Commentary Magazine

Fortress America

Challenged by European demands for nuclear equality, the United States has replied indignantly that a European deterrent would be economically wasteful and strategically dangerous. While Congress grumbles about European “ingratitude,” the administration has been busily assembling ingenious gimmicks such as “multilateralism” to appease the Europeans without giving up the American nuclear monopoly. But even as it pledges eternal allegiance to NATO, the U.S. has been responding to European aggressiveness with a radical change in military strategy—one leading toward a gradual disengagement of American nuclear forces from Europe and an exclusive reliance on an American-based defense. This development is bound to have momentous consequences, not only in speeding up the disintegration of the Atlantic alliance, but in giving a very different structure to the cold war.

The blueprint for the new American strategy lies in the counter-force theory for the conduct of nuclear war, resurrected by Secretary McNamara in his famous speech at Ann Arbor in June 1962. Discarding simple deterrence as too negative and defeatist, this theory posited that nuclear wars can be prevented and perhaps even “won” if the U.S. possesses a vast nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. This superiority would allow it to absorb a Russian attack and still have enough reserve power to destroy both Soviet military targets and cities. The huge arsenal would, presumably, also permit the U.S. to launch a crippling first strike that could destroy all Soviet bomber and missile bases and thereby prevent the Russians from retaliating. Under these conditions, realizing that they could not “win,” the Russians would refrain from aggression.

However, since war has been known to occur even when irrational, counter-force theory also had a corollary: that nuclear war could be made tolerable if damage were confined largely to military bases rather than to cities. The Russians were therefore to be told that the U.S. would spare their cities if they agreed to spare American ones. Their incentive for agreeing to a “no-cities” doctrine was the knowledge that the United States had sufficient nuclear power to attack both Soviet military sites and cities, but would refrain from hitting the cities so long as the Russians did the same. Given the Russians’ nuclear inferiority, which would make it impossible for them to wipe out all the scattered American bases and submarines, the U.S. would emerge from a “controlled counter-force” war with most of its own cities more or less intact. Since it could hold Russian cities in hostage by possessing nuclear weapons after the Russians had expended theirs, the U.S. would be able to “win” the war.

The counter-force doctrine was composed of three elements. First—in order to make sure that the Europeans would never start bombing Russian cities in retaliation to attacks against their own—national nuclear forces in Europe were to be discouraged and all nuclear weapons kept under American control. Second, tactical nuclear weapons were to be gradually withdrawn from Europe lest their use in combat “escalate” into full-scale war. And finally, the Europeans were to increase their conventional forces, raising NATO’s land army from twenty-four to thirty divisions so that it might be possible to fight a non-nuclear war on the continent.

Apart from the dubious optimism of its assumption that cities would be spared in a nuclear war, the counter-force strategy offered something both more feasible and more important: a “flexible response” which would permit the U.S. to reply to Soviet actions at any level and in any way it considered appropriate. Nuclear superiority was to be the means by which America would gain a wide range of options, running from guerrilla warfare to nuclear devastation. As such, the new strategy was an attempt to shed the outdated baggage of “‘massive retaliation” and regain the power of choice—the choice not only as to how America would fight a war in Europe, but whether it would fight one at all.



In all three of its elements—the discouragement of national nuclear forces, the downgrading of tactical nuclear weapons, and the demand for a larger European conventional army—the Pentagon’s new strategy has served to intensify rather than assuage European fears of abandonment by the United States. Europeans have seen America’s determination to prevent the creation of nuclear forces on the continent as a double-edged sword: one which ensures continued American military (and hence political) control of the alliance, while at the same time permitting the U.S. to decide to what degree—and indeed whether—it would become involved in a nuclear war on Europe’s behalf. By giving a new flexibility to American strategy, the Pentagon’s “options” have poured fuel on European fears that the U.S., in order to protect its own chances for survival, is preparing to back out of its nuclear guarantee to Europe.

