Commentary Magazine

Closing Pandora's Box, by Patrick Glynn

Weapons & War

Closing Pandora’s Box: Arms Races, Arms Control, and the History of the Cold War.
by Patrick Glynn.
Basic Books. 445 pp. $30.00.

Patrick Glynn’s excellent new history of arms control attempts to answer the question of why disarmament as a goal in itself remains so powerful, in spite of the meager (and sometimes unfortunate) results of past arms-control initiatives. Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who served under Kenneth Adelman at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) during the Reagan administration, unites a partisan’s convictions with a scholar’s rigor. The result is a provocative and persuasive study of one of the great delusions of our time.

Throughout the cold war, Glynn argues, Western policy-makers

remained torn between two fundamentally opposing premises: the notion that military strength deters aggression and the competing belief that the arms race itself could be a cause of war.

The latter belief

helped propel arms control to the center of America’s national-security agenda in the 1960’s, setting the stage for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) of the 1970’s and subsequent arms-limitation efforts.

The notion that arms races themselves are capable of causing wars by accident long predates the cold war. Drawing on the latest scholarship, Glynn convincingly refutes the widely accepted view that World War I was a case in point—an accidental conflagration, touched off by the addition of the spark of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination to the tinder of a European arms race. Rather,

war came in 1914 for the relatively simple reason that a hegemonic state sought to expand its influence in the world and was persuaded by the apparent momentary weakness and indecision of its opponents to do so by violent means.

What Glynn calls “liberal pacifists” in the generations since World War I have had a special motive for shifting the blame for that conflict from Germany in particular to the nation-state system in general. If world wars result, not from the ambitions of a particular kind of aggressive and hegemonic state but from the ordinary dynamics of the sovereign state system itself, then the case for moving to some kind of world government appears much stronger.

So does the argument that war no longer pays. Exaggeration of the horrors of a second world war (which turned out to be horrible enough, in the event), combined with a sense that old balance-of-power policies had been discredited, provided the context for initiatives like the Washington Conference on naval disarmament of 1921-22—“the first of a series of measures that was to have the main effect of paving the way for a second world war.”

This package of received ideas—that arms races cause wars, that the state system itself is obsolete, that a spirit of international amity is more important than insistence on adherence to the details of arms treaties—should have been discredited by World War II. That war, after all, was brought about by the grand geopolitical ambitions of radical revisionist powers, not by the mutual apprehensions of traditional great powers in a functioning state system. The invention of atomic weapons, however, gave liberal-pacifist notions a certain credibility.

For generations, pacifists had been trying to turn one weapon after another—the machine gun, the airplane, mustard gas—into the weapon that, by its capacity to annihilate civilization if used, would render war obsolete. The atomic bomb, the latest in a series of Weapons to End All Wars, looked enough like the real thing to convince many otherwise intelligent people that the old way of conducting international relations really had to change. The destructive power of atomic and nuclear weapons gave a dramatic boost to the credibility of the argument that technology had made traditional conceptions of strategic advantage, indeed, of victory, meaningless. If this argument was correct, then once both sides possessed the ability to destroy one another, military “superiority” became an empty concept.



In the central chapters of the book, Glynn traces the progress of this theory to its ultimate triumph in the mid-60’s, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara abandoned strategic superiority as a goal in favor of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). This was followed by the renunciation of U.S. ballistic-missile defense efforts, and the move, as early as 1968, toward U.S.-Soviet negotiations on strategic arms control.

The McNamara who emerges from Glynn’s pages is an individual who, in matters of strategy, consistently prefers the paradox to the orthodox. On the first day of the Cuban missile crisis, McNamara tells President John F. Kennedy, “I don’t think there is a military problem,” denying that the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba altered the strategic balance. Soon McNamara was arguing that the strengthening of the Soviet strategic arsenal was in the interests of the United States.

By the 1970’s, thanks in part to a well-organized arms-control lobby with a beachhead in the government itself, the conviction that military strength deters aggression was in retreat before the idea that arms and arms races cause war. Glynn finds “perhaps the most complete and synoptic expression” of this view in a 1975 Foreign Policy article, “Apes on a Treadmill,” written by Paul Warnke, an attorney by background who had been one of McNamara’s “whiz kids” at the Pentagon. Among other things, Warnke criticized as a “major fallacy” the idea that the national interest would suffer from “failure by the United States to maintain a cosmetic military ‘superiority.’” Incredibly, Warnke argued that the Soviets, then engaged in a sustained effort to achieve strategic superiority, were doing so, not to achieve Eurasian hegemony but only out of a pathetic desire to imitate the United States.

Perhaps, then, President Jimmy Carter, by appointing Warnke as his chief arms-control negotiator, was attempting to set a new example for the Soviets to imitate—of a superpower that promotes advocates of unilateral retrenchment to positions of great influence within the government. Had the Brezhnev regime during the Carter years seen fit thus to emulate “its only living superpower model,” the Berlin Wall might have fallen in 1979. Instead, the Soviets, having reached strategic parity with the United States, were not content with the symbolic rewards of being an equal superpower. They launched ambitious programs of support for radical third-world regimes and terrorist movements and, in Afghanistan, waged full-scale conventional war beyond their own borders for the first time since World War II.



In response to this new Soviet confidence and aggression, a powerful intellectual and political opposition to the arms-control theology began gaining influence, with champions like Albert Wohlstetter and Senator Henry Jackson. This group’s philosophy would come to power with the Reagan administration.

Glynn’s generally sound account of recent history suffers at times from a tendency to assume that the priorities of this group have been those of the electorate. His glowing praise of Reagan is also undermined by his own account, which portrays a President who was himself wedded to rather utopian notions about the elimination of nuclear weapons and the “sharing” of SDI.

Moreover, Glynn’s American-centered presentation tends to slight the extent to which the Soviet Union was defeated, not by the United States alone but by the coalition of European and Asian powers that the U.S. headed. Thus, it can be argued that German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s London speech of 1977, which led to the controversial deployment of new intermediate-range missiles by NATO in the early 1980’s and the failure of the last great Soviet peace offensive, was as important as the remote prospect of SDI deployment in convincing the Soviets to rethink their cold-war strategy. And Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric was surely far less critical in inspiring the revolutions of 1989 than the conviction of Mikhail Gorbachev that bloody repression of Eastern Europe would prevent access to the Western resources that were needed to stave off Soviet economic collapse.



“The ascendancy of the arms-control paradigm had coincided with a weakened and self-doubting period in American history, a period of sad domestic turmoil and foreign defeat,” Glynn writes. He sees a reemergence of the rival tradition of military superiority in the Bush administration’s strategy in the Gulf War. It is not necessary to agree with Glynn’s proposal that the United States and its allies wage similar wars around the world “to underwrite global stability” to share his hope that the tradition of deterrence has triumphed over the theology of arms control.

However, there are disturbing signs that the lessons have not been learned. One is the somewhat hysterical emphasis on “nonproliferation,” which repeats the mistake of the older arms-control theology in treating weapons as such, rather than particular regimes, as the problem. Another indication of possible trouble is the disproportionate attention that the Bush administration is paying to concluding arms agreements with the fragments of the former Soviet empire, at the expense of more pressing geopolitical interests in that unstable region (like the removal of Russian troops from other republics to Russian soil).

Glynn’s comprehensive and critical account of arms control during the cold war provides every reason to reject the disarmament ideology after the cold war. At the same time, his history of the deep roots of its constituent illusions makes one suspect that they have not flowered for the last time.

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