Living with Nuclear Weapons. By the Harvard Nuclear Study Group. (Harvard University Press, $12.95; Bantam, $3.95).

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In July 1983, a New York Times/CBS poll revealed that only eight percent of the American public knew which side the U.S. government supports in Nicaragua and El Salvador. If anything like this dismaying statistic holds true of nuclear policy as well, then the Harvard Nuclear Study Group has addressed an urgent need with a new book, “Living with Nuclear Weapons” (Harvard University Press, $12.95; Bantam, $3.95).

The book had an unusual genesis. In early 1982, President Derek Bok read and took to heart a column by “The New York Times’s” James Reston, which deplored the lack of any substantial contribution by the universities to the public debate over nuclear weapons. “So far,” Reston wrote, “the demonstrators have outnumbered the educators.” In his June 1982 Commencement Day address, Bok announced a response: an education program whose principal feature was to be this book, an introduction to nuclear weapons, weapons policy, arms control, and related subjects, written for the general public by a group of Harvard faculty members. The authors would include Albert Carnesale, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government and a former member of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT); Paul Doty, director of the Center for Science and International Affairs and a former member of the Manhattan Project and the president’s Science Advisory Committee; Stanley Hoffmann, chairman of the Center for European Studies; Samuel Huntington, director of the Center for International Affairs, former coordinator of security planning for the National Security Council; and Joseph Nye, professor of government, former deputy undersecretary of state for security assistance. Scott Sagan, a doctoral candidate in the government department, was chosen as staff director of the project and became a co-author. President Bok has written a foreword.

Descartes observed that every great book is the product of a single mind. “Living with Nuclear Weapons” is not a great book, but it is, within the strict limits it has set for itself, a useful one. If, as Bantam Books promises, it is ambitiously marketed, then perhaps more than eight percent of the American public will eventually know what was agreed to in SALT I and 11, what a nuclear “war- fighting” capability is supposed to consist of, and how to judge whether a proposed new weapon is destabilizing. Certainly we all need to know that “the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency of the U.S. government is funded at an annual cost of less than the cost of the least expensive fighter aircraft.” A good deal of such information is presented in an accessible way, and the effect is to make an obscure and forbidding subject seem less so. That is not a trivial accomplishment. The authors have said (as Harvard professors frequently say to Harvard students) that their purpose is not to win, or even enter, the debate, but to facilitate it. In this they should succeed.

But as the authors well know, the line between analysis and advocacy, especially in the social sciences, is a dotted line. Expository judgments about selection and emphasis are also political and moral judgments, hence proper objects of criticism. So far, most criticism of “Living with Nuclear Weapons” has concerned its failure to endorse a comprehensive freeze on further nuclear testing, production, and deployment. This is not wholly fair: the authors’ attitude toward the freeze is best described as qualified approval. They suggest that a “partial freeze,” i.e., “discriminating restraints” on new and destabilizing weapons, would meet the goals of the freeze movement. This suggestion assumes that there are present or foreseeable innovations (e.g., the single-warhead Midgetman missile) that might not be destabilizing—an arguable assumption, but not, in any case, intended as a decisive objection to all possible freeze proposals.

But there are, I believe, more serious— criticisms to be made of “Living with Nuclear Weapons”. In a primer, emphasis should be placed on what is of prime importance. The most important thing for the American public to know about nuclear weapons—a matter that receives only the briefest mention in this book— is that they have been used many times since 1945. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out in a valuable essay*: “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, U.S. nuclear weapons have been used . . . in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at some one’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.” On nineteen occasions between 1946 and 1973, the use of nuclear weapons was threatened or prepared for by an American president, usually against Third World nations. As the Harvard authors discreetly note, “On most of these occasions the U.S. secured all or most of the goals it sought.”

Nor has nuclear diplomacy ended with the attainment of superpower parity. Presidents Carter and Reagan made clear that nuclear weapons would be used to defend what they considered America’s “vital national interests”; in particular, access to Persian Gulf oil. Shortly after the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine, secretary of defense Harold Brown, testifying on behalf of the 1980-81 defense budget, warned Congress of “the growth in international turbulence, illustrated by recent developments in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran.” He continued: “Our strategic nuclear capabilities provide the foundation on which our security rests. With them, our other forces become meaningful instruments of military and political power.” (Emphasis added.)

