Commentary Magazine

Naked Unto Our Enemies

The crisis over North Korea’s development of a nuclear arsenal has—or should have—brought us face to face with two hard truths. First, the nonproliferation agreements we have been relying on cannot work against precisely the kind of rogue state these agreements were designed to keep from acquiring nuclear weapons. Second, because we continue to eschew missile defense—indeed, right now we have nothing deployed on land, sea, or in space that could shoot down even one missile fired at us—we are at the mercy of the worst elements of mankind.

To see how we got ourselves to this point, why all the old arguments against missile defense have become meaningless, and why we are finally being forced to think about nuclear weapons realistically for the first time, we must start by looking back to the dawn of the nuclear age.



No sooner had atom bombs been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 than both popular and elite publications began presenting nuclear power as at once the goddess and the demon of the new age—an inexhaustible source of energy for progress, but also a guarantee that the next war would bring the world to an end. If mankind changed its ways, it would prosper as never before. If not, it would perish.

Such utopian talk notwithstanding, however, many people knew that nuclear weapons were not magic, and that the destructiveness of war had always depended less on what warriors had in their hands than on what was on their minds. As for the military, it understood that the atom bomb was not in fact a doomsday machine. After all, dropping a single bomb from high altitude meant that one could not be sure it would land closer than about a half-mile from the target. Targets of concrete or steel, rather than Japan’s papier-mâché cities, might escape damage entirely. And then, of course, no one could ensure that the airplane carrying the bomb would penetrate the airspace of an undefeated enemy.

But common sense was unable to prevail against the fantasies spawned by the atom bomb. Within weeks of Hiroshima, Bernard Brodie and other “defense intellectuals” put together a little book, The Absolute Weapon, that formulated what would soon became conventional wisdom for American policy-makers. In this view, nuclear weapons were not ordinary things in the hands of ordinary people whose invention had changed nothing in human nature or statecraft. On the contrary, the advent of this “absolute weapon” had changed everything, beginning with war itself.

In the past, defenses against attack had been essential in war. But now, since no one would absolutely guarantee that a nuclear bomb could not reach a given target, and since a single bomb could utterly destroy that target, defense had become impossible. In the past, too, the number of weapons on each side had counted enormously in war. But now, when each adversary could be destroyed by 2,000 nuclear devices, the fact that one possessed 2,000 and the other 6,000 would make no difference. Nor could regimes based on different ethical systems view atomic weapons differently, because “in no case is the fear of nuclear attack likely to be low.” Hence the Soviet Union and the United States would be able to destroy each other, but neither could protect itself, and both would know it. No changes in technology would ever alter this state of affairs.

This entire conception was always nonsense from top to bottom. The truth is that while cities are easy to destroy with nuclear weapons, most military targets are difficult, and deep-underground bunkers are immune. With nuclear as with any other weapons, concentrating offensive weapons to overcome defenses in one area means that other areas will not be attacked. One belligerent may have x nuclear weapons in its arsenal, but how many of these will hurt its adversary depends on how little, how much, and how well the adversary does to preempt or defend against them. Fear of death, whether by razor at the throat, concentration camp, or nuclear war has never affected different people in the same way. Finally, anyone who says that the most recent human invention is the last is surely mistaken.

Nevertheless, the message of The Absolute Weapon proved so congenial to American policymakers that it swept everything before it. The reason it was so attractive is that it promised to obviate the hard questions of war and peace. If any nuclear war would bring the world to an end, there would be no need to distinguish between better and worse causes, between friends and enemies, or to make sensible plans. Thus, the orthodoxy of The Absolute Weapon created a value-free utopia in which for all practical purposes nuclear weapons did not exist.

Cautions were voiced by critics like Herman Kahn (who showed that nuclear war could come in as many sizes and shapes as any other kind and that its destructiveness was finite), and Albert Wohlstetter (who argued that it was possible to destroy the enemy’s nuclear forces before any were launched and thus limit damage to one’s own country and even make retaliation unreasonable). But these critics were vilified even for “thinking about the unthinkable”—an activity of which American policy-makers in the 1950’s were increasingly innocent. Even as the military was preparing to defend the country, it was beginning to believe that plans for nuclear war, and especially for defense against it, might actually bring on such a war.

Then, in 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began reshaping U. S. strategic forces according to the orthodoxy of the “absolute weapon.” By this time, of course, American ballistic missiles were replacing aircraft as the main means of delivering nuclear weapons. But ours were designed to be incapable of destroying Soviet missiles in their bunkers. The magnificent system of defense against aircraft which we had developed in the early postwar years was scrapped, while anti-missile defense programs were shifted from production of usable devices to endless and fruitless research.



