Nuclear Jugglers

THE SOVIET UNION AND THE ARMS RACE by David Holloway. Yale University Dress, $14.95.


STALIN WAS A patient listener, according to Charles Bohlen, a State Department Russia specialist who served as a translator at conferences of the Big Three during World War II. While Churchill or Roosevelt laid out plans for guaranteeing the peace, Stalin sat impassively. Often, he doodled. What he drew most, Bohlen said in his memoirs, was the heads of wolves. This was the sort of Stalin the West perceived in the late 1940s—an implacable, single-minded, power-hungry foe of almost supernatural malevolence. When Stalin published Problems of Leninism, it was widely read in foreign-policy circles in Washington, where it was described as Stalin’s Mein Kampf. Officials spoke of the “Soviet timetable,” as if war would be inevitable as soon as Moscow saw its chance. Even in the late 1950s, the head of the Strategic Air Command told a journalist, “Our real mission, you might say, is to have that Russian planner get up from his table every morning and turn to Mr. Khrushchev and shake his head and say, ‘Today is not the day, Comrade.’”

The alarmist view of Russian appetites, which is far from being dead, offers the single best explanation of American military programs since 1945. The arms lobby, the big multinational companies with foreign investments, and empirebuilders in the Pentagon have all done their bit to fuel the arms race, but it does not add up to much alongside the conviction of national-security officials that “deterrence works.” What they mean is that the Russians would have pushed the West into war long since if it weren’t for their well-founded fear of American nuclear weapons. As a practical way to reach agreement on defense budgets, this better-safe-than-sorry approach works fine. If Stalin and his successors really are wolves, and the Soviets truly are bent on world conquest, then we have no choice, and must arm. But what if the Soviets are only as frightened of us as we are of them? What if Robert McNamara was right, back in 1967, when he described the arms race as an “actionreaction phenomenon”? In that event, we are running the terrible risks of nuclear war to no purpose.

The alarmist view of Russia did not come from nowhere. The Soviets have done plenty to arouse Western fears; the invasion of Afghanistan is only the most recent example. But we have done much to frighten them as well. In his short history of Soviet military thinking, David Holloway cites a Brookings Institution study that describes nineteen occasions between 1946 and 1973 when the United States put its strategic nuclear forces on alert as visible earnest of a threat to use them. (According to Holloway, the Soviets did so only once during the same period—in October, 1962.) These alerts were accompanied by insistent American claims that the only defense against nuclear threats, not to mention nuclear attack, was a convincing deterrent. The Soviets could hardly fail to get the point. Whatever we may think about the origins of the Cold War, clearly the arms race is not the work of one side alone.

THE LITERATURE ON Soviet strategy and military programs since 1945 is extensive, but not much of it reaches the general public. This should not be surprising, What the Soviets write about military matters is almost entirely abstract and theoretical. What we write about what they write is grayer still. Holloway’s book is not vacation reading, but it does gather in one place much that is known about Soviet military programs, especially their efforts to build atomic weapons. The story begins in May of 1942, when a young Soviet physicist noted the abrupt absence of articles on nuclear fission in the American journal Physical Review. He drew the obvious conclusion—security measures often point an unmistakable finger—and wrote Stalin a letter reporting that the Americans were trying to build an atomic bomb. Early in 1943, Stalin appointed the physicist Igor Kurchatov to run a small Soviet bomb project. Two years later, at the Potsdam Conference, in July of 1945, President Truman casually remarked that the United States had developed a new weapon of “unusual power” for use against Japan. Stalin just as casually congratulated him. But after the meeting, speaking to General Zhukov, he said, “They simply want to raise the price. We’ve got to work on Kurchatov and hurry things up.”

The following month, back in Moscow, Stalin called a meeting of the small group already working on atomic weapons. “A single demand of you, Comrades,” he said. “Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time. You know that Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed. Provide the bomb—it will remove a great danger from us.” The Soviet program that followed was run by Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet secret police. According to Holloway, most of the construction and heavy labor was performed by political prisoners, and about half of the research was conducted in prison institutes of the sort described by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle. The first Soviet nuclear weapon was detonated in August of 1949, and the first thermonuclear weapon, just about neckand-neck with the American one, on August 12, 1953.

