In the almost four decades since the appearance of nuclear weapons, concern over the dangers these weapons raise has varied markedly. A preoccupation with nuclear weapons has characterized only a very few, and even among these few anxiety over the prospects of nuclear war has not been a constant. Beyond the nuclear strategists and a small entourage, the nuclear question has not evoked a steady level of attention, let alone of anxiety. On the contrary, the attention of foreign policy elites, and even more the general public, has swung from one extreme to the other and within a brief period of time.

Thus at the outset of the Kennedy Administration, a preoccupation with the prospect of nuclear war characterized a portion of the foreign policy elites, but hardly the public at large. That preoccupation, in part the product of high and sustained international tension and in part the response to Administration calls for measures of civil defense, quickly dissipated in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. Within the period of scarcely a year it had virtually disappeared. Yet there had been no significant change in the strategic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor had the arms competition between the two powers been significantly altered. Certainly the 1963 partial test ban did not alter this competition, whether by making it less intense or less dangerous than it had been earlier. But the test ban did signal that the political relationship between the two states had changed modestly for the better and might register still further improvement. A substantial and even dramatic change in outlook toward the prospects of nuclear war went hand in hand with a changing political relationship.

A generation later, the same process, only now working in the opposite direction, marked the outset of the Reagan Administration. On this occasion, an anti-nuclear weapons movement developed that was unprecedented in the breadth of support it appeared to enjoy. In this respect, there is no real comparison between the anti-nuclear movement of a generation ago and that of today. Whereas the movement of yesterday represented little more than the stirring of a few, the movement of the 1980s assumed mass proportions. Even so, the appearance of the later movement was almost as sudden as the disappearance of the earlier one. As late as the winter of 1979-80 there was little to indicate that nuclear weapons would become the critical issue of public life and discourse they did become by the summer of 1981.

The sudden rise of the anti-nuclear weapons movement and the attendant debate over nuclear strategy must be attributed in the first place to a renewed fear of war with the Soviet Union. By the same token, it also reflects a decline in the faith by which we have come to live in the nuclear age. For we are nearly all believers in deterrence, and this despite the different ways in which this faith may be expressed. We are nearly all believers if only for the reason that once we seriously admit nuclear war as a distinct historical possibility, we not only conjure up a very dark landscape but one in which our accepted categories of political and moral thought no longer seem relevant. In the still alien world of nuclear weapons, it is only a faith in deterrence that preserves continuity with a familiar past.

The idea of deterrence is, of course, as old as the history of human conflict. But the functions that strategies of nuclear deterrence are expected to serve and the expectations these strategies have raised are as novel as the weapons on which deterrence today rests. If nuclear deterrence is indeed something new under the sun, it is so not only because of the weapons but because of the expectations it has evoked. These expectations constitute the core of faith and their intensity has invested nuclear deterrence with a reliability that is tantamount, for all practical purposes, to certainty. In turn, faith in the effectiveness of deterrence is largely a function of the consequences generally expected to follow from the use of nuclear weapons. By a psychological mechanism as simple as it is pervasive, it is assumed that if the results of an act are inconceivable, the act itself must be inconceivable. The death of a nation is an event difficult to conceive, and the extinction of humanity far more so.

Nor is this all. It is faith in the effectiveness of deterrence that has enabled us to entertain what otherwise would prove to be irreconcilable convictions: a continued readiness to threaten the use-even the first use-of nuclear weapons to preserve interests deemed vital, but at the same time a conviction that nuclear war would in all likelihood destroy the ends for which it is waged; a belief, if not in the moral rectitude, then at least in the moral neutrality of a deterrence strategy, but also a disbelief that the use of nuclear weapons could ever be morally justified; these and other convictions can be reconciled if only the expectations placed in a deterrent strategy are strong enough. With enough faith in deterrence there is no need to torture oneself over the justification for ever employing nuclear weapons; the issues arising from the use of these weapons deal with a contingency that has been virtually excluded from our vision of the future.

The faith commonly placed in deterrence has never gone unquestioned. The history of strategic thought in the nuclear age is, after all, a history of the persisting controversy between the deterrence faithful and the deterrence skeptics, between those who believe that deterrence follows from the existence of nuclear weapons and those who believe a credible theory of use must be developed if deterrence is to be assured. The nature of that controversy is often misrepresented, not least of all by the participants themselves. It cannot properly be characterized simply as one "between those who wish to give nuclear weapons a war-deterring and those who want to give them a war-fighting role."1 Those accused of wishing to give nuclear weapons a war-fighting role have not abandoned deterrence. At least, they have never admitted to doing so. Instead, they insist that the effort to fashion a war-fighting role for nuclear weapons, however precarious and even abortive that effort may ultimately prove, is undertaken in the first instance in order to enhance their role as a deterrent. The deterrence skeptics do not deny deterrence. They do deny a faith that is given, in the manner of all true believers, unconditional expression.

To the deterrence faithful, the position of the skeptics has always smacked of apostasy and perhaps never more so than today. To be sure, the faithful no less than the skeptics have regularly warned against the dangers of taking deterrence for granted. Still, there is a world of difference between what skeptics have understood taking deterrence for granted to mean and what true believers have understood it to mean. To the believer, deterrence is not only an inherent property of nuclear weapons, it is very nearly a self-sufficient property. "The strategy," one of them declares, "is determined by the weapon. The missiles have only to exist and deterrence is the law of their existence."2 Deterrence is the law of their existence by virtue of their inordinate and uncontrollable destructiveness. Given this destructiveness, the failure of deterrence is not the beginning but the end of strategy. This being so, if deterrence fails, the only rational course is to end the conflict as quickly as possible and without regard to calculations of relative advantage. McGeorge Bundy, in a recent elaboration of the concept of "existential deterrence," echoes the well-known dictum of Bernard Brodie in declaring that if deterrence ever breaks down "the attention of both sides must be driven toward the literally vital need for ending the nuclear battle if possible, not winning it."3

The controversy over the necessary and sufficient conditions of deterrence is more intense today than it has ever been. This persisting debate does not, in the end, turn on technical considerations, though the disputants regularly foster that mistaken impression. Instead, what is ultimately at issue are varying judgements about the character and aspirations of the Soviet regime and, to a lesser extent, the American government. Whether asymmetries in strategic systems have political significance, whether some capacity for war-fighting is a necessary element of deterrence, are not issues that, at bottom, can be resolved by technical considerations but only by one's assessment of the two great adversaries. Among the priesthood of experts, the nuclear debate is not primarily a debate over nuclear weapons but a debate over politics. In this debate, both sides share a common faith; but how they interpret the conditions of faith depends on what they believe to be the truth about the Soviet-American conflict.

Thus, for all their differences, which are surely serious enough, the two sides to this familiar controversy not only believe in deterrence, they also believe broadly in the strategic status quo and are hostile to apocalyptic visions. By contrast, such visions are a hallmark of the anti-nuclear movement that has arisen in recent years. The view that nuclear war has become ever more likely, and that if we continue along our present course we will transform a possibility into a probability, is given frequent expression. Jonathan Schell has attributed the "collapse of deterrence" to nothing other than the buildup of nuclear stockpiles. "Possession inevitably implied use," he declares, "and use was irremediably senseless."4 The crisis in deterrence stems, at bottom, from nothing more than the "continuing reliance on nuclear arms." George Kennan reaches a similar conclusion and attaches to it similar urgency. "The clock is ticking; the remaining ticks are numbered; the end of their number is already in sight."5

We may call this view that of "existential disaster." Nuclear weapons have only to exist in sufficient numbers and destructiveness to render disaster likely. Time is the great nemesis. It is so if only because no social contrivance-of which deterrence is one-can go on indefinitely without a breakdown. As is true of virtually all aspects of the nuclear debate today, this conviction was articulated a generation earlier. In 1961, the novelist and scientist C.P. Snow wrote: "Within, at the most, ten years, some of these bombs are going off. . . . That is the certainty. On the one side, therefore, we have a finite risk. On the other side we have a certainty of disaster. Between a risk and a certainty, a sane man does not hesitate."6 Snow's forecast was made in the same spirit and on behalf of the same purpose-far-reaching measures of arms control-that today move Jonathan Schell and George Kennan. But whereas Snow's message could only be directed profitably to a quite restricted audience, Schell and Kennan have a potential audience that is far larger. And while Snow's prophecy was one of limited catastrophe, Schell and Kennan entertain a vision of a nuclear exchange that would "put an end to our own species."7


In retrospect, what seems remarkable is that for virtually a generation the issue of nuclear weapons had not been of central concern in public life. Certainly, the years between the Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan had not been without portentous developments in the spheres that provoke so much anxiety today-changes in the strategic balance, the technology of nuclear weaponry and East-West crises. Yet these developments did not begin to provoke a comparable anxiety.

