Why the hawks started worrying and learned to hate the Bomb

John Lewis Gaddis

  • The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons by Jonathan Schell
    Granta, 240 pp, £9.99, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 230 2

One of the difficulties with weapons is that they do not automatically self-destruct once they have fulfilled their function. The problem particularly afflicts Americans who, taking advantage of lax gun-control laws, tend to buy whatever they think they need to defend themselves. But as the danger recedes, they frequently forget about the lethal arsenals they have accumulated. Stored carelessly in closets and sock drawers, an appalling number of rifles, shotguns and handguns are used for purposes that their owners never intended. The means of defence outlive the need for it, often with disastrous results.

The world has treated nuclear weapons in much the same way: there is a long history of reinvented purposes. The United States, Great Britain and Canada began to build the first atomic bomb because they feared that Hitler’s Germany might beat them to it. The work did not cease, though, when these fears proved unfounded: the Americans simply used the available bombs against the next available enemy, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki the targets.

This preference for adaptation over disposal has continued ever since. With the onset of the Cold War, the Americans deployed their primitive nuclear capabilities against yet another adversary, the Soviet Union, and when it successfully tested its own atomic bomb in 1949, they quickly began work on thermonuclear weapons, a technology the Russians were already pursuing. The first tests convinced both Washington and Moscow that hydrogen bombs were far too powerful for traditional military purposes; purposes were found for them, nonetheless.

Eisenhower discovered that nuclear weapons could cut costs: they were cheaper than conventional military capabilities. Khrushchev learned that by coupling them with missiles he could reap political benefits. By the early Sixties, American strategists were beginning to see the ultimate weapon of war as a guarantor of peace: they defined ‘stability’ in the nuclear arms race as the capacity of each side instantly to annihilate the other. When the Russians signed the 1972 treaty effectively banning defences against ballistic missiles, they, too, accepted the appropriately acronymed doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’.

It was never easy to see how vulnerability could ensure security, though, and one who resisted making this leap of logic was Ronald Reagan. His 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative turned MAD inside out by finding yet another use for nuclear weapons: they would now destroy enemy warheads in flight, thereby ensuring invulnerability. With defences in place, the President promised, nuclear capabilities would become ‘impotent and obsolete’. By a long and circuitous route, adaptation had come around to at least the prospect of elimination.

Few people took Reagan’s rhetoric seriously, until Mikhail Gorbachev sensed, on meeting the President for the first time in Geneva in 1985, that he might actually mean what he was saying. The new Soviet leader tested this possibility with a proposal for the outright abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, and at the Reykjavik summit the following year Reagan surprised his own staff by announcing that this was what he had wanted all along. For a few hours an amazed world watched its two most powerful leaders design a future in which there would be no nuclear weapons at all.

The vision quickly faded. Gorbachev demanded an end to SDI testing, Reagan would not grant it, and the opportunity was lost. Nor is it clear, even if they had agreed, that the two leaders could have sold the idea of abolition to their own and allied governments – Mrs Thatcher was particularly scathing. But as Jonathan Schell points out in The Gift of Time, ‘history often creates a problem whose only real solution lies beyond the pale of current political acceptability.’ Reykjavik expanded the pale: it brought the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons into the realm of mainstream political discourse. It created the prospect that the most destructive weapons of the Cold War might not survive its end.

One such system did disappear: the intermediate-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads that the Russians and then the Americans had deployed in Europe during the late Seventies and the early Eighties. Reagan and Gorbachev concluded that it would be easier to verify a total rather than a partial ban on such weapons, and by 1988 each side was actually destroying its own under the other’s watchful eyes.

This achievement proved to be the exception rather than the rule, however, for despite deep cuts in some systems – long-range missiles, bombers, nuclear warheads – there has been no other agreement to dismantle an entire category of weaponry. The abrupt end of the Cold War, paradoxically, may be the reason, for with attention focused on the collapse of Soviet authority in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and ultimately the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, arms control came to seem mundane, even irrelevant. The sense of danger that had driven it was no longer present; meanwhile, pressures were mounting to deal with long-deferred domestic priorities. Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton nor Boris Yeltsin could claim the authority in foreign affairs that Reagan and Gorbachev had commanded during the mid-Eighties – or, for that matter, their ability to think ahead, however superficially, about where they would like the world to go and how they might help get it there.

As a consequence, thousands of nuclear weapons remain in place in American and Russian arsenals, any one of which could produce effects at least as devastating as those visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki over half a century ago. If post-Cold War statesmen have followed any example at all in matching the instruments with the requirements of defence, it would appear to be that of those absent-minded Americans who keep their handguns stashed, dangerously, in their sock drawers.

