To the Editor:

The American bishops are losing faith in deterrence, to the scandal of the “clerks strategic,” including their dean, Albert Wohlstetter. On May 3, 1983, they posted their five radical theses on the limits of deterrence at the door of the nuclear-war room in their pastoral letter on war and peace, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. In June, Albert Wohlstetter replied in COMMENTARY in his article, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents,” inaugurating what promises to be a decisive national debate on the meaning of security in the nuclear age.

Fortunately, these protagonists share several fundamental beliefs about the imperatives of national security: (1) the intentional targeting of civilians is anathema to Western civilization; (2) present strategy for the defense of Europe, which allows NATO forces to remain decisively inferior to the Warsaw Pact armies they face, is a mad gamble waiting to be lost. Enhancement of conventional forces (and revision of NATO strategy) therefore is a premier obligation incumbent on Western leaders; (3) unilateral dismantling of the present U.S. nuclear strategic arsenal would be politically destabilizing, militarily risky, and diplomatically self-defeating. Hence, unilateralism is morally repugnant. Each of these somewhat surprising points of consensus deserves comment.

  1. A dramatic shift in moral sensitivity has occurred since 1945. Albert Einstein was for once wrong in judging that the splitting of the atom had changed everything but our way of thinking. For, in responding to the threat of atomic weapons, the arms-control community stood the ancient tradition of civilized warfare on its head. While Western civilization had, for at least 1,600 years, defended the principle of civilian immunity from intentional targeting, the “minimal-deterrence” school of strategists, whom Mr. Wohlstetter castigates, has sought to limit the size and instability of weapons systems by pleading for a “cities-only” strategy which could be reliably executed by a relatively small (and thus economical) and invulnerable (and thus stable) force of submarine missile-launching platforms. Aghast at this (conditional) acceptance of civilian slaughter as the price of peace, Mr. Wohlstetter has long pleaded for a more humane and traditional strategy which would spare civilians from direct attack. In this he is joined by the bishops.
  2. Mr. Wohlstetter and the bishops agree as well on the urgent need for a conventional-force buildup (to be accompanied by a revision of NATO strategy) in order to avoid the resort to nuclear force. The only residual disagreement between them on this issue lies in the markedly more hopeful episcopal estimate of the political feasibility of such a radical shift in political attitudes. Faith perhaps begets hope.
  3. Mr. Wohlstetter recognizes, only to ridicule, another component of the bishops’ teaching which resembles his own convictions: the rejection of unilateral nuclear disarmament. While rejecting unilateralism himself, however, Mr. Wohlstetter is cavalierly skeptical of the pastoral letter’s confidence that the arsenal itself (even apart from a declaratory policy to use it) constitutes an effective deterrent. Deterrence, as the bishops understand it, is in the eye of the (Soviet) beholder. Since they agree with Mr. Wohlstetter that the leaders of the Soviet Union are indeed “deeply suspicious” and “hostile,” they are persuaded that this adversary would virtually invincibly discount any U.S. shift to a declaratory policy of “use, never” as a cheap propaganda ploy, presuming that an expensive arsenal is maintained to be used in a crisis. Perhaps here the bishops assess Soviet response to such a shift in policy more shrewdly than the strategists, reflecting in their judgment the skeptical interpretation that Western nations give to present USSR declarations of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. Finding that this declaratory policy of the Soviets leaves undiminished the deterrent power of their mounting stockpiles of nuclear warheads, the bishops assume that Soviet officials would be equally incredulous of any Western renunciation of the use of its own strategic arsenal. Bishops rely more readily on Soviet skepticism than do strategists, judging deterrence to be a function of distrust and of historical conditioning. At issue is not whether “country X” and “country Y” would be mutually deterred by a balanced nuclear arsenal whose use had been renounced in declaratory policy. What counts is whether the United States (with its German ally) and the USSR would be so deterred. In arriving at such a political judgment about a sinful world, it is by no means self-evident that the biblical education of the bishops is less helpful to interpreting the meaning of deterrence than is a training in mathematics.

There is then between Mr. Wohlstetter and the bishops a surprising convergence of views on the imperatives of security. Despite their differing estimates of Soviet credulity in the face of a declaratory policy eschewing use of the nuclear arsenal, the bishops share Mr. Wohlstetter’s abhorrence of city-targeting, his anxiety about the insufficient provisions being made to resist conventional aggression conventionally, and the common-sense rejection of unilateral disarmament.

Given this ample evidence of agreement, it might appear that the impending debate will be merely a skirmish between competing schools of strategic theology. Indeed, if the bishops had finally endorsed the posture adopted in the first draft of their pastoral letter (circulated in June 1982), Mr. Wohlstetter could have subscribed to most of the findings in the document. For he has long labored to discredit counter-city targeting and to restrict U.S. targeting options to some range of hostile military installations. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the bishops themselves adopted such a deterrent posture in their first draft. While cautioning that grievous doubts remained about the controllability of such counterforce exchanges, they gave grudging approval to controlled retaliatory strategic targeting of military installations, excluding only strategic forces (that is, ICBM’s). This somewhat startling concession was won from the bishops by their desire to preserve for national-security officials the “freedom of choice” which Mr. Wohlstetter demands, that is, the capacity and public authorization to retaliate against military targets if deterrence fails. If this position had survived the series of revisions and debates that led to the final draft, the present debate would have focused exclusively on the level of nuclear strikes adequate to reinforce deterrence.

That early episcopal tolerance for limited and controlled nuclear strikes on Soviet military targets was, however, among the happy casualties of the process of consultation and reflection which occurred before the final debate in Chicago in May 1983. Indeed, when the second draft was circulated for review in October 1982 the bishops had already reversed themselves on this fundamental issue. In all succeeding drafts, including the definitive text, they reject any militarily meaningful use of the nuclear arsenal. This change was effected by the storm of criticism that broke over their toleration of counter-force nuclear war. After reviewing 700 pages of critical comments in response to the first draft, the committee paused to reassess the moral arguments that had led them to approve such strategies.

Their reassessment presumably crystallized around the meaning of “free choice” in regard to nuclear war. Sharing Mr. Wohlstetter’s reluctance to discard any military option which can meet the legitimate imperatives of defense, they asked once more whether the option for counterforce nuclear war was morally justifiable. On second thought, they judged it was not.

This revision emerged from their review of the testimony (and literature) concerning the controllability of nuclear war. Given the high risk that a significant nuclear exchange would irreversibly disrupt the command-and-control network that links the national command center to the field commanders (as well as to the adversary), they contemplated the course that nuclear war might follow once the national command center was hors de combat, including two possibilities. One was the unlikely scenario of a simultaneous, uncoordinated, and mutual cessation of nuclear hostilities. The alternative scenario appeared to them more probable: uncontrolled nuclear exchange, culminating in the destruction of the northern hemisphere. Realizing that this apocalyptic scenario was universally recognized as a “less than improbable” outcome of any (even counterforce) nuclear exchange, they retraced their steps, declaring the waging of (even counterforce) nuclear war incompatible with human freedom. Mr. Wohlstetter, as we know, holds the opposite view, that renouncing nuclear war negates freedom.

It was fortunate for the bishops that the capital issue dividing them from Mr. Wohlstetter is a theological, or at least a philosophical, one: the nature of freedom. Here bishops feel at home, experiencing no misgivings when they condemn any act which risks abandoning rational deliberation about future acts. Deliberately rendering oneself incapable of making rational and effective choices is an immoral abdication of freedom.

Fighting nuclear war, they now came to realize, would be such an abdiction of freedom. For nuclear war might be unstoppable. If the national command center were to be cut off from subordinate commanders, certain U.S. nuclear warheads could be launched against the Soviet Union either by pre-authorized or unauthorized firings. If the Soviet leaders were similarly deprived of their command-and-control network, they would be physically unable to communicate to their commanders their conceivable choice to surrender in the face of American escalation. Possibly Soviet missiles too would be launched independently of their national command center. Literally no one might be in control of the war. Exit free choice.

Having forced themseves to contemplate this possibility, the bishops reversed their previous decision to tolerate controlled counterforce war-fighting. Their second thoughts find expression in these sober words: “We are sure that we must reject nuclear war.” Human freedom may not legitimately be construed to include options which significantly risk abandoning future choice.

The schism between the bishops and the strategists on deterrence rests finally on differing views of freedom. In the Catholic tradition, at least, freedom does not mean the capacity to do whatever is feasible, but only whatever is reasonable, that is, what promises to enhance human welfare. Freedom includes, therefore, the refusal to do what risks wreaking (literally) inestimable human destruction, as a nuclear war does. Freedom, the bishops believe, is also a self-denying faculty, in this case the capacity to say “no” to nuclear war.

Have the bishops got it wrong? Or have the strategists?

Francis X. Winters, S.J.
School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

I have long regarded Albert Wohlstetter as a serious, informed, and usually responsible strategic analyst. His article makes some useful points about the possibility—the necessity—of a nuclear-deterrent policy that does not deliberately target civilian populations. But in too many places the article lacks the virtues I hope to find in Mr. Wohlstetter, virtues that it is essential to retain in the debate on nuclear strategy.

I was particularly distressed by his distortion of the position adopted by the United States Catholic bishops in their recent pastoral letter on war and peace. (I was the principal consultant to the committee that drafted the bishops’ letter.) He repeatedly characterizes the bishops as having reluctantly accepted the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the United States, but at the same time of fatally undermining deterrence by a “doctrine of ‘use, never’ (i.e., no use—first-second-or ever).” But the fact is that at no point in the pastoral letter do the bishops adopt the “you-can-have-it-but-you-can’t-use-it” position.