In one view, a heightened sensitivity to the dangers of nuclear weapons simply reflects the heightened perils of the competition in arms or the "arms race." In the 1983 pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops, we read that "the dynamic of the arms race has intensified" and that one compelling reason for the letter is the growing dangers this dynamic holds out.8 The nuclear freeze movement has been largely predicated on the belief that the danger of nuclear war in the late 1980s and 1990s will be greater than ever before because of weapons systems that, in the words of a movement leader, "will increase the pressure on both sides to use their nuclear weapons in a crisis, rather than risk losing them in a first strike."9 The New York Times' national security correspondent expresses the concern that: "In 10 to 15 years, new technologies now being developed and tested could, if deployed, fundamentally and irretrievably undermine the basic philosophy that has been the center of both sides' nuclear strategy-mutual deterrence."10 These technological developments promise to lead to ever greater "crisis instability." New weapons of greater accuracy and speed will at once sharpen the fear of preemptive attack while encouraging the hope of undertaking such an attack successfully should this prove necessary. And ever more complex command and control systems will, beyond a certain level of alert, make increasingly difficult the efforts of political leaders to retain effective control over their nuclear forces.11

What is crucial to this view is the contention that in certain circumstances the new technologies and the systems for controlling them will prove very dangerous. These circumstances are those of severe crises. In normal circumstances, by contrast, the dangers of the arms race have markedly diminished, when compared to a generation ago. The likelihood of accidental war is substantially lower today and the prospects of a preventive war, of a nuclear strike from out of the blue, are not seen by most expert observers as measurably enhanced. For the residual uncertainties that attend the use of nuclear weapons are such that a coldly planned attack appears almost certain to remain beyond the purview of rational policy choice. To contend otherwise in the case of the Soviet Union requires the assumption that Soviet leadership today is, or tomorrow will be, quite determined to impose its will on us in circumstances that cannot reasonably be interpreted as forcing it to do so and despite having to pay a price that is so high as to be without any real precedent. There is virtually no evidence to support such assumptions.

It is, then, only in periods of severe crisis that the effects of the arms race are properly seen as critical. The case for considering these effects profoundly destabilizing can be summarized thus: when command systems that cannot be reliably controlled are joined to weapons systems that cannot be reliably protected, the stage is set for the breakdown of deterrence. This view rests on a truism that when it seems better to strike than to hold back, deterrence will in all likelihood break down. But what are the conditions in which it will be better to strike than to hold back? The critical condition would be the emerging conviction of one or both sides during a crisis that war is inevitable, but that something-perhaps even a great deal-can be gained by striking first. Another, though less than critical, condition is the existence of weapons that are believed to enhance the promise of preemption, but because of their vulnerability increase the risks of failing to preempt. We may call these weapons destabilizing. But what has brought the crisis to a point where the "destabilizing" weapons seem almost to "take over" and to undermine deterrence is a political process, a process out of which the conviction increasingly grows that war is inevitable.

Before weapons systems can impose a necessity of their own, statesmen must have created a situation that enables them to do so. Whatever their characteristics, weapons as such cannot undermine deterrence. To believe otherwise, as many appear to do, is to dissolve politics into technology. What weapons can do is to require a change in the operation of deterrence. They may do so chiefly by changing the point or the threshold beyond which deterrence breaks down and the conviction then emerges that war is inevitable.

It is the statesman who undermines deterrence. Moreover, he undermines deterrence not so much by permitting the development of the new technologies as by refusing to recognize that these technologies may require corresponding change in the operation of deterrence. If deterrence is in substantial part a function of technology, it must change as technology changes. The contention that the kind of crisis we could have a generation ago over missiles in Cuba would prove much more dangerous today does not mean that deterrence has been partially undermined. It means that the threshold beyond which deterrence is likely to break down has shifted. One of the tasks of the statesman in the nuclear age, and perhaps his most important task, is to adjust the definition of the nuclear threshold to the conditions that determine it and to bend all efforts to ensure that this threshold is neither crossed nor closely approached.

If these considerations have merit, an apparent obsession over the arms race is for the most part an obsession over the conflict that drives the arms race. An anxiety over technology is in reality largely an anxiety over politics. The great worry over deterrence being undermined by the new weapons is in fact a worry over the wisdom, or lack thereof, of political leaders who are today entrusted with the operation of deterrence.


Is the lapse of faith in deterrence to be laid largely at the doorstep of the Reagan Administration? A legion of critics insist that this Administration must bear a major responsibility for a movement and debate that might have been avoided by a government with a less ideological and less bellicose outlook. Whereas previous presidents were sobered by their tragic power to initiate nuclear war, this President is presumably different. He is different because he is in thrall to an ideology that blinds him to the terrible dangers of nuclear war.12

The evidence for this blindness consists, in part, of statements made about nuclear weapons and nuclear war by Mr. Reagan as a private citizen or as a candidate for office. Although betraying no particular sophistication about nuclear matters, none of these statements can reasonably be taken as grounds for coming to an apocalyptic view of the future. In the most quoted of his statements, the President responded to a question about whether he believed in the possibility of a limited nuclear war between this country and the Soviet Union in these words: ". . .I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button."13 Whatever one may think of this response, it scarcely demonstrates the power of ideology in blinding men to the dangers of nuclear war. No doubt, it must arouse those who take as an article of faith that any use of nuclear weapons can only lead to an unlimited nuclear exchange. But there are many people who share Mr. Reagan's skepticism in this matter and who are not, by any reasonable definition, blind ideologues. Whether or not limited nuclear war in Europe is possible is not a matter to be settled by faith or ideology. Nor did the President in his reply indicate otherwise. If anything, his response was far less dogmatic than the vast majority of utterances on the subject.

One lesson to be drawn from the Reagan experience is simply the rising sensitivity to any statements about the possible use of nuclear weapons by high public officials, and particularly by the President. Such statements about nuclear weapons or strategy are likely to prove an invitation to trouble. For the public and its elites do not want to be reminded of the basis on which their security ultimately rests. The Reagan Administration badly erred by not taking this aversion sufficiently to heart. Instead of glossing over a subject that could only be dealt with at considerable risk, it responded to inquiries that were put to it, and occasionally even offered some gratuitous elaboration. The responses were neither startling for their novelty nor unreasonable in their substance. On balance, they preserved a striking continuity with positions taken by preceding administrations. Still, in the circumstances of the early 1980s, dominated as they have been by growing Soviet-American tension, responses that might otherwise have gone largely unremarked provoked a series of minor political storms.