This disturbing record suggests that nuclear weapons have consistently been regarded by American policymakers as instruments of foreign policy. If that is true, it is of fundamental importance to public debate over nuclear weapons. It supports the argument of Ellsberg and other disarmament activists that the vast military buildup proposed by the Reagan administration is an attempt to buy back two perceived requisites of an interventionist foreign policy: a credible first- strike threat and a credible threat to escalate from lower levels of conflict. A chapter of “Living with Nuclear Weapons” is entitled “Military Power and Political Purpose: What Do We Want from Nuclear Weapons?” The centerpiece of this obviously central chapter should have been a consideration of how nuclear weapons have actually been used, i.e., the history just referred to. Instead, the authors list seven goals, of which five have to do with preventing or terminating a nuclear war and one with facilitating arms control. The seventh is: “Support U.S. foreign policy in peacetime and pre vent nuclear coercion of the United States and its allies That nuclear weapons have repeatedly made possible nuclear coercion by the United States, and may be wanted for this purpose in future, is not emphasized.

Politics receives too little emphasis altogether in “Living with Nuclear Weapons”. Stanley Hoffmann has acknowledged, a bit ruefully, that “what our book really calls for is another one, on the nature of the Soviet-American competition.” More precisely, what even an elementary treatment of nuclear weapons calls for is some discussion of what the Cold War is about and of what role Cold War ideology plays in the foreign and domestic policies of the superpowers. It is by no means obvious that “Soviet-American competition” is responsible for most of the episodes in which nuclear threats have been invoked (e.g., Korea, 1950; Guatemala, 1954; Lebanon, 1958; Quemoy, 1958; Vietnam, 1968 and 1969) or are likely to be invoked (e.g., the Middle East). Both superpowers have intervened regularly and with considerable violence to pre serve “order” and “stability” within their respective domains, almost always against indigenous challenges. Yet these interventions are invariably portrayed to the superpowers’ domestic populations, who must bear their moral and material costs, as defensive: specifically, as defenses against the relentless global expansionism of the Superpower Enemy. Since Afghanistan and El Salvador cannot by themselves threaten the security of their superpower neighbors, they must be depicted as outposts of a global struggle. Though minimally plausible, these justifications regularly succeed; and their key premise—the paramountcy of the superpower rivalry—generates, among other things, a strategic arms race.

One of the other things generated by Cold War ideology is a continuous large infusion of defense spending into the economy. We are (almost) all Keynesians now, aware that without regular state intervention capitalist economies are prone to disastrous instability. But there are welfare Keynesians and military Keynesians. The latter recognize that state-sponsored production of useful goods and ser vices would seriously encroach on the profits and prerogatives of those who currently own and manage the private economy. That is not the case with rapidly obsolescing high-technology waste (defense production), which is, more over, not a total waste: besides acting— up to a point—as an economic stimulant at home, it can be employed abroad in interventions that seek to insure access to strategic resources and a favorable investment climate. It is true that nuclear weapons have not been directly used in any of the superpowers’ many foreign military interventions, but as defense secretary Harold Brown pointed out, it is only by virtue of “our strategic nuclear capabilities” that “our other forces become meaningful instruments of military and political power.”

In international as in individual life, whenever we are confronted with an apparently irrational and self-destructive process, like the Cold War and the associated nuclear arms race, we naturally try to discover the dynamics that underlie the surface irrationality, knowing that little progress toward resolution can be made without such discovery. “Living with Nuclear Weapons” is not as much help as it might be in this regard. One would not expect, or even want, a primer to pass judgment on the complex arguments just alluded to, but by failing even to take note of their existence the book drastically circumscribes the public debate it is intended to promote.

The authors do notice, but only to dismiss, Jonathan Schell’s argument that since the real function of nuclear weapons is not to deter their own use but to guarantee national sovereignty, the transcendent importance of national sovereignty should be called in question. For the authors, national sovereignty is a “moral right of individuals”; it means “independence,” period. That national sovereignty means in practice the nation’s “vital interests” as defined by those who exercise effective social power, and that the foreign adventures even of democratic governments often bear no relation to the interests or desires of the “individuals” in whose name they are carried out—these relevant considerations are not acknowledged.

Albert Einstein spent much of his life urging that politics be reinvented, and in precisely the way Schell has proposed: that national sovereignty and its corollaries, national “interest” and national “defense,” be thought through to their lethal consequences and rejected in favor of more humane, rational, cooperative social arrangements. If he had under taken a work of similar scope, Einstein would doubtless have produced some thing very different from “Living with Nuclear Weapons”. And yet this book may be said to find its justification (perhaps also, we may hope, some of its inspiration) in one of his most famous dicta: “There is no ‘secret,’ there is no ‘defense,’ and there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding of the peoples of the world.”


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George Scialabba