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Trembling on the nuclear trigger: exaggerating the Soviet threat: Binoy Kampmark reflects on the false perceptions underlying Cold War nuclear deterrence policies.

Misunderstandings and false readings often lead to war between states. US-Soviet rivalry may well have precipitated a super-power conflict involving nuclear weapons. Recent declassified material involving a two-volume study by the contractor BDM Corporation, hired by the Pentagon in the 1990s to examine the Soviet strategic outlook on nuclear war, gives ample evidence of this. The contractor's report makes it clear that the US security establishment erred on the side of threat inflation when it came to assessing Soviet intentions. What it also reveals is a more rational enemy aware of the fearful consequences of nuclear war than was assumed at the time.


'Each side tended to assume, and see, the worst motivation by the other, to justify its own actions and deny any justification to the other side, and to discount and disbelieve expressions of concern by the other.'

(Raymond L. Garthoff) (1)


The history of international relations is often a register of false perceptions, innuendo and dangerous gossip. A certain sense of terror often fits the bill in that regard, a feeling that propels the passage of large budgets, approvals for military expenditure, all cited as urgent measures in defence of the homeland. 'Fear is a very dangerous thing,' explained Britain's post-First World War Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at a time of what appeared to be yet another arms race. 'It is quite true that it may act as a deterrent in people's minds against war, but it is more likely to act to make them want to increase armaments.'

With the discovery of atomic power and the subsequent military use of it on Japan in 1945, that principle of deterrence reached ever more dangerous levels. Countries saw it as an attractive option. Initial efforts to contain the atomic genie were fruitless, despite warnings by the American financier Bernard Baruch that humans faced that old Biblical choice 'between the quick and the dead'. But even a few years after the event, the reality of atomic power and its military uses was sinking in. The author Gertrude Stein could barely summon up any interest in such a weapon at all. In the December 1947 issue of the Yale Poetry Review, she would simply say that fear was what vested such a weapon with meaning. The desensitised would be free of concern or worry.

This was certainly very much the case regarding the origins of the Cold War, which gave birth to a host of theories on why the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict that almost resulted, at various stages, in a nuclear conflagration. A few sober theorists of strategy tend towards the realist view: that both sides sought security gains through global, generally defensive strategies fuelled by a 'spiralling cycle of mistrust'. The US side was moved, claims historian Melvyn Leffler, by insistence on the more menacing aspects of their Soviet foe. Peaceful overtures were viewed with suspicion. The Soviets were attributed 'the most malevolent of motives and the most sinister of goals'. (2)

Theories of deterrence endorsed by analysts who believe in the stability bought by the awful potential of the nuclear option will have none of it. The cornerstone of such ideas lies on the assumption that such weapons would never be used in the first place, as any counter-attack would be so catastrophic as to make the first a nullity. First came, argue such scholars as John Lewis Caddis, the effects of 'self-deterrence', when the United States decided, between 1945 and 1958, to avoid deploying atomic weapons against non-nuclear powers. The very presence of a global nuclear arsenal, one might argue, is 'self-deterring'. Nuclear non-use contributed to what amounted to a 'Long Peace', an era mourned for its passing by Cold War warriors and scribblers who had made a career out of playing with a human condition perched on the precipice of disaster) Even at the height of the Cold War, such aggressive forerunners of neo-conservatism as the political theorist James Burnham would argue that it would be missed in its power of engendering constructive confrontations in the shadow of prospective nuclear annihilation.

Logical connection

There is, in a sense, a logical connection between Stein's indifference to the destructive power of the atom, and the military establishments that proceeded to craft such seemingly daft ideas of security as mutually assured destruction. Existence would continue, always shadowed by the annihilating consequences of the false move, or the false perception. But there was little reason to fear, other than, of course, the slim chance that nuclear weapons might be used. Precedents did exist, though they were mercifully few: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Competition became a necessary expression of that condition, a means by which nation states could manifest their 'sovereign' legitimacy at the bargaining table. Fearful assessments of a rival power would lead to a spike in arms expenditures. 'Expert' assessments on a 'missile' gap would prompt officials to dash off memoranda of encouragement for larger and ever more lethal arsenals.

In time, such enthusiasts for the stabilising capacity of the nuclear option may have to re-examine their positions in light of such reports as that compiled by the contractor BDM Corporation, hired by the Pentagon in the 1990s to examine the Cold War intentions of the Soviet Union. The two-volume study from 1995, just declassified, is kaleidoscopic in charting misunderstandings American analysts had of their Soviet counterparts. Conventional assessments come to be seen as extreme. Embellished accounts seem overwrought. 'Threat inflation' proved to be an all too regular occurrence.

