international affairs. Thus, Paul Nitze, the document's principal author, argued that the Soviets now clearly saw the Red Army as a "precursor of revolution." Historical precedents had become unreliable guides in judging the prospects for war. Current Soviet actions, Nitze said, reflected a "mounting militancy" and a new boldness that "borders on recklessness."5 The threat was also increasing because the Soviets were devoting both a larger proportion, and a greater absolute amount, of their resources to defense than was the West.

The United States was the principal obstacle to Soviet achievement of its goal of world domination, and, NSC-68 argued, "there [was] no justification in Soviet theory or practice for predicting that, should the Kremlin become convinced that it could cause our downfall by one conclusive blow, it would not seek that solution."

The new discontinuity in international politics extended to the very structure of the international system. Even without the Soviet threat, "the absence of order among nations [was] becoming less and less tolerable." The existing international system was characterized as an "uneasy equilibrium-without-order." The Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons would put new strains on this precarious system. The risks, therefore, were "of a new order of magnitude." There was also a danger that Soviet subversive activities would sow such confusion in American society as to prevent the government from achieving its purposes.

The authors of NSC-68, therefore, saw the United States as entering a new age of uncertainty in which the past could be a poor guide to the future and in which international order and domestic support for the government would be endangered. George Kennan, State Department Counselor and ever the historian, dissented from this view, arguing in his comments on NSC-68 that there was a basic continuity in world developments and in Soviet policy and that the cold war had not taken a sudden "drastic turn" against the United States.

Neither the Killian nor the Gaither Reports devoted much space to general statements of the Soviet threat. As a consequence of their narrower terms of reference, both were concerned primarily with the direct threats posed by evolving Soviet military technology and U.S. vulnerabilities. (The related domination of both committees by scientists and engineers may also explain the lack of political content.) The Gaither Report said only that the U.S.S.R. was expansionist and that "her great efforts to build military power go beyond any concept of defense." It also raised the specter of an increasing gap between U.S. and Soviet military spending levels, due to the Soviets' faster rate of economic growth and their allocation of a larger proportion of GNP to defense.6

Robert Sprague, the director of the Gaither study, did, however, offer a theory of Soviet motivation in subsequent congressional testimony: ". . . Mr. Khrushchev has a very simple view of history . . . . Power is supreme. He plans to win by being more powerful-militarily, economically, psychologically." Khrushchev did not want war if he could avoid it, Sprague contended; he wanted a dominant power position so that he could dictate the terms of peace. A shift in the military balance, which was threatened by Soviet military programs, could give him such a capability.7 As in NSC-68, military considerations were seen as ultimate determinants of Soviet behavior.

There is ample evidence that members of the Gaither Committee felt a deep sense of alarm. One member characterized his work on the Committee as spending ten hours a day staring straight into hell. Another said that "the United States faces a clear and imminent threat to its survival." Chalmers Roberts reported in The Washington Post that the Report "portrays a United States in the gravest danger in its history." He also claimed that, according to the Report, the United States was in danger of becoming a second-class power.

The contemporary Committee on the Present Danger and President Reagan accept NSC-68's contention that the Soviet goal of world domination is a useful guide to the Kremlin's behavior and that military factors are the critical determinants of Soviet action. The Committee, however, translates this view into the Soviet terminology of the "correlation of forces"-a concept reflecting subjective, self-interested judgments as to the changing patterns of power in international politics. Thus, the Committee claims that Soviet behavior is determined by the correlation of forces; the correlation of forces, by the Soviet perception of the military balance; and the military balance by the Soviet view of the strategic balance.8

The Committee and the Administration also argue that the Soviet Union's commitment of a larger percentage of its GNP to defense, together with steady annual increases in absolute Soviet defense expenditures and U.S. underinvestment in defense equipment and installations in the 1960s and 1970s, have opened a wide spending gap between the Russians and ourselves.

The Committee asserts that the Soviets see nuclear war as winnable and that they plan for fighting and winning such a war. However, Moscow's primary goal, in the Committee's view, is a "visible preponderance of power" in order to achieve political dominance without war. As in 1950, the period of peril is seen as a time in which the Soviets will be confident, bold and venturesome. The Brezhnev regime, in the Committee's view, undertook "programs of expansion far beyond Stalin's dreams" and "sponsored wars of far greater magnitude." The Committee and the Reagan Administration argue that Soviet adventurism is being stimulated by a belief that there has been an irreversible shift in the correlation of forces in the Soviets' favor.9

These arguments are simplistic at best. The view of the Soviet threat presented in NSC-68 and the "window" argument emphasizes broad, general determinants of Soviet behavior over more specific determinants. It seeks to explain Soviet behavior on the basis of a combination of broad principles-such as a Soviet goal of world domination or the Soviet view of the correlation of forces-and Soviet advances in military technology, with the effective emphasis upon the latter. But as George Kennan argued in commenting on the North Korean attack on South Korea, Soviet behavior is influenced primarily by narrower goals and by the specific costs and benefits of action in particular situations.

Moreover, while the Soviets certainly seek to make gains at U.S. expense, it is now widely agreed that Soviet policy is more reactive than we have often assumed.10 Soviet action in Afghanistan was brutal and indefensible, but the U.S. understanding of that action did not take adequate account of its reactive character or of such particular characteristics of the Afghan situation as historical Russian involvement in the politics of Afghanistan, proximity, religio-ethnic relationships and the Soviet commitment to preserve what Moscow viewed as a socialist revolution. Instead, as in Korea, the United States assumed that Soviet action was a prelude to a broader Soviet offensive.11 (The Soviets, of course, may also have miscalculated our reaction.)

