Heroes, Villains & SDI
The Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace.
by Strobe Talbott.
Knopf. 416 pp. $19.95.
The idea of arms control is surprisingly old. Ancient writers mention a treaty between two Greek cities banning the use of missiles in battle as early as perhaps 700 B.C.E. (the missiles designated are arrows, javelins, and the shot hurled from slings). The Second Lateran Council in 1139 banned the use of arrows from bow and crossbow against Catholic Christians (although they were permitted against infidels and heretics.) Not until late in the 19th century, however, did a broad interest in controlling the use of weapons develop, and not until this century did it become a permanent feature of international relations, a full-time occupation and profession for experts, and the subject of a regular agency of the goverment of the United States.
Strobe Talbott is the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine who has made a specialty of the process of arms-control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The present volume is the third of a series beginning with Endgame: The Inside Story of Salt II (1979) and continuing with Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control (1984).
This latest volume is in some ways a continuation of the story of American arms-control efforts and policy in the years 1983-88, but it is also different, attempting to review “the history of the nuclear age through the career of one man,” Paul Nitze.
It is not, however, a biography of Nitze. The narrative covers a longer stretch of time more superficially than the earlier books, providing a less satisfactory account of the recent period than it might; it also fails to give a clear understanding of Nitze, even in his capacity as an arms-control negotiator. There is no serious analysis of his thinking, and no satisfactory examination of the changes in the positions he has taken over the years.
Thus, Nitze helped negotiate SALT I but, as a key member of the Committee on the Present Danger, helped defeat SALT II. A hard-headed realist, he had no illusions about the dangerous character and intentions of the Soviet Union, about its willingness to employ nuclear blackmail, about the possibility of a nuclear war even in spite of the horrors it threatened and the need, therefore, to think about how such a war might be fought. He favored the development of the hydrogen bomb. He helped write the important directive NSC-68 that urged a massive rebuilding of American military strength in the face of a Soviet military threat. Yet he once advocated placing “the ultimate power of decision on the use of America’s nuclear forces in the hands of the General Assembly of the United Nations.” In an attempt to resolve the impasse in discussions over nuclear forces in Europe in 1982 he took an unauthorized “walk in the woods” with a Soviet negotiator during which he approved a plan that would have left the Soviets with 75 SS-20s and prevented the U.S. from installing any equivalent Pershing II missiles, a plan that was rejected by his own government and denounced by one critic as “an act of intellectual and political cowardice.” At present he is skeptical about the value of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and eager to give it away as a bargaining chip in arms-control negotiations. So interesting and unusual a collection of opinions and actions demands a fuller and more coherent discussion than the reader can get from this book.
The problems created by the partial focus on Nitze raise the question of why Talbott chose to depart from his usual practice. His own answer is personal: he was a student at the Hotchkiss school during the Cuban missile crisis and was strongly affected by it Not much later, Nitze, a Hotchkiss alumnus and an adviser of President Kennedy during the crisis, was honored by the school. Thereafter, Talbott associated Nitze with the crisis and with statesmanship of a high order, and their meetings years later confirmed his admiration, if they did not always produce agreement That, as well, no doubt, as Nitze’s important role in the history of arms control, explains the conception and organization of the book.
It is an appealing story but hardly adequate. To me a more functional explanation seems plausible. The focus on Nitze lends support and credibility to the author’s attack on SDI and strategic defense in all of its aspects, as opposed to exclusive reliance on offensive weapons and Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). After all, if a tough old bird like Paul Nitze, whose credentials as a hard-liner and cold-warrior go back to the days of Truman and Acheson, is against SDI, what sensible person could be for it? And the fight against SDI is what this book is really about
That may seem a harsh judgment in light of the claims on the dust jacket of this and an earlier volume that Talbott engages in “balanced, up-to-date reportage” and “never yields his objectivity,” and that his work may be “read as history or as an exposé of drift and intrigue in quarters where the world has the right to expect far better”; but the evidence compels it Talbott himself is more modest than the blurbs. He describes his work as journalism, not the ordinary weekly kind that he practices in his magazine and calls “the first draft of history,” but “an attempt at a second draft.” In fact, however, he has produced a piece of “new journalism,” except that the new journalism is no longer new but is rather so pervasive as to have driven the old idea of objective reporting from the field as in Gresham’s law bad money drives out good. To use Talbott’s account, future historians will need to treat it like an unfriendly witness in a courtroom, asking it questions designed to distinguish observation from interpretation and mere prejudice from analysis. Much of the time the witness will be unable to answer, for often there is no analysis behind the prejudice.
