On Weapons of Despair by Brian Murray


In his February review of Kosta Tsipis’s Arsenal and Freeman Dyson’s Weapons and Hope, Professor William Hawkins rightly reminds us that both geopolitical rubes and hard-core leftists are well represented in the “no­ nukes” movement that has in recent years received considerable, not unfavorable, attention in the Western press. If we disarmed, argue the rubes, Soviet leaders would be so charmed by our magnanimity that they would junk their bombs, too, and peace would reign supreme. The leftists know better — and so does Professor Hawkins. The Soviets, with their chief rival gone, could not easily pass up a chance to try to run the world their way.



Still, I am not certain that Professor Hawkins has himself faced up to many of the hard realities of the nuclear age. Like too many “tough-minded” conservatives, Hawkins discusses nuclear bombs as if they were little more than bazooka shells: he even asserts that nuclear weapons have not really transformed the world. He writes approvingly, therefore, of the U.S. developing a “first-strike” capability so that inveterately “timid” American leaders would be better able to stare down the Soviets at the time of a “confrontation.” He endorses an American ABM system that would be “60 percent” effective against a “massive” Soviet attack; in fact he writes breezily of American society “surviving” a nuclear war. Hawkins wants American citizens to be both adequately sheltered and “war-like,” but he apparently does not want those citizens to think too much about how a thermonuclear war might originate and unfold. Nuclear strategy and military policy are, ac­ cording to Hawkins, matters best left to the “experts.” Moreover, he appears to imply that only wimps fear nuclear annihilation; that only fools or fellow­ travelers believe in the value of arms negotiations.


To suggest that nuclear weapons have not profoundly changed the world is simply to ignore their awful destructive power-a power that continues to grow. Consider, one more time, these facts. The “Little Boy” bomb that flattened buildings and melted flesh at Hiroshima was little more than a BB compared to the multimegaton weapons that now sit primed in U.S. and Soviet subs and silos. In a “full scale” nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, some missiles carrying

50  megaton   warheads  would   be “exchanged”; within a couple of hours, nearly 15,000 megatons-or 5,000 World War II’s-would be loosed upon the world.


Of course, even a single half­ megaton warhead detonated in or over a large American city would result in unimaginable horror-in walls of fire and avalanches of concrete and glass; in a handful of survivors who would suffer the same ghastly cancers and birth defects found in Hiroshima and Nagasaki long after the summer of 1945. As an increasing number of studies show, similar bombs exploding in 100 cities in the Northern Hemi­ sphere would send enough smoke and debris into the atmosphere to radically alter the earth’s ecosystem and bring to extinction nearly all forms of plant and animal life. These bombs are not then practical instruments of war; they are weapons of genocide.


Given the awesome power of these weapons, it is simply hallucinatory to talk of “sheltering” citizens, especially since nuclear war, once begun, will simply not remain limited: both sides, programmed to “prevail,” will punch every last button. Those who do talk about gutting it out when the Big Ones hit have perhaps seen too many “B” movies about The Battle of Britain.


It is equally unrealistic — and hair-raising — to talk of intimidating the Russians with “first-strike” weapons. Such a notion is itself Hollywoodish: it evokes the image of square-jawed Clint Eastwood training a .44 Magnum on some pistol-waving punk and growling, “Go ahead, make my day.” In truth, Soviet military planners have made it quite clear that the next big stare-off-the next Cuban missile cri­ sis, if you will-is not likely to end with headlines in the New York Post screaming “They Blinked!” The Soviets talk of responding to even a “small” nuclear attack on Soviet troops with a massive tactical launching of their own, and they subscribe to a policy of “preemption” that calls for the first firing of Soviet missiles if, during a period of extreme tension, an Ameri­ can strategic strike appears near at hand. Ours is already a hair-trigger world, and its security will hardly be enhanced if American officials, equipped with extremely accurate MX missiles, start talking about “taking out” Soviet missiles or stopping Soviet battalions with swift, “clean” hits. As Admiral Noel Gaylor has written, “The doctrine of first use . . . whether called ‘limited’ or ‘tactical’ . . . is an indirect way of saying ‘Start a nuclear war.'”


