AFTER much use in political debate, words tend to become leathery and pliable in the meanings they suggest. Perhaps they gain something in richness of implication but they lose in precision. For example, the word "policy" is used in two related but different senses. In one sense, the action sense, it refers to the general guide lines which we believe should and will in fact govern our actions in various contingencies. In the other sense, the declaratory sense, it refers to policy statements which have as their aim political and psychological effects.

Much of the discussion of recent months concerning Western atomic policy has been on the issue of "massive retaliation" versus "graduated deterrence." The phrase "massive retaliation" has been used by Secretary Dulles to describe a policy of relying for our security "primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing." The phrase "graduated deterrence" has been used by a number of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Admiral Sir Anthony Buzzard, formerly Director of British Naval Intelligence, recently described it as a policy of "limiting wars (in weapons, targets, area and time) to the minimum force necessary to deter and repel aggression." Although many confusing subsidiary points have been raised, the main point at issue between the two concepts is the reliance which should be placed upon the capacity to bomb centers of population and industry with nuclear weapons.

The discussion of the two concepts would attain greater clarity if a distinction were maintained between the two meanings of the word "policy."

Our action policy has been, is, and, I believe, will continue to be one of "graduated deterrence." We do not wish or intend to use means beyond those which are necessary for the achievement of any given objective. It is obviously to the interest of the West that war, and especially atomic war in any form, be avoided if that is possible without submitting to even greater evils. Furthermore, it is to the West's interest, if atomic war becomes unavoidable, that atomic weapons of the smallest sizes be used in the smallest area, and against the most restricted target systems possible, while still achieving for the West the particular objective which is at issue. Judgments can differ as to the importance of various objectives, the military requirements for defending or achieving these objectives, and the feasibility of both sides maintaining in actual combat restrictions on the geographic extent of the fighting, the types of weapons used or the character of the targets attacked. The basic point remains, however, that it is to the interest of the West that the means employed in warfare and the area of engagement be restricted to the minimum level which still permits us to achieve our objectives. Our basic action policy must therefore be one of "graduated deterrence."

But how about our declaratory policy--the statements of policy which we make for political effect? There may have been very good reason for leaving the Soviet leaders in no doubt that we do not propose to be nibbled to death; that they cannot blithely choose areas and means of aggression as they see fit without running very real risks that we will be forced to expand the means or area of action as may be necessary to redress the aggression. The difficulty with the "massive retaliation" statement, however, was that to many people on our side it suggested that we would no longer take the measures necessary to contain local aggression with graduated means but would choose unlimited city-to-city atomic retaliation the moment we were given an excuse. Some people, in reaction to the massive retaliation statement, are urging that we declare our firm intention not to use hydrogen weapons except in retaliation for their prior use by an enemy. Some are suggesting other forms of self-limiting declaration. Others are persuaded that while we maintain a stiff upper lip and give the Russians no reason to believe we would lack the will to meet a crisis they will never test that will.

The difficulty with declaratory policy is that it tends to be ineffective in its political and psychological consequences if it deviates too far from action policy. To be clear as to the wisdom of a declaratory policy, one must be sure first that the action policy it suggests is one which is, and will continue to be, in conformity with our interests and with basic realities, and secondly that the political and psychological consequences of the declaration will in fact be favorable.

Let us go back, therefore, and examine some of the developments in the weapons field and their impact on both military and political strategy to see whether this throws any light on the type of action policy we can live with. Later we can look at the problem of what it might be wise to declare about it.


Many writers have suggested that an "atomic stalemate" has developed or is about to develop. The thought seems to be that as the Russian stockpile of atomic weapons grows both sides will realize that in an all-out nuclear war neither side can "win" and that therefore atomic peace (aside from some irrational action) is assured. I would suggest that the situation is more complex.

In the first place the growth of the Russian atomic stockpile and delivery systems (the bases, planes, missiles, crews, radars, etc., necessary to deliver them on target) does not tend to inhibit action by the Soviets. It merely inhibits the possibility of action by ourselves. If the Western monopoly was for many years a force for peace it is hard to see how the loss of that monopoly can, by itself, be a force for stability. It would seem much more plausible to look to the other development which has been proceeding concurrently with growth of the Russian stockpile--that is, to the great general advance in atomic weapon systems technology--for those forces in the weapons field which may be tending toward increasing stability.