The interview evidence of Soviet commanders and generals is striking. The Soviets did, quite simply, assume in the 1960s and 1970s that NATO would strike at them first. This was not surprising with the coming to power of the Reagan administration. Eugene Rostow, then incoming head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, praised the creative destructiveness a nuclear strike might have. Japan, despite the traumatic strikes on two cities, 'flourished'. In a possible US-Soviet exchange, he explained in Senate confirmation hearings in 1981, there could be '10 million casualties on one side and 100 million on another.' Then, the brutal arithmetic logic of a true weapons controller: 'But that is not the whole of the population.'

Crucial misperceptions

The contractor's report makes it clear that the US security establishment erred 'on the side of overestimating Soviet aggressiveness' while under-estimating 'the extent to which the Soviet leadership was deterred from using nuclear weapons'. Spectacular weapons such as the automatic Mertvaya Ruka ('Dead Hand') automatic launch system, a 'doomsday machine', never reached the stages where they might have become fully operational. The magic of that system, as former Soviet Colonel Valery Yarynich explained, was 'very, very nice. We remove unique responsibility from high politicians and military.' Perimeter, the technical name for the apocalyptic device, was scrapped by the Soviet high command as being, in the words of General-Colonel Andran Danilevich, 'too dangerous and unreliable'. (4) Individuals such as Yarynich may demur on this point, but Danilevich's attempt to pour cold water on the device's capabilities is worth noting.

Other gruesome facts began to impress themselves on the Kremlin. Moscow's enthusiastic allies, such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, were reined in during the early 1980s when they desired the Soviets to exercise the nuclear muscle against the United States. The scientists and officials knew better, discouraged by the effects such a move would have on Havana's habitat. In the 1970s, Soviet officials started pondering the disastrous effects a nuclear war would have on the environment, including the prospects of a 'nuclear winter'. This much is evident in the views of Dr Vitalii Nikolaevich Tsygichko, a senior analyst at the Academy of Sciences.

Such insight eluded US scientists and those of the West in general till some years later, when such popularisers of science as Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich mooted the prospects. Scientists such as Paul Crutzen of the Max-Planck Institute and John Birks of the University of Colorado had considered the dramatic effects on climate caused by a global pollution initiated by the products of massive fires set off in forests, cities, and oil and gas reservoirs. In 1983, Sagan's 'The Nuclear Winter' made its way in the pages of Parade magazine, a Sunday supplement that was read by approximately 20 million readers. After outlining the various experiments he had conducted with colleagues such as J.B. Pollack, Brian Toon and Richard Turco, he treated the American readership to the awful impact a nuclear war would have on global society. 'The cold, the dark and the intense radioactivity, together lasting for months, [would] represent a severe assault on our civilization and our species.' (5)

Soviet jitters

While the Soviets also released studies of modelling scenarios, it was not known during the 1980s that work had been done years prior on the subject. The jitters were well and truly being felt in the Kremlin scientific establishment by the 1970s. (6) In time, such studies made scientists ponder whether the very idea of deterrence might have any value at all. Where combatants and non-combatants were duly incinerated, radiated and polluted, a policy of rational deterrence was, claimed such scientists as S. Kapitsa, a nonsensical aspect of international politics. Nuclear winter research added 'to the uneasy state of equilibrium relying on deterrence', complicating, if not destroying, 'the concept of deterrence.' (7)

The report reveals how the military industrial complex, that behemoth of power identified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961, affected both super-powers in equal measure. What was done to the United States was, in time, done to the Soviet Union. The military system of nuclear production became, like Moloch, insatiable. The Military Industrial Commission (VPK) and the Defence Industry Department of the Central Committee became obsessed with targets. Manufacturing and production often exceeded that which was requested by the General Staff and Ministry of Defence. The growth in the Soviet inventory led American officials to assume that the Soviet political establishment was gearing for war, a question of process mistakenly driving policy.

