Deterrence Under Fire

March 1, 1962

Here is a consideration of anti-deterrence both as a policy and a philosophy. It is recognized that among those who favor a policy of nuclear deterrence, there are differences regarding force structure and targeting. However, this article does not discuss the finite and counter-force positions but rather directs its attention toward the broad spectrum of naked antideter­rence.

Although deterrence has been the heart of US defense strategy for almost sixteen years (from the establishment of the Strategic Air Command on March 21, 1946), it has hardly met with unanimous approval. The period from October 1957 to the end of 1961 was one in which the critics of nuclear deterrence became vociferous in their attacks on established US defense policy.

While there were definite reasons why the antideter­rent dialogue reached a crescendo during the 1957­1961 period, those who argued against strong nuclear retaliatory forces could not be grouped together but came from diverse callings and gave expression to their views for different reasons.

The four years from the launching of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, to the Soviet breaking of the nuclear-test moratorium on August 30, 1961, were clearly years of gain in military and space technology for the Soviet Union. The Soviets parlayed striking space successes achieved primarily through heavy rocketry and precise guidance into definite military, political, and psycho­logical advances. This was particularly evident in many of the so-called unaligned nations where preeminent Russian space technology was equated with superiority of the Communist system.

On the other hand, the impact was equally signifi­cant in its import on Soviet-American and East-West relationships. It should be mentioned that the Soviet lead in space was, of course, at least partly due to lag­ging American efforts across the entire spectrum of rocketry and space technology since World War II. In significant measure, US lethargy could be traced to a misunderstanding of the nature of the cold war and Communist aims as well as to unfounded feelings of superiority and complacency. This is not the place, however, to launch a detailed inquiry into that massive and remarkable case of US political and psychological failure during the years 1946-1961 which directly affected the military balance.

The question remains: At a time when the USSR was clearly reaching—with some success—for interna­tional power of decision through strategic military supremacy, how can the antideterrent campaign in the West be explained? What were its roots? In the first place, one source of feeling against the US strategic nuclear delivery force originated in the Soviets’ drive for a commanding lead in military technology itself. After it had been recognized that our enemy possessed the same obliterative power that we alone once com­manded, the American and Western call for negotia­tion and conciliation became at once more pronounced. This was at least in part a quite natural reaction to the rather abrupt rupturing of clear US strategic delivery superiority. It will be recalled that less than two months prior to the orbiting of Sputnik I, the Soviets announced that they possessed an operational ICBM capability. Whether this was in fact true or not, psychologically and militarily the impact was great enough. During the period 1957-1961, the Russians definitely attempted to pull abreast of the US in strategic power.

Thus, voices in the US and especially in Western Europe called for ending the cold war, for immediate negotiations, and for interdiction of the arms race, i.e., the nuclear missile race. At the same time, the argu­ment was advanced that somehow the cold war was all our fault. Terribly mistaken people and politicians had led us upon a collision course with the USSR which could only lead to nuclear decimation of a large part of the earth’s surface. At the fulcrum of the pro-cold war and arms-race forces stood the so-called scientific-military alliance which had committed us to perpetual hostility against the Soviet Union. We had turned our back, so the reasoning went, on more im­portant objectives in the economic and nonmilitary fields. In fact, highly respected voices within the US protested that our national policy was heavily weighted toward the military. This meant that we were losing the favor (it was assumed we once possessed) of the uncommitted nations and “world public opinion.”

In effect, articulate people—some of them highly re­spected intellectuals—brought the foregoing points to­gether, all of them seemingly valid, to argue against deterrence and what was called “the New Militarism.” Perhaps the clearest, most recent, and most detailed ex­position of this thesis is to be found in D. F. Fleming’s massive two-volume work, The Cold War and Its Origins: 1917-1960 (Doubleday, 1961). To Professor Fleming, the cold war was initiated by the West (spe­cifically, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman). Further, he feels, we have already lost the cold war through our unstinting belligerence and enmity for the Soviet Union. It is Professor Fleming’s thesis that the Soviets have every right to their satellite empire in Eastern and Central Europe since the Russians have been ravished through the European corridor in two world wars and since the appeasement at Munich pre­cipitated World War II and caused Russia to lose so heavily in human and material resources.

