National Security in the Nuclear Age

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National Security in the Nuclear Age. The concept of national security in the nuclear age is a product of the World War II experience that found intellectual and organizational expression during the Cold War. Before 1942, the Departments of State, War, and Treasury—the three departments with foreign responsibilities—consulted with one another but developed compartmentalized approaches to diplomatic, military, and economic problems. National security was intended to provide organizing principles for a more coherent and integrated response to the problems of the postwar world. The National Security Act (1947) created the National Security Council and gave it overall responsibility for guidance and coordination of foreign and defense policies. The same act established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense, and made the three military services subservient to the latter.

For most of the Cold War, national security policy rested on the twin pillars of containment and deterrence. Containment, the theme of George F. Kennan's famous X article in Foreign Affairs (1947), looked forward to a time when the Soviet Union might become a less aggressive and more “normal” state. In the interim, the United States could protect itself, and hasten the transformation of the Soviet Union, by helping to rebuild the economies of key industrial regions (i.e., Western Europe and Japan) along the Soviet periphery and by strengthening the political will of their peoples to maintain their independence.

Deterrence is a strategy of conflict management that relies on threats of punishment to prevent a specified behavior. Successful threats need to be sufficient and credible. They must hold out the prospect of enough loss to convince their target that restraint is in its self‐interest. Implementation must also appear certain, or at least very probable, in the absence of compliance. The United States employed deterrence to restrain the Soviet Union and China militarily, and more specifically, to prevent an invasion of Western Europe or Japan. Washington threatened both countries with nuclear annihilation.

Deterrence became the military arm of containment. Kennan had conceived of containment as primarily a political‐economic strategy, but NSC 68 and the Korean War encouraged greater emphasis on military means of opposing communism. By the mid‐1950s, the Communist threat was also regarded as largely military. Successive State and Defense Department annual reports described deterrence as the “foundation” of national security policy.

Deterrence was attractive to the American national security establishment for military, political, and economic reasons. Wars between nuclear powers were too costly to fight, and the strategy of deterrence was specifically designed to prevent them. Deterrence, and the related strategy of compellence, also appeared to provide a mechanism by which the United States could exploit its strategic superiority for political ends. Nuclear retaliation was also much cheaper than any attempt to match Soviet conventional capabilities. President Dwight D. Eisenhower—and Premier Nikita Khrushchev—invoked the security conferred by nuclear deterrence to justify cuts in conventional force levels.

The implementation of threats usually involves costs for threat makers, too, and credibility is difficult to establish in proportion to these costs. In the opinion of many strategists, within and without the government, the credibility of the American commitment to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons in response to an invasion of Western Europe became increasingly problematic once the Soviet Union developed the capability to attack the United States with its own nuclear weapons. From the early 1960s on, successive American administrations grappled with this dilemma. Through a combination of arms buildups and deployments, nuclear doctrines and targeting, and rhetorical commitment, they sought to convey resolve to the Soviet Union and reassure the European allies without unduly frightening them.


The role of nuclear weapons in Soviet‐American relations was and remains controversial. The debate centers on four questions. First and foremost is the contribution nuclear deterrence made to the prevention of World War III. The conventional wisdom regards deterrence as the principal pillar of the postwar peace between the superpowers. Critics charge that deterrence was beside the point or a threat to the peace.

The second question, of interest to those who believe that deterrence worked, is why and how it works. Some insist that it forestalled Soviet aggression; in its absence, Moscow would have attacked Western Europe and possibly sent forces to the Middle East. More reserved supporters credit the reality of nuclear deterrence with moderating the foreign policies of both superpowers.

The third question concerns the military requirements of deterrence. In the 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara adopted Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as the official American strategic doctrine. McNamara contended that the Soviet Union could be deterred by the American capability to destroy 50 percent of its population and industry in a retaliatory strike. He welcomed the effort by the Soviet Union to develop a similar capability in the expectation that secure retaliatory capabilities on both sides would foster stability.

Many military officers and civilian strategists rejected MAD on the grounds that it was not credible to Moscow. To deter the Soviet Union, the United States needed to be able to prevail at any level of conflict. This required a much larger nuclear arsenal and highly accurate missiles necessary to destroy Soviet missiles in their silos and the underground bunkers where the political and military elite would take refuge in any conflict. Nuclear “war fighting” supplanted MAD as the official strategic doctrine during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration spent vast sums of money to augment conventional forces and to buy the strategic weapons and command and control networks that Pentagon planners considered essential to nuclear war fighting.

An alternate approach to nuclear weapons, “finite deterrence,” maintained that Soviet leaders were as cautious as their Western counterparts and just as frightened by the prospects of nuclear war. Nuclear deterrence was far more robust than proponents of either MAD or war fighting acknowledged and required only limited capabilities—several hundred nuclear weapons would probably suffice. The doctrine of finite deterrence never had visible support within the American government.

