from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2020, Issue No. 3
February 18, 2020

Secrecy News Blog:


Earlier this month the Department of Defense acknowledged that it has recently begun to deploy low-yield nuclear warheads on certain submarine ballistic missiles.

"This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence. . . and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario," DoD said in a February 4, 2020 news release.

The notion that multiplying and diversifying the options for using nuclear weapons is the best way to deter their use by others has long been at the foundation of U.S. nuclear policy. Yet to a large extent it is built on wishful thinking and flimsy assumptions that can hardly stand common sense scrutiny.

The origins and development of the theory of nuclear war are illuminated with new clarity in Fred Kaplan's new book "The Bomb: Presidents, General, and the Secret History of Nuclear War." Based on interviews with many of the principals and on thousands of pages of declassified documents, Kaplan retells the story of how each Administration in the nuclear era has tried to manage the threat of nuclear war.

And like many significant works of history, his book also casts new light on the present.

Deterrence is an effort to affect the thinking of an adversary in order to discourage a resort to nuclear weapons. As such, the very concept of deterrence "is as much a psychological as a military problem," wrote Henry Kissinger more than half a century ago (Kaplan, p. 104).

But U.S. nuclear deterrence policy shows little evidence of psychological acumen or insight. It assumes linearly that any perceived threat is best countered by a comparable, corresponding threat (so U.S. low-yield nuclear weapons are needed in order to deter Russian low-yield nuclear weapons, etc.). It does not consider the possibility that different foreign leaders -- or totally different cultures -- might be deterred in different ways, or not at all. It promotes the dangerous but seductive belief that larger nuclear arsenals confer greater "strength" and decisiveness. And so on.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials -- who nowadays can hardly communicate effectively even with allies -- think that they are sending meaningful deterrent signals to foreign adversaries. But these signals have often been lost or garbled in transmission.

"Americans put forces on alert so often that it is hard to know what it meant," said Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in 1973 (Kaplan, p. 108).

Instead of resting on solid intelligence and empirical data -- which are naturally hard to come by -- nuclear policy has often been based on "hunches," strongly held opinions, bureaucratic politics, inter-service rivalry, and serendipity.

During the Obama years, Kaplan writes, the question arose whether to officially endorse the policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons. At a White House meeting, science advisor John Holdren not only advocated no first use, but also no second use, arguing that modern conventional weapons would be fully adequate to respond to an initial nuclear strike in most scenarios. This assertion infuriated Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who "snapped back, red-faced, yelling" (p. 253). Carter's anger was more likely an indication of the intensity of his feeling than the cogency of his position. But his view prevailed then, and now.

All of this would simply be a fascinating puzzle for political scientists if it were not also extremely dangerous and prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the nuclear weapons enterprise entails tremendous opportunity costs that will make it difficult or impossible to meet other urgent national and global challenges.

But "absent some transformation in global politics," Kaplan writes (p. 298), "an upheaval so immense that it can hardly be imagined, the bomb will always be with us, looming over everything."

Such a transformation or upheaval may yet emerge. Even if it doesn't there is plenty that could be done to limit and reduce the threat of nuclear war -- including extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that will expire in 2021. But that would require the sort of vision and leadership that are in short supply at the moment.

* * *

Deterrence "sounds tough and smart, even though, in many circumstances, nobody is really sure how it could ever work," wrote Amy Zegart in The Atlantic last month. "It has become a hazy, ill-formed shorthand policy that consists of 'stopping bad guys from doing bad things without actually going to war, somehow'."

"Deterrence isn't a useless idea," she wrote. "But it's not magic fairy dust, either.

History shows that deterrence has been useful only under very specific conditions. In the Cold War, mutual assured destruction was very good at preventing one outcome: total nuclear war that could kill hundreds of millions of people. But nuclear deterrence did not prevent the Soviets' other bad behavior, including invading Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. The key Cold War takeaway isn't that policy makers should use deterrence more. It's that some things are not deterrable, no matter how much we wish them to be."

* * *

Why did arms control advocates criticize the Trump Administration for withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty even after Russia had violated the Treaty by conducting a test of an intermediate range cruise missile?

According to a rather disconcerting speech last week by State Department Assistant Secretary Christopher Ford, the criticism was rooted in a "pathology" within the arms control community. As Ford sees it, those who believe that the U.S. should have adhered to the Treaty despite the Russian violations are indifferent to facts, unconcerned with actual security issues, and blindly devoted to "an identity politics of virtue signaling, progressive solidarity, and consciousness-raising against retrograde mindsets."

Other, better explanations are possible. According to Kaplan, "withdrawing from the treaty gave the Russians what they wanted. The Russian military had abhorred the INF Treaty from the moment that Gorbachev [and Reagan] signed it."

"Killing the treaty would help only the Russians, giving them free rein to build as many of these weapons as they like and to blame the breakdown on the Americans, while doing nothing for the West." (p. 293)

* * *

There are now "mountains" of declassified records on nuclear issues at the National Archives and the presidential libraries, including those which helped inform Kaplan's The Bomb.

"These institutions are invaluable for the preservation of our history and democracy," he wrote, "and their underfunding in recent years is shameful." (p. 300)


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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