Repeating Jimmy Carter's mistakes in the nuclear arms race
In the 1960s, under the leadership of Defense secretary Robert McNamara, the United States voluntarily surrendered the nuclear superiority it had constructed and maintained since the beginning of the Cold War. The theory that McNamara foisted upon the country to justify our strategic restraint was called "Mutual Assured Destruction" or MAD. According to MAD, nuclear superiority was meaningless. The U.S. nuclear posture, so the theory held, needed only enough nuclear weapons to survive a first strike by our nuclear-armed adversaries and threaten destruction of the enemy's country after suffering a first strike.
McNamara's theory fell apart in the late 1960s and 1970s as the Soviet Union engaged in a massive nuclear build-up, including construction of large numbers of their mammoth SS-18 missile, each of which could deliver up to 20 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States. Meanwhile, the United States looked to arms control agreements to provide strategic stability, foregoing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses as part of the arms control regime. By the end of the 1970s, experts like Senator Henry M. Jackson, Paul Nitze, Robert Jastrow, and Edward Luttwak warned our policymakers that U.S. land-based nuclear forces were becoming increasingly vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. Experts warned about a "window of vulnerability" that threatened to undermine the U.S. nuclear deterrent. As President Carter's secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, later lamented: when we build, they build; when we stop, they continue to build. Apparently, Soviet strategists didn't sign on to McNamara's MAD theory.
Some experts noted that Soviet strategic thinking did not match U.S. strategic thinking. Soviet military writings indicated that they planned to use nuclear weapons at the outset of any war against Europe and the United States, and they constructed a strategic nuclear force that could cripple our deterrent forces and leave Western leaders with the choice between surrender and suicide.
Then Ronald Reagan became president, and U.S. strategic thinking changed. Reagan engaged in a massive build-up of nuclear and conventional forces and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in an effort to provide the United States and its allies with defense against nuclear warheads. While American liberals like Senator Ted Kennedy derided SDI as "Star Wars," the Soviets viewed it with alarm. Reagan effectively restarted the nuclear arms race — a race that the Soviets realized they could not win. It was only then — and in the context of Reagan's multi-pronged strategy to bring down the Soviet empire — that Gorbachev engaged in serious arms control.
Our victory in the Cold War, however, led U.S. policymakers to seek a "peace dividend," which meant abandoning SDI and drastically reducing our nuclear arsenal. Beginning with the George H.W. Bush administration and continuing with most of his successors (except for Trump), we cut our nuclear arsenal and failed to modernize the force that remained. Meanwhile, the Russians modernized their nuclear force, and China entered a new nuclear arms race — at first cautiously, then later at a faster pace. Our diplomacy failed to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, and it is likely that Iran will soon join the nuclear club. Once again, the United States surrendered its nuclear superiority.
Now some American strategists are recognizing that Reagan's "peace through strength" should again become a central aspect of U.S. defense policy. Writing in The National Interest, the Hudson Institute's Peter Huessy contends that "U.S. deterrent strategy and policy need to be constantly 're-established'" and suggests that we must plan to fight and win a nuclear war. Otherwise, Huessy writes, our deterrent strategy is nothing more than a bluff. Meanwhile, he warns, Russia and China have engaged in "nuclear brinkmanship," perhaps because they are not deterred by an aging and reduced U.S. nuclear capability.
Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, on a recent John Batchelor Show episode, expressed similar concerns that our deterrent force is again becoming vulnerable to a first strike from Russia or China. Sokolski says the U.S. entered into a "nuclear modernization holiday" while Russia and China built up and modernized their nuclear forces.
And Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation warns that the Biden nuclear posture review "weakens deterrence at a time when it is needed most." Although Biden did not succumb to the far left's view that we should declare a "no first use" nuclear weapons policy, he has signaled to our adversaries that we would use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack and that the principal goal of our strategic policy is arms control. That is not a policy that will assure the allies to whom we have extended a nuclear guarantee. And it is not a policy that will likely deter a Chinese conventional attack on Taiwan.
It's time, in the words of the late, great nuclear strategist Herman Kahn, to start "thinking about the unthinkable" again.
Image via Max Pixel.