The Second Coming of the Nuclear Age

Fred Charles Ikle. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 1, January/February 1996.

A Plan to Control the Atomic Menace

Half a century after it began, the nuclear drama has reached the conclusion of its first act—a rather happy ending in spite of the gloomy prospects for civilization that darkened the stage at the outset. This respite, though, is not a lasting redemption from the dangers of nuclear warfare. Whether by accident, because of a terrorist act, or as part of a military campaign, a nuclear bomb might explode someday, unleashing forces that would transform the international system far more profoundly than did the collapse of the Soviet empire. The end of the present era, in which nuclear weapons are plentiful but never used, would be sudden, and the major nuclear powers are ill prepared for the revolution in strategic thinking this event would compel.

Fifty years ago the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an immense emotional impact. The long period of nonuse that followed has shriveled public awareness of the bomb’s power to merely a faint apprehension. Just one or two destructive nuclear detonations would revive that anxiety everywhere, and Americans would find it much harder to cope with these reawakened passions than in August 1945. After their great victory in World War II, Americans rode a wave of optimism and were comforted by the knowledge that, at least for a while, no other state possessed atomic technology. Unlike after a future nuclear explosion, in 1945 there were no threats of nuclear revenge, no arsenals with thousands of nuclear warheads, no nuclear “guarantees” that had abruptly disintegrated, no disproved theories of deterrence, no failed safeguards and controls. Above all, there was no worldwide presumption of continued non-use that had unexpectedly been shattered. Before such a calamity occurs, the United States must lead the great powers in planning for the international control of nuclear weapons.

Used to Non-use

The nuclear threat appears to have faded only because no nuclear bomb has been detonated in the past 50 years, except at secluded test sites. And for the last 30 years most tests have been hidden events, tucked away deep underground. The atmosphere after Hiroshima was quite different. In an internal government memorandum from the fall of 1945, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson—that hard-nosed realist—described the innovation of atomic weaponry as “a discovery more revolutionary in human society than the invention of the wheel.” He added, “If the invention is developed and used destructively, there will be no victor, and there may be no civilization remaining.” Today, a tough-minded senior U.S. official would deem this prose mawkish. But if warnings from men like Acheson, “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, and financier Bernard Baruch (appointed American ambassador to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission in 1946) at the dawn of the nuclear age sound like hyperbole today, it is not because nuclear arms have become less dangerous, but rather because we have grown accustomed to their non-use.

Following Japan’s surrender, some strategic thinkers in the United States began to explore whether self-interest could be enlisted to keep belligerents from using atomic weapons. U.S. military and civilian leaders, however, were not willing to base their strategy on the assumption of non-use. In the late 1940s leading urban planners and journalists even recommended the dispersal of large populations to reduce the ruinous effects of a single bomb, and for 15 years after that the U.S. government promoted the construction of fallout shelters as well as other civil defense measures. In the 1950s, to provide its military forces with a more accessible nuclear capability, the United States developed “tactical” nuclear weapons and deployed thousands of them abroad. Despite private reservations, President Eisenhower, his secretaries of state and defense, and the most senior officers in the armed services repeatedly asserted that nuclear weapons had achieved the status of conventional weapons and would be put to military use.

Within a decade, however, U. S. leaders would no longer consider dropping nuclear bombs on conventionally armed enemies. In 1971 President Nixon rebuffed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that U.S. airpower in Indochina “might include the use of tactical nuclear weapons.” No public outcry demanded that he order or even threaten the use of such weapons in the long and costly Vietnam conflict, the first war that the United States would lose. And one year later the West greeted the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with acclaim because it expected that denying missile defenses to the two superpowers would ensure non-use.

Although experts continued to study the medical, economic, and climatic consequences of various levels of nuclear warfare, U.S. and Soviet strategic planners focused on the so-called “exchange,” a surprise nuclear attack that would promptly be followed by an equally powerful retaliatory strike. Given this scenario of mutual destruction, responsible planners had to assume non-use. Many even came to see nuclear armaments as the ultimate guardian of world peace. Years before the end of the Cold War, this principle thus became the guiding compass for nuclear strategy as well as for force structure.