All this was summed up by the theory that came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. According to this theory, the best way to prevent nuclear war between the U. S. and the Soviet Union was for both sides to keep their cities defenseless against it, and for both sides to retain an invulnerable capability for striking back after a nuclear attack. Denied the ability to start a nuclear war without bringing about their own destruction, both sides would be deterred.

Nothing the Soviets did could shake the belief of American officialdom that Moscow shared its orthodoxy. Thus, for example, in 1972 the U.S. government, in signing the anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) treaty, pledged not to defend America against Soviet missiles in exchange for a Soviet promise to build no more than 300 bunker-killing warheads. By the 1980’s, the Soviets had built over 6,000 of this kind, suggesting that, in defiance of the orthodoxy, they were trying to develop a first-strike capability. Nevertheless, we let this increase pass because we considered it meaningless.

Again, throughout the 1980’s, the U.S. government’s annual report on arms-control compliance accused the Soviets of violating their pledge not to build an anti-missile system. Yet according to the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates, the Soviets could not possibly believe that the devices they were building would protect them, and therefore (the CIA reasoned) their defenses were unlikely to embolden them to take actions they would not otherwise have taken.

In short, the U.S. government’s resolve to leave America vulnerable to Soviet nuclear weapons did not depend on anything the Soviets did. It came from a deep desire on the part of American officials to believe that nuclear weapons were useless and unusable.

Another manifestation of the same desire was the U.S. government’s effort, begun by the Eisenhower administration, to gain Soviet co-sponsorship of a treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union’s interest in such an effort was clear enough: it rightly feared that Eastern Europe’s armies would, if they could, turn such weapons against Moscow, and it also knew that the countries, like Japan, which possessed the greatest capacity to build nuclear weapons were natural allies of the U.S. As for the U.S., its attitude was summed up by Secretary of State Dean Rusk: “One nuclear power is one too many.”

Although the negotiations over the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) lasted a dozen years and involved UN committees of ten and then eighteen nations, there really were only two negotiators, the U. S. and the Soviet Union, and only one issue: would the U.S. be willing to prevent, or at least make it very difficult for, its friends and allies who did not already possess nuclear weapons to acquire them?

The NPT, then, was of a piece with the rest of U. S. policy toward nuclear weapons: it forced no foreign enemy to give up any capability against the U. S., and brought to the U. S. no force against foreign enemies we did not already have. By signing the NPT we placed some restrictions on ourselves and our allies. In exchange, we hoped for Soviet goodwill.

A glance at the U. S. Senate debates in 1968 on the ratification of the NPT is revealing. There was virtually no discussion of what the U. S. would do if a rogue power attempted to build nuclear weapons. Nor was the question raised of whether it would make a difference if the state acquiring such weapons was aligned with us or against us. Senators asked a few pointed questions to make sure that the U.S. had given no new guarantees to friends and allies. Most of the debates, however, were about where we could expect our budding partnership with the Soviet Union to lead. And the question which drew the most interest may be reduced to this: now that we and the Soviets have agreed to co-manage the world’s nuclear affairs, what need is there of American anti-missile defenses?

Note that the NPT did not pretend to diminish or even cap the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the U. S. Nor did it promise additional help from anyone should any new nuclear enemies arise. Even so, the Senate’s sense of relief and hope were palpable, because the treaty confirmed the deep-rooted assumption that the Soviet Union shared our utopian premises about nuclear weapons and that, together, the U. S. and the Soviet Union were moving toward a non-nuclear world.



That assumption continued to govern U.S. policy through all the succeeding administrations, including Ronald Reagan’s, but it peaked during the presidency of George Bush, whose first priority was a “new world order.” This new order was nothing but the old, orthodox utopia. The two co-leaders would reduce their own nuclear arsenals to the bare minimum required for mutually-unacceptable damage, refrain from missile defense, and join to punish rogue states like Iraq.

Treating this vision as reality, the Bush administration reduced U.S. strategic-nuclear forces well beyond the requirements of arms-control treaties. It took away all nuclear warheads from Army and Air Force units stationed abroad, as well as from Navy ships at sea. It unilaterally stopped the testing of all U. S. nuclear weapons, ensuring that the entire stockpile would cease to be reliable in a few years. And it shut down the only factory in the U.S. that produced tritium, the essential ingredient of modern nuclear bombs. Since tritium decays naturally, the decision not to produce any more meant that most of our nuclear weapons would cease to be usable in about ten years. So, as far as the U.S. was concerned, nuclear weapons were well on their way to being disinvented—at least in America.

