In a recent interview with the New Republic, Paul Warnke, the newly appointed head of the Arms Control and Disarmament…
In a recent interview with the New Republic, Paul Warnke, the newly appointed head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, responded as follows to the question of how the United States ought to react to indications that the Soviet leadership thinks it possible to fight and win a nuclear war. “In my view,” he replied, “this kind of thinking is on a level of abstraction which is unrealistic. It seems to me that instead of talking in those terms, which would indulge what I regard as the primitive aspects of Soviet nuclear doctrine, we ought to be trying to educate them into the real world of strategic nuclear weapons, which is that nobody could possibly win.”1
Even after allowance has been made for Mr. Warnke’s notoriously careless syntax, puzzling questions remain. On what grounds does he, a Washington lawyer, presume to “educate” the Soviet general staff composed of professional soldiers who thirty years ago defeated the Wehrmacht—and, of all things, about the “real world of strategic nuclear weapons” of which they happen to possess a considerably larger arsenal than we? Why does he consider them children who ought not to be “indulged”? And why does he chastise for what he regards as a “primitive” and unrealistic strategic doctrine not those who hold it, namely the Soviet military, but Americans who worry about their holding it?
Be all that as it may, even if Mr. Warnke refuses to take Soviet strategic doctrine seriously, it behooves us to take Mr. Warnke’s views of Soviet doctrine seriously. He not only will head our SALT II team; his thinking as articulated in the above statement and on other occasions reflects all the conventional wisdom of the school of strategic theory dominant in the United States, one of whose leading characteristics is scorn for Soviet views on nuclear warfare.
American and Soviet nuclear doctrines, it needs stating at the outset, are starkly at odds. The prevalent U.S. doctrine holds that an all-out war between countries in possession of sizable nuclear arsenals would be so destructive as to leave no winner; thus resort to arms has ceased to represent a rational policy option for the leaders of such countries vis-à-vis one another. The classic dictum of Clausewitz, that war is politics pursued by other means, is widely believed in the United States to have lost its validity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet doctrine, by contrast, emphatically asserts that while an all-out nuclear war would indeed prove extremely destructive to both parties, its outcome would not be mutual suicide: the country better prepared for it and in possession of a superior strategy could win and emerge a viable society. “There is profound erroneousness and harm in the disorienting claims of bourgeois ideologies that there will be no victor in a thermonuclear world war,” thunders an authoritative Soviet publication.2 The theme is mandatory in the current Soviet military literature. Clausewitz, buried in the United States, seems to be alive and prospering in the Soviet Union.
The predisposition of the American strategic community is to shrug off this fundamental doctrinal discrepancy. American doctrine has been and continues to be formulated and implemented by and large without reference to its Soviet counterpart. It is assumed here that there exists one and only one “rational” strategy appropriate to the age of thermonuclear weapons, and that this strategy rests on the principle of “mutual deterrence” developed in the United States some two decades ago. Evidence that the Russians do not share this doctrine which, as its name indicates, postulates reciprocal attitudes, is usually dismissed with the explanation that they are clearly lagging behind us: given time and patient “education,” they will surely come around.
It is my contention that this attitude rests on a combination of arrogance and ignorance; that it is dangerous; and that it is high time to start paying heed to Soviet strategic doctrine, lest we end up deterring no one but ourselves. There is ample evidence that the Soviet military say what they mean, and usually mean what they say. When the recently deceased Soviet Minister of Defense, Marshal Grechko, assures us: “We have never concealed, and do not conceal, the fundamental, principal tenets of our military doctrine,”3 he deserves a hearing. This is especially true in view of the fact that Soviet military deployments over the past twenty years make far better sense in the light of Soviet doctrine, “primitive” and “unrealistic” as the latter may appear, than when reflected in the mirror of our own doctrinal assumptions.
Mistrust of the military professional, combined with a pervasive conviction, typical of commercial societies, that human conflicts are at bottom caused by misunderstanding and ought to be resolved by negotiations rather than force, has worked against serious attention to military strategy by the United States. We have no general staff; we grant no higher degrees in “military science”; and, except for Admiral Mahan, we have produced no strategist of international repute. America has tended to rely on its insularity to protect it from aggressors, and on its unique industrial capacity to help crush its enemies once war was under way. The United States is accustomed to waging wars of its own choosing and on its own terms. It lacks an ingrained strategic tradition. In the words of one historian, Americans tend to view both military strategy and the armed forces as something to be “employed intermittently to destroy occasional and intermittent threats posed by hostile powers.”4
This approach to warfare has had a number of consequences. The United States wants to win its wars quickly and with the smallest losses in American lives. It is disinclined, therefore, to act on protracted and indirect strategies, or to engage in limited wars and wars of attrition. Once it resorts to arms, it prefers to mobilize the great might of its industrial plant to produce vast quantities of the means of destruction with which in the shortest possible time to undermine the enemy’s will and ability to continue the struggle. Extreme reliance on technological superiority, characteristic of U.S. warfare, is the obverse side of America’s extreme sensitivity to its own casualties; so is indifference to the casualties inflicted on the enemy. The strategic bombing campaigns waged by the U.S. Air Force and the RAF against Germany and Japan in World War II excellently implemented this general attitude. Paradoxically, America’s dread of war and casualties pushes it to adopt some of the most brutal forms of warfare, involving the indiscriminate destruction of the enemy’s homeland with massive civilian deaths.
These facts must be borne in mind to understand the way the United States reacted to the advent of the nuclear bomb. The traditional military services—the army and the navy—whose future seemed threatened by the invention of a weapon widely believed to have revolutionized warfare and rendered conventional forces obsolete, resisted extreme claims made on behalf of the bomb. But they were unable to hold out for very long. An alliance of politicians and scientists, backed by the Air Force, soon overwhelmed them. “Victory through Air Power,” a slogan eminently suited to the American way of war, carried all before it once bombs could be devised whose explosive power was measured in kilotons and megatons.
The U.S. Army tried to argue after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the new weapons represented no fundamental breakthrough. No revolution in warfare had occurred, its spokesman claimed: atomic bombs were merely a more efficient species of the aerial bombs used in World War II, and in themselves no more able to ensure victory than the earlier bombs had been. As evidence, they could point to the comprehensive U.S. Strategic Bombing Surveys carried out after the war to assess the effects of the bombing campaigns. These had demonstrated that saturation raids against German and Japanese cities had neither broken the enemy’s morale nor paralyzed his armaments industry; indeed, German productivity kept on rising in the face of intensified Allied bombing, attaining its peak in the fall of 1944, on the eve of capitulation.
And when it came to horror, atomic bombs had nothing over conventional ones: as against the 72,000 casualties caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, conventional raids carried out against Tokyo and Dresden in 1945 had caused 84,000 and 135,000 fatalities, respectively. Furthermore, those who sought to minimize the impact of the new weapon argued, atomic weapons in no sense obviated the need for sizable land and sea forces. For example, General Ridgway, as Chief of Staff in the early 1950’s, maintained that war waged with tactical nuclear weapons would demand larger rather than smaller field armies since these weapons were more complicated, since they would produce greater casualties, and since the dispersal of troops required by nuclear tactics called for increasing the depth of the combat zone.5
As we shall note below, similar arguments disputing the revolutionary character of the nuclear weapon surfaced in the Soviet Union, and there promptly came to dominate strategic theory. In the United States, they were just as promptly silenced by a coalition of groups each of which it suited, for its own reasons, to depict the atomic bomb as the “absolute weapon” that had, in large measure, rendered traditional military establishments redundant and traditional strategic thinking obsolete.
