The Magazine

The Obsolescence of Deterrence

Cold War nostalgia grips the antiwar movement. Apparently they've forgotten about the balance of terror.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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The fact that we escaped is not an argument for the stability of deterrence. It is an argument for luck. Indeed, it is an argument for trying to escape deterrence and find sturdier ground for human survival. If the Cuban missile crisis is evidence of the virtues of deterrence, God help us. It brought us closer to the abyss than any event in human history, and could very well have taken us over had the United States and the Soviet Union had different leaders at the time. The world will not survive more than a very few missile-crisis equivalents before someone makes a blunder that precipitates catastrophic nuclear war.

DETERRENCE NOSTALGICS also conveniently forget its debilitating psychological effects. For fifty years, the peace of the world hinged on a balance of terror. As Churchill memorably characterized the central paradox, "Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation." Terror and paradox are not easy to live with. To rest strategic stability on terror and paradox is to ask a lot of a democratic society.

Sometimes too much. During the now warmly remembered Cold War, ban-the-bomb and disarmament movements erupted with dismaying regularity. They reached their apogee during the nuclear hysteria that swept Western Europe and the United States in the early 1980s. This widespread collapse of the consensus in favor of deterrence saw the largest political demonstration in American history, an anti-nuclear rally that brought over 700,000 protesters to New York City in June 1982. Opinion leaders, academics, physicians' groups, major media, and the Democratic party were so seized by fear of nuclear war that they frantically sought escape by either a ridiculous solution--a nuclear freeze (it passed the House of Representatives 278-149)--or a disastrous one: unilateral disarmament. Indeed, the book that sparked the frenzy, Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," perhaps the most celebrated book of the time, was an indictment of deterrence and a manifesto for disarmament.

Learned psychiatrists testified to the heavy psychological price America was paying for deterrence. High suicide rates, teen depression, drug use, and anomie were attributed to the unbearable stresses of living under a nuclear cloud. According to Harvard's Dr. John Mack, it was the cause of "widespread fear, sadness, helplessness, cynicism and anger." However hyped these claims, the very fact that they were made, widely published and widely received, shows how traumatized the country had become by the very thought of living under the balance of terror. When at the apex of the hysteria ABC screened "The Day After," a film that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States, psychologists and counselors were deployed the next morning throughout the country, and especially in the schools, to try to calm the panic. Such was the stability, both strategic and psychological, of a balance of terror.

ONE CANNOT LEAVE THE SUBJECT of the opposition to deterrence during the Cold War without noting the hypocrisy of the antiwar movement's current newfound affection for deterrence. It spent the better part of the Cold War not only trying to scare the hell out of the citizenry about living under deterrence, but trying to establish its fundamental immorality. In 1983, for example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a famous pastoral letter on nuclear war at the height of the controversy over the nuclear freeze and the deployment of American Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe (to counter the Soviets' installation of intermediate-range SS20s in their part of Europe). Not surprisingly, the bishops found that deterrence, which rested, of course, on an American threat to launch a nuclear attack, violated just war theory: "It is not morally acceptable to intend to kill the innocent as part of a strategy of deterring nuclear war." Twenty years later, the bishops are again invoking just war theory to argue for the immorality of a preemptive war on Iraq--"We fear that resort to war...would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force"--a war whose very purpose would be to strip Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and thus escape the dilemmas (and immoralities) of deterrence.