The fourth question concerns the broader political value of nuclear weapons. War fighters maintained that strategic superiority was politically useful and conferred bargaining leverage on a wide range of issues. Most supporters of MAD contended that strategic advantages could only be translated into political influence in confrontations like the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962–63), where vital interests were at stake. Other supporters of MAD, and all advocates of finite deterrence, denied that nuclear weapons could serve any purpose beyond deterrence.

Nuclear Deterrence in Retrospect.

Evidence in the 1990s from recently declassified Soviet and American documents, memoirs, and interviews with former policymakers of both superpowers has allowed scholars to reconstruct some of the critical events of the Cold War. These histories, and the evidence on which they are based, permit some answers to the four questions that have been posed, although such answers must remain tentative until additional evidence becomes available about the role of nuclear weapons in other critical Soviet‐American confrontations, and in Sino‐American and Sino‐Soviet relations.

1. Leaders who try to exploit real or imagined nuclear advantages for political gain are not likely to succeed. Khrushchev and Kennedy tried and failed to intimidate one another with claims of strategic superiority in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Khrushchev's threats and boasts strengthened Western resolve not to yield in Berlin and provoked Kennedy to order a major strategic build‐up. Kennedy's threats against Cuba, his administration's assertions of strategic superiority, and the deployment of Jupiter missiles in Turkey—all intended to dissuade Khrushchev from challenging the West in Berlin—led directly to the Soviet decision to send missiles to Cuba. Both leaders were willing to assume the risks of a serious confrontation to avoid creating the impression of weakness or irresolution.

2. Credible nuclear threats are very difficult to make. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons makes nuclear threats more frightening but less credible. It is especially difficult to make nuclear threats credible when they are directed against nuclear adversaries who have the capability to retaliate in kind. Many Soviets worried about nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Khrushchev judged correctly that Kennedy would not initiate a nuclear war in response to the deployment of Soviet missiles. Khrushchev's principal concerns were that the president would be pushed into attacking Cuba, and that armed clashes between the invading Americans and the Soviet forces on the island committed to Cuba's defense would escalate into a wider and perhaps uncontrollable war.

In 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, the American alert had even less influence on the Soviet leadership. It was inconceivable to Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues that the United States would attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. They did not believe that the interests at stake for either the United States or the Soviet Union justified war. The American nuclear threat was therefore incredible. The Politburo assumed that it was directed against President Nixon's domestic opponents.

3. Nuclear threats are fraught with risk. In both 1962 and 1973, American leaders were uninformed about the consequences and implications of strategic alerts. In 1973, they did not understand the technical meaning or the operational consequences of the DEFCON III alert (U.S. forces were normally kept at DEFCON IV) and chose the alert in full confidence that it entailed no risks. During the 1962 missile crisis, when conventional and nuclear forces were moved to an even higher level of alert (DEFCON II), it was very difficult to control alerted forces. Military routines and insubordination posed a serious threat to the resolution of the crisis.

Evidence from these two cases suggests that there are stark trade‐offs between the political leverage that military preparations are expected to confer and the risks of inadvertent escalation they entail. American leaders had a poor understanding of these trade‐offs: they significantly overvalued the political value of nuclear alerts and were relatively insensitive to their risks.

4. Strategic buildups are more likely to provoke than to restrain adversaries because of their impact on the domestic balance of political power in the target state. Josef Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev all believed that strategic advantage would restrain adversaries. Khrushchev believed that the West behaved cautiously in the 1950s because of a growing respect for the economic as well as the military power of the socialist camp. He was convinced that the visible demonstration of Soviet power—through nuclear threats and the deployment of missiles in Cuba—would strengthen the hands of “sober realists” in Washington who favored accommodation with the Soviet Union. Khrushchev's actions had the opposite impact: they strengthened anti‐Soviet militants by intensifying American fears of Soviet intentions and capabilities. Kennedy's warnings to Khrushchev not to deploy missiles in Cuba, and his subsequent blockade, were in large part a response to the growing domestic political pressures to act decisively against the Soviet Union and its Cuban ally.

Brezhnev's strategic buildup was a continuation of Khrushchev's program. American officials considered that the Soviet buildup continued after parity had been achieved. Soviet strategic spending appeared to confirm the predictions of militants in Washington that Moscow's goal was strategic superiority, even a first‐strike capability. Brezhnev, on the other hand, expected Soviet nuclear capabilities to prevent the United States from engaging in “nuclear blackmail.” Instead, it gave Republicans ammunition to use against President Carter and the SALT II agreement. The Soviet arms buildup and invasion of Afghanistan contributed to Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in 1980 and provided the justification for his administration's massive arms spending. American attempts to put pressure on the Soviet Union through arms buildups were equally counterproductive.