Once World War II was over, the United States was most eager to demobilize its armed forces. Between June 1945 and June 1946, the U.S. Army reduced its strength from 8.3 to 1.9 million men; comparable manpower cuts were achieved in the navy and air force. Little more than a year after Germany’s surrender, the military forces of the United States, which at their peak had stood at 12.3 million men, were cut down to 3 million; two years later they declined below 2 million. The demobilization proceeded at a pace (if not in a manner) reminiscent of the dissolution of the Russian army in the revolutionary year of 1917. Nothing could have stopped this mass of humanity streaming homeward. To most Americans peacetime conditions meant reversion to a skeletal armed force.
Yet, at the same time, growing strains in the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, and mounting evidence that Stalin was determined to exploit the chaotic conditions brought about by the collapse of the Axis powers to expand his domain, called for an effective military force able to deter the Soviets. The United States could not fulfill its role as leader of the Western coalition without an ability to project its military power globally.
In this situation, the nuclear weapon seemed to offer an ideal solution: the atomic bomb could hardly have come at a better time from the point of view of U.S. international commitments. Here was a device so frighteningly destructive, it was believed, that the mere threat of its employment would serve to dissuade would-be aggressors from carrying out their designs. Once the Air Force received the B-36, the world’s first intercontinental bomber, the United States acquired the ability to threaten the Soviet Union with devastating punishment without, at the same time, being compelled to maintain a large and costly standing army.
Reliance on the nuclear deterrent became more imperative than ever after the conclusion of the Korean war, in the course of which U.S. defense expenditures had been sharply driven up. President Eisenhower had committed himself to a policy of fiscal restraint. He wanted to cut the defense budget appreciably, and yet he had to do so without jeopardizing either America’s territorial security or its worldwide commitments. In an effort to reconcile these contradictory desires, the President and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, enunciated in the winter of 1953-54 a strategic doctrine which to an unprecedented degree based the country’s security on a single weapon, the nuclear deterrent. In an address to the United Nations in December 1953, Eisenhower argued that since there was no defense against nuclear weapons (i.e., thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs, which both countries were then beginning to produce), war between the two “atomic colossi” would leave no victors and probably cause the demise of civilization. A month later, Dulles enunciated what came to be known as the doctrine of “massive retaliation.” The United States, he declared, had decided “to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.” Throughout his address, Dulles emphasized the fiscal benefits of such a strategy, “more basic security at less cost.”
The Eisenhower-Dulles formula represented a neat compromise between America’s desires to reduce the defense budget and simultaneously to retain the capacity to respond to Soviet threats. The driving force was not, however, military but budgetary: behind “massive retaliation” (as well as its offspring, “mutual deterrence”) lay fiscal imperatives. In the nuclear deterrent, the United States found a perfect resolution of the conflicting demands of domestic and foreign responsibilities. For this reason alone its adoption was a foregone conclusion: the alternatives were either a vast standing army or forfeiture of status as a leading world power. The Air Force enthusiastically backed the doctrine of massive retaliation. As custodian of the atomic bomb, it had a vested interest in a defense posture of which that weapon was the linchpin. And since in the first postwar decade the intercontinental bomber was the only available vehicle for delivering the bomb against an enemy like the Soviet Union, the Air Force could claim a goodly share of the defense budget built around the retaliation idea.
Although the Soviet Union exploded a fission bomb in 1949 and announced the acquisition of a fusion (or hydrogen) bomb four years later, the United States still continued for a while longer to enjoy an effective monopoly on nuclear retaliation, since the Soviet Union lacked the means of delivering quantities of such bombs against U.S. territory. That situation changed dramatically in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik. This event, which their propaganda hailed as a great contribution to the advancement of science (and ours as proof of the failures of the American educational system!), represented in fact a significant military demonstration, namely, the ability of the Russians to deliver nuclear warheads against the United States homeland, until then immune from direct enemy threats. At this point massive retaliation ceased to make much sense and before long yielded to the doctrine of “mutual deterrence.” The new doctrine postulated that inasmuch as both the Soviet Union and the United States possessed (or would soon possess) the means of destroying each other, neither country could rationally contemplate resort to war. The nuclear stockpiles of each were an effective deterrent which ensured that they would not be tempted to launch an attack.
This doctrine was worked out in great and sophisticated detail by a bevy of civilian experts employed by various government and private organizations. These physicists, chemists, mathematicians, economists, and political scientists came to the support of the government’s fiscally-driven imperatives with scientific demonstrations in favor of the nuclear deterrent. Current U.S. strategic theory was thus born of a marriage between the scientist and the accountant. The professional soldier was jilted.
A large part of the U.S. scientific community had been convinced as soon as the first atomic bomb was exploded that the nuclear weapon, which that community had conceived and helped to develop, had accomplished a complete revolution in warfare. This conclusion was reached without much reference to the analysis of the effects of atomic weapons carried out by the military, and indeed without consideration of the traditional principles of warfare. It represented, rather, an act of faith on the part of an intellectual community which held strong pacifist convictions and felt deep guilt at having participated in the creation of a weapon of such destructive power. As early as 1946, in an influential book sponsored by the Yale Institute of International Affairs, under the title The Absolute Weapon, a group of civilian strategic theorists enunciated the principles of the mutual-deterrence theory which subsequently became the official U.S. strategic doctrine. The principal points made in this work may be summarized as follows:
- Nuclear weapons are “absolute weapons” in the sense that they can cause unacceptable destruction, but also and above all because there exists against them no possible defense. When the aggressor is certain to suffer the same punishment as his victim, aggression ceases to make sense. Hence war is no longer a rational policy option, as it had been throughout human history. In the words of Bernard Brodie, the book’s editor: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment had been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose” (p. 76).
- Given the fact that the adjective “absolute” means, by definition, incapable of being exceeded or surpassed, in the nuclear age military superiority has become meaningless. As another contributor to the book, William T.R. Fox, expressed it: “When dealing with the absolute weapon, arguments based on relative advantage lose their point” (p. 181). From which it follows that the objective of modern defense policy should be not superiority in weapons, traditionally sought by the military, but “sufficiency”; just enough nuclear weapons to be able to threaten a potential aggressor with unacceptable retaliation—in other words, an “adequate” deterrent, no more, no less.
- Nuclear deterrence can become effective only if it restrains mutually—i.e., if the United States and the Soviet Union each can deter the other from aggression. An American monopoly on nuclear weapons would be inherently destabilizing, both because it could encourage the United States to launch a nuclear attack, and, at the same time, by making the Russians feel insecure, cause them to act aggressively. “Neither we nor the Russians can expect to feel even reasonably safe unless an atomic attack by one were certain to unleash a devastating atomic counterattack by the other,” Arnold Wolfers maintained (p. 135). In other words, to feel secure the United States actually required the Soviet Union to have the capacity to destroy it.
Barely one year after Hiroshima and three years before the Soviets were to acquire a nuclear bomb, The Absolute Weapon articulated the philosophical premises underlying the mutual-deterrence doctrine which today dominates U.S. strategic thinking. Modern strategy, in the opinion of its contributors, involved preventing wars rather than winning them, securing sufficiency in decisive weapons rather than superiority, and even ensuring the potential enemy’s ability to strike back. Needless to elaborate, these principles ran contrary to all the tenets of traditional military theory, which had always called for superiority in forces and viewed the objective of war to be victory. But then, if one had decided that the new weapons marked a qualitative break with all the weapons ever used in combat, one could reasonably argue that past military experience, and the theory based on it, had lost relevance. Implicit in these assumptions was the belief that Clausewitz and his celebrated formula proclaiming war an extension of politics were dead. Henry Kissinger, who can always be counted upon to utter commonplaces in the tone of prophetic revelation, announced Clausewitz’s obituary nearly twenty years after The Absolute Weapon had made the point, in these words: “The traditional mode of military analysis which saw in war a continuation of politics but with its own appropriate means is no longer applicable.”6
American civilian strategists holding such views gained the dominant voice in the formulation of U.S. strategic doctrine with the arrival in Washington in 1961 of Robert S. McNamara as President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. A prominent business executive specializing in finance and accounting, McNamara applied to the perennial problem of American strategy—how to maintain a credible global military posture without a large and costly military establishment—the methods of cost analysis. These had first been applied by the British during World War II under the name “operations research” and subsequently came to be adopted here as “systems analysis.” Weapons’ procurement was to be tested and decided by the same methods used to evaluate returns on investment in ordinary business enterprises. Mutual deterrence was taken for granted: the question of strategic posture reduced itself to the issue of which weapons systems would provide the United States with effective deterrence at the least expense. Under McNamara the procurement of weapons, decided on the basis of cost effectiveness, came in effect to direct strategy, rather than the other way around, as had been the case through most of military history. It is at this point that applied science in partnership with budgetary accountancy—a partnership which had developed U.S. strategic theory—also took charge of U.S. defense policy.
