• U.S.

Living with Mega-Death

35 minute read

As Ronald Reagan took to the road last week, moving briskly from Air Force One to limousines and helicopters, and from them to platforms and podiums, his retinue included a field-grade officer carrying a thick black leather briefcase, who usually walked a few respectful paces behind the President. The officer is one of four, representing each of the four armed services, who are responsible for staying near the President everywhere he goes, every moment of the day and night, switching off in shifts. Their other responsibility: not to drop the briefcase. Hence its irreverent nickname—”the football.”

It is, for the most part, an anonymous, thankless and tedious duty. The four officers would be among the first to hope that it stays that way; the moment their job becomes exciting could be the beginning of World War III. Yet if they were not there, and the black bag in their charge were not within the President’s easy reach, he would be unable to preserve and enforce a balance of power between East and West; he would no longer embody the sanction of American force necessary to restrain the nation’s adversaries. In that case, the world would be an even more dangerous place than it is with one of these four officers constantly at the President’s side.

They are keepers of the keys to the U.S. arsenal of last resort. Inside the briefcase are “sealed authenticators,” envelopes containing a variety of alphabetical codes called release messages. A series of a dozen or so code words, like TANGO ECHO BRAVO ROMEO NOVEMBER, once transmitted by the President or his constitutionally designated successor through the White House Communications Agency to the Pentagon, would constitute an order to fire some combination of the nation’s 9,480 strategic warheads, with a cumulative destructive force equivalent to 3,505 megatons (1 megaton = 1 million tons of TNT) at a preselected set of targets inside the U.S.S.R.

An alert code would be instantly relayed by telephone, ultrahigh-frequency radio or teletype to the crews manning the 1,052 Titan and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos scattered across the Great Plains. At each launch site, the crew commander and his deputy would decode the incoming message separately, then make sure that the two versions matched. The two officers would open two combination locks to a safe; neither has the combination to both locks. If the sealed authenticator inside the safe matches the incoming message, the officers would take out separate firing keys and go to consoles about twelve feet apart. When the two keys are turned simultaneously, one or more missiles are launched, their warheads independently aimed in advance according to whatever plan the President has activated.

A similar system of matching codes and dual-key procedures applies aboard the 15 or so U.S. nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines that are on 70-day patrol at any given time. They are always submerged, observing radio silence, and receive a stream of messages by means of a 2,400-ft. antenna that the boat trails above and behind it, just below the ocean surface. Usually this incoming traffic consists of routine instructions, equipment tests and 40-word “familygrams” for the crew. But the message could also be a much shorter, infinitely more important order from the Commander in Chief.

An alert order would also activate a classic scramble—klaxons blaring, red lights flashing, beepers going off on crewmen’s belts—at 19 Strategic Air Command bases around the U.S. In a matter of minutes, B-52s, each armed with four hydrogen bombs, would be lumbering into the air. The pilot of each plane, wearing a flame-retardant flight suit and metallic flash protector on his helmet, would have to watch his ascent on a pair of television screens. The cockpit windows would be covered with heavy curtains to protect the crews from being blinded by enemy bomb blasts. Once airborne, the pilot would await the “execution message.” He would compare it, letter by letter, with the sealed authenticator aboard his plane. If it matched, he would know where to go and what to do.

Contrary to mythology, neither the President nor any one else can send the missiles on their way simply by pushing a button. The procedures for authorizing a nuclear attack are designed to involve as many high officials as possible, partly as a safeguard against the danger that any single madman, including a President, could start the war on his own. Shortly before Richard Nixon’s resignation, when there was some concern about his emotional stability, his Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, explicitly reminded the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of what had long been implicit in the chain of command: that a presidential order to go to war would have to be relayed through both of them. In a crisis, they would presumably be either with the President or standing by at the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, where the go-ahead order would be received.

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev does not have a briefcase-toting aide continually at his side. When he leaves the country, war-making authority remains with his comrades in the collective leadership, presumably with stay-at-home members of the secrecy-shrouded Defense Council, of which Brezhnev is chairman. Those few men have first claim and fastest access to an estimated 75 underground command posts in Moscow; around the U.S.S.R. there are hardened concrete shelters for another 110,000 members of the national leadership. The Soviets have their own equally elaborate procedures for issuing orders and turning keys. The Soviet army’s nuclear arsenal is under the joint control of the elite Strategic Rocket Forces and, representing the civilian leadership, the Committee for State Security, better known as the KGB. Compared with the U.S. arsenal, the intercontinental warheads at the Kremlin’s disposal are less numerous (8,040) but considerably larger, with more than twice the power of destruction—7,868 megatons.

If, in the “exchange” that followed the opening salvo, most of the weapons on both sides were to be exploded, the earth would momentarily flicker back at the distant stars—and then perhaps go out, the very life of the planet extinguished. Versions of that nightmare have haunted mankind for 37 years, since the U.S. detonated the first atom bomb at Alamogordo, N. Mex. Stunned and horrified by what he and his fellow scientists had wrought—a puny puff by today’s standards—Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled the incantation of the Hindu god Vishnu as he transformed himself into the avatar of apocalypse: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened the end of World War II but left all nations terrified by what would happen if these weapons—to say nothing of their immensely more powerful successors, hydrogen bombs—were ever again used in anger. In the 1950s it was common for American children to practice air raid drills at school, climbing under their desks while instructors coached them not to look out the window at the fireball if it came. Many went home and saw the fireballs in their dreams. When the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles on Cuba in 1962, instead of hiding under their desks, children filed into school chapels and prayed that John F. Kennedy would be vindicated in his decision to face down Nikita Khrushchev. Again, giant mushroom clouds grew only in dreams.

In the ’60s and ’70s, both sides increased their nuclear firepower by several orders of magnitude. It was a classic vicious spiral. Neither nation wanted to be on the losing side of an overkill gap. Wildly excessive, not to mention expensive, programs were justified on both sides in the interests of preserving a “balance of terror.” Nonetheless, the nightmare of actual war receded somewhat into the subconscious of civilization. Partly because of the scare that Kennedy and Khrushchev had given the world over Cuba, the U.S. and the Soviet Union buckled down to the serious pursuit of agreements that would diminish the chances of nuclear war. With only modest successes and numerous stalls and setbacks, that effort continued in earnest until late in the Carter Administration, when it became clear that the Senate would reject the SALT 11 treaty that Carter and Brezhnev had signed.

Since then, the possibility of nuclear war has asserted itself with renewed urgency. The Soviet Union is in large measure responsible for much of this new alarm. By proliferating missile warheads to hundreds of times what the U.S.S.R. possessed when Kennedy and Khrushchev stood eyeball-to-eyeball at the brink two decades ago, Brezhnev and his comrades have aroused suspicions that they are looking to the day when the Kremlin can avenge that humiliation and pursue political and military advantages at the expense of American and Western interests. In recent months the Soviets have treated the resumption of arms-control talks in Geneva primarily as an opportunity to score propaganda points by advancing highly self-serving, largely spurious proposals for a moratorium on new missiles in Europe. This plan, if adopted, would leave them with a brand-new generation of rockets that they have nearly finished deploying, while preventing NATO from modernizing its older forces in order to redress the balance.

In the poker game of new weapons programs that is always taking place alongside the negotiating table, the Soviets seem to be upping the ante. When Brezhnev last week reiterated, and slightly refined, the moratorium proposal, he also issued a vague warning of major new Soviet deployments directly threatening the continental U.S. To Western ears, it sounded as though Brezhnev was hinting that the U.S.S.R. might put Soviet missiles back on Cuba. That would violate the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement that ended the 1962 crisis, and raise the specter of a new, potentially even more serious confrontation in the next couple of years.

