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From Austerlitz To Moscow

July 2024
21min read

An American Success Story

A dreadful prospect opened up for mankind when Napoleon’s Grande Armée won the battle of Austerlitz and swept on to conquer all of Europe. The enthusiastic multitudes of revolutionary France had placed at Napoleon’s disposal the resources of an entire nation, and he had fashioned from them a mighty new weapon: the mass citizen army, the Grande Armée. War was no longer a game for kings and small hired armies; it had become a cataclysm into which entire nations were hurled. The scale of war was henceforth to be set by the total population, productivity, and determination of nations, not by the limited resources of the king’s treasury. We had entered the era of mass war, of total war, of mindless attrition that threatened to drown the most advanced societies in their own blood.

From Austerlitz (1805) to the signing of the SALT agreements in Moscow (1972), the new warfare claimed over 84,000,000 lives in epic struggles fought to exhaustion by the world’s most energetic peoples. Until 1945 there was no reason to believe that this massive inverse Darwinism would ever come to an end, and until 1945 the only role America played in the general slaughter was that of the perennial latecomer who arrived in the thick of things and then promptly went home again as soon as the interwar armistice was declared.

But in the last two months of World War II, another abrupt escalation in the scale of warfare was born of revolution-this time the scientific revolution of the twentieth century. The advent of nuclear weapons made the destructiveness of international violence suddenly a thousand times greater. Before ten years had passed, the development of the hydrogen bomb would multiply all this a thousand times more. The United States was no longer safe in splendid isolation behind its oceans; it was forced to come out into the world and deal directly with the awesome challenge of the nuclear age.

We get cheated out of success stories in this democratic life. V V When our votes are needed to start some project, or when our efforts must be spurred on to get it completed, the air is filled with shrieks of alarm and predictions of imminent disaster. There seems no practical alternative to this chronic verbal overkill in our public dialogue, so that we rarely hear anything but the voice of Cassandra. When at long last our efforts have been successful, nobody has any vested interest in telling us about it.

We need more progress reports. This is a progress report. It begins with the carnage wrought by 160,000 men at a small Czechoslovakian town called Austerlitz, and it ends with the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty at a large Russian town called Moscow. It reports what two generations of Americans have achieved by way of solving two problems that couldn’t possibly be exaggerated, however diligent the bureaucrat responsible for ballyhooing them. The one that confronted us after the first nuclear bomb test in July, 1945, was the threat of impersonal violence completely beyond human scale. The one that had been brewing for over a century before that was a threat akin to the periodic stampede of the lemmings over Scandinavian cliffs-and some of the characteristics of this total “conventional” warfare were worse than those of the looming nuclear age. It threatened to destroy our lives every bit as much in conventional peacetime as it did in conventional war. It was well on its way to forcing us back to cave-man ethics, to tribal culture, to the preoccupations and goals of the ant heap-and all in a sincere attempt to protect us. It was to make every nation’s defense impregnable that the world’s military and political leaders toiled through the decades to master the new warfare. But things kept going wrong, and the traps they fell into were mocking foreshadowings of the traps lying in wait in the nuclear age. It is with their efforts and the story of what went wrong that our progress report must begin.


After the violent enthusiasms of the French Revolution had spent themselves on battlefields from Austerlitz to Waterloo, the world’s general staffs returned to their drawing boards to pattern their nations’ military systems after Napoleon’s spectacular invention. By mid-nineteenth century it was time for field testing, and the proving ground turned out to be the United States. The mobilization of a huge citizen army was to determine the outcome of the bloodiest war in U.S. history, for it was the vast conveyor belt that moved farmers and clerks into the front lines of the Civil War that was the decisive weapon at General Grant’s disposal. The quality of tactics and armament favored the South, but the North’s massive mobilization-of manpower and cannon-crushed by its very weight the smaller Confederate forces. By the time the fateful year of 1914 rolled around, every European nation worth its salt had put together its own conveyor belt and connected it up into a continent-sized meat grinder. A half-dozen Grande Armées were now poised to hurl themselves into an intricately balanced stalemate.

The meat grinder came equipped with its own on-off switch. The off-switch was, of course, total exhaustion-of blood and industry. It is hardly surprising that no one paid much public attention to it.