As worked out in the 1960’s, and still in effect today, American nuclear theory rests on these propositions: All-out nuclear war is not a rational policy option, since no winner could possibly emerge from such a war. Should the Soviet Union nevertheless launch a surprise attack on the United States, the latter would emerge with enough of a deterrent to devastate the Soviet Union in a second strike. Since’ such a retaliatory attack would cost the Soviet Union millions of casualties and the destruction of all its major cities, a Soviet first strike is most unlikely. Meaningful defenses against a nuclear attack are technically impossible and psychologically counterproductive; nuclear superiority is meaningless.
In accord with these assumptions, the United States in the mid-1960’s unilaterally froze its force of ICBM’s at 1,054 and dismantled nearly all its defenses against enemy bombers. Civil-defense was all but abandoned, as was in time the attempt to create an ABM system which held out the possibility of protecting American missile sites against a surprise enemy attack. The Russians were watched benignly as they moved toward parity with the United States in the number of intercontinental launchers, and then proceeded to attain numerical superiority. The expectation was that as soon as the Russians felt themselves equal to the United States in terms of effective deterrence, they would stop further deployments. The frenetic pace of the Soviet nuclear build-up was explained first on the ground that the Russians had a lot of catching up to do, then that they had to consider the Chinese threat, and finally on the grounds that they are inherently a very insecure people and should be allowed an edge in deterrent capability.
Whether mutual deterrence deserves the name of a strategy at all is a real question. As one student of the subject puts it:
Although commonly called a “strategy,” “assured destruction” was by itself an antithesis of strategy. Unlike any strategy that ever preceded it throughout the history of armed conflict, it ceased to be useful precisely where military strategy is supposed to come into effect: at the edge of war. It posited that the principal mission of the U.S. military under conditions of ongoing nuclear operations against [the continental United States] was to shut its eyes, grit its teeth, and reflexively unleash an indiscriminate and simultaneous reprisal against all Soviet aim points on a preestablished target list. Rather than deal in a considered way with the particular attack on hand so as to minimize further damage to the United States and maximize the possibility of an early settlement on reasonably acceptable terms, it had the simple goal of inflicting punishment for the Soviet transgression. Not only did this reflect an implicit repudiation of political responsibility, it also risked provoking just the sort of counterreprisal against the United States that a rational wartime strategy should attempt to prevent.7
I cite this passage merely to indicate that the basic postulates of U.S. nuclear strategy are not as self-evident and irrefutable as its proponents seem to believe; and that, therefore, their rejection by the Soviet military is not, in and of itself, proof that Soviet thinking is “primitive” and devoid of a sense of realism.
The principal differences between American and Soviet strategies are traceable to different conceptions of the role of conflict and its inevitable concomitant, violence, in human relations; and secondly, to different functions which the military establishment performs in the two societies.
In the United States, the consensus of the educated and affluent holds all recourse to force to be the result of an inability or an unwillingness to apply rational analysis and patient negotiation to disagreements: the use of force is prima facie evidence of failure. Some segments of this class not only refuse to acknowledge the existence of violence as a fact of life, they have even come to regard fear—the organism’s biological reaction to the threat of violence—as inadmissible. “The notion of being threatened has acquired an almost class connotation,” Daniel P. Moynihan notes in connection with the refusal of America’s “sophisticated” elite to accept the reality of a Soviet threat. “If you’re not very educated, you’re easily frightened. And not being ever frightened can be a formula for self-destruction.”8
Now this entire middle-class, commercial, essentially Protestant ethos is absent from Soviet culture, whose roots feed on another kind of soil, and which has had for centuries to weather rougher political climes. The Communist revolution of 1917, by removing from positions of influence what there was of a Russian bourgeoisie (a class Lenin was prone to define as much by cultural as by socioeconomic criteria), in effect installed in power the muzhik, the Russian peasant. And the muzhik had been taught by long historical experience that cunning and coercion alone ensured survival: one employed cunning when weak, and cunning coupled with coercion when strong. Not to use force when one had it indicated some inner weakness. Marxism, with its stress on class war as a natural condition of mankind so long as the means of production were privately owned, has merely served to reinforce these ingrained convictions. The result is an extreme Social-Darwinist outlook on life which today permeates the Russian elite as well as the Russian masses, and which only the democratic intelligentsia and the religious dissenters oppose to any significant extent.
The Soviet ruling elite regards conflict and violence as natural regulators of all human affairs: wars between nations, in its view, represent only a variant of wars between classes, recourse to the one or the other being dependent on circumstances. A conflictless world will come into being only when the socialist (i.e., Communist) mode of production spreads across the face of the earth.
The Soviet view of armed conflict can be illustrated with another citation from the writings of the late Marshal Grechko, one of the most influential Soviet military figures of the post-World War II era. In his principal treatise, Grechko refers to the classification of wars formulated in 1972 by his U.S. counterpart, Melvin Laird. Laird divided wars according to engineering criteria—in terms of weapons employed and the scope of the theater of operations—to come up with four principal types of wars: strategic-nuclear, theater-nuclear, theater-conventional, and local-conventional. Dismissing this classification as inadequate, Grechko applies quite different standards to come up with his own typology:
Proceeding from the fundamental contradictions of the contemporary era, one can distinguish, according to sociopolitical criteria, the following types of wars: (1) wars between states (coalitions) of two contrary social systems—capitalist and socialist; (2) civil wars between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or between the popular masses and the forces of the extreme reaction supported by the imperialists of other countries; (3) wars between imperialist states and the peoples of colonial and dependent states fighting for their freedom and independence; and (4) wars among capitalist states.9
This passage contains many interesting implications. For instance, it makes no allowance for war between two Communist countries, like the Soviet Union and China, though such a war seems greatly to preoccupy the Soviet leadership. Nor does it provide for war pitting a coalition of capitalist and Communist states against another capitalist state, such as actually occurred during World War II when the United States and the Soviet Union joined forces against Germany. But for our purposes, the most noteworthy aspect of Grechko’s system of classification is the notion that social and national conflicts within the capitalist camp (that is, in all countries not under Communist control) are nothing more than a particular mode of class conflict of which all-out nuclear war between the superpowers is a conceivable variant. In terms of this typology, an industrial strike in the United States, the explosion of a terrorist bomb in Belfast or Jerusalem, the massacre by Rhodesian guerrillas of a black village or a white farmstead, differ from nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States only in degree, not in kind. All such conflicts are calibrations on the extensive scale by which to measure the historic conflict which pits Communism against capitalism and imperialism. Such conflicts are inherent in the stage of human development which precedes the final abolition of classes.