To equate the Soviet concept of "correlation of forces" with measurements of the strategic balance is to engage in reductionism. That Soviet concept embraces the whole gamut of the military and nonmilitary aspects of power, including, for example, the revolutionary potential in target societies. Moreover, the Soviets have been claiming regularly since their revolution that the correlation of forces is changing in their favor. The argument is also reductive in its tendency to translate the strategic balance into an exercise in "bean counting." This inclination toward a purely statistical comparison of opposing strategic forces reflects not only a characteristic American belief in technological determinism but also a related faith in "hard facts"-in the superior truth of knowledge that can be translated into numbers. It is an approach totally rejected by the Soviets who, in the characterization of Benjamin Lambeth, see such analyses as "ahistorical, apolitical, lacking in operational content, and insensitive to the realities of modern warfare."12

The Committee on the Present Danger is, of course, correct in arguing that Soviet doctrine endorses preparation for the waging of nuclear war should deterrence fail. It is much less clear that the Soviet leadership takes the view, as the Committee and the Administration claim, that a nuclear war can be won in any meaningful sense. Khrushchev, Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders have denied that there can be victors in a nuclear war. But, because such denial poses problems for Marxist-Leninist theory and runs against the grain of the rather traditionalist thinking of the Soviet military, the issue has created a problem for the leadership, a debate in the Soviet Union, and some ambiguity in Soviet statements. What is striking, however, is that Khrushchev jettisoned a position based upon long-held doctrinal tenets relating to the inevitability of war between socialist and capitalist states and to the certainty of Soviet victory, and that Brezhnev continued to hew to the Khrushchev line. It does not seem plausible that such consistently expressed views of the top political leadership are merely a form of deception and that, contrariwise, the views of certain elements of the military-but not all of the military-that appear to point in a different direction represent true Soviet thinking. Moreover, the military in the United States as well as the U.S.S.R. has engaged in planning for the fighting and winning of a nuclear war. Such planning can be plausibly seen as a predictable reflection of the military role.


Broad perceptions of Soviet behavior provide a foundation for each claim of a period of peril, but such periods are defined primarily by estimates of evolving military technology. In particular, the beginning of such a period is defined by the date at which the Soviets are estimated to achieve a significant new capability which creates a corresponding American vulnerability. The period is projected to end when the United States acts to eliminate its vulnerability.

For NSC-68 the immediate source of threat was the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons. By mid-1954, when the Soviets were expected to have acquired 200 nuclear weapons, of which they could deliver perhaps 100 against U.S. targets, the situation was envisioned as potentially "disastrous." NSC-68 set no terminal date for the period of peril. An intelligence estimate prepared later in 1950, after the decision was made for a military buildup based on the recommendations of NSC-68, argued that the danger of general war would peak in 1952 and would end about 1954.13 NSC-68 furthermore anticipated the possibility of a period of special risk if, as the United States grew stronger, the Soviets should decide to seize a fading opportunity by deliberately initiating general war or by undertaking probing actions which got out of hand and precipitated a crisis.

The Killian Report laid out a timetable of change in the relative capabilities of the United States and the U.S.S.R. which differentiated four time periods, three of which were actual or potential periods of peril.14 In the first period, from 1955 to 1956 or 1957, the United States would have a superior strategic air force, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), but would be vulnerable to attack because of its lack of air defenses and reliable early warning. In addition, the U.S. policy of not initiating war gave the U.S.S.R. an incentive, if Soviet leaders decided to attack, to attempt to achieve surprise.

A second and more important period of danger, according to the Report, would begin in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the Soviets were expected to have multimegaton weapons and high-performance intercontinental jet aircraft and when SAC would remain vulnerable. The period would end (at a date not specified) when the United States had developed adequate air defenses and strengthened its own delivery capabilities.

The final period defined by the Report was expected to begin perhaps in 1965 and to continue indefinitely. It would be a period characterized by what we would now call "mutual assured destruction." Unlike the theorists of mutual assured destruction of the 1960s and 1970s, but more like current alarmists, the Killian Committee viewed this situation as the most dangerous of all. It would be an unstable condition "fraught with danger." The Committee argued that the United States should seek to escape from this situation back to nuclear superiority, but it could identify no future technological development that offered the prospect of such escape.

The Killian Committee did not spell out the dangers of this final period, but it is possible to infer its concerns from the general argument of the Report. Though the Report focused upon the vulnerability of SAC, the Committee's underlying concern was the fear that the development by the Soviets of a thermonuclear capability would in Killian's words, create "a threat of terrible dimensions."15 The Committee's view of this last period of peril was clearly an early reflection of the discomforts of mutual vulnerability in the thermonuclear age, of the desire to escape those discomforts, and of the fear that it would prove impossible to do so.

The Killian Report suggested that if, in these last two periods, the United States developed intercontinental missiles first, it would temporarily maintain its superiority; if the Soviets got them first, the Russians could achieve a comparable advantage. However, it was the Gaither Report of 1957 that concentrated on the effects of a combination of Soviet intercontinental missiles and continued SAC vulnerability. While that Report was in preparation, the Soviets tested an ICBM and launched Sputnik.

The Gaither Report followed the Killian model in outlining a four-phase calendar of vulnerability. The major period of peril, it predicted, would begin in 1959 or early 1960 when the U.S.S.R. was expected to possess a significant ICBM capability while the United States would not. SAC forces would be somewhat more dispersed, but not hardened against attack, and would be completely vulnerable to a Soviet ICBM strike. A Soviet disarming attack against SAC could be followed by a "decisive" attack on the United States by manned bombers. The period would end in 1961-62, according to the Report, if the United States took appropriate measures to reduce the vulnerability of its retaliatory forces. If the United States did not act promptly, the Report warned, the risk would be "unacceptable." Even with such measures, it contended, the period of peril would continue through the 1960s if the United States did not also undertake a substantial fallout-shelter program.

Like the Killian Report, the Gaither study was full of foreboding about the longer run, predicting a final period of indefinite duration, beginning in 1970-75, characterized by mutual vulnerability and an "extremely unstable equilibrium." It would be a period, the study asserted, in which temporary technological advantages, such as an effective anti-ballistic missile system, "could give either nation the ability to come near annihilating the other."

The Committee on the Present Danger and the Reagan Administration define the period of peril in terms of the vulnerability of U.S. ICBMs to Soviet missile attack. It is a consequence of the increasing hard-target-kill potential of Soviet missiles produced by the addition of multiple warheads and improved accuracy. This vulnerability is seen as symptomatic, moreover, of a larger trend toward U.S. strategic inferiority based upon the continuing Soviet military buildup. The Committee sees the period as already upon us and as lasting through the 1980s and perhaps beyond.