The new journalism, unlike the old, has heroes and villains, and they are not lacking in this volume. The chief villain is Richard Perle, right-hand man of still another arch-villain, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. These men are guilty of thinking ill of the Soviet Union, of being suspicious of its intentions and doubtful of its compliance with treaties, of believing that it had gained a dangerous military advantage in the 1970’s, and of being determined not to allow that condition to persist. Weinberger, for example, had a “Churchill complex,” and “often talked as though he saw the West approaching its darkest, most difficult, yet potentially finest hour, a twilight struggle against a latter-day Axis that ran from Moscow to Havana and Hanoi.”
Weinberger, it appears, is only absurd. Perle, on the other hand, is really dangerous. Lest the reader miss the point, he is more than once referred to as “The Prince of Darkness.” Unlike the hero of the story, Perle is “ideological.” Perle’s behavior is full of tricks and deception, and he argues all sides of all questions when it is convenient. “What was consistent was his distaste for arms control and his ingenuity in turning any situation to his advantage in the ongoing battle with the State Department.”
It is far from clear that this is the only or even the best interpretation of Perle’s performance, but no other is examined or considered. The greatest application of his allegedly diabolical skills is in the struggle over SDI, the center of this volume’s concern. Perle, we are told, was against SDI from the first and never really cared about it, although he later became an advocate of it Why the change? At the very least, the record seems to show that Perle liked the idea of using SDI to defend our own missiles against a Soviet first strike, but Talbott never grants the possibility that Perle had been persuaded of any of the system’s virtues along the way. Instead, he tells us that “Perle set about to use the program to spike the wheels of the arms-control process so that the cause he cared about—unfettered military and political competition—could go forward.” All Perle’s public support of SDI, therefore, must be regarded as disingenuous.
Far different is the treatment given to a striking change of direction on the part of Talbott’s hero. Paul Nitze had helped negotiate SALT I and the ABM treaty, especially the language governing exotic technologies not yet discovered at the time of the negotiation. He had always insisted on the narrowest interpretation of that language, holding that it barred development and testing of defensive systems depending on new technologies. Such an interpretation, of course, would be a major barrier to SDI, and so Nitze understood it But in 1985 he suddenly changed his mind, and agreed that development and testing were permitted. Why?
Nitze’s own explanation is that he was persuaded by the arguments of Abraham Sofaer, a former federal judge who had become legal adviser in the State Department His friends, we are told, were shocked by the conversion. “It’s absurd to think that Sofaer could teach Paul anything he didn’t know,” said one. Talbott makes their shock the more understandable, for he presents Sofaer not as the lawyer and judge of extraordinary ability and integrity that he is but as a kind of high-level shyster. He cites so learned and objective a critic as Mario Cuomo to characterize him: “Abe Sofaer is a great New York lawyer. If they tell him ‘Make it legal, Abe,’ he’ll make it legal.” In Talbott’s court Judge Sofaer gets no opportunity for rebuttal.
Nitze’s friends tried to make excuses for his changed position: he was under pressure from the hawks, he was trying to defend his “right flank.” Nitze himself flatly denies all this. He was simply persuaded by the argument. “I came away 100-percent convinced that the permissive, or broad, interpretation was correct.” Talbott, for his part, does not make a clear choice between these views. A hostile interpreter might suggest that the defense offered by Nitze’s friends actually amounts to an accusation of dishonesty and self-seeking: he was pretending to be converted in order to keep his position and his influence. Talbott seems to regard this possibility with a tolerance he does not accord to the behavior of Perle. In fact, I see no reason to doubt Nitze’s integrity any more than there is reason to doubt Perle’s, but in this book the hero and the villain are treated very differently.
Nitze, then, agrees with “The Prince of Darkness” on the unwelcome interpretation of ABM. For most of his long career, furthermore, he has been suspicious of the Soviet Union and its intentions, and critical of what he has deemed to be ill-advised arms-control proposals, in a way not shared by Talbott. What, now, makes him a hero? First, as I have suggested, is his opposition to the use of SDI as anything but a bargaining chip in negotiations for the control of offensive weapons in the traditional mode. But this is subordinate to his greater virtues: an unswerving loyalty to the process of arms control, a determination to continue “working the problem,” as Nitze himself likes to put it, until an agreement is hammered out, an agreement that will maintain an arsenal of offensive nuclear weapons on each side.
These two related issues—opposition to SDI or any nuclear defense, and a powerful commitment to the arms-control process based on the MAD doctrine—are the ones Talbott himself feels most passionately about, and they place him powerfully at odds with Ronald Reagan, the man who almost single-handedly forced the nation and its defense and foreign-policy establishments to face the terrifying significance of our current stance. If we or our allies are attacked by the Soviet Union, the only choice we now have is between surrender and national suicide; moreover, even if MAD succeeds in deterring the Soviet Union, we have no defense against a nuclear weapon shot at us by any third power or terrorist group. Appalled by such prospects, as any intelligent civilized person should be, Reagan insisted that we make every effort to develop a defensive system, so that the world’s security would no longer depend either on mutual good will or on mutual terror.
