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Time to move beyond deterrence.

Since World Warr II, the dominant idea about nuclear weapons has been that they serve as a deterrent to major wars, whether nuclear or conventional. The Reagan Administration has even, on occasion, justified the need for a "nuclear-warfighting" strategy on the ground that the ability to "prevail" in a nuclear war is necessary for deterrence. The Russians have held that theory for years.

The administration's policy, as much as we know about it, is alarming, but it has one virtue: like Ronald Reagan's blithe talk in 1981 about the possibility of "limited nuclear war," it makes vivid the dangers that have long been implicit in the doctrine of perpetual deterrence. The theorists of nuclear-warfighting entrenched in the Reagan Administration hold to the bizarre idea that superpowers not rational enough to prevent nuclear war are rational enough to conduct a "protracted nuclear war."

The theory of deterrence is in a state of crisis. The Pentagon's talk of prevailing is one chilling sign; Reagan's notion of a Star Wars space umbrella, a fantasy to cope with an anticipated failure of deterrence, is another. But crisis has its positive aspect. If deterrence has prevented war, faith in it has also constricted thought. Its apparent success froze political imagination. But that is no longer true. Over the last two years, imagination has thawed in many quarters. The Catholic bishops attacked the morality of deterring Soviet attack by threatening to obliterate Soviet cities. Jonathan Schell criticized the rationality, and thus the credibility, of a strategy that proposes killing Russians after the Americans, whom deterrence was supposed to protect, are already dead. The idea of a freeze on the testing and deployment of any new nuclear weapons system is, for all its limitations, the most sweeping and practical proposal the American peace movement has ever floated. Schell (in his book The Abolition) and Freeman Dyson (in Weapons and Hope) face the need to go beyond shaky deterrence with proposals for reducing reliance on the bomb and then eliminating it. Skilled advocates of old-fashioned city-busting deterrence--particularly Theodore Draper (in Present History) and Leon Wieseltier (in Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace)--had to rush to restore credibility to an idea that respectable opinion once took for granted. Far from being the bedrock assumption of all but a handful of peaceniks, deterrence has become an embattled faith. "Deterrence is all we have," Draper has written, almost wistfully--a shriveled faith indeed.

As the partisans of deterrence regroup and the Bundys and McNamaras prepare position papers for future Democratic administrations, it behooves the peace movement to be clear about what is wrong with deterrence as an approach to the problem of preventing nuclear war, and to clarify the alternatives in a way none of the Democratic candidates did this year. With the theory of deterrence in crisis, now is a good time to talk about a vision that can sustain the peace movement through many decades of skirmishes and standoffs, through small victories and seemingly momentous defeats.

The current disarray in deterrence doctrine was provoked by the fact that the United States gradually lost the enormous lead it held in nuclear weapons through the 1960s. For a nation that has never definitively said that it holds to the theory of deterrence, the Soviet Union has learned the practice with a vengeance. It's as if they said, If deterrence is so great, we should acquire our own. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev tried a shortcut, dropping intermediate-range missiles into Cuba to compensate for the fact that the Soviet Union was out of the running in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. After his humiliating capitulation, which helped topple him, the Russians set out to catch up in numbers. Their buildup to a rough parity with the United States was interpreted by Washington as a threat (a "window of vulnerability") to U.S. capacity to launch a retaliatory strike if need be--or, in the more paranoid Reagan view, a threat to launch a first strike. There is an international logic to each twist of the arms race sprial.

Defenders of deterrence, after a ritual sigh about the waste and risk of it all, quickly remind us that the game seems to have worked, despite all the bluster on both sides. Haven't we gone almost forty years without the long-predicted nuclear war? Hasn't the Warsaw Pact stayed behind its lines?

Credit where credit is due: deterrence has, so far, not failed. Nevertheless, security remains a tantalizing and ever-receding goal rather than an accomplished fact. The improvement of deterrent forces has led to an arms race. It is the arms race. The longer nuclear war is staved off, the greater the number of nuclear weapons deployed. The more practical the resort to nuclear weapons becomes, the more devastating a nuclear war would be. The smaller and more concealable the weapons, the harder it gets to dismantle them.

The flaw in the doctrine of deterrence is that to work, it has to work perfectly, and it has to work forever. Yet we are talking about a human process; people miscalculate. Nations blunder into war. In their terror and myopia, the superpowers have adopted a system that can succeed only if it works infinitely longer than any social arrangement in history ever has.

Since deterrence works only if it works forever, it is an all-or-nothing proposition, so applying the language of probability to it is misleading. There's a false precision implied in statements like, The chances of nuclear war by accident are only one in a million. For that matter, a certain polemical alarm sometimes sounded in the peace movement is equally unjustified: If we don't stop the Pershing 2 (the MX, the cruise . . .), then nuclear war is a certainty by the year 2000. The problem is that we don't know what is going to happen. If the outcome could be catastrophic for humanity, then even a microscopic probability is a curse. Do we feel secure playing Russian roulette if the revolver has a hundred chambers? A thousand?