Middle-class American intellectuals simply cannot assimilate this mentality, so alien is it to their experience and view of human nature. Confronted with the evidence that the most influential elements in the Soviet Union do indeed hold such views, they prefer to dismiss the evidence as empty rhetoric, and to regard with deep suspicion the motives of anyone who insists on taking it seriously. Like some ancient Oriental despots, they vent their wrath on the bearers of bad news. How ironic that the very people who have failed so dismally to persuade American television networks to eliminate violence from their programs, nevertheless feel confident that they can talk the Soviet leadership into eliminating violence from its political arsenal!
Solzhenitsyn grasped the issue more profoundly as well as more realistically when he defined the antithesis of war not as the absence of armed conflict between nations—i.e., “peace” in the conventional meaning of the term—but as the absence of all violence, internal as well as external. His comprehensive definition, drawn from his Soviet experience, obversely matches the comprehensive Soviet definition of warfare.
We know surprisingly little about the individuals and institutions whose responsibility it is to formulate Soviet military doctrine. The matter is handled with the utmost secrecy, which conceals from the eyes of outsiders the controversies that undoubtedly surround it. Two assertions, however, can be made with confidence.
Because of Soviet adherence to the Clausewitzian principle that warfare is always an extension of politics—i.e., subordinate to overall political objectives (about which more below)—Soviet military planning is carried out under the close supervision of the country’s highest political body, the Politburo. Thus military policy is regarded as an intrinsic element of “grand strategy,” whose arsenal also includes a variety of non-military instrumentalities.
Secondly, the Russians regard warfare as a science (nauka, in the German sense of Wissenschaft). Instruction in the subject is offered at a number of university-level institutions, and several hundred specialists, most of them officers on active duty, have been accorded the Soviet equivalent of the Ph.D. in military science. This means that Soviet military doctrine is formulated by full-time specialists: it is as much the exclusive province of the certified military professional as medicine is that of the licensed physician. The civilian strategic theorist who since World War II has played a decisive role in the formulation of U.S. strategic doctrine is not in evidence in the Soviet Union, and probably performs at best a secondary, consultative function.
Its penchant for secrecy notwithstanding, the Soviet military establishment does release a large quantity of unclassified literature in the form of books, specialist journals, and newspapers. Of the books, the single most authoritative work at present is unquestionably the collective study, Military Strategy, edited by the late Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii, which summarizes Soviet warfare doctrine of the nuclear age.10 Although published fifteen years ago, Sokolovskii’s volume remains the only Soviet strategic manual publicly available—a solitary monument confronting a mountain of Western works on strategy. A series called “The Officer’s Library” brings out important specialized studies.11 The newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (“Red Star”) carries important theoretical articles which, however, vie for the reader’s attention with heroic pictures of Soviet troops storming unidentified beaches and firing rockets at unnamed foes. The flood of military works has as its purpose indoctrination, an objective to which the Soviet high command attaches the utmost importance: indoctrination both in the psychological sense, designed to persuade the Soviet armed forces that they are invincible, as well as of a technical kind, to impress upon the officers and ranks the principles of Soviet tactics and the art of operations.
To a Western reader, most of this printed matter is unadulterated rubbish. It not only lacks the sophistication and intellectual elegance which he takes for granted in works on problems of nuclear strategy; it is also filled with a mixture of pseudo-Marxist jargon and the crudest kind of Russian jingoism. Which is one of the reasons why it is hardly ever read in the West, even by people whose business it is to devise a national strategy against a possible Soviet threat. By and large the material is ignored. Two examples must suffice. Strategy in the Missile Age, an influential work by Bernard Brodie, one of the pioneers of U.S. nuclear doctrine, which originally came out in 1959, and was republished in 1965, makes only a few offhand allusions to Soviet nuclear strategy, and then either to note with approval that it is “developing along lines familiar in the United States” (p. 171), or else, when the Russians prefer to follow their own track, to dismiss it as a “ridiculous and reckless fantasy” (p. 215). Secretary of Defense McNamara perused Sokolovskii and “remained unimpressed,” for nowhere in the book did he find “a sophisticated analysis of nuclear war.”12
The point to bear in mind, however, is that Soviet military literature, like all Soviet literature on politics broadly defined, is written in an elaborate code language. Its purpose is not to dazzle with originality and sophistication but to convey to the initiates messages of grave importance. Soviet policy-makers may speak to one another plainly in private, but when they take pen in hand they invariably resort to an “Aesopian” language, a habit acquired when the forerunner of today’s Communist party had to function in the Czarist underground. Buried in the flood of seemingly meaningless verbiage, nuggets of precious information on Soviet perceptions and intentions can more often than not be unearthed by a trained reader. In 1958-59 two American specialists employed by the Rand Corporation, Raymond L. Garthoff and Herbert S. Dinerstein, by skillfully deciphering Soviet literature on strategic problems and then interpreting this information against the background of the Soviet military tradition, produced a remarkably prescient forecast af actual Soviet military policies of the 1960’s and 1970’s.13 Unfortunately, their findings were largely ignored by U.S. strategists from the scientific community who had convinced themselves that there was only one strategic doctrine appropriate to the age of nuclear weapons, and that therefore evidence indicating that the Soviets were adopting a different strategy could be safely disregarded.
This predisposition helps explain why U.S. strategists persistently ignored signs indicating that those who had control of Soviet Russia’s nuclear arsenal were not thinking in terms of mutual deterrence. The calculated nonchalance with which Stalin at Potsdam reacted to President Truman’s confidences about the American atomic bomb was a foretaste of things to come. Initial Soviet reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were similar in tone: the atomic weapon had not in any significant manner altered the science of warfare or rendered obsolete the principles which had guided the Red Army in its victorious campaigns against the Wehrmacht. These basic laws, known as the five “constant principles” that win wars, had been formulated by Stalin in 1942. They were, in declining order of importance: “stability of the home front,” followed by morale of the armed forces, quantity and quality of the divisions, military equipment, and, finally, ability of the commanders.14 There was no such thing as an “absolute weapon”—weapons altogether occupied a subordinate place in warfare; defense against atomic bombs was entirely possible.15 This was disconcerting, to be sure, but it could be explained away as a case of sour grapes. After all, the Soviet Union had no atomic bomb, and it was not in its interest to seem overly impressed by a weapon on which its rival enjoyed a monopoly.16
In September 1949 the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device. Disconcertingly, its attitude to nuclear weapons did not change, at any rate not in public. For the remaining four years, until Stalin’s death, the Soviet high command continued to deny that nuclear weapons required fundamental revisions of accepted military doctrine. With a bit of good will, this obduracy could still have been rationalized: for although the Soviet Union now had the weapon, it still lacked adequate means of delivering it across continents insofar as it had few intercontinental bombers (intercontinental rockets were regarded in the West as decades away). The United States, by contrast, possessed not only a fleet of strategic bombers but also numerous air bases in countries adjoining Soviet Russia. So once again one could find a persuasive explanation of why the Russians refused to see the light. It seemed reasonable to expect that as soon as they had acquired both a stockpile of atomic bombs and a fleet of strategic bombers, they would adjust their doctrine to conform with the American.
