essays

Nov 1, 1977

The Present Danger: American Security and the U.S.-Soviet Military Balance

“The problem is not the Soviet war machine and the solution is not to build a bigger American war machine.”

We live in a dangerous world. If anyone were unpersuaded of this truism he need only look about. More than thirty-five nations have or will soon have nuclear weapons. There is a growing awareness of deep and pervasive scarcity, not enough energy, strategic minerals, even air and water at the right place at the right price to assure the stability of the international economic order. Every industrial nation including our own has been caught up in a severe, chronic economic crisis which has brought high unemployment and inflation rates, and has threatened the dream of limitless growth on which our democratic political system is based. Competition over resources and access to markets threatens to exacerbate tensions between the United States and the other industrial nations. This conflict between the resource-consuming nations and the resource-producing nations of the Third World has entered a new and critical stage as the poor countries try to establish a new international economic order to redistribute global wealth and power and the rich countries devise new strategies to resist. Add to this brew the growing practice of monkeywrench politics which expresses itself in random bombings, hijackings, and other efforts by desperate people to show how vulnerable a complex interdependent world economy is to a few strategic acts of terrorism.

There are, in short, enough perils on the horizon to support a dozen “Committees on the Present Danger” and to justify the soberest warnings from the CIA. Nations, like individuals, survive when they are able to understand the world in which they live, to perceive its dangers, and to try to minimize them or prepare against them. When they misperceive dangers, erecting old-fashioned defenses against the perils of the past, they invite their own extinction.

THE NEW SOVIET “THREAT”

The revival of the Soviet military threat, the biggest scare campaign of defense issues since the fictitious “bomber gap” of the 1950’s and the fictitious “missile gap” of the 1960’s, is the latest example of “Maginot line” thinking from our professional hawks. The notion that the leaders of the Kremlin have a master plan to fight and win a nuclear war, which is the latest of many such claims of this group, flies in the face of a mountain of evidence, military, economic, and psychological. The hawks’ prescription for dealing with the mad adversary they posit—to escalate the arms race to a new and more terrible stage—makes no sense whatever. If they believe what they say, that the Soviet Union is undeterred by the more than 9,000 nuclear weapons in the American arsenal, each of which is several times the destructive power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they fail to say why 9,000 more or 90,000 more should make a difference.

The claim that the Soviets are seeking “strategic superiority” and that they are planning to fight and to win a nuclear war with the United States is based on several bits of evidence which on first hearing sound somewhat alarming, but which turn out to be as flimsy a basis for prophesying the future as the chicken entrails which the soothsayers used to scare the people of Rome.

In his alarmist article, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War” (Commentary, July 1977) Richard Pipes, a Harvard history professor who in recent years has become a leading soothsayer, quotes scraps from Soviet military journals, treatises, and speeches by Soviet generals and concludes on the basis of these that the Soviets are no longer deterred from starting a nuclear war.

“As long as the Soviets persist in the Clausewitzian maxim on the function of war,” Pipes tells us, “mutual deterrence does not really exist.” It is naive, he suggests, for well-meaning Americans to assume that the Soviet have the same benign attitudes we do about nuclear war. The famous statement of Karl Von Clausewitz, the author of On War, that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” is interpreted by Pipes to mean that the Soviets will not hesitate to use war to achieve their political goals.

The Soviet interpretation of the connection between war and politics is summarized in Marxism-Leninism On War and the Army,(5th edition 1972) a publication of top Soviet military officers and their version of defense intellectuals: “Politics will determine when the armed struggle is to be started and what means are to be employed. Nuclear war cannot emerge from nowhere, out of a vacuum, by itself.” In Soviet theory, it will emerge, as Pipes himself admits, from an attack by the West (The Soviets say that they will never launch a first strike, only a “pre-emptive strike” if they are convinced that the enemy’s missiles have already been launched. The United States, it should be noted, has consistently refused to sign any pledge not to start a nuclear war.) Pipes quotes some unnamed strategists who denounce the idea that nuclear war is a suicide pact for both sides as a piece of “bourgeois pacifism,” and quotes some military journals that talk about “winning” in a nuclear exchange.

Pipes does not quote such unequivocal statements by Soviet political leaders as Brezhnev’s statement at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Great Patriotic War Victory that “the starting of a nuclear missile war would spell inevitable annihilation for the aggressor himself, to say nothing of the vast losses for many other countries…” Nor does he quote Soviet Marshal Sokolovsky, one of his favorites, when he explicitly dismisses the notion of a successful first strike. “There can be no counting on the complete destruction of the enemy’s strategic weapons.” He prefers to focus attention on such bloodcurdling Soviet military maxims as “War must not simply be the defeat of the enemy, it must be his destruction.”