The Reagan Administration not only tended to talk too much about nuclear matters, but to use an idiom that seemed to confirm the dark suspicions held by many about its intentions. Thus the dismayed and accusatory reaction to the 1982 Defense Guidance statement with its concept of "prevailing" in a protracted nuclear war. American nuclear forces, a critical passage reportedly read, "must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest possible termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States."14

This document did not break new ground. Its essential features added up to little more than a refinement of the Carter Administration's 1980 Presidential Directive 59, which in turn built on strategic concepts that may be traced back a generation. From Kennedy to Reagan, no administration has been able to disavow the prospect, however skeptically it may have viewed that prospect, of the controlled use of nuclear weapons. Equally, no administration has been able to disavow the prospect of emerging from a nuclear conflict with some kind of meaningful victory. Unable to disavow these prospects, no administration has been able to disavow the force structure that might make possible fighting a limited nuclear war. It was our least bellicose and most skeptical of recent presidents who declared during his first year in office that the American strategic arsenal "should be strong enough that a possible nuclear war would end on the most favorable terms possible to the U.S."15 At the time, 1977, these words of Jimmy Carter did not provoke noticeable criticism. It is true that they do not go quite as far as the 1982 Defense Guidance paper. Still, the difference between ending a nuclear war "on terms favorable to the U.S." rather than "on the most favorable terms possible to the U.S." is scarcely great enough to account for the very different receptions given them.

The Reagan Administration has been repeatedly accused of breaking radically from its predecessors in being intent on recapturing the Golden Grail of strategic superiority. This is presumably the meaning of "prevailing," that is, of "concluding hostilities on terms favorable to the U.S.," just as it is the meaning of having a capability that "will insure that the Soviet leadership, by their own calculations, will determine that the price of aggression outweighs any potential benefits." These words of the Reagan-Weinberger Defense Guidance document do indeed suggest a kind of strategic superiority. But then so did the Carter-Brown PD59 "countervailing" strategy. The former secretary of defense, Harold Brown, has defined the countervailing strategy in these terms: ". . .to convince the Soviets that they will be successfully opposed at any level of aggression they choose, and that no plausible outcome at any level of conflict could represent 'success' for them by any reasonable definition of success."16 The countervailing strategy does not posit an American victory. Instead, it promises a Soviet defeat. For it "seeks a situation in which the Soviets would always lose more than they could reasonably expect to gain from either beginning or escalating a military conflict."17 Is this not, however, a definition of sorts of victory? Unless it is assumed that our losses, too, are always disproportionate to our gains, in which case there would scarcely be grounds for recommending it, the countervailing strategy does come close to a promise of victory.

The distinction between "countervailing" and "prevailing" is, accordingly, a very thin one. So too, is the difference with respect to the forces required to implement strategy. In fact, neither the Carter nor the Reagan Administration has pursued a procurement policy designed to achieve strategic superiority. Yet each has articulated a strategic doctrine that implies a kind of superiority. In part, this apparent anomaly is explained by the need to retain, if only for reasons of morale, some semblance of a claim to a theory of victory. In part, however, the explanation must be sought in the American strategic predicament. The root of that predicament is an asymmetry of interests that imposes more difficult and exacting deterrence requirements on the United States than on the Soviet Union. While in the Soviet case these requirements extend no further than to Eastern Europe, in the American case they extend, beyond this hemisphere, to Western Europe, Japan and the Persian Gulf. To an extent far greater than for the Soviet Union, deterrence for the United States has always been, and remains today, the extension of deterrence to others than the self. By its very nature, extended deterrence must have much less credibility than self deterrence. This liability of extended deterrence, moreover, cannot be fully compensated for by greater conventional forces. Greater conventional forces will raise the threshold of nuclear conflict but they cannot preclude nuclear conflict. Ultimately, compensation must be found either at the strategic nuclear level or nowhere. But it can only be found at the strategic level by forces that are more than simply the equivalent of the Soviet Union's forces. As we are now painfully aware, equivalence and no more must subject extended deterrence to pervasive and increasingly corrosive doubt.

Since the late 1960s, strategic doctrines have increasingly assumed the function of bridging the growing gap between the forces for extended deterrence and the forces in being. If the gap can no longer be bridged in fact, it can still be bridged in word. Without claiming strategic superiority-indeed, even while disavowing an interest in seeking superiority-the benefits of superiority are nevertheless salvaged in some measure. Thus the claim that we may still ensure that the Soviets would always lose more than they could expect to gain from resorting to any kind of armed aggression. Or the claim that in a nuclear conflict our forces will have the capability of imposing an early termination of the conflict on terms favorable to this country.

In proclaiming the strategy of prevailing, the Reagan Administration simply followed an established practice, though perhaps it did so too exuberantly. What is important is that it did so at a time when détente had clearly broken down and tension between the superpowers was rising to a level that had not been experienced since the years of the classic cold war. In these circumstances, the doctrine of prevailing was subject to a scrutiny it might not and probably would not have otherwise received. In these same circumstances, the earlier doctrine of countervailing power was subject to a criticism considerably harsher than the criticism that marked its appearance in 1980.


The real indictment made of the Reagan Administration is not of its military strategy but of its politics. It is not so much what Mr. Reagan has said about nuclear weapons and their possible use that has aroused opponents, but what he has said about the Soviet Union. In word and in spirit, though as yet much less so in action, this Administration has largely returned to the period of the classic cold war. It has done so, however, in strategic circumstances which are bleak by comparison with those of this earlier period.

The classic cold war began with an American monopoly of nuclear weapons. It ended, if we take the period immediately following the Cuban missile crisis as marking its end, with this country still enjoying a position of strategic superiority over the Soviet Union. A nuclear revisionism now contends that, contrary to what has been the conventional wisdom, strategic superiority is useless, in that it cannot be translated into diplomatic power or political advantage, and that this inutility was dramatically demonstrated at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. In turn, this view of strategic superiority is part of a larger assessment of the significance of nuclear weapons, an assessment in which these weapons are found to be "totally useless-except only to deter one's opponent from using them."18

If nuclear weapons are useful only for deterring the use of nuclear weapons, if strategic superiority cannot be employed to any meaningful advantage, then clearly a good deal of the conventional wisdom respecting the history of the postwar period must be discounted. Neither the American monopoly of nuclear weapons at the start of this period, nor the subsequent American strategic superiority conferred any advantage on us. Indeed, if the revisionist view is to be literally credited, the existence of nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear war had little to do with the maintenance of peace in Europe.

The consequences of nuclear revisionism, if once pursued to their logical conclusion, are quite startling. We are well advised to be skeptical of these efforts to recast our understanding of the history of the recent past, particularly when it is apparent that they are motivated by and put in the service of the disputes of the present. Now that many have concluded that, in present circumstances, nuclear weapons are "useless," they apparently must persuade themselves, and others, that this has always been the case. But even if this were the case today, it was not the case in the past. Strategic superiority did confer advantages, even critical advantages, so long as we clearly enjoyed it. It did make extended deterrence quite credible, and it is on the credibility of extended deterrence that the structure of American interests and commitments ultimately rested yesterday and, in far more difficult circumstances, continues to rest today. The strategic superiority we once enjoyed also made it much easier for us to sustain a faith in deterrence.

In the decade or so following the Cuban missile crisis, the loss of strategic superiority had no more than a marginal impact on this nation's faith in deterrence. Although the Soviet achievement of strategic parity was an event of first-order importance, requiring a rethinking of the entire American security position, its effects on the structure of extended deterrence attracted only moderate attention and caused even less anxiety. In contrast to the early 1960s, the early 1970s gave rise to almost no agitation in the body politic over the nuclear issue, despite the momentous changes that had occurred.

Vietnam apart, the reason for this extraordinary unconcern was that we were in the floodtide of détente. Having developed slowly and unevenly in the course of the 1960s, by the early 1970s détente had become the centerpiece of the Nixon policy reformulation. In the context of détente, the loss of strategic superiority was generally seen as an event without great significance. Instead, far more attention was directed to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), though in retrospect the results of these negotiations, embodied in the 1972 Moscow accords, appear almost inconsequential in comparison with the Soviet Union's achievement of strategic parity. But the arms control negotiations were considered almost from the outset a litmus test of the overall relationship of the superpowers. If this relationship was relatively good, the possible consequences of the Soviet Union having achieved strategic parity might be taken in stride. Besides, the Soviet achievement did not challenge the regnant view that the preservation of mutual deterrence was best guaranteed by both sides maintaining a retaliatory force with the capability of assured destruction. The Moscow agreements were successfully defended as preserving mutual deterrence while stabilizing it by limiting the buildup of nuclear forces.