The Pentagon’s discouragement of national nuclear forces in Europe has not been the only factor in raising doubts about the permanence of American involvement on the continent. Equally significant has been the demand for a larger conventional army in Europe, one which would presumably eliminate reliance on the tactical nuclear weapons with which NATO forces have been equipped. To be sure, the avoidance of a nuclear exchange is essential to the preservation of European society. But total dependence upon a conventional army is not necessarily in the interests of the Europeans. The Europeans never imagined when they joined NATO that they would be expected to defend the continent on the ground. Rather, it was America’s nuclear arsenal which was meant to deter Russia’s military ambitions and prevent war, whether nuclear or conventional, in Europe. The troop contingents that the Europeans pledged to NATO were simply a token gesture to show that the U.S. was not being asked to carry the total burden of European defense by itself.

When the United States introduced tactical nuclear weapons into the frontline in Germany, it did so partly to compensate for the numerically superior Soviet forces ranged on the other side of the Iron Curtain and partly for psychological reasons: to make the Russians believe that invasion would trigger off a nuclear exchange which would inevitably spread to Russia itself. The Europeans accepted these atomic weapons on their soil not because they thought they would ever be used—NATO’s periodic “exercises” had demonstrated that there would not be much of Europe left after a tactical atomic war—but specifically because they were designed not to be used. That is, the Europeans regarded tactical atomic weapons as an extension of the strategic deterrent force itself. However, the Pentagon’s new proposal that the defense of Europe be conducted entirely by conventional forces, removes the whole deterrent effect of the tactical weapons. It implies that if the Russians should move their army into Hamburg, for example, and if the Europeans were unable to repel them, the United States would accept this loss rather than use nuclear weapons which could involve its own cities in a full-scale nuclear war.

Although it is important that Europe be defended without an automatic recourse to atomic weapons, the Europeans can only look with alarm on a defense strategy which can be totally nullified by the introduction of nuclear weapons by the Russians. The effectiveness of a conventional defense, after all, depends upon the knowledge that behind it lies a nuclear arsenal that can be called upon if necessary. The Europeans can, and indeed should, renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, but this would be meaningful only if the Russians were inhibited from using theirs by a credible nuclear force in the West. If the Europeans are not to have either tactical or strategic atomic weapons of their own, and if they can no longer be certain that the American deterrent will be used in their defense, where does their protection lie? Promises of loyalty are not enough to compensate for changes of policy which establish “options” of loyalty. America’s demand for an enlarged European conventional army thus appears as but the prelude for the eventual withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe and further, the withdrawal of the unconditional American nuclear guarantee.



The new American strategy is not capricious: it is based upon the unavoidable implications of evolving military technology. The conflict between the pretensions of counter-force and the demand for a large conventional army in Europe can be reconciled, but only by a paradox: that although America’s nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union is unchallenged, it is of declining importance. The reason is that the United States can no longer hope to eradicate Soviet nuclear power through the application of superior force. The change which has brought this about is the development of invulnerable long-range missile forces by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Having “hardened” their missiles by stationing them underground and underwater, the two nuclear giants now have the power to obliterate one another regardless of who strikes first.

Secretary McNamara outlined the implications of the new atomic parity in January 1963 when he told the House Armed Services Committee that as the Russians make their own missile force invulnerable,

It would become increasingly difficult, regardless of the form of the attack, to destroy a sufficiently large proportion of the Soviets’ strategic nuclear forces to preclude major damage to the United States, regardless of how large or what kind of strategic forces we build. Even if we were able to double or triple our forces we would not be able to destroy quickly all or almost all of the hardened ICBM sites. And even if we could do that, we know no way to destroy the enemy’s missile-launching submarines at the same time.

This statement had two clear corollaries. First, counter-force was no longer feasible since it would be incapable of doing its major job—destroying Soviet missiles; and second, the United States could not order its nuclear forces to the defense of Europe without assuming that America would be destroyed in the nuclear counter-attack. The development of invulnerable missile forces by the United States and the Soviet Union meant that any nuclear conflict between them would lead to the destruction of both. Thus, despite the fact that the United States is continuing to build a counter-force missile arsenal which by 1965 will number some 1700 ICBMs, it can neither disarm the Soviet Union nor prevent a Russian retaliation that would end, according to a Defense Department study, with the death of some 100 million Americans and the obliteration of the United States. The resultant nuclear stalemate has given a kind of stability to the jittery nuclear confrontation between America and Russia. But at the same time it has eroded the assumption that the U.S. would engage in a nuclear war for the sake of Europe.