One can read into such statements what one wishes. A Soviet soothsayer studying the enormous outpouring from the Pentagon and U.S. military journals could put together a far scarier case about U.S. strategy and intentions. How would a Soviet planner react to this extract from the Department of Defense’s FY 1978 Report to the Congress:

The present planning objective of the Defense Department is clear. We believe that a substantial number of military forces and critical industries in the Soviet Union should be directly targeted, and that an important objective of the assured retaliatory mission should be to retard significantly the ability of the U.S.S.R. to recover from a nuclear exchange and regain the status of a 20th Century military and industrial power more rapidly than the United States.

In reality, we have the same schizophrenic discussions about nuclear war here as Pipes has detected in the U.S.S.R. On the political level leaders on both sides are realistic enough to know that nuclear war would be the end of politics, not its continuation by another means. At the same time the deterrence system is sustained by huge bureaucracies which are paid a substantial share of the national treasure to think about winning nuclear war, planning for it, making it credible by pretending that it is a real political option. No Soviet general, any more than his U.S. counterpart, is going to talk in print about losing. Military minds are atavistic. Absurd as it is in the nuclear age, they continue to echo General MacArthur: There is no substitute for victory.

THE SOVIETS’ CONCERN

Professor Pipes and his colleagues who put together the so-called B-Team Report of the Central Intelligence Agency last fall do not rely entirely on scraps from Soviet writings. Their argument depends upon making selected historical leaps. Since the Soviets in fact suffered more than twenty million casualties in World War II, he claims they will willingly accept that number or even more in order to run the radioactive world they will inherit after they destroy the United States. This of course is a shocking and irresponsible argument. The Soviet Union did not start the war with Germany and their leaders did not know at the outset that they would suffer casualties on such a scale. No matter what one might think of Brezhnev’s morals or his politics, it is self-defeating for Americans not to look at who the Soviet leaders really are, what they have done, and what they really believe. We have sixty years of experience in coexistence with the Soviet Union. We do not need a professorial construct based on nothing more than intense hatred of the Soviet system. We would do better to consider the analysis of the Soviet leadership offered by former CIA Director William Colby to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

You will find a concern, even a paranoia, over their (the Soviets’) own security. You will find the determination that they shall never again be invaded and put through the kinds of turmoil that they have been under and many different invasions … I think that they … want to overprotect themselves to make certain that that does not happen, and they are less concerned about the image that that presents to their neighbors, thinking that their motives are really defensive and pure and therefore other people should not be suspicious of them.

We could try, as our most famous expert on the Soviet Union, George Kennan, advises, to put ourselves in the position of Soviet leaders and look at reality from their peculiar perch. “The overwhelming weight of evidence,” Kennan concludes, “indicates that there has never been a time since the aftermath of the recent war when the main concerns of Soviet leadership have not been ones related to the internal problems that face them: first the preservation of the security of their own rule within the country, and, secondly, the development of the economic strength of a country which, although considerably greater than the United States in area and population, has only roughly one half of the latter’s gross national product.”

The Soviet leadership is experiencing the enormous difficulties of a frozen revolution: unwieldy, inefficient bureaucracies, what Kennan calls “the general indifference, among the population, towards the ideological pretensions of the regime, and the curious sort of boredom and spiritlessness that overcome so much of Soviet society,” and the problem of impending minority rule. (The Russians who control the Soviet state are, so it seems, about to be outnumbered by the Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and numerous other national minorities who may soon constitute a majority of the Soviet population.) In governing a population for which the horrors of the Second World War are still alive and for which martial glory beyond the defense of the Motherland holds no allure, war is not a satisfactory means of politics.

THE CHINESE THREAT

Then, too, Soviet leaders must look at external reality. Whatever nonsense their generals may write—and none of Pipes’ kremlinological snippets are quite as demented as he makes them out to be—they operate under some constraints in carrying out their master plan. One of them is the Chinese army, which is enough of a worry to require the stationing of close to a million Soviet troops on the frontier. (A good deal of the rise in the Soviet military budget and civil defense preparations, which the alarmists say is a challenge to the U.S., is more likely related to the Chinese peril as seen in Moscow. A two-front war is a traditional Russian nightmare.)