It is true that the second draft (October 1982) of the letter was ambiguous—deliberately so—on this matter. While even that draft contained no passage explicitly saying no use would be permissible, it was imbued (properly) with a strong rhetoric of “saying no to nuclear war,” and contained a few passages whose full meaning was obscure. Most troublesome in this respect was the quotation from Cardinal Krol, which said “not only the use of strategic nuclear weapons, but also the declared intent to use them involved in our deterrence policy, are both wrong.” (Emphasis in original.) In context this statement could be taken to refer to any use of nuclear weapons, or only to the use or declared intent to use them indiscriminately, i.e., against cities. Since counterpopulation warfare was still an element of American declaratory policy at the time of Cardinal Krol’s statement in 1978, he was not necessarily condemning any use or threat. Similar ambiguity arose regarding advice, in the pastoral section at the end of the second draft, to men and women in defense industries because “. . . your industry produces many of the weapons of massive and indiscriminate destruction which have concerned us in this letter. We have judged immoral even the threat to use such weapons.” I believe that, in context, the operative qualifier is “massive and indiscriminate destruction,” but can understand how some readers could have taken this passage as a blanket condemnation.

This ambiguity was intended to mollify critics who chose to interpret some passages in the first draft—notably, “If nuclear weapons may be used at all, they may be used only after they have been used against our own country or our allies, and, even then, only in an extremely limited, discriminating manner against military targets”—as the bishops giving some “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to limited nuclear war. Of course it was nothing of the kind. Predictably, the ambiguity of the second draft opened the bishops up to ridicule or mischievous charges from conservative critics that, despite their disclaimers, the bishops were “really” adopting a stance of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Fortunately, the ambiguous passages were removed in the third draft and in the form adopted in the final Chicago meeting. In fact, a proposed amendment by Archbishop Quinn, of “opposition on moral grounds to any use of nuclear weapons,” was not adopted. Despite his various references (without quotation or citation) to works by Father Bryan Hehir, Mr. Wohlstetter does not—nor can he—cite any passage in the third draft or final version of the letter that rules out any use.

Mr. Wohlstetter’s criticism therefore is not just wrong, it borders on the irresponsible. Perhaps he was unable to read the third draft (available to the public on April 6) before writing his article for the June issue of COMMENTARY. But if so, why not say so, rather than alluding to having seen “various drafts”? Or why not delay the article a month or so to get it right? (He was able, after all, to incorporate a reference to President Reagan’s March 23 Star Wars speech.)

Mr. Wohlstetter clearly shares the bishops’ abhorrence of deliberate strikes against innocent civilians. His preferred deterrent policy is one which would rely on counter-force targeting, with efforts to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties (“bonus” effects) by the use of relatively small and accurate weapons. In principle it is hard for me to quarrel with this prescription, which appears consistent with “just-war” precepts of discrimination and proportionality. For this reason Mr. Wohlstetter can praise the reduction of the American nuclear stockpile in terms of megatonnage, and, allegedly, also a reduction in the number of “weapons.” What the referent for this latter reduction is, however, I cannot tell from such a loose definition. Much worse, this praise ignores a 60-percent increase, in a decade, in the number of “force loadings” (warheads and bombs) in the strategic arsenal.

And that points to the flaw in Mr. Wohlstetter’s prescription: even given reduction in megatonnage and improvements in accuracy, the number of strategic bombs and warheads (approximately 20,000 for both sides together) means that even “discriminating” use could wreak horrendous damage. The American SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) has identified 60 “military” targets for such weapons in Moscow alone. A Muscovite’s prospects of surviving a strike against those targets would not be much better than if civilians had been deliberately struck. Mr. Wohlstetter faults some of the studies of the effects of nuclear weapons that are cited by the bishops, indicating they do not consider the kind of “limited” strike he has in mind. But even a Soviet attack on the 1,052 American ICBM silos, 46 SAC air bases, and two bases for missile-launching submarines would result in 7 to 15 million “prompt” deaths, as many wounded, and untold eventual deaths from fallout and economic and ecological disruption. These targets do not include the many command-and-control centers, tactical military forces, transportation facilities, or “militarily significant” industry that are included in the American SIOP and no doubt in its Soviet equivalent. The number of civilian deaths might be fewer than if civilians were directly targeted, but hardly such a low number as to make “limited” nuclear war an option of rational policy.

Perhaps Mr. Wohlstetter does not intend something as massive as this in his example of “limited” nuclear war. In theory, it is possible to imagine much more restricted strikes, possibly as some form of implicit intra-war bargaining, that would produce a negotiated end to the war before escalation became overwhelming. One cannot definitively rule out the possibility, but neither should one bet the future of civilization on it. Probably the two most knowledgeable experts on this matter are Desmond Ball and John Steinbruner, who offer nearly identical skeptical views. In Steinbruner’s words: “If national commanders seriously attemped to implement this strategy [controlled response] in a war with existing and currently projected U.S. forces, the result would not be a finely controlled strategic campaign. The more likely result would be the collapse of U.S. forces into isolated units undertaking retaliation on their own initiative against a wide variety of targets at unpredictable moments.”

In other words, Mr. Wohlstetter’s aim may be laudable, but its realism leaves something to be desired. The further risk is that other strategic planners may not be as prudent or responsible as Mr. Wohlstetter. To encourage belief in the probability of morally acceptable limited nuclear war is to play into the hands of the war-fighters, the “prevailers,” those who think “victory is possible” and would have some meaning. It would encourage those who want to continue to rely on a threat of first use of nuclear weapons to deter a wide range of acts in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It would encourage brinksmanship and crisis risk-taking at the expense of building up alternative, non-nuclear means of defending ourselves and our allies. (Mr. Wohlstetter chides the bishops for only “grudgingly” supporting conventional alternatives. But they are, after all, bishops, and cannot be expected to enthuse about more outlays for conventional weaponry. The fact is they do acknowledge an essential piece of realism, the likelihood that “some strengthening of conventional defense would be a proportionate price to pay, if this will reduce the possibility of nuclear war.”)

A key element of the bishops’ analysis is their advocacy of a policy of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. They require that non-nuclear attacks be resisted by other than nuclear means. That advocacy does not stem, as Mr. Wohlstetter would have it, from a more general “no-use-ever” policy. It stems from a candid reflection on the probability, whatever the desirability, of truly “limiting” nuclear war.

While I have substantial sympathy for much of Mr. Wohlstetter’s position, I would have more if he would acknowledge the desirability of a no-first-use posture. It cannot be achieved readily—though it is a more plausible achievement than is the command-and-control and discrimination capability for reliably fighting “limited” nuclear war. The risks of escalation in wartime are high under the best of circumstances. If the opponent should begin nuclear war, some of those risks would already have been taken. To deter that act, and to bring the war to a negotiated halt just as soon as possible, we must plan certain very restricted forms of retaliation. But the risks of first use of nuclear weapons are too high to justify us in ever setting the process in motion.

Bruce M. Russett
Department of Political Science
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut



To the Editor:

I believe that Albert Wohlstetter’s article is by far the best logical and historical exposition of the development of the strategic debate; that it is the most rigorous and convincing articulation of the only sane direction in which to go, once one realizes that neither Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) nor disarmament is a tenable goal; and that it is the most exciting (and in a way the first) challenge to the idea that the nuclear age has introduced fundamentally new theoretical, moral, and political dilemmas and paradoxes, or has immensely sharpened permanent ones already articulated by Clausewitz.

Mr. Wohlstetter is entirely convincing about what one should do if deterrence fails (provided it is feasible, and here I completely accept Mr. Wohlstetter’s argument that something is always feasible in the direction of discrimination and control, that the possibilities in these areas have improved enormously, and that at any rate one should always try). But I find Mr. Wohlstetter least strong on the question of giving reassurance not only to our establishment but also to our population, and particularly to the population of the European allies. Mr. Wohlstetter has to counter the argument of people who will say that though he may be right on paper, he doesn’t take human realities (or Murphy’s law) into account. Such people argue that in the case of Europe, distinctions between types or degrees of conventional and nuclear war make a lot more sense if you are an American than if you are a European, particularly a German, and they say that since such ideas come mostly from American analysts, it shows that the latter are more preoccupied with avoiding escalation to their own territory than with deterring any war at all.

On the essential point of deterrence, how it looks to the enemy, I believe Mr. Wohlstetter puts it too neatly by affirming that whether to deter or to fight, whether with conventional or nuclear weapons, the answer is always and exclusively discrimination and control. I think that no matter how much we try, there is still a strong possibility that the process will get out of hand. In fact, the belief that one would be entering unknown territory and might be carried all the way to mutual suicide is likely to have contributed to the nuclear taboo and hence to deterrence. After all, we have had and continue to have an endless number of conventional conflicts but so far no nuclear one.

In the case of the Soviets, Mr. Wohlstetter very elegantly solves the dilemma with his argument that, given their regime, they care about military power, not about innocent bystanders; hence the more discriminate the response, the more effective both deterrence and defense or war-fighting. He may well be right, although Stalin’s crimes, the losses of World War II, and the acceptance of tens of millions of deaths in a “nuclear exchange” may be very different psychologically and politically. But assuming (as, on balance, I do) that he is right in the case of the Soviets, that does not, it seems to me, take care of the broader problem of nuclear deterrence.

Two polemical ways of putting it, both of which in my view would be unfair but both of which may contain some truth, are:

  1. Mr. Wohlstetter makes the possibilities of control and discrimination in nuclear war sound so good that one does not see why he puts such stress on substituting conventional for nuclear weapons whenever possible, or why, so far, there have been, on all sides, including the Communist, more restraints against the use of nuclear weapons than against that of conventional ones.
  2. He tends not to give enough weight to “uncertainty,” both in deterrence and in war-fighting, which would make the balance less delicate (and deterrence less unstable) and the war less controllable (and hence less appealing to an aggressor) than Mr. Wohlstetter has made them out to be.