In consequence, American defense strategy has now been redesigned to keep the decision between peace and war for the U.S. strictly in American hands. Whatever happens in Europe, in other words, the United States will never let itself be drawn into a nuclear war against its own will. To implement this strategy the U.S. has been moving as fast as political circumstances permit toward a nuclear disengagement from all other parts of the world, particularly Europe. The commitment to counter-force remains, but its object has changed. It is no longer the means for disarming the Soviet Union, but rather the instrument for justifying the American nuclear monopoly on which the doctrine of “controlled counter-force” warfare rests.



The first major step in the direction of American nuclear disengagement was taken at the Nassau conference of December 1962, when the Kennedy administration tried to end Britain’s nuclear independence and simultaneously push her into the Common Market by abandoning the Skybolt missile. The device failed, but it will be at least 1970—if ever—before Britain develops the nuclear submarines on which the substitute offer of Polaris missiles depends. Simultaneously, the U.S. sought to head off national nuclear forces in Europe by proposing a so-called “multilateral” nuclear force to which the allies would contribute, but which would be under American control. By depriving the Europeans of the power to trigger a nuclear war, the U.S. would be able to keep the final power of decision in its own hands.

The second step in the American design was a change in its own military strategy: the abandonment of manned bombers in favor of an inter-continental missile force based in the U.S. and on roving atomic submarines. Without bombers there is no need for foreign air bases, and therefore no danger of foreign political or military interference in the American strategic nuclear force. Air bases from Morocco to Pakistan are being closed, and American missiles are being dismantled in Britain, Italy, and Turkey. Indeed, the entire foreign-base system is being scrapped as technologically obsolete and strategically unreliable. This removes the old specter of one of the allies gaining control of U.S. missiles and shooting them off in response to a Russian move against its territory. The abandonment of the foreign bases gives the United States a freedom of maneuver it has not enjoyed since the cold war began. It also removes the one assurance of the nations harboring these bases that the U.S. would become involved in a war on their behalf.

What is happening, then (although American officials are understandably reluctant to admit it), is that the United States is moving toward a “Fortress America” defense resting on inter-continental U.S.-based missiles, and on mobile infantry brigades which can be sent to various trouble spots around the world. This is simply the logistical expression of what has become a political imperative: the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons to the United States itself. Just one more step remains to be taken to restore the power of decision entirely to American hands; the retirement of American soldiers from Europe. Only if this is done will the strategy of nuclear disengagement—the discouragement of national nuclear forces in Europe, the closing of overseas bases, the downgrading of tactical nuclear weapons, and the demand for a large European conventional army—make any sense. The increase in European land forces is logically designed not to supplement the American troops in Germany, but ultimately to replace them.

The U.S. can afford to leave this final option open so long as it retains absolute control of the West’s nuclear forces. Indeed, the fact that all the other prerequisites of disengagement are being taken serves as a bludgeon to ward off European nuclear ambitions. Thus President Kennedy’s statement in Bonn last June that “So long as our presence is desired and required, our forces and commitments will remain” is no contradiction of the new strategy, but rather a means of assuaging German anxieties, while at the same time leaving open the door for an American withdrawal on the day that the Europeans gain their own nuclear weapons, the event which would make our presence neither desired nor required.

It is an irony of the cold war that evolving military technology, by eliminating the need for foreign bases, has provided the justification for American neo-isolationism on both the political and strategic levels. America’s postwar policies of internationalism rested upon a solid military foundation, for until recently it was not possible to preserve America’s global interests within a purely American strategic system. The two, however, can now be fused, and what we are witnessing in the Pentagon’s new strategy is a reconciliation of two seemingly contrary objectives: a purely American defense of America’s world-wide interests. The movement toward “Fortress America” already has a broad foundation of support in Congress—not only among old-style isolationists who never did have any use for “foreigners,” but among such liberals as Wayne Morse and Frank Church who have virtually called for an end to NATO in a series of remarkable speeches in the Senate this year. Even such an internationalist and supporter of NATO as Senator Fulbright said on television in June that Common Market tariff restrictions may “make it impossible for us to maintain an army in Europe at the cost of $1 billion.”