Like Professor Hawkins, I would not like to see Helen Caldicott formulating American military policy. Nor do I want to see major defense questions placed on ballots in order to “let the voters decide.” But unlike Hawkins, I am not at all troubled by attempts to place into the hands of the public accurate information about the world’s nuclear arsenals. After all, this is, for better or worse, a democracy, where the actions of any powerful, specialized group, including Pentagon chiefs, must remain open to the scrutiny of a citizenry that should be well­ informed.


Unfortunately, the average American thinks less about the defense of the United States than he does about, say, the fate of the United States Football League. Thus, in this country at least, the many issues related to atomic war are rarely debated seriously in anything like a public forum — even at election time. Our average citizen will never oppose “High Frontier,” for he is quite content to let the President, the Joint Chiefs, and those guys in the silos in South Dakota worry about all those bombs and stuff.


Indeed, a strong case could be made that nuclear weapons are largely responsible for the decline in the West of our traditionally valued military virtues. It is hard for many Americans and NATO soldiers to take their roles very seriously when they know that ultimately the defense of their country depends less on their gallantry than on unseen technicians who sit behind computer screens in air-conditioned bunkers. Certainly, the “nuclear umbrella” held open by Uncle Sam con­ tinues to allow our rather well-off European allies to spend relatively little for their own defense, to channel considerable tax revenues on a whole host of often questionable social welfare schemes.


Nuclear weapons are also largely responsible, I think, for the more pronounced symptoms of cultural decadence that Professor Hawkins understandably scores. For obviously  the very presence of these apocalyptic armaments has  done  little  to  encourage a reverence for permanence and tradition, and much to encourage the  notion that we might as well live in the  fast lane for tomorrow we  might  all find ourselves vaporized.


A space-based antiballistic system makes sense if we intend to use it as a possible means of intercepting accidentally launched ICBM’s; it makes absolutely no sense if we plan to use it as a protective shield beneath which we can wage a “victorious” nuclear war. For as Hawkins admits, “there can never be a perfect defense,” and in the event of a nuclear war an imperfect defense will mean millions of dead Americans and survivors who are not likely to derive comfort from knowing that the Iron Curtain countries — though smoking and radiating — are, at long last, free. Nuclear bombs have absolutely no military value except as instruments of deterrence. As President Reagan has insisted, these weapons must never be used and, as soon as possible, must be eliminated from the face of the earth.         cc


Brian Murray is professor of English at Youngstown State University.



Professor Hawkins Replies:


It was certainly not my intention to trivialize the impact of a nuclear war. Clearly, such a war would produce a level of death and destruction surpassing any previous conflict. The U.S., isolated by geography from both previous world wars, has nothing in its history of a comparable nature. The U.S.S.R. has the experience of World War II on which to draw — a war during which large tracts of Soviet territory were occupied or devastated and 25 million people died. However, contrary to the cliché about how the experience has made the Russian people peace-loving, the experience has likely hardened the Kremlin in its militarism. After all, the Soviet leader­ ship survived World War II intact. It came out of the war stronger politically than when it went in. It conquered half of Europe and emerged as one of only two Superpowers. Another war, if casualties could be kept at the same ratio to population and, more importantly, if the Soviet leadership felt it could again survive, would give the Soviets control of the rest of Europe and a monopoly on Superpower status with global hegemony — a fair definition of victory from the Kremlin’s perspective.


Deterrence must depend, then, not just on the specter of killing millions of Russian civilians. The Soviet leader­ ship has killed millions of its own civilians without qualm. It must depend on the ability of the U.S. to defeat the U.S.S.R. in battle. The Soviets are cold-blooded and ruthless, but they are not suicidal. They will not start a war they know they will lose. The U.S. needs what Colin Gray has advocated as “a theory of victory” for a potential war with the U.S.S.R. in order to maintain a credible deterrent and to prevail should deterrence fail. To implement such a theory requires both new offensive and defensive weapon systems.


Murray’s gravest error is in regard. to the effectiveness of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The 60 percent figure he cites is from Tsipis, who begrudgingly admitted that even the old ABM system of the early l 970’s could have been this effective.  The SDI is expected to be much better, especially if deployed in depth. Of course, no system is 100 percent effective and the disarmament crowd has attempted to set perfection as the minimum requirement, knowing that such a standard would doom any system. But this is nonsense.


