Searching for realistic policies to limit the world's nuclear arsenal
Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age, by Robert McNamara. New York: Pantheon Books. 212 pages. $14.95. During Robert McNamara's seven-year stint as secretary of defense, the United States three times came uncomfortably close to war with the Soviet Union: over Berlin in 1961, over Soviet attempts to move missiles into Cuba in 1962, and over the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967. Three times the superpowers drew back. Three times the growing nuclear arsenal was kept in check.Skip to next paragraph
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``It is correct to say that no well-informed, coolly rational political or military leader is likely to initiate the use of nuclear weapons,'' writes Mr. McNamara in this slender, cogent book. ``But political and military leaders, in moments of severe crisis, are likely to be neither well informed nor coolly rational.'' The result, as his title suggests, is that the superpowers might simply blunder into disaster.
The scale of such a disaster, were it to occur, needs little elaboration; and McNamara spends hardly a sentence depicting the awful consequences of a nuclear exchange. This is not, after all, a book about nuclear winter, nor an anti-Reagan diatribe, nor a piece of no-nukes idealism. But neither is it a Kremlin-bashing polemic nor a plea for better weapons. Instead, it lays out in businesslike and nontechnical language the issues of the nuclear confrontation - and points to what McNamara hopes will be the way forward.
His point of view is perfectly clear: ``Our present nuclear policy,'' he writes, ``is bankrupt.'' It has arisen, he says, almost by accident - through a series of ad hoc decisions that, little by little, have escalated the nuclear arms race. Nobody wanted a world in which there are now more than 40,000 nuclear warheads. And few doubt that leaders on both sides would like to unwind the spiral. But how?
That's the question McNamara ultimately addresses. First, however, he knocks a number of what he calls ``nuclear myths'': that Soviet nuclear forces are superior to the West's; that the Soviets have a first-strike capability; that the West could pull ahead of the Soviets through technological prowess; that the nuclear buildup is inevitable because of East-West political tensions; that arms control agreements are worthless because the Soviets always cheat. Each of these points, of course, is hotly debated in arms-control circles. By defining them as myths, and by providing serious though necessarily brief refutations for each - arguing, for instance, that US and Soviet nuclear forces do not have to be precisely equal in order to maintain parity, that every American technological advance has quickly been copied by the Soviets, and that the nuclear buildup, far from being inevitable, reflects ``fifty years of missed opportunities'' - McNamara readies the soil for his own seedlings. Next, turning to the substance of his argument, he sorts out the various proposals for controlling the size and use of the world's nuclear arsenal, including:
Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. While admitting the desirability of a nuclear-free world, McNamara finds the proposal ``infeasible under present circumstances.'' The reason: The pressure to cheat on such an agreement would be severe. By contrast, he sees little problem in policing an agreement that reduced the arsenals on both sides to a few hundred warheads, since neither side could cheat very far without being detected, and a few secretly added weapons would not materially alter the balance. But the populace of a nuclear-free world, he argues, would live in fear of even one clandestinely produced weapon in the hands of a superpower - or, worse, in the suitcase of a terrorist. Knowing this, neither side could rest easy.