Meanwhile, however, a world disconcertingly newer than anything that American policy-makers had imagined was being born. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even those who did not fear a new Russian empire, or a Russo-Ukrainian war, or the possibility that the Russian nuclear arsenal might pass into the bellicose hands of Vladimir Zhirinovsky were compelled to acknowledge that the new Russia would not be our partner in building a non-nuclear “new world order.” Of course, there was never any reason to believe that the old Soviet Union would ever play that role either, although many Americans convinced themselves otherwise. But few had any incentive to harbor comparable illusions about the new Russia.

Meanwhile, also, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles were spreading in spite of the nonproliferation treaty. Indeed, the treaty’s procedures for UN inspection of budding nuclear programs and the utopian ideology that was at its heart made it harder for the United States to act from the standpoint of its own interests.

And so, today, in addition to Israel, which is not a signatory of the NPT, the unofficial members of the nuclear club are India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Iran will join soon. Egypt, Algeria, and Taiwan may not be far behind. Japan and South Korea can become nuclear-missile powers at will, with virtually no notice. Saddam Hussein was slowed down a bit, but since no one proposes refighting the Gulf war—the U. S. no longer has the forces to do so—Iraq’s accession to the club is only a matter of time.



Yet all this is less important than the underlying fact: just about any nation nowadays can have ever-more sophisticated nuclear-tipped (or chemical- or biological-tipped) missiles.

The prime technical reason is the inexorable spread of basic technology. Consider that over half the graduate students in technical fields in American universities are foreign-born, both because many American college students have lost the taste and capacity for difficult work and because countries like India and Iran send their best students here. The upshot is that we export knowledge in its most expansive and irretrievable form.

Consider also that the basic technical tools now on the open market are vastly more sophisticated than the ones used to build the missiles and warheads on which the U.S. relied during most of the cold war. Home computers in the $5,000 range—pentium-based, or Power Macintosh, or anything using the Unix system—can run software that NASA sells on the open market for manufacturing space-launched vehicles.

Anyone who wants to turn such a vehicle into a ballistic missile can also find the components of stunningly accurate guidance systems on the open market. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receivers cost less than $1,000 and have accuracy down to eight meters. The guts of excellent internal-guidance systems—modern gyroscopes and accelerometers—can be as small as a child’s fist, or can even be put on a microchip. The most difficult part of atom-bomb engineering, simultaneous detonation, has been rendered a nonproblem by quartz timers on computer chips. The basic design of single-stage uranium or plutonium bombs has long been public knowledge.

To be sure, getting nuclear materials is more difficult. But the enormity and disorganization of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stocks, coupled with the poverty and lack of scruples of their custodians, have made the sale of such materials inevitable. Indeed, the illicit export of weapons-grade plutonium has already occurred. Years ago, separating bomb-grade uranium and producing plutonium involved exotic technology. Now it is merely laborious. The technology of chemical and biological weapons is even readier at hand.

Hence, any government that wants ballistic missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction can have them—and many do. They want nuclear weapons not—à la Brodie’s book of 1946—because they aspire to become stewards of the terrible alternative between perpetual peace and the end of the world. No, they want these weapons to threaten or to strike ancestral enemies, or to make war more efficiently, or to hold at bay their victims’ potential rescuers. Indeed, many of the new or aspiring owners of nuclear weapons want them precisely because of their capacity to cause mass destruction.

It must be emphasized that the American orthodoxy about defense rested on the idea that nuclear weapons would be in the hands of special leaders, and that merely possessing them would make anyone into a Bernard Brodie. But if anything is clear nowadays, it is the ordinariness (at best) of the leaders who are now acquiring weapons of mass destruction. No amount of effort is enough to imagine Korea’s Kim Jong II, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or an Iranian ayatollah at an Aspen seminar nodding sagely at a reiteration of the theses of The Absolute Weapon.



How are we going to live in a world in which this is the case? The U.S. government’s answer is to be found in the Report on Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation Activities and Programs issued in May 1994 by the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense. These activities and programs include:

  • Detection and identification of proliferation activities.
  • Convincing . . . states that their security interests are best served through not acquiring weapons of mass destruction. This can be accomplished through, e.g., reduction of regional tensions through dialogue and confidence-building measures, security assurances, security assistance, public diplomacy, forward presence of U.S. troops, joint military exercises, and military contacts.
  • Curtailing access to technology and materials for weapons of mass destruction through export control or other tools. . . .
  • Reinforcing the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty, the Biological and Chemical Weapons conventions, a Comprehensive Test-Ban treaty, nuclear-free zones, conventional arms treaties that stabilize regional arms races, and confidence- and security-building measures.
  • Punishing violators with trade sanctions, publicizing and exposing companies and countries that assist proliferators. . . .
  • Agreements to destroy, inspect, convert, monitor, or even reverse their [proliferators’] capabilities.
  • Bringing to bear military, political, economic, and commercial tools . . . to persuade even the most ardent proliferator that the risks . . . are not acceptable.