I myself believe that this “uncertainty,” though it makes it impossible to stabilize the arms race, does act as a stabilizing factor in deterrence: not being quite sure of what an opponent has up his sleeve and how his systems and one’s own would actually respond, means that one is always trying to improve one’s posture, but it also means that you can never completely trust the calculation which would give you victory in a first strike.

It seems to me there are four positions:

  1. Deterrence only, implying that any attempt at defense or even thinking about what happens if deterrence fails detracts from deterrence. This implies that if deterrence fails one has the choice only between a suicidal and criminal spasm and preemptive surrender.
  2. Deterrence as identical with defense, or as a by-product of a realistic defense posture. This is Mr. Wohlstetter’s position, if I understand him correctly.
  3. A deterrent declaratory posture based on the threat of massive retaliation but including as well an operational posture which permits a war-fighting strategy based on limitation and discrimination (the Soviet position, according to Mr. Wohlstetter).
  4. A deterrent declaratory posture based on serious, credible threats backed by a corresponding military posture, but a posture which acknowledges that while the lower level will always be preferred, both the sanctity of commitments and the difficulties of control may lead to escalation to undesirable and unpredictable levels.

I confess that I still favor this last approach. I see military force as a last resort if non-military pressures and negotiations fail, nuclear weapons as a last resort if conventional ones fail, strategic if theater nuclear weapons fail, and massive (never singling out cities deliberately but no longer avoiding any valuable military target in order to spare them) if discrimination is not reciprocated or is deliberately used by the other side to protect valuable military targets.

Perhaps it is all only a matter of presentation, but I would say that the more convincingly and eloquently Mr. Wohlstetter argues for the desirability and possibility of control and choice, of limitation and discrimination, the more he exhibits an awareness that war, no matter how controlled and discriminating, and particularly nuclear war, remains a dirty, bloody, messy, and unpredictable business.

A last point: it seems to me not entirely fair to accuse the MAD bombers of actually wanting to bomb innocents or even of claiming that they can deter only by threatening cities. Actually, I think what they are saying is that threatening cities is the only way to deter without provoking, i.e., without raising the suspicion that you are preparing a first strike and hence increasing the danger of preemptive or launch-on-warning from the other side.

Finally, let me emphasize that I believe that fundamentally and in the long run Mr. Wohlstetter provides the only answer to the dangers of war and of surrender, of destruction and of pacifism.

Pierre Hassner
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales
Paris, France



To the Editor:

Albert Wohlstetter’s incisive commentary on the problem of nuclear-war moral theory certainly clarifies and improves greatly upon the final position of the Catholic bishops. They should be pleased by his penetrating effort. We can, of course, regret that he was not included in the formulation of their now famous document.

Mr. Wohlstetter has outlined to the bishops and the rest of us what they should have said about their own just-war tradition, particularly the doctrine of the actual protection of the innocent, and of how this is done in the present circumstances. He has also traced the facts of the current nuclear posture in the light of developments in strategic thinking before, during, and after World War II. He is evenhanded, precise. His article is an excellent example of the Thomist principle that moral thinking is natural-law thinking at its best, that it is not exclusively a religious endeavor, however much it does not exclude religious contributions to what can be learned by reasoned reflection. Politics is not revelation. Hence there is true common discourse about its realities. When religion speaks about politics, it must be tested by politics. This is what Mr. Wohlstetter did, and this is why, in a strict way, he laid a claim to be “moral” in a much more rigid fashion than did even the episcopal document.

I was especially struck by his analysis of what might be called “the ideology of dialogue.” . . . “Dialogue,” in fact, does not necessarily consist of political pacts or lofty conversations in some Soviet, Swiss, or Virginia spa. Rather, while the other watches from a distance, it is a clear understanding of the enemy’s political philosophy, his habits, what forces he has put into being, together with a solid grasp of what one must oneself do to make defense policy moral in one’s own intellectual terms and realistic in the enemy’s eyes. When this is carefully done, “dialogue” will have silently taken place, whether or not a sound is uttered or an official document signed.

If the bishops can look upon their own document as a very imperfect initial effort, as they seem to suggest themselves, then such analyses as that of Mr. Wohlstetter will go a long way to guide them in the two essential things they must keep in mind, as John Paul II has emphasized: how to be moral and how to be free. The first, morality, is, in fact, a function of the second. Failure to realize this fully almost forced us into a “worst-regime” thesis, which would hold that to be “moral” we had to give ourselves up freely to the worst regime, while to be free, we had to be immoral. Demonstrating how to be moral while being free—such is the merit of Mr. Wohlstetter’s article.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Department of Government
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.



To the Editor:

Official Catholic pronouncements on nuclear deterrence and defense have been deficient in their characterization of the empirical concepts and facts. The bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter reflects a more serious empirical base than was evident in earlier pronouncements. However, Albert Wohlstetter’s article reveals major inadequacies on the empirical side which result in inadequacies in the moral guidance offered.

The bishops have relied on one set of empirical assumptions and scenarios, rejecting all others, and declared only one nuclear option to be available. That option is Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, based on the assumption that nuclear war is intrinsically uncontrollable and, if ever initiated, will inevitably escalate to a worst-case scenario of mutual annihilation that “threatens the existence of our planet.”

The logic of this empirical analysis led to MAD deterrence policies. But the bishops, reiterating classic just-war doctrine, reject any actual implementation of a MAD deterrent threat as self-evidently disproportionate to any just end and indiscriminate. Without any serious discussion of the just-cause referent of proportionality or evaluation of the threats to just causes, the bishops reject any alternative limited deterrence/defense posture as unfeasible and, apparently, unnecessary. Thus, they condone the existing deterrent as a necessary evil pending arms-control progress that will eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.

Since the bishops explicitly reject all indications of a change in U.S. deterrence policy in the direction of controlled, discriminate response, how can they reconcile even an ephemeral toleration of a nuclear-deterrent posture that, if ever translated into a war-fighting reality, would, in their opinion, inevitably escalate to all-out nuclear war?

The answer is the “bluff deterrent,” developed by the bishops’ national-security adviser, Father Bryan Hehir. In a bluff-deterrent posture, as outlined by Mr. Wohlstetter, one threatens implicitly immoral responses that one has publicly renounced. This is achieved by “possessing” the nuclear means to implement the MAD threat while declaring that they are immoral and will never be used.

How could responsible people adopt such a dubious position? Mr. Wohlstetter shows, from perspectives that are more mature and profound than those of many of the experts cited by the bishops, that this bluff deterrent, this “volubly revealed deception,” is a natural product of the “deterrence-only” concepts evolved by MAD strategists. A nuclear nominalism, heavily influenced by the view that deterrence is almost entirely psychological, a matter of perceptions rather than substance, has encouraged the notion that deterrence-only postures require no war-fighting contingency plans.

Mr. Wohlstetter traces authoritatively the history of deterrence-only strategies based on the assumption that nuclear war must inevitably assume catastrophic proportions. He scores the underlying error of deterrence-only strategies: the claim that limited nuclear defense consonant with just-war requirements is impossible. This is the position the bishops take.

Given the dangers of any nuclear war, the bishops’ position would make sense if nuclear deterrence based on a credible and morally permissible war-fighting posture were dispensable, but it is not, if the free world is to be protected from nuclear aggressors. As Mr. Wohlstetter reminds the bishops, there is no effective deterrence without the capability, intention, and will to resist nuclear aggression with nuclear means if deterrence should fail. A bluff deterrent cannot convey this resolve, particularly for the protracted period that even the most optimistic expectations of arms-control progress would envisage.

In fact, MAD is dead, all trends in U.S. policy are toward war-fighting strategies that would increasingly respect just-war standards of proportionality and discrimination. Bluff deterrents . . . based on MAD deterrence-only postures are even less credible than formerly. The empirical assumption that just and limited nuclear deterrence, based on a war-fighting posture consonant with just-war standards, is and will forever be impossible, is refuted by Mr. Wohlstetter. He holds out just- and limited-war options that are indispensable both for the defense of the free world and as a basis for serious arms control. This is an important contribution in what is only the beginning of a new great debate on morality and nuclear deterrence and defense.

William V. O’Brien
Department of Government
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

The final version of the American bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace is a valuable contribution to contemporary moral debate on questions of war generally and on nuclear arms in particular. It is, however, only a contribution to that debate, representing judgments made by the authors of the document and the bishops as a whole in their Chicago meeting. Where these judgments reflect the Christian principles laid out earlier in the document, that is one matter; where they reflect other principles or assumptions about the nature of contemporary military issues, that is another matter entirely.

Unfortunately, while the final document goes to some lengths to declare that the bishops are aware of this dichotomy (unlike, for example, the second draft), some confusion remains in the use of Christian and other assumptions jointly to form specific judgments regarding policy. In particular, this confusion has led to an unfortunate analysis and set of judgments in the subsection, “Moral Principles and Policy Choices,” where the criteria of discrimination and proportionality that are taken from the just-war tradition are associated with three “specific evaluations” of deterrence. The problem is that the reasoning applying these just-war criteria to the case of nuclear war-fighting has no obvious connection to the three “specific evaluations” of the bishops, and that in fact just-war reasoning points toward what the bishops reject rather than toward what they endorse.

