Friday, January 18, 2013

The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons, by Robert S. McNamara

McNamara, Robert S., “The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions,” Foreign Affairs 62 (Fall 1983): 59-80.

A couple years ago, while conducting some research on the Cold War, I got a little carried away and wound up writing a complete digest of this article. I'm posting it here for whatever it might be worth to others who are exploring the same subject. Just a bit by way of introduction: Robert S. McNamara served as the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968. Afterwards, he was President of the World Bank from 1968 until 1981. With an appetite for facts and figures, he excelled in policy analysis. He published this article in the midst of President Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.

As McNamara explains, then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Alexander Haig had recently defended the option of an early first use of nuclear weapons in Western Europe against a Soviet attack that used conventional forces. He notes that at the same time, a number of vital questions were still in the process of being answered. These included, but were not limited to, “the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles to Western Europe,” and “the production of the MX missile and the B-1 bomber” (60). Given that many military and political leaders had rightly expressed the horror and unprecedented destruction of a war involving nuclear weapons, McNamara proceeds by raising and responding to four questions.

The first question is, “What is NATO’s present nuclear strategy and how did it evolve?” McNamara says that early on, NATO “turned consciously to nuclear weapons as a substitute for the financial and manpower sacrifices which would have been necessary to mount an adequate conventional defense” (62). However, during his tenure as Secretary of State, an alternate policy was adopted: a policy of “flexible response,” which raised the nuclear threshold, effectively reducing the likelihood of using such weapons while depending more heavily on conventional forces (63). In effect, NATO confined the role of nuclear weapons as (a) a means of deterring a Soviet initiation of nuclear war and (b) a weapon of last resort (64). This trajectory matched up well with a changing Soviet posture that, by 1977, envisioned “a major protracted war between East and West in which nuclear weapons would not be used” (66). By 1982, Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov stated: “Only extraordinary circumstances—a direct nuclear aggression against the Soviet state or its allies—can compel us to resort to a retaliatory nuclear strike as a last means of self-defense” (66).

McNamara’s second question is, “Can NATO initiate the use of nuclear weapons, in response to a Soviet attack, with benefit to the Alliance?” Would it ever be reasonable for NATO to use its battlefield nuclear weapons in Western Europe? In response, McNamara makes the case that, by all accounts, even limited nuclear warfare conducted by NATO against an attack by the forces of the Warsaw Pact would not have the effect of defending Europe. Instead, such use would devastate Europe (67-70).

The third question reads, “Even if the ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons is not to NATO’s advantage, does not the threat of such use add to the deterrent and would not the removal of the threat increase the risk of war?” McNamara responds by pointing out that both American and Soviet executive leaders currently agreed that initiating a nuclear strike against the other was completely unacceptable. Any number of military leaders had also expressed this sentiment. When neither side has the intention—that is, if both sides are committed to never beginning a nuclear war—then the deterrent effect rendered by the presence of nuclear weapons begins to disappear. “One cannot build a credible deterrent on an incredible action” (73). However, says McNamara, the presence of battlefield and medium-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe does have at least one certain effect: it increases the likelihood of a nuclear incident that would could conceivably lead to absolute escalation. At the same time, the presence of such expensive and risky arsenals depletes funding which could otherwise be used to reinforce a conventional military presence (74-76).

McNamara then takes up his fourth question: “If it is not to NATO’s advantage to respond to a Soviet conventional attack by the use of nuclear weapons, can NATO’s conventional forces, within realistic political and financial constraints, be strengthened sufficiently to substitute for the nuclear threat as a deterrent to Soviet aggression?” He responds with a qualified, “Yes.” Such a transition is feasible mainly because of advances in the lethality, sophistication, and speed of newer conventional technologies. However, NATO-member nations would have to increase, only slightly, their contribution to the Alliance, and NATO forces would obviously have to implement the new strategy (77-79).

McNamara concludes by stating his most basic thesis: “that nuclear weapons serve no military purpose whatsoever. They are totally useless—except only to deter one’s opponent from using them” (79, emphasis his). He states that that had been his view in the early 1960s as well, and that he had recommended to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson “that they never initiate, under any circumstances, the use of nuclear weapons” (79).

In this article, McNamara declares to the current US political and military leadership that the thought of using battlefield nuclear weapons against a conventional aggression was unconscionable, and that the current proliferation of nuclear weapons was wrong-headed. It is safe to say that his experience and success in the dangerous 1960s lent considerable weight to his conclusions and recommendations.

This article reveals some of the contrast between the political and military situation of the early 1960s compared to the early 1980s.

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