Another constraint is the explosive situation in Eastern Europe and parts of the Soviet Union itself. One historical episode Professor Pipes omits is the mass defection in the Ukraine and elsewhere to the Germans during World War II. The leaders in the Kremlin are not naive enough to believe that the Poles and the Czechs, or the Ukrainians and the Uzbeks, for that matter, will fight enthusiastically among the radioactive rubble for the Kremlin’s bid for world domination. Finally, Brezhnev or his successor faces the reality of nuclear war itself.

About fifteen years ago the Department of Defense concluded that if 100 nuclear warheads landed on the Soviet Union, 37 million people or 15 percent of the population would die instantly and 59 percent of the industrial capacity would be destroyed. If 300 such warheads were to land on target, 96 million people would die and 77 percent of the industrial capacity would be destroyed. There are now 9,000 nuclear warheads that can land on Soviet territory. Even if all U.S. land-based missiles are destroyed in a Soviet surprise attack, there are enough nuclear warheads on U.S. submarines, which are still extremely hard to locate and to destroy, to make the rubble in every Soviet city bounce. The Soviet leaders, if they are rational, know this. They also know that there are so many uncertainties connected with nuclear war that they can never be sure that they have limited the retaliatory damage to “acceptable” limits. As McGeorge Bundy, a former presidential advisor who lived through the threat of nuclear confrontation during the Cuban missile crisis, puts it:

In a real world of real political leaders—whether here or in the Soviet Union—a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on one hundred cities are unthinkable.

If the Soviet leaders are irrational, as some of our hawks come close to asserting, then deterrence cannot work whatever the size of the respective nuclear arsenals.

The soothsayers from the Committee on the Present Danger, do not talk much about the real world of politics. Their stock-in-trade consists of nightmare scenarios which they construct in a variety of ways.

One is to talk of secret weapons, such as laser beams that could destroy all the incoming U.S. missiles and leave the U.S. naked to a free attack. No doubt Soviet scientists are working on lasers, as is the Pentagon, but, as Secretary of Defense Harold Brown puts it, “the laws of physics are the same in the United States and the Soviet Union.” A laser-operated ABM system would be even more complicated than the system that was abandoned by both sides in 1972 because it was so unreliable. Not only must the Soviets develop the laser, or whatever Soviet secret weapon Aviation Week is selling at the moment, but they must test it to such a point that they have high confidence that it will in fact disarm the enemy in a successful first strike. That testing cannot be done in secret.

SOVIET DEFENSE BUDGETS

Then there is the matter of military budgets. Some of the soothsayers have seized on the CIA’s recent estimates that Soviet military spending consumes 11 to 13 percent of their GNP instead of 6 to 8 percent as previously estimated as proof of a big Soviet buildup to achieve a “war-winning capability.” But, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London concludes, “90 per cent of the difference between the new and the old cost assessments stems from a changed view of the Soviet defense industries, which appear to be less efficient than had been imagined.” Since the Soviet defense industries are less efficient than we had formerly thought, our estimates of spending necessary to sustain existing capacities has naturally increased, but that does not reflect a proportional buildup of Soviet military forces themselves. The two things are entirely different.

The whole argument about defense spending and GNP really underscores Soviet weakness, not strength. Since their GNP is half the U.S. GNP, it would not be surprising if they spent twice the share just to keep up in the arms race. But in fact the whole discussion has a mad quality about it since the method of calculating Soviet expenditures is bizarre, to say the least. The intelligence agencies examine the Soviet military machine and calculate what the U.S. would have to spend to buy the Soviet Army, Navy, and Air force, paying them American wages instead of a ruble a week. As Congressman Les Aspin, a former Pentagon analyst points out, “If the United States were to shave its military pay scales, Soviet defense ‘spending’ would fall.”

The “civil defense” gap is another nightmare about which we hear a great deal, especially when the Pentagon is about to request appropriations. General Daniel Graham, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency gave a Congressional committee this version:

The Soviets evacuate their cities and “hunker” down. Then they move against NATO, or Yugoslavia, or China, or the Middle East with superior conventional forces. The United States is faced with the demand to stay out or risk nuclear exchange in which 100 million Americans will die, as opposed to 10 million Russians.

COMMITTEE ON THE PRESENT DANGER

The Committee on the Present Danger was founded in November 1976 by a group of private citizens—many with close links to government posts—concerned with a new Soviet “threat,” and with what they perceive as inadequate military spending. In the policy statement of the Committee, they write:

The principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup.