As for the on-switch, no one even seriously considered looking for it until it was too late. The prevailing attitude was that war had become virtually impossible. After all, there had been over four decades of peace on the European continent before 1914. During that period, a nation’s ability to convert its population into an army in a matter of weeks appeared to guarantee national security against any conceivable threat. To deter war or to have one’s way in a commercial dispute became a routine matter of threatening to mobilize the nation’s entire population if one’s terms were not met by midnight the following Thursday.

Such was the practice of diplomacy when the Austrians menaced Serbia, Russia’s Balkan ally, in the hot summer of 1914. While Europe’s statesmen wrestled with each other, the meat grinder’s on-button lay unnoticed in the dust beneath their shuffling feet. Then the Russians overstepped the previous bounds of empty threat; they began to mobilize their Grande Armée. The deadly machinery cranked into action.

Within a day or two of the Czar’s mobilization order to his nation, the leaders of Europe realized that they had spent the nineteenth century concocting a mutual suicide pact. It was impossible to permit a neighbor to mobilize his population without counteraction. Within a matter of weeks, his mass citizen army could brush aside the normal garrison forces of any European state and sweep from border to border virtually unopposed. The new weapon placed a premium on being the first nation to pull the trigger. Furthermore, once the trigger was pulled, there was no turning back. With demobilization out of the question, and with the national economy paralyzed by mass dislocation of workers and farmers, the only recourse was to place the nation on a full wartime footing and start the troops in motion. Trapped by the unseen logic of their own designs, Europe’s hapless leaders fed their populations into the mindless slaughter of World War I. Four years later there were 20,000,000 dead, and the western front lay only tens of kilometers from its 1914 position.

As soon as arrangements for the next war had been completed at Versailles, the world’s nations retreated in horror from the nightmare created by Napoleon’s new weapon. Alas! reality is impervious to popular emotion, and when Hitler organized the rebuilding of German military power in the 1930’s, he rediscovered the reality of total mobilization: if you can achieve it before your neighbors do, the victory will be yours. But total mobilization no longer meant the hasty outfitting of millions of farmers in snappy uniforms. It takes years to build the modern equivalent of the Grande Armée. It takes years to develop the machinery of modern war and build industries to produce it in quantity. It takes years of indoctrination and training-from Hitler Youth to SS military camps-before the human forces have the necessary skill and resolve. Hitler got a head start in men and machinery that dropped almost the whole of Europe into his lap. Temporarily.

When the meat grinder had consumed another 50,000,000 lives, the continent paused once again in its unswerving march toward Armageddon. No Versailles would be needed this time; the elements of the third round had fallen into place quite naturally. The balance of Europe and the stability of the entire world were swept away by World War II. This time both victor and vanquished in Europe were exhausted to the point of bankruptcy; the political economy of the world was disrupted; colonial empires that circled the globe would have to be rapidly dismantled; and the dike between Eastern and Western Europe had been permanently destroyed. The shape of things to come would be decided in the traditional way by placing national power on the scales of violence to see who would dictate their economic and political terms to whom.


The thing we overlook too frequently these days is that the world in 1945 had arrived at a pattern of behavior-of mass military vistas for national ambition, and mass military obligations for national def ense-that promised a ghastly future for us all. Safety could only be bought at the cost of mass strength, and that meant universal military training to maintain a huge army, rigid indoctrination of youth, mobilization of the minds and hearts of the total population into beliefs and attitudes conducive to strength—in fact, all of the inventions and discoveries that had shaped our circumstances since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Any backsliding, any pause for political discussion, any depolarization of the ideological uniformity now required for national defense could bring swift defeat at the hands of whichever neighbor managed to maintain a more primitive and effective human monolith-as Germany demonstrated against France in 1940.

The situation was even worse than that. It was virtually impossible to calculate the outcome of a war involving one nation’s 200 divisions outfitted in such and such a manner pitted against another nation’s 170 divisions outfitted in some other complicated way. And what about the morale factor? Has Nation X done a better job on its youth than Nation Y? Did they gain in ferocity over their neighbors when they sent their storm troopers to smash the windows of all shops owned by ——? It’s pretty difficult to say. Anyway, the proof of the pudding is in the eating-let the armies march! Uncertainty of outcome is a crucial ingredient among the causes of war. And don’t forget that other spur to action: it pays to move first.