Those who oppose gun control insist, of course, that everyone would be safer with his or her own weapon close by. A few international relations theorists have made a parallel argument about nuclear capabilities: if they kept the Cold War from becoming hot, why should they not work the same way now that the Cold War is over? Why, indeed, should We not encourage non-nuclear states to acquire them?

There is a logic to such arguments but it is cramped. It assumes rationality and competence in those controlling nuclear weapons, characteristics not known to be universal. It leaves little room for misperceptions, accidents and bad luck. It does not, in short, reassure – and yet the world lives with this assumption that the means of defence need not correspond to dangers, just as Americans live with their handguns.

Schell has made a career of questioning cramped logic. His 1976 book, The Time of Illusion, dissected the addiction to ‘credibility’ that shaped official Washington’s thinking about nuclear deterrence, the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair. The Fate of the Earth (1982) provided a grim and graphic account of what a nuclear war would mean at a time when there were still people who thought it possible to fight and win one. The Abolition (1984) went further by calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, thus anticipating Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik two years later. And now, in The Gift of Time, Schell has returned to nuclear abolition, not as a prophet but as a reporter making the case that this is a cause whose time has come.

For if the end of the Cold War has distracted attention from efforts to control nuclear weapons, it has also bought time for reflection – hence Schell’s title – as to whether we actually need them any longer. A surprising number of the people who devised and directed nuclear strategy during that conflict have concluded that we do not.

Schell organises The Gift of Time around interviews with these new nuclear apostates, an ideologically diverse group with impressive credentials: for example, the former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; Lord Michael Carver, the former chief of the British Defence Staff; Bruce Blair, who has written extensively about nuclear command and control issues; Fred Iklé, who headed the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Ford; and Stansfield Turner, President Carter’s Director of Central Intelligence. Particularly prominent among Schell’s interviewees are several retired military officers whose duties required them to manage nuclear weapons, such as General George Lee Butler, the former commander of the Strategic Air Command; General Andrew J. Goodpaster, a former Nato commander; and General Charles A. Horner, the former commander-in-chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Unfortunately, Schell did not interview the man whose presence within this movement might most astonish those who have not been following recent developments: Ambassador Paul Nitze, the most durable of Cold War hawks, who has now publicly endorsed the goal of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. For decades the anti-nuclear movement contained more prophets than professionals. Nitze’s involvement in it suggests how much things have changed.

Not everyone Schell talked to favours abolition. But they do agree on several things: that however useful nuclear weapons may have been in deterring aggression during the Cold War, the situation that exists today is fundamentally different; that there is, as a consequence, no need to retain anything like existing capabilities: that to continue to do so carries considerably greater risks than phasing out reliance on these weapons; and that the goal therefore should be to reduce their number as quickly and as thoroughly as possible while still maintaining safeguards against anyone who might cheat.

Nuclear disarmament has, to be sure, been the avowed objective of the United States government since 1946, when it proposed the Baruch Plan for the international control of atomic energy. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 reaffirmed this goal, with the nuclear powers promising to move towards dismantling their own capabilities in return for the agreement of non-nuclear states to refrain from building these weapons. But these were rhetorical gestures, not realistic priorities: only at Reykjavik did they find their way, however briefly, into the realm of top-level policy. The case for getting rid of nuclear weapons is now being built up not as prophecy, or rhetoric, or as Reagan and Gorbachev attempted it, in a single breathtaking leap. Instead, it’s a seriously debated alternative among believers in an orthodoxy who have lost their faith. And this is significant, for as Schell points out: ‘Huge tottering systems ... are in trouble when their best people turn against them.’ Why have they done so? Their concern, it seems, is that it is risky to hang onto weapons when the need for them no longer exists. The argument runs as follows.

First, there is now no clear and present danger, as there appeared to be during the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence always depended on convincing a few top leaders in Moscow (and later Beijing) that the costs of aggression would exceed the benefits. Today, dangers are murky and diffuse. It is not at all clear whom one would need to deter from doing what, or whether one could assume a common calculation of costs and benefits. Strategies can of course exist in the absence of obvious adversaries. But they ought not, automatically, to be the same strategies one would have applied had those adversaries still been around, and that is what hanging onto nuclear weapons amounts to.

Second, even at the height of the Cold War it was evident that the opprobrium attached to any use of nuclear weapons would undermine whatever the objective might be. As a consequence, no one wanted to resort to them, even where – as in the case of the United States during the Korean War – no serious possibility of retaliation existed. If atomic weapons were not usable in 1950, when Americans were suffering, at the hands of the Chinese, their most humiliating military defeat this century, what would it possibly take to justify their use today?