As leaders grew increasingly confident that nuclear weapons would remain unused, even NATO’S first-use doctrine, which planned nuclear strikes to halt a large conventional attack on Western Europe by the Warsaw Pact, became hollow. Until the end of the Cold War, NATO repeatedly conducted war games intended to practice first use. But the games did not test first use or, for that matter, second use; they confirmed non-use. When the exercises progressed to the point of first use, they were invariably terminated instantly. At the edge of the nuclear abyss, the war vanished like a bad dream.

Undeterred by Deterrence

When officials and academics pay attention to nuclear arms nowadays, they focus almost exclusively on two problems: the proliferation of nuclear capability and the risk of the theft or accidental detonation of Russia’s thousands of nuclear warheads. From their perspective, proliferation—although advertised as the greatest menace of the decade—is a problem limited to rogue states, smallish rascal nations in the slums of global society. The conventional wisdom asserts that the major powers have learned how to live with the bomb. In contrast to the Armageddon scenarios in vogue during the Cold War, current speculations about nuclear use often take for granted that the calamity would remain confined to the margins of the world order. As the pygmies try to stir up nuclear chaos, the giants stay aloof on their Olympian heights of thousands of nuclear weapons; at most they launch a thunderbolt to restore order below.

Such a vista may give hope to the United States and the other major nuclear powers, suggesting that the dangers of proliferation could be contained by cordoning off a nuclear incident. It assumes that on “the day after,” the strategic relationships linking Russia, the United States, and China (and, should they still matter, France and Great Britain) could remain unchanged and that the major powers could reaffirm by word and deed that, regardless of nuclear use by rogue states, they would preserve the order of mutual deterrence and enduring non-use among themselves. But a local war involving nuclear weapons could not be quarantined, and the end of non-use would have severe political and psychological repercussions throughout the world.

History does not offer much assurance on the workings of deterrence. In 1955 Winston Churchill explained the essentials of the West’s Cold War deterrence strategy in his last great speech before the House of Commons. He endorsed the “belief,” as he called it, “that, but for American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status and the Iron Curtain would have reached the Atlantic and the Channel.” Documents from Moscow’s archives show, however, that America’s nuclear superiority did not deter Stalin from continuing to provide substantial Soviet support for North Korea long after U.S. forces had become fully engaged in the Korean War. Deterrence, dependent on a credible nuclear threat, was undermined by America’s preference for non-use, and throughout the Cold War, the priority of non-use governed the U. S. response to aggression. This priority held for North Korea’s attack on South Korea, for China’s entry into that war, and during every stage of the Vietnam conflict. Indeed, in planning for the feared Warsaw Pact assault on NATO—the most plausible casus belli for nuclear war the—United States wedged the doctrine of flexible response into NATO strategy to give nonuse a second chance.

During the Cold War, a constant tension persisted between nuclear deterrence and the preservation of non-use. While these two goals were at first clearly separated by an us-versus-them bipolarity (deter them from aggression, not us; prevent nuclear attack against us, not them), they became increasingly entangled over time. Deterrence came to be seen as guaranteeing non-use, and continued non-use as proof of successful deterrence. Now that the bipolar order of the Cold War has crumbled, non-use and deterrence will no longer sustain each other. However, non-use is the sturdier of the two. The success of nuclear deterrence is an interpretation of recent history; non-use since 1945 is an indisputable historical fact. Deterrence is theoretical; non-use is concrete and unambiguous. Faith in non-use made it easy for both hawks and doves to place their confidence in deterrence.

The strategic order among the major nuclear powers is fragile precisely because it rests so heavily on beliefs and untested theories. As soon as these beliefs are confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary, the strategic order will start to break up. A nuclear detonation that resulted from an accidental missile launch or a malfunctioning command chain would force national leaders to promise a fundamental change in policy. “Ready” and “robust” deterrent forces would no longer suffice as the answer to the dangers of the new nuclear age.

