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The Nuclear Threat Comes Full Circle

The Wall Street Journal -- March 20, 1997

In their proposal for the next phase of nuclear arms reductions, Ashton Carter and John Deutch gloss over one of the great ironies of the post-Cold War era ("No Nukes? Not Yet," editorial page, March 4).

Summarizing the findings of the Defense Department's 1994 Nuclear Posture Review (which they helped to craft), they write, "In the new era, the risk of nuclear use would arise from parties whose conventional military power could not match ours and who would seek nuclear weapons as 'equalizers.' " This, of course, is exactly the posture taken by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations from the late 1940s through the 1950s with regard to the Soviet Union.

Hampered by poor intelligence and inclined to justify plans and programs based on worst-case scenarios, U.S. military planners of that era concluded (despite some early CIA analyses to the contrary) that the Soviet Union maintained a formidable conventional army capable of conquering Western Europe. However, due to self-imposed budgetary ceilings, policy makers believed the country could not afford to deploy a counterpoising conventional force without bankrupting the economy. Despite being on the front lines, our European allies were also reluctant to expend great sums to counter the apparent threat.

Enter nuclear weapons, which in the phraseology of the day provided "a bigger bang for the buck." One nuclear weapon, it was said, could deliver the concentrated firepower of hundreds of aircraft and ships. In a rousing September 1951 speech, Sen. Brien McMahon, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, asserted that, "If we mass produce this weapon, as we can, I can solemnly say to the Senate that the cost of a single atomic bomb will become less than the cost of a single tank." It was thus the dual perceptions of an intractable Soviet conventional threat and a relatively cheap nuclear response that propelled the initial buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

From 32 weapons in 1947, the nuclear stockpile grew to more than 20,400 by 1960, with 13,400 of these being nonstrategic weapons for use in Europe and elsewhere. While this buildup almost certainly cost less than one comprising equivalent firepower with conventional forces, it is worth remembering that nuclear weapons did not actually replace conventional forces, but only supplemented them. Furthermore, since 1940 nuclear weapons and their associated infrastructure have cost taxpayers--at a minimum--in excess of $4 trillion in 1996 dollars (about a quarter of all military expenditures during the same period).

Unfortunately, Messrs. Carter and Deutch do not seem to fully appreciate that history is threatening to repeat itself (albeit on a smaller but still dangerous scale), with the United States now representing the unbeatable foe. Given that the two fundamental conditions for deploying large numbers of nuclear weapons--deterring deliberate Russian attacks on Europe and the U.S.--have now disappeared, it would appear logical to re-evaluate the entire rationale for maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Focusing on reductions, even deep reductions such as those proposed by the authors, begs the question of just what role nuclear weapons can and should play in the post-Cold War world.

Stephen I. Schwartz
Director
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project
The Brookings Institution
Washington

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