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M.A.D. About You

Sometimes it helps if your foes think you're ready for war.

12:00 AM, May 4, 2006 • By WINDSOR MANN
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SOMETIMES IT'S GOOD if your enemy thinks you are crazy. That's one reason why the recent talk of possible military strikes against Iran is smart. The chatter may not be 100 percent effective in scaring the mullahs away from uranium-enrichment, but even the prospect of no benefit is outweighed by virtually no cost. That is to say, employing pugnacious rhetoric can't hurt.

It has worked before. President Reagan once joked during a radio test broadcast that he had just "signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes." This gaffe reportedly caused a little scare at the Kremlin precisely because Reagan's confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union set him apart from his predecessors. Reagan's policies and speeches led many people to believe, as Senator George McGovern did in 1983, that he was "spoiling for a military showdown."

The Soviets sure thought so. Just before he died in November 1982, Leonid Brezhnev insinuated that the United States wanted "to push the world into the flames of a nuclear war." One year later, in December 1983, also while lying on his deathbed, Yuri Andropov cautioned Soviet ambassador Oleg Grinevsky, "The United States wants to change the existing strategic situation and they want to have the opportunity of striking the first strategic strike."

The hostility Reagan showed to the Communists suggested he was willing to do whatever was necessary to take the evil and the empire out of the Soviet Union. The instrument of fear, previously monopolized by the Soviets as a means of intimidating and extracting concessions from the West, was now being used against them--and effectively. They got a dose of their own bad medicine. Faced with what they believed to be an unpredictable administration, the Soviets were increasingly inclined to back down in the face of America's standing up.

THE RUSSIANS' FEARS WERE WELL-GROUNDED. In May 1982, the Reagan administration devised a plan detailing how the United States would fight and win a "protracted" nuclear war against the Soviet Union. It was something that no previous administration had ever done. National Security Decision Directive 32, the New York Times reported, "instructed the armed forces to make plans and acquire forces that would enable them to prevail either in a prolonged global conflict with conventional weapons or in a protracted nuclear war, should deterrence fail."

Many observers saw these developments as a march toward war. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said at the time, "More and more one hears of the necessity of developing plans for fighting and winning nuclear wars. Inconceivable to me. Madness!"

Of course, excessive rhetoric can backfire. Reagan was so successful at frightening the Soviets that they tried to respond in kind. On June 18, 1982, in an effort to intimidate Reagan, the Soviets conducted a simulated all-out "first strike" exercise against the United States, their first-ever such test. In America the exercise was greeted with so much alarm that it was not disclosed to the public until years later.

In 1984, Averell Harriman, a former ambassador, wrote in the New York Times that if Reagan's policies "are permitted to continue, we could face not the risk but the reality of nuclear war." That same year, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill told the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, that if Reagan were reelected, he would "give vent to his primitive instincts and give us a lot of trouble, probably put us on the verge of a major armed conflict. He is a dangerous man." O'Neill was merely echoing what Jimmy Carter had said in the 1980 campaign--that the election would determine "whether we have peace or war."

Writing in the Soviet newspaper Pravda in May 1983, the normally unflappable Soviet Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov expressed trepidation over Reagan's bellicose rhetoric. "[C]ertain hotheads," he wrote, "by their insane actions have brought the world to the brink of a universal nuclear catastrophe."