According to this thinking, Eastern Europe is simply “Russia’s zone of occupation” (Fleming, p 1038). Thus, the “cold war arose because the leaders of American public opinion could not accept the chief consequences of World War II” (Fleming, p. 1055). In general, Fleming argues that the events since 1945 have been nurtured by a stubborn and wrong-headed American idea that Soviet policy is guided by the militant desire to conquer and extend its borders and power through subversion and force of arms. According to Fleming: “It is my belief that most of our belligerence has been unnecessary and dangerous, and that a great deal of it has been based upon false premises and information” (Preface, xiii).

By 1952, according to this view, “Truman. . . had be­come only the belligerent leader of an anti-Soviet, anti-Communist crusade” (Fleming, p. 1051). And why? “It is difficult to find evidence of any desire on the part of the Soviets to plunge into conflict with the West” (Fleming, p 1060). A binding thread in the argumen­tative fabric of those who saw the US primarily re­sponsible for the cold war was the idea that if only we would stop unnecessarily opposing communism, liberal economic and educational trends would tend to ameli­orate its militancy. Thus:

As the standards of education and of living rise, wants are constantly expanded. These forces have already compelled a wave of liberalizing reform in Russia and some of the satellites, and eventually the same proc­esses will operate in China. (Fleming, p. 1064)

The theory that totalitarian militancy wanes as the standard of living rises is not new but has recently found strong support. When one views the history of the twentieth century in general and that of the last three decades in particular, however, the thesis be­comes naked theory; for the lesson of this century irrevocably proves its bankruptcy. Japan possessed (and still has) the highest standard of living, the greatest and most productive industry, the most skilled people, and the greatest number of consumer goods of any nation of Asia. Yet Japan chose the road of aggression in the 1930s and the 1940s, a road that ended with her dreams of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere shattered and her major cities in ruin. A productive and skilled Nazi Germany chose the same course and found that Hitler’s mad genius brought death, destruc­tion, and misery. Indeed, are there those who would argue that as Russia has increased her production, eco­nomic well-being, and standard of living at the same time she has become less aggressive? The record of the past sixteen years speaks for itself.

In general, the attack on deterrence was rooted in a myopic view of the history of Soviet Russia—a view that today would always refer to the forces of aggres­sive communism as the “enemy” (always in quotation marks; for example, see Fleming, p 1093). Because the US was responsible for the cold war, because commu­nism was becoming more liberal while it became mili­tarily more powerful and adventuresome, and because the world now lived in the shadow of nuclear decima­tion, the American deterrent policy was misguided at best and blatant folly at its worst. So ran the argument.

However fallacious deterrence became to the uni­lateralists and the nucleus of the antideterrent move­ment in the light of these arguments, there was yet one more compelling reason for their “anti” fixation. The crowning evil, the insidious scapegoat, became the

domestic forces that had committed the nation—and were continuing to guide its policy—to a suicide course against world communism, i.e., “the military-industrial octopus” (The Nation, October 28, 1961, p. 278). The scientific-military alliance was not only nurturing a “New Militarism” but was “frustrating disarmament” (Fleming, p 1111). One observer saw at work in this country the same forces that had spawned Hitler: “At conflict, in essence, are traditional American democratic principles and the kind of Prussianized military-indus­trial concept that produced Hitler” (The Nation, Octo­ber 28, 1961, p. 278).

To the historian, America was once again becoming witness to a devil theory. It is a continuing and fasci­nating American political paradox that both the Right and Left of the US political spectrum hold tenaciously to their own devil theory; to the Right evil incarnate has become the State Department and those traitorous Americans who “lost” China and so many other entities to communism. To the Left, the military-scientific com­bination, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Strategic Air Command, and, of course, the Pentagon, are respon­sible for so much of our present predicament. Indeed, to the devil-believing Left, the attitude of the “New Mili­tarism” was simply and brutally “Hurrah for more bil­lions for the weapons of mass murder—and to hell with people!” (The Nation, October 28, 1961, p. 281).

At the very heart of the attack on the military and the nuclear deterrent policy was the undiluted fiction that the military was actually and unalterably forming, guiding, and even dictating US national policy:

This complex has come, in fact, to determine all our policy; to orient the entire nation, not toward peace, but toward war. If we are ever to avoid that war, the overwhelming and insidious power of the military-industrial complex must be smashed. (The Nation, October 28, 1961, p. 335)

It should be noted that in the world of the devil theorists, the world of fixation and fantasy, the idea that the military is somehow controlling national policy is a constant and recurrent theme. Thus:

There is little doubt that the armed services exert more control over Congress than that body exerts over the Defense Department. Indeed, the military group is clearly in a position to assume actual political corn-mend over the US striking forces if there are serious signs of “weakness” in US foreign relations. (Har­rison Brown and James Real, Community of Fear, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1960, p. 34. Italics are mine.)