Talbott does not treat Reagan as a villain, but rather as an ignorant incompetent, a simpleton, a former actor inpelled by childish sentiments and dialogue from his old movies, “the dreamer-in-chief.” Dispassionate readers may wonder how such an incompetent managed to win an overwhelming victory at the polls in 1984, fashioned the longest continuous economic prosperity in the nation’s history, rebuilt America’s military strength to the point where the Soviet Union thought it prudent eagerly to pursue arms-control agreements, negotiated the first arms-control agreement really to reduce, indeed to remove, a whole category of weapons, and has left office with the Soviets pressing for still further agreements. Talbott, undoubtedly, is among “those who saw the administration as having deserved its setbacks and stumbled into its successes,” but only closed minds will agree.
Talbott’s mind, in fact, seems remarkably closed, not only to contrary opinions, but also to relevant historical experience, to a sensible understanding of the goals of international relations and defense policy and what is required to succeed in them. He has an almost religious belief in the need for arms-control negotiations. He concluded Endgame in 1979 with horrified foreboding:
Future historians might see the aftermath of the Vienna summit as the end of the détente era and the beginning of a new, protracted phase of higher costs and higher risks in Soviet-American relations, a phase characterized by increased political tension and military competition, without the benefit of strategic arms-limitation agreements—or even, perhaps, of strategic arms-limitation talks.
Not even talks! Yet somehow the world survived until the publication of Talbott’s next book, which concluded with the failure of the INF and START negotiations. This, once again, was a dangerous development:
The administration’s conduct of the INF talks and START brought about an unprecedented crisis in the already strained quarter-century-old arms-control process. And the crisis in arms control contributed to three others: in the alliance between the U.S. and Western Europe; in the partnership between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government; and in the Soviet-American relationship.
Talbott’s gloomy outlook in 1984 was as unjustified as it had been before. Arms-control talks resumed and produced unprecedented results; the NATO alliance was not weakened; strains between the executive and the legislature were no greater than usual when rival parties control separate branches; Soviet-American relations have become so warm as to arouse an entirely different set of worriers.
At the end of the current volume Talbott is less gloomy. Somehow, in spite of themselves, President Reagan and his administration stumbled into easier relations with the Soviet Union and an apparently irreversible progress toward arms control. Ronald Reagan, according to Talbott, had come into office planning a revolution in national security but had been forced by events to put up with a restoration of the old system—“a return to reliance on the strange safety of mutual deterrence and a renewed effort through arms control to make that condition less strange and more safe.” Paul Nitze is a hero because, “of those who brought about that restoration, the most persistent and prominent” was he.
For all his admiration, I am not sure that Talbott has fully understood his hero. It is true that Nitze has always been eager “to work the problem” of arms control. But in his famous “walk in the woods,” which especially won Talbott’s heart, he seems for the moment to have lost sight of the larger dimensions of the problem. He tried to strike a deal that was not as good as could later be achieved, even in terms of the military hardware involved. Much more seriously, he agreed not to install the Pershing II missiles that represented the point at issue. Yet these were the only weapons the Soviets really feared; they represented the fulfillment of a promise to our allies on which Jimmy Carter had reneged; they were the main target of an enormous campaign directed by the Soviets and carried out by leftists in Europe and America. To have failed to install them would have been to fail a test of political will and capability that would have undermined the credibility of the entire American system of deterrence.
In fact, the installation and presence of the Pershing II missiles strengthened the alliance and America’s position in respect to the Soviet Union. Instead of halting further discussions between the great rivals, they appear to have intensified the Soviets’ desire to pursue them. Instead of alienating our allies, as was alleged at the time, they have become so dear to them as to cause an uproar when their removal from Europe was subsequently agreed to in the INF treaty.
So Nitze made a big mistake at Geneva. But his words and deeds over a long and distinguished career show that he knows, as Talbott apparently does not, that continuing discussion, negotiation, and even international agreements should not be the goal of national-security policy or of the conduct of international relations. Instead, these should aim at defending the interests and security of our nation, pressing forward, where possible, the cause of freedom and democracy, and preserving the peace when that is the honorable course. Sometimes those goals require negotiation and discussion. Other times require strong military preparations and determination.
It is not easy, in fact, to find a period in history when arms control in itself contributed to avoiding war. It is even harder to see how a willingness to control weapons could have been helpful in resisting the Nazis, fascists, or Japanese militarists in the 1920’s and 30’s or how it could have helped avoid war without surrender. What was needed then, on the contrary, was more and better weapons in the right hands and a plain determination to use them when necessary.
