To be or not to be
AS the monstrous white hot fireball slowly rose over Hiroshima, the crew of the Flying Fortress bomber stared back from their aircraft to the view the consequences of `Little Boy' - the new atomic bomb. In an instant the world had become a different place; the concept of war had been redefined. In a bygone gentlemanly age, the Hague Convention of 1907 saw an agreement between the great powers to ensure war did not bring unarmed civilian deaths. In a nuclear war they are simply unavoidable.
The toll of that first bomb: 78,000 killed instantly and another 84,000 injured. Add those who died from radiation effects and total deaths reach 200,000. However, today a nuclear warhead the strength of Hiroshima's would be regarded as little more than battlefield strength - at the weakest end of the nuclear armoury.
It took four years for the Soviet Union to join the nuclear club, and the 1950s were dubbed by the US Secretary of Defence, John Foster Dulles as the era of ,massive retaliation'. American nuclear strategy was loudly broadcast as `instant' response to aggressive actions using massive force. Exactly what Soviet provocation would bring down the nuclear stormclouds remained vague and so did the threat of retalliation.
Come the age of the Beatles, a more sophisticated strategy was called for; one of `assured destruction'. No matter how powerful a Soviet first-strike against the United States might be, missiles protected in their concreie-lined silos or already mounted on cruising bombers or in prowling submarines could retaliate. And Americans could sleep safely in the knowledge that their second-strike would produce massive Communist casualties. Such mutually assured destruction - MAD was the acronym - would only be in response to a Soviet nuclear attack. There was a flaw to this diamond-sharp logic. It was still passive.
The 1970s saw an alarming evolution of the nuclear war strategy of the West. In its own bland jargon the new plan is one of `flexible response'. Crudely it boils down to keeping open the option of using nuclear weapons whenever it is judged necessary, even against conventional forces. Replying in kind is no longer enough, upping the stakes becomes a distinct possibility.
The firebreak between the use of conventional forces in old-fashioned tank battles, and the ultimate Armageddon has been significantly narrowed. For willingness to use neutron bombs against tank squadrons, or small deadly accurate missiles against soldiers' barracks, whilst appearing more humane than the crude megamurder weapons dropped on cities, is in fact far more dangerous. The attitude of the `limited response' helped by small, clean nuclear weapons, can only ease the slide into all-out conflict. For whichever side is losing will try to escalate its way out of trouble.
Part of the new generation of nuclear weapon systems integral to the `limited response' strategy is the Cruise missile. Small pilotless planes, they can be programmed to hug the ground and keep below enemy radar. Destined to fly only 2000 to 3000 miles, they would be fired from European bases, from aircraft, ship or mobile ground launcher. Their attractiveness lies in their relatives cheapness, no-fuss adaptability and use against conventional military targets.
Dovetailing into a completely different part of the modern nuclear strategy are the Trident submarines. The length of two football fields and five storeys high, they knock the Polaris submarine into a cocked hat. Each vessel can carry up to 24 missiles; each missile having up to 17 independently targettable warheads. The escalation here is not just in numbers, nor is it their size. It is accuracy. Formerly submarine-launched missiles were part of the assured destruction package, for massive retaliation against Russian cities following. an enemy nuclear attack. Now the improved accuracy of the Trident missile means they can be used against Russian silos and other military targets. It brings the possibility of a 'first-strike capability' temptingly close to the outreached hands of the Pentagon. For so many of the enemy's missiles could be knocked out in the surprise attack that casualties from the few surviving retaliatory missiles reaching their targets might be `acceptable'.
It was American worry about a Soviet first-strike against their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles which has produced the third, most massive and most expensive of weapons systems to be introduced over the next decade - the Missile Experimental or MX. To frustrate a Soviet attack against American missile silos, each of the proposed 200 MX rockets will have an option of 23 silos to hide in. They will be connected by 10,000 miles of subterranean railway. The MX system is calculated to cost the US $56 billion over the next five years, and will again nudge the Pentagon elbow into a first-strike position. However, there is a catch in this escalation. As the New York Times pointed out, US missiles targetted away from Russian cities (the old-fashioned assured destruction) to silos and military installations (the first-strike potential) puts the Kremlin under even more pressure to use their missiles first in a crisis. `If they don't use them, they'll lose them.'
Nuclear strategy is part of the edifice of the Western military-industrial complex. But it is not enough to explain the size of the soaring construction, why it employs more than 60 per cent of the scientists and technicians of the US, or wiry its directors do not flinch from demanding $56 billion for the MX. The spur, the goad, the motivator is `the enemy'.