Events which ensued immediately after Stalin’s death seemed to lend credence to these expectations. Between 1953 and 1957 a debate took place in the pages of Soviet publications which, for all its textural obscurity, indicated that a new school of Soviet strategic thinkers had arisen to challenge the conventional wisdom. The most articulate spokesman of this new school, General N. Talenskii, argued that the advent of nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb which had just appeared on the scene, did fundamentally alter the nature of warfare. The sheer destructiveness of these weapons was such that one could no longer talk of a socialist strategy automatically overcoming the strategy of capitalist countries: the same rules of warfare now applied to both social systems. For the first time doubt was cast on the immutability of Stalin’s “five constant principles.” In the oblique manner in which Soviet debates on matters of such import are invariably conducted, Talenskii was saying that perhaps, after all, war had ceased to represent a viable policy option. More important yet, speeches delivered by leading Soviet politicians in the winter of 1953-54 seemed to support the thesis advanced by President Eisenhower in his United Nations address of December 1953 that nuclear war could spell the demise of civilization. In an address delivered on March 12, 1954, and reported the following day in Pravda, Stalin’s immediate successor, Georgii Malenkov, echoed Eisenhower’s sentiments: a new world war would unleash a holocaust which “with the present means of warfare, means the destruction of world civilization.”17
This assault on its traditional thinking—and, obliquely, on its traditional role—engendered a furious reaction from the Soviet military establishment. The Red Army was not about to let itself be relegated to the status of a militia whose principal task was averting war rather than winning it. Malenkov’s unorthodox views on war almost certainly contributed to his downfall; at any rate, his dismissal in February 1955 as party leader was accompanied by a barrage of press denunciations of the notion that war had become unfeasible. There are strong indications that Malenkov’s chief rival, Khrushchev, capitalized on the discontent of the military to form with it an alliance with whose help he eventually rode to power. The successful military counterattack seems to have been led by the World War II hero, Marshal Georgii Zhukov, whom Khrushchev made his Minister of Defense and brought into the Presidium. The guidelines of Soviet nuclear strategy, still in force today, were formulated during the first two years of Khrushchev’s tenure (1955-57), under the leadership of Zhukov himself. They resulted in the unequivocal rejection of the notion of the “absolute weapon” and all the theories that U.S. strategists had deduced from it. Stalin’s view of the military “constants” was implicitly reaffirmed. Thus the re-Stalinization of Soviet life, so noticeable in recent years, manifested itself first in military doctrine.
To understand this unexpected turn of events—so unexpected that most U.S. military theorists thus far have not been able to come to terms with it—one must take into account the function performed by the military in the Soviet system.
Unlike the United States, the Soviet government needs and wants a large military force. It has many uses for it, at home and abroad. As a regime which rests neither on tradition nor on a popular mandate, it sees in its military the most effective manifestation of government omnipotence, the very presence of which discourages any serious opposition from raising its head in the country as well as in its dependencies. It is, after all, the Red Army that keeps Eastern Europe within the Soviet camp. Furthermore, since the regime is driven by ideology, internal politics, and economic exigencies steadily to expand, it requires an up-to-date military force capable of seizing opportunities which may present themselves along the Soviet Union’s immensely long frontier or even beyond. The armed forces of the Soviet Union thus have much more to do than merely protect the country from potential aggressors: they are the mainstay of the regime’s authority and a principal instrumentality of its internal and external policies. Given the shaky status of the Communist regime internally, the declining appeal of its ideology, and the non-competitiveness of its goods on world markets, a persuasive case can even be made that, ruble for ruble, expenditures on the military represent for the Soviet leadership an excellent and entirely “rational” capital investment.
For this reason alone (and there were other compelling reasons too, as we shall see), the Soviet leadership could not accept the theory of mutual deterrence.18 After all, this theory, pushed to its logical conclusion, means that a country can rely for its security on a finite number of nuclear warheads and on an appropriate quantity of delivery vehicles; so that, apart perhaps from some small mobile forces needed for local actions, the large and costly traditional military establishments can be disbanded. Whatever the intrinsic military merits of this doctrine may be, its broader implications are entirely unacceptable to a regime like the Soviet one for whom military power serves not only (or even primarily) to deter external aggressors, but also and above all to ensure internal stability and permit external expansion. Thus, ultimately, it is political rather than strictly strategic or fiscal considerations that may be said to have determined Soviet reactions to nuclear weapons and shaped the content of Soviet nuclear strategy. As a result, Soviet advocates of mutual deterrence like Talenskii were gradually silenced. By the mid-1960’s the country adopted what in military jargon is referred to as a “war-fighting” and “war-winning” doctrine.
Given this fundamental consideration, the rest followed with a certain inexorable logic. The formulation of Soviet strategy in the nuclear age was turned over to the military who are in complete control of the Ministry of Defense. (Two American observers describe this institution as a “uniformed empire.”19 ) The Soviet General Staff had only recently emerged from winning one of the greatest wars in history. Immensely confident of their own abilities, scornful of what they perceived as the minor contribution of the United States to the Nazi defeat, inured to casualties running into tens of millions, the Soviet generals tackled the task with relish. Like their counterparts in the U.S. Army, they were professionally inclined to denigrate the exorbitant claims made on behalf of the new weapon by strategists drawn from the scientific community; unlike the Americans, however, they did not have to pay much heed to the civilians. In its essentials, Soviet nuclear doctrine as it finally emerged is not all that different from what American doctrine might have been had military and geopolitical rather than fiscal considerations played the decisive role here as they did there.
Soviet military theorists reject the notion that technology (i.e., weapons) decides strategy. They perceive the relationship to be the reverse: strategic objectives determine the procurement and application of weapons. They agree that the introduction of nuclear weapons has profoundly affected warfare, but deny that nuclear weapons have altered its essential quality. The novelty of nuclear weapons consists not in their destructiveness—that is, after all, a matter of degree, and a country like the Soviet Union which, as Soviet generals proudly boast, suffered in World War II the loss of over 20 million casualties, as well as the destruction of 1,710 towns, over 70,1300 villages, and some 32,000 industrial establishments to win the war and emerge as a global power, is not to be intimidated by the prospect of destruction.20 Rather, the innovation consists of the fact that nuclear weapons, coupled with intercontinental missiles, can by themselves carry out strategic missions which previously were accomplished only by means of prolonged tactical operations:
Nuclear missiles have altered the relationship of tactical, operational, and strategic acts of the armed conflict. If in the past the strategic end-result was secured by a succession of sequential, most often long-term, efforts [and] comprised the sum of tactical and operational successes, strategy being able to realize its intentions only with the assistance of the art of operations and tactics, then today, by means of powerful nuclear strikes, strategy can attain its objectives directly.21
In other words, military strategy, rather than a casualty of technology, has, thanks to technology, become more central than ever. By adopting this view, Soviet theorists believe themselves to have adapted modern technological innovations in weaponry to the traditions of military science.
Implicit in all this is the idea that nuclear war is feasible and that the basic function of warfare, as defined by Clausewitz, remains permanently valid, whatever breakthroughs may occur in technology. “It is well known that the essential nature of war as a continuation of politics does not change with changing technology and armament.”22 This code phrase from Sokolovskii’s authoritative manual was certainly hammered out with all the care that in the United States is lavished on an amendment to the Constitution. It spells the rejection of the whole basis on which U.S. strategy has come to rest: thermonuclear war is not suicidal, it can be fought and won, and thus resort to war must not be ruled out.
In addition (though we have no solid evidence to this effect) it seems likely that Soviet strategists reject the mutual-deterrence theory on several technical grounds of a kind that have been advanced by American critics of this theory like Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, and Paul Nitze.
- Mutual deterrence postulates a certain finality about weapons technology: it does not allow for further scientific breakthroughs that could result in the deterrent’s becoming neutralized. On the offensive side, for example, there is the possibility of significant improvements in the accuracy of ICBM’s or striking innovations in anti-submarine warfare; on the defensive, satellites which are essential for early warning of an impending attack could be blinded and lasers could be put to use to destroy incoming missiles.
- Mutual deterrence constitutes “passive defense” which usually leads to defeat. It threatens punishment to the aggressor after he has struck, which may or may not deter him from striking; it cannot prevent him from carrying out his designs. The latter objective requires the application of “active defense”—i.e., nuclear preemption.
- The threat of a second strike, which underpins the mutual-deterrence doctrine, may prove ineffectual. The side that has suffered the destruction of the bulk of its nuclear forces in a surprise first strike may find that it has so little of a deterrent left and the enemy so much, that the cost of striking back in retaliation would be exposing its own cities to total destruction by the enemy’s third strike. The result could be a paralysis of will, and capitulation instead of a second strike.