Legacies of the Cold War

The demise of the Soviet empire ought to have made it easier to develop strategies that would complement or, where necessary, substitute for deterrence. Yet the weapons arsenals and intellectual mindset that constitute the Cold War’s enormous detritus have obstructed the search for new policies. The Russian military in particular lacks the resources to adjust its huge stockpiles to the new political environment and is too distracted and disorganized to offer innovative strategies. In the United States, France, and Great Britain, officials who seek to bring strategic concepts and doctrine up to date are confronted by the fact that any major modernization would entail a costly and time-consuming revision of forces and weapons systems. And new ideas that do emerge for adapting Cold War operational procedures and forces are likely to be rejected as conflicting with current doctrine.

For example, the budgets for offensive nuclear forces and those for all defensive measures indicate that the major nuclear powers now allocate about a hundred times as much to deterrence as to the prevention or mitigation of a catastrophic accident or human error. Though hidden from public scrutiny, the same imbalance exists—and is far more dangerous—in the tradeoffs military planners make between enhancing deterrence and reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war. While they have switched off wartime targeting and taken some missile forces off alert, Russian strategists continue to keep part of their forces on a hair-trigger posture to enhance deterrence against an implausible U.S. surprise attack. U.S. military leaders likewise keep some of their forces on continuous alert, feeding the arguments of Russian planners that their missiles must be ready for launch at a moment’s notice. Unless addressed this skewed cosmic gamble will persist for years, placing nearly all bets on deterrence, with little insurance against human folly.

Another case in point is the huge number of missiles both powers still retain. Russian defense officials are reluctant to endorse the cuts in their missile forces that they would have to implement upon ratification of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Russia and the United States signed in 1993. After a year long study dedicated to the question of its nuclear strategy and forces for the coming decades, the Pentagon concluded that the United States should continue to purchase new missiles to replace those constructed during the Cold War and should not commit itself to reductions beyond START II. A “requirement” of 3,500 strategic warheads, based largely on the Cold War calculus of an annihilating second strike after a surprise attack, emerged from the review.

Let us imagine the inherited arsenals did not exist. Would Russian defense planners now argue that Russia must build and deploy a missile force to hurl thousands of nuclear weapons at the United States? Would the U.S. secretary of defense testify before Congress that the United States must purchase 3,500 strategic warheads to threaten the destruction of Russia?

The theory of strategic stability that underpinned the Pentagon review is also part of the Cold War legacy. Its centerpiece, the ABM treaty, was designed for the Brezhnev-Nixon era when the military confrontation in the European theater still dominated nuclear strategy. Incongruously, at their summit meeting last May, President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin issued a joint statement asserting that the treaty was “the cornerstone of strategic stability.” Their statement allows the two countries to deploy theater missile defenses (presumably against the rogue states), but, it adds anxiously, these defenses “will not be deployed by the sides for use against each other.” Evidently in this new era of American-Russian cooperation, both sides are permitted offensive missiles for mutual annihilation but not defenses against an accidental launch.

The three other countries whose nuclear status the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty sanctions also cling to the ABM treaty, even though they are not parties to it. London and Paris want the treaty to remain in force so that their missiles can always, without hindrance, destroy Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other targets in Russia. Beijing has admonished Washington and Moscow not to weaken the treaty, presumably to guarantee Chinese military planners an open freeway for their missiles to inflict nuclear destruction on California or the Russian heartland. Perhaps a nuclear-armed North Korea or some other aficionado of strategic stability will soon claim an entitlement under the ABM treaty to unobstructed flight paths for its missiles.

Those who see the ABM and START treaties as the cornerstone of nuclear security cannot have thought far ahead. The cat’s cradle of deterrence relationships among the five great nuclear powers cannot remain stable. Within 30 years China may reach nuclear parity with the United States. Should Beijing and Moscow then conclude a military pact, the Pentagon’s warhead requirement would double. Yet if the United States were to anticipate this development by augmenting its nuclear forces and abrogating the START treaties, it would unhinge the very relationships it aimed to stabilize. If they wish to capitalize on the opportunities the end of the Cold War has offered and usher in an era of increased safety, the major powers must jettison their old strategic suppositions and consider new approaches.