It was in the midst of this state of affairs that developments in physics and chemistry led to the introduction of nuclear fission into military weaponry. The explosion of a relatively primitive uranium bomb over Hiroshima utterly destroyed the city; an equally primitive plutonium bomb devastated Nagasaki three days later. Each bomb had been carried to its target in a single relatively inexpensive airplane manned by less than a dozen people. From 1805 to 1945 it had become a gruesome characteristic of our species that when one nation wanted something very important from another, it threatened mass murder and mass destruction by means of the total mobilization of its people and resources. Now that ghastly threat could be made, not in the name of a large population, but in the name, so to speak, of Ashtabula, Ohio. The construction of those powerful new bombs had required a moderate work force in a few special factories. It would later be possible to turn out nuclear weapons with even less effort and fewer factories. What had formerly been a true measure of national resolve and industrial power had become a measure of nothing conceivably pertinent to either nation involved in a dispute. Furthermore, while the achievement of a head start over the adversary once held promise of quick victory, the prospective victim in the nuclear age could reduce its neighbor to ashes with crates and barrels of stuff quite easily concealed in a few barns in the countryside. The world of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler was irretrievably gone and unlamented.

The most obvious thing about the new weapons was their sheer destructiveness; the changes they had wrought in the political significance of military contests was generally overlooked at this point. The United States promptly withdrew from the world, as was its wont, and played with its new toys. A series of spectacular test explosions was staged in Nevada and at various atolls in the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate the effects of the new bombs on simulated houses, small buildings, and various warships of the defeated Axis Powers. Had America been demonstrating experimental tactics for massed tank assault, the world would have been able to comprehend and shudder, but the fundamental unreality of the nuclear age was typified by the European response to those awesome photographs of the underwater test at Bikini. They named a bathing suit after it.

They were wild years, the last of the 1940’s, and the ability of mankind to reason its way through changing circumstances was nowhere in evidence. The United States put its hasty heart into a crusade to turn back the clock by imprisoning the nuclear genie safely behind a wall of paper known as the Baruch Plan. We would simply outlaw the nuclear age by reciting incantations in the United Nations. After all, no one but the U.S. could build any of these devices; we had the formula written in a closely guarded notebook at Los Alamos.

As an instructor of physics in those years, I occasionally had to explain to complacent students that the production of nuclear weapons was no more complicated than a half-dozen other technological processes, and I had no doubt that the scientists of all the advanced countries would master the art in due course. But when the first Soviet test explosion came in 1949, it was clear to most “right-thinking” Americans that we had been unwillingly thrust into the nuclear age by a sinister group of domestic conspirators who must have given the secret “atom bomb” formula to the Russians. For the next five years, the United States engaged in a Keystone Cops pursuit of dangerous thinking in government service and the halls of academe.

In the real world outside, the Old Napoleonic politics were deciding the fate of Eastern Europe and Asia as a badly mauled Russia looked to its defenses-and to its empire. The political wrenching was of far greater scale than any Austrian threat against Serbia. There were many who feared the guns would pause more briefly this time, and senior officials in more than one country called for preventive war against the Sino-Soviet bloc before it was too late. Yet the behavior of those huge and victorious Red Armies was extraordinarily circumspect for all the perilous leg wrestling over Berlin, Greece, Turkey, Korea, Taiwan-you name it. The new world was far from understood as yet, but the “instant mobilization-quick march” technique of asserting national will lay unused in the bottom drawer of every nation’s cabinet.

That tiny share of our activity we surrender to reasoned analysis was gradually sketching in for us the outlines of the new circumstances. No one put it better than Winston Churchill, who, while explaining the emerging concept of nuclear deterrence to the House of Commons in November, 1953, said: “These fearful scientific discoveries [nuclear weapons] cast their shadow on every thoughtful mind, but nevertheless I believe that we are justified in feeling that there has been a diminution of tension and that the probabilities of another world war have diminished, or at least have become more remote.