But blame for the decline in East-West relations does not lie entirely with the Soviets. Congressional meddling in foreign policy and the collapse of presidential authority during Watergate contributed to the breakdown of detente in the mid-’70s. The inconsistency and ineptitude of the Carter Administration made a bad situation worse. Then the Reagan Administration came into office with stubborn, simple-minded prejudices against arms control, unrealistic ambitions for massive rearmament, and a propensity for bellicose rhetoric that has frightened its allies and its own citizens more than it has restrained its adversaries. Administration officials have made numerous statements suggesting a policy shift from the traditional imperative of deterring nuclear war to a new, or at least more explicit, preparedness to wage such a war if necessary.

In an address to the U.S. Civil Defense Council on March 1, Presidential Counsellor Edwin Meese called nuclear war “something that may not be desirable”—a bizarre understatement that contributed to the impression of insouciance bordering on recklessness. There is unquestionably a need to improve the nation’s defenses, but some of the weapons programs in Reagan’s new military budget suggest that the Administration is on a buying binge. Last month it was disclosed that the President planned to add 17,000 nuclear explosive devices to the existing arsenal of 25,000 (which includes armaments for shorter-range missiles, as well as artillery shells, demolition mines and torpedoes). This kind of warhead inflation, seemingly far in excess of what the U.S. should need to deter the Soviets, tends to justify the question asked by those who want a weapons freeze: “How much is enough?” Too often the Administration’s answer seems to be simply: “More, much more, as much as possible.”

Coming in the context of increasingly strained American relations with the Soviet Union, the Administration’s statements and decisions have fueled a firestorm of protest in Europe against what many there see as the clear and present danger of nuclear war on the Continent. While ostensibly aimed at both superpowers, the political agitation in Western Europe has a distinctly anti-American, naively neutralist, even pacifist flavor. Worries about Reagan’s finger on the nuclear trigger have also affected politicians who otherwise are in favor of the alliance and are by no means anti-American. Even so staunch a U.S. friend as Britain’s former Prime Minister James Callaghan complained in the Times of London: “There is growing up a basic difference between the way America and Europe view the world . . . Europeans have a better understanding of the complexities of current world difficulties than the United States.” Says West Germany’s Social Democratic Party leader, Erhard Eppler: “There is the feeling that the U.S. is a greater menace to peace and stability in Europe than the Soviet Union.1′

The West European movement has added to the troubles besetting transatlantic cooperation, and it has greatly assisted the Soviet Union’s propaganda offensive aimed at splitting the NATO alliance. Morever, European protests against U.S. defense policies have further undercut what little prospect there is for success in the European missile negotiations in Geneva. The demonstrations have encouraged the Soviets to conclude that perhaps they need not make any concessions at the bargaining table as long as there is a chance that West European politicians, goaded by their noisy constituents, will block the deployment of new U.S. weapons on the Continent in any event.

Now the fear of holocaust has taken root in the U.S., as exemplified in the numerous initiatives of the nuclear-freeze movement. It is as though the spotlight of public attention—and public anxiety—had finally focused on “the football,” illuminating that curious, innocuous-looking fixture of the President’s entourage. More intensely and skeptically than before, people are wondering about that briefcase, not so much what it contains as what it represents. Under what circumstances would the President actually call for it to be unlocked? And what would happen if the codes inside were actually unsealed and transmitted? And what then? And then?

And after the missiles are fired, would there be anything—and anyone—left? Should nuclear weapons be regarded simply as new and more destructive instruments for waging war? And thereby, in Karl von Clausewitz’s famous phrase, continuing politics by other means? Some strategists, including a number who are either members of or consultants to the Reagan Administration, believe that with proper improvements in American defenses, the U.S. could wage and win a nuclear war. Despite the disclaimers of their leaders, some Soviet strategists almost certainly believe their country could do the same thing. Other specialists, both American and Soviet, are convinced that such thinking is almost insane, that it contributes to the likelihood of a war, and that once the conflict begins, it will not end until the planet has been destroyed.

By the nature of the topic, the debate cannot be resolved conclusively one way or the other. There are no true experts on what could happen in a nuclear war, for the simple and merciful reason that mankind has had practically no experience from which to make judgments and predictions with any certitude. In the final analysis, answering some of the most elementary questions is largely a matter of guesswork, intuition and ideological—almost theological—conviction. Even what might at first blush seem to be matters of objective fact, established by empirical evidence, turn out to be elusive.

For example, the Soviet Union and the U.S. carried out many A-bomb and H-bomb tests in the atmosphere between 1945 and 1963, after which they agreed to confine all future tests to underground. Yet considerable conjecture remains over the effects of these explosions. Extrapolating from some equipment failures after an American test over Johnston Island in the North Pacific 20 years ago, defense planners concluded that high-altitude blasts send out a shock wave called electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which can burn out transistorized and computerized communications for thousands of miles around.

General David Jones, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fears that the Soviets might use a single multimegaton airburst over the U.S. to strike the entire nation—and its defense nerve centers—deaf, dumb and blind. Insulating the American command-and-control network against EMP, to preclude the possibility that the U.S. might be unable to fire a single shot, is one of the many high-price items in the Reagan defense budget. Yet the fact remains that EMP is still something of a mystery, and the scientific data about it are sparse. Nevertheless, General Jones is in the business of preparing for the worst. Prudence requires taking measures to protect against what might happen, thus diminishing the chances that it ever will. That is the essence of deterrence.

Another example of the uncertainty that pervades the whole issue of nuclear war is central to the thesis of Jonathan Schell’s forceful and controversial new book The Fate of the Earth. Schell argues that multiple detonations of thermonuclear weapons would, almost literally, blow the roof off the earth. That is, the explosions would blast away the ozone layer that serves as a protective filter against ultraviolet rays. Any life that survived the war might be blinded by those rays. Maybe. The scientific community is divided on the question of what would happen to the ozone layer. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency says it has no idea.

No one denies that nuclear war would be horrible. But would it be so horrible that the mere contemplation of fighting such a war is irresponsible, immoral, even lunatic? Yes, says Schell in his book, and a similar sentiment seems to be driving many of the antinuclear activists in both Europe and the U.S. They argue that to treat nuclear war as a viable option, even as a last resort, is to increase the chances that it will occur. They also believe that the fundamental uncertainty about what would actually happen in a war strengthens their case: better to err on the side of worst-case predictions than to underestimate the peril, and then learn the hard way that the pessimists were right. Last December, Pope John Paul II sent a delegation of scientists to try to per suade Reagan and Brezhnev that nuclear war would be too calamitous even to consider unleashing.

Diametrically opposing that view are self-styled “realists” who feel that the prospect of nuclear war is an ugly but inescapable fact of life. Nuclear weapons exist; therefore there must be preparations—and precautions—in case they are ever used. To pretend otherwise is ostrichlike. Worse, to regard U.S. nuclear weapons as untouchable, and plans for fighting a nuclear war as unconscionable, would be to expose the U.S., at the very least, to blackmail by the U.S.S.R.—and possibly to actual attack. If the Soviets became convinced that revulsion against, and rejection of, nuclear war had virtually become the policy of the U.S., they might be tempted to strike. With a closed society, and a thoroughly militarized one as well, the Soviet Union’s leaders do not worry about any potentially divisive and paralyzing national debates on the vital questions of the day.

These “realists” (as opposed to those they consider the antinuclear “emotionalists”) are represented within the Administration by people like Richard Pipes of the National Security Council staff, who has argued that a nuclear war would be like an amputation—traumatic but not necessarily fatal; or like Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Thomas K. Jones, who asserts that with its current defensive measures, the Soviet Union could rebuild its prewar gross national product within two to four years after a nuclear conflict; or like Colin Gray, a consultant to the State and Defense departments, who argues that any credible deterrence depends on a credible “warfighting capability.”

“The current debate is not about the desirability of nuclear war,” says Gray. “It is about the best means of deterring war. I believe in damage-limitation and in a war-fighting strategy. That requires—in addition to appropriate offensive forces—air defense, missile defense and civil defense. If American casualties could, by these methods, be held to 20 million, that would be very horrible, but it is damage from which we could recover. This posture would make the Soviets take our deterrence more seriously.”

These and other advocates of what they regard as a tough-minded, unemotional view of the issue believe that the U.S. could and should fight a nuclear war with the Soviets if the only alternatives were either Soviet conquest of an area vital to American interests or, worse, a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. Indeed, that view is at the very heart of U.S. policy toward its Soviet adversaries and its West European and Japanese allies.

There are three assumptions underlying the American response to the Soviet challenge: 1) that the U.S.S.R. conducts both domestic and foreign policy on the basis offeree; 2) that while there may be various marginal ways of inducing good behavior by the Kremlin with carrots, the U.S. must ultimately rely on the big stick to deter Soviet aggression; 3) since nuclear weapons are deployed in huge numbers on both sides, the U.S. must have a “force posture” that will dissuade the Soviets from throwing their considerable nuclear weight around. It is not necessary for the U.S. to match the Soviets missile for missile, megaton for megaton, but it is necessary that the U.S. have the recognized capability to make the Soviets pay an unacceptably high price for aggression. Deterrence is more than just a matter of quantity and quality of weapons; it is also a matter of plans, procedures, command structure and vigorous, ongoing testing programs that will make the arms that have been deployed seem capable of being employed.

Two other factors have driven the U.S. toward reiterating over the years its willingness not only to use nuclear weapons but to use them first. One is that America’s principal allies, whom it is sworn to defend, are separated by oceans from the U.S., are uncomfortably close to the U.S.S.R. and are reluctant to bear their share of their own defenses. The other factor is that the conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact are numerically superior to those of NATO. Thus the U.S., in its role as protector of Western Europe and Japan, has fallen back on its nuclear weapons as an equalizer for its disadvantages in geography, conventional forces and manpower.

For this cluster of reasons, the U.S. has had to convince itself, its allies and the Soviets that if push came to shove, the U.S. would have the option of “going nuclear.” But for that option to be real, and for the American threat to be credible, there must be widespread acceptance of the proposition that U.S. forces would be “survivable and enduring.” That is why General Jones is so concerned about protecting the U.S. command-and-control network from the disruptions of EMP. That is why there is an elaborate chain of command so that someone would always be empowered to transmit the “emergency action message” from a bunker at Fort Ritchie, Md., or from a National Emergency Airborne Command Post, nicknamed KNEECAP—actually, a souped-up Boeing 747 that has been “hardened” against nuclear effects (including EMP).

If the ICBM crews were crushed in their underground launch-control centers by a Soviet strike, their missiles could be launched, and in some cases even retargeted, by remote control from the Strategic Air Command’s airborne command post, Looking Glass, which has a dual-key system. The firing could also be done automatically by the Emergency Rocket Communication System, a series of ultra-high-frequency radio packs launched into orbit in lieu of warheads by special iCBMs. If a submarine commander were cut off from communications, and if he were convinced that a nuclear war had begun, he would have no authority to fire his missiles—but he would have the capability.

These and other features of the American defense plan greatly increase confidence that the U.S. could mount a potent nuclear counterattack even if the Soviets were to strike first. The system also has numerous and sophisticated built-in safeguards that make the danger of accidental war quite remote. True, there have been false alerts, and Ground Zero’s Roger Molander recalls a bizarre incident in the mid-1960s when a newly installed radar warning system mistook the rising of the moon for a massive Soviet missile attack. Still, the fear that a faulty computer chip, a flock of geese or a mad lieutenant could push a crisis beyond the point of no return has been exaggerated.

There is considerably less ground for confidence that the war would follow the scenarios developed by the planners and rehearsed many times by computers. Underlying the current debate over nuclear weaponry is a deep, widespread doubt—shared even by many of the experts and policymakers who helped design and refine the contingency plans—about whether those plans would work if put to the test of reality. Many fear that the detonation of even one nuclear weapon in a conflict would be like firing a particle into the nucleus of an atom; nuclear war would mimic nuclear fission. The result would be a chain reaction of chaos and cataclysm, warheads flying back and forth with increasing recklessness and ultimately random, total destruction.

Once again, the argument cannot be proved one way or the other; the doubts cannot be dissolved; everyone is guessing. President Reagan, General Jones, the Air Force commander of an ICBM site, the pilot of a B-52, the skipper of a missile-launching sub—they all know what is supposed to happen when the President authorizes TANGO ECHO BRAVO ROMEO NOVEMBER; but no one knows what will happen next, or after that.

If and when he ever opens “the football,” the President has before him the recommended choices available on the Pentagon’s vast and varied menu of destruction known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). It was first put together in 1960 and has been revised several times a year ever since. In consultation with his advisers and with the help of computerized contingency plans, the President can strike against various combinations from among some 40,000 targets in the U.S.S.R., ranging from “hard” ones, such as the Soviets’ underground ICBM silos and the Kremlin leaders’ emergency bunkers, to “soft” ones, such as army bases, airfields, factories, ports and transportation centers.

Whatever the Soviets do, or threaten to do, the U.S. must be in a position to do something worse, and to do it with such speed, precision and force that the Kremlin will not escalate the conflict to a higher and wider level of destruction. Ideally, the very existence of the American capability is supposed to deter the Soviets from seriously considering an attack, much less attempting one.

If deterrence were to fail and the Soviets fired the first shot, the SIOP is intended to give the President an elaborate array of carefully calibrated choices for retaliation. The task would be twofold and exquisitely difficult: on the one hand, to react in a way that would both punish the Soviets for what they had done and limit their ability to do more, while at the same time to avoid overreacting, so as not to provoke an all-out follow-up attack in which the Soviets throw everything they have at the U.S.

There would not be much time for deliberation and decision making. The Pentagon’s Defense Support Program operates three Code 647 satellites in geostationary orbits that are outfitted with infra-red sensors to detect the firing of Soviet rockets. The single satellite over the Eastern Hemisphere would give the U.S. about half an hour’s warning if the Soviets were to launch their land-based missiles; the two others, hovering high above the Western Hemisphere—one over the Atlantic, the other over the Pacific—would provide less than 15 minutes’ warning of an attack from missile-launching submarines.

All the brainpower and hardware in the world could not prepare the President, or any council of wise men, to cope adequately with the pressures of those few moments. Nor could they be sure that the commanders down the line, to say nothing of their machines, would behave in a way that fits the anodyne, abstract concept of a limited strike, aimed exclusively at Soviet military targets.

Even if the U.S. missiles hit their targets accurately, an American “counterforce strike” directed solely against Soviet ICBM silos would nonetheless mean raining down some 2,000 warheads from one end of the U.S.S.R. to the other, including the most heavily populated and industrialized areas west of the Ural Mountains. It is doubtful that the Soviets would consider such a strike, which would leave from 4 million to 30 million dead, as a “limited” action requiring a “limited” response. In fact, Brezhnev has repeatedly warned that any use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. would lead to a no-holds-barred fight to the finish. The Soviets publicly disavow a first-strike option and chastise the U.S. for having one, but there is little doubt that their righteous-sounding doctrine would count for nothing in a crisis.

Mirror-image uncertainties apply on the Soviet side. The men in the Kremlin, for all their energetic deployment and testing of weapons, are no more sure of what would happen in a nuclear war than is anyone in the U.S. Despite their willingness to rely on brute force, the Soviet leaders have shown no inclination to risk nuclear war with the U.S. By nature, they tend to assume the worst and prepare for the worst, which is one reason why they arm as much as they do. America’s land-based iCBMs are supposedly vulnerable to a Soviet pre-emptive attack. But there is no way that the Kremlin leaders could be sure that the U.S. would leave those missiles in the ground once it was certain that Soviet warheads were on their way. The Kremlin leaders would have to reckon with the possibility that during the 30 minutes’ warning that the U.S. President would have from satellites, radar and other means, he would decide to shoot the works.