Soviet strategists make no secret of the fact that they regard the U.S. doctrine (with which, judging by the references in their literature, they are thoroughly familiar) as second-rate. In their view, U.S. strategic doctrine is obsessed with a single weapon which it “absolutizes” at the expense of everything else that military experience teaches soldiers to take into account. Its philosophical foundations are “idealism” and “metaphysics”—i.e., currents which engage in speculative discussions of objects (in this case, weapons) and of their “intrinsic” qualities, rather than relying on pragmatic considerations drawn from experience.23
Since the mid-1960’s, the proposition that thermonuclear war would be suicidal for both parties has been used by the Russians largely as a commodity for export. Its chief proponents include staff members of the Moscow Institute of the USA and Canada, and Soviet participants at Pugwash, Dartmouth, and similar international conferences, who are assigned the task of strengthening the hand of anti-military intellectual circles in the West. Inside the Soviet Union, such talk is generally denounced as “bourgeois pacifism.”24
In the Soviet view, a nuclear war would be total and go beyond formal defeat of one side by the other: “War must not simply [be] the defeat of the enemy, it must be his destruction. This condition has become the basis of Soviet military strategy,” according to the Military-Historical Journal.25 Limited nuclear war, flexible response, escalation, damage limiting, and all the other numerous refinements of U.S. strategic doctrine find no place in its Soviet counterpart (although, of course, they are taken into consideration in Soviet operational planning).
For Soviet generals the decisive influence in the formulation of nuclear doctrine were the lessons of World War II with which, for understandable reasons, they are virtually obsessed. This experience they seem to have supplemented with knowledge gained from professional scrutiny of the record of Nazi and Japanese offensive operations, as well as the balance sheet of British and American strategic-bombing campaigns. More recently, the lessons of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 in which they indirectly participated seem also to have impressed Soviet strategists, reinforcing previously held convictions. They also follow the Western literature, tending to side with the critics of mutual deterrence. The result of all these diverse influences is a nuclear doctrine which assimilates into the main body of the Soviet military tradition the technical implications of nuclear warfare without surrendering any of the fundamentals of this tradition.
The strategic doctrine adopted by the USSR over the past two decades calls for a policy diametrically opposite to that adopted in the United States by the predominant community of civilian strategists: not deterrence but victory, not sufficiency in weapons but superiority, not retaliation but offensive action. The doctrine has five related elements: (1) preemption (first strike), (2) quantitative superiority in arms, (3) counterforce targeting, (4) combined-arms operations, and (5) defense. We shall take up each of these elements in turn.
Preemption. The costliest lesson which the Soviet military learned in World War II was the importance of surprise. Because Stalin thought he had an understanding with Hitler, and because he was afraid to provoke his Nazi ally, he forbade the Red Army to mobilize for the German attack of which he had had ample warning. As a result of this strategy of “passive defense,” Soviet forces suffered frightful losses and were nearly defeated. This experience etched itself very deeply on the minds of the Soviet commanders: in their theoretical writings no point is emphasized more consistently than the need never again to allow themselves to be caught in a surprise attack. Nuclear weapons make this requirement especially urgent because, according to Soviet theorists, the decision in a nuclear conflict in all probability will be arrived at in the initial hours. In a nuclear war the Soviet Union, therefore, would not again have at its disposal the time which it enjoyed in 1941-42 to mobilize reserves for a victorious counteroffensive after absorbing devastating setbacks.
Given the rapidity of modern warfare (an ICBM can traverse the distance between the USSR and the United States in thirty minutes), not to be surprised by the enemy means, in effect, to inflict surprise on him. Once the latter’s ICBM’s have left their silos, once his bombers have taken to the air and his submarines to sea, a counterattack is greatly reduced in effectiveness. These considerations call for a preemptive strike. Soviet theorists draw an insistent, though to an outside observer very fuzzy, distinction between “preventive” and “preemptive” attacks. They claim that the Soviet Union will never start a war—i.e., it will never launch a preventive attack—but once it had concluded that an attack upon it was imminent, it would not hesitate to preempt. They argue that historical experience indicates outbreaks of hostilities are generally preceded by prolonged diplomatic crises and military preparations which signal to an alert command an imminent threat and the need to act. Though the analogy is not openly drawn, the action which Soviet strategists seem to have in mind is that taken by the Israelis in 1967, a notably successful example of “active defense” involving a well-timed preemptive strike. (In 1973, by contrast, the Israelis pursued the strategy of “passive defense,” with unhappy consequences.) The Soviet doctrine of nuclear preemption was formulated in the late 1950’s, and described at the time by Garthoff and Dinerstein in the volumes cited above.
A corollary of the preemption strategy holds that a country’s armed forces must always be in a state of high combat readiness so as to be able to go over to active operations with the least delay. Nuclear warfare grants no time for mobilization. Stress on the maintenance of a large ready force is one of the constant themes of Soviet military literature. It helps explain the immense land forces which the USSR maintains at all times and equips with the latest weapons as they roll off the assembly lines.
Quantitative superiority. There is no indication that the Soviet military share the view prevalent in the U.S. that in the nuclear age numbers of weapons do not matter once a certain quantity had been attained. They do like to pile up all sorts of weapons, new on top of old, throwing away nothing that might come in handy. This propensity to accumulate hardware is usually dismissed by Western observers with contemptuous references to a Russian habit dating back to Czarist days. It is not, however, as mindless as it may appear. For although Soviet strategists believe that the ultimate outcome in a nuclear war will be decided in the initial hours of the conflict, they also believe that a nuclear war will be of long duration: to consummate victory—that is, to destroy the enemy—may take months or even longer. Under these conditions, the possession of a large arsenal of nuclear delivery systems, as well as of other types of weapons, may well prove to be of critical importance. Although prohibited by self-imposed limitations agreed upon in 1972 at SALT I from exceeding a set number of intercontinental ballistic-missile launchers, the Soviet Union is constructing large numbers of so-called Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile launchers (i.e., launchers of less than intercontinental range), not covered by SALT. Some of these could be rapidly converted into regular intercontinental launchers, should the need arise.26
Reliance on quantity has another cause, namely, the peculiarly destructive capability of modern missiles equipped with Multiple Independently-targettable Reentry Vehicles, or MIRV’s. The nose cones of MIRVed missiles, which both super-powers possess, when in mid-course, split like a peapod to launch several warheads, each aimed at a separate target. A single missile equipped with three MIRV’s of sufficient accuracy, yield, and reliability can destroy up to three of the enemy’s missiles—provided, of course, it catches them in their silos, before they have been fired (which adds another inducement to preemption). Theoretically, assuming high accuracy and reliability, should the entire American force of 1,054 ICBM’s be MIRVed (so far only half of them have been MIRVed), it would take only 540 American ICBM’s, each with three MIRV’s, to attack the entire Soviet force of 1,618 ICBM’s. The result would leave the United States with 514 ICBM’s and the USSR with few survivors. Unlikely as the possibility of an American preemptive strike may be, Soviet planners apparently prefer to take no chances; they want to be in a position rapidly to replace ICBM’s lost to a sudden enemy first strike. Conversely, given its doctrine of preemption, the Soviet Union wants to be in a position to destroy the largest number of American missiles with the smallest number of its own, so as to be able to face down the threat of a U.S. second strike. Its most powerful ICBM, the SS-18, is said to have been tested with up to 10 MIRV’s (compared to 3 of the Minuteman-3, America’s only MIRVed ICBM). It has been estimated that 300 of these giant Soviet missiles, authorized under SALT I, could seriously threaten the American arsenal of ICBM’s.
Counterforce. Two terms commonly used in the jargon of modern strategy are “counterforce” and “countervalue.” Both terms refer to the nature of the target of a strategic nuclear weapon. Counterforce means that the principal objective of one’s nuclear missiles are the enemy’s forces—i.e., his launchers as well as the related command and communication facilities. Countervalue means that one’s principal targets are objects of national “value,” namely the enemy’s population and industrial centers.
Given the predominantly defensive (retaliatory) character of current U.S. strategy, it is naturally predisposed to a countervalue targeting policy. The central idea of the U.S. strategy of deterrence holds that should the Soviet Union dare to launch a surprise first strike at the United States, the latter would use its surviving missiles to lay waste Soviet cities. It is taken virtually for granted in this country that no nation would consciously expose itself to the risk of having its urban centers destroyed—an assumption which derives from British military theory of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and which influenced the RAF to concentrate on strategic bombing raids on German cities in World War II.
The Soviet high command has never been much impressed with the whole philosophy of counter-value strategic bombing, and during World War II resisted the temptation to attack German cities. This negative attitude to bombing of civilians is conditioned not by humanitarian considerations but by cold, professional assessments of the effects of that kind of strategic bombing as revealed by the Allied Strategic Bombing Surveys. The findings of these surveys were largely ignored in the United States, but they seem to have made a strong impression in the USSR. Not being privy to the internal discussions of the Soviet military, we can do no better than consult the writings of an eminent British scientist, P.M.S. Blackett, noted for his pro-Soviet sympathies, whose remarkable book Fear, War and the Bomb, published in 1948-49, indicated with great prescience the lines which Soviet strategic thinking were subsequently to take.
Blackett, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948, had worked during the war in British Operations Research. He concluded that strategic bombing was ineffective, and wrote his book as an impassioned critique of the idea of using atomic weapons as a strategic deterrent. Translating the devastation wrought upon Germany into nuclear terms, he calculated that it represented the equivalent of the destruction that would have been caused by 400 “improved” Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. Yet despite such punishment, Nazi Germany did not collapse. Given the much greater territory of the Soviet Union and a much lower population density, he argued, it would require “thousands” of atomic bombs to produce decisive results in a war between America and Russia.27 Blackett minimized the military effects of the atomic bombing on Japan. He recalled that in Hiroshima trains were operating forty-eight hours after the blast; that industries were left almost undamaged and could have been back in full production within a month; and that if the most elementary civil-defense precautions had been observed, civilian casualties would have been substantially reduced. Blackett’s book ran so contrary to prevailing opinion and was furthermore so intemperately anti-American in tone that its conclusions were rejected out of hand in the West.
Too hastily, it appears in retrospect. For while it is true that the advent of hydrogen bombs a few years later largely invalidated the estimates on which he had relied, Blackett correctly anticipated Soviet reactions. Analyzing the results of Allied saturation bombing of Germany, Soviet generals concluded that it was largely a wasted effort. Sokolovskii cites in his manual the well-known figures showing that German military productivity rose throughout the war until the fall of 1944, and concludes: “It was not so much the economic struggle and economic exhaustion [i.e., countervalue bombing] that were the causes for the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, but rather the armed conflict and the defeat of its armed forces [i.e., the counterforce strategy pursued by the Red Army.]”28
Soviet nuclear strategy is counterforce oriented. It targets for destruction—at any rate, in the initial strike—not the enemy’s cities but his military forces and their command and communication facilities. Its primary aim is to destroy not civilians but soldiers and their leaders, and to undermine not so much the will to resist as the capability to do so. In the words of Grechko:
The Strategic Rocket Forces, which constitute the basis of the military might of our armed forces, are designed to annihilate the means of the enemy’s nuclear attack, large groupings of his armies, and his military bases; to destroy his military industries; [and] to disorganize the political and military administration of the aggressor as well as his rear and transport.29
Any evidence that the United States may contemplate switching to a counterforce strategy, such as occasionally crops up, throws Soviet generals into a tizzy of excitement. It clearly frightens them far more than the threat to Soviet cities posed by the countervalue strategic doctrine.
Combined-arms operations. Soviet theorists regard strategic nuclear forces (organized since 1960 into a separate arm, the Strategic Rocket Forces) to be the decisive branch of the armed services, in the sense that the ultimate outcome of modern war would be settled by nuclear exchanges. But since nuclear war, in their view, must lead not only to the enemy’s defeat but also to his destruction (i.e., his incapacity to offer further resistance), they consider it necessary to make preparations for the follow-up phase, which may entail a prolonged war of attrition. At this stage of the conflict, armies will be needed to occupy the enemy’s territory, and navies to interdict his lanes of communications. “In the course of operations [battles], armies will basically complete the final destruction of the enemy brought about by strikes of nuclear rocket weapons.”30 Soviet theoretical writings unequivocally reject reliance on any one strategy (such as the Blitzkrieg) or on any one weapon, to win wars. They believe that a nuclear war will require the employment of all arms to attain final victory.
The large troop concentrations of Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe—well in excess of reasonable defense requirements—make sense if viewed in the light of Soviet combined-arms doctrine. They are there not only to have the capacity to launch a surprise land attack against NATO, but also to attack and seize Western Europe with a minimum of damage to its cities and industries after the initial strategic nuclear exchanges have taken place, partly to keep Europe hostage, partly to exploit European productivity as a replacement for that of which the Soviet Union would have been deprived by an American second strike.
As for the ocean-going navy which the Soviet Union has now acquired, it consists primarily of submarines and ground-based naval air forces, and apparently would have the task of cleaning the seas of U.S. ships of all types and cutting the sea lanes connecting the United States with allied powers and sources of raw materials.
The notion of an extended nuclear war is deeply embedded in Soviet thinking, despite its being dismissed by Western strategists who think of war as a one-two exchange. As Blackett noted sarcastically already in 1948-49: “Some armchair strategists (including some atomic scientists) tend to ignore the inevitable counter-moves of the enemy. More chess playing and less nuclear physics might have instilled a greater sense of the realities.”31 He predicted that a World War III waged with the atomic bombs then available would last longer than either of its predecessors, and require combined-arms operations—which seems to be the current Soviet view of the matter.
Defense. As noted, the U.S. theory of mutual deterrence postulates that no effective defense can be devised against an all-out nuclear attack: it is this postulate that makes such a war appear totally irrational. In order to make this premise valid, American civilian strategists have argued against a civil-defense program, against the ABM, and against air defenses.
Nothing illustrates better the fundamental differences between the two strategic doctrines than their attitudes to defense against a nuclear attack. The Russians agreed to certain imprecisely defined limitations on ABM after they had initiated a program in this direction, apparently because they were unable to solve the technical problems involved and feared the United States would forge ahead in this field. However, they then proceeded to build a tight ring of anti-aircraft defenses around the country while also developing a serious program of civil defense.
Before dismissing Soviet civil-defense efforts as wishful thinking, as is customary in Western circles, two facts must be emphasized.
One is that the Soviet Union does not regard civil defense to be exclusively for the protection of ordinary civilians. Its chief function seems to be to protect what in Russia are known as the “cadres,” that is, the political and military leaders as well as industrial managers and skilled workers—those who could reestablish the political and economic system once the war was over. Judging by Soviet definitions, civil defense has as much to do with the proper functioning of the country during and immediately after the war as with holding down casualties. Its organization, presently under Deputy Minister of Defense, Colonel-General A. Altunin, seems to be a kind of shadow government charged with responsibility for administering the country under the extreme stresses of nuclear war and its immediate aftermath.32
Secondly, the Soviet Union is inherently less vulnerable than the United States to a counter-value attack. According to the most recent Soviet census (1970), the USSR had only nine cities with a population of one million or more; the aggregate population of these cities was 20.5 million, or 8.5 per cent of the country’s total. The United States 1970 census showed thirty-five metropolitan centers with over one million inhabitants, totaling 84.5 million people, or 41.5 per cent of the country’s aggregate. It takes no professional strategist to visualize what these figures mean. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost 20 million inhabitants out of a population of 170 million—i.e., 12 per cent; yet the country not only survived but emerged stronger politically and militarily than it had ever been. Allowing for the population growth which has occurred since then, this experience suggests that as of today the USSR could absorb the loss of 30 million of its people and be no worse off, in terms of human casualties, than it had been at the conclusion of World War II. In other words, all of the USSR’s multimillion cities could be destroyed without trace or survivors, and, provided that its essential cadres had been saved, it would emerge less hurt in terms of casualties than it was in 1945.
