Commentary Magazine

Nuclear Strategists

To the Editor:

I am not surprised by Edward N. Luttwak’s mainly unfavorable review of my book, The Wizards of Armageddon [Books in Review, August]. In early January 1981, while researching a magazine article, I telephoned Mr. Luttwak, who, upon hearing my name, muttered, “Yes, Mr. Kaplan, I know who you are, you are a very bad man.”

Be that as it may, I must confess that, in a perverse sort of way, I was delighted with Mr. Luttwak’s review; for it demonstrates that he could find serious shortcomings in my book only by seriously distorting its contents.

Mr. Luttwak’s chief objection—he repeats it many, many times—is that I totally misrepresent the nature of the Soviet threat; that the real threat is that posed by the Soviet army; and that the American “defense intellectuals” whom I portray were trying to formulate a nuclear strategy to deter not so much a direct nuclear first-strike against the U.S. but rather a conventionally armed invasion of Western Europe. According to Mr. Luttwak’s review, my book says “nothing whatever . . . about the Soviet army,” fails by “leaving the Soviet army out of the picture,” “gives no serious consideration to the strategic predicament which was the source of it all: to protect Western Europe from intimidation if not attack.” Most astonishingly, according to Mr. Luttwak, I do “not feel it necessary to describe, even in a single phrase, what it was that the American deterrent was to deter.”

This is simply nonsense. In my descriptions of how the defense intellectuals devised strategies involving “limited nuclear options” and “counterforce targeting”—in discussing how and why Bernard Brodie came up with his “no-cities” doctrine, in describing the political and social context within which the analysts of the RAND Corporation lived and thought, in revealing how William Kaufmann, perhaps the most articulate and (behind-the-scenes) influential counterforce theorist, translated his ideas on “limited [conventional] war” to a conception of limited nuclear war, in analyzing the motives behind former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s “selective-options” policy—I constantly and consistently emphasize that their main concern was fear of the Soviet army, perceived as more powerful than the armies of the West, especially in certain regions. I describe, rather painstakingly in fact, how Kaufmann especially came to the field of nuclear strategy in search of a solution to precisely the problem about which Mr. Luttwak claims I say “nothing whatever”—deterrence of Soviet conventional aggression against Western Europe in an age when both the U.S. and the USSR have plenty of nuclear bombs.

For proof on this matter, I refer the interested reader (and Mr. Luttwak) to pp. 33-34, 80-81, 92, 202-04, 218-19, 223-24, 238, 242, 348-49, 358-59, 368-71, and 376 of my book. The point is made throughout the book, but these sections state it most clearly.

(I should add here that many of the nuclear “wizards” portrayed in my book did conceive the Soviet threat as one of a surprise, bolt-from-the-blue first-strike against SAC bombers and missile sites inside the continental U.S. To the extent that Mr. Luttwak believes, as I do, that this scenario is—in his words—“most improbable,” he should aim his salvos at various characters in my book, not at me.)

If space allowed, I could offer similar rebuttal to virtually every objection filed by Mr. Luttwak. That he is so wrong on his most belabored point should be a sufficient observation for now.

Finally, I must say a few words about Mr. Luttwak’s lengthy interpretation of the Soviets’ first hydrogen bomb. It is true that it contained lithium, suggesting it was potentially an operational weapon, not just a “device” (a point that I make in the book). However, Mr. Luttwak fails to note that the Soviet bomb was about 3 percent as powerful as the H-bomb that the U.S. exploded a year earlier, and—as Herbert York points out in his authoritative history, The Advisers—it was not based on the Teller-Ulam design principles that lead to the construction of bombs of indefinitely large size. The Soviets would not build one of those until November 1955, three years after the Americans. In short, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s pleas for restraint were not so suicidal; had they been followed, even for a year or so, the U.S. would still have retained a substantial lead.