That is pretty much everything in the public domain about the building of Russian nuclear weapons. The record is thin, to say the least. It is like the life of Shakespeare: a few pages are enough to cover what we know. By contrast, the voluminous American record includes a vast wealth of detail about the Manhattan Project, the decision to bomb Hiroshima, and the controversy surrounding the decision to build the hydrogen bomb. The disputes of historians over what we did and why we did it are now confined to the nuance of interpretation. Not only is the Soviet record thin but the anecdotes at its heart are impossible to verify. Did Stalin, for example, really say, “A single demand of you, Comrades”? It certainly sounds unlikely, but Holloway accepts it at face value on the grounds that Stalin must have said something of the sort.

The history of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces is equally sparse, consisting of another handful of anecdotes of doubtful authenticity, backed up by a detailed chronology, compiled by American intelligence agencies, of missiles actually tested and deployed. G. A. Tokaty, a Soviet rocket engineer who defected in 1947, records, for example, that Stalin said to a Politburo meeting in March of 1947, “Do you realize the tremendous strategic importance of machines of this sort? They could be an effective straitjacket for that noisy shopkeeper Harry Truman. We must go ahead with it, Comrades. The problem of the creation of transatlantic rockets is of extreme importance to us.”

Why “transatlantic”? one wonders. Soviet missiles aimed at the United States would pass over the Arctic Ocean, not the Atlantic, and it is hard to imagine that Soviet engineers could ever have considered any other route. But Tokaty had things about right, all the same. The Russians concentrated on missiles from the beginning, vigorously competed with the Americans for German scientists and engineers (all but kidnapping thousands of them), pretty much ignored the intercontinental bombers on which the United States spent so many millions, and successfully launched a big, long-range rocket in August of 1957, throwing the American military establishment into something of a panic.

HOLLOWAY’S BOOK, LIKE other studies of the same subject, reveals a fundamental American ignorance, astonishing in its extent, of Soviet politics where military matters are concerned. This is the result not of any sloth on our part but of the Russian obsession with secrecy. Holloway tells us, for example, that Brezhnev was publicly identified as supreme commander in chief of the armed forces only once during his eighteen years in power—in October of 1977. Had he just been elevated? Was publication of the fact a slip of the official censor? Did it reveal some deeper militarycivilian clash in the Kremlin? Holloway does not say, and he probably does not know. The Russians clearly think that such secrecy protects them, but it is hard to agree. A Russian defense official of the 1950s once said, “We are stuck fast in secrecy like a fly in treacle.” Certainly one effect of this secrecy is to grant wide latitude to the imaginations of American analysts, who are free to describe Soviet policy in the darkest hue because there is nothing to contradict them but wooden official statements and theoretical discussion. All the inevitable “color” of policy—the matrix of surrounding argument, bureaucratic maneuvering, personal history, and factional struggle—is simply lacking. The resulting vacuum has encouraged a school of analysts, many of them now high officials in Washington, to argue that ritual Soviet support for “peaceful coexistence” is only so much persiflage. Behind this “correct” public line, it is said, lies a hardhearted confidence that even nuclear war conforms to Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of policy by other means. Current versions of the alarmist view hold that Moscow is willing to run the risk of war—even nuclear war—in the vigorous pursuit of expansionist goals, because it thinks it could win.

Two large bodies of evidence are cited to back up this claim. One consists of the facts of Soviet force structure—the strategic and conventional weaponry that seems well designed to fight, not simply to deter, a big general war. The second consists of Soviet military writings, and especially those directly concerned with the problems posed by nuclear war. These are difficult to assess, because so little is known of their authors or of the context in which they are published. Probably the most important group of these writings comes from a secret Soviet General Staff journal called Voennaya Mysl’ (Military Thought). Some eighty-one issues of this journal, from 1963 through 1973, each containing about ten articles, have been declassified and released by authorities in Washington. Over eighty of the articles concern nuclear war. They have generated much discussion—a kind of war of quotations—in professional defense circles, because they offer evidence for two opposing views. One insists that the Soviet military thinks it could win a nuclear war (bad as it would be), while the other claims that the Soviets prepare to fight a nuclear war for the same reason the Americans do—to deter the other side.

The quotations marshaled in Holloway’s study (I have never read the declassified translations of Military Thought, which are quite difficult to obtain) suggest that Soviet military officers are in fact of two minds. One group stresses the horrors of nuclear war. In 1965, General Nikolai Talensky, a former editor of Military Thought, wrote that “there is no more dangerous illusion than the idea that thermonuclear war can still serve as an instrument of politics, that it is possible to achieve political aims by using nuclear weapons and still survive.” Three years later. General K. Bochkarev countered that the practical effect of such a position was that “our military science should not even work out a strategy for the conduct of war since the latter has lost its meaning and its significance.... In this case the very call to raise the combat readiness of our armed forces and improve their capability to defeat any aggressor is senseless.”

The war of quotations can be endlessly waged, but all of the evidence falls roughly into these two camps. The argument in American military circles follows a remarkably similar pattern, and hinges on a single question: Nuclear war may be too terrible to serve any rational purpose, but what if. . . ? Holloway sensibly concludes that Soviet talk of warfighting involves no aggressive intent but only reflects the inevitable military officer’s belief that you have got to do the best you can. As a practical matter, this implies expensive civil-defense and military programs, which the Russians—but not the Americans—have so far been willing to fund.

THE SOVIET UNION and the Arms Race is a good, solid, useful study of an important subject that the average reader is bound to find arcane. It is balanced and thoughtful, and authoritative on the subject of Soviet nuclear-weapons programs, of which Holloway has made a particular study. But, in my view, he neglects the one thing bound to be uppermost in the minds of Soviet military men—the fact that the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads that cannot be destroyed with confidence by a surprise attack and against which there is no defense. This is something they know. On this rock founders all the talk of refusing to admit defeat, come what may. American planners are up against it too. The mighty power of nuclear weapons promises only horror, not victory.

Khrushchev seems to have understood this. He was a compulsive talker, and it is a pity Holloway does not record what he said on the subject. The American diplomat and lawyer John McCloy had several long discussions with Khrushchev, notably during a visit to the Soviet Union in July of 1961. “I used to cite technology to Khrushchev, and asked him, ‘How can you match us?’” McCloy once said. “But Khrushchev would say to me, ‘McCloy, just give me the biggest.’” Khrushchev indeed built the biggest, and he was proud of it. In May of 1964, he told the Egyptian journalist Mohammed Heikal, “We now have warheads which have so powerful a yield that we couldn’t deliver them on Germany, because the fallout would contaminate the Soviet Union. When President Nasser was our guest we showed him a film of an atomic explosion. But that was in 1958. We were proud of it then, but now I feel ashamed. It was just a tiny thing, the size of a pea compared with the giants we’ve got now.” Heikal remarked in a volume of memoirs that “all this was said with a typical peasant’s enthusiasm.”

Nasser was not the only foreign leader to whom Khrushchev showed his films, but his pride in his weapons did not blind him to their implications. In October of 1958, he told the Yugoslav ambassador to Russia, Veljko Mićunović, “The Soviet Union will continue to fight stubbornly for peace, which we have especial need of for the next fifteen or twenty years. After that, no one will be able to go to war, even if he wants to.” He expanded on this point with Heikal. “When I was appointed first secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts about nuclear power, I couldn’t sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that, I was able to sleep again.”

Military men—Russians and Americans alike—may talk of fighting a nuclear war. Professionalism demands they do the best they can. But supreme commanders, the men with the ultimate responsibility to decide for peace or war, must take a broader view. It is hard to see why Russian leaders would be any more likely than their American counterparts to ignore the abundant facts. The real danger is not a lack of realism in high places but a kind of juggler’s confidence that the situation is well in hand, deterrence “works,” we may take our time when it comes to arms control and other efforts to relax the Soviet-American military confrontation. The jugglers felt exactly this sort of confidence back in 1914.