issue 163 - September 1986
Photo: Camera Press
The unbalance of terror
We need nuclear weapons as a deterrent - or so our governments
claim. Belinda Probert picks some holes in their argument.
The early 1980s witnessed a quite remarkable resurgence of movements for nuclear disarmament throughout the Western world, and a significant strengthening of independent peace groups in Eastern Europe. Perhaps for the first time in the field of military strategy the experts found themselves under informed popular attack. More and more people were able to challenge official views on the necessity for each new round of the arms race, not just on moral grounds, but by exposing contradictions at the heart of the strategic rationale.
The official policies of the West hold that nuclear weapons will never be used because their special function is to act as a deterrent. In other words, political support for nuclear weapons has always relied heavily on the belief that they are of such destructive power that no enemy would ever act in such a way as to provoke their use.
In particular there are huge numbers of people in the West who are now extremely well informed about the horrors of nuclear weapons and the implications of nuclear winter, but who still, however reluctantly, support a nuclear strike capability for the purpose of deterrence. This uncomfortable position is sustained by the firm belief that the possession of nuclear weapons renders their use obsolete and that the danger of nuclear attack is eliminated by the ability to retaliate in kind.
The concept of deterrence, on which so much of the case for nuclear weapons is made to hinge, is therefore one which any campaign for nuclear disarmament must address. So what are the central criticisms?
Planning for nuclear war
The United States has never considered its nuclear weapons as just a deterrent - that is, as weapons whose role is simply to protect from nuclear attack by threatening overwhelming retaliation. Nuclear weapons were used against a non-nuclear Japan for the purpose of winning a war, and they were used when Japanese cities were already helpless in the face of conventional bombing (in March 1945, l00,000 people died in the fire-bombing of Tokyo).
After the Second World War had ended the US continued to regard its atomic bombs as weapons to be used to defeat the Soviet Union, with President Truman agreeing to authorise the use of nuclear weapons during the Berlin crisis of 1948 'if it became necessary'. And this was before the Russians had developed their own atomic bomb. Nor is there anything 'new' about the US interest in fighting and winning a 'limited' nuclear war. Back in 1956 US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Nitze explicitly approved of such a strategy - the same Paul Nitze who in the 1980s was negotiating with the Russians about the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. And the Americans have consistently refused in those arms negotiations to respond in kind to the Soviet promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.
It is not that American plans to win a nuclear war have changed. What has changed is the sophistication of the nuclear weapons, their systems of delivery, and the vital intelligence which enables them to be used accurately in war. It is these changes which allow Reagan's advisors to assert that 'a richer menu of attack options, small and large, would provide a president with less-than-cataclysmic nuclear initiatives'.1
Terror, yes; balance, no
Whatever the intentions of war planners, most people still seem to believe that nuclear weapons have kept the peace between the superpowers since the Second World War, that each side has been deterred from a war it might otherwise have started by the knowledge that the other side would be able to inflict appalling damage with its nuclear weapons. There is no way of proving whether this is true or not. However, the facts about nuclear war planning on both sides suggest that war between the US and the USSR has not taken place because, so far, no conflict has involved interests seen as utterly vital by both sides. As the man who fell from the top of the Empire State building concluded as he reached the 10th floor, 'so far, so good'.
What we can say with certainty is that the ability to destroy the enemy many times over has not led to a moment's pause in the arms race, let alone to any stable balance of terror. Deterrence was not the objective in developing Cruise and Pershing missiles, the SS-20, or the neutron bomb. Yet we are asked, after each new round of the nuclear arms race, to accept them as deterrents. As E P Thompson says, 'when a theory can be employed (as deterrence theory is) to endorse every new development in strategy and in weaponry - when one knows in advance that this will be done - then one has every reason to suppose that one is dealing with ideology, with the apologetics of power'.2
The threat of nuclear weapons has not deterred either super-power from the use of military force in continent after continent; nor have tiny non-nuclear forces been deterred from taking on the super-powers. For billions of people there has been no 'peace' since 1945, but rather years of unremitting warfare. Millions of civilians have died in wars that involved the active intervention of the USA and the USSR.