And yet, to my knowledge, not one specific example has ever been advanced proving that the military are in fact controlling US national policy. It is indeed dif­ficult to avoid the conclusion that many respected Americans are venting their disillusion and frustration with the cold war and nuclear weapons problems on the man in uniform.

The opinion that US policy has been overly weighted toward the military reached its apex prior to, and coincident with, the assumption of power by the Kennedy Administration, since it was felt in antideter­rent quarters that the new President might conceivably reverse the course of events. In the New York Times of January 22, 1961, Jack Raymond observed that:

. . . various suggestions have been made. . . to change the military image of America, which represents such a complete break with its own past. It has been said that forceful civilians must be put over military leaders; that the country’s spokesmen, including the President, must avoid claims of strength and repeatedly affirm the desire for peace, and that more conciliatory posi­tions should be taken in world affairs.

Additional voices joined the chorus for more nego­tiation, conciliation, and fewer military moves with the argument that after all we certainly didn’t need more or better weapons since we already possessed enough “overkill” to wipe out the Communist bloc many times over. We had already reached the ultimate horror of the technological plateau. This reasoning again ex­hibited a regrettable myopia as far as military and international political knowledge were concerned. At least two points should be mentioned here. First, since US national policy is never to attack first, it is not how much we have in being today, but rather what we will have left after accepting the first blow. Second, we neglect at our peril a rapidly advancing technology that might at any time result in a revolutionary break­through. For example, should either side suddenly an-flounce operational development of an antimissile de­vice, the military, political, and psychological impact would indeed be far-reaching. The body of sincere, idealistic people promulgating these views was swelled by pacifists and nuclear renunciationists who saw an opportunity to make themselves heard regardless of the national and international consequences.

Toward the end of President Eisenhower’s tenure and at the beginning of President Kennedy’s, a notice­able emphasis became apparent on the logic of limited-war doctrine. Since each side now commanded nuclear strike forces capable of smashing the other, the only real power that counted—it was reasoned—was that of limited or conventional forces. In effect, it was argued, the two nuclear deterrent forces canceled each other out:

. . . now that our ability to offset inadequacies in other kinds of forces by superiority in strategic, thermonu­clear forces has disappeared, the comparative strength of the Soviets and ourselves in these other kinds of forces has become the only real measure of military capacity to accomplish national objectives. A great deal of analysis and sizable resources are needed to bring these aspects of our defense posture into line with thermonuclear realities. Unfortunately, we are in danger of riding off in the wrong direction. Most of the critics of our defense policy, and particularly those who concentrate on the missile gap and basic deter­rence, have failed to identify our most pressing needs and vulnerabilities—chasing, instead, the will-of-the­-wisp of “thermonuclear superiority.” (Lt. Col. A. A. Jordan, Jr., “Basic Deterrence and the New Balance of Power,” Journal of International Affairs, vol. XIV, no. 1, 1960, p 60. Italics are mine.)

The time had arrived, therefore, to stress our limited-war capability and deemphasize strategic power. Indeed, the call was heard for a strategy of limited war to replace what had been known as the deterrent. Henry Kissinger had argued against this validity of the deterrent: “. . . the deterrent… implied that all other forms of power were a dispensable luxury and essen­tially irrelevant to the problem of security” (The Neces­sity for Choice, Harper & Brothers, 1961, p 56). Thus, because at one time in the not-too-distant past it had undoubtedly been true that our limited forces were neglected, it was now proposed that they be accentu­ated—so some argued—at the expense of the US stra­tegic capability. For a time at least, almost entirely lost in the argument was the fact that our nuclear strike forces had prevented us from losing our national iden­tity in one swift surprise blow. In addition, it was observed that without superior strategic power the rationale and foundation for our conventional capa­bility would be completely and irrevocably under­mined. Without strategic supremacy and, of course, political acumen, our limited-war position would in fact be built on sand.