The first of these “evaluations” contrasts nuclear deterrence “to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others” with “proposals to go beyond this to planning for prolonged periods of repeated nuclear strikes and counterstrikes, or ‘prevailing’ in nuclear war.” Such proposals are “not acceptable,” though the pastoral letter accepts the existence of a nuclear deterrent force as morally tolerable, at least in the short run. In the second draft, where this item first appeared, it was called simply “war-fighting capabilities.” In either case, one suspects the bishops have been led astray in their reasoning by the assumption that strategic deterrence has only to do with ICBM’s, SLBM’s, and SAC bombers, for the deterrent value of the weapons linked to the idea of “war-fighting” is not only not explored by them, it is not even conceded to exist. In a purely political debate, it might be to the advantage of opponents of such weapons . . . to depict them as enhancing the possibility of nuclear war; yet there is another side to this argument as well; it is not enough, morally speaking, simply to accept the political case against these weapons as the Christian option. Let us look a bit more closely at this.

In the first place, there is considerable tension between the bishops’ argument . . . and just-war reasoning as it has taken shape historically. For this moral tradition the priority has always been first to decide the Tightness or wrongness of participation in war, then to assess the means of force available and define moral limits to that force. If the priorities are now to be reversed, we should at the least be told why. That is, we should be told why if just-war reasoning is actually what matters, and I have already expressed my doubts as to the relevance of the just-war principles used by the bishops in this context to the “specific evaluations” made. But if the intent is to employ just-war reasoning, then there must be an effort to weigh the reasons that might justify Christian participation in war first, before turning to judgments about the means of war.

Second, it is not clear why planning for prolonged nuclear war is any more morally objectionable than planning for deterrence by means of MAD. On the bishops’ own terms, reiterated in various forms from Cardinal Krol’s Senate testimony in 1979 to the present pastoral letter, it is the use of nuclear weapons that is to be morally rejected by Christians. To reject plans that may enhance deterrence by making plain that this country could withstand and fight back in a nuclear war simply does not follow, and it suggests that something else is at work in this rejection than the consistent application of principles, Christian or otherwise.

Third, good reasons exist from the very principles of discrimination and proportionality to prefer deterrence by means associated with the idea of limited nuclear war over deterrence associated with the idea of MAD. The bishops deny that these just-war principles could be observed in an actual nuclear conflict; for my part, I would rather take the chance that they could be observed than continue to know that an all-out thermonuclear war with present “strategic” weapons might destroy the earth. Just-war tradition has always and consistently preferred restraint in the means of force. Why should Christians now prefer unlimited force in the form of a MAD-based deterrent?

Behind the bishops’ judgment in this matter lies a fundamental confusion—the belief that somehow deterrence can be separated from use in war. It is difficult to see how this belief arose, for common sense suggests that no threat will deter another’s act if he judges it is only a threat. Deterrence by threat alone depends on the ability to lie convincingly. Thus we are left with the conclusion that the American Catholic bishops would have Christian statesmen systematically and convincingly lie in order to achieve nuclear deterrence—a strange bit of moral advice for Christians.

A related matter is the idea that nuclear deterrence depends only on the “possession” of nuclear “stockpiles” (an idea that suggests that strategic nuclear weapons are stored in some National Guard armory alongside the howitzers and small arms). These forces are in fact deployed, not “stockpiled,” and their “possession” most certainly implies their use in the case of a nuclear emergency. It does no service whatsoever to the moral debate over deterrence strategy to maintain that the present strategic nuclear force would not be employed in case of war. Rather, its deterrent effect depends on the likelihood of its use. No one should realistically expect that, in the case of a general war between the United States and the Soviet Union, strategic forces would be withheld. If the result of using these weapons is too awful to contemplate (as I agree with the bishops it is), then clear-headed moral analysis should point toward reducing our reliance on them. . . . Indeed, a cruel irony is that if this country were to follow the course laid out by the bishops, forgoing the development and deployment of less massively destructive (more proportionate) and more accurate (and discriminate) weapons and the plans for their utilization, then we would be locked into the same MAD strategy that the bishops so roundly (and rightly) condemn as immoral.

I conclude by noting that the ideas of deterrence “sufficiency” and “progressive disarmament” (endorsed by the bishops in their second and third “specific evaluations”) might be enhanced by a force posture that did not depend so one-sidedly upon weapons of the present strategic types. In the past, those arms-limitation or reduction efforts that have succeeded best have been those aided by such non-moral factors as lack of military utility and obsolescence. But so long as strategic nuclear weapons are regarded in moral analysis as the only game in town, then the moral pressure works against the development of defenses that would reduce military utility or new weapons systems that would make outsize silo-busters obsolescent or obsolete, once more serving to lock us into place with a deterrence system decried as immoral.

James Turner Johnson
Department of Religion
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey



To the Editor:

It seems a logical conclusion that if the U.S. is to achieve peace, or at least long-term stability, with the Soviet Union, we must, as the USSR has, establish a policy of expanding influence and control. If we do not do this, then all the other nations of the world are presented with the choice of either (1) accepting Soviet influence; (2) resisting without assistance; or (3) asking for our support. In “real-world” situations, accepting Soviet influence is by far the most likely result. In view of this, it seems obvious that U.S. policy should be to proclaim the truth that the Soviet Union is our prime competitor for world influence and control. We do not have to be enemies or antagonists to be competitors. Let us tell the world that this is the case and provide other nations with the choice of accepting our influence and control.

In addition, the point should also be made that discussions of nuclear arms control cannot be separated from discussions of “conventional” arms control. Although it is healthy to be in constant dialogue concerning these issues, no nation interested in expanding its influence would ever make an agreement that it perceived as weakening its ability to wield influence. Neither does history offer any evidence that political leaders are concerned with the extent of destruction or loss of life that would result from the use of any weapons system that would help achieve the goal of expanding influence and control over others. . . .

Howard Salasin
Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

Many of us in areas of research directly or peripherally related to military technology have witnessed developments that made possible, without detriment to our strategic security, a significant reduction in the numbers and destructiveness of our strategic nuclear weapons. Further pursuit along these technological lines may even give us a basis for negotiating the complete elimination of such weapons.

For reasons not clear to me, this situation has received little attention in the general press, and COMMENTARY has thus taken an important step with its publication of Albert Wohlstetter’s article, Mr. Wohlstetter dissects the arguments of MAD supporters, showing their grotesque inconsistency with the humanitarian principles that provide their motivation.

One may hope that this essay by a man of experience and authority in the subject will initiate an informed public discussion, and put an end to the current battle of slogans that does little credit to our press and our campuses.

Morton G. Wurtele
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of California
Los Angeles, California



To the Editor:

Albert Wohlstetter shows incisively that our “statesmen” and “strategists” (and not just our bishops) need to do some basic rethinking. The article by Robert S. McNamara in the Fall 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs illustrates how widespread and urgent that need is. In the article, Mr. McNamara says that he and at least two Presidents believed that nuclear weapons have no use if deterrence fails. His “use-never” sermon at the White House preceded that of Cardinal Krol. But can we deter the Soviet use of nuclear force in a crisis if we are unwilling to plan seriously to employ nuclear weapons in response? Can we protect the free world from coercion if it is obvious that we think a response would be uncontrollable and would amount to suicide?

The United States, in the mid-70’s, looked more soberly at policies for the employment of nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attacks and adopted a dual criterion for any possible use of this awesome force: to destroy Soviet military capabilities selectively and, at the same time, to minimize harm to innocent bystanders. We need limited nuclear options if we are to deter limited nuclear attacks by the Soviets. Much remains to be done, but what has already been done is widely misunderstood. The bishops and some former officials rely on the dubious statements of strategists like Desmond Ball who hold that any possibility of controlled use of nuclear weapons is a “chimera,” and that we can and must convince the Soviets that we would reply to a limited Soviet first strike by initiating an insane, massive exchange against civilians. But in fact, our command and control is flexible enough to release exactly the number of nuclear weapons necessary to execute a selective-employment plan.

Additionally, technical advances in the accuracy of delivery now permit us to use highly effective non-nuclear munitions to accomplish missions which until recently could only be carried out by nuclear weapons. The recent European Security Study, “Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe,” in which I participated (I was Assistant for Atomic Energy to Secretaries of Defense Schlesinger, Rumsfeld, and Brown), describes how accurately delivered non-nuclear weapons can perform missions against air fields, bridges, and other key lines of access which now call for the use of nuclear-armed aircraft or Pershing missiles. Similar improvements in “smart” conventional submunitions can replace the use of short-range nuclear artillery to defeat massed armor. But the possibility of our actually using nuclear weapons against massed military forces is still an essential condition for fielding an improved and adequate conventional capability.

If we pursue them seriously, we can secure options that would lessen our dependence on nuclear weapons and, most important, reduce our reliance on threats whose execution would mean the intended or unintended destruction of large civilian populations.

Donald R. Cotter
Arlington, Virginia



To the Editor:

Albert Wohlstetter’s article is by far the best piece ever done on this subject. But the debate, I believe, is not mostly about foreign policy; foreign policy has become the pursuit of domestic policy by other means.

Aaron Wildavsky
University of California
Berkeley, California



To the Editor:

I was struck by the contrast between the importance of the issues Albert Wohlstetter raises and the way his message has been coming across in the popular debate: it is a sorry comment on the state of public discourse that Mr. Wohlstetter’s position has been so concealed.

A. Lawrence Chickering
Executive Director
Institute for Contemporary Studies
San Francisco, California



To the Editor:

I think Albert Wohlstetter’s article on the bishops and the bomb is absolutely superb. It should be required reading for any participant in this great national debate.

Brent Scowcroft
Bethesda, Maryland



To the Editor:

“Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents” is an absolutely first-rate dissection of the ambiguities and contradictions in the bishops’ statement, as well as a most persuasive delineation of the direction in which we must move in order to bring morality and strategy back together.

Samuel Huntington
Director, Center for International Affairs
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

Albert Wohlstetter’s article is an astonishing intellectual feat—by all odds the best and most original work I have read on the subject (or many others) in a long time.