Deterrence cannot be foolproof. Listening to the true believers in the arms race reminds me of the joke about the man who jumps from the top of the Empire State Building and after passing thirty-nine floors yells out, "So far, so good." Their faith in perpetual deterrence, in fact, is utopian. As a workable vision of the future, it requires forgetting what we know about stupidity, error and evil in high and middling places. Although the timing of deterrence's failure cannot be predicted with certainty, sooner or later, by design or miscalculation or sheer insanity at the top, some of the bombs could go off. When they do, it won't be much consolation knowing that for a brief span of human history, deterrence worked.

Once you agree that perpetual deterrence is impossible, the question is, How do you make the superpowers discontinue their dance of death? The problem is of transcendent dimension, but the solution has to be found in the realm of politics. And politics always starts with the materials at hand--in this case, two superpowers and their vast fears. On each side not only the rulers but the citizenry thinks that nuclear weapons are the best shield against an enemy that believes the same thing. Many of the fears are understandable if, in the end, misguided and self-serving.

The dynamic of the arms race is the manufacture of fear. In the name of shoring up deterrence, proponents of the arms race on one side fuel the fears of those on the other, and then on it goes in a self-perpetuating spiral. The peace movement's target has to be the arms-racers' symbiotic paranoia.

Disconcertingly, some people in the U.S. antiwar movement are reluctant to hold the Soviet Union accountable. America aggresses, the Soviet Union responds, they say. The United States is condemned; the Soviet Union, explained. Americans are imperialistic; Russians, defensive. Or, more sophisticatedly: Americans have economic motives for imperialism, while the Russians will pull out (as from Egypt) if asked. As if power weren't its own reward! Tell it to Eastern Europe. That is the logic of the cold war, with the black hats and white hats reversed. Innocence about the bloody history of Soviet power weakens the American peace movement, as does the reluctance to say things in public because they "strengthen anti-Communism" and "play into the hands of the enemy." If Soviet missiles don't convince the Americans to disarm, does anyone think that silence about them will do so?

Consider some facts. The Soviet Union has been met with hostility from the West since 1917. It did try to organize the appeasing Western powers into a system of collective security against the Nazis in the 1930s, in vain. After striking a deal with the Nazis it was invaded and did lose at least 20 million people. The Pershings are six minutes from Moscow, and in a sense, the Soviet Union is encircled by U.S. bases. On the other hand, those who sincerely believe in the expansion of democracy do have ample reason to be horrified by the Soviet way of life. Eastern Europe is occupied by Soviet troops. Soviet troops are in Afghanistan. The Warsaw Pact, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, does have forward deployment. The problem is that most Americans are convinced that the proper "response" to those wretched realities is a nuclear buildup and the support of "our" Third World torturers.

If we face the ugly facts instead of ducking them, we can separate Western aversion toward the Soviet system from the wrongheaded militaristic response to it. One can be appalled by Soviet Communism without being paranoid about its military intentions. Since World War II there has never been any serious danger of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Most NATO strategists agree that the Warsaw Pact's military advantages, though considerable, fall short of what would be needed for a conventional offensive. But although the Russians would be crazy to think they could occupy Western Europe (with their supply lines running through undependable Poland and East Germany), more than one war has been started out of craziness. With NATO and the Warsaw Pact maneuvering against each other, miscalculation and panic are always possible. Each superpower is adept at converting fears into crimes. In international politics, one side's crimes become the other's rationalizations.

Although since 1945 the United States has been the major locomotive pulling the arms buildup, it hasn't led at every stage (in the case of land-based ICBMs, for example), and it is wrong to say it is being aggressive every time it makes a new nuclear toy, while claiming the Soviet Union reacts only defensively. The Soviet Union is, on the whole, a lumbering power but it is also an imperialistic one, and it could lumber into countries besides Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. There is no reason to doubt that the Soviet Union is capable of using nuclear weapons as the United States has--to enhance its international clout. (The United States has more practice at it, but the Russians have threatened the British, the French, the Shah of Iran, Tito and the Chinese with the bomb. One the other hand, only once--during the Cuban missile crisis--did they go on a serious nuclear alert.)

The way to break the dance of death is for either partner to step away. Since we in the U.S. peace movement can make our voice heard best at home, it makes sense that we demand that America be the one: no MX, no Pershing 2s, none of the uninspectable cruise missiles, no forward-based tactical nukes in Europe or Korea, and so on. But we must also oppose, not just understand, every new turn of the superpower spiral.