It was in this manner that public faith in deterrence was sustained during the 1970s, despite the continuing buildup of Soviet strategic forces. While détente lasted, faith in deterrence went largely unquestioned. It is in the fall of détente and the rise of a new cold war that we must find the simple but critical explanation for the prominence now given to nuclear weapons and the prospect of nuclear war.

The nuclear anxiety we have seen arise in recent years is not a response to mere atmospherics and cannot be exorcized by reassuring words. To argue otherwise is to trivialize the nuclear issue. While the Reagan Administration could have moderated public reaction to the nuclear arms issue had it shown greater receptivity to arms control and greater discretion in its statements about nuclear war, it could not have escaped a substantial reaction. The Administration has learned a great deal about guarding its tongue, making pious gestures, and even playing the role of true believer in arms control. Still, the anti-nuclear arms movement and the nuclear debate persist. They persist because they are a response essentially to the breakdown of détente and to the dangers of war this breakdown is thought to raise.


What is immediately apparent in considering the present nuclear debate is its continuity with the past. Although a generation has elapsed since the last major debate over nuclear weapons, the questions raised today are largely the same questions that were raised then. What are the requirements of deterrence? Can these requirements be met indefinitely and, even if they can, at what political and moral cost? Are they compatible in the long run with the political institutions and moral foundations of a liberal-democratic society? What happens if deterrence fails? Can nuclear weapons be employed to achieve any of the traditional objectives of war? If they can, why has a plausible scenario of a nuclear conflict not been devised? If they cannot, must not the breakdown of deterrence be attended by the determination to stop the ensuing conflict and to do so without regard to considerations of relative advantage? But quite apart from the intrinsic difficulty of crediting a strategy-deterrence-that has only this response to the contingency of its breakdown, does not the quick termination of the conflict depend on the parallel behavior, if not the agreement, of both sides? If only one side moves to terminate the conflict, however, may it not be placed at a great and perhaps even fatal disadvantage?

It is not only the questions that have remained by and large the same. The answers, too, have remained the same and they seem no more satisfactory than they did on an earlier occasion. None of this should prove surprising. All of our political and moral thought is predicated on the assumption of limits. Nuclear weapons challenge this assumption by virtue of their destructiveness and, of course, their rate of destruction. By introducing a new quantitative dimension into the conduct of war, by holding out the prospect of a war that might escape any meaningful limitation, nuclear weapons take the standards heretofore applied to force and threaten to make a hollow mockery of them.

Deterrence escapes these considerations only so long as the possibility of its breakdown is either denied or simply ignored. If the reliability of deterrence arrangements is believed to approach certainty, the only issues that can arise will concern deterrence and not nuclear war. These issues will not challenge the foundations of faith.

Even the champions of pure and simple deterrence have seldom been so indiscreet as to endow deterrent strategies with certainty. No social contrivance can be invested with certainty. All are flawed. All may fail, including deterrence. But once this is acknowledged, the difficulties that a faith in deterrence had managed to exorcize reappear, and in acute form. If a deterrent strategy may fail, it is absurd to refuse to consider seriously the possible consequences of failure beyond saying that all effort must be directed to bringing the conflict to an end as quickly as possible and without regard to any other considerations. Equally, if a deterrent strategy may fail, it is absurd to insist upon using and justifying the threat of nuclear war as an instrument of policy but to deny that any meaningful or just purpose could be served by such a war.

Yet, what are the alternatives to these absurdities? One, we have long been told, is frankly to acknowledge nuclear war as a distinct historical possibility. Having done so, though, what is the character of this possibility? We still cannot say with any real assurance. The actual character of nuclear war remains as obscure today as in the 1950s. It may well be, as Lawrence Freedman concludes in his history of nuclear strategy, that: "The question of what happens if deterrence fails is vital for the intellectual cohesion and credibility of nuclear strategy." Yet Freedman also concludes: "It now seems unlikely that such an answer can be found."19

Do any recent developments, however, promise to alter fundamentally the now familiar dimensions of the nuclear dilemma? Since the essence of that dilemma is one of limits, a basic change might be effected by the conclusive demonstration either of no limits at all to the destructiveness of nuclear war or, conversely, of quite clear limits. In the one case the threat would arise of a nation's, if not humanity's, utter extinction. A global climatic catastrophe resulting from nuclear war has been offered in evidence of this position. In another case, the promise would be of a return to a warfare that could effectively distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. New weapons which are revolutionary in their accuracy have been offered in evidence of this position.

The prospect of a global climatic catastrophe consequent upon a nuclear war-a nuclear winter-recalls to mind Herman Kahn's Doomsday Machine. The Doomsday Machine was programmed to set off the Doomsday Bombs, thereby destroying civilization, should the Soviet Union commit an act of nuclear aggression that went above a certain threshold. Once set up, it was to be independent of human control. The Soviet Union was to be duly informed of its existence. The purpose of the machine was to perfect deterrence.

"Nuclear winter," as it is described, may be regarded as nature's equivalent of the Doomsday Machine. A nuclear war that goes beyond a certain threshold would result in a climatic catastrophe.20 This prospect would at last compel men to do what their political and oral inventiveness have never been able to do. Once war holds out the certainty of mutual-indeed, of universal-destruction, it will be abandoned. Nuclear winter appears as the final confirmation of the very old idea that the institution of war contains within itself the means for achieving its own disappearance. All it needs do is become sufficiently destructive.

Provided that the nuclear winter findings are scientifically sound, they reinforce rather than transcend the familiar dimensions of the nuclear dilemma. We are unlikely, however, to find a reliable way by which the hypothesis of a climatic catastrophe might be tested other than by a way that risks the catastrophic event itself. As such, the nuclear winter danger seems likely to become another of the great unknowns surrounding nuclear weapons, and may yet fall victim to the politicization that claims almost any issue bearing on these weapons. Nuclear winter is an indication of how little we may yet know about the consequences of nuclear war. It points to the limited control, if control at all, we may have over those consequences.

The development of ever more accurate weapons appears to point in quite the opposite direction. It does so by promising a radical decrease in collateral damage, by permitting conventional weapons to replace nuclear weapons in many tasks, by dramatically raising the nuclear threshold and by markedly diminishing the prospect of escalation.21 The advances in our ability to reduce collateral damage and to rely much more on conventional weapons is not found to blur the vital distinction between nuclear and conventional force. On the contrary, they make that distinction far more meaningful and effective. Most of all, the new weaponry, according to its champions, will give us choices we did not have before. Provided they live up to advance expectations, the new weapons indeed give us choices we did not have before. They will extend the spectrum of violence. They will add a number of intermediate levels between the upper and lower extremes of this spectrum . But they will not solve the great dilemma created by nuclear weapons of finding reasonably clear and effective limits to force. The distinctive danger presented by nuclear weapons will persist, though now it may well be mitigated by the existence of weapons that afford a markedly greater opportunity to act in a restrained and discriminate manner.

The view that finds a salvation of sorts in the new weapons assumes that men have been indiscriminate in the conduct of war because they lacked the means to be discriminate-or, at any rate, more discriminate. This is a partial truth that, in the manner of all partial truths, becomes dangerous when taken as the whole truth. Indiscriminate or immoderate means decree immoderate ends. Yet discriminate or moderate means may also be used in the pursuit of immoderate ends. Men have been indiscriminate in the conduct of war, in part, because they have sought immoderate or unlimited ends. Should they continue to seek those ends, the threat of indiscriminate warfare must persist, new smart weapons notwithstanding.

It will not do, then, to assume that the advent of smart weapons will permit us to combine discriminating means with any of a wide variety of ends. That side against which the most accurate weapons are used in pursuit of immoderate ends may still be driven to threaten and to employ indiscriminate weapons. The new technology does not resolve the issue of limits. Nor could it be expected to do so.