It is the Soviets who require near perfection. A first-strike must knock out most U.S. retaliatory forces or it is pointless. A defense system which can destroy 90 percent of the attack force would make such an attack impossible to plan with sufficient confidence to launch. Planners would not be able to predict which 10 percent of their strike force would make it, thus they would have no idea what targets they could destroy. Even much lower rates of effectiveness would defeat a first-strike plan. It should be noted that the Soviet counterforce posture is a form of anti­missile defense. They plan to knock our missiles out on the ground, we plan to knock theirs out in space. The intended result is the same: to prevent successful attacks on the homeland. The SDI does represent a continuation of the arms race, but an offensive­ defensive race which is preferable to a purely offensive race which favors the aggressor.


It hardly helps to engage in scare tactics based on misinformation. Mur­ ray seems to think both Superpowers have 50-megaton (MT) warheads on their ICBM’s. Where he got this data is unknown. It is completely false. The MIRV warheads on our Minuteman ICBM’s are either 175 or 350 kilotons (KT). The MX warheads will also be 350-KT or .007 of Murray’s figure! Submarine-launched missiles are even smaller, being only 40-KT. The great unmentioned fact of the arms race is that since 1960 the average U.S. war­ head has been shrunk from 3-MT to about 0. 2-MT, reducing the overall arsenal from 11,000-MT to about 3,200-MT despite an increase in the number of warheads. The Soviets have followed roughly the same pattern with average warheads dropping from 4.5-MT in 1960 to 0.9-MT today, reducing their arsenal from 9,000-MT to 6,200-MT.


It is not arms control or detente, but military strategy and the development of new technology which has produced this reduction in nuclear fire­ power. Murray seems to think that nuclear weapons will be used primarily to destroy cities. If that was the intent, the arms race would have ended two decades ago when both powers possessed this capability. Robert McNamara and the “best and the brightest” thought this would be the case. The idea of Mutual Assured Destruction is based on this error. The flaw is that the decision-makers in Moscow did not believe the abstract theories formulated by liberal academics.


Instead, the Soviets merely incorporated the new weapons into traditional military concepts. The evolution of weapons for the last 15 years has all been away from “city-busting” and genocide, neither of which are militarily or politically useful. The function of military force is not to destroy the world but to dominate it. The Soviets started this trend in the late 1960’s with the deployment   of the SS-9- a weapon designed with a military mission.


In theory, we have always targeted military forces, command-centers, and industrial sites, not population. However, in the days of inaccurate weapons, warheads had to be large enough to miss the target by a few miles and still destroy it. This magnified collateral damage. Now, with weapons accurate to within 150 yards (less when “smart” warheads are deployed) this overkill is not needed and is thus discarded. Robert Jastrow has argued that this trend might eventually reduce nuclear weapons to the point where they would be little different in effect than conventional weapons. The “peace” activists, by resisting this progress, are not only undermining deterrence, they are supporting the continuation of Armageddon policies.


The U.S. has the technology, but the Soviets are ahead in doctrine. They do not accept that once the button is pushed the world ends. They train their army to advance across radioactive terrain; they build missiles that “cold-launch” so that the silos can be reloaded; they build counterforce weapons and experiment with the SDI technology President Reagan talks about; and they have elaborate civil defense and evacuation plans. They even have underground factories. The alchemy of “nuclear winter” sends no chill through them. They know that a nuclear war is possible and they intend to survive it and win it. The Bolsheviks know what happened to the last Russian government which lost a war.


The decline of military spirit in the West predates nuclear weapons. That decline helps explain why nuclear weapons were considered cheap substitutes for conventional weapons, cheaper not only monetarily (more bang for the buck), but politically. They did not require conscription and a garrison state. Besides, MAD promised eternal peace. We have learned that conventional warfare is still with us. We are learning that nuclear war is possible as well. Let us hope we can learn without the Soviets giving us any practical lessons the hard way. cc



William Hawkins is professor of economics at Radford University