Thus far, the report invites the objection that these measures are precisely those we have undertaken—unsuccessfully—against North Korea and every other nuclear-missile program of which we disapprove. Why then should any of it do any good in the future? But then come the report’s final recommendations:

  • Being prepared to seize, disable, or destroy weapons of mass destruction in time of conflict if necessary. . . .
  • Employing active and passive defenses that will mitigate the effects of these agents. . . .

Though buried in bureaucratic gobbledygook and self-contradiction, these last two programs amount to a willingness, albeit tentative, to consider actually fighting, surviving—and, dare one say?, winning—a nuclear war.

Now, our willingness to attack a power armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles must depend on the capacity to prevent those missiles, once launched, from landing on us. And indeed, the report goes on to mention several of the antimissile systems that would be available for that purpose. But it also says that the ABM treaty stands in the way of using the most effective of these systems to do the very job it stresses as essential: hitting missiles as soon as possible after they are launched.

Trying to square the circle, the report wishes “to meet a real threat without undermining a valuable agreement.” But it is impossible to design a defense that would be impenetrable to just about everybody’s missiles while at the same time remaining penetrable to Russia’s. The U.S. government’s attempt to distinguish between tactical and strategic anti-missile systems for purposes of arms control makes no technical sense. In reality, the only meaningful distinction is between devices that perform better and others that perform worse.



In any event, far from being a “valuable agreement,” the ABM treaty was always harmful to us in the past—and still is. It made no more sense to be vulnerable to Brezhnev twenty years ago than it does to be vulnerable to Kim Jong II today.

A good example of how the treaty has worked to cripple our technology is the Patriot radar and interceptor system that defended U.S. troops and Israeli cities during the Gulf war. Designed in 1974, the Patriot could have seen incoming warheads 150 miles away, and could have hit them 30 miles away. But, in deference to the ABM treaty, the Patriot radar’s power was cut so that it could see warheads only 50 miles away. Its operating software was downgraded, the fuse on its warhead was made intentionally inaccurate, and it had to receive data on the direction of incoming warheads indirectly.

During the early 80’s, some of the Patriot’s potency was restored, enabling it to intercept Iraqi SCUDs, albeit too close for comfort. New programs will now upgrade the system a bit more, but without undoing its major self-imposed handicaps.

Similarly, during the 70’s and 80’s, the Navy built AEGIS, an air-defense system for ships. Its radar is so powerful that it can track debris in space, and its computer can handle dozens of targets almost simultaneously. The reason AEGIS did not suffer the fate of the Patriot is that the Navy hid its true capacities from the arms-control bureaucracy.

If the Navy’s 27 existing AEGIS cruisers (plus 3 AEGIS destroyers and 26 more planned) were equipped with fast boosters and an accurate fuse on their standard interceptor missiles, each could protect an area within a radius of 100 miles and intercept incoming warheads some 50 miles from their targets. If one upgraded AEGIS ship were in New York harbor, the entire metropolitan area might well be unscathed even if some twenty warheads were to arrive within a few seconds. Hence, the existing AEGIS fleet could provide substantial protection for coastal America or for threatened U.S. allies. Building more AEGIS ships, as well as ground-based AEGIS units, could extend this reasonably solid protection—especially if each unit were allowed to receive data directly from space-based sensors.

But here again, the ABM treaty stands in the way, since upgrading AEGIS would violate our own interpretation of the treaty.

The Patriot and AEGIS at least exist, but the Department of Defense also has a flood of technology that it has refrained from fashioning into anti-missile weapons. There is, for example, the Theater High Altitude Air Defense System (THAAD). What will this combination of ground-based radars and interceptors do if it is ever built? That depends on ongoing arguments among technologists, arms controllers, and budgeteers. If the THAAD program were to produce the best that technology allows, it would intercept warheads beyond, as well as on the edges of, the atmosphere. But once again, this would violate the ABM treaty.

In the same way, the Pentagon has excellent technology, developed between the late 70’s and mid-80’s, to discriminate among warheads and decoys long before they reenter the atmosphere on the basis of how much heat they emit. The Pentagon also has excellent technology from the same period to intercept warheads in late mid-course. Both sets of programs could have produced useful devices long ago. But the U.S. government has kept them in the equivalent of limbo.