The element of continuity in the present debate can be overdone. If from one perspective today's debate looks like nothing so much as a rerun of yesterday, from yet another perspective it appears quite different. Although the framework and essential terms of the present debate are the same as those of the past, its tenor has changed. In the course of a generation, there has been a considerable shift of position with respect to the legitimacy of nuclear weapons.

The significance of this shift cannot be found in the questions that are asked today; they are similar to a generation ago. Instead, it is in the choice of answers increasingly given to familiar questions. Thus, when the American Catholic bishops declare in their now famous pastoral letter on war and peace that "nuclear weapons particularly and nuclear warfare as it is planned today raise new moral questions," the referent point can only be the world of pre-nuclear weapons. The fashionably banal phrase that the world is now "wired for destruction" might just as truthfully have been uttered in the 1960s. It is not the essential predicament nuclear weapons have created for us that is novel but the new evaluations of that predicament. The bishops emphasize that: "What previously had been defined as a safe and stable system of deterrence is today viewed with political and moral skepticism." A predicament, they justly observe, that once had been widely accepted with little question, "is now being subjected to the sharpest criticism" and "evaluated with a new perspective."

The bishops' letter, with its criticism of American nuclear strategy, is a significant part of this new perspective. A generation ago, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council expressed a quite different perspective.22 It did so, in the first place, with respect to the possible use of nuclear weapons. The Council left the implication that the use of nuclear weapons in a war of legitimate defense would also be legitimate provided such weapons were used in a reasonably discriminating manner. What the Vatican Council condemned was "total war" and any acts of war "aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population." What the American Catholic bishops condemn is nuclear war. The use of nuclear weapons is rejected, whether these weapons are used against military targets or against civilian centers of population, whether in a first strike or in a retaliatory second strike, whether in a strategic or theater nuclear war. The rejection is complete. Nor does it matter that the bishops' position is based on the conviction that the use of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled and that the effects cannot be limited, considerations that are not, after all, very different from those emphasized by Vatican Council II. What does matter is that the bishops invoke these considerations to condemn nuclear war unqualifiedly, while Vatican II invoked them to form only a carefully qualified statement about the circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons would be illegitimate.

This is an interpretation of the bishops' letter, let it be emphasized. Nowhere do the bishops expressly condemn any and all use of nuclear weapons. What they do expressly and unequivocably condemn is indiscriminate warfare. But that is all. On the first use of nuclear weapons, they "do not perceive any situation" in which initiation "can be morally justified." On limited nuclear war, they want to be assured that a series of conditions can be satisfied before condoning the limited use of nuclear weapons. Unless these conditions can be satisfied, and clearly they cannot, the bishops remain "highly skeptical" about the real meaning of "limited." Does all this amount to the complete rejection of nuclear weapons? Some argue that it does not, that it permits the bare possibility of the most restricted use of nuclear weapons.23 But even if this view is credited and, in Father Bryan Hehir's words, the letter leaves "a centimeter of ambiguity" on use, we have come very close to total rejection. There is no way by which American nuclear policy-past, present or probable future-can be reconciled with the bishops' position.

The position taken by the Catholic bishops toward nuclear war is quite close to the position of many who make up the deterrence faithful. "Of course," Leon Wieseltier writes, "there can be no nuclear war that is just. There is no moral standard that can sanction it."24 Of course, there can never be a just nuclear war, if it is assumed that no meaningful limits can or will be set to the conduct of such war. Given that assumption, nuclear war must either destroy the ends for which it is presumably fought or result in destruction that is disproportionate to those ends. In either case-or, what is generally held as more likely, in both cases-nuclear war must prove unjust.

This absolute condemnation of any and every nuclear war cannot but have a bearing on the moral assessment of deterrence. As long as nuclear war is not condemned without qualification, as long as the prospect is held out that a nuclear conflict may satisfy the minimal standards of justice, deterrence structures may be maintained without corrosive moral anxiety and defensiveness. Once this prospect is excluded, however, deterrence must become more difficult to sustain. If nuclear weapons are by their very nature illegitimate, because their use cannot be controlled or their effects limited, deterrence structures that rest on the threat to use these weapons are also likely to be seen as illegitimate. What gives these structures their one and only saving grace is the promise that they will never have to be put to active use. Even then, the justification of deterrence will largely rest on the grounds of necessity. Yet the plea of necessity, taken alone, can never prove very satisfactory. If deterrent structures are to be given the requisite support for sustained periods, they must be seen as responding to something more than necessity. That plea might alone suffice if these structures were securely endowed with the quality of certainty. Since they cannot be so endowed, the slightest lapse of faith in the reliability of deterrence must give rise to a growing sense of despair-moral and otherwise.

It must also give rise to a growing disposition to refuse to endow deterrence with moral legitimacy. This disposition, in the view of some critics, is already apparent in the position taken by the Catholic bishops. Despite their "strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence," these critics argue that the logic of the bishops' position is to undermine deterrence. By insisting on the doctrine of "no use-ever," the bishops would strip deterrence of one of the elements indispensible to its effectiveness. "Deterrence," one critic notes, "is not inherent in the weapons. It results from a combination of possession and the will to use them. If one side renounces, for moral or other reasons, the intent of ever actually using nuclear weapons, deterrence ceases to exist."25

Does it? If one possesses nuclear weapons and foreswears using them, is it reasonable to conclude that their deterrent role "ceases to exist"? It would not seem so. In some measure deterrence is inherent in the weapon and its possession. This is true even of far less awesome weapons. It is certainly true of weapons that are as destructive as those on which deterrence rests today, weapons that have been used only twice, and about which there is happily little hard evidence on the will to use them. There is, after all, some merit in doctrines of existential deterrence. The bishops, it is true, would put these doctrines to a rather exacting test by a policy of retaining possession of nuclear weapons while renouncing any use of them. But it was only in this manner that the bishops could counsel a course of action that in their judgment conforms to just-war criteria while also managing to retain political relevance.26

A less severe though far more persuasive criticism is that the bishops' effort serves to weaken deterrence. It does so not only by insisting on "no use-ever" but by undermining the legitimacy of deterrence even while giving deterrence a "strictly conditioned moral acceptance." Yet it is not only bishops' letters and the like that undermine deterrence. In a way that is less apparent, though perhaps no less effective, so do the champions of minimum deterrence. For their position, too, comes very close to one of "no use-ever"; certainly it does so in spirit. What else can be the meaning of their counsel that in the event deterrence fails, the overriding duty of the statesman is to try to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible and without regard to other considerations? If this is the great goal of the statesman, to which all else must be subordinated, the question arises: why should the side made the object of a preemptive strike-presumably this country-respond at all? To do nothing in response to a nuclear attack would likely hold out the best prospect of bringing the conflict to an end in the quickest and least destructive way.

The combination of renouncing a preemptive attack and of committing oneself to terminating a nuclear war "as quickly as possible" is very close to the bishops' "no use-ever." The threat of a second strike may serve a deterrent purpose. But even that purpose may be substantially negated by the commitment, if it is generally known, to war termination as quickly as possible. Indeed, as between the bishops' commitment to "no use-ever" and a minimum deterrence plus quick termination, the difference appears quite negligible. Given the assumptions of minimum deterrence, a second strike must in all likelihood prove strategically pointless and morally perverse.

The bishops' position, then, is the moral analogue of the strategic position of minimum deterrence. What to the former is morally proscribed, to the latter is strategically absurd. To both, deterrence is justified only if it need never be "acted out." Given this similarity, it is less important that what the bishops may not "intend" doing, the supporters of minimum deterrence may intend to their hearts' content. Far more important is the agreement on the illegitimacy of any and all nuclear war.