The Administration now argues that the period will begin in the mid-1980s. It will end when the United States develops an invulnerable counterforce capability built around the MX missile. Like the authors of NSC-68, the Committee foresees the possibility of a special period of danger when and if the United States begins to close the window of vulnerability. The Soviets might then act to "seize a fleeting opportunity."

Although the period of peril idea obviously militates against serious negotiations with the Soviets, efforts to define such periods have been accompanied by some conception of the role of negotiations. NSC-68 saw the prospects for early negotiations as bleak because they could only codify existing, unsatisfactory power realities. In the short run, negotiations were therefore useful only as a political tactic, designed to expose Soviet political purposes and to elicit public support for an arms buildup. In the longer run, they could facilitate Soviet withdrawals. The Killian and Gaither Reports identified a brief period in the near term (late 1950s) of potential U.S. superiority which would be uniquely favorable for political and diplomatic initiatives. (The Gaither study made emergence of such a period dependent upon improvements in SAC alert status.)

The Reagan Administration has argued that outcomes of past arms control negotiations have reflected U.S. military weakness; it would clearly have preferred to delay such negotiations until its military buildup was further along. Forced into negotiations by international political pressures, it has so far tended to use them mainly for their international political value and to elicit support at home for the arms buildup. It has demonstrated no disposition to become involved in negotiations on other major U.S.-Soviet issues.

These efforts to define periods of peril are typically based upon one-sided and misleading views of the strategic balance. The starting point for these definitions has been the vulnerability of U.S. retaliatory forces to Soviet attack-initially our bomber forces, currently our ICBMs. In defining the period of peril, the studies overlook the potentially greater vulnerabilities of the Soviet Union-which currently, for example, relies much more heavily than the United States on potentially vulnerable ICBM forces. One reason for this oversight is that the definition of the period of peril invariably assumes that the Soviets will strike first, though the Killian and Gaither Reports did assess relative vulnerabilities of both sides to a first strike in other, less critical, time periods. Soviet planners must assume, however, that the United States could strike first. That assumption is currently reinforced by U.S. movement toward a first-strike capability against Soviet ICBMs.

NSC-68 took a very simple view of the threat: because the Soviets supposedly had the capability to attack, there was a strong likelihood that they would attack. Beginning with the Killian Report, analysis was based upon a somewhat more sophisticated view that appeared to be concerned with the requirements for stable deterrence. However, the ultimate focus continued to rest less on America's ability to deter the Soviets through her capability for attacking the U.S.S.R. than upon U.S. vulnerabilities to a Soviet attack. That emphasis persists in the argument for a window of vulnerability. Its scenario for a nuclear crisis seems designed to demonstrate the irrelevance, as a deterrent, of the 75 percent of the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal that would survive even a completely successful Soviet attack on our land-based missiles.

One difficulty with the reports of the 1950s, of course, was that they overestimated Soviet capabilities. NSC-68's predictions about the size of Soviet nuclear stockpiles were "guesstimates" and the study said nothing specific about how the Soviets would deliver those weapons against American targets. In fact, the only long-range bomber available to the Soviets at the time or in 1954 was the propeller-driven Tu-4 Bull which lacked the necessary range or in-flight refueling capability for round-trip missions from the U.S.S.R. The projections of long-range bomber capabilities underlying the Killian Report and of intercontinental missiles underlying the Gaither Report proved to be substantial overestimates. Since the Gaither Committee acknowledged that the Soviets were not giving priority to the production of long-range bombers or to in-flight refueling, the credibility of its scenario for a bomber threat to American cities rested upon an assumed Soviet willingness to rely upon one-way missions.

The relative inattention of NSC-68 and the Gaither Report to the limitations of Soviet bomber capabilities illustrates another consequence of the tendency to focus narrowly on U.S. vulnerabilities: little specific attention was devoted to problems confronting the U.S.S.R. in attacking the United States. The current window of vulnerability scenario illustrates this tendency in another way. It overlooks the tremendous problems of coordination involved in mounting a complex attack against U.S. ICBMs. In such a strike all Soviet warheads would have to reach U.S. targets within minutes of each other if massive launchings and initial detonations were not to provide unmistakable warning. An assumption that such coordination would be possible reflects a faith in technology and organization which may be consistent with our technocratic bias, but which is most unlikely to be shared by the Soviets, who are attentive to the human and operational problems of modern warfare.

Our intelligence on Soviet capabilities has improved markedly since the 1950s. Nonetheless, the qualitative characteristics of Russian forces continue to be more difficult to assess than quantitative characteristics. There are, for example, serious questions as to Soviet missile accuracy in a combat situation and as to the reliability of Soviet missile forces. While few question the validity of current estimates of Soviet missile accuracy in tests, only about 12 technical analysts are said to fully understand the bases of those estimates. It is on the analyses of that handful of experts that the estimates-and the arguments based upon those estimates-ultimately rest.16

The issue of whether the Soviets are seeking to achieve strategic superiority does not, of course, revolve simply around the question of the supposed vulnerability of U.S. ICBMs. Like NSC-68 and the Gaither Report, the current argument is based partly on the idea that the scope and pace of Soviet arms efforts indicate a drive for dominance. The recent Soviet buildup has appeared alarming because of its seemingly inexorable character and because the deployment of Soviet ICBMs exceeded earlier U.S. expectations, but it is by no means clear that the buildup has been directed at achievement of "superiority." The Soviets have clearly sought strategic parity and believe that they have achieved it. But production and deployment goals seem to have been influenced at least as much by technical and production factors as by political purposes. The ICBM expansion program stopped in 1971 and the number of missile launchers subsequently declined, even while the number of warheads has steadily grown. Improvements in missile accuracy have quite probably been the result of pursuing technical objectives also pursued by the United States. Finally, the Russians, too, are influenced by nightmare scenarios, no more plausible than the Administration's, but apparently taken seriously by them (e.g., a NATO intervention in an East German uprising, exploited by the Chinese through an attack in the East).17