The Soviet Union has not altered its long-held goal of a world dominated from a single center—Moscow. It continues, with notable persistence, to take advantage of every opportunity to expand its political and military influence throughout the world: in Europe, in the Middle East and Africa; even in Latin America; in all the seas.

The scope and sophistication of the Soviet campaign have been increased in recent years, and its tempo quickened….

From this base, a reformulation of the basic ideology of the Cold War, the Committee on the Present Danger calls for more military spending in the U.S., development of new weapons systems, and a more aggressive American foreign policy designed to counter this “threat.”

The Board of Directors of the Committee on the Present Danger consists of such recycled Cold Warriors as Dean Rusk, Edward Teller, General Maxwell Taylor, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Clare Boothe Luce, William Colby, John Connally, John P. Roche, and Richard Whalen. The Chairman of its Executive Committee is Eugene Rostow; the Chairman of Policy Studies, Paul H. Nitze, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, who has been involved in nearly every attempt to increase the defense budget since 1949. Richard Pipes, the author of “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” in the July 1977 issue ofCommentary magazine, is also on its Executive Committee. Several prominent Committee members were key figures in President Ford’s “Team B”, which warned of imminent Soviet military superiority over the United States.

The Committee on the Present Danger, along with such magazines as Commentary—many of whose contributors are part of the Committee—is one of the most prominent organizations in the United States today concerned to oppose any move toward “isolationism” and away from an interventionist foreign policy.

The evidence for a feverish Soviet civil defense program comes from unclassified Soviet manuals which describe a vast shelter program, evacuation exercises, and other forms of civil defense. But, as Congressman Aspin argues, the “rumblings of bureaucrats don’t amount to effective protection.” You can find U.S. manuals that also give a euphoric picture of the “post-attack environment.” (Indeed, many of the Soviet manuals turn out to be translations of U.S. manuals.) At the height of the last bomb shelter scare in 1961, Edward Teller, one of our distinguished scientists, wrote an article in Life magazine making the absurd claim that, “99 percent could be saved.” I recall a manual from the United States Employment Service from that era entitled, if I remember correctly, “How to Find a Job in the Post-Attack Environment.” On the cover was a friendly bureaucrat behind a desk. The applicant was filling out a form. In the background, a mushroom cloud was just beginning to disperse.

CIVIL DEFENSE

In reality, the Soviet Union has as great a problem saving its population in a nuclear war as the United States, and perhaps a greater one. In both countries about 40 percent of the population is concentrated in ten cities but the area of the Soviet cities is about half that of the U.S. cities and makes an easier target. Thus while the Soviet government has been trying to disperse its population and industry since the 1930’s for economic and political reasons, its population is actually more concentrated than that of the United States. A fallout shelter program must be able to protect the population not just for a few hours but for thirty days or more. In the early 1960’s the U.S. Office of Civil Defense calculated that it would take up to 20 percent of the adult population of the U.S. to run a program of that magnitude. There is no evidence that a program on such a scale exists in the Soviet Union. Roads are poor in many parts of the Soviet Union, and the U.S.S.R’s harsh weather would preclude mass evacuation. Industry is heavily concentrated—60 percent of all steel is made in twenty-five plants. Nine tractor plants account for 80 percent of the Soviet output. In short civil defense might reduce casualties in a war with a minor nuclear power such as China, but it could never provide assurance to Soviet leaders that they could protect any significant segment of their population from the sort of attack the U.S. could launch even under the most unfavorable circumstances. (In the “worst-case scenario” described in T.K. Jones’s Industrial Survivors and Recovery after Nuclear Attack, one of the bibles of the civil defense scare campaign, the U.S. after a devastating Soviet first strike would still have enough missiles to blast every major Soviet city twelve times.)

There is no doubt that the Soviets are building up their forces, modernizing them, and imitating American technology where possible. In the “missile gap” era, the last time we heard from the soothsayers in force, the U.S. was actually running the arms race with itself, but now there are two contenders. The buildup raises two questions: Why are they doing it? What should we do about it?

The most plausible reason the Soviets are building up is that the United States has always been ahead in military and strategic power and continues to amass nuclear weapons at a rate of about three a day. Then too the growing perception of the Chinese threat has prompted the strengthening of conventional forces. Modernization of the Warsaw Pact forces has been in part a response to the rise of a formidable German army, in part a reflection of the impulse to field a force “second to none” in the arena where they might have a slight edge over the West.