Internationalism means more than opposition to American missiles, death squads in El Salvador and counter-evolutionary killers in Nicaragua. When the Soviet, Czech, Hungarian, East German or Polish government arrests activists for daring to organize for peace independent of the regime, our expression of solidarity should be immediate. Zdena Tomin, a Czech dissident who works with European Nuclear Disarmament (END) in London, says that the Western movements were "tragically late" in coming to the support of Poland's Solidarity, leaving it to the right--which cheers free trade unions only when they are in the other bloc--to protest the crackdown against it. In fact, while Solidarity was attempting to create a democratic society in Poland, the United States was sabotaging it by planning to install Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Europe. The hard-line militarism of a Reagan is a gift to the Jaruzelskis of Eastern Europe: a rationale for tightening the screws in a police state. So the circular cold war logic goes on: Eastern European tyranny seems to justify a revived cold war in the West. Detente and democracy are twin victims.

At long last a counterlogic is building. END proposes a "detente from below." As the organization says: "We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to 'East' or 'West,' but to each other." As dissidents in Poland and Czechoslovakia have learned that Western peace movements are on their side, they have grown friendlier to us. Last year, Petra Kelly of the West German Green Party wore a "Swords into Plowshares" T-shirt during a meeting with East German leader Erich Honecker in East Berlin, although the prohibited symbol was cropped out when her picture was published in the East German press. (Such stories are not reported much by Western journalists, since they fly in the face of the media's prejudice that the peace movement is playing the Soviet game.) The peace movement's commitments must become clear and radiant. A peace movement is known by the enemies it keeps.

It is also known by its demands and its vision. The time has passed when it is sufficient to rail against the existence of nuclear weapons. The freeze, which was successful on ten state ballots and in public opinion, if not in Congress, was an important step: it was concrete. But if every pause in the arms race has to be bilateral, negotiated and inspected, the arms race may have climbed several rungs upward by the time the superpowers agree on just what is to be frozen.

Drawing on the work of thoughtful critics of the arms race, including Schell, Dyson and Randall Forsberg, we can imagine the next steps. The goal is to negotiate the number of nuclear weapons down to zero. All limits on the arms race are good; the fewer weapons enforcing the balance of terror, the better. Therefore the intermediate goal should be reduction to the smallest amount (a few score warheads on each side) that would suffice to make any East-West aggression, nuclear or conventional, enormously risky. Toward that end, the United States should break the ice by backing away from the Carter-Reagan nuclear-warfighting policy and by withdrawing the most vulnerable destabilizing missiles, the Pershing 2 and the MX.

At the same time, since the major argument for U.S. "improvements" in strategic nuclear weaponry is the exaggerated but real conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact armies in Europe, it is necessary to work for a reduction of military tensions in Central Europe. For that, a combination of unilateral and negotiated moves is required. The United States could being to withdraw tactical nukes from the front lines in Europe (and Korea), announcing that those will stay withdrawn for a fixed period while the superpowers negotiate an agreement on troop reductions and disengagement in Central Europe. Let the United States proclaim it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, and, as Dyson has suggested, let NATO emphasize conventional defense--for example, antitank weapons that are useless for attack and cannot be regarded as provocative by the other side. If the terms for disengagement on the Continent can't be agreed on within the time limit, the tactical warheads can always be returned. If Europe is defused, the link between deterrence and the limitless arms race can be snapped and a long-term nuclear and political settlement can emerge.

Is nuclear war inevitable? Despair, propaganda and grim realism obscure the fact that the bomb is a social contraption. In Weapons and Hope, Dyson points out that slavery too was long taken for grant. Abolitionists first identified it as an evil. Next they campaigned against the slave trade, then against the extension of slavery and finally against the institution itself. They combined immense patience and moral intensity with an ability to make alliances and think in stages. The bomb is harder to fight, in a way, because this minute, it is not annihilating cities. The evil envisaged is prospective, just over the horizon. But that very fact also gives us time.

Many activists become discouraged because they expect too much too fast. The atmosphere is so grim that we forget how bleak it has looked in the past. In 1956 Adlai Stevenson was ridiculed when he dared campaign against H-bomb tests. In 1960 liberals were paralyzed by fear of a non-existent "missile gap." The fact that today the American Catholic Church lambastes the arms race, that men like Bundy and McNamara oppose the first use of the bomb, is, for all the limitations of their positions, immensely encouraging.

The peace movement has to see itself as a fixture of social life in the far-foreseeable future. The nuclear arms race is powered by deep forces centuries in the making.

To speak of endurance, then, goes to the heart of the matter, which is that rational people trapped in short-term logic think the bomb solves problems. The "realists" are the wishful thinkers. We "utopians" have to take seriously by reasons the great powers make their homes at the edge of the precipice, and we have to find the safer terrain on which realism and vision meet.
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Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:The Nation
Date:Dec 22, 1984
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