More basically, the concept of "nuclear superiority" has little meaning where each side can impose incredible levels of damage upon the other in a second strike. Despite elaborate efforts to quantify the idea, it is, in reality, a highly subjective and unprovable notion relating more to political perceptions than to the weapons balance. The Administration's view that we are, or soon will be, in a position of strategic inferiority is not widely shared by defense specialists. General David Jones, the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, rejects this view.18 The whole argument assumes that the balance of terror is a great deal more delicate than it is. The sheer size, complexity and technical sophistication of current forces on both sides creates a strategic balance that, in the words of one analyst, "is highly resistant to fundamental change."19

Concern over Soviet "superiority" has also received a powerful impetus from the argument of the Committee and the Administration that the Soviets believe that their capacity to fight and win a nuclear war is the principal deterrent to such a war. The U.S. interest in developing strategic nuclear warfighting concepts was not originally rooted in concerns generated by Soviet doctrine, but rather was a consequence of the expanding U.S. weapons stockpile. Nuclear plenty was the precondition and stimulus for the gradual emergence of current U.S. strategic war-fighting doctrine.20 More plentiful and accurate weapons seemed to some analysts to offer an opportunity to design strategies which would avoid large-scale attacks on cities and civilian populations. Technology substantially determined purpose. Having evolved such a doctrine, we have now become concerned about our relative capabilities for fighting and prevailing in a nuclear war. There is an irony here: nuclear plenty has bred a sense of nuclear inadequacy. Moreover, by tying our ability to deter the Soviets to our capabilities for fighting and winning a nuclear war we have generated new uncertainties about our ability to deter. Thus does technocratic thinking lead to an increased sense of peril.

It goes without saying that we must be concerned with threats to the stability of deterrence. But the timetables of future dangers embodied in these studies reflect a false precision which translates into undue alarmism. There is an assumption that international politics is balanced upon a knife edge and that Soviet acquisition of a new capability (often one we already possess) will create a major discontinuity in Soviet behavior and in the cold war.


In all of the studies which have forecast a period of peril, the idea that the Soviets are likely to translate their supposed strategic advantage into military action or severe political pressures is based upon a very simple assumption: that it has been primarily U.S. strategic superiority that has deterred the Soviets from such action in the past. Once again, this argument assumes that Soviet intentions can be derived directly from Soviet capabilities.

All the studies have attached a fairly high degree of probability to the possibility that the Soviets might launch a surprise nuclear attack. While acknowledging traditional Russian caution, NSC-68 argued that possession of nuclear weapons by both sides in a bipolar world placed a "premium" on a Soviet surprise attack. It did not predict such an attack, but it argued that, if the Soviets believed an attack could achieve a decisive military advantage, "the Kremlin would be tempted to strike swiftly and with stealth." If the Soviets were the first to acquire thermonuclear weapons, the risk of such an attack would be "greatly increased." The Truman Administration's valedictory review in late 1952 of national security policies and programs (NSC-141) reaffirmed such judgments, arguing that, under existing defense programs, the threat of a direct attack would reach "critical proportions" by 1954 or 1955.21

The Killian Report argued that nuclear weapons, by making a surprise attack potentially decisive, gave it a new importance. The U.S. policy of not initiating nuclear war also emphasized the importance to an enemy of surprise. The Report's timetable suggested that, during the initial period of U.S. vulnerability, the Soviets "might be tempted to try a surprise attack."

The Gaither Report's threat scenario for the period of peril was based upon the possibility that the Soviets could mount a disarming attack against SAC bases with its ICBMs. Our cities would then be at the mercy of Soviet bombers and, in the words of a Committee member, the Russians "could write the peace terms at their leisure."22

The Committee on the Present Danger, while avoiding a direct prediction of a surprise attack, suggests that modern military technology "bring[s] within the sphere of plausible calculation the idea of settling the military outcome of a great intercontinental war by a few powerful but integrated strokes." The Committee notes that Soviet military doctrine emphasizes the importance of surprise as a means of enhancing the prospects for victory and implies that the Russians contemplate an out-of-the-blue attack by suggesting that the Soviets see surprise as important to "destroying the forces of imminent victims of aggression before they can be used."

The Committee's famous scenario for Soviet exploitation of its nuclear "superiority" clearly contemplates the possibility of a surprise attack: The Soviets would attack and destroy most of our ICBMs. The United States, stripped of its rapid-response counterforce capability, could retaliate only against industry and population centers, but to do so would bring down a similar attack on the United States. Faced by grim alternatives, the President might decide that his best choice was to opt for a political settlement on Soviet terms. Anticipation of this dilemma will, it is argued, embolden the Soviets and cause the United States to give way to Soviet pressures even in the absence of an attack. This scenario follows the Gaither Committee's script. Despite the vast increase in U.S. capabilities since 1957, we are therefore no better off than we were then. Reagan implicitly accepted the fundamentals of this scenario in a press conference statement in March 1982.23

If NSC-68 claimed that Soviet possession of nuclear weapons placed a "premium" on surprise attack, it also argued that it placed a "premium" on political pressures and piecemeal aggression. Because the threat of initiating nuclear war was the "only deterrent" available to the United States in many situations and because the Kremlin realized that the United States was unlikely to use nuclear weapons unless directly attacked, the Soviets could nibble away at the Western position by regularly confronting the United States with the choice between acquiescence to Soviet demands or a war of annihilation. Thus, the period of peril was a period favorable to Soviet pressures against vulnerable areas all along the Soviet periphery. The Soviets would use local incidents to make local gains and to spread defeatism.

There was a danger, NSC-68 asserted, that the United States and its allies would become "confused and immobilized," unable to weigh alternatives, to make rational decisions and to persevere in a firm course. Allies and potential allies could drift into neutrality leading to eventual Soviet domination.

