The Magazine

A Slow Pearl Harbor

Some disasters are a long time in the making.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By JAMES JOHNSON and ROBERT ZARATE
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But to deal with potential slow Pearl Harbors, Wohlstetter stressed, we must prepare proportional but firm responses to such less dramatic--but nonetheless serious--developments. "Our own counter-strategy first of all must be to take these small changes seriously, even when they seem trivial," she explained. "It is important to make proportionate counter-moves, sometimes to offset the opponent's gains, or to induce him to withdraw."

"There are always a multitude of reasons for turning a blind eye to infractions," she cautioned, "but one essential that runs through many examples is the desire to keep an existing agreement intact, or to keep relations calm, if not actually pleasant, in order to write a new agreement."

If nothing else, Roberta Wohlstetter's writings on Pearl Harbor and "slow Pearl Harbors" should remind us that, in using negotiations as a means to the end of disarming nascent nuclear-armed nations, or preventing nations from building nuclear explosives, we should be careful not to give up our end in order to obtain our means. For disasters, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, may follow.

James Johnson and Robert Zarate are writing a biography of the strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Roberta Wohlstetter's late husband.