Even if the President, for whatever reason, chose to “absorb” a Soviet first strike, thereby sacrificing most of his ICBMs, the destruction sustained by the U.S. would be immense—as many as 20 U.S. would be immense—as many as 20 million killed, and perhaps twice that number wounded. Would the President consider that a “surgical, Limited strike” and respond accordingly? Or would he order a devastating retaliation from his missile-firing submarines? At least 15 of those boats would be untouched and undetectable, deep at sea, each carrying at least 16 missiles, each missile tipped with eight to ten warheads, each warhead almost four times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Two of those American subs could destroy every major city in the U.S.S.R.

How would such a war start? Most experts now dismiss the once fashionable “bolt-out-of-the-blue” scenario. William Hyland, a longtime strategic specialist for the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, fears that World War III might begin not as World War II did, with a Nazi blitzkrieg in the West and a Japanese sneak attack in the East, but as World War I did, with a combination of bumbling, inadvertence, events getting out of control and just plain bad luck. Says he: “If there is ever a nuclear war, it will be like August 1914—a gradual losing of control. There would be rival alerts, no one backing down, no one wanting to fight, but a mounting confrontation that could lead to fighting.”

Says former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, “Strategic war is so obviously catastrophic to all engaged in it that it is only under enormous political stress, provocation and escalation-probably from lower levels of conflict— choices. it has any chance of happening.” Adds James Schlesinger, “A nuclear war would probably get started only by miscalculation.”

In keeping with the Reaganauts’ generally demonological view of the Soviets, a key official of the present Administration, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Fred C. Ikle, does not rule out the possibility of a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Yet he can imagine such a thing only if future changes in the Soviet leadership produce a regime that is not as “cautious and conservative” as the current one. Meanwhile, he admits, “attention to the possibility of nuclear war by miscalculation is at least as important as to deliberate attack.”

Raymond Garthoff, a leading expert on Soviet military strategy who is now at the Brookings Institution, believes that the Soviets would consider trying to get the drop on the U.S. with nuclear weapons only if they were convinced that the U.S. was about to reach for its own holster: “If they really concluded that the U.S. had decided to attack them, they would preempt. This would be in a situation of crisis and high alert.”

The headlines make it all too easy to imagine places that could become the Sarajevo of the nuclear age: Eastern Europe, where armed resistance to Soviet occupation could spread; Iran, where the U.S.S.R. might be tempted to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of Khomeini’s rule; the Arabian Peninsula, where the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force and Soviet airborne units could fight over the oilfields; the Caribbean Basin, where even last week Washington believed Brezhnev was hinting at the possibility of another Cuban missile crisis.

All across the political spectrum, the problem of how to end a nuclear A war is recognized as a conundrum second in urgency and difficulty only to the challenge of avoiding the war in the first place. Some nuclear-freeze advocates argue that no matter how the war started, it would end only by burning itself out—and burning the whole world up. The Pentagon’s Ikle, who made his reputation as a strategist partly on the basis of a book published eleven years ago titled Every War Must End, now admits, “War can be very difficult to stop. There is great stress on command and communication, on the structure of government, and destruction takes place very fast. This is an added deterrent to nuclear war.”

Says Stanford University Physicist and Arms Control Expert Sidney Drell, “I only hope that if we could keep the nuclear threshold high and we bought time and did not panic, we could turn off a conventional war before it went nuclear. I really can’t see any way to manage a nuclear war.”

Harvard University’s Michael Mandelbaum, author of a two-volume study on how nuclear weapons have transformed international politics, calls ending a war “the fundamental uncertainty: in order to get out of a nuclear war we would have to negotiate. In order to negotiate successfully, the national governments involved would probably have to be intact, and would have to have some means of communicating among themselves and with the other side. But one of the issues that have been debated recently is whether in fact the American national Government could survive and whether its command and control system could survive. These doubts are relevant for the Soviet Union well. The conclusion to which comes is that the best way to prevent a holocaust is to prevent any kind of nuclear war in the first place.”