On political pressures, the Killian Report said only that, during the period of peril, the United States "would be in a poor position to ward off Russian political and diplomatic moves or to make such moves on our own." Concerns over nuclear blackmail and the Soviet use of conventional force were also on the minds of the authors of the Gaither Report, a fact that is clearly suggested by subsequent congressional testimony by members of the Committee. The Report itself made only passing reference to these concerns, stating that the strengthening of the U.S. strategic posture in ways recommended by the Committee would improve the U.S. capability to deter and suppress subversion and limited war. (Whether there was more detail on this subject in the still-classified supporting studies is not clear.)24

The Committee on the Present Danger argues that it is the Kremlin's purpose to achieve political preponderance without nuclear war by establishing the credible possibility of a decisive nuclear attack against the United States. Moscow seeks to paralyze the West through fear of nuclear war and sees nuclear weapons as useful to political warfare.

The Committee asserts that strategic forces are, for the Soviets, the "fulcrum on which other use of force pivots" and that, with strategic "superiority," the Soviets will "almost certainly" be more willing to use force at lower levels, believing that the United States will be deterred from responding by the threat of escalation. Similarly, the Administration has argued that it would be "naïve" to assume that, when the Soviets achieve nuclear superiority, they will not exploit that superiority, and suggests that such superiority will provide an umbrella under which the Russians can deter the United States from responding to their actions.25

Eugene Rostow, co-founder of the Committee, said in his recent role as Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that the Soviet purpose in possessing nuclear weapons "is to serve as the ultimate engine of the process of nuclear blackmail-a process of expansion involving the use of the credible threat to use propaganda, terrorism, proxy war, subversion, or Soviet troops themselves under the sanction and protection of what they hope will be Soviet nuclear superiority."26

The Committee notes that the United States was unable, even when it possessed a nuclear monopoly or clear superiority, to deter Soviet political pressures or the use of force in such places as Eastern Europe, Greece, Iran, Korea and Cuba. Thus, it argues, such problems will become more severe as the relative position of the United States declines.

These various claims about possible Soviet exploitation of its nuclear capabilities are open to a number of objections. Soviet military doctrine does emphasize the importance of surprise, but only in cases where the Soviets are under clear threat of nuclear attack. The danger is not of an out-of-the-blue attack designed to achieve some supposedly decisive result, but rather of Soviet preemptive attack in a crisis situation where the U.S.S.R. feels directly threatened.

NSC-68 and the Killian and Gaither Reports reflected a general belief that the advent of nuclear weapons had so enhanced the value of a surprise attack to an aggressor that its likelihood had significantly increased. It was in this context that the Killian study saw the U.S. policy of not initiating nuclear war as an incentive to a Soviet attack. If it is assumed, however, that the Soviets will preempt only if they feel under imminent threat of an attack, such a U.S. policy should reduce the likelihood of a surprise attack.

The Committee on the Present Danger seems to be aware of Soviet doctrine, though some of its statements, like the one quoted above, reflect some, perhaps purposeful, ambiguity. Nonetheless, the Committee must take seriously the possibility of Soviet surprise attack under a wide range of circumstances in order to validate its statement of the general Soviet threat. The idea that the Soviets could pose a credible threat of nuclear attack is an essential basis for the Committee's claim that the fear of such an attack will affect U.S. responses to Soviet political pressures, nuclear blackmail and the use of conventional forces. In particular, the Committee must demonstrate how a partial Soviet counterforce capability could create such a threat, considering that only 25 percent of the U.S. retaliatory capability, measured in warheads, is invested in its land-based missile forces. Among the obvious improbabilities of the Committee's scenario is the idea that the Soviets would bet their survival on an assumption that an American President would yield rather than retaliate against Soviet industry and population centers with the large number of weapons still at his disposal. One of the limitations of this argument is that, once more, it ignores nonmilitary considerations such as the psychology and politics of the President's reaction. Another is that it ignores the central role that uncertainty plays in deterrence. (Some who have argued now and in the past that the Soviets would take such high risks have assumed that the Soviet leadership places a lower valuation on human life than do Americans.)27 In summary, despite the persistent influence of the surprise attack possibility on U.S. defense planning, "few analysts," in the words of one recent study, "see [it] as even remotely plausible."28

The outbreak of the Korean War soon after NSC-68 was circulated seemed to provide powerful confirmation of the idea that the loss of America's nuclear monopoly would undermine the U.S. ability to deter Soviet-backed conventional military action. George Kennan, however, disputed the view that the communist attack in Korea forecast similar action in other local theaters. Rather, he argued, it represented a Soviet response to a set of what appeared to it to be uniquely favorable circumstances.29

But the validity of the views of a Soviet specialist like Kennan were discounted by the argument that past Soviet behavior was a poor guide to its future actions because of the new importance of military factors in Soviet calculations. Since the same kind of argument about the irrelevance of history is now being made in connection with the window of vulnerability thesis, current claims also cannot, within the assumptions of the theory, be disproven by reference to history. History does, however, suggest that the U.S.S.R. has been cautious and prudent in the use of armed force in situations where such use might lead to direct military conflict with the United States, even where the risk of such conflict has been very low. The introduction of missiles into Cuba was, of course, an exception. But Bernard Brodie, after examining the Cuban case, argued that, even in such major crises, ". . . the degree of resolution that either side shows . . . is more likely to be governed by the particular issues at stake than by the tallying of nuclear stockpiles."30

Current and projected changes in the strategic situation seem unlikely to change Soviet behavior, since the potential costs of direct military conflict with the United States will continue to be extraordinarily high, and are unlikely to be outweighed by potential benefits. Recent changes in Soviet military thought indicate that the Soviets may have greater confidence that, in a situation of nuclear parity, local wars in the Third World can be kept local. But the Soviets continue to recognize that a local conflict involving a direct Soviet confrontation with the United States could escalate, and they have never indicated a willingness to risk such a confrontation. The Soviet Union obviously does seek to expand its area of influence and control, but recent Soviet actions in such countries as Angola, South Yemen and Ethiopia are more likely low-risk exploitations of internal and international turbulence than reflections of a new adventurism based upon a changed assessment of the strategic balance.31 If Soviet military capabilities have influenced Soviet behavior in such situations, it has been their increased capacity for the projection of conventional force that has been the more relevant factor.

If one accepts the assumptions of the Committee on the Present Danger, it is also impossible to disprove the claim that, because the Soviets were not deterred from various military adventures in the past when the United States had nuclear superiority, they are even less likely to be deterred in the future. But a more plausible conclusion from such evidence would be that the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance has little relevance to the explanation of such Soviet behavior.