During the past five years the power of individual weapons, the number of weapons available and the variety and flexibility of means for their delivery have expanded more rapidly than anyone at the beginning of that period thought possible. Power, numbers and deliverability are not just additive factors. It is not their sum but their product which gives an index of offensive potential. And the developments of recent years have raised their product to an entirely new order of magnitude. It is this change in the order of magnitude of offensive potential which increasingly raises the question as to whether any one can "win" an all-out nuclear war.

But the word "win" is another of our leathery words which can stand reëxamination for precision of meaning. In one connotation the word "win" is used to suggest a comparison of the immediate postwar position of a country with its prewar position. In this sense none of the initial contestants "won" in the First World War or in the Second World War. It is probable that no one could "win" a third world war, in the sense of being richer, happier or better off after such a war than before it, even if no atomic weapons were used. If atomic weapons were used in all-out, city-to-city attack by both sides the conclusion is certain.

In another connotation the word "win" is used to suggest a comparison of the postwar position of one of the adversaries with the postwar position of the other adversary. In this sense it is quite possible that in a general nuclear war one side or the other could "win" decisively. Even a small initial imbalance in relative capabilities, other things being equal, could grow rapidly into a decisive imbalance as the war progressed.

Air warfare in general and atomic warfare in particular tend to be comparable more to naval warfare than to land warfare. In classical naval warfare, it has generally been true that if the main opposing forces became engaged, an initial superiority was progressively translated into complete and decisive victory, resulting in full control of the sea lanes for the victorious side. In land warfare, on the other hand, the side having the initial advantage often has become overextended as its forces advanced, as its lines of communication lengthened and as the population and forces of the defender were stimulated to greater efforts. A very great margin of superiority, often established only after a counterattack, has usually been necessary for decisive victory on land.

In the last war, establishing control of the air took time, and that control was sometimes less surely established than was control of the sea in the days before the development of airplanes. But the addition of atomic weapons, with the prospect that hundreds of airfields could be permanently destroyed in a single day, make it probable that in any future war the process would be speeded up and be even more clearly decisive.

Some have argued that the destruction in an all-out nuclear war would be so great that nothing would remain, that life on this planet would be impossible, and that there would be no one left to "win," even in the second sense of the word. This is technically conceivable. The number of high-yield thermonuclear weapons which can be exploded in a short space of time without producing general lethal contamination of the atmosphere is finite. But it is a large number, one not likely to be reached unless the war is fought in an entirely irrational way.

If the above line of reasoning is correct, then in a nuclear war fought with some degree of reason one side may very well "win" in this second comparative sense and the other side lose. The victor will be in a position to issue orders to the loser and the loser will have to obey them or face complete chaos or extinction. The victor will then go on to organize what remains of the world as best he can. Certainly he will try to see to it that there is never again a possibility that the loser possesses nuclear weapons.

These two meanings of the word "win" epitomize the two main lines of considerations which flow from the present state of atomic technology. The first meaning brings out the horror and destruction which both sides in the contest, and mankind as a whole, would face in an all-out nuclear war--horror and destruction having as its upper limit the destruction of all life on this planet and as its lower limit such great losses even for the "victor" as to make any meaningful comparison with his prewar status impossible. It is this meaning of the word which brings out the reasons why it is of the utmost importance that nuclear war should not occur. We could not possibly "win" in this first sense. And we hope the enemy also realizes that he could not "win" in this sense either. The second meaning of the word "win," the comparison between the postwar position of the victor and the defeated, brings out why it is also of the utmost importance that the West maintain a sufficient margin of superior capability so that if general war were to occur we could "win" in the second sense. The greater that margin (and the more clearly the Communists understand that we have a margin), the less likely it is that nuclear war will ever occur. The greater that margin, the greater are our chances of seeing to it that nuclear war, if it does come, is fought rationally and that the resulting destruction is kept to the lowest levels feasible.