How may we account for the change that has occurred with respect to the legitimacy of nuclear weapons? Is it that the public has simply awakened at last to the dangers, has become aware of the nature of the catastrophe that would ensue if these weapons were ever to be used? If so, all that needs explaining is why the public took so long to awaken to the dangers. But once it had done so, it was only to be expected that the condemnation of nuclear weapons would follow. Thus George Ball, writing of the "long overdue" awakening of public interest in, and concern for the military use of, the atom, takes it as self-evident that this interest must lead, as in Ball's judgment it already has led, to enveloping nuclear weapons in a "rigid taboo."27 To understand these weapons-to know that they cannot be controlled in use and effect, and therefore cannot in fact be employed to achieve a political objective-is to condemn them. The sense that nuclear weapons are illegitimate is synonymous with a growing awareness of them.

It is an appealing view if only because of the role and motive it imputes to the great public. Until quite recently, we are asked to believe, the public regarded the esoteric realm of nuclear weapons and strategy with a detachment bordering on indifference. It did so presumably because it largely dismissed the prospect of nuclear war. "So long as Americans regarded the danger of nuclear war as remote and unreal," George Ball notes, "most were content to leave nuclear weapons to academic experts, military theorists, and science fiction writers." But once the Soviet-American relationship began to deteriorate badly at the end of the 1970s, the veil was suddenly torn from before the public's eyes. The danger of nuclear war was no longer seen as remote and unreal. The sudden appreciation of the danger led to the anti-nuclear weapons movement and, synonymous with the movement, to the growing sense that nuclear weapons are illegitimate.

In part a plausible account, it nevertheless distorts the history of the past few decades. The development of nuclear weapons and strategy is seen as taking place almost on a different planet as far as the public is concerned. One would never know from this account that America's nuclear monopoly in the late 1940s was widely credited, whether rightly or wrongly, with deterring a Soviet attack on Western Europe; that a strategy of massive retaliation formed a mainstay of American policy in the 1950s; that the great crisis of the early 1960s over Cuba was provoked by placing nuclear missiles on the island and was resolved only at the risk of a war between the superpowers that might have led in turn to the use of nuclear weapons; and that a decade of much publicized arms control negotiations had occurred during the 1970s, which at the least maintained public awareness of the nuclear weapons issue, and at the most, by constant repetition of the need to control the dangers of the arms race, prepared the ground for the movement that sprang up once these negotiations-and the superpower relationship so closely identified with them-began to collapse.

It is scarcely credible to picture the past several years as the period of a great awakening of the public to the physical and moral perils of nuclear weapons. No one was oblivious to the perils of nuclear war. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons has long been an integral part of the informal educational curriculum of this society. The change in attitude that has undoubtedly occurred in the past generation toward nuclear weapons is not so much the result of a heightened understanding of the characteristics of these weapons and the dangers of nuclear war as it is of a heightened appreciation of the increasing power at the disposal of the Soviet Union. There are, of course, other reasons for this change. Nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as illegitimate, in part because force in general is increasingly seen as illegitimate. In turn, a changed attitude toward the use of armed force must be attributed in part to the continuing impact of Vietnam. In part it also reflects deeper changes occurring in American society that militate against this most ancient activity of collectives. In time, the deeper explanation of the reaction to Vietnam may well be found in the transformation of American society in directions prophesied long ago by some of the great nineteenth-century sociologists. Derided earlier in this century, the view that liberal-capitalist societies are inherently pacific-and even pacifist-is one that can no longer be readily dismissed.

These considerations are necessarily speculative, but the significance of the increased power of the Soviet Union in effecting a changed attitude toward nuclear weapons in this country seems much less so. The visible ability of the Soviet Union effectively to match any threat of nuclear force on our part clearly has played a considerable role in prompting the reevaluation, moral and otherwise, of nuclear weapons. It is not the first time that the fear of retaliation in kind has led to a display of heightened moral sensitivity. Moralists are understandably reluctant to acknowledge the effect that considerations of reciprocity have in these matters. Their reluctance does not diminish the significance of reciprocity in placing restraints on behavior, and particularly collective behavior.

Unless we are to assume a moral transformation of sorts, never a very promising assumption, an altered view of the legitimacy of nuclear weapons reflects an altered distribution of this form of power. The marked growth of Soviet strategic power in the past generation accounts for the hardening of the conviction that nuclear weapons, any and all nuclear weapons, must prove indiscriminate in their effects, when in practice weapons developments for the first time hold out the solid promise of introducing an appreciable element of discrimination. From a broader perspective, the growth of Soviet military power is reflected in the widespread disposition to minimize, if not almost dismiss, the importance of other differences in accounting for the persistence of the conflict between the Soviet Union and this country. A generation ago, differences in ideology, values and political structures were still accorded a prime importance. Today, their role in explaining the persistence of the conflict is much reduced. Yet an image of the Soviet Union that has changed substantially for the better since the mid-1960s contrasts strikingly with the reality of the Soviet government's conduct at home and abroad-a reality that scarcely bears out this optimistic image.

Whatever the precise explanation of the change in attitude toward nuclear weapons, it seems very likely that the change will persist. For the circumstances that must roughly account for it are not of a transient character. The unrest and disaffection that is the result of this change can only be kept at tolerable levels by a restoration of faith in deterrence. How such restoration may be effected is the issue around which the nuclear debate has increasingly centered.


There are, in principle, three ways by which a faith in deterrence might be restored. In one, restoration would take the path of attempting to re-create the circumstances that once conditioned the operation of faith. The critical circumstance, of course, was strategic superiority over the Soviet Union. In retrospect, there is now a tendency to discount the view that strategic superiority once conferred real and significant advantages. The increasingly fashionable theme of the inherent inutility of nuclear weapons is applied to a recent past in order to correct the presumably mistaken view that our strategic position ever operated to our advantage. If it did not, then the attempt today to recapture some semblance of strategic advantage must be regarded as at best a vain enterprise, and this even if there were a reasonable prospect that the effort might one day succeed.

Today's nuclear revisionism notwithstanding, the strategic superiority of yesterday did confer advantages. Not the least of these advantages was a degree of faith in the operation of deterrence that has since declined. Whether this faith might be restored to a former level, even if a measure of strategic superiority were once regained, is surely a legitimate question. But it cannot be answered simply by tendentious readings of the past that are sharply at variance with common-sense interpretations. Nor can it be fairly responded to by intimations to the effect that the very attempt to regain a measure of strategic advantage over the Soviet Union must be regarded as inherently undesirable and even illegitimate. The attempt may prove impossible of achievement, but that is another matter. To judge it as inherently undesirable and even as illegitimate, largely for the reason that the Soviet Union might consider the effort synonymous with a policy of confrontation, is to sanction the disadvantages under which our position of extended deterrence must operate in conditions approximating strategic parity.

The promise of technology has once again stimulated hopes of regaining some semblance of strategic advantage. It has done so with respect to the precision-guided munitions. To a still greater extent, it has done so with respect to weapons of defense against ballistic missiles.

The advent of offensive weapons of great accuracy would evidently confer a substantial measure of strategic advantage if, being largely in the possession of one side, they had a highly effective counterforce capability. But the history of the past three decades does not afford much reason for assuming that the lead we may presently enjoy in "smart" weapons will be kept for more than a brief period. Nor is there much reason to assume that the effectiveness of these weapons as a counterforce system will be greater in our hands than in Soviet hands. If anything, it is the contrary assumption that seems more reasonable. For the differences between the two societies must make the concealment of targets appropriate to the new weapons far more difficult for the United States than for the Soviet Union. The openness of American society almost ensures that, as between the two, we would be the disadvantaged party.

In the case of the precision-guided munitions, we are considering weapons that are either operational today or close to becoming so. By contrast, in the case of weapons to defend against ballistic missiles, we are dealing for the most part with technological prospects that cannot be transformed into operational weapons systems for at least 20 years, if indeed these prospects can ever be realized.