In view of its new strategy, it is a bit difficult to comprehend Washington’s indignation over European doubts regarding the continued validity of the American nuclear guarantee. The whole justification for the new strategy, after all, is that NATO’s old defense formulas are no longer relevant. If this were not true, why should the communiqué issued at Nassau have proclaimed that the old “sword and shield” doctrine for the defense of Europe was being reversed—that from now on conventional armies are to be the sword of NATO, and America’s strategic nuclear force the shield? Was this not an explicit acknowledgment of the fact that America’s nuclear weapons would no longer be used to repel a Russian land attack, but rather would be kept in reserve for nothing less than an attack upon the United States itself?

It is thus the new American strategy, not creeping paranoia in Europe, which has made the allies question America’s commitment to their defense. It is the policy of nuclear disengagement, not simply French stubbornness, which has led to the present disarray in the Atlantic alliance. The doctrine of “flexible response,” however desirable for the defense of the United States itself, is not very compelling to Europeans. Instead of protection, it appears to posit a conflict in which the Russians would wipe out much of Western Europe while the Americans would be doing the same to Eastern Europe. The two nuclear giants, having proved their national virility, could then call a truce over a radioactive Europe, after engaging in a war that was “limited” for them, but absolute for the Europeans. De Gaulle drew a bleak picture of this situation in one of his renowned rhetorical questions:

Who can say that if in the future the political background having changed completely—that is something that has already happened on earth—the two powers having the nuclear monopoly will not agree to divide the world? Who can say that if the occasion arises the two, while each deciding not to launch its missiles at the main enemy so that it should itself be spared, will not crush the others? It is possible to imagine that on some awful day western Europe would be wiped out from Moscow and central Europe from Washington. And who can say that the two rivals, after I know not what political and social upheaval, will not unite?

De Gaulle’s ruminations of 1959 were prescient of the implications of the American strategy that has finally emerged in 1963.



As far as the United States is concerned, there is no reason to apologize for the new strategy or to pretend that it does not really mean what it so obviously implies. This strategy is a logical expression of the revolutionary effect of nuclear weapons on political alliances. Just as these weapons have separated the defense of Europe from that of America, so they have established a curious community of interest between America and the Soviet Union. While neither of the two giants is particularly happy with the present nuclear stalemate, both have begun to recognize that by protecting their deterrents they may be able to reduce the danger of war between them. Their present rivalry is not a stable one—it keeps breaking down, despite their desire to contain it, in unmanageable places like Cuba and Laos—but they feel that the alternative is far worse: a world in which their radioactive ruins would be fought over by an expansionist China and an ambitious Europe.

They have, therefore, developed a vested interest in the present balance of their rivalry, for it allows each of them to keep their allies in check and to dominate their own half of the world. Russia’s great rival today is not the United States, with whom she shares an increasingly boring balance of terror, but a militant China which threatens to steal her revolutionary thunder in the churning tiers monde of ex-colonial and underdeveloped states. Similarly, the United States, plagued by a sluggish economy and a chronic balance of payments deficit, has less to fear from a Russia preoccupied with her own internal problems than from an economically aggressive European community which is determined to take over as many American markets as it can. As China is to Russia, so Western Europe has become to America: a reluctant ally, and increasingly a rival which must somehow be contained.

There is nothing wrong with the new American defense strategy—other than that it runs completely counter to the original conception of the Atlantic alliance. If the United States has finally decided that it will only become involved in a nuclear war at its own choice, then the strategy Washington is pursuing is correct, and needs neither apologies nor equivocations. If, on the other hand, the American people are still willing to let their European allies involve them in a nuclear war so that the present framework of NATO can be preserved, then the Pentagon’s entire strategy of “flexible response” and “controlled counter-force” warfare must be scrapped for the sake of making the American nuclear guarantee credible once again to the NATO allies. If an integrated military alliance with Europe is what the United States wants, then it must relinquish the power to wage or refrain from war—which in this age may amount to survival or extinction.



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