Now is it possible for the West to maintain a position of sufficient superiority so that it could "win" in the second sense if the necessity arose? The answer would seem to be in the affirmative provided we take the necessary measures. This would be so even if we assume that technology, both in nuclear processes and in delivery systems, will tend in the long run to equality between East and West.

As the number of weapons possessed by the Soviet Union increases, the importance of mere superiority in numbers diminishes. As the significance of superiority in numbers diminishes, the importance of superiority in delivery systems increases. As the Soviets approach closer to equality in delivery systems, the significance of superiority in this factor also decreases. But if one assumes the existence of roughly equivalent capabilities in delivery systems, the significance of the geographic factor increases.

The United States is vulnerable to direct attack only from bases on the Eurasian land mass and from submarines. The U.S.S.R. is vulnerable to attack not only from North American bases but also from bases closer in on the periphery of the Eurasian land mass itself and from seas controlled by the navies of the West. Given anything approaching equality in numbers and quality of planes, missiles and the other elements of modern delivery systems, the geographic factor should give the West the possibility of a continuing and decisive margin of superiority. The very important emphasis which the Soviets are placing on this factor both in their diplomacy and in their propaganda indicates that they also recognize its importance.

On this line of reasoning, the controlling question is whether the West's geographic advantage can in fact be preserved in peace and asserted in the event of war. Can the West maintain, even in the face of smiling Russian tactics or renewed Soviet pressure and threats, sufficient cohesion in its alliances to make the geographic factor really count? The land bases ringing the U.S.S.R., close in, are subject to the sovereign control not of the United States but of the countries on whose territory they are located. A military policy which contributes to neutralism in those countries may rob the West of that geographic advantage which is potentially its greatest strength.


The full significance of the geographic factor becomes evident only if one also bears in mind two other sets of considerations. One of these concerns the probable target systems in the initial period of a nuclear war. The other concerns the element of surprise.

A strong case can be made that no rational body of men would initiate a general atomic war unless they believed that the power of their initial atomic attack and its immediate effects on the enemy would be so great as to assure that the subsequent phases of the war would be substantially one-sided. In order to achieve such a one-sided result, the attacking side (either Russia in an initial attack, or the West in response to an aggression by Russia or China which could be met only by general war) would logically concentrate the full power of its initial atomic attack on the military--primarily the retaliatory--capabilities of the other side. The attacker's object would be to destroy, in the initial blow, a large proportion of the base structure from which the defender must launch his retaliatory action (including the planes or missiles on the bases and the submarines and carriers which might support the main retaliatory action). The attacker would attempt to destroy a sufficiently large proportion of this base structure to reduce the power of the defender's retaliatory action to a level which the attacker's own defense system could contain. If he should succeed in this attempt he will have assured that the remaining phases of the war will be substantially one-sided. Once he has gained effective control of the intercontinental air space, then his adversary's entire country, including cities, industries, means of communication and remaining military capabilities, will lie open to his will. He will presumably have much in mind the postwar problem of building a world which he can control and manage. He will want destruction of that world to be held within reasonable limits. He will wish his own country to be spared as far as possible. He will also want to destroy only as much of the enemy territory as is necessary for him to impose his will and get on with the job of making of the world what he wants and can make of it.

The side which has lost effective control of the intercontinental air spaces will face a truly agonizing decision. It may still have the capability of destroying a few of the enemy's cities. But the damage it could inflict would be indecisive and out of all proportion to the annihilation which its own cities could expect to receive in return.

Whether one side or the other could hope to achieve substantial control of the air during the initial phase of the war depends further on a number of factors additional to those already mentioned. One of these is base dispersal--the number and geographic distribution of air, missile and supporting bases. Another is air defense capability.

If the bases from which a Western strike can be mounted are 30 in number, the enemy will have a far easier task in establishing air control than if those bases are 300 or 3,000 in number and if they are geographically well dispersed and varied in character.

Of equal importance is the factor of air defense. If the Western early warning, radar, interceptor and defensive missile system is such that it can contain a coordinated Soviet surprise attack of 1,000 planes, that is quite a different thing than if it can contain a coördinated attack of only 100 planes. The point is that the technology of defense has also been making strides in recent years. From the technological standpoint, it is quite possible to conceive air defense systems which will have a very high probability of destroying all, or nearly all, planes of a small-scale attack. The problem is to design one that could stop a very high percentage of a large coördinated attack. This problem may not be insoluble. It is possible to foresee defenses even against intercontinental ballistic missiles, as Secretary of the Air Force Quarles recently announced.