It is only with respect to a certain type of ground-based defense-terminal-phase defense of point targets-that an effective operational system might be put in place by the end of the 1980s. A terminal-phase defense would proceed on the basis of a technology that goes back to the 1960s. Forbidden by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, except for one limited site, terminal defense is restricted to the most accessible or vulnerable phase of an attacking missile's trajectory. To be successful in the defense of missile emplacements, the effectiveness of terminal defense need be no more than modest, since all that is required is that a substantial portion of the missiles be saved. This is in sharp contrast to the requirement of a defense of cities.

A comprehensive system of defense against ballistic missiles-a Star Wars system that would extend its reach into space-could become a reality in the next century. But the problem of restoring faith in deterrence is one for today, not for the next century. It cannot be met by a prospect that is so far removed and so attended by uncertainty. A Star Wars defense is not only a very complex and difficult undertaking; even if once constructed its operational effectiveness would remain quite uncertain, assuming that any of the present schemes were implemented.

The central difficulty in devising a comprehensive system of defense against ballistic missiles is rooted in the very great destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the very great speed of ballistic missiles. These characteristics have given the offense a predominance that it has never before achieved. That predominance, moreover, seems assured by the relative ease with which simple and cheap countermeasures may be taken to defeat defensive efforts. Then, too, the requirements for success in the case of defensive systems are far more exacting than those for offensive systems. Once again, this striking disproportionality is due to the very great destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

Whatever the prospects of strategic defense, we can gain advantage from them only if we can remain well ahead of the Soviet Union in the competition to develop a missile defense. The assumption that we can remain well ahead is rooted in the belief that is as old as the postwar competition in arms between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this view, the Soviet Union is, and will remain, the technological inferior of this country. Yet our superiority has not prevented the inferior party from duplicating our technological achievements in weapons, often within a very brief period. On more than one occasion, this duplication has also been carried out with a vengeance. There is no apparent reason to conclude that on this occasion the Soviet Union would prove unable to do what it has done with regularity in the past. Having sacrificed so much to reach its present position of strategic eminence, it may be expected to remain willing to make the necessary effort and sacrifice to keep this position.

It would be ironic if the principal consequence of Star Wars efforts, rather than to confer a measure of strategic advantage, was instead to subject our principal alliance to new and serious strain. The layered defense that might just possibly work one day for the United States either would not work at all for Western Europe or would work only imperfectly. The time that is the vital ingredient for such defense is too compressed in the case of Western Europe. The view has been expressed that, in these circumstances of a two-class system of defense, Europe would intensify its perennial fear of the United States decoupling from its allies. But surely it would not be our growing invulnerability to Soviet missile attack that heightened this fear. A growing invulnerability, however modest, should instead reassure our allies, on the reasoning that what promotes American strategic invulnerability strengthens extended deterrence. On this reasoning, the Europeans should welcome America's growing invulnerability. Admittedly, a growing Soviet invulnerability as well must partly offset this reassurance to Western Europe. Still, the net result, one might think, would still point to West European reassurance.

In all likelihood, though, the reality would be otherwise and would result from Western Europe's perception that it was now more exposed than ever. The fact that the two great nuclear adversaries were increasingly protected, while Europe was not, would heighten fears that the risks of nuclear war in Europe had increased, that in the words of a former mayor of West Berlin, Heinrich Albertz, Europe was now being turned into a "shooting gallery of the superpowers." However unfounded the perception, it might nevertheless be broadly shared. For it would reflect the familiar "logic" of the protected that their security consists in there being no sanctuaries.


The preceding considerations suggest that the disadvantages attending our position of extended deterrence are unlikely to be compensated for by technological advances. Those disadvantages may one day create sufficient support for prompting a general withdrawal from our major postwar commitments. A policy of withdrawal represents the second way by which a faith in deterrence might be restored. If the interests in defense of which we were prepared to risk not only nuclear war but any serious use of force did not extend beyond the North American continent, the prospect of our future involvement in a nuclear conflict would sharply decline. It would sharply decline because deterrence, having now become synonymous with the prevention of a direct attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, would possess maximum credibility. It would do so even assuming that the Soviet Union's strategic forces enjoyed a substantial advantage over our own forces. For the Soviet Union would still have to incur terrible risks in attacking this country. In a world where we would no longer contest them, what incentive would the Soviets have to take such risks? An America, then, that defined its vital interests in terms that did not extend beyond this continent would be an America that placed its physical security in least jeopardy. By the same token, it would also be an America that provided a favorable context for the restoration of faith in deterrence.

This, at least, is the principal thrust the argument on behalf of a policy of withdrawal must take. It remains the case, however, that the argument on behalf of withdrawal is one that has yet to receive much open support. Even among those who are most adamant about the dangers of our present nuclear strategy and most insistent upon changing that strategy, there is an unwillingness to draw the connection, or even to acknowledge a connection, between a policy of withdrawal and a radical change in nuclear strategy. It may be that withdrawal is nevertheless the unavowed agenda of much of the anti-nuclear weapons movement. Certainly this is the conclusion one is almost driven to make in the case of some of its most articulate supporters. It may also be, however, that in the case of many-perhaps the majority-we have the not unfamiliar situation of a movement that entertains contradictory goals, that seeks to change substantially, and in time even radically, the nation's nuclear strategy, while not changing in any significant way the nation's interests and commitments. In this instance, moreover, the ground for entertaining goals all too likely to prove incompatible has been well prepared by arguments on behalf of the compatibility between radical change in nuclear strategy and continuity in major interests of postwar policy.

The infrequency with which a policy of withdrawal is given serious consideration today must no doubt be found in the legacy of our interwar experience. Then, a policy of withdrawal-of isolation, principally from Europe-threatened in the end to lead to the worst of outcomes. The persisting fear that it would do so again must in large measure account for the near unanimity with which the undesirability of withdrawal is still considered to keep it beyond the pale of serious discussion.

If withdrawal is unthinkable, though, the reasons for this ought at least to be made clear. Certainly, it will not do to respond that the unthinkable may not be thought else it become thinkable. Walter Lippmann once pointed out that this reasoning was part of the case made against alliances and he argued that an objection which men would not examine and debate was a mere prejudice. In part, the case against withdrawal is also little more than a prejudice.

In part, however, this case rests on the assumption that even if we were once to decide upon a policy of withdrawal, we would do so only subsequently to find ourselves forced to try to retrace our steps in circumstances more dangerous to our security than ever. Suppose, it may be argued, that we were to withdraw from Europe only to attempt to return in circumstances of great instability, brought on by Soviet threats to forestall nuclear arming by West Germany. Clearly, this would be a very dangerous situation and it would have been largely brought on by our withdrawal.

It may well be objected that this argument succeeds by juxtaposing very nearly the worst of possible worlds, resulting from our decision to withdraw, with something resembling if not the best then a very tolerable world, resulting from our determination to retain the present policy. Still, it is not unreasonable to put a greater burden on those moving for radical change in policy. An American withdrawal, however staged, would be a momentous event. The uncertainties that it would open up are considerably greater than the uncertainties attendant upon a policy of the status quo.

The relevant question here, however, is whether the instability arising from our withdrawal would represent a greater threat to our core security than the continued pursuit of the policy of extended deterrence. The argument that withdrawal would represent a greater threat rests on the assumption that we would not-indeed, could not-accept the consequences of withdrawal. This unwillingness-and inability-to accept the consequences of our decision, it is argued, could easily result in something near the worst of possible worlds. And well it could. But this world would threaten our physical security only if, having decided for other reasons that we could not live with the consequences, we determined to retrace our steps.

What are these other reasons what would presumably drive us to retrace our steps? One, many would insist, is the very prospect of a war again occurring in Europe, a war we could not escape involvement in, just as we could not escape involvement in World Wars I and II. But one compelling reason why we could not avoid intervening in previous wars was because of balance-of-power considerations. A hostile power in control of Europe, we calculated, might ultimately pose a threat to our physical security. The calculation may have involved an element of exaggeration. Still, it was not unreasonable, resting as it did on the assumption that the power of this nation might prove insufficient to deter attack by a hostile power in control of Europe or, even worse, Eurasia.