Eugene V. Rostow
New Haven, Connecticut



Albert Wohlstetter writes:

The letters to the editor, as well as comments on my piece in other journals, both for and against, raise basic issues about the morality and prudence of the Western use of apocalyptic threats, about the changing role of technologies of destruction and technologies of control and discrimination, and about uncertainties in the control of nuclear and non-nuclear conflict. The Western strategic views reflected by the bishops have collapsed into so many incompatible parts that we may at last have reached the point where it is obviously necessary to rebuild.

An apocalyptic view of nuclear war has become orthodox across a wide spectrum of opinion. Publications ranging from National Review on the Right to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Village Voice on the Left, link the use of nuclear weapons to the mass destruction of populations and frequently to the uncontrolled destruction of Western civilization. Harold Brown, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, for example, followed a practice introduced by his predecessor, Robert S. McNamara, when in 1975 he defined “deterrence” as the perceived capability and intention of annihilating a substantial portion of the population and civilian industry of the nation attacking oneself. So do the editors of National Review, who said recently: “Counterpopulation warfare . . . is what deterrence threatens” (emphasis added). Tout court. The Soviets, in a crisis or some future conventional war, might be stopped from using nuclear weapons by the realization that, if they did, they would very likely lose decisively important elements of their ground and tactical air forces and face a possible political disaster. That, however, by this now standard definition, would not be “deterrence.”

Moreover, the apocalyptic character of deterrent threats has been escalating. It seems that to deter we must now literally threaten the end of the world, or at least the end of the northern half of it. Harold Brown, to take a moderate example, believes that a nuclear exchange is likely to have no limits on either side. Desmond Ball is the most prolific source not only for the bishops but for almost everyone else of the view that any nuclear exchange will lead uncontrollably to the direct massive destruction of urban populations. And several studies are in process now, which purport to show that the indirect or global effects of a nuclear war on the atmosphere would be to alter the climate in the entire northern hemisphere long enough to make it uninhabitable. Some of these results were presented at a conference which included many eminent Western and some Soviet scientists held in Sicily last August. A large conference, called “The World After Nuclear War,” sponsored by an impressive list of professional societies, was held at the end of October. And by the time this issue of COMMENTARY appears, a report by the National Academy of Sciences, involving some of the same physicists and experts in the physical chemistry of the atmosphere, should be ready to come off the press. It appears that Jonathan Schell’s hyperbole may be given some appearance of firm scientific support.

These nightmare prospects have led not only to a call for unilateral disarmament by Western counter-establishments, but to some establishment strictures against any actual use of nuclear weapons, even if we continue to threaten their use, and to injunctions against threatening their use, even though we continue to keep them in stock. It has long been clear to many of us that the West needs urgently to improve its conventional forces enough so that we could expect them to defeat non-nuclear threats whenever they endanger critical interests of the alliance. However, that still leaves open the question of what we do in the interim; or even what we would do when we have obtained such forces, if our expectations should be disappointed in an actual conventional conflict and if we should suffer an overwhelming disaster at conventional arms. In fact, proponents of a “no-first-use” pledge never face squarely a somewhat easier but quite central question: if we should defeat by non-nuclear means a Soviet conventional invasion of a NATO country and the Soviets resort to a confined use of nuclear weapons first, how should we respond?

Proponents of a “no-first-use” pledge, like Robert McNamara today, for the most part not only fail to deal with these three questions, they use arguments against first use which would serve equally well to rule out second use. Mr. McNamara, for example, has said recently—to the consternation of our European allies—that nuclear weapons have no military use at all, and that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson shared his view. All such arguments would effectively remove any content to the American guarantee to NATO countries or to Japan that we would respond to a nuclear attack that was confined to an allied country.

Mr. McNamara made Mutual Assured Destruction a formal declaratory policy in the mid-1960’s. It has never been operational policy in the United States. Indeed, it could not be. Not only doesn’t it fit reality, but various of its essential parts don’t fit each other. But while it’s necessary to understand the defects of this frightening doctrine, it’s even more essential to sketch an alternative to it.

It’s hard to resist taking just a few well-aimed smacks at such fierce but hollow defenders of this establishment faith as Theodore Draper, who nowadays appears regularly in the New York Review of Books. However, even rhetorical wars should be limited and discriminate. I agree with Pierre Hassner that on these muddled issues of life and death it is more important to clarify the muddle and suggest persuasive alternatives to mass destruction as deterrent than to score points. And (to answer one of his questions) I do not hold that proponents of the now standard Western threats to destroy population on both sides of the Iron Curtain would prefer to surrender (or, still less, to execute such threats) rather than to deter. It is their way of trying to deter. Harold Brown, for example, who defined “deterrence” in terms of annihilating population, said and meant that the purpose is to prevent attack. Similarly, the editors of National Review say that deterrence threatens counter-population warfare as a means of avoiding it. All this is reckless, in my view, and likely, in some crucial cases, to fail disastrously; but not willfully.

By the same token, proponents of threats of Mutual Assured Destruction should avoid the much more widespread distortion that calls anyone a member of the “war party” who talks of surviving a nuclear war and who believes that you can reliably deter only if you are prepared and willing, if deterrence fails, to fight with at least a rough discrimination that preserves the values we are defending. Charles Krauthammer, in “On Nuclear Morality” in the October COMMENTARY, is more discriminate on this than Leon Wieseltier, his fellow senior editor of the New Republic, in Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace.

The basic question is which of these differing kinds of policy is more likely to avoid a ruinous war. Father Winters begs that question. He, like the bishops’ strategists, assumes that a “war to end all choice” will be made less probable if we restrict our ability to introduce less indiscriminately deadly and less vulnerable weapons, which are also less subject to accidental detonation or unauthorized seizure and use. The freeze would so restrict us. Moreover, he assumes that a policy which rests on an implicit threat to use the more deadly weapons to bring about the uncontrollable destruction of the world is more likely to prevent both deliberate and accidental war.

My own view is that such a bluff of total destruction increases the likelihood of nuclear war by accident or by design. And it increases the devastation such a war could be expected to inflict:

  1. It reduces the basis for deterring a deliberate attack by destroying the credibility that we would respond to any nuclear attack that left all or most of our urban population surviving.
  2. Then to save some small credibility that we would respond to a limited attack even though we thought that doing so would mean universal ruin, it encourages moves toward delegating the responsibility for decision to a computer. Advocates of the MAD distortion of second-strike theory, during the 1969 ABM debate, revived the bad idea of launching our missiles irrevocably on the basis of electromagnetic indications that a Soviet attack might be on the way. They suggested that instead of defending missile sites with ABM’s, we could launch our missiles before enemy missiles arrived. And it was the Carter administration that later advanced “launch-on-warning” as a formal government option.
  3. Advocates of this reckless bluff oppose any attempt to increase our ability to control the devastation done to our adversaries or to ourselves on the grounds that the U.S. might precipitate a war unless it were nearly certain the war would be totally devastating. (On the other hand, they assume that it takes only a small probability of extensive harm to deter the super-cautious other superpower.)
  4. By fostering the notion that even a small probability of a recklessly suicidal Western attack would be enough to deter any enemy use of nuclear weapons, no matter how confined, they justify the acquisition of nuclear strike forces by any small power nominally concerned to deter nuclear attack. (In fact, MAD originated in the mid-1950’s among middle powers in Europe as a justification for the spread of nuclear strike forces even to very small countries.)
  5. MAD doctrine focuses attention on the problem of deterring a wholly rational, “all-out” attack against all of NATO by a very cautious and exclusively defensive Soviet adversary, faced with no desperate alternatives, who needs only to be convinced that we ourselves may be irrationally suicidal. (In so relaxed a circumstance, a zero probability that we would launch a suicidal response might suffice rather than the near-zero probability advocates of MAD think is enough.) MAD theory neglects more likely circumstances of the use of nuclear weapons and much more serious issues: how, for example, to avoid the general holocaust if a politically responsible Soviet authority, facing disaster in a conventional war, should use nuclear weapons in a confined way on the territory of an ally nominally protected by our nuclear guarantee; or how to avoid the holocaust if nuclear weapons are seized and used against us by men without the authority to use them; or if the authority over nuclear weapons should be acquired along with a small nuclear force by an unpredictable leader, like Qaddafi.

Perhaps most damaging, relying on reckless and improbable threats to deter attack, and the concentration of government attention in defense on nuclear arms and arms control, distract us from the important task of getting a sober non-nuclear answer to any of several critical conventional threats.

In short, the immediate foreclosure of choice suggested by proponents of Mutual Assured Destruction seems to me to increase the likelihood of conventional as well as nuclear war and to magnify the probability that the war itself would get out of hand, and grow uncontrollably to the much more extensive foreclosure of future choice that Father Winters fears. And the most plausible danger to our future freedom of choice, by far, would stem from the surrender of military resistance to Communist rule, which Cardinal Krol, in a sermon he gave at the White House in September 1979, held is more acceptable morally than any use of nuclear weapons ever.

I don’t think that the differences between the strategy the bishops advocate and a strategy emphasizing discriminate and proportionate responses can be settled by an appeal to theology or even to philosophy, as Father Winters suggests. Aristotle makes the common-sense point that moral problems have to do with the contingent, with those things that can be affected by choice. (Paul Ramsey and Father Schall understand that very well.) While one expects the entire thrust of the pastoral letter to emphasize moral choice, unfortunately in several key passages the letter relies on physicists who claim that on these matters policy choices are excluded by the laws of physics.