Third, it is becoming increasingly apparent that simply maintaining nuclear weapons is a dangerous enterprise. Both Cold War superpowers devised elaborate arrangements to guard against accidental use; but historians have discovered that these plans rarely worked as intended. Governments cannot always control and often do not even know what is being done with nuclear weapons at the operational level. It was a risky enough situation during the Cold War. How much more risky might it be now, with Russia in its present disarray? Time, in this respect, is on no one’s side.

Fourth, if in fact the nuclear powers consider non-proliferation to be a good idea, then they would be in a much stronger position to make their case if they at least announced their intention to meet their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to phase out their own arsenals. India and Pakistan had a point, last spring, when they questioned the moral and legal authority of the United States or any other nuclear-capable state to tell them they should not join the club.

Finally, even if there should someday be clear and present dangers to be deterred, why would one need nuclear weapons to accomplish that task given the increasing precision of conventional weaponry? It is possible now to target particular sites while avoiding most of the collateral damage traditionally associated with strategic bombing. That capacity to discriminate makes such weapons more, not less, usable. The credibility of deterrence, accordingly, should be greater these days than when nuclear weapons provided the only means of enhancing it.

What about counter-arguments? One is that even if it made sense to get rid of nuclear weapons, no nation would ever voluntarily do so. But as Schell points out, that piece of conventional wisdom has already fallen by the wayside. Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine all inherited nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed; all have now either destroyed them or sent them back to Russia. South Africa acknowledges that it developed a nuclear ‘capability’, which it has now dismantled. And there are many other states that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but for whatever reason chose not to do so.

There are, without doubt, tough cases. France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan are probably more determined to hang onto their nuclear weapons than the Russians, the British and the Americans are. But as doubts about what one actually does with these devices sink in, and as the possibilities of non-nuclear defence expand, who is to say that, given the right verification procedures, these countries, too, might find nuclear weapons obsolete? There were, after all, those who said, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, that a great power would never peacefully accept its own demise. That was surely a tougher case than this one.

Another argument against abolition is that even if nations should voluntarily relinquish their nuclear weapons, there would be no safeguards against their secretly maintaining or rebuilding them – or against rogue states or just rogues acquiring them. This is a serious objection, for the Iraqi situation has certainly demonstrated how hard it is, even under an intrusive inspection regime, to keep track of everything that is happening. But Schell and his interviewees have answers to it.

One is that, precisely because the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons will not go away, there could be ‘virtual’ arsenals – warheads that could be reassembled at short notice, thereby reconstructing whatever deterrent effect these weapons might provide. Virtual arsenals would lower the likelihood of accidental use, even as they discouraged those who might build or even explode a nuclear device.

It is also the case that abolition could hardly happen overnight. It would proceed in phases, with the great powers gradually cutting back on the numbers of weapons they now have, while perfecting the means of verification and therefore reassurance. The process would be reversible if the need arose.

But what if someone somewhere should actually decide to use a nuclear weapon? There will never be a foolproof way of preventing this, but what would such an act gain as compared to the hostility it would arouse? Can anyone believe that Kim Jong-Il or Saddam Hussein would find himself in a safer position after using nuclear weapons against his neighbours? It is possible a small state – Israel, perhaps, or Taiwan – might use nuclear weapons as a last resort to keep itself from being overrun by larger neighbours. But there are means other than mutual suicide to keep such situations from arising. Diplomacy is obviously one of them.

During the year of the Cuban missile crisis the strategist Herman Kahn published a book on nuclear war called Thinking about the Unthinkable. The only way to avoid such a conflict, he insisted, was to determine, ahead of time, how one might fight it. It was an understandably unpalatable line to take, and Kahn’s challenge to the conventional wisdom of the time – that nuclear exchange would preclude strategy as well as everything else – never quite caught on.

When Jonathan Schell published The Abolition in 1984, the thinking he sought to provoke seemed to encounter as much resistance as Kahn’s had two decades earlier. It was, in every sense, uncharted intellectual terrain. What The Gift of Time shows, though, is a different outcome: the terrain is slowly being ‘settled’, to use Schell’s term, by people who for whom the unthinkable has become thinkable.

The forces of apathy – and of vested interest – remain strong. It is easy to say that because nuclear weapons have been there for so long, without disastrous results, this will always be the case. The handgun will stay safely in the sock drawer. One fears the disasters it might take to shake such arguments – but Schell gives us at least a basis for hoping that they will not be necessary.

What if we had credible leaders once again, and what if one or more of them made the effort, as Reagan and Gorbachev did a decade and a half ago, to look beyond the end of their noses to more distant horizons? What if we were to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000 by beginning the process which these two leaders had hoped might be finished by then? It isn’t likely. But stranger things have happened.