“I say this in spite of the continual growth of weapons of destruction such as have never fallen before into the hands of human beings. Indeed I have sometimes the odd thought that the annihilating character of these agencies may bring an utterly unforeseeable security to mankind. …

“It may be … that when the advance of destructive weapons enables everyone to kill everybody else, nobody will want to kill anyone at all.

“At any rate, it seems pretty safe to say that a war which begins by both sides suffering what they dread most, and that is undoubtedly the case at present, is less likely to occur than one which dangles the lurid prizes of former ages before ambitious eyes.”

That was the challenge confronting our species after 1945. It had been born of intense curiosity about the nature of physical things-about the smallest bits of matter and the largest bits of energy. Technology had overshot the mark by a factor of a million and had thereby given us a chance to change our murderous ways. We didn’t know it then, but technology would have to perform even more strenuous feats before the challenge could be met. And although the successful response turned out to be primarily an American achievement, it took another decade or so to get us on the right track.


Few people anywhere in the world were looking much beyond each morning’s headlines in 1953. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had died. The disorganized collective leadership of his heirs promptly ended Russian support of the war in Korea and signed a peace treaty with Austria. Having eliminated its most pressing external involvements, the new regime turned inward to make whatever sense it could out of what it found there.

In the United States, on the other hand, a very different new leadership was responding primarily to new external events. The Korean war had shaken up every segment of American opinion by 1953. Coming as it did after the piecemeal political conquest of Eastern Europe and the menacing blockade of West Berlin, a shooting war in Asia was all it took to set off alarms from Washington to Honolulu. And as if that weren’t enough, Churchill’s confident observations came less than three months after we had learned that Russia had beaten us to the “H-bomb” and had developed a practical, air-droppable weapon while we were still writing technical papers about the feasibility of the thing. There was no time in 1953 to ponder historical challenges; the nation sprang to its battlements and to its arsenals. The defense budget was multiplied by five. The airplane manufacturers were put to work building bombers. The Atomic Energy Commission was ordered to produce more and bigger bombs for them. The Air Force and the Army were given the task of making America impervious to air attack.

We are a skillful and industrious people. It wasn’t long before we had produced an aerial Grande Armée powerful enough to destroy any nation in the world. Before roughly 1958, we would have been grievously damaged in return, but from 1958 until about 1965 we could have reduced any combination of opposing forces to nuclear ashes while suffering little immediate damage to ourselves. In many respects, we had been catapulted into something like Hitler’s 1939 supremacy without the coherence of his motives and intentions. We had responded not to crafty aims but to unreasoning fear-and not just to those early shocks before the Korean war, but to a continuing fear engendered by the threats and maneuvers and boorish bluffs emanating from one of the modern world’s most colorful leaders: Nikita S. Khrushchev.

It’s all too easy to jump up and down and poke fun at a highly active leader’s selected mistakes in specific contexts. To do so in Khrushchev’s case would be to miss the entire historical significance of his eleven-year career as First Secretary of the Soviet Communist party. He contributed too much to the emotional repair and political development of his people, too much to the crucial dialogue between his country and the outside world, too much to the exorcism of Stalin’s malevolent ghost, to be carped at by Monday-morning quarterbacks. Eventually he even cooperated in the early stages of our joint response to Churchill’s challenge-but it is unbelievable what happened in the meantime. The antics of Czar Nicholas II before the First World War come quickly and uncomfortably to mind.

It must be remembered that Khrushchev was a salesman. It was his unbounded confidence in the basic worth and attainable future of the Russian people that buoyed the innermost circles of the collective leadership after Stalin’s death. He was a believer. He had grown and prospered in the party ranks; he had come to believe many wonderful things about the Communist gift to mankind. He worked a more strenuous schedule than his colleagues could keep up with, and it gave him very little time to ponder the wisdom of his acts. He turned Russia outward in a vigorous and adventurous foreign policy at the same time that he was trying to transform it away from Stalinist feudalism within. He got Malenkov removed partly on the grounds of the deplorable state of Soviet strategic forces, and then told his rocket engineers to mass-produce cheap, single-stage missiles. These he sprinkled around in the western borderlands and on the eastern slopes of the Urals. Fitted with nuclear warheads, they seemed to him the most powerful weapons imaginable, even though they had ranges of only a few hundred miles and took hours to prepare for launch.