Such figures are beyond the comprehension of most Americans. But clearly a country that since 1914 has lost, as a result of two world wars, a civil war, famine, and various “purges,” perhaps up to 60 million citizens, must define “unacceptable damage” differently from the United States which has known no famines or purges, and whose deaths from all the wars waged since 1775 are estimated at 650,000—fewer casualties than Russia suffered in the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II alone. Such a country tends also to assess the rewards of defense in much more realistic terms.
How significant are these recondite doctrinal differences? It has been my invariable experience when lecturing on these matters that during the question period someone in the audience will get up and ask: “But is it not true that we and the Russians already possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other ten times over” (or fifty, or a hundred—the figures vary)? My temptation is to reply: “Certainly. But we also have enough bullets to shoot every man, woman, and child, and enough matches to set the whole world on fire. The point lies not in our ability to wreak total destruction: it lies in intent.” And insofar as military doctrine is indicative of intent, what the Russians think to do with their nuclear arsenal is a matter of utmost importance that calls for close scrutiny.
Enough has already been said to indicate the disparities between American and Soviet strategic doctrines of the nuclear age. These differences may be most pithily summarized by stating that whereas we view nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the Russians see them as a “compellant”—with all the consequences that follow. Now it must be granted that the actual, operative differences between the two doctrines may not be quite as sharp as they appear in the public literature: it is true that our deterrence doctrine leaves room for some limited offensive action, just as the Russians include elements of deterrence in their “war-fighting” and “war-winning” doctrine. Admittedly, too, a country’s military doctrine never fully reveals how it would behave under actual combat conditions. And yet the differences here are sharp and fundamental enough, and the relationship of Soviet doctrine to Soviet deployments sufficiently close, to suggest that ignoring or not taking seriously Soviet military doctrine may have very detrimental effects on U.S. security. There is something innately destabilizing in the very fact that we consider nuclear war unfeasible and suicidal for both, and our chief adversary views it as feasible and winnable for himself.
SALT misses the point at issue so long as it addresses itself mainly to the question of numbers of strategic weapons: equally important are qualitative improvements within the existing quotas, and the size of regular land and sea forces. Above all, however, looms the question of intent: as long as the Soviets persist in adhering to the Clausewitzian maxim on the function of war, mutual deterrence does not really exist. And unilateral deterrence is feasible only if we understand the Soviet war-winning strategy and make it impossible for them to succeed.
1 “The Real Paul Warnke,” the New Republic, March 26, 1977, p. 23.
2 N.V. Karabanov in N.V. Karabanov, et al., Filosofskoe nasledie V. I. Lenina i problemy sovremennoi voiny (“The Philosophical Heritage of V.I. Lenin and the Problems of Contemporary War”) (Moscow, 1972), pp. 18-19, cited in Leon Gouré, Foy D. Kohler, and Mose L. Harvey, eds., The Role of Nuclear Forces in Current Soviet Strategy (1974), p. 60.
3 A.A. Grechko, Vooruzhonnye sily sovetskogo gosudarstva (“The Armed Forces of the Soviet State”) (Moscow, 1975), p. 345.
4 Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (1973), p. 368.
5 Matthew B. Ridgway, Soldier (1956), pp. 296-97.
6 In Michael Howard, ed., The Theory and Practice of War (London, 1965), p. 291.
7 Benjamin S. Lambeth, Selective Nuclear Options in American and Soviet Strategic Policy (Rand Corporation, R-2034-DDRE, December 1976), p. 14. This study analyzes and approves of the refinement introduced into the U.S. doctrine by James R. Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense in the form of “limited-response options.”
8 Interview with Playboy, March 1977, p. 72.
9 Grechko, Voorozhunnye sily sovetskogo gosudarstva, pp. 347-48, emphasis added.
10 Voennaia strategiia (Moscow, 1962). Since 1962 there have been two revised editions (1963 and 1968). The 1962 edition was immediately translated into English; but currently the best version is that edited by Harriet Fast Scott (Crane-Russak, 1975) which renders the third edition but collates its text with the preceding two.
11 To date, twelve volumes in this series have been translated into English and made publicly available through the U.S. Government Printing Office.
12 William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (1964), p. 97.
13 Garthoff's principal works are Soviet Military Doctrine (1953), Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age (1958), and The Soviet Image of Future War (1959). Dinerstein wrote War and the Soviet Union (1959).
14 Cited in J.M. Mackintosh, The Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy (London, 1962), pp. 90-91, emphasis added.
15 Articles in the New Times for 1945-46 cited in P.M.S. Blackett, Fear, War and the Bomb (1949), pp. 163-65.
16 We now know that orders to proceed with the development of a Soviet atomic bomb were issued by Stalin in June 1942, probably as a result of information relayed by Klaus Fuchs concerning the Manhattan Project, on which he was working at Los Alamos, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, XXIII, No. 10, December 1967, p. 15.
17 Dinerstein, War and the Soviet Union, p. 71.
18 I would like to stress the word “theory,” for the Russians certainly accept the fact of deterrence. The difference is that whereas American theorists of mutual deterrence regard this condition as mutually desirable and permanent, Soviet strategists regard it as undesirable and transient: they are entirely disinclined to allow us the capability of deterring them.
19 Matthew P. Gallagher and Karl F. Spielmann, Jr., Soviet Decision-Making for Defense (1972), p. 39.
20 The figures are from Grechko, Vooruzhonnye sily, p. 97.
21 Metodologicheskie problemy voennoi teorii i praktiki (“Methodological Problems of Military Theory and Practice”) (Moscow, Ministry of Defense of the USSR, 1969), p. 288.
22 V.D. Sokolovskii, Soviet Military Strategy (Rand Corporation, 1963), p. 99, emphasis added.
23 See, e.g., Metodologicheskie problemy, pp. 289-90.
24 Gouré et al., The Role of Nuclear Forces, p. 9.
25 Cited ibid., p. 106.
26 I have in mind the SS-20, a recently developed Soviet rocket. This is a two-stage version of the intercontinental SS-16 which can be turned into an SS-16 with the addition of a third booster and fired from the same launcher. Its production is not restricted by SALT I and not covered by the Vladivostok Accord.
27 Blackett, Fear, p. 88. As a matter of fact, recent unofficial Soviet calculations stress that the United States dropped on Vietnam the TNT equivalent of 650 Hiroshima-type bombs—also without winning the war: Kommunist Vooruzhonnykh Sil (“The Communist of the Armed Forces”), No. 24, December 1973, p. 27, cited in Gouré et al., The Role of Nuclear Forces, p. 104.
28 Sokolovskii, Soviet Military Strategy (3rd edition), p. 21.
29 A.A. Grechko, Na strazhe mira i stroitel'stva Kommunizma, (“Guarding Peace and the Construction of Communism”) (Moscow, 1971), p. 41.
30 Metodologicheskie problemy, p. 288.
31 Blackett, Fear, p. 79.
32 On the subject of civil defense, see Leon Gouré, War Survival in Soviet Strategy (1976).
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Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight & Win a Nuclear War
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.