On that everyone agrees. Neither General David Jones, nor Thomas K. Jones, nor Richard Pipes nor Leonid Brezhnev is recommending, or even secretly hoping, that their guesses and arguments be proved by experience. Even those in the Administration who sincerely believe that the U.S., if it had to, could fight and win a nuclear war agree that the primary goal of U.S. weapons programs and policy should be preventing one.

Avoiding nuclear war depends on keeping a balance between the imperatives of American policy and various factors of international relations, particularly the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. While those international tensions cannot be eliminated, they can be, and have been in the past, kept in a state of overall equilibrium. But it is an equilibrium with an underlying paradox: by their very nature, nuclear weapons are military instruments too powerful and destructive to “solve,” in any meaningful and positive sense, political problems that confront the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Yet they are also too pow erful and destructive for one superpower to relinquish as long as its rival has them. Therefore, insofar as the nation’s suddenly heightened fear of nuclear war might ever get converted into pressure for unilateral disarmament, so much the worse.

But the current groundswell could have the beneficial effect of nudging the Administration to ward a more moderate set of defense and arms-control policies than it has espoused to date. The pendulum of official thinking about nuclear weapons has swung from one side to the other in recent years, and it needs to be brought back to the center. The Reaganauts, in their overreaction to the perceived naivete of their Carterite predecessors, have concentrated in their rhetoric and military programs on war fighting at the expense of deterrence, rearmament at the expense of arms control. Most policymakers in the Administration acknowledge that war fighting makes sense (and rather shaky sense at that) only as an extension of deterrence #151; deterrence by other means, as Clausewitz might have put it. In its rearmament pro gram, however, the Administration has concentrated too much on the development of more big-ticket nuclear weapons and not enough on building up conventional forces. If America’s conventional defenses were stronger, they would constitute a more credible deterrent to Soviet aggression, thereby reducing U.S. reli ance on a nuclear last resort. A case can be made that the politically difficult decision of reinstituting the draft would do more to strengthen American defense posture—and hence to diminish the danger of war—than the MX supermissile and the B-l bomber programs combined.

Some of Reagan’s advisers acknowledge, grudgingly, that what they call “real” arms control is as indispensable to national security as improvements in defense programs, since arms control can set rules of the road for both sides and thus lessen the chances of a collision. But they have had as much difficulty, and demonstrated as much ambivalence, in their quest for “real” arms control as in their ludicrously meandering search for an MX basing plan. The SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) process contributed modestly, marginally, but still significantly to the avoidance of nuclear war. Reagan has in effect suspended that process. He has promised, but not yet presented, what he says will be an improved substitute with the goal of deep cuts, primarily on the Soviet side, and with a new acronym, START (for Strategic Arms Reduction Talks). By seeking reductions while refusing to ask the Senate to ratify the limitations that have already been achieved, he risks making the best the enemy of the good.

Ironically, so does someone like Jonathan Schell, who dismissingly compares SALT to an aspirin administered to a patient with a terminal disease. While Schell’s analysis of the potential danger of nuclear war is compelling, his prescription—general and complete disarmament and world government—is far too Utopian. And his thesis that the world is doomed if it does not take his advice is hardly helpful, since the world is almost certainly not going to take his advice.

This does not mean nuclear war is inevitable. A danger, yes—probably an increasing danger, given the deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations. Yet even if those relations get much worse than they now are, the superpowers’ mutual interest in avoiding war should, and probably would, remain more powerful than the tensions generating conflict. The only thing harder to imagine than a permanent reconciliation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is a rationalization on the part of either nation for taking the risk of all-out war.

Like the complex interactions within the atom, the volatile human forces at work on the planet earth may be able to maintain their dynamic equilibrium indefinitely. That will unquestionably require ever increasing wisdom and skillful management, as well as luck. Many more Americans are now beginning to think seriously about what used to be called the unthinkable. Insofar as this new wave of concern and activism about the single biggest threat facing mankind does justice to the complexity of the problem, and steers clear of simple-minded pseudo solutions, it may foster some of the prerequisites for survival. In which case, so much the better.

—By Strobe Talbott. Reported by Bruce W. Nelan/Washington

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