In his reaction to NSC-68, Kennan also rejected the idea that the Soviets would use their nuclear capabilities to pressure countries to "sign on the dotted line or else." He characterized it as, thus far, a notion "of our own manufacture."32 In the late 1950s, Khrushchev did indeed utter threats that partook of nuclear blackmail, against the United States but also Britain. In particular, he attempted to exploit the supposed missile gap for political advantage. His efforts seem more a reflection of weakness than of strength, since the period was actually one of overall U.S. strategic superiority. He sought, through bluff, to pursue an ambitious foreign policy by capitalizing on the psychological effects of Sputnik.

In the period since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, during which Soviet strategic power has indeed been growing, there has been a virtual abandonment of nuclear blackmail. This is not to argue that the Soviets might not seek to employ nuclear blackmail in the future-though it is very difficult to make such threats credible-but rather that there is no clear relationship between such activity and the strategic balance. In sum, Soviet behavior is most likely to continue to be determined by particular stakes and potential costs rather than by the Soviet perception of the balance of nuclear weaponry.


How are we to understand the appeal to policymakers and others of the period of peril idea-an idea that has such weak conceptual and factual underpinnings; that exaggerates the instability of the strategic balance; that introduces a misleading sense of precision into calculations; and that offers a reductionist view of the sources of the Soviet threat? One way to approach an answer is to consider three functions of the period of peril idea: as a rationale for an arms buildup; as a system of explanation designed to deal with anxieties about the Soviet threat and the nuclear danger; and as a reaction to vulnerability.

As a Rationale for an Arms Buildup. With the apparent exception of the Killian Committee, each of the groups that developed the period of peril concept confronted what it considered to be a complacent Administration which it felt needed to be stirred out of its lethargy. Talk of "imminent threats" to the survival of the United States was more likely to get the attention of policymakers and the public than a more subtle presentation of issues. As Dean Acheson said in his memoirs, "The purpose of NSC-68 was so to bludgeon the mass mind of the 'top government' that not only could the President make a decision, but that the decision could be carried out."33

Such purposes may seem best served by a Manichean view of the world and a simple argument about the threat. Nitze, for example, is said to have insisted that NSC-68 describe the Soviet goal as one of world domination for reasons of "persuasive impact."34 While growing sophistication with respect to nuclear strategy has led to more complex presentations of the technical case, the sophistication of political assumptions has not increased proportionately.

By linking the strategic balance to an entire range of political and military threats, the period of peril argument offers a rationale for a comprehensive nuclear and conventional military buildup. By focusing on the problems of perceptions of the balance and of U.S. credibility, both the authors of NSC-68 and the contemporary Committee on the Present Danger have provided a rationale for an arms buildup that is indefinitely expansible because such factors are inherently subjective. Moreover, as both groups perceived, when credibility is the issue, a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. There is therefore a double universalization of the threat: in terms of level of violence and in terms of geographic scope. In this view of the threat, there is likely to be a neglect of strategy and less likely to be careful analysis of the comparative merits of particular weapons systems. An across-the-board threat seems to call for an across-the-board military program.

All of the reports had some influence on defense programs. In the case of NSC-68 and the window of vulnerability idea, a substantial part of that influence derived from the fact that the studies reflected the views of important Administration members. The seeming confirmation of NSC-68's analysis by the outbreak of the Korean War provided powerful additional support for its recommendations. The credibility of the Killian Report with a conservative Administration was enhanced by its narrowly technical view of the problem, by the "passion for anonymity" exhibited by members of the Committee, and by their refusal to go out of channels to gain support for their recommendations. In all of these respects the Gaither Committee suffered by comparison. In addition, Eisenhower rejected the vulnerability argument on which the Gaither analysis rested, feeling that it did not take account of the dispersion of U.S. bomber forces provided by overseas bases. He was preoccupied with dealing with what he saw as the "near-hysteria" created by the launching of Sputnik, an event which seemed to confirm the Gaither Committee's fears. Nonetheless, the Report did have some effect on bomber basing and missile programs.

As a System of Explanation. The approach of these studies simplifies the complex and uncertain task of predicting Soviet behavior by reducing such predictions to technical and resource questions relating to the strategic balance. By the same token it vastly simplifies the problem of response. The solution to our difficulties, according to this approach, lies in more defense spending directed at U.S. vulnerabilities stemming from Soviet technological advances. As in the case of so many foreign policy issues, we define the problem in terms that are most amenable to solution with the instruments available to us. The period of peril notion is almost impervious to the test of evidence except perhaps on the question of Soviet military capabilities. But important qualitative characteristics of Soviet weapons can be difficult to estimate. And, in the assessment of weapons characteristics and their implications, the public and the policymakers are often at the mercy of "experts" whose predictions of future dangers are widely thought to be more "responsible" or "realistic" than the views of those who attempt to keep the threat in perspective.

In a curious way, pessimistic predictions of this kind may be almost as reassuring-and possibly even more reassuring-than optimistic predictions. By suggesting the need for action, they respond to the culturally rooted American compulsions toward activism and toward believing that all problems have solutions. It is reassuring to think that by "doing something" we can eliminate the threats to our survival posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.

There is, however, a flaw in this reassurance-a nagging doubt. That doubt was first reflected in the description of the final period of the Killian timetable where, as noted, it was suggested that the United States would ultimately enter a period of danger from which there might be no exit-a period of vulnerability for U.S. retaliatory forces for which the Committee could foresee no technological fix. Proponents of the window of vulnerability concept may soon find themselves in just such a situation, since it is by no means clear that there is a plausible technical solution to the problem of ICBM vulnerability. As the Reagan Administration has come to grips with the problem, it has summarily moved the beginning point for the window of vulnerability from the present to the mid-1980s.35 It has also tended to shift the rationale for the MX to emphasize its counterforce role over its survivability.

The period of peril myth, by reenforcing the assumptions of the cold war, may be reassuring in other respects. It simplifies a complex and confusing international environment by focusing upon its bipolar dimension and upon the issues of survival. It provides a conceptual basis for heroic rhetoric and it promises to simplify the increasingly complex domestic politics of U.S. foreign policymaking by offering a simple, unifying theme.