Fred Kaplan
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

. . . Edward N. Luttwak makes the assertion, which critics of American defense policy and its role in generating the arms race would do well to consider, that strategic thinking has not been primarily preoccupied with the threat to the American continent posed by the Soviet arms arsensal. The stability and effectiveness of deterrence in that arena, he suggests, has not been a matter of serious doubt. Rather, efforts have centered upon the requirements of extending deterrence to protect the European allies otherwise left vulnerable to the danger both of conventional attack and nuclear intimidation by the Soviets. Acknowledging the apparently ludicrous “overkill” capacity, he states that to defend the United States itself “a great part of the nuclear weapons would always have been unnecessary.” This is a point of formidable importance clarifying as it does the centrality of the Atlantic alliance in the calculus of the arms race. . . .

Here a second point of Mr. Luttwak’s is cogent even if proffered almost parenthetically. Mr. Luttwak points out . . . “the enormous increases in defense spending that a truly adequate conventional deterrent would require.” But in the face of the swelling opposition to escalating nuclear-arms spending and the upcoming European deployments, the stern misgivings over American refusal to renounce “first-use” options, and the frontal challenge to the moral integrity of nuclear policy generally, this “alternative to the decline of Western security” demands our steady focus. . . .

The greatest share of the burden in adopting such a course undoubtedly and rightfully falls upon the Europeans themselves. . . . In what way and to what degree do they regard themselves as intimidated by the Soviets and in what manner and to what extent are they . . . prepared to sacrifice to defend their own freedom? While American support for the defense of Europe might continue unwavering and at the ready, and is likely to remain indispensable, American views on these European-first questions, and American resources committed to assistance, must clearly and wisely be deemed subordinate.

From the cursory manner in which this critical alternative is broached, I sense that Mr. Luttwak and many other strategic planners and policy advisers are ill-disposed to . . . consider it for ulterior reasons. (Witness the storm over the recent advocacy of a “no-first-use” policy despite its corollary call for strengthened conventional forces in Europe.) At first glance, their objection appears to be political, a concern over the plausibility of securing the increased defense spending in Western capitals that might be required for conventional deterrence. . . . More penetrating perhaps is the anxiety prompted by the prospect that the European nations may elect . . . to decouple their security and thus their interests from those of the United States. However, are these not precisely the issues that deserve to be addressed on their merits, deliberately and forthrightly, by an informed and enfranchised public? . . .

Earnest efforts toward arms-control notwithstanding, the reality of Soviet military power may be forcing the West to face starkly the legitimate choice, too long obfuscated and deferred: of continued extension of the American nuclear deterrent, with the implicit dismissal or at least neglect of the widely-held aspiration for a policy aimed at progressive denuclearization; of respect for this policy at the cost of the added burdens of conventional-force deterrence; or, . . . of abdication before . . . the potential intimidation or aggression . . . posed by Soviet forces left undeterred. . . .

Priority must pass from the United States to the European nations, on the front line in regard to their own defense, and from the leadership of national-strategic planners to the resolution and commitment of their respective publics. Without such refocusing, I suspect that the unqualified exoneration of the nuclear strategists which Edward N. Luttwak’s review so forcefully argues may well have to be deferred.

Jeffrey Pick
Windham Center, Connecticut



Edward N. Luttwak writes:

My remark about “a single phrase” was obviously hyperbolic, but such phrases as Fred Kaplan does use show that he neither appreciates the Soviet threat himself nor understands the role it played, and continues to play, in the strategic thought he undertakes to criticize.

Jeffrey Pick’s alternatives are indeed the major ones that we must continue to evaluate. I suppose there is some truth in his claim that these choices have been obfuscated in the American debates over nuclear weapons. But I want to assure Mr. Pick that his alternatives are central whenever Americans and Europeans gather. It is clear that the alliance must indeed move toward a choice. My own preference would be for a very substantial reinforcement of conventional capabilities, and my major quarrel with the born-again conventional rearmers is that they grossly underestimate the effort needed to contain the Soviet Union. Much loose talk about 3 percent or 4 percent increases, cavalier statements about the supposedly miraculous effect of some new weapons upon the balance, should not obscure the fact that what is needed in Central Europe is not less than an entire new army.

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