Armageddon

Martin Woollacott

  • The Real War by Richard Nixon
    Sidgwick, 341 pp, £8.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 283 98650 6

Not since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 have people in the West been so fearful of the possibility of nuclear war. Ironically enough, this is at a time when the chances of a massive nuclear exchange have diminished. But when housewives in East Anglia inquire about bomb shelters, or when Frenchmen tick ‘Surrender’ in an opinion poll about the best response to a strategic threat, they are displaying the same sense of ever-increasing vulnerability and loss of control that now seems to mark many Western leaders.

Fear of the Bomb is, at least for the moment, a way of expressing Fear of Everything – the accretion of failures and disasters, military and economic, which has shaken Western confidence over the last ten years. In Britain, such a mood was well-established before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and can be dated at least as far back as the Conservative victory in the last election. With her pay rises for the Forces, her reaffirmation of commitment to Nato, and her plans for the modernisation of the British deterrent, Mrs Thatcher thrust the Soviet threat back into the centre of political debate in this country. The then Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Neil Cameron, with his curious mixture of religion and high strategy, symbolised the new and tougher climate with his excessively blunt remarks about the common enemy during a trip to Peking. British politicians and soldiers had not talked in such terms about Russia since the Sixties.

Spaced through the same period was a series of events serving to reinforce the impression that the West was losing ground territorially, economically and strategically, and establishing an illogical link between such losses and Armageddon. The Shah fell in the early part of last year, and Afghanistan was invaded toward the end. Meanwhile the debate on the modernisation of Nato theatre weapons, really a continuation of the arguments over other new-generation weapons like the neutron bomb, began in the autumn. The Nato nuclear planning group was overwhelmed by journalists, and its deliberations were unexpectedly big news. The end result, so far as ordinary Britons are concerned, is that we are going to have an entirely new kind of nuclear weapon on our soil. The new fears have now overlapped with a concern about chemical weapons. Somehow worries about Western reverses, real or imaginary, have been mixed up with the old nightmare of all-out missile war, and computer malfunctions leading to red alerts in the United States have hardly helped.

The truth is that all-out nuclear war is still extraordinarily remote. The West and the Soviet Union may be nearer a conflict, but the odds on its becoming nuclear in the full sense have not changed. The factor of uncertainty that makes it impossible, for instance, to guarantee accurate targeting for even one of Britain or France’s nuclear submarines, let alone the American array, must still rule out any serious consideration of a first strike. Where the danger now lies is surely in the kinds of nuclear initiative which new types of weapons have made possible and which complicated local confrontations could conceivably produce. A single bomb on a single city – in the Middle East, in China, or even in Europe – has now become a possible form of military action. Schlesinger’s belief that this is so led him to argue fiercely for the deployment of a different type of nuclear weapon in order – on an interpretation favourable to the West – to pre-empt such a use of nuclear missiles by the Russians.

If the jittery feeling of losing control lies beneath the worries of average newspaper readers – even though wrongly focused on a World War Three that is certainly no nearer now than in the past – as well as beneath the new toughness of some Western politicians, are we speaking of a response to a real threat, or of a neurosis, even a pathology? The answer must be that both are involved. Western power in the world has diminished, is diminishing, and may shrink still further. Meanwhile Soviet power has increased. In particular, Soviet confidence has taken wing in the last couple of years in what must be seen as a worrying fashion.

This growth of confidence is understandable. The Soviet military has a history of failure and of inaction. For this immense career-officer establishment, locked up inside the Soviet Union, the prospect of an international reach must be exhilarating. In Britain, we take it for granted, or did until recently, that Navy, Army and Air Force are spotted round the globe discharging an immense variety of tasks. The Russians, who have lost every naval engagement in their history, now have an efficient ocean-going navy showing the flag in a style which, for them, is something entirely new. The forces committed to Afghanistan almost certainly went over the border – and are still operating – in a Soviet Boy’s Own Paper mood, although that may soon change. The Soviets are inexperienced in the international military game, and their recent successes in the Horn of Africa and in Southern Africa and elsewhere have puffed them up in a way that can only be understood if you look at their earlier reverses.

President Nixon, who not only lost control but office as well, has a strong enough personal reason for seeing the world through those paranoid spectacles that make every failure and defeat part of a pattern of systematic, co-ordinated threat. However, his book, The Real War, while suggesting a number of tendentious ‘linkages’ – to use a favourite Nixon word – is a competent and forceful compilation of right-wing critiques of Western foreign policy over the last thirty years. If Nixon, in office, had been the conservative one would deduce from the pages of this book, he might have been less opposed and less harassed.

The book does, however, make intelligent concessions to more liberal interpretations of both Russian policy and Western purposes. It also makes points which, as both left and right in America and Europe look back on the arguments of the past, have to be admitted to consideration. Nixon’s rage at the irresponsibility of an American Congress which, as he sees it, sabotaged success in Indochina bites through the restraint in which most of his pages are dressed. It is certainly the case that the abrupt switch from generous to meagre logistical support for the South Vietnamese and Lon Nol armies was a cruel and illogical act. The forces which America had sustained went down to defeat without the guns and massive munitions to which they had become accustomed at just the moment that the Communist forces acquired a firepower they had never before commanded. The morality of that switch has never been thought through by some of those responsible for it.

For all its restraints, Nixon’s book is one that sees the ‘fall’ of Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam and Iran as one connected line of defeats – ‘nearly 100 million people in the last five years,’ thunders Nixon – that may not have been the result of a Soviet master plan, but has to be treated as if it was. It is less Nixon’s strictures on the West’s lack of will and confidence – strictures for which there is some justification – than this new version of the global conspiracy theory that undermines his arguments.

That the contest between the Soviet Union and the West remains at the centre of world affairs can hardly be disputed, and to call it a war is perhaps permissible rhetoric. That the Soviet Union has, like the West, dealt opportunistically with the vast range of situations which the Third World has thrown up in the last thirty years is obvious. That the Soviet Union has been more successful in recent years than in the earlier phases of the contest is also indisputable. But to claim that these successes have taken us to the point where the Soviet Union virtually has its strong and hairy hands around the delicate white neck of the West is another matter, and although Mr Nixon never quite says as much, he comes pretty close.

What the West should never do is to deal with Soviet actions in a mood of panic that attributes to the Kremlin a confidence and design that it is still far from possessing. It is one of the oddities of Mr Nixon’s book that he frequently makes this point himself while still painting, overall, a grand picture of inexorable Soviet success – the geopolitical squeeze play of all time. Meanwhile, although all Western political groups bear some responsibility for this, the new toughness of politicians like Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has tended to induce the very feelings that should have been avoided: the inane hope of survival in a major nuclear exchange that has spec builders working up their shelter plans for worried housewives, and the silly defeatism that caves in before a pollster’s bogey.