An argument often expressed by intellectuals was that of pointing to nationalism and revolution in Asia and Africa while declaring that the deterrent had not prevented either nationalistic ferment or Communist inroads in these weak nations. Norman Cousins has thus declared:

There is yet another fallacy to the deterrent theory. It assumes a static world. It assumes that. . . upheavals in the making for more than a century will somehow remain quiescent. It does not take into account that the nuclear deterrent will not prevent social and politi­cal unrest and the consequent disturbance to the peace. (Norman Cousins, “The Fallacy of the Deterrent,” The Saturday Review, April 16, 1960)

At the bottom of this strange logic could be found a basic misunderstanding of deterrence. The deterrent concept did not count among its objectives that of suc­cessfully challenging Communist subversion. Neither did it attempt to frustrate renascent nationalism in the underdeveloped areas of the world. Strategic deterrence was not a panacea. To think of it as a cure for all our international or domestic troubles—political, economic, and social—amounted to blatant misrepresentation by people who undoubtedly knew better. Curiously, many of these same persons were calling for greater emphasis I on economic and ideological programs, evidently well aware of our shortcomings in the emergent countries.

Convergent and conversant with the above groups were a congeries of people who believed an arms agreement or even “general and complete” disarma­ment down to the “machine-gun level” had somehow been obstructed by the scientific-military alliance, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Strategic Air Command. Some persisted in the fiction that US national policy was being dictated by the military and the AEC. One editor felt that negotiations had been prevented by the AEC, SAC, and a group of scientists led by Edward Teller:

They believe, and have worked hard to prove, that an airtight system of inspection to police an arms-control agreement would be impossible. . . . And I believe that Kennedy himself will overrule the bureaucrats of the Radford-LeMay-Strauss school who have previously prevented serious negotiations. (John Fischer, “Edi­tor’s Easy Chair,” Harper’s, February 1961)

It was further believed that in general a lessening of cold-war tensions and fruitful negotiations were sty­mied by the military and certain powerful individuals and groups with a vested interest in continuance of American-Russian enmity. It is quite clear that these charges were in many cases put forth by true believers; significantly, it has also become evident that in other instances a definite antimilitary bias existed, sometimes coupled with pacifistic or renunciationist strains. The deterrent represented to these people the final embodi­ment of all that the antimilitary persuasion abhorred.

And finally, the point was advanced that our stra­tegic power—being in large measure that of a “soft” or vulnerable force—was primarily a first-strike posture which had the effect of urging the Soviets on to a sur­prise nuclear attack. Russian hostility, it was said, sprang logically from an intrinsic fear of a preemptive move by the US. The difficulty with this line of attack was essentially that it ignored the much larger founda­tion of Russian hate, i.e., strong US forces barring the way to the Soviet road to empire.

Naturally, it is recognized that there are sincere people who are against larger and more powerful mili­tary forces simply because they fear—like all of us—thermonuclear holocaust. It can be cogently argued, however, that people who do not understand the re­quirement for a superior strategic capability (let us hope that the term “adequate” has now been relegated where it belongs—in history’s graveyard) and who un­wittingly pursue a national policy of what amounts to timidity and weakness, are helping to bring about ex­actly what they fear most—a Communist military adventure beginning with, or ending in, central war.

The antideterrent movement reached a peak during 1960 following the U-2 incident. President Eisenhower was nearing the end of his term and hope was ex­pressed for a “fresh start” in dealing with the Sino-­Soviet monolith. At the same time, the Russians had scored startling space successes, and the rising tide of neutralism had clearly reached its zenith. These events taken together gave sharp impetus to the campaign against military outlays in general and the policy as well as the cost of nuclear deterrence in particular. However, if 1960 marked the high tide of antideterrent thought, 1961 saw the turning of the tide as the move­ment was abruptly undercut. Ironically enough, it was the Soviet Union that pulled the rug from under anti-deterrent sentiment. In a move in many respects not unlike the Russian pact signed with Nazi Germany in 1939, the Soviets broke the nuclear moratorium by re­sumption of atmospheric testing.

As the Russian Communists stood naked to the world —their deceit and insincerity in calling for a nuclear agreement and general and complete disarmament bared—the Belgrade Conference of “unaligned” nations convened. Thus, when these countries—many of whom had trumpeted their strict neutrality, impartiality, and international moral code—exhibited a clear and blatant double standard in softly and almost inaudibly appeal­ing to the USSR to cease its testing in the atmosphere, the US, from President Kennedy on down, and its allies were clearly appalled. From the simultaneity of these two important events evolved a marked reappraisal of US national policy involving political, military, and economic (foreign aid to Yugoslavia and Poland, for example) tenets.

We have focused our attention upon the deterrent under fire. This, of course, was a significant, and for­tunately, minority opinion. Its roots were diverse and its reasons multifaceted although the objective was similar. It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the overwhelming majority of the American people, along with US national leadership, have been one in their desire for a strong strategic strike force. For they have recognized that as long as international commu­nism continues to subvert freedom throughout the world, we dare not afford the luxury of anything less than military supremacy.