Khrushchev was characteristically swamped with work in 1956 when the French and English attacked Russia’s new Middle East client, Egypt. Heavily engaged in a vast agricultural gamble in the virgin lands and in an anti-Stalinist gamble in the Byzantine corridors of Soviet political power, Khrushchev tried to deal with this neo-Serbian tinderbox in his spare moments. He had a ferocious revolt on his hands in Hungary, another one brewing in Poland, and deeply divided counsel in his own camp about how to deal with the situation. He needed to impress the satellites, the Egyptians, and the rest of the world with the awesome dimensions of Russian power. As soon as it was clear that the French and British would have to halt their attacks for lack of domestic political support, the new Czar Nicholas threatened them with his wonderful new toys-not total mobilization this time, but nuclear rockets. Khrushchev had entered on a career of rocket-rattling that would eventually grow to the size of one hundred megatons in implied orbit over everyone’s head. His menace took no account of the true state of affairs: his country was completely vulnerable to American attack without being in a position to deter it. The rockets and bombers at his disposal posed no serious threat to the United States; the rockets were too small to reach U.S. territory, and the bombers were sitting ducks for an American strike from Europe, North Africa, Turkey, or Pakistan. The most important reality of the Khrushchev years was that the United States was “forward based” and the Soviet Union was not. The only palpable effect of Khrushchev’s threats was to worsen profoundly his nation’s vulnerability over the next seven or eight years. His reckless rocket-rattling created serious anxiety among European political and military leaders. They had no missiles of their own; they felt exposed; they asked the U.S. to restore the balance.


This we did with a vengeance. Four squadrons of Thor intermediate-range missiles with high-yield nuclear warheads were installed in England. (There are fifteen missiles in a squadron.) We went on to place two squadrons of Jupiter missiles in Italy and another in Turkey-a total of 105 silent, swift warheads that could have arrived at Soviet airfields, missile bases, and control centers without a moment’s warning. We poured supersonic nuclearattack planes and fast SAC bombers into Western Europe and North Africa. The military unbalance facing the U.S.S.R. from roughly 1956 to 1965 was hundreds of times worse than it had been when Germany almost swallowed them up in the 1940’s. Khrushchev’s hollow bombast had yielded bitter fruit, yet still he insisted on shaking the tree. When his rocket developers successfully tested a three-stage missile that could reach all the way to the U.S., he saw a way to put even more menace behind his threats-and at minimum cost. He ordered a few dozen of the unwieldy monsters built in existing model shops, and planned to make up for their modest numbers by fitting them with prodigious warheads.

The project cranked along at a deliberate pace. The huge intercontinental missiles had to be loaded with liquid oxygen, and they could hardly stay loaded for any length of time without becoming enshrouded in a mountain of ice. Hence, on receipt of an order to fire, they had to undergo a lengthy process of chilling and adjustment that consumed many hours while they sat out on the open plain like oil derricks wrapped in aluminum foil. Khrushchev had each one installed on its ground-level launch pad as soon as it was built; there were eventually fifty-four in operational status. (The United States kept track of them by flying U-2 surveillance missions over them periodically.) Their warheads were threestage fission-fusion-fission behemoths whose total yield was approximately one hundred megatons. Theoretically, some of them would explode at very high altitudes above the U.S., setting fires over vast areas. The rest would be exploded near the surface to spread radioactive fallout over equally vast areas downwind of ground zero. (This was the motive for John F. Kennedy’s falloutshelter program.)

Khrushchev had made of the Soviet Union a lightning rod for international fears and miscalculations. With the U.S. facing such dreadful peril, no American President could permit the level of international tension to go very high before ordering in the high-speed attack planes, firing off the Thors and Jupiters, or even throwing rocks out of overflying U-2’s if necessary, to destroy those terrible Russian missiles. The world’s fingers had been tightened once more on the triggers of 1914: the nation that struck first might emerge “victorious,” while the nation that waited would be left in ruins.

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?

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.”

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