The myth also provides a way of dealing with three interrelated paradoxes of the nuclear age. The first is that, because of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, a nuclear war seems implausible, but at the same time many Americans believe that nuclear war is very likely or fairly likely in the foreseeable future. The period of peril argument says, "Yes, there is a real danger, but it is a danger that can be avoided if we take the right actions." Our fears are engaged, then laid to rest.

The second paradox is that the nuclear powers command unprecedented destructive power, but they cannot use that power to make direct military or political gains. The period of peril argument suggests that the Soviets have found ways to translate their nuclear capabilities into power and influence in a wide range of situations. That being so, our own nuclear capabilities have enhanced significance as a deterrent because they then become relevant to the avoidance of a variety of nonnuclear threats.

A third paradox is that, despite our great nuclear power, it is not meaningful to speak of winning a nuclear war. The Committee on the Present Danger and the Reagan Administration have considered the idea that a nuclear war cannot be won to be a dangerous American belief and an important source of our current vulnerability. If we are not to be placed at a disadvantage, we must emulate the Soviets by planning to fight and win such a war. The paradox, however, is not so easily resolved. Thus, in response to criticisms of Administration views, Secretary Weinberger has simply restated the contradiction. He agrees that a nuclear war is not winnable but then goes on to say that America does not intend to lose-that we plan to "prevail." By "prevailing" he means ending the conflict on terms favorable to America, i.e., not losing.36

We have also had great difficulty accepting the decline of American dominance and of the American capacity to shape its international environment. The anxieties of the 1950s, reflected especially in NSC 68 and the Gaither Report, were related not only to our survival, but also to our general power and influence. Those anxieties eased in the 1960s as we realized, as a result of improved intelligence, that we had overwhelming nuclear superiority. But the decline of American hegemony in the 1970s, dramatized by such events as the oil embargo, the defeat in Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis, created a new sense that the world was out of control. The revival of the period of peril idea, in response to the Soviet military buildup of the 1970s, therefore occurred within a very receptive atmosphere. Since Americans tend to equate power with military capabilities, large increases in defense expenditures seemed an assured cure for our general weakness. The sources of the decline of U.S. dominance are, of course, much more diverse and less remediable than this perspective suggests.

There is another deep-seated fear that underlies the period of peril argument. That is the fear of the breakdown of world order; the fear of chaos. That fear was reflected most clearly in NSC 68, but is also evident in the description of final periods in the timetables of the Killian and Gaither Reports. The argument of these studies, like much of the official rhetoric of the postwar period, helps us to understand the international disorder by which we are surrounded by attributing much of it to Soviet adventurism. What is unique about the period of peril idea is that it links that adventurism to the strategic balance and thereby suggests a relatively simple way to reduce it and to enhance the prospects for order.

As a Reaction to Vulnerability. The period of peril idea is a way of expressing our anxieties about our inescapable vulnerability in a world of nuclear weapons and intercontinental bombers and missiles. As Spurgeon Keeny and Wolfgang Panofsky have argued, "we live in an inherently MAD world . . . [because] effective protection against large-scale nuclear attack is not possible."37 Perhaps because of our historical sense of invulnerability and our relative lack of experience, up to the time of Pearl Harbor, with the invasion of our territorial space by a foreign power, acceptance of vulnerability has been especially difficult for Americans.

We must, of course, be concerned with the vulnerabilities of our nuclear retaliatory forces. In this respect, the Killian and Gaither Reports incorporated one of the earliest insights of the nuclear strategists-that the protection of retaliatory forces from attack is central to deterrence. But our fears for our vulnerability are, understandably, much broader and more emotional. The Killian Report, with its general discussion of the dangers of a nuclear world and its tendency to define all future periods as periods of peril, reflects this general anxiety most graphically. The fear, present in all of these studies, that the Soviet Union is more willing to use nuclear weapons than the United States, is an important underlying source of that anxiety. Surprise attack becomes a kind of symbol of U.S. vulnerability, even when it is recognized that Soviet fear of retaliation will probably continue to deter such an attack. In the nuclear age we are perpetually vulnerable, but we are also always relatively secure because of the extraordinary costs and many uncertainties confronting an attacker and because of continuing changes in U.S. forces. Efforts to define precise periods of peril in which the danger is perceived as almost overwhelming distort reality.


The foregoing critique is intended neither as an argument against taking Soviet threats to American security seriously nor as an argument against some increased spending for conventional forces. Certainly we must be concerned about the stability of deterrence (which is not, however, currently under serious threat) and about keeping the nuclear threshold as high as possible. The purpose of this analysis has been to suggest the serious defects of a particular way of thinking about the Soviet threat. The threat is, and has been, much more political than military. Yet we persist in believing, as Kennan has recently pointed out, that the military balance of power is ". . . the only significant factor determining the future of Soviet-American relations."38

It would be easy to dismiss the period of peril myth as "just a theory" designed to rationalize positions reached on other grounds. It is indeed likely that, in its origins, it involved elements of rationalization. Those who have been most alarmist about the Soviet threat are most likely to search for evidence in Soviet technological advances and defense budgets which will justify their sense of alarm and make it intelligible and tangible to others. Alternatively, the myth seems sometimes to have emerged, in part, out of efforts to rationalize the undertaking of particular defense programs desired for other reasons. But, like other myths that have their origins in some more concrete human need, the period of peril myth, once articulated, has taken on a life of its own with an independent influence on thinking and behavior.

Ideas do have consequences. No one who has regularly read Secretary Weinberger's statements can have much doubt that the window of vulnerability notion influences his sense of urgency. He has said about the current defense buildup, ". . . we are trying to recover enough strength in time, and nobody knows how much time we have."39 The same sense of urgency does not, however, appear to inspire arms control efforts, which offer an alternative way of dealing with the perceived threat.

