Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink

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As spring moved northward over Europe in 1970, a familiar scene was enacted in Vienna, a city where diplomacy is as much a part of the civic tradition as steelmaking in Pittsburgh. In April, Soviet and American officials exchanged greetings, drank champagne, smiled at news cameras, and then settled down to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, known to headline writers as SALT . So, with the opening of the 1970’s mankind’s long dream of disarmament once more cast its spell. It is a compelling vision. But a glance at the past suggests, even to those not inclined to be cynical, that the hopes of beating even a few surplus spears into pruning hooks will remain, as often before, unfulfilled.

The force that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the parley was their awareness of the awesome destructive power of their nuclear arsenals. Any limitation on these superweapons will enlarge mankind’s chances of surviving future wars. Yet this awareness of possible disaster goes back beyond the era of the atomic bomb. Since the century’s beginning, military inventions —the submarine, the bomber, high explosives—have been creating an age of overkill. Nations have hesitated to pursue arms races that yearly become more threatening to noncombatants, merchant fleets, cities, factories, the countryside, and even civilized life itself.

A second motive for disarmament is the crushing financial burden of maintaining deadly modern weapons. Sooner or later even the richest nations must stagger under the cost of their military forces.

There are, then, powerful reasons for Moscow and Washington to disarm, at least partially. But there are also reasons why even the obvious gains of arms limitation will not produce quick and easy agreement by both sides. First, there is the technical aspect. To reduce armaments it is necessary to work out a formula by which both parties will remain equally strong as they lay aside their weapons. But this requires some knowledge of the capabilities of both sides, since no country will risk an arms reduction without some idea of the cost in security. The further development of the MIRV (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle) will make such information far more difficult to obtain. A MIRV warhead contains several nuclear bombs, each capable of reaching a different target. If MIRV is perfected, it will be impossible to know how many weapons an enemy nation has put into the business end of its missiles. Thereafter, there will be no way to calculate the relative nuclear forces of opposing nations. Under the circumstances, MIRV may therefore put an insuperable roadblock in the path of the SALT negotiators.

Political considerations, too, limit the prospects for the Vienna negotiators. To take but one example, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. must make their security plans not only with an eye on each other, but with a deep concern over possible conflict with China. What is “safe” for either in the way of arms reduction depends on Chinese intentions. And the purposes of the Chinese Communist regime in Peking, a nuclear power of increasing virtuosity, confuse the calculations of amateurs and experts alike. The supposed science of Kremlinology, which always has inspired wry comments after the experts go wrong, seems marvelously exact when compared to guesswork about China’s plans. While such mysteries persist, there is little ground for optimism about the future of SALT . Ironically, then, the very anxieties that create the pressure for disarmament talks act to prevent their success.

On this subject, however, history is full of ironies. For one thing, almost every time a serious disarmament effort got under way, it barely managed to move forward an inch or two before a great world cataclysm intervened. (A pessimist might remark that the convening of a disarmament conference was a sure sign of international trouble.) For another, it was the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who endowed an annual prize for any man or woman who notably advanced the cause of peace and disarmament. Moreover, recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace have not always been peaceful individuals. One of them, for example, was Theodore Roosevelt, who received the prize in 1906 for helping to end the RussoJapanese war. Yet Roosevelt, in a memorable speech in 1897, told the students of the Naval War College that the diplomat was the servant and not the master of the soldier and that “no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.” It may be the crowning irony that interest in disarmament rose to its present peak only after invention of the so-called ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb!