Commentary Magazine


Deterrence

The following discussion between Irving Kristol and H. Stuart Hughes grew out of Mr. Hughes’s article in our March issue, “The Strategy of DeterrenceA Dissenting Statement.” 

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Irving Kristol:

Mr. Stuart Hughes’s article is so vague on a couple of crucial points that it is almost impossible to determine whether or not one agrees with him. Specifically, I should like to ask him two questions:

  1. When he demands “the renunciation of thermonuclear deterrence as an instrument of national policy,” is he referring to thermonuclear deterrence of thermonuclear attack, or to thermonuclear deterrence of any act of military aggression? In other words, is he calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States or for a reformulation of American policy to the effect that we shall not resort to atomic or nuclear weapons except in the extreme instance when they are being used against us? The first alternative strikes me as sterile: Mr. Hughes can have as much faith in Russian forebearance as he wishes—but is he willing to extend that faith to the Chinese, the Japanese, the Egyptians, the Moroccans, the Indonesians, etc., who will have their own nuclear weapons in years to come? The second alternative I would endorse; but this leads me to my next question.
  2. If we renounce the first use of atomic-nuclear weapons, reserving them only for deterring others from using these weapons against us, we clearly have to be better prepared than we are to fight “conventional” wars. After all, no change in American policy is going to cause national and civil conflicts to disappear from the world, nor is it less likely that we shall be involved in them. Will Mr. Hughes support universal military training, a larger standing army, and a larger defense budget for the United States? If so, his point of view is one that commends itself strongly to me, and I hope to others as well. If not, he is simply arguing the pacifist case without avowing it.

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H. Stuart Hughes:

I am grateful to Mr. Kristol’s letter for obliging me to clarify one point in my article that has remained obscure to a number of readers. Indeed, until recently it was obscure to me. As I said in the article, we who have rejected deterrence have set forth on uncharted ground, and we have been obliged to feel our way slowly toward new and untested positions.

I advocate an abandonment of deterrence in both of Mr. Kristols senses. I am in favor of unilateral disarmament—by stages, however, and with pauses to give our potential adversaries the opportunity to respond in kind. In short, I believe that we and our allies should eventually restrict our defense to conventional weapons alone.

George F. Kennan, on page 63 of his Russia, the Atom, and the West, has delineated in imaginative fashion the character of such a defense. He is speaking of the Western European continent, but I think that his principle can be extended to the defense of the West as a whole. If the continental nations were left to their own devices, he surmises, the problem of their defense “would be primarily one of the internal health and discipline of the respective national societies, and of the manner in which they were organized to prevent the conquest and subjugation of their national life by unscrupulous and foreign-inspired minorities in their midst. What they need is a strategic doctrine addressed to this reality. Under such a doctrine, armed forces would indeed be needed; but I would suggest that as a general rule these forces might better be paramilitary ones, of a territorial-militia type, somewhat on the Swiss example, rather than regular military units on the World War II pattern. Their function should be primarily internal rather than external. It is on the front of police realities, not on regular military battlefields, that the threat of Russian Communism must primarily be met. The training of such forces ought to be such as to prepare them not only to offer whatever overt resistance might be possible to a foreign invader but also to constitute the core of a civil resistance movement on any territory that might be overrun by the enemy; and every forethought should be exercised to facilitate their assumption and execution of this role in the case of necessity.”

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This position is obviously not a pacifist one. But it represents a radical departure from current American military thinking. (Moreover, I should not want to make Ambassador Kennan responsible for an enormous extension of a suggestion he advanced rather tentatively more than three years ago in quite a different context; he may well disagree completely with what I am now proposing.) My proposal would involve a drastic reduction of our country’s present overseas commitments. It would mean the liquidation of a number of our alliances. For it implies that we would come to the defense of those nations alone which had sufficient social and political solidity to organize and support a territorial-militia or guerrilla-resistance type defense—that is, those nations which, without necessarily conforming to our definition of democracy, were based on a strong enough bond of trust between government and people to hold out against trials and temptations of unprecedented magnitude.

Such “solid” nations include the whole of Western Europe (except Spain and Portugal), Western Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Israel, the Commonwealth (including as markedly differing societies as those of India and Australia), the Philippines, and several states of Latin America, most obviously Mexico, Brazil, and Uruguay. The list could doubtless be enlarged. I suggest that in the present weeks of general review of American foreign-policy commitments it would be helpful if the State Department were to re-examine all our alliances with some such criterion in mind.

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Irving Kristol:

I am prepared to resign myself to the fact that Stuart Hughes and I are in political disagreement. But it does bother me that I cannot understand the reasoning behind Mr. Hughes’s point of view.

Mr. Hughes writes: “I am in favor of unilateral [nuclear] disarmament—by stages, however, and with pauses to give our potential adversaries the opportunity to respond in kind.” And if they do not take advantage of this opportunity? I assume that Mr. Hughes would want us to continue disarming anyway. But why, then, bother with the qualifying phrases? If one is going to disarm, one may as well go about the business in as grand a style as possible. If the Russians (or Chinese or whoever) are going to be so moved as to follow us, surely they are more likely to be moved by an immediate and decisive action on our part than by a long drawn-out process, with all the chances for quibblings and misunderstandings it might give rise to?

