Stabilizing the “Balance of Terror”

Feb. 1, 1960

In happier, less complicated days, even as recently as a decade ago, the doctrine of deterrence was comparatively simple to enunciate and to carry out. It was not much more involved than Teddy Roosevelt’s “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Perhaps even less complicated, since the United States not only possessed the only copy of the big stick but held a monopoly of the means to carry it as well.

Those days are gone forever. The technological revolution has also exploded behind the Iron Curtain, where it is being exploited shrewdly and with great determination. De­terrence is now a two-way street and, with this evolution, has taken on subtle and sophisticated overtones, difficult to expound, even harder to understand. The “big stick” has grown ever bigger, yet it must be handled with the delicacy and finesse of a rapier.

Herman Kahn, of the RAND Corporation staff, has spent the last eleven years study­ing the intricate relationships between weapons and strategy and during that time has served as consultant to the Gaither Committee, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. The accompanying text has been extracted from a larger article, “The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence,” in the current issue of the Stanford Research Institute Journal (a fine issue, incidentally, devoted to what its editors call the “Spectrum of Conflict”). This material in turn is based on a series of lectures by Mr. Kahn which is being made into a book to be published later this year by the Princeton University Press.

The author’s basic quarrel is with a popular thesis, which has been phrased in many ways but most commonly in these terms:

“A nuclear war is too horrible to contemplate, too mutually annihilating to consider.”

As Mr. Kahn points out, “This concept has been comforting.” It holds out “the hope that the very violence of war would deter it.” It is also cheaper because if we believe it we need not spend much money on the various means, military and nonmilitary, which contribute to a deterrent posture.

The catch, says Mr. Kahn, is that the Russians don’t feel this way. Malenkov did but he didn’t last long. And Khrushchev and the Soviet military people, while agreeing that nuclear war would be horrible, appear to feel that if they play their cards right “only the capitalists would be destroyed.” If the West buys the theory of deterrence through mutual terror while the Soviet Union does not, the truth of the theory need not matter. We could, as Mr. Kahn says, wind up with a Pearl Harbor or an Armageddon. Even if both sides believe in a reliable balance of terror, a potential aggressor can still stage an unlimited number of Munichs.

So we can best deter war by being strong enough to fight one, win, and recover in our economic and governmental machinery. And we have the resources to do so.

For the convenience of the reader, the various types of deterrence referred to are:

Type 1: Deterrence of a direct attack.

Type 2: Deterrence of extreme aggression short of direct attack, i.e. in Western Europe.

Type 3: So-called “tit-for-tat” deterrence, where the potential aggressor is afraid that the defender will take limited actions, military or otherwise, that make aggression unprofitable.—The Editors

It is important to understand that we have [as an] asset the ability to spend large sums of money rather rapidly. Let us, for example, assume a new Berlin crisis in two or three years. Assume also that the United States has done nothing to fix up its Type 2 Deterrent capability (of extreme provocations) and done very little to improve its limited-war capability, but does have a first-rate Type 1 Deterrent (against direct attack). Under these circumstances it would be most improbable that we would wage a war if the Russians gradually put the squeeze on Berlin. Never­theless, in all likelihood State Department negotiators negotiating with the Russians will try to tell them that they couldn’t afford to push us out of Berlin because in some vague way we will do something very violent; that we would use our military forces. But our nego­tiators would be afraid to spell our threat out, for nothing that they could spell out would be credible.

Even today the Russians have told us that if we send soldiers, they will kill them; that if we send tanks, they will burn them; and that they can deter us from an all-out war, because they have rockets trained on our cities. The Soviets are saying that at any level of violence that we care to use, they can either meet that level on the spot or promise such a severe punishment that we will be deterred. The Russians have also pointed out that Berlin is a chess game; that everybody can see what our position is.

If the Soviets are right, that our only alternatives are violence or defeat—where defeat would be an acceptance of some new and unsatisfactory status of Berlin—then the Soviets could probably be successful in talking us into adopting a face-saving method of losing Berlin, rather than one which made it clear to all that we have suffered a serious defeat.

In actual fact, we have some very strong cards to play, but if we do not know what these cards are, we may be tricked out of playing them. If we refuse to accept a face-saving defeat and in fact force the Russians to rub our noses in the dirt, then it would be clear to all in NATO and the United States that unless we do something spectacular to recover the situation, that the NATO nations can no longer rely on us for any kind of protection. Under these circum­stances the United States government would have to go into enormous defense budgets, probably close to at least a $100 billion a year level.

These defense budgets would be designed not only to implement our current forces but also to buy large limited-war forces, and to buy things like civil defense and the corresponding military forces that would give us a credible capability for initiating a war if a humiliating crisis should be repeated. There will also, under these circumstances, be enormous pressure on the NATO nations to combine into an even tighter alliance and to mobilize their resources for their defense also. This would mean that, as in Korea, even if we lost Berlin in the military sense, the Russians would have lost this particular campaign. While Berlin is important both ethically, politically, and even resourcewise, its loss would not compare to the greatly increased power on the side of the West.

