Where to Go with NATO

An open letter from an American to Helmut Schmidt


Dear Chancellor Schmidt:

Since you do not know me, and since I am well aware of the vitriol some of my fellow countrymen have been pouring upon you recently, please allow me to begin by expressing my sympathy for the predicament you and all Germans find yourselves in these days. I am acutely aware

…I am acutely aware that for 37 years now, one-fifth under the cruel occupation of a totalitarian regime and the other four-fifths have lived in imminent peril of subjection or annihilation by that regime. Since 1955 you have been, by geographic necessity combined with courageous choice, the front-line defense of the entire free world against the threats of the Russian Empire. I know as well that two million of your citizens in West Berlin live as permanent hostages to that regime.

And I know that you and your people resent the continued distrust, and often outright hostility, that many of your fellow West Europeans feel toward Germans for the supposed "historic guilt" which most of you in fact did not share. Germany today is the most vital center of Europe's economic and military power. Your people are vastly creative, courageous, and decent. You deserve the respect, good wishes, and support of all freedom-loving people. You certainly have mine.

Let me say also that I have no illusions about German resolve because of the demonstrations against US nuclear missiles or even because of the far more serious question of your own party's relative lack of reaction to the Polish crisis. I know that a strong majority of your people do support the American presence, even the dreaded nuclear presence, in Germany. I believe Germans in general remain resolved to be free of Soviet dominance, and I believe they know Finnish "neutrality" is another word for submission, but I suspect they are now entering a period of intense soul-searching from which they will soon emerge with a firmer course for dealing with their growing domestic and military problems.

It is this German soul-searching that has triggered my own soul-searching and, I believe, will soon do the same for millions of Americans and other Western peoples. I believe we will all come out stronger and friendlier if we keep each others' fears, hopes, and interests in mind. To do this, we must express these clearly to each other. And this has inspired my letter, for I believe too many Germans (and even more other Europeans) have forgotten some basic facts about American views of our involvement in Europe.

The US economic (Marshall Plan) and military (NATO) involvement in postwar Europe (and Asia) have had only one purpose—that of rebuilding the strength of Europe (and Asia) so they could remain free by defending themselves against Russian imperialism and, by doing so, prevent another world war that would involve us. Our economic and military presence has been an investment intended to produce European (and Asiatic) strength for their self-defense and, thus, strength for our own self-defense. As Vannevar Bush said in support of American involvement in NATO in 1949, "We tax ourselves to rehabilitate Europe, and to furnish arms for aid to a revival of strength which can in the long run defend itself fully."

Like all investments, this one has had various costs and benefits and some irreducible uncertainties. In this particular case, the costs have been immense and more obvious to most people than the benefits.

The one overwhelming cost to us of our military presence in Europe is the mortal danger it poses of nuclear attack on our own nation. Europeans are often blinded by the real nuclear dangers they face to the greater dangers we Americans face. As long as Americans realistically threaten any Soviet invaders with a nuclear defense if our Western conventional forces are defeated (or merely attacked), any Soviet war planner will have a great incentive to strike the United States before invading Europe.

This incentive will be at