There is strong tendency to err on the side of caution-to base policy upon "worst case" analysis and to seek to ensure against all conceivable risks.40 But "caution" of such a variety can lead to very incautious behavior. The studies reviewed here illustrate how exaggerated views of Soviet capabilities and risk-taking propensities can have very broad implications. It is therefore important to ensure that decision-makers in the Executive Branch and Congress make a searching analysis of the underlying evidence and assumptions on which such views are based-e.g., current estimates of Soviet missile accuracy. A handful of "experts" should not, in effect, be determining important national policies.

Experience with these studies also demonstrates once more the problems of obtaining "objective," "balanced" expert advice. It is perhaps too much to hope that balance can be built into the selection process for officially sponsored expert panels. For example, a subcommittee of the Senate Intelligence Committee which examined the Team B episode concluded, unsurprisingly, that the outcome of that exercise was predetermined by the composition of the team, which reflected only part of the spectrum of expert opinion.41 It may, however, be reasonable to hope that policymakers can learn to approach arguments like the period of peril argument with informed, skeptical minds.

The period of peril myth may offer reassurance to those who prefer to live in encapsulated "reality worlds" of their own creation, but it does not help us think seriously about the undoubted dangers of the nuclear era. We should abandon it as a way of thinking, not only because it is mistaken, but also because it can lead to badly conceived defense programs and to a neglect of diplomacy. Preoccupation with U.S. vulnerability and with fears that the Soviets may move anywhere and everywhere leads to an inattention to strategy and priorities. As General Meyer, the Army Chief of Staff, has discerned, it has led the Reagan Administration back to a comprehensive, and hence undiscriminating, containment strategy.42 That strategy has been accompanied by a wastefully indiscriminate credit-card approach to defense procurement. The period of peril myth may also be leading us into a nostalgic pursuit of the will-o'-the-wisp of nuclear superiority, into dangerous efforts to create the kind of counterforce capability that would supposedly permit us to win a nuclear war, and into the postponement of serious negotiations with the Soviets until we have eliminated our vulnerabilities-a time that will never come.

2 Though there are problems with the argument for a spending gap in each of the studies in which it appears (all but Killian), that argument is less central to my concerns and is not dealt with here. For the same reason arguments about civil defense, which appear in Gaither and in the case for a "window," have been ignored. For a critique of the Reagan Administration's spending argument, see Richard A. Stubbing, "The Imaginary Defense Gap: We Already Outspend Them," The Washington Post, February 14, 1982, p. C1.

9 U.S. Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power, Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1981, p. 86; Joint Chiefs of Staff Posture Statement in Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for FY 1983, Hearings before the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, 97th Cong., 2d sess., Feb. 2 and Feb. 8, 1982, Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1982, Part I, p. 627.

12 Benjamin S. Lambeth, "The Political Potential of Soviet Equivalence," International Security, Fall 1979, p. 31

13 National Intelligence Estimate 3, November 15, 1950, FRUS, 1950, Vol. I, p. 415.

15 James R. Killian, Jr., Sputnik, Scientists and Eisenhower, Cambridge: MÍT Press, 1977, p. 71.

18 The Washington Post, November 30, 1982, p. A18.

19 John Steinbruner, "Fears of War, Programs for Peace," The Brookings Review, Fall 1982, p. 9.

21 NSC-141, p. 70, available in Declassified Documents Quarterly Catalog, Woodbridge (Conn.): Research Publications, 1977, Vol. 3, Fiche 44b.

22 Testimony of James P. Baxter III, Hearings, Subcommittee on National Policy Machinery, op. cit., p. 80.

23 The New York Times, April 1, 1982, p. 22.

24 Morton Halperin indicates that the Report recommended more attention to the U.S. capacity to fight limited wars. "The Gaither Committee and the Policy Process," World Politics, April 1961, p. 367. It is also the author's recollection that there was much concern about political pressures and conventional military actions.

25 U.S. Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for FY 1982, Hearings before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 97th Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 4, 1981, Washington: GPO, 1982, Part I, p. 545; Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings for FY 1983, op. cit., p. 98.

26 Overview of Nuclear Arms Control And Defense Strategy in NATO, Joint Hearings before the Subcommittees on International Security and Scientific Affairs and on Europe and the Middle East of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Feb. 23, 1982, Washington: GPO, 1982, p. 11.

27 Cf. the text of the interview with Ronald Reagan in Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War, New York: Random House, 1982, p. 241, and the testimony, cited above, of James Baxter III, a member of the Gaither Committee.

28 Staff of the Carnegie Panel on U.S. Security and the Future of Arms Control, Challenges for U.S. National Security, Third Report, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1982, p. 32.

29 Memorandum by the Counselor (George Kennan) to the Secretary of State, August 8, 1950, FRUS, 1950, Vol. I, p. 361.

30 Quoted in Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1977, p. 140. Cf. more generally, Ch. 6.

32 Draft Memorandum by the Counselor (George Kennan) to the Secretary of State, February 17, 1950, FRUS, 1950, Vol. I, p. 161.

33 Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, New York: New American Library, 1969, p. 488.

35 Cf. Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings for FY 1982, op. cit., p. 11; and Caspar W. Weinberger, Report to Congress on the FY 1983 Budget, U.S. Department of Defense, February 8, 1982, p. 1-39. On this point the Administration therefore no longer agrees with the Committee on the Present Danger.

36 The New York Times, August 10, 1982, p. 8.

37 Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr. and Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, "MAD versus NUTS: The Mutual Hostage Relationship of the Superpowers," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1981/82, p. 298.

38 Kennan, op. cit., p. xxvi.

39 The Washington Post, November 30, 1982, p. A18.

40 Bernard Brodie said of this tendency to project imaginative scenarios prefaced by the words, "It is conceivable that. . .": "Such words establish their own truth, for the fact that someone has conceived of whatever proposition follows is enough to establish that it is conceivable. Whether it is worth a second thought, however, is another matter." Bernard Brodie, "The Development of Nuclear Strategy," International Security, Spring 1978, p. 83.

42 The Washington Post, November 30, 1982, p. A18.



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  • Robert H. Johnson, Harvey Picker Professor of International Relations at Colgate University, is, in 1982-83, a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a member of the National Security Council Staff in the 1950s, he worked on the NSC’s responses to the Killian and Gaither Reports.
  • More By Robert H. Johnson