No sooner did a proposal to eliminate the superpowers' nuclear weapons emerge from the Reykjavik summit talks than the West Europeans dispatched British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Washington to obtain assurance that total abolition of nuclear weapons is not on the American agenda. Why do the prospects of being ``alone'' in the world facing what are presumed to be superior Soviet conventional forces frighten not only the Europeans, but many others who have advocated nuclear arms control for 30 years?
The hope for a nonnuclear world has proved to be an illusion. Understanding this should lead to a more rational examination of other aspects of nuclear strategy.
Foremost among these is the contradiction between the American policy of resorting to nuclear weapons to retaliate against a first strike and the consistent rejection of that policy in world crises.
American behavior has been betokened by the factors that led the US to conduct a first strike with nuclear weapons as soon as Americans had them in hand. Faced with what they expected to be 1 million United States casualties in an invasion of Japan, President Harry Truman and his advisers chose to accept the killing of tens of thousands of Japanese, most of them civilians.
There now seems to be a consensus of Korean War historians that President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought that war to at least an uneasy truce by threatening nuclear strikes against Chinese and North Korean forces. Inevitably, those strikes also would have killed thousands.
Eight years later, in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, President John F. Kennedy created the public impression that he was ready to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons if the Soviets did not remove their short-range, nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba.
According to an article by Benjamin F. Schemmer in the September 1986 Armed Forces Journal, the Carter administration, faced with a possible Soviet invasion of Iran and seizure of the Persian Gulf oil fields in August 1980, saw no other military option than a nuclear attack on the advancing Soviet forces. That would have been consistent with the longstanding NATO strategy of flexible response by which an overwhelming Soviet offensive in Europe would be countered by first use of US and allied nuclear weapons.
Why, then, have US actions or near actions so consistently repudiated the stated policy of retaliation rather than initiation? In the book ``The Button,'' published in 1985, Daniel Ford, former executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues that the US has been driven to a de facto first strike strategy by vulnerability of the US command and control system. In short, no one knows whether US military forces could function after a limited nuclear attack on Washington.
The reverse of that situation is the accumulating body of evidence that Soviet forces, including the nuclear forces, would be paralyzed by disruption of a command and control system that is based on the principle ``do nothing unless you are told to do something.'' The prolonged paralysis of the Soviet air defense system in September 1983, when faced with a lone Korean Air Lines 747 lumbering over the key naval base at Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, is one example.
Because the full effects of electro magnetic pulse (EMP), the powerful burst of energy released by nuclear weapons, are not known and, short of war, are probably unknowable, there is at least a chance that the explosion of large nuclear weapons above a nation might cause the desired degree of disruption without killing anyone or destroying property. As dependence on electronics grows, this danger becomes greater. This works much more in favor of the Soviet Union than the US because Soviet forces in Europe and, in particular, in Asia are poised to achieve decisive victories on the ground if the American command and control system can be stunned into inaction for even a matter of hours.
There has long been a belief among some senior officers of the US Air Force that ``you can't wait to find out if you are dead.'' That is, faced with certain or near certain evidence of an impending enemy nuclear attack, the US must strike first. Seen in the context of that belief, the elaborate debates over an invulnerable basing mode for the highly accurate MX missile are largely irrelevant. There is a similar body of belief among the Soviet military, veiled under the standard Soviet doctrine of reliance on surprise in any future war.
We live, then, in a world in which each antagonist knows that when he sees his opponent's hand move toward his gun, he must shoot and shoot to kill. How do we get out of this desperate, intolerable situation?
Whatever benefits arms control can achieve in reducing the economic burden on nations, nothing less than the elimination of all forms of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth is going to remove the temptation that a limited nuclear attack on an opponent's leadership might avert disaster, or create an opportunity for a war-winning advance by conventional forces.
The principal danger at the moment lies in the fact that the Soviets have succeeded in stretching US power so thinly around the world that at every point of possible confrontation the US must reach almost immediately for the nuclear trigger. By thus placing the onus for the first use of nuclear weapons entirely on the US, the Soviets have gained enormous political and psychological advantages. Oddly enough, the fiscal consequences of this situation, rather than the nuclear danger, are driving the US toward a reconsideration of its worldwide strategy.
William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs. He has served as an intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command, and from 1967-84 as a strategic research analyst and faculty member at the Army War College.