In the dangerous modern world in which we live, especially one relying for its safety on deterrence through offensive weapons, that is a lesson that must not be forgotten, and Nitze has not forgotten it. There must be no automatic praise for talk, “moderation,” and concession, or blame for choosing not to talk but to arm; each decison must be judged fairly in its context, and neither is inherently more inclined toward peace. Talbott’s work lacks the small degree of sophistication needed to see this. His unspoken assumption is that all talk, all negotiation, is good, while its absence is always bad.
Even more remarkable is Talbott’s simple rejection of SDI and all defensive strategies. He mentions but does not take the trouble to elaborate the three standard arguments: it won’t work; it will be destabilizing; restraint on our side will produce restraint in return. Logic suggests that if the first argument is right, the others are irrelevant; but even apart from that objection, none of them is persuasive.
First, anyone in this century who bet against extraordinary and rapid technological progress in weapons or defenses against weapons would have lost repeatedly. The most memorable example is the hydrogen bomb, whose development was declared unlikely or far in the future or impossible by some of the same outstanding scientists who now insist on the impossibility of SDI.
The most common form of the second argument, that building defenses against missiles creates instability, ignores or underestimates the fact that the deterrence on which the current “stability” is alleged to rest will continue to function during a transition to defense. Even if the Soviets were driven by fear to consider launching a preemptive strike, they would still face the destruction of their cities. If they would not be deterred in those circumstances there is no reason to believe they would be deterred in any difficult situation. The logic of this second argument would prevent us from improving our relative position in any respect lest Soviet fear of an American advance, whether in defensive or offensive weapons, might trigger a preemptive attack. All this simply emphasizes the danger of relyng exclusively on offensive nuclear weapons to maintain stability.
In response to the third argument, what are we to make of the phased-array radar facility at Krasnoyarsk? It is a clear violation of the ABM treaty, potentially a part of a working ABM system, and the Soviets to this very moment have flatly refused repeated requests to dismantle it. We first became aware of its existence in the mid-1970’s when it was at least ten years beyond the planning stage. The Soviets, therefore, began to build an essential element of any ABM system even as they negotiated a treaty forbidding it.
We need to remember that a major argument for not proceeding with the hydrogen bomb was that restraint on our part might produce reciprocal restraint. It was not long before a nuclear explosion gave proof that the Soviets had been working on the bomb even as we talked. The Soviets are working hard on a defensive system today, and it would be foolish of us not to do the same.
Whatever the prospects may be for a total defense of populations, there is no doubt that a defense of weapons is possible right now and will be increasingly effective in the future. We need to remember that no arms-control agreement has ever prevented the development of new weapons or defenses. There is no reason to believe that the defensive genie can be put back in the bottle any more easily than the offensive one.
Experience shows that exclusive reliance on either arm is folly. For centuries, castles gave a clear advantage to the defense, but the advent of gunpowder changed that until the development of new kinds of defensive structures restored the balance. Napoleon’s offensive strategies dominated European thinking until World War I, when vast armies were led to destroy themselves by attacking against machine-guns and accurate long-range rifles fired from trenches and protected by barbed wire. That experience in turn convinced the French, among others, of the invulnerable superiority of defense, so they built the Maginot Line and refused even to consider any offensive strategy. When Hitler occupied the Rhineland, without which he never could have threatened French security, the French were thus unprepared to advance and drive him out. At the same time, defense against aerial bombardment was generally thought to be impossible; yet the British invested in research that unexpectedly produced radar, an aid to defense without which they could hot have survived the Battle of Britain.
In warfare there is no escaping technological change, the unstable relationship between the power of offense and óf defense, and the need to balance the two in the best way possible as circumstances change. The currently dominant but truly terrifying view, assumed without argument by Strobe Talbott, is strangely comfortable for those who cling to it so thoughtlessly and tenaciously because it is so familiar. But it is also foolish and dangerous.
Of course these opinions are arguable, and it would not be fair to criticize Talbott merely for not sharing them. What seems inexcusable, however, is that they get no proper hearing in a work that pretends to be a helpful account of the arguments on national-security policy. This is neither the first nor the second draft of any history worthy of the name. Interpretation is very much part of the historian’s task, but that task includes presenting competing interpretations fairly, and showing by evidence and argument the superiority of one to the other. Nor should Talbott’s kind of work be regarded as journalism at a high level, for good journalism is not tendentiously one-sided, it does not take for granted imported assumptions whose legitimacy must be demonstrated, and it does not caricature people of whom the author disapproves, but rather tries to help the reader understand them, even in their error.