5. Nuclear deterrence is robust when leaders on both sides fear war and are aware of each other's fears. War fighting, MAD, and finite deterrence all mistakenly equate stability with specific arms configurations. More important than the distribution of nuclear capabilities, or leaders' estimates of relative nuclear advantage, is their judgment of an adversary's intentions. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a critical turning point in Soviet‐American relations because it convinced Kennedy and Khrushchev, and some of their most important advisers as well, that their adversary was as committed as they were to avoiding nuclear war. This mutually acknowledged fear of war made the other side's nuclear capabilities less threatening and paved the way for the first arms control agreements.

Not all American and Soviet leaders shared this interpretation. Large segments of the national security elites of both superpowers continued to regard their adversary as implacably hostile and willing to use nuclear weapons. Even when Brezhnev and Nixon acknowledged the other's fear of war, they used the umbrella of nuclear deterrence to compete vigorously for unilateral gain. Western militants did not begin to change their estimate of Soviet intentions until Mikhail Gorbachev made clear his commitment to ending the arms race and the Cold War.

Deterrence and the Cold War.

The Cold War was the result of Soviet‐American competition in Central Europe in the aftermath of Germany's defeat. Once recognized spheres of influence were established, confrontations between the superpowers in the heart of Europe diminished. Only Berlin continued to be a flashpoint until the superpowers reached an understanding about the two Germanies.

The conventional and nuclear arms buildup that followed in the wake of the crises of the early Cold War was a reaction to the mutual insecurities they generated. By the 1970s, the growing arsenal and increasingly accurate weapons of mass destruction that each superpower aimed at the other had become the primary source of mutual insecurity and tension. Moscow and Washington no longer argued about the status quo in Europe but about the new weapons systems each deployed to threaten the other. Each thought that deterrence was far less robust than it was. Their search for deterrence reversed cause and effect and prolonged the Cold War.

The history of the Cold War provides compelling evidence of the pernicious effects of the open‐ended quest for nuclear deterrence. But nuclear weapons also moderated superpower behavior, once leaders in Moscow and Washington recognized and acknowledged to the other that a nuclear war between them would almost certainly lead to their mutual destruction.

After the late 1960s, when the Soviet Union developed an effective retaliatory capability, both superpowers had to live with nuclear vulnerability. There were always advocates of preemption, ballistic missile defense, or other illusory visions of security in a nuclear world. But nuclear vulnerability could not be eliminated. Mutual Assured Destruction was a reality from which there was no escape short of the most far‐reaching arms control. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the proposed deep cuts in nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States still possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times over.

Nuclear vulnerability distinguished the Soviet‐American conflict from conventional conflicts of the past or present. In conventional conflicts, leaders could believe that war might benefit their country. Leaders have often gone to war with this expectation, although more often than not they have been proven wrong. The consequences of war turned out very differently than leaders in Iraq in 1980, Argentina in 1982, and Israel in 1982 expected.

Fear of the consequences of nuclear war not only made it exceedingly improbable that either superpower would deliberately seek a military confrontation with the other; it made their leaders extremely reluctant to take any action that they considered would seriously raise the risk of war. Over the years they developed a much better appreciation of each other's interests. In the last years of the Soviet‐American conflict, leaders on both sides acknowledged and refrained from any challenge of the other's vital interests.

The ultimate irony of nuclear deterrence may be the way in which the strategy of deterrence undercut much of the political stability the reality of deterrence should have created. The arms buildups, threatened military deployments, and confrontational rhetoric that characterized the strategy of deterrence effectively obscured deep‐seated, mutual fears of war. Fear of nuclear war made leaders inwardly cautious, but their public posturing convinced their adversaries that they were aggressive, risk‐prone, and even irrational.

This kind of behavior was consistent with the strategy of deterrence. Leaders on both sides recognized that only a madman would use nuclear weapons against a nuclear adversary. To reinforce deterrence, they therefore tried, and to a disturbing degree succeeded, in convincing the other that they might be irrational enough or sufficiently out of control to implement their threats. Each consequently became less secure, more threatened, and less confident of the robust reality of deterrence. The strategy of deterrence was self‐defeating: it provoked the kind of behavior it was designed to prevent.

The history of the Cold War suggests that nuclear deterrence should be viewed as a powerful but very dangerous medicine. Arsenic, formerly used to treat syphilis and schistosomiasis, or chemotherapy, routinely used to treat cancer, can kill or cure a patient. The outcome depends on the virulence of the disease, how early the disease is detected, the amount of drugs administered, and the resistance of the patient to both the disease and the cure. So it is with nuclear deterrence. Finite deterrence can be stabilizing when it prompts mutual caution. Too much deterrence, or deterrence applied inappropriately to a frightened and vulnerable adversary, can fuel an arms race that makes both sides less rather than more secure and provokes the very aggression it is designed to prevent. As with any medicine, the key to successful deterrence is to administer correctly the proper dosage.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament, Berlin Crises; Carter Doctrine; National Security Council Memoranda; SALT Treaties; Strategic Defense Initiative; Strategy: Nuclear Warfare Strategy; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


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Richard Ned Lebow

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National Security in the Nuclear Age

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National Security in the Nuclear Age