Nor should we allow anyone to believe that the appalling destructiveness of nuclear weapons, including the effects known as nuclear winter, makes such weapons unusable. The Dreadnought battleship, the Maxim gun and even the aeroplane, were all supposed to have made war 'unthinkable'. When 'strategic bombers' in World War Two razed German and Japanese cities to the ground, obliterating the distinction between combatants and civilians, they were also making any kind of destruction in war 'thinkable'.
How deterrence leads to war
There are a number of reasons for believing that the continued search for 'deterrence' makes nuclear war more likely. First the need for an independent 'deterrent' has been used to justify nuclear weapons proliferation beyond the super-powers. The French nuclear stockpile, for example, which cannot even hope to match Russian nuclear strength, is justified in this way Needless to say, it is constantly necessary for the French to test new weapons in order to 'improve' this deterrent. The same arguments can be used by India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iraq.
Second, it is clear that the development and deployment of ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons, even if intended merely to make the threat of retaliation more credible, creates conditions which make their actual use more likely. The US is increasingly deploying its nuclear arsenal close to potential battlefields all around the world - in the Pacific Ocean and in Western Europe, for instance - rather than relying on its home- and submarine-based ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles). This makes it much more likely that non-nuclear engagements will escalate into nuclear exchanges, even if the master nuclear strategists back in their American bunkers do not intend them to.
And there are other ways in which it has been argued that 'deterrence theory' may actually lead us into nuclear war. The drive to make the threat to your enemy ever more credible excludes the search for other ways of resolving conflicts through diplomatic and political methods. E P Thompson argues that the parties to this relationship of deterrence 'turn into societies whose production, ideology, and research is increasingly directed towards war.
"Deterrence" enters deeply into the structure, the economy, and the culture of both blocs. This is the reason - not this or that advantage in weaponry, or political contingency - why nuclear war is probable in our lifetimes. It is not just that we are preparing for war; we are preparing ourselves to be the kind of societies which go to war.'3
Thus one of Reagan's advisors can propose that 'an intelligent US offensive strategy, welded to homeland defences, should reduce US casualties to approximately 20 million, which should render US nuclear war can ever be justified, whatever the circumstances, let alone as the act of futile 'retaliation' demanded by deterrence theory.
Catholic bishops in the US have argued that in any 'just war' 'the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war must be proportionate to the good expected by raking up arms'. They further insist that 'just response to aggression must be discriminate; it must be directed against unjust aggressors, not against innocent people caught up in a war not of their making'. And on these grounds alone they unequivocally reject the use of nuclear weapons.
Others would draw similar conclusions from more secular arguments about the profoundly undemocratic and indiscriminate nature of modern warfare. At what stage will those 20 million Americans have any control over their fate?
The Catholic bishops reject not only the use of nuclear weapons but also the threat of use which is central to much deterrence strategy. They do this for the same reasons E P Thompson gives: that to prepare for and accept its deliberate initiation legitimates the idea of nuclear war. They say that 'it is necessary for the sake of prevention to build a barrier against the concept of nuclear war as a viable strategy for defense.'
The strength of these arguments lies in the fact that they provide a framework for thinking about the nature of modern warfare which is not limited to the specific horrors of nuclear war. Such moral considerations lead logically to a total rejection of the strategies which allowed the destruction of Tokyo or Dresden. They also alert us to the no-less-immoral implications of NATO's recent decision to press ahead with a new programme of chemical weapons development.
So deterrence is an essential element of political and military arguments for maintaining and further developing nuclear weapons. Yet not only is deterrence a fundamentally flawed theory of military strategy and superpower politics, but nuclear strategies based upon it are actively leading us closer to nuclear war.
1 Colin S Gray, in Internationa/ Security, Summer 1979.
2 E P Thompson. in Zero Option, London 1982.
4 Colin S Gray and Keith Payne. in Foreign Policy. Summer 1980
5 The Pastoral Letter of the US Bishops on War and Peace. The challenge of Peace: Gods promise and our response, 1983
Belinda Probert is Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University in Melbourne.