Searching for realistic policies to limit the world's nuclear arsenal

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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.

``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.

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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.

A ``leakproof'' Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The so-called ``star wars'' concept, says McNamara, has two separate branches. The first calls for a total and impenetrable defense system. As propounded by President Reagan - who, says McNamara, is almost the only supporter of this branch - it also calls for the elimination of offensive weapons. In that way, the star-wars system becomes purely defensive, rather than a part of a deterrent. McNamara, both in the body of the book and in a detailed and helpful appendix on the technical aspects of SDI, finds the ``leakproof'' shield wholly beyond the range of technical probability.

A ``deterrent'' SDI. The other branch of SDI support - the sort most often discussed these days - admits the infeasibility of building an impenetrable defense. Instead, it calls for a partial defensive system to be used in tandem with offensive weapons. As such, says McNamara, it is simply a new form of deterrence. As such, it is feared by the Soviets as a way to help insure an American first-strike capability. ``We can safely conclude,'' he writes, ``that any attempt to strengthen deterrence by adding strategic defenses to strategic offensive forces will lead to a rapid escalation of the arms race.''

Is there, then, a way forward? McNamara thinks there is and that it starts with strengthening the conventional forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Over the years, he says, the size of these forces has been allowed to dwindle well below that of their Soviet counterparts. Why? Because NATO policy has been that nuclear weaponry would make up the difference - and would have to be used to counter not only a nuclear but even a conventional attack by Warsaw Pact troops.

``Most Americans,'' writes McNamara, ``are simply unaware that NATO strategy calls for early initiation of the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the Soviets. Eighty percent of them believe we would not use such weapons unless the Soviets used them first. They would be shocked to learn they are mistaken.''

But is this first-use policy a viable one? McNamara thinks not. ``Given the tremendous devastation which those Soviet strategic forces that survived a US first strike would now be able to inflict on this country,'' he writes, ``it is difficult to imagine any US President, under any circumstances, initiating a strategic strike except in retaliation against a Soviet nuclear strike.''

Hence his argument that Western nuclear policy is ``bankrupt'' - since the deterrent threat is not credible. Hence, too, his proposal that NATO's conventional forces must be strengthened until they can provide a credible deterrent - a move that would then allow the scaling back (though not to zero) of nuclear warheads on both sides.

That position, McNamara admits, represents a minority view. But, coming as it does on the heels of the Reagan-Gorbachev discussions at Reykjavik - the book could hardly be more timely. Striking a middle ground, it will please neither out-and-out hawks nor wholesale doves. But it is a lucid, calm, and readable book, aimed squarely at the conscience of the thoughtful nonspecialist. It brings much-needed clarity to an issue that is unquestionably the salient one of our time. Written out of long experience and earnest commitment to the future, it well deserves our attention.

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