A monstrous Communist bear has been conjured into existence. With such a cold war mentality saddled onto NATO and the US, the most extraordinary doublethink and financial excesses appear perfectly acceptable. Even talk of the USSRs civil defence programme, supposed to protect much of the country's city dwellers and industry, can be twisted to justify more military spending. Such activities are proof, it is reasoned, of Russia's warlike intentions and plans to 'rid e-out' American retaliation against a rain of Soviet first-strike rockets.
Of course Western civil defence measures are seen in a totally different light. In the US S2 billion is being spent on a six-year plan for the mass evacuation of big cities that might save the lives of two-thirds of the population. That still leaves 70 million to die, and survivors with the prospect of slow and agonised deaths from raddiation and contaminated food. Oklahoma City is not waiting for the government to act, they have their own evacuation plans. `We don't want to lay down and die in Oklahoma City,' warns Clyde Mitchell, director of the city's civil defence. `Folks around here say "Yes, eventually we are going to have a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union." It's kind of inevitable.'
Russia is committed to the advance of world communism, the argument goes. But there are good reasons, Dan Smith author of The Defence of the Realm in the 1980s maintains for believing the USSR is a `sheep in wolf's clothing'.
Communist conquest of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, he suggests, was hardly the result of military strength. Rather it was the creation of a cordon sanitaire against a Europe which twice in the previous 30 years had invaded, ravaged; the countryside and wiped out 10 per cent of the population. The Eastern bloc was fashioned with the help of compliant Western allies. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed at Yalta that in exchange for Eastern Europe Stalin would order the Greek Communist Party to disarm and the powerful French and Italian parties to cooperate with the reconstruction of capitalism in their countries.
Nevertheless warning cries of a Russian buildup echo monotonously around our national assemblies. It has been going on for a long time now. In 1951 Stuart Symington, then chairman of the US National Security Resources Board warned: `As things are going now, by 1953 if not 1952, the Soviet aggressors will assume complete command of the world situation.' "The Russians-are-coming"lobbyis powerful on Capitol Hill; fuelled with crusading zeal, enthusiasm and, not least, the finances of a military-industrial complex of enormous size. Defence is now close to commanding a third of all Federal revenues. With the latest Reagan announcement to increase expenditure this year to $158 billion rising to $293 billion by 1985, it will take each year the equivalent of $1,200 for every child, woman and man in the country.
Enormous strides in American nuclear technology occurred over the last decade; theories and pilot projects on the drawing boards needed large financial outlays to give them lift-off into reality. At such a stage, the technological breakthroughs were served up with a huge dollop of Russian caviar. Communist fears are wheeled out to stampede handsome budget appropriations through Senate and Congress. The menace of the `very deadly' Soviet SS-20 missile and Backfire Bomber were discovered. Neither are attractive weapons but as the World Council of Churches Commission commented: 'Technically the SS-20 does not compare with the planned Cruise missiles. Most independent experts agree that the SS-20s are covered sufficiently by the already existing 7000 NATO medium range rockets stationed in West Europe.'
Behind the development of unthinkable weapons systems funded with unthinkable amounts of money lies a misinformed public. Playing fast and loose with statistics, and plied with military junkets, the journalists and editors fall into line. Thundering out on the wardrums about the latest Soviet menace, they offer a military response as the only come-back. Downplayed, derided or ignored are Russian peace intitiatives. In 1955 the USSR accepted the West's proposals for disarmament in their entirety - only to find that these were then withdrawn. Cynically we might suppose that Soviet conciliatory measures and arms control motions at the United Nations are simply because of their inferiority in nuclear technology. But should it always bring such a stony response from Western media? A month before the 1979 NATO conference, Brezhznev withdrew a 1000 tanks and 10,000 troops from East Germany. Pathetically small, perhaps, but something. NATO's response, much praised in leading editorials, was the allocation of Cruise missiles and a commitment to increase the defence spending of all the Western allies.
Changes in nuclear strategy, a cold war mentality and technological advances have all quickened the pace of the arms race. Yet it is highly unlikely that Reagan and his advisors - despite their comments to the contrary - would ever twist the keys to launch the first strike. And despite the gross blunders of the Soviet leaders they too are unlikely to make the ultimate error. More likely, with the profusion of nuclear exotica, is a missile accidently being fired or blowing up. It would take very fast talking on the hotline to persuade the victim of the explosion that they were not under attack. And not to retaliate would require masterly self-control.
Whilst such dangers grow, we live in a world with more than 50 tons of TNT explosive power for every inhabitant, a world where war is the greatest industry and a world where if we do not individually make some constructive efforts to change this, the future looks very bleak indeed.
This special report appeared in the to be or not to be - nuclear arms race issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.