- Historic Sites
From Austerlitz To Moscow
An American Success Story
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
It was at this point that American military and civilian analysts began to agree with each other on the’prerequisites of Churchill’s Utopia. To create what Herman Kahn dubbed “the rationality of irrationalities,” it was clear that the nuclear threat one nation sought to hold over another’s head would have to be itself invulnerable to attack . Furthermore, it had to be dependable in its ability to inflict retaliatory devastation. Both sides had to be facing a war that would certainly and swiftly cause their “suffering what they dread most.” The predictability of war’s unfavorable outcome, the certainty of disaster on the rebound, the confidence of symmetry-these were the properties a successful system of nuclear deterrence must have. The appropriate technical characteristics were then being built into the military hardware of the United States. The Polaris system of submarine launching platforms, the Minuteman family of solidfueled missiles in underground silos, the multiple satellite and ground-based warning systems to permit bombers to leave their threatened airfields-these and many more strenuous technical developments were necessary before the latent opportunity of the nuclear age could be exploited.
But it takes two to tango, and Khrushchev wasn’t ready to dance to America’s tune-yet. When his rocketeers orbited the earth’s first man-made satellite in 1957, it had an enormous effect on Russia’s foreign image. Before Sputnik, people generally considered the backward Russians safely held at bay by the advanced Americans. Now the technological tables seemed to be turned, and Europeans began seriously asking themselves if they had guessed wrong. Ever the salesman, Nikita Khrushchev promoted this windfall of prestige into a vigorous campaign to turn the political tables as well. He demanded that the Western powers relinquish their foothold in Berlin and submit to Soviet terms for the settlement of World War 11 in Europe. He issued an ultimatum and a deadline. He issued another and yet another. All this bombast while U-2 pilots gazed down at these cumbersome intercontinental missiles that could be disabled with hand grenades! All this menace while a jittery U.S. Air Force in forward bases encircling the Soviet Union carried out daily training missions with their aerial tankers. These were the circumstances in which the cocky Russian leader hurled his repeated challenges and made his incessant threats. It was a bad time for everyone concerned-on both sides. But Nikita Khrushchev was hard to scare. When the Americans held firm and the true dimensions of his vulnerability became clear to him, he tried to redress the balance with some forward-based missiles of his own-in Cuba.
It is a tribute to Khrushchev’s good sense that as soon as the Cuba fiasco was over, he brought the whole dangerous game to a swift halt. Thereafter he made no more unilateral demands on the Western powers, and he put the Soviet Union squarely behind bilateral cooperation with the U.S. in the creation of a system of stable nuclear deterrence. But the Soviet Communist party’s nerves were shot, and they had every reason to believe that Nikita’s were too. In October, 1964, they invited him out of every position he held and retired him to the country.
His successors, Brezhnev and Kosygin, owed much to Soviet military leaders for their support in the crucial votes against Khrushchev in the Central Committee. They paid their debts by heavy investments in accelerated hardware-development programs-hardware patterned after the very expensive, new American equipment. It was tough on the Soviet people; belts that were already tight had to be taken in yet another notch. But it was a welcome advance for the world in general. What made the new hardware so expensive was that it was safe: it could hide under the oceans indefinitely or withstand multiple attacks on its land-based silos. It could wait.
Unexpectedly, the arithmetic of waiting had become a joy of historic proportions. Consider for a moment that a field of one hundred underground missiles is installed in Russia and that it is matched by an identical field in the U.S. Then suppose one nation or the other gets tired of living and decides to attack. To destroy each of the defender’s buried missiles takes from three to four strikes by the attacker’s missiles. Let’s say the attacker cuts it close and uses only three. His entire flight of one hundred missiles then has some chance of disabling about thirty-three of the defender’s silos. When the attack is over, an angry defender in possession of sixty-seven untouched missiles will be facing a totally disarmed attacker who has suddenly grown extraordinarily peaceful. The advent of impregnable missiles has thus brought greater stability, greater certainty of war’s outcome, overwhelming incentive not to strike first, and high levels of assurance that the maintenance of approximate parity in strategic weapons will be sufficient to deter attack. (The advent of multiple warheads has added new considerations, but without changing the situation fundamentally.)
It was America’s turn to deliver the hard sell. Russia had clearly absorbed our doctrine and imitated our equipment; would they be willing to accept our ground rules and tie the size of their forces to ours? The answer was “yes, but.” Yes they recognized the advantage of mutual agreement on scale of forces, but why on earth must they agree never to build an antiballistic missile system to defend their urban population?