Preparing for the Third Act

Although the United States developed the atomic bomb for use in World War II, as soon as the war ended this historically unique weapons technology was enslaved by an equally unique context and remained captive for four decades. This context—a world split into two realms locked in irreconcilable ideological, political, and military conflict—shaped, or rather warped, American strategies for coping with weapons of mass destruction. With the Cold War now over, the drama of the nuclear age has entered a more volatile second act. While one cannot yet predict when this act will end, or whether it will conclude peacefully or with the destructive use of nuclear weapons, one can readily recognize that it is transitory.

Good fortune guided the world past all potential infernos during the first act. Neither Hitler nor Stalin gained a dominant head start in building atomic bombs. The Kremlin was never led by a lunatic nuclear gambler. And as technologies for these weapons began to escape meaningful international controls, the Cold War competition ended. Finally, despite the several accidents and mistakes that could have sparked a large-scale nuclear war (and whose horrid details are still largely shrouded in secrecy), the superpowers always stopped just short of the abyss. At each of these fateful moments, the world escaped nuclear holocaust—seemingly by accident.

Having safely traveled this far, however, the world still teeters at the edge of the precipice. But the collapse of the Soviet empire has opened a window of opportunity that offers a second chance. Can the United States guide this transformation, or will hostile forces and fate determine the future? Throughout the Cold War the United States was the intellectual leader in the development of nuclear strategies and arms control regimes. European strategists collaborated constructively in this effort, and with a 10-to 20-year lag, nuclear experts in Moscow by and large also subscribed to America’s strategic theories, even before the demise of the Soviet Union. Since the invention of the atomic bomb, political leaders have understood that in times of both war and peace sovereign nations must accommodate the existence of weapons of mass destruction and modify their roles accordingly. This fact of international life was stressed by statesmen at a time when these weapons still had a strong emotional resonance, and every president from Truman to Reagan affirmed it. By exerting sustained leadership, the United States can—again with some good luck -organize a project that would succeed where the Baruch and Acheson-Lilienthal plans of 1946, which sought to establish an international authority that would exert worldwide control over the entire field of atomic energy, were destined to fail.

Half a century and some 50,000 nuclear weapons later, this new project could obviously neither prevent the production of nuclear arms in every country, nor abolish existing arsenals. Its goal would be to establish sufficient control over the use of weapons of mass destruction so that open societies could continue to flourish. Democracy cannot survive in a highly uncertain world in which a smuggled nuclear bomb might be detonated in Paris or Manhattan and in which such calamities might reoccur. A scheme to preserve the tradition of non-use is not a small matter. A place to start, indeed a necessary beginning, would be a consensus among the five major nuclear powers against first use, except in response to an attack involving other weapons of mass destruction. The principal nuclear powers must also prepare a coordinated response to penalize first use and prevent repetition by destroying the nuclear capabilities of violators.

Unfortunately, in the absence of the emotional shock destructive nuclear detonations would generate, it seems highly unlikely that such a project will be implemented. The current nuclear powers remain entrenched in Cold War modes of thought, and the Russian military views nuclear weapons as an inexpensive way to defend its country’s borders. But the largest powers, particularly the United States, must realize that even the best offensive and defensive weapons systems will not provide adequate protection in the new nuclear age.

Rather than make rash decisions in the wake of the first post-World War II nuclear calamity, the United States should at least think through how best to respond, and prepare some helpful measures beforehand. A nuclear blast would show the vaunted deterrent to be incapable of preventing massive destruction at home; it could undermine democratic governments and demoralize military services. As divided and unprepared democratic forces fumbled for a plan of action, demagogues might rush forward, convincingly promising protection. If the era of non-use should end violently, many countries might freely choose dictatorship to preserve order and survive. Conversely, the principal powers might adopt an ill-conceived scheme for world government that would either degenerate into global tyranny or—far more likely—prove totally ineffective.

Any serious international regulation of nuclear weapons is bound to entail troublesome incursions that would challenge the traditional prerogatives of national sovereignty. The need for ubiquitous intelligence capabilities will have to be balanced against the protection of civil liberties. Indeed, maintaining worldwide control over the use of weapons of mass destruction will require difficult choices and create new political and military dangers. But there is no alternative. The status quo will not last.