No sane person wants nuclear war. One does not have to read Jonathan Schell's emotion-charged The Fate of the Earth to understand the horror of such a war. It is therefore not surprising that the idea of a mutual, verifiable freeze on nuclear weapons is attracting such widespread support.
Yet a proposal such as the nuclear freeze cannot be judged on the basis of the good intentions of its proponents. To properly assess the merits of the nuclear freeze idea, we must ask whether it can actually be achieved and what it would accomplish if it could.
First, however, let's clear away a spurious objection. Some conservatives are making a big deal out of the fact that some of the leaders of the freeze movement are long-time leftists, disarmers, or even communists. To which a rational person can only reply, So what? Many thoughtful, knowledgeable people also support the idea (including my colleague, senior editor Manny Klausner). The merits of a proposal have nothing to do with who happens to be in favor of it.
Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that a truly mutual, truly verifiable nuclear freeze could be put into effect. What would that mean? Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could produce, test, or deploy any additional nuclear weapons. For this country, that would mean no MX missiles, no more Trident subs, no Trident II missiles, no B-1 or Stealth bomber, no cruise missiles, and no nuclear-armed antiballistic missiles. By our assumption, the Soviets likewise would produce nothing new.
Although this would save many billions of dollars of taxpayers' money, would it reduce the risk or severity of nuclear war? Not necessarily. What it would do (again, assuming that it really worked) is to ratify the drastic change in relative strategic force levels that has occurred over the past decade. Defense analysts argue over whether today's balance has actually shifted in favor of the Soviets—I'm inclined to agree with those who say it has. But no competent defense analyst disputes the fact that by every objective measure—number of warheads, total delivery vehicles, accuracy, total megatonnage—the ratio of Soviet to US capabilities has changed dramatically. While deterrence worked during the several decades in which there was US strategic superiority, it is not clear that it would work as well under the frozen condition of Soviet parity or superiority.
In addition, a successful freeze would prevent the modernization of existing nuclear weapons. The present trend toward replacing large, inaccurate warheads with much smaller, more accurate ones would be halted. Thus, any nuclear war that did break out would involve far more collateral damage—the destruction of civilian people and infrastructure. Still, some might argue that such a freeze would be worth these risks, since it would prevent the introduction of more and "better" weapons.
If it worked, that is. And here we come to the real difficulties. Is there any reason to think that a mutual, verifiable freeze could be achieved? Those who argue that the Soviets would honor a freeze treaty seem to ignore a vast legacy of Soviet treaty violations:
• conducting underground nuclear tests larger than permitted by the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty;
• stationing missile-carrying Golf and Echo-class submarines in Cuba in defiance of the 1962 Kennedy-Khrushchev Agreement;
• numerous violations of the SALT I treaty, including replacement of the SS-11 ICBM with the heavy SS-19, camouflage of submarine missile construction, and encryption of missile test telemetry;
• similar violations of SALT II, including the stockpiling of SS-16 missiles and extensive encryption of missile telemetry signals; and,
• most blatant of all, violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention by use of "yellow rain" in Afghanistan and Laos.
Some freeze advocates hope, incredibly, that a home-grown peace movement would force the Soviet leadership to take the freeze seriously. Yet when a grass-roots peace movement attempted to organize in Moscow this spring, it was ruthlessly suppressed by the KGB. The official Soviet peace movement is totally controlled by the government. Anyone who expects grass-roots activism to be an effective influence on Soviet policy should confer with the leaders of Solidarity.
But even if the Soviets cheated, wouldn't that be verifiable? To be sure, US reconnaissance satellites and signals intelligence can do a great deal. But to detect the secret stockpiling of already-produced SS-16s (in violation of SALT II) or the secret production of 20-foot long cruise missiles without full-time, on-site access to the entire Soviet Union is highly unlikely. Far more likely is that we would let our hopes get the better of us, adhering to our part of the bargain—easily enforced by our own free press—while the Soviets got away with murder.
The real danger of a nuclear freeze is not its unreality, however. The real danger lies in what even a "successful" freeze would not do. It would not challenge the dangerous and immoral balance-of-terror approach to strategic defense with which we've lived for 30 years. It would do nothing to shift strategic programs from offense to defense. It would continue to focus on a policy based on ensuring dead Russians rather than live Americans.
The freeze, in short, attacks the wrong target. What is urgently, desperately needed is a crash program to put in place a multilayered defense against ballistic missiles, backed up by realistic civil defense measures. For maximum technological flexibility, such efforts ought to retain the option of using nuclear warheads—which a freeze would preclude—although some promising proposals (for example, the High Frontier approach) would rely entirely on nonnuclear means.
Preventing nuclear war is a crucially important goal. But wouldn't it make far more sense to place our trust in advanced technology rather than the promises of Leonid Brezhnev as a means of accomplishing this goal?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Nuclear Freeze?".