What the contractor study also reaffirms is how Team B, a collection of analysts solicited in 1976 by then CIA chief George H.W. Bush to assess Moscow's aggressive intentions, stumbled badly in its assessments. The perennially suspicious writer Richard Pipes from Harvard, its chief figure, was of the opinion that Soviet officials were not deterred by the annihilating prospects of nuclear weapons, its officials feeling that the country with the 'superior strategy' could win a nuclear war. Historian Anne Cohn has methodically demolished each claim of the Team B report on the Soviet arsenal. Fear would, however, have its day, and the Carter presidency was the more weakened for it. The Team B planners would, in time, assume prominent positions as neo-conservatives in both the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Complex attitudes

Soviet commanders also realised--evidenced by the 1972 command post exercise--how devastating a US attack on Soviet soil might be. Witnesses noted how General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev 'trembled' at the prospects of pushing a button in the event of a US attack that had killed 80 million of his country's citizens while destroying 85 per cent of its industrial capacity. He wondered if this was, in fact, 'just' an exercise or some crude existential trick. While it is undeniable that many zealous Soviet military writers, in the service of country, penned various accusations on those arguing that a nuclear war was unwinnable as the nasty symptoms of 'a subjective bourgeois-pacifist sentiment', the attitudes, as this contractor's study reveals, were far more complex. (8)

To this contractor's report can be added 19,000 of pages titled 'Intelligence Forecasts of Soviet International Attack Forces: An Evaluation of the Record,' a bundle of documents that were declassified in 2001, in addition to an assortment of reports that came out after the Cold War demonstrating the habitual inflations factored into assessments of Soviet capabilities. These did not cover the US security establishment in glory. For former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Raymond Garthoff, threat inflation was instinctive, trapped in the marrow of the establishment. Both the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in an 'unconscious' reaction stemming 'from cautious, incomplete, or faulty intelligence.' (9)

There was a preponderance of paranoia, and a persistent, nagging feeling of mistrust. Few studies have examined the overall psychological atrophy of the arms race better than Richard Rhodes's Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. The nuclear capabilities of the Soviet regime were already being embellished in the 1950 National Security Council report, dubbed NSC-68, principally authored by Paul H. Nitze, Director of Planning for the US State Department. 'The Kremlin's design for world domination begins at home. The first concern of a despotic oligarchy is that the local base of its power and authority be secure.' Its military potential was characterised by 'excessive strength, coupled now with an atomic capability'. Chillingly, the report noted the US capacity then, in terms of atomic weaponry, 'to deliver a serious blow against the war-making capacity of the USSR'. Within four years, however, the Soviet state would be capable of 'seriously damaging vital centres of the United States' in a surprise attack. The then American stockpile of 1400 weapons, Nitze warned, would be incapable of repelling a fanatical enemy, less 25 million of its citizens, with its future baggage of two hundred weapons. The hub of the report, which received presidential approval, was the need to develop a thermonuclear weapon ahead of Moscow. (10)

The final cost of the nuclear spending spree, some $5.5 trillion, would have been enough, claimed Carl Sagan, 'to buy the United States except for the land'. Even the peace it supposedly bought was barely preserved, coming close to being lost at the pull of a trigger over a misunderstanding. Reports such as this study demonstrate further the hazardous, not to mention tenuous nature of the nuclear game in assessing opponents and analysing motivations. There is only one problem here: the effects of deterrence, like the Freudian sub-conscious, can never be proven. Its failure would require an apocalyptic resolution.


(1.) Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, 1994), p.507.

(2.) Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power." National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, 1992), pp.98-9, 121.

(3.) John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace." Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York, 1997).

(4.) John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich and John F. Shull, Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985: Vol I, An Analytical Comparison of U.S.-Soviet Assessments during the Cold War (BDM, 22 Sep 1995), pp.iv, 19-21, 35; Vol II: Soviet Post Cold War Testimonial Evidence, pp.62-3; Nicholas Thompson, 'Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine,' Wired Magazine, 21 Sep 2009.

(5.) See variously, P.J. Crutzen and J.W. Birks, 'The Atmosphere After a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon,' Arabia, vol 11, no 2-3 (1982), pp.114-25; P.R. Ehrlich, C. Sagan, D. Kennedy and W. Orr Roberts, The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War (London, 1984); C. Sagan, 'Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications', Foreign Affairs, issue 62 (Winter, 1983-4), pp.258-92.

(6.) Stephen Shenfield, 'Nuclear Winter and the USSR; Millennium, vol 15, no 2 (1986), pp.197-208.

(7.) Statement by S. Kapitsa to the Public Forum, US Senate, Washington, 8 Dec 1983; noted in ibid.

(8.) Ibid., p.199.

(9.) Garthoff, p.507.

(10.) NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, 14 Apr 1950, available at: www.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College. He lectures on policy and law at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:
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Author:Kampmark, Binoy
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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