Father Winters is quite right in observing a convergence between my own view and that of the bishops that security policies which rest on intentional targeting of civilians raise cardinal moral issues, with the one qualification that the word “convergence” might suggest erroneously that one or the other of us hasn’t held this all along. That view distinguishes us from Theodore Draper who has said in the New York Review of Books that we should all “bite off our tongues” before uttering the word “morality” when discussing kinds of nuclear conflict. Mr. Draper believes that deterrence must rely on threats whose execution would lead to the annihilation of both sides and possibly universal ruin. He also believes that deterrence in one of its forms relies on the fact that it is highly probable that an adversary’s preparations for a successful first strike would provoke us to get in our own first strike before he had even launched. This notion of launching irreversibly a strike that we think would annihilate ourselves on the basis of an enemy’s logistic preparations and other reversible readying moves is even more extreme than the most reckless proposals for launching on the basis of electromagnetic signals of an adversary attack under way. With views like that, it is easy to understand why Mr. Draper would like discussions of the morality of various nuclear policies silenced, though perhaps less violently.

The pastoral letter condones the continued stocking of nuclear weapons and the deterrent threat implicit in it. But since it holds that destroying populations or threatening to destroy them are both wrong, and that any nuclear war will lead to unlimited destruction, the moral choices facing the bishops seem especially hard, although, I would contend, not much harder than those of the strategists they reflect. Bruce M. Russett believes that I have misstated the message of the pastoral letter in its third and final version. Since the bishops only amplify the difficulties in a view now standard among Western statesmen and strategists, a discussion of their position on the use of threats of mass destruction has a wider interest than any normal explication of texts.



If you believe any nuclear exchange will almost surely destroy Western civil society and even bring on universal ruin, you may say you would respond to a limited nuclear attack, but if you are even moderately thoughtful, you will almost surely not really mean it. Even if you had so awesomely suicidal and homicidal a conditional intention, you would be unlikely, in the event of an adversary’s limited use of nuclear weapons, actually to be willing to reply by ending the world. If your adversary understands that you believe a nuclear reply would be suicidal, he may count on your being unwilling to reply, even if you say you will. But in more recent times, Western elites have ceased even to say it. During the period of détente following the Cuban missile crisis, they came increasingly to say the opposite, with varying degrees of clarity: that nuclear weapons have no use if deterrence fails, and that one may deter but one should not even talk about actually fighting, much less plan to fight.

Statements since the mid-1970’s by the American Catholic bishops are perhaps the most explicit illustration of this trend. In formal testimony representing the American bishops’ organization, the U.S. Catholic Conference, as well as in his sermon at the White House, Cardinal Krol, a member of the conservative wing of the bishops, said bluntly: “Possession, yes. . . . Use, never!” And I believe that this is the substance of the final as well as the two preceding versions of the bishops’ pastoral letter. However, as Donald R. Cotter’s letter stresses, the bishops do not differ substantially from a wide variety of Western statesmen, strategists, and members of the press who for years have chorused in horror whenever a member of any American administration is caught out suggesting that a nuclear war might conceivably be limited. Robert McNamara’s sermon at the White House preceded Cardinal Krol’s. And “use, never” is, after all, the direct meaning of the standard establishment view known as “deterrence only.”

The final pastoral letter rules out the mass destruction of populations, whether that slaughter is intended or unintended but probable (page 15, col. 1 and page 11, col. 3). It also holds that any nuclear exchange will almost surely lead to the unlimited mass destruction of population. (Page 15, col. 2 says that “The chances of keeping use limited seem remote.” Page 16, col. 1 expresses the hope that “leaders will resist the notion that nuclear conflict can be limited [or] contained.” Page 13, col. 3 approves the view that “talk about . . . even surviving a nuclear war must reflect a failure to appreciate medical reality.”) In brief, then, the final letter rules out any use of nuclear weapons, first, second, or ever.

The second draft of the letter spelled out this obvious meaning even more explicitly than the final version. Mr. Russett thinks that’s an important substantive difference. Father Winters, who also consulted with the bishops during the successive formulations of the letter, is more candid. He says that all versions after the first reject not only attacks on cities but “any militarily meaningful use of nuclear weapons.” And William V. O’Brien and James Turner Johnson have been clear about the matter throughout all the drafts.

The political history of the formation of the final text has only a limited interest for those who took no part in it. All four versions had obscurities, some deliberate. Such ambiguities have much less to do with deterring a possible Soviet attack than with keeping the peace among American Catholics of differing political views. The “centimeter of ambiguity” which Father Bryan Hehir, the principal be-getter of the pastoral letter, likes to cite as enough to do the job of nuclear deterrence is a fig leaf covering a rather small area of the nakedness of the “use, never” position. Many conservatives as well as liberals seem grateful for even that tiny fig leaf. But the emperor is naked, as Messrs. O’Brien and Johnson insist.

In my view, the first draft came closest to endorsing a restricted and proportionate use of nuclear weapons in response to a limited nuclear attack and so came closest to facing hard choices. The second draft, because it rejected with the least ambiguity all nuclear weapons, had the greatest value for reflecting and exposing the dangerous bluff that has come increasingly to replace a serious defense policy among political elites in Western Europe as well as in the United States.



The bishops rule out not only massive and indiscriminate destruction but also any threats of such destruction. But the phrase “massive and indiscriminate destruction” doesn’t restrict, as Mr. Russett suggests it does, their condemnation of threats of any use of nuclear weapons, since they think that any nuclear exchange will lead to massive and indiscriminate destruction. Though I cannot agree that every potential use of nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of innocents en masse, I am with the bishops when they condemn threats against innocents. The academics who, in the mid-1960’s, thought it necessary to hold innocent populations as nuclear “hostages,” and thought this harmless because it would never be necessary to execute the terror, might have had second thoughts a few years later when PLO and PFLP terrorists began using innocent airline passengers as hostages, in what they considered a good cause. Preventing World War III is, of course, a great cause we all share. But even so, to threaten universal ruin makes the Palestinian terrorists seem tame. On the major TV networks, on public radio, on literally hundreds of campuses, and in the churches and parish schools the current campaign to conjure up, in grisly detail—as the inevitable outcome of any nuclear war—images of burned children and horribly wounded mothers in the midst of total devastation, terrorizes primarily Western publics. Members of the Politburo, on the other hand, surely do not complain if Westerners fix firmly in their minds the idea that any Western use of nuclear weapons will result in such horrors.

Father Winters, once again, is more candid than Mr. Russett in acknowledging that the bishops condemn threats as well as actual mass destruction. The bishops think the threat involved in the potential use of nuclear weapons can only be indiscriminate, and they condemn such threats. Yet they condone maintaining a stockpile of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Father Winters’s proposed solution to this insoluble dilemma is to say, as he does in his interesting essay, “The Bow or the Cloud?,” that we needn’t threaten; the weapons themselves will threaten. This is an ingenious twist on the old arguments about domestic gun control: that is, that people don’t kill people; weapons kill people. Only Father Winters’s formulation argues for keeping the stock of deadly weapons. While ingenious, the argument seems less than serious, and given the subject matter, even frivolous.

Father Winters argues that the Soviets, being deeply suspicious, won’t believe us even if we say we will never use nuclear weapons. After all, we would not believe that the Soviets would abstain from using nuclear weapons, even if they made a “no-first-use” pledge. This is a particularly good example of Father Winters’s imaginativeness in argument. I am impressed. I agree that it would be a great mistake for us to believe that the Soviets would not use nuclear weapons, simply because they promised not to. However, that is the reason we should make it clear to them that if they use nuclear weapons, we have a non-suicidal response, which would defeat the purpose of their using nuclear weapons. The problem with the declaratory policy Father Winters and so many strategists now propose is that it shapes our posture and plans in a way that would reveal we have nothing but a suicidal response and that we really mean it when we say we will not respond. The behavior of the Soviets, on the other hand, makes rather clear that they intend neither to commit suicide nor to surrender the use of nuclear weapons, if the alternatives during a conventional war should look even worse.



I have said that the behavior of the Soviets in the past demonstrates that they value military power at least as much as they prize Soviet bystanders, and, therefore, that the prospect of losing key elements of their military power should deter their use of nuclear weapons at least as well as threats against their civilians. And the fact that they have frequently increased their military power at the expense of civilian lives suggests that centering on their military power may be an even better way to deter. My view contrasts with the now familiar one expressed, for example, by the editors of National Review, which I quoted earlier, that “counterpopulation warfare . . . is what deterrence threatens,” by definition. On the other hand (to answer another of Mr. Hassner’s questions), my view is not the opposite extreme of the familiar definition of deterrence. It does not imply that the Soviets place no value on their own citizens, even if they are not useful in war. Even if the Soviets attack our civil society, I believe that we can and should bring the war to an end most rapidly by concentrating on enemy military power. First, that will most directly interfere with his conduct of the war; second, it is a good intra-war deterrent; and third, other things being equal, we have no desire to destroy Soviet subjects, many of whom are potential allies, and in any case, do us no harm.

These last points, I recognize, call for a most drastic change in outlook. Nonetheless I think simple prudence may recommend it. In the Battle of Britain, Hitler erred when he switched to bombing British civilians from bombing fighter production and key elements of fighter command. If he had not, the battle might conceivably have gone the other way.

But Mr. Hassner is obviously right when he suggests that it is important to clarify and elaborate the differences between my own views of the feasibility of controlling unintended harm, and those associated with the use of threats of mass destruction as deterrent. The latter views are so widespread that most readers find it hard to understand any other.