This brings us to a discussion of the element of surprise and the advantage accruing to the side which strikes the first blow. If side A's base structure consists of a small number of bases and if side B's air defense system is able to contain a fairly substantial enemy retaliatory attack, then the advantage to side B of striking the first blow may be very great indeed. For the West to permit such a situation to develop in favor of the U.S.S.R. would be to encourage a dangerous instability in the air-atomic situation.

Sheer geographical extent is one of the elements necessary both for adequate base dispersal and for a comprehensive air defense system. This would seem to reënforce the point made earlier that the West has every prospect of being able to maintain a superior position in the nuclear attack-defense equations, but only if its available geographic advantages can be maintained as a vital element.

There are two further military strategy points which deserve mention.

If one studies the impact of weapons technology on military history, one finds that advances in mobility have generally favored the offense, and advances in firepower have generally favored the defense. It is quite probable that general availability of tactical atomic weapons, with the very great increase in firepower which they give, would tend to favor the defense in a war limited to a single theatre and in which long-range planes or missiles were not used. If so, significant advantages from modern weapons will accrue to the offense only if the nature of the conflict permits the full mobility and range of aircraft or long-range missiles to find play.

This consideration is obviously of importance only if approximate technological equality between the two sides is assumed. And even then there are limits to its significance. A superiority of forces in being of three to one has generally been assumed to be necessary for the offense on land. If so, then a technological situation favoring the offense may reduce this to two to one, while a technological situation favoring the defense may raise it to four or five to one.

Colonel George A. Lincoln of the West Point faculty makes the further point that whether or not atomic weapons are ever again used in warfare, the very fact of their existence, the possibility that they could be used, will affect all future wars. In this sense Korea was an atomic war even though no atomic weapons were used. In this sense even the cold war is an atomic cold war. The situation is analogous to a game of chess. The atomic queens may never be brought into play; they may never actually take one of the opponent's pieces. But the position of the atomic queens may still have a decisive bearing on which side can safely advance a limited-war bishop or even a cold-war pawn. The advance of a cold-war pawn may even disclose a check of the opponent's king by a well-positioned atomic queen.


What action policy do these considerations suggest for the United States? To me they suggest the following:

(a) It is important that the West maintain indefinitely a position of nuclear attack-defense superiority versus the Soviet Union and its satellites.

(b) It is within the reasonable limits of what is physically possible for the West to maintain such a position indefinitely.

(c) To do so, the West will need to maintain at least equality, and if possible superiority, in atomic and weapons technology. It will need to maintain at least equality, and if possible superiority, in the manifold elements of effective atomic offensive and defensive weapons systems.

(d) In order to maintain a sufficient margin of superiority, so that even a surprise attack would give the enemy no prospect of achieving a one-sided result, the West must realize its geographic potential. Three corollaries flow from this proposition. We should develop an air defense system which makes full use of the West's geographic advantages. We should develop that widely dispersed base system which the West's geographic situation makes possible. But, above all, we must maintain in full working order the system of alliances and those working relations with our allies without which the West will have no geographic advantage at all.

(e) In order to maintain the Western system of alliances we must, among many other things, develop a policy with respect to the conditions under which we would use atomic weapons in war-- an action policy which we really intend to follow--which is consistent both with our own interests and those of our allies.

What might be the important elements of such a use policy, consistent with both our own interests and those of our allies? Its starting point would be our common interest in collective security. An attack on one ally must be considered an attack on all. We must not permit any ally who actively resists aggression to be overrun. We must have developed and be willing to use the strength necessary to restore the situation in the event of aggression. The elements of a common policy governing our use of atomic weapons might be the following:

(a) We should endeavor to meet aggression and restore the situation without the use of atomic weapons wherever this is possible.

(b) We should extend hostilities to other areas only if there is no other way effectively to restore the situation.

