- Historic Sites
From Austerlitz To Moscow
An American Success Story
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
McNamara patiently explained that ABM systems just make more offensive missiles necessary-the size of everyone’s arsenal grows without buying anything useful by way of safety. Both sides agreed that since nuclear physics was the common property of mankind, the two superpowers would have to build for themselves a sufficient ABM screen to protect themselves from Mideast or possibly Asian ricochet. There were plenty of angry quarrels in the world, and there always would be. Great size and advanced development had never bestowed automatic immunity on the nations of man; had never relieved them of the requirements of self-defense, of caution, of prudence. It was quickly agreed, then, that we should each build a level of protection that would be significant in relation to our smaller neighbors, but clearly insignificant in relation to each other.
The Soviet definition of “insignificant” tended to be five or ten times more massive than the American, a bias attributable to the incessant beating of Chinese gongs across their southern border.
Henry Kissinger, when it came his turn, carefully explained that it was imperative for the great powers to be precise about their requirements for defense, to be precise about what was needed to preserve their own mutual security at the same time that they looked to their wider protection in a world of inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons. He patiently repeated the facts of life: confident mutual deterrence depended on a set of inescapable consequences for the aggressor. Any uncertainty of outcome made war more likely. Anything that obscured the clear-cut calculus of disaster must be avoided. He explained that a large antiballistic missile system could introduce precisely that uncertainty of outcome; that a government under some great unforeseen stress in the future could look upon such a system as an impregnable umbrella-and start pushing buttons in historical mimicry of the World War I Europeans. Kissinger also agreed, however, that prudence required the building of a modest system to handle accidents or small attacks from third countries.
The argument lasted for years. The day finally came when both sides found themselves in agreement. The world’s two primary nuclear powers were ready to mark mankind’s coming of age in the nuclear era. It had taken twenty-seven years-some of them harrowing, some of them ridiculous, some of them among the finest examples of intelligent restraint and forbearance man’s history has produced-but when they were over and we had survived, the heads of state and the diplomats and the experts met in Moscow in May, 1972, to celebrate the event by sprinkling ink on it.
When it came time for Henry Kissinger to explain what had happened he said:
“The agreement which was signed 46 minutes before midnight in Moscow on the evening of May 26 by President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev is without precedent in the nuclear age, indeed, in all relevant modern history.
“Never before have the world’s two most powerful nations, divided by ideology, history, and conflicting interests, placed their central armaments under formally agreed limitation and restraint. It is fair to ask: What new conditions now prevail to have made this step commend itself to the calculated selfinterests of both of the so-called superpowers …
“Each of us has … come into possession of power single-handedly capable of exterminating the human race. Paradoxically, this very fact and the global interests of both sides create a certain commonality of outlook, a sort of interdependence for survival between the two of us.
“Although we compete, the conflict will not admit of resolution by victory in the classical sense. We are compelled to coexist.”
One can picture the old man in the mind’s eye: chomping down on his cigar, clapping his bowler on his head, turning away with a growl of satisfaction as he heads back to whichever afterworld accepts eminent British statesmen. For “the annihilating character” of the new weapons has indeed brought “an utterly unforeseeable security to mankind.”