What do we do about an arms race that will soon cost us $150 billion a year, even more in relative terms for the Soviet Union, and which is producing not a safer “military balance” but the most dangerous international climate since the dawn of the nuclear age? That the present degree of public concern concerning the Soviet threat could be so easily created on the basis of Kremlinological entrails, a little P.R. money, and the worried looks of retired generals demonstrates how insubstantial the whole notion of “military balance” is. Being “ahead” or “behind” in this weapons system has no traditional military significance. It is purely a psychological concept. If we believe that accumulating the equivalent of several hundred million tons of TNT to drop on the Soviet Union is not enough, then it is not enough. And if we think that it is not enough, that will guarantee that the Soviets will consider their own arsenal inadequate. The arms race has long since passed the point where additional weapons could change the outcome of a war with the Soviet Union in any significant way. Neither our arms nor their arms can conquer or defend. All they can do is inspire feelings and convey intentions. The national insecurity that can be so easily fanned by a “Committee on the Present Danger” cannot be cured by 9,000 more bombs. It has very little to do with what the Russians are actually doing.

THE ARMS RACE AND THE FUTURE

The roots are much deeper. The insecurity of the world’s most powerful nation flows from our failure to make the leap into the second half of the twentieth century and to acquire the consciousness essential for survival in the nuclear age. An international system in which we measure our safety by how many tons of destruction we can visit on an enemy who has no rational motive to go to war with us invites periodic return engagements from the soothsayers of the “Committee on the Present Danger” andCommentary magazine. If we are going to run an arms race, they are an inevitable part of the act.

As money grows shorter, the absurdities of the arms race become clearer, the voice of the soothsayer becomes more shrill. It is more than coincidence that the revival of the Soviet threat comes at the moment when several major new weapons systems which have been waiting in the wings during the long years of the IndoChina War are ripe for Congressional action and require the patriotic support of large numbers of worried Americans.

If the Russians had a master plan to destroy the United States, it would be to encourage us to spend ourselves into an ever deeper fiscal crisis by building more irrelevant hardware—that can’t hurt them any more than they can be hurt already—and to hire some group like the Committee on the Present Danger to go around the country casting doubt on the U.S. deterrent, spreading doom, demoralizing the population, and diverting attention from initiatives that could actually strenghen us and make us safer. I am not suggesting that the Soviets are either that intelligent or diabolical and I am certainly not suggesting that Messrs. Pipes, Nitze, Graham, etc., are acting out of any motives other than the sincerest belief that they are the Paul Reveres of their generation. But the impact of war hysteria in 1977 is a good deal more serious than it was when some of these same tired soothsayers were reading 1960’s entrails.

To begin with, during the last performance of “The Russians are Coming,” things weren’t so dangerous. Pax Americana, which lasted through the whole postwar period until the early 1970’s, for all its errors and injustices, made for a relatively stable world. The U.S. was in control of the international system to a remarkable degree. That is not the case today. The Soviet Union is a contender in the arms race today in a way it was not then. There are one hundred fifty supposedly sovereign nations, many with power to create enormous instability. In place of the illusion of infinite wealth and infinite growth which provided the momentum for the American prosperity, there is a sense of scarcity and with it a host of political conflicts, between nations and within nations, which did not exist in what turns out to have been the remarkably orderly postwar world. In the so-called “bipolar” world (which was really a unipolar world) the arms race was a ritualistic dance all participants could afford. Today it is different. The arms race, for various technical reasons, is about to enter a new and much more unstable phase. The cruise missile, the satellite destroyer, the more accurate warhead, all throw off the calculations of “military balance” on which planners on both sides base their defense and encourage both to devise “pre-emptive strategies” to forestall the disarming attack. Above all, the new weapons developments on both sides are evidence of hostile intention which increase the chances of war by miscalculation. The military environment will test the nerves of leaders more than in the past, and given our own recent history, that is not particularly reassuring.

The Committee on the Present Danger is right to be concerned for the future. But the problem is not the Soviet war machine and the solution is not to build a bigger American war machine. The problem is the war machine in both countries, the mindless bureaucratic process in which danger is the advertising slogan and is also the product. The solution for the United States is to stop racing, to stop basing our foreign policy on intimidating others, and to refuse to be intimidated ourselves, whether by propagandists from Moscow, should they ever be so foolish, or by our own soothsayers who were born a generation too late.

Richard J. Barnet served as an official of the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as a consultant to the Department of Defense. Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Institute for Policy Studies, he is the author of several books and articles on foreign policy issues, including Intervention and Revolution and Roots of War. His latest book, The Giants: United States and Russia, has just been published by Simon and Schuster.