(c) Even if it becomes necessary to engage the U.S.S.R. in atomic warfare, we should limit ourselves to military objectives, primarily to those which are necessary to achieve control of the air. We should not initiate the bombing of industrial or population centers.

(d) We should attempt to build non-atomic elements of strength and to encourage our allies to do likewise so that the residual reliance which must be placed upon atomic weapons for our common security is reduced as far as may be feasible.


Let us now discuss a few of the objections which might be raised to such an action policy.

Would we have any assurance that the enemy would not attack the cities of the West first? Obviously we would have no absolute assurance on this point. But assuming a maintenance of Western nuclear attack-defense superiority, it would seem wholly irrational for the enemy to do so. Every weapon he wasted on a city would be a weapon he could not use against our dispersed retaliatory base structure and a further contribution to the overwhelming destruction of his own cities which his attack would have invited.

Could we be sure that during the period that it took us to gain effective air control, and before the enemy had accepted defeat, he would not lash out to do what damage he could to our cities? Obviously we could not be sure. But the more thoroughly we had concentrated on his air-atomic capabilities, the greater the prospect that his attack would be disorganized and reduced to a scale which our air defense system could contain.

Is it possible to draw a distinction between industrial and population centers and air-atomic bases? Such a distinction presents real difficulties, but the importance of overcoming them is so great that it should be possible to do so. There is no reason why we, and the enemy as well, cannot locate military air bases more than a given distance, say 20 miles, from major population centers. There is no reason why high-yield thermonuclear weapons need to be used against base targets. Certainly, smaller population centers might be destroyed by near misses or other accidents. But is this not wholly different from the purposeful mass destruction of the urban populations of the world?

Would it not be expensive to create and maintain the military establishment required for air-atomic superiority in this sense? Certainly it would be expensive, but it would not be more expensive than we should and can afford. Today the West's expenditures for defense and gross capital formation are under 25 percent of gross national product. The Soviet expenditures for these categories are over 40 percent. Certainly the West could afford to allocate an additional 2 to 5 percent of its gross national product to defense if this is essential to survival. An effort short of what is adequate may obtain no useful results at all. The last 10 to 20 percent of the resources expended may be the ones that really count and validate the entire investment.

Would it not be even more expensive for us and our allies to carry, in addition, the costs of non-atomic defenses required to reduce the pressure on our atomic defenses? It would be. Europe, for instance, probably cannot carry the full costs of both atomic and non-atomic defenses.

In order for Europe to acquire an adequate defensive posture within its means it will probably have to rely on the help that tactical atomic firepower gives to the defense as well as on the backing of the strategic air power of the United States. But if we expect NATO to continue as a vital organization we should lose no time in spreading the air defense system to Europe. Nike batteries would offer substantial protection now, and later technological developments should improve it. And, above all, Europe must understand that war is not synonymous with Armageddon. We should make it clear that, if we all stick together, war is unlikely--that city-to-city air attacks are not part of our policy-- and that, even in the event of atomic war, Soviet attacks on metropolitan centers would be only a final act of desperation and irrationality against which as effective defenses as are technologically possible will have been provided.

Would an action policy as described above serve to defend Asia and the Middle East? If we were clear in our minds that there is no easy way of defending Asia and the Middle East merely by statements threatening "massive retaliation," we might find it easier to address ourselves to the realistic actions which would in fact strengthen those areas. But when all is said and done, we probably must continue to rely in part on our nuclear attack-defense superiority. The Soviets must be left in no doubt that if there were to be an outbreak of massive military aggression in either area, and if the situation could not be restored by mobilization of the non-atomic strengths available, rather than accept defeat without fighting, we will fight and from a superior nuclear attack-defense position.


If some such action policy is one with which we could live, what should our declaratory policy be? This question should be decided only after we had taken the necessary measures to make our action policy operable and had fully consulted with our allies. It is quite possible that taking the actions necessary to implement such a policy would be more impressive to the Russians than any declaration we might make. The more we can bring our action policy and our declaratory policy into line with each other the more effective both become.

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  • PAUL H. NITZE, President, Foreign Service Educational Foundation; former Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the Department of State; Vice-Chairman of the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1944-46
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