This is the threat we have against the Russians. If we don’t know that we have this threat, if we believe that increasing the budget by a factor of two really would mean some sort of immediate bankruptcy or other financial catastrophe, then the Russians can present us with alternatives, which may in the end result in their getting the diplomatic, political, and foreign po1ic’ victory. It is important that we under­stand our own strength.

Even if we have acquired the highest quality Type 1 Deterrence capability, we must still have a capability for fighting and surviving wars as long as it is possible to have such a capability. This is true not only because it is prudent to take out insurance against a war occurring unintentionally, but also because we must be able to stand up to the threat of fighting a war or even be able to credibly threaten to wage war ourself. We must have an “alternative to peace,” as long as we don’t have a world government and as long as it is technologically and economically possible to have one.

Under current programs the United States may not be willing in a few years to accept a Soviet retaliatory blow, no matter what the provocation. The occurrence of such a situation is equivalent to breaking our alliance obligations and signing a nonaggression treaty with the Soviets—a nonaggression treaty with almost 200,000,000 American hostages to guarantee performance. Before we drift into such an “alliance,” we should ask ourselves: “What does it mean to live with this nonaggression treaty? Can we prevent it from being signed? Can we delay its ratification?”

Those who would rely on limited means to control possible Soviet provocations must ask themselves the question, “What keeps the enemy’s counteraction to acceptable limits, if there are no credible Type 2 Deterrent capabilities?” That is, those who think of very limited capabilities or mutual homicide threats separately or in combination as being satisfactory for meeting our Type 2 Deterrence problems are ignoring the dynamics of bargaining and conflict situations. When two men or two nations are arguing over something which both feel to be of moderate im­portance, it is very common for things to get out of control in the sense that the threats and counter-threats, the actions and counteractions, increase In intensity, almost without limit, unless there are ex­ternal or internal controls to make and enforce such limits.

These remarks will distress many who properly view the thought of fighting a war with the utmost horror and who feel uneasy even at having a high-quality deterrent force, much less a credible capability for initiating, fighting, and terminating all kinds of wars. While one can sympathize with this attitude, it is, I believe, close to irresponsible.

The threat of force has long been an important regulatory factor in international affairs; one cannot remove or greatly weaken this threat without expect­ing all kinds of trouble. True, most of the alleviating measures that can be considered are temporary ex­pedients that may not solve our long-run military problems, but this does not mean they are not im­portant. You cannot reach 1970 or 1975 if you do not pass through ’61 and ’65 successfully. If we neglect our short-term problems, we are bound to run serious risks of a disastrous deterioration in the international situation or in our own posture. This, in turn, may make it impossible to arrive at a reasonable, stable state.

In fact, insofar as the balance of terror theory is correct, then if any nation actually does use bad behavior as part of its foreign policy, then no matter what our previous threats were, we must meet that bad behavior by using limited means or simply allow that nation to get away with whatever it is trying to do. The aggressor will realize this too, and realize it with high confidence. For this reason any attempt to use threats of mutual homicide or world annihila­tion to control an aggressor’s behavior (short of trying to deter him from attack on one’s own country) is ill-advised. Even if one means the threat seriously, it will still not be credible to the enemy or ally particularly if the challenge is in any way ambiguous.

Since it now seems most unlikely that the Soviet menace will go away by itself and since we have eschewed preventive war as a possibility, we must seek the solution to our problems along the path of some degree of coexistence or collaboration. If we are to do this effectively, we must appear extremely competent to the Soviet leaders. They must feel that we are putting adequate attention and resources into meeting our military, political, and economic prob­lems. This is not a question of attempting to bargain from strength, but one of looking so invulnerable to blackmail and aggressive tactics that Soviet leaders will feel it is worthwhile to make agreements and foolish not to, simply because as an opponent we and the world look much more dangerous than as a collaborator, even if an uneasy collaborator.

One gets the impression that up to about 1956 or 1957 the average senior Russian did have an enor­mous respect for United States planners and decision-­makers—a respect which they now have begun to lose. Many of the comments they make on remarks that some our military and political leaders have made are contemptuous—and, a sober examination indicates, properly contemptuous. In the precarious present and the even more precarious future it would be well to go to some trouble not only to be competent as an an­tagonist to the Russians, but to look competent.

Ideally, winning the cold war would mean the establishment of peaceful democratic and prosperous nations everywhere and the complete elimination of all international conflicts of greater significance than those that, for example, occasionally plague United States-British relations. No sober student of the inter­national scene visualizes anything of this sort occur­ring. Even a more limited objective, the attainment of a physical security that is independent of Soviet “good-will” is probably unattainable. In the limit there is no acceptable way to protect ourselves from a psychotic Soviet decision-maker who launches a surprise attack at us without making rational calculations.

