Can Nuclear Deterrence Last? – Michael Krepon



Fred Charles Iklé did not leave lasting impressions during long stints in government as President Nixon and Ford’s Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as President Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. In both jobs, he served alongside higher fliers, and he shied away from media attention. Iklé was a thoughtful skeptic of arms control who wrote books on deep subjects in dense prose, such as Every War Must End (1971) and How Nations Negotiate (1964). His most recent book, Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations (2006) is his most jarring. In it, Iklé argues that “Anarchists and doomsday cults are likely to attack their own country from within, not abroad,” and that nothing is likely “to prevent such an event from happening – save, perhaps, an unending continuance of good luck.”

Iklé felt the same way about nuclear deterrence. His intensely analytical mind could find no satisfactory explanation for the complete absence of a bomb-related nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War.

When I was teaching at the University of Virginia, I used to have my students read his essay, “Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the Century?” which appeared in the January 1973 issue of Foreign Affairs. Here are the key passages:

It was Winston Churchill who in 1955 first expounded the essential ideas of mutual deterrence to the world at large. In that celebrated ‘balance of terror’ speech, he made a ‘formidable admission,’ as he himself called it: ‘The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout. This is a blank.’ The most disturbing defect, today, in the prevalent thinking on nuclear strategy is the cavalier disregard for this blank…

Nobody can predict that the fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen. The hazard is too elusive….

Our arms control experts and military planners insulate themselves from the potential implications of their labors by layers of dehumanizing abstractions and bland metaphors. Thus, ‘assured destruction’ fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then ‘assured genocide’ would reveal the truth too starkly….

The jargon of American strategic analysis works like a narcotic. It dulls our sense of moral outrage about the tragic confrontation of nuclear arsenals, primed and constantly perfected to unleash widespread genocide. It fosters the current smug complacence regarding the soundness and stability of nuclear deterrence. It blinds us to the fact that our method for preventing war rests on a form of warfare universally condemned since the Dark Ages – the mass killing of hostages.

Abolitionists and arms controllers have no quarrel with this analysis, but they usually take issue with one of Iklé’s essential remedies – the deployment of missile defenses. Iklé concluded this essay with the thought that, “Mercifully, no human power condemns us to live perpetually in the grim jail of our own ideas.” To replace the genocidal use of nuclear weapons, he proposed, in addition to BMD, “smart” bombs and missiles, and discarding prompt nuclear retaliatory options. “Time is the best healer of mistakes, whether technical or human,” he wrote. “The insistence on speed leaves insufficient time for double-checking; it denies opportunities for correction.”

Iklé believed that the absence of mushroom clouds since World War II ended (other than for atmospheric testing before the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty) could be explained in large measure by luck, and he was unsure that our luck would hold during the remainder of the twentieth century. Will we be as lucky in the twenty-first century?


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