Mr. Hughes further writes: “I believe that we and our allies should eventually restrict our defense to conventional weapons alone”—but he then calls for a reduction of Western conventional military strength through the conversion of our standing armies into para-military territorial militias! Once again, why bother? Why not simply disband the entire Western military force—i.e., disarm ourselves conventionally as well as atomically? If the Russians decide to conquer the West by force of conventional arms, they are not likely to be deterred by the spectacle of a dozen or so “Swiss militias” arrayed against them. Nor are they likely to be frightened by the threat of “civil resistance” in the occupied areas—they have had plenty of experience in handling that sort of thing in Eastern Europe. And if the Russians are (for reasons which may seem cogent to Mr. Hughes) utterly loath to take over Western Europe, these militias are a fortiori superfluous.

Mr. Hughes’s “extension” of George F. Kennan’s remarks about the uses of a territorial militia in Western Europe are misleading. Mr. Kennan believes that the Russians would not risk even a large-scale conventional war in order to conquer Western Europe; and I am inclined to think he is right. But he never said that Russia wouldn’t accept Europe if it were proffered on a platter. Mr. Kennan’s proposals for Western Europe were explicitly premised on (1) a successfully negotiated disengagement that would “neutralize” Central and part of Eastern Europe, as a buffer zone between NATO and the Soviet Union; and (2) a militarily strong United States that would deter the Russians from violating this neutrality.

Negotiated disengagement is one thing; unilateral disarmament is quite another. The only “act of faith” implied in the first is that Russia is sufficiently reasonable to return a quid for a quo. In the second case, which is Mr. Hughes’s, the “act of faith” involves a blind reliance on the proposition that the Soviet Union will never seek to achieve any of its ends by military action—even if we create circumstances that guarantee the success of such action, and minimize its cost. I find this proposition incredible; and it is certain that no responsible Western statesman could ever subscribe to it.

I Strongly Suspect that Mr. Hughes is edging in the direction of a peculiarly vulgar kind of pacifism. The unstated logic of his view runs something like this:

  1. A war in which both sides were armed with thermonuclear bombs would be the worst evil, because it might well mean the extinction of the human race.
  2. Any conventional war could be converted into a nuclear war, given the technical resources of the protagonists.
  3. We have no way, at this time, of persuading our enemies to disarm.
  4. Therefore we should disarm unilaterally so that if we are attacked
    1. we could not fight and would survive our defeat; or
    2. we might be wiped out by the enemies’ thermonuclear bombs but they at least would survive to perpetuate the human race.

The fault in this logic is that it sees the cold war as an ultimate stage in human history, and assumes that, if only we can get through it safely, we shall be on the other side of total destruction. This is an oddly short-sighted view for a historian to profess. Why should a Communist-dominated world be free from the threat of nuclear warfare? Does Mr. Hughes really believe that the Soviet Union would unilaterally disarm vis-à-vis the Chinese, or vice versa? Does Mr. Hughes really believe that, if this particular cold war were terminated, it would necessarily mean an end to all wars, for all time?

I should like to repeat—not that it will prevent me from being branded, in certain circles, as a “cold warrior”—that I am as alarmed as Mr. Hughes at the threat to humanity of thermonuclear war. That is why I advocate unilateral American renunciation of the first use of atomic weapons. But I do not believe we have reached that golden age in world history where force—or the threat of force—is less likely to be a factor in international affairs. And that is why I also advocate a rapid and substantial increase in our conventional military strength.

The cold war happens to be a reality, as well as a cliché. It is idle to try to allocate personal or national responsibility for it: one could with justice say that two hundred (or two thousand) years of Western and Russian and Chinese history are responsible for it. But there it is; and it is not going to be charmed away. All we can do, at this time, is to try to limit its damages and its dangers. And let us have no illusions: whatever foreign policy the United States adopts, the human race will henceforth live with the possibility of total annihilation hanging over its collective head.

I have stated my own position, which is that the United States should unilaterally renounce the first use of atomic or nuclear weapons. And I mean that renunciation to be unequivocal. I am perfectly willing to face the possibility that, in a contest limited to political and economic competition, or in an eventual war limited to conventional military weapons, we might be defeated. But I see no reason why we need be defeated, if we are really willing to mobilize our peoples for this contest. And, until this issue has been decided, or until we have successfully negotiated a disarmament or arms control agreement with the Communists, it would be foolish to abandon our own nuclear deterrent. I don’t want to use the bomb first against anyone. But I don’t want to tempt our enemies to use it first against us, either.

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H. Stuart Hughes:

I do not think my attitude is either as vulgar or as pacifist as Irving Kristol finds it to be. It is not as grand as his—it lacks style—it may be simple-minded—it doubtless has logical flaws. I am also quite ready to grant (as I did in my first letter) that it represents an unwarranted extension of George Kennan’s thinking, and that it fails to cope with the possibilities of post-cold war annihilation (which seems to me a puzzle beyond solution at the present time).

What I cannot concede, however, is that my proposals offer something to our putative enemies “on a platter.” I do not believe that our thermonuclear “deterrent” has deterred anybody from anything. What has given the Russians second thoughts about occupying Central and Western Europe has been the conviction that they would find themselves most unwelcome there. Nor do I agree that Soviet experience in Eastern Europe has been comparable to the sort of resistance a Communist take-over would encounter farther West. The present satellite area was occupied by the Russians under the peculiar circumstances of the breakup of the Nazi empire, when even societies like the Czech and East German—which alone conformed to my definition of “solid” nations—were too demoralized and disorganized to stand up against their fate.

I am far from sure that the policy I advocate would work. But I see no other recourse. Any alternative policy carries a greater threat than the danger it is designed to avert.

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