The New York Review of Books again offers some choice examples: George Ball and, once again, Theodore Draper. I think it feasible and urgent to improve our capabilities for discrimination and control in both nuclear and non-nuclear war and to place some gross limits on the destruction of innocent bystanders. George Ball, who believes that any nuclear exchange of military significance will lead to unlimited destruction, concludes that I must think that a nuclear war directed at military targets would be “neat [and] well-mannered.” Theodore Draper, at his surliest, suggests that I think a nuclear war would be like ping-pong. Like Mr. Ball, Mr. Draper, who has said justly that Jonathan Schell’s mind operates only between extremes, cannot himself conceive of any use of nuclear weapons in between a neat well-mannered game of ping-pong and total mutual annihilation. They both believe that we have no alternative if we are faced with the need to respond to a limited nuclear attack other than to say, “Whee!” and let all the nuclear weapons go. Or do nothing at all. What Messrs. Ball and Draper conceal beneath their bluster about the impossibility of a neatness comparable to table tennis is that they are against trying even roughly to confine a nuclear conflict and to limit damage to bystanders on both sides.

I have never been in the slightest bit unclear about the slaughter involved in war, even a non-nuclear war. In my paper, “Alternatives to Mass Destruction,” for Pacem in Terris II, I said, in brief, “war will in any case be terrible.” That is not a good reason, however, for making the disaster complete and universal.

War would be terrible, even if we were able to confine the destruction effectively to military targets and to combatants. Slaughter on the beaches of Normandy or in the trenches of World War I was centered on men at arms. But even the direct and immediate harm in a conventional war was never neatly limited to combatants. What is more, there is aways the possibility that the violence of a conflict will mount in chain to higher levels than originally intended. That cannot, however, excuse the failure to try to control the mounting violence; nor does it excuse the abandonment of any serious attempt to discriminate between soldiers and innocent bystanders.

Moreover, there is an enormous difference (about three orders of magnitude) between the area that the grossly inaccurate ballistic missiles of the late 1950’s would have destroyed and the area of destruction that would be subjected to blast damage by a cruise missile of today with mid-course guidance and a small nuclear warhead. (Many scientists and soldiers changed their view of the choices possible in nuclear war late in the 1950’s when the expected accuracies for the coming ICBM’s and SLBM’s were at their worst.) And, as I have stressed, there is an enormous difference of even greater importance between the area of destruction by a cruise missile with mid-course guidance and a small nuclear warhead and the area that would be destroyed unintentionally by a cruise missile with autonomous terminal homing and a non-nuclear warhead suited to the military target attacked.

According to Mr. Draper, it is “insidious to urge that one type of nuclear war is immoral, but that another . . . is more morally acceptable.” It didn’t seem that way to opponents of the H-bomb when they supported a large expansion of fission weapons for use against military targets in the early 1950’s, because they thought that H-bombs were so indiscriminately destructive that they could only be used against cities. And the liberal community that supports nuclear threats against cities today has had a remarkable amnesia about its decade-long struggle to protect civilians and to shift nuclear weapons to military targets. It is ironic that now, when such a shift is more feasible than ever, it should be regarded as “insidious.”

On the other hand, even accurately delivered, small nuclear weapons will by no means make nuclear war, as Mr. Draper suggests in tones of horror, “even more precise and discriminating” than “any other kind of war.” Most obviously, it will be vastly more indiscriminate than a war conducted with the extremely precise conventional weapons now feasible. A thousandth of a square mile subject to destruction by such a “conventional” weapon contrasts with an area three orders of magnitude larger that might be destroyed by a small, relatively accurate nuclear weapon.

The contrast, of course, is not merely in the direct damage done, but in the ability to keep the chain of violence under political control.

New ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads can substitute for nuclear weapons in a variety of important missions. They will permit the raising of the threshold beyond which we might resort to nuclear weapons. However, they cannot completely replace nuclear weapons. For example, as an answer to an adversary’s restricted use of nuclear weapons, we clearly need the ability to make a proportionate nuclear response. Moreover, as Mr. Cotter’s letter mentions, if we have the capability of using nuclear weapons ourselves in a restricted, non-suicidal way, this can force an adversary to disperse his own military force in a conventional war in a way that makes it much easier to exploit our own improved conventional capabilities.

I suspect Mr. Hassner was only acting as devil’s advocate when he anticipated some of Mr. Draper’s arguments. But it was useful. There should be little doubt about the revolutionary strategic importance of the new technologies that permit the precise, effective, and discriminate delivery of long-range attacks on military targets with non-nuclear weapons. The implications of this revolution are only beginning to be grasped. The synonyms we use for “non-nuclear” as distinct from “nuclear” tend to obscure the revolutionary nature of the change—words like “conventional” or, in France, “classical,” or even, in the words of the current French Minister of Defense, “archaic.”

The change is not only by comparison with nuclear weapons. The contrast is almost as great between these new “conventional” weapons and the wildly imprecise conventional weapons that forced the British in 1940 to turn to saturation bombing of cities at night. And the new “conventional” missiles contrast even more obviously with the German V-l and V-2 missiles of World War II.

The revolutionary change is obscured perhaps even more by the blurring of distinctions between effectiveness in destroying military targets and the massive destruction, even if unintended, of nearby civilian targets. Even before nuclear weapons were produced in order to compensate for the gross inaccuracy of our delivery system, saturation bombing with conventional weapons had largely obliterated the distinction between the strategic bombing of military targets and the destruction of civil society as a whole. Such extreme inaccuracy made infeasible the systematic application of the “dual criterion” whose importance Mr. Cotter stresses: it made it hard to destroy military targets and at the same time preserve civil society intact. Hard, in other words, to fight a war without destroying the values we are trying to defend. Even with revolutionary technical advances, that will never be easy. But it is absurd to talk—in the way now standard, for example, in the freeze movement—as if any improvement in weaponry increases the weapons’ mass destructiveness. In fact, there seems to be an odd coalition, including some on the Left as well as on the Right, forming to block these new non-nuclear technologies. We are hearing a good deal lately about the costs and horrors of non-nuclear war.



Conservatives have often tended to argue against the anti-nuclear activists that if they think nuclear weapons are bad, they should realize that conventional weapons are almost as bad and maybe even worse. The anti-nuclear movement, which is usually anti-war in general, likes that particular conservative line of argument. Nonetheless, major figures in the wing of the Western establishment that opposes unilateral disarmament continue to use this argument and even to conjure up visions of greater horrors to come because conventional weapons are being “modernized.” And on the unilateralist Left, members of a recent Pugwash conference and Michael Klare, of the radical-Left Institute for Policy Studies, have been spreading the alarm about the dangers of this “near-nuclear” modern conventional weaponry.

West Germany’s Foreign Minister, speaking for the German middle, said recently, “We must reiterate our warning time and again against underrating the dangers of a conventional war, a war waged without nuclear weapons. Given the technological developments, such a war would be a thousand times more horrible than World War II.” Since World War II killed some 50 million people, that suggests a new conventional war will destroy 50 billion. Rather difficult to manage, given the earth’s present population. Even Michael Novak, whose courageous challenge to the unilateralism of the pastoral letter has been a major contribution to the debate, has sometimes fallen into this trap. He says, in Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: “Even should the specter of nuclear war be lifted at last from the human race, we recognize the horrors of modern conventional warfare. The power and terrible accuracy of rocket-driven conventional arms, launched at great distances, became visible during the last days of World War II. These horrors have been magnified since. . . .”

On one meaning of the phrase “terrible accuracy,” it would seem that the accuracy of the V-2 was terribly good; on another, that it was terribly bad. The passage is worth clarifying since it suggests some of the standard mix-ups about the implications of improvements in accuracy. It seems to say that the accuracy of Hitler’s V-2 was terribly good, and that advances in precision since have increased the horrors, that is, increased the likelihood of indiscriminate destruction. However, the first V-2 was extremely inaccurate. It was essentially un-guided. It had a median radius of error of eleven miles at a range of 200 miles. This is to say, half of a great many shots would fall outside a circle of a 380-square-mile area.

Second, the V-2’s inaccuracy was the basic reason that it could be used only as a terror weapon against population. It would have taken in-feasibly large numbers of V-2’s to have even a small probability of destroying a moderately hard small military target. As the letter “V” suggests, Hitler used it as a purely vengeance weapon which he revived in reaction to the British area-bombing of Luebeck. Even then, of 230 rockets reaching the United Kingdom by the end of 1944, only 17 came within three miles of Charing Cross.

Third, the current accuracy of rockets without terminal guidance, even at intercontinental range, is about two orders of magnitude better than that of the V-2 at 200 miles. And the Pershing 2, which is a medium-range rocket, has an accuracy which is an order of magnitude better than that of our current ICBM’s. That will permit it to use a non-nuclear warhead with kinetic-energy penetrators effectively against airfields with collateral damage that is extremely small by comparison with that done by a small nuclear weapon; or by the V-2 if the V-2 had been used in large enough numbers to be effective against a military target.

When proponents of a freeze talk indiscriminately about the “increased destructiveness” of new weapons, they frequently imply that improvements in accuracy that increase our ability to destroy a military target will thereby also increase the collateral damage, the “mass destruction.” (They would freeze new conventionally-armed cruise missiles because they might carry a nuclear warhead instead.) Senator Claiborne Pell of the Foreign Relations Committee illustrated the confusion splendidly in the recent debate on the “build-down” which would allow the introduction of modern weapons and the simultaneous withdrawal of several older weapons. According to Senator Pell, that was much worse than a freeze precisely because it would permit the introduction of new weapons and therefore would increase mass destruction. In fact, the confusion on the subject of qualitative and quantitative “arms races” in debates on arms control is nearly total.



Willy Brandt illustrated a related confusion nicely in a dramatic speech to a crowd of 400,000 in Bonn, protesting this past October against the deployment of the Pershing-2 missiles—which his party had earlier requested the United States to install: “We don’t need more means for mass destruction. We need less.” But the Pershing 2 will reduce both the numbers and mass destructiveness of the Pershing 1 it will replace. It will replace only the number of Pershing 1’s on launchers, not the substantial number of Pershing-1 reloads. The Pershing 2 is much more discriminate because it is more accurate and it enables a choice of nuclear yields, including a low yield that is much smaller than the yield of the Pershing-1 warhead. NATO gets no credit for that. Nor for the 1,000 nuclear warheads it has already removed from Europe. Nor will it for the additional 1,400 short-range nuclear warheads it is now scheduled to take out. The stereotypes about arms races and escalating nuclear arsenals are immune to fact.