The U.S. also has powerful radars in the Arctic and wondrous satellites in orbit that, with few modifications, would help any anti-missile device we might build. So, too, with various technologies that could intercept enemy missiles when they are most vulnerable—Just as they exit the atmosphere, and before they release their warheads. Well over a decade ago, we could have built space-based lasers. We now know that, in 1987, the Soviet Union launched such an antimissile device. But a booster rocket malfunctioned and put it into the Indian Ocean rather than into orbit. (The device was crude by U.S. standards, but it produced between 10 and 15 megawatts—enough to destroy any U.S. missile.) Today the technology for such devices is even better than circa 1980. Yet we are no closer than we were then to building them.



Why? Certainly not because these, and other kinds of devices too numerous to mention, would be ineffective. On the contrary, if they were ineffective, no treaty would have been necessary to ban them and exhortations against building them would be meaningless.

Scientists who argue against trying to build such devices typically do not contend that each device would not function as advertised.1 Rather, they restate the orthodoxy of The Absolute Weapon. The following sentence by McGeorge Bundy, William Crowe, and Sidney Drell—pillars of the foreign-policy, military, and scientific-contractor establishments, respectively—is remarkable only for its clarity: “There really is no prospect that all-out defense can outrun all-out offense in nuclear warfare, because of the . . . overwhelming destructiveness of every single nuclear warhead.”

Statements like this beg the central question: if every nuclear warhead is so fearsome, why not do everything possible to defend against it? Why not build every device that might reduce the proportion of weapons arriving to weapons launched? What is wrong with cutting down the damage done by any attack no matter where it comes from?

On the lowest level, the answer to the question of why we remain defenseless involves the personal stakes of a class of powerful policy-makers. Admiral Crowe’s memoirs recount that when he was America’s highest-ranking military man under Ronald Reagan, he did not take his commander-in-chief’s promulgation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or his pronouncements about the necessity of anti-missile defense, to mean that the issue “had already been decided.” Rather, Crowe writes, “committing the necessary funding would have seriously unbalanced the military’s non-SDI programs. From my point of view, that alone was enough reason to move carefully.”

In other words, to make sure that as little money as possible was diverted from their favorite constituencies, Crowe and people like him fixed it so that SDI would deliver no protection. Indeed, the panel appointed to determine what the SDI program would be was made up exclusively of representatives of organizations that would lose money if the United States ever built missile defenses.

On another level, the continuing opposition to defense is due to a deeply ingrained distrust of the American people. Spurgeon Keeny, executive director of the Arms Control Association, has recently written: “If the U.S. is not prepared to act overseas without a shield against remote contingencies [namely, our troops or our country being threatened with nuclear weapons], it should not be involved in the first place.” This recalls the refrain of the anti-SDI chorus during the 1980’s that, with a U.S. defensive shield, Americans could not be trusted to refrain from doing dangerously bellicose things. Although the anti-anti-Communism that animated this sort of sentiment a decade ago has diminished, it can now feed well enough on garden-variety isolationism.

On the most fundamental level, the reason for the enduring opposition to defense is that it brings us up against truths we would rather not confront: that the nuclear danger, terrible though it is, is not unlimited; that what foreign governments will or will not do is determined by factors beyond our control; that treaties with those who wish us harm are not worth the paper they are written on; and that our lot, now as ever, is constantly to tinker with imperfection.



This last point is crucial. One of the main weaknesses of Ronald Reagan’s conception of SDI was the notion that it should make nuclear weapons obsolete. This was, ironically, the same utopianism that had left us defenseless in the first place, and it gave the opponents of SDI a wonderful opening. For even to think of guaranteeing that no missile will ever get through is to get bogged down in technical requirements that cannot possibly be met. It is of a piece with the mindset of people who engage in a-priori estimates of the effectiveness of imaginary anti-missile systems. Will “they” be 70-percent effective? 90-percent?

Such thinking is inherently foolish because no one can foretell precisely who would attack what, under what circumstances, with how many missiles, of what characteristics, how well they would perform, what quality and quantity of defenses they would face, and how well both their technical components and human leaders would perform. Thus, while we may legitimately expect that some missile defenses will fail miserably, we can also expect that others will protect 100 percent, with plenty left over to spare.

To the extent that we continue to dream of stuffing the nuclear genie back into the bottle through ill-conceived arms-control pacts like the ABM and NPT treaties, our defenses will be littler and later than they might have been. But if North Korea’s lack of subtlety should succeed in forcing the U.S. government to face the awful ordinariness of nuclear weapons, and the irrationality of deliberately keeping ourselves defenseless against them, we will owe its gruesome dictators a debt of thanks.


1 See my articles in COMMENTARY, May 1986 and September 1987.

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