This reasoning, though, seems no longer relevant. It applied to a pre-nuclear world and to a balance-of-power system. In such a system a surfeit of defensive and deterrent power was practically unachievable. This being so, a great object of diplomacy was to avoid isolation. In this respect, as in so many others, nuclear-missile weapons have effected a revolution in international politics. A great nuclear state, able to destroy any other state or combination of states, is no longer dependent on balance-of-power considerations for its core security. It possesses what was heretofore considered unachievable: a surfeit of deterrent power. And although in the extreme situation it is absolutely vulnerable with respect to its great nuclear adversary, this vulnerability cannot be significantly affected by alliances and allies. On the contrary, while allies cannot improve one's core security, they may threaten it, since the prospect of using nuclear weapons is most likely to arise as a result of threats to their security.

These considerations do not address the argument that a nuclear peace is indivisible and that we cannot escape our present involvement in Europe, if only for the simple yet compelling reason that a nuclear conflict in Europe would inevitably become a global nuclear conflict. This argument is of a piece with the view, also put forth with utter assurance, that any use of nuclear weapons between the great powers must result in the unlimited use of nuclear weapons between them. Still, the latter view has at least something more to support it than mere assertion, although ultimately it too is necessarily speculative. The former view, however, seems no more than mere assertion. Far from being of necessity indivisible, a nuclear peace may be more divisible than any peace we have known for a very long time.

Why must a policy of involvement that requires extended deterrence be defended by arguments that no longer carry persuasion? It is as though those making them fear that if the truth were known about why we persist in such a policy it might prove insufficient to command the necessary support. The truth is scarcely startling. If we refuse to equate our vital interests simply with our physical security, it is because great nations have almost always refused to make this equation. They have always insisted that their identity consists of more than physical attributes and that it encompasses the preservation of certain values and of the institutions-political, economic, and social-that embody these values. Nations require allies and friends not only for reasons of physical security but in order to ensure an environment that will be receptive to these values. In the end, this is why we have refused to entertain a policy of withdrawal, even though this continued refusal may one day exact a terrible price.


The effort to regain strategic superiority, or some semblance thereof, and a policy of withdrawal are two radically different ways to attempt a restoration of faith in deterrence. Either way may be pursued largely independent of the will and desire of the Soviet Union. This is one of their undoubted attractions and is to be sharply contrasted with the third course, détente, which is evidently dependent on the cooperation of the Soviet government. The attraction of détente, on the other hand, is that it is easier to pursue than strategic superiority while less likely to result in the sacrifice that withdrawal probably entails.

There is little that needs here to be said in a general vein about the third way of restoring faith in deterrence. If the view taken in previous pages is correct, the immediate and decisive reason for the lapse of faith in deterrence was the breakdown of détente.

Unquestionably, the loss of strategic superiority affords the deeper explanation of this lapse. Yet it is remarkable that the passing of our strategic superiority had so limited an effect on both the general public and, more impressively, on the bulk of the foreign policy elites. The fact that it did not shake the faith that had been formed in an earlier period must be attributed largely to the relationship of détente that arose in the course of the middle to late 1960s, reached a high point in the early 1970s, and was already in marked decline by the middle 1970s.

In retrospect, what must also impress the observer is how so modest an improvement in the Soviet-American relationship had so reassuring an effect on the public and elites alike. Whatever one's appreciation of the détente of the early 1970s, the tangible achievements of that relationship were on almost any reckoning modest. This is as true of the arms control measures, the centerpiece of the détente, as it is of the other achievements attributed to the relationship. The earlier experience suggests that it may take surprisingly little in the way of an improved Soviet-American relationship in order to still present anxiety and unrest and to restore a lapsed faith.

An improved relationship between the two great nuclear powers is the precondition of virtually any significant measures of arms control. More than this, there is a rough proportionality that may be expected to obtain between the state of this relationship and the prospects for arms control measures. A modestly improved relationship may create the prospect for modest measures of arms control. This being the case, ambitious arms control schemes are either purely imaginary undertakings or they are predicated on a relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union that goes far beyond even a rather loose definition of détente. Thus proposals for very deep cuts in nuclear arms-let alone for the abolition of these weapons-are idle unless they assume a relationship that has in all likelihood passed beyond the stage of a mere détente and has become something more intimate and promising. The prospects for this are such that they seem scarcely worth pausing over.

It may seem quixotic at this time even to speculate on the prospects of détente. Yet unless we are to assume that the future of the Soviet-American relationship holds no place for any real improvement and that we can only look forward to unrelievedly grim years, such speculation does not seem out of place. One thing is clear. If it is out of place, not only will the attempt to restore faith in deterrence likely prove a futile enterprise but the nuclear anxiety we have recently experienced can be expected to persist.


1 Theodore Draper, "Nuclear Temptations," The New York Review of Books, January 19, 1984, p. 43.

2 Leon Wieseltier, Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983, p. 38. This is, of course, the essential rationale for "existential deterrence." At the dawn of the nuclear age, Bernard Brodie provided the first formulation of existential deterrence in observing that "everything about the atomic bomb is overshadowed by the twin facts that it exists and that its destructive power is fantastically great." Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1945, p. 52.

3 McGeorge Bundy, "The Bishops and the Bomb," The New York Review of Books, June 10, 1983, p. 4. In an essay written at the end of his life, Bernard Brodie declared that: "The main war goal upon the beginning of a strategic nuclear exchange would surely be to terminate it as quickly as possible and with the least amount of damage possible-on both sides." Bernard Brodie, "The Development of Nuclear Strategy," International Security, Spring 1978, p. 79.

5 George Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983, p. 231.

6 C.P. Snow, "The Moral Un-Neutrality of Science," Science, January 27, 1961, p. 259.

7 Schell, op. cit., p. 44.

8 "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," Origins, May 19, 1983, p. 1.

9 Randall Forsberg, "Call to Halt The Nuclear Arms Race," in Randall Forsberg et al., Seeds of Promise: The First Real Hearings on the Nuclear Arms Freeze, Andover (Mass.): Brick House Publishing, 1983, p. 197.

10 Leslie H. Gelb, "Is the Nuclear Threat Manageable?", The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 1984, p. 26.

11 The latter danger is examined at length in Paul Bracken, The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

12 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Foreign Policy and the American Character," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1983, p. 13.

13 Bernard Gwertzman, "President Says U.S. Should Not Waver In Backing Saudis," The New York Times, October 18, 1981, p. 1.

14 Cited in Richard Halloran, "Pentagon Draws Up First Strategy For Fighting a Long Nuclear War," The New York Times, May 30, 1982, p. 1.

15 Charles Mohr, "Carter Orders Steps To Increase Ability To Meet War Threats," The New York Times, August 26, 1977, p. A8.

16 Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress, FY 1982, U.S. Department of Defense, January 19, 1981, Washington: GPO, 1981, p. 40.

17 Harold Brown, Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World, Boulder (Colo.): Westview Press, 1983, p. 81.

18 Robert S. McNamara, "The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1983, p. 79.

19 Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983, p. 395. Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 391, reaches the same conclusion: "The nuclear strategists had come to impose order-but in the end chaos prevailed." See also Michael Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Question: The United States and Nuclear Weapons, 1946-1976, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 127.

22 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, December 7, 1965, National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1966. The statement on war appears in Part II, Chap. V.

24 Wieseltier, op. cit., p. 28.

25 Charles Krauthammer, "On Nuclear Morality," Commentary, October 1983, p. 49.

27 George Ball, "The Cosmic Bluff," The New York Review of Books, July 21, 1983, p. 37.

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  • Robert W. Tucker is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and President of the Lehrman Institute. He wishes to thank Michael Mandelbaum, Josef Joffe and Paul Dyster for their help.
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