My article did not deal extensively enough with the ways in which the bishops’ references to the continuing arms race and the escalating nuclear arsensals of the two superpowers reflect the standard looseness and error on this subject. I mentioned in passing that the bishops, like almost everyone else, persist in talking about the steady accumulation of nuclear weapons by both superpowers and the increasing, indiscriminate destructiveness of their stockpiles, and I noted that, at the very least, such statements show a certain lack of seriousness. What they have failed to observe is that the American stock of nuclear weapons has been declining for fifteen years. It actually peaked in 1967—at a level one-third higher than the current levels. The number of megatons in the stockpile (which is most relevant for measuring indiscriminate mass destruction and especially for the apocalyptic global effects that are now so prominent in the debate) reached its highest level twenty-three years ago, in 1960. The number of megatons in our stockpile then was four times as high as now. The average destructive energy per weapon started to decline even earlier, in 1957. Then it was ten times as high as now.

Mr. Russett doubts the reduction in the number of nuclear “weapons” and believes that my wording was “too loose” to be meaningful. He is interested in strategic weapons. Mr. Russett, I’m afraid, mistakes inclusiveness for imprecision. My words had an exact and obvious meaning. They meant all the nuclear weapons in our stockpile, including not only strategic-offense and defense warheads but fleet-defense weapons and all the main categories of tactical weapons. That total has gone down, not up. This most comprehensive total seems appropriate since the bishops are concerned about the possibility of nuclear war in overseas theaters and not only intercontinental war. Proponents of the freeze, similarly, are talking about freezing all nuclear weapons.

In the early 1970’s, when it was fashionable to talk only about the “strategic arms race,” to introduce a little reality into the discussion I published detailed figures on, among other things, strategic spending, the number of strategic vehicles, and the strategic stockpile. I succeeded in getting figures for the strategic stockpile as a whole, and for various subcategories of it, released in index form. Unfortunately, most of the talk about arms races and about “increasingly destructive” and “ever-increasing” nuclear stockpiles ignores these figures, which have been available for nearly a decade now, not to say those that have become available more recently. Discussion of the arms race continues to proceed in great confusion and ignorance of the facts.

Mr. Russett’s own recent book, Prisoners of Insecurity, characteristically identifies the “strategic arsenal” with the stockpile of strategic-offense weapons—even though current arms-race dogma takes strategic defense as particularly malign. He doesn’t notice, therefore, the drastic decline in the strategic-defense part of the strategic-weapons arsenal which offsets increases in the offense. But confusion is very widespread. Mr. McNamara, whom I had always thought very good at numbers, recently has confounded the number of strategic-offense weapons with the number of all-nuclear weapons; and also, in talking of 17,000 new additions to the total nuclear stockpile, has confused these with net additions to the stockpile. He cited a New York Times article by Judith Miller, reporting long-term projections that might add 17,000 new weapons. Miss Miller had made it clear, however, that these projected additions would be offset by the withdrawal of older weapons. Dr. Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has completed the confusion. She not only describes these 17,000 weapons as a net addition, but thinks that they are all strategic weapons, and weapons in the megaton range. In any case, such long-term projections, even if correctly identified, are not firm commitments but only wish lists. And, in the period beginning in 1967, we were withdrawing about twice as many nuclear weapons as we added.

In general, discussions of the supposedly growing nuclear stockpiles and discussions of a quite hypothetical arms race have been deplorably loose, misinformed, and misleading. I have for many years believed that we can drastically further reduce our stockpiles both in number and in destructiveness if we pursue innovations in accuracy and discriminateness and related technologies more energetically. However, most discussions of both nuclear arms and nuclear spending have had almost no relation to actual history. They have, instead, rationalized unilateral restraints on Western arms spending and Western innovation. Meanwhile, the Soviets have continued to build their military force and to improve it qualitatively.



The second-strike theory of deterrence in its origins in the early and mid-1950’s placed risks and uncertainties at its center. It recognized that risk was ineradicable and that every decision meant a choice among risks. First of all, the design and operation of a strategic force had to compromise the likelihood that we could survive and respond to a deliberate nuclear attack with the need to reduce the risk that we would launch an attack irreversibly in response to a false alarm, or that we would increase excessively the risks of nuclear accidents or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. That was the reason that so much attention was given to command and control and to the development of low-cost, repeatable responses to ambiguous signals that did not commit us to war, as in the case of various degrees of ground alert and fail-safe operation of bombers. There is no great trick in deterring deliberate attack, if one is willing to be sufficiently irresponsible about accidental or mistaken war. And vice versa. (A proper concern for Murphy’s law should affect both the design of responses to initial attack or to ambiguous signs of attack and also the strategy for conduct of a war.) That this matter is not well-understood today is illustrated by frequent blithe remarks about the great stability of the balance of terror in combination with ominous statements that the chance of our nuclear forces or the enemy’s being used by “accident” increases year by year. A genuinely stable deterrent requires dealing with both sorts of risks.

Second, the second-strike theory recognized that the risks that would suffice to deter an adversary would depend not only on the absolute amount of damage we threatened, but on the probability that we would actually inflict the harm we threatened, which in turn had something to do with the risks we would face in responding to attack, that is, the damage we would expect to suffer. Moreover, we want especially to deter an adversary in the dangerous circumstances which are the most likely ones to impel him to resort to nuclear weapons. Our adversary might have embroiled himself in a conventional war with one or more of our allies in a place critical for both of us, and he might, if our conventional defense has been effective or lucky, find himself facing a politically disastrous defeat at conventional arms. Our ability to deter his use of nuclear weapons then will depend on whether we can make that alternative appear more dangerous to him than accepting the likelihood of defeat at the conventional level.

Our adversary then also must choose among risks. Criteria for deterrence like the later notion of “unacceptable damage” unfortunately suggest that there is some level of damage—say 20 percent to 25 percent of his population killed—which in an absolute sense is quite acceptable to him and that threatening a higher level of damage than that will invariably deter him. This later notion had some role as a bargaining device in the battle between the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it has very little to do with the serious problem of deterrence. There is no great trick in deterring the Soviets from using nuclear weapons when there is little or no serious and immediate danger to them, if they do not use them. The authors of the second-strike theory never supposed that the Soviets were straining at the leash to start a nuclear war. They did believe, and still do, that Soviet predispositions might lead them to seize an opportunity for expansion in some part of the world that is unstable and vulnerable, yet critical for the West, and that, at some future date, we or our allies might be embroiled in a conventional conflict. And the course of that conflict could generate incentives for the Soviets to use nuclear weapons, most likely in ways appropriate to decide that conflict. That is when we would need our deterrent most. We might also be confronted with a decision of how to respond if our adversary actually did use nuclear weapons in the theater or in some restricted way against the sources of our support and of reinforcement of operations in the theater.

In all of these varied circumstances of the possible initiation of the use of nuclear weapons, the response to that use and the continuing conduct of a war to bring it to an end, both sides have enormous incentives to control the risks. And both sides are likely increasingly to exploit the new technologies of precision and control. The greatest weakness of exponents of the theory that we must threaten mutual annihiliation in order to deter, and that that is all that we have to do, is the failure to consider the risks, incentives, and uncertainties in the potential use of nuclear weapons in the most plausible concrete contingencies and the failure to consider the uncertainties and the strong incentives for controlling the risks. They consider almost exclusively question-begging extremes.

There are many plausible but false stereotypes about deterrence that are common even among sensible statesmen and strategists who reject basing our policy on threats of Mutual Assured Destruction. The familiar saying that uncertainty is the essence of deterrence could mean that any finite chance, no matter how small, that we would respond would be enough to deter the Soviet Union in any plausible circumstance. Or it might even mean that the more uncertainty the better, which would seem to have the far-fetched meaning that the smaller the probability that we would respond, the more likely we are to deter aggression. But at the very least it generally means that all that really counts is the enormous magnitude of the disaster promised, and so long as one’s adversary cannot be absolutely sure that we won’t inflict this disaster, he will never take the chance of using nuclear weapons. And he never can be sure that we won’t be crazy enough to bring on that disaster, even though we know it would engulf us too. Not being crazy himself, therefore, he will be deterred.

This well-worn course of reasoning can be persuasive only if one sticks to abstractions and extremes and never considers the concrete contingencies in which an adversary might have incentives to use nuclear weapons because all alternatives confronting him look even more chancy. Then the fact that we are promising to end the world may look so outrageous that he will take his chances on our maintaining a modicum of sanity. In fact, there is recent statistical evidence and a long body of experience in the common law which suggest that deterrence of crime depends critically on the degree of certainty with which the crime will be punished, rather than merely on the magnitude of the penalty. The severity of the penalty can even work in reverse. It can increase the crime rate by making punishment less likely. In 18th-century England, Parliament had declared no fewer than 160 offenses to be punishable by death. “So dreadful a list,” Blackstone wrote, “instead of diminishing, increases the number of offenders, because the injured party, through compassion, sometimes forbears to prosecute; or juries for the same reason acquit the accused or mitigate the nature of the offense; or judges likewise recommend mercy.”

Now picture what the case might be if all the parties concerned in shaping the decision to hang the criminal—the victims, the prosecutor, the jury, the judge—recognized that if hanging were the verdict, they too would be hanged, along with their families and closest friends. And, in fact, so would just about everybody else. It would clear their minds considerably. Threats to bring down the world along with one’s enemy need a lot of rethinking.

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