But the situation is worse than this. It is most unlikely that the world can live with an uncontrolled arms race lasting for several decades. It is not that we could not match Soviet expenditures; it is simply that as technology advances, as weapons become more powerful, and more diverse, it is most likely that there will have to be at least implicit agree­ments on their use, distribution, and character if we are not to run unacceptably high risks of unauthorized or irresponsible behavior. No matter how inimical the Soviets feel toward us they have common interests with us in this field. This does not mean that they will not try to use the common threat to obtain unilateral advantages; it just means that there is an important area for bargaining here and one which we must fully exploit.

As a prerequisite to exploiting it we must do our homework. We must know what we are trying to achieve, the kinds of concessions that we can afford to give, the kind of concessions that we insist on getting from the Soviets. All of this will require, among other things, much higher quality preparations for negoti­ations than have been common.

The intellectual quality could probably be im­proved if in our criticism we were more discerning. We should learn to distinguish between first-strike and second-strike forces, between Type 1 and Type 2 Deterrence, between the use of credible and silly threats of retaliation, between “bankruptcy” and a reduction in standards of living, between sober and reliable measures and desperate gambles or “calcu­lated risks,” between deterrence by assumption and deterrence by objectively capable systems, and so on.

Aside from the ideological differences and the prob­lem of security itself, there does not seem to be any objective quarrel between the United States and Russia that justifies the risks and costs that we subject each other to. The big thing that the Soviet Union and the United States have to fear from each other is fear itself. (I am here making a very optimistic as­sumption: that the Soviets would really be willing to give up any hopes of world domination to be achieved by the use of military force, give up their curious notion of the only satisfactory status quo as being a situation in which the Soviet world increases every year and the free world decreases, and that all kinds of subversive and violent activities are part of this peacetime status quo. On the other hand, our understandable desires to liberate the satellite nations do not look like a reason­able acceptance of status quo to the Soviets.)

In this respect, the situation is quite different from what it was in World War I when all the great powers were competing in trying to cut out empires for themselves, both inside and outside of Europe. Today two or three years’ normal increase in the GNP of either Soviet Russia or the United States are of much greater significance, both militarily and economically, than quite sizable additions or subtractions of geog­raphy, which means that we both can afford to be relaxed about changes in our respective “spheres of influence.”

Aside from the caveats given above about Soviet and United States expectations and hopes, both the Soviet Union and the United States are status quo powers. But even if it were conceded that all we have to fear is fear itself, this would not imply that the

problem is simple or easy, or even that it can be eliminated by any kind of arrangements that are practical for the next decade or so; it is only to say that there do not seem to be any fundamental blocks to making things more manageable and safer than is the current arrangement, namely, an almost uncon­trolled arms race ameliorated by some vague implicit agreements and unilateral practices.

Even if there are now very few direct and critical clashes between the United States and the Soviet Union other than those generated by the rivalry itself, there would be at least minor clashes between us. And minor clashes have an unfortunate aftereffect unless they are settled—they tend to be dynamic and lead to major ones almost as a byproduct,

While many are suggesting various versions of a “rule by law” to prevent this from happening, I am not very hopeful that we can succeed totally. Such efforts are to be encouraged—in fact they are in­dispensable—but they can alleviate the problem only to the point where the inevitable conflicts of interest can be handled, not eliminated. We still need a balance of terror to motivate those who would be tempted to use violence to use the other machinery instead. If the balance is to be stable and not subject to being overturned by minor changes in tactics, posture, technological innovation, or cheating on arms control agreements, then initially it will have to be based on a massive program on each side.

We must, however, take the problem of alleviating the conflict seriously. We do not have unlimited time. Our problems are being increased rapidly by many things including the mounting rate of technological progress, the “revolution of rising expectations,” in­creasing nationalism, and an increasing diffusion of the newer military technologies. It is not at all un­likely that there may be some invention, discovery, or crisis that simply cannot be handled in our present international society, even momentarily. Progress is so fast, the problems are so unprecedented, and the lead times for cultural assimilation so long, that it is difficult to believe that muddling through will work. We will need much better mechanisms for forward thinking, for imaginative research into problems of strategy and foreign policy, for anticipating future developments, and for planning to meet them than we have had.

These mechanisms can be made available. The tools actually or potentially available to the analyst, planner, and decision-maker, both organizational and technical, are many orders of magnitude better than anything we have had before; it is just barely possible that with a determined effort by large numbers of responsible people, that we can achieve enough to make a significant difference. The survival of our civilization may depend on this effort being made. Let us hope that it can be done.