We require not only retaliatory power but effective limited forces as well. But military strength alone is not enough to preserve democracy. Our leaders and our people must recognize the Communist threat for what it truly is—a deadly cancer eating away at the vitals of humanity. The Sino-Soviet leadership exists, and attempts to extend itself, upon the premise that the state and a self-perpetuating elite are in fact almighty. We emphatically deny this and believe that individual dignity and belief in a divine being become the ulti­mate rationale for life on this earth.

We trust that free, democratic society will recognize, understand, and effectively meet the threat, thus prov­ing its resiliency and staying power. But we must once and for all understand that we are not talking about a temporary or transitory effort. The task requires sus­tained work and indefinite commitment.

The choice remains ours.

The author, Mr. Wolk, has been a historian at Hq. SAC, Offutt AFB, Neb., for the last three years. A native of Springfield, Mass, he served in Army I&E programs from 1953-55, and from 1956-58 was a high-school history teacher in Sturbridge, Mass. Mr. Wolk holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from American International College, Springfield, Mass., and has done work toward his Ph.D. at the University of Washing­ton. His book on strategic weapon sys­tems, doctrine, and national policy is to be published this year. Mr. Wolk’s last offering for this magazine was “The Case Against Our Armed Forces,” in the December ’61 issue.


By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

From a speech before the California Federation of Young Democrats

at San Diego. Mr. Schlesinger is Special Assistant to President Kennedy.

Whenever I hear talk . . . of “the power elite,” I know that I am in the presence of a mirror image of the John Birch Society. The notion that a conspiracy of bankers and generals controls our destiny is as nutty as the notion that it is controlled by Walter Reuther and the officials of the ADA.

There are some who feel that all the world’s troubles would be over if we only resigned from the arms race with the Soviet Union. Their view, as I understand it, is that our economic system requires us to invent an antagonism with the USSR in order to maintain profits in our own economy; and that if we would only stop all this nonsense about maintaining our nuclear strength, the Communist world would relax its hostilities and peace would descend on long-suffering mankind.

Let us first consider the economic arguments. From 1945 to 1946, the total government purchases of goods and services in the United States declined, with the end of World War II, from $82.9 billion to $30.8 billion. This was a drop of over $50 billion at a time when the total gross national product was only a little over $200 billion. The decline in government spending then was, in short, about twenty-five percent of the gross national product—and our economy rose to take up the slack.

An equivalent decline today would be over $130 billion —which is almost three times the size of our defense budget and half again as large as our total federal budget. The American economy would thus in no circumstances have to meet a decline in public spending comparable to that which it survived in 1945-46.

And if all present defense spending should cease tomor­row, the American economy, which survived a decline in public spending amounting to one-quarter of the gross national product in 1948, could certainly survive a drop in public spending amounting to one-eleventh of our gross national product today. The argument that our economy requires the cold war is, in short, a phony.

Let us look now at the second half of this case—that if we would only abandon the arms race, then all problems of world tension would vanish. The premise is, of course, that the cold war is an American initiative and that Soviet policy is purely defensive. But very little in the history of the years since the end of World War II substantiates this premise.

In 1945 we began the demobilization of the greatest military force known to history. In 1946 we offered to share our atomic monopoly with the United Nations. In 1947 we invited the Soviet Union to join with us in the Marshall Plan. And through these years the Soviet Union made clear its ineradicable view—a view rooted in its theory of history —that any society based on a system of mixed ownership is inherently evil and inherently a threat to the peace.

In the years since, the Soviet Union has gone even fur­ther. It has made abundantly clear that even societies based on systems of Communist ownership are unacceptable, like Yugoslavia and Albania, unless they bow to Soviet views on questions of foreign policy.

The only lasting hope for a relaxation of tensions lies in the establishment of a system of general and complete dis­armament. One great issue confronting us today is how we may best negotiate an effective disarmament agreement. Those who object to our defense budget evidently assume that, if we were to permit the Soviet Union to achieve a deci­sive margin of military advantage, the Soviet Union would reward us by suddenly accepting a program of effective world disarmament.

As a historian, I find it hard to understand how—in view of a sequence of international actions from the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 to the resumption of nuclear testing in 1961—anyone can suppose that the Soviet Union is animated by anything but an aggressive conception of its own interests. There is only one way in which we can persuade the Soviet Union that it must submit to a program of international arms inspection and control—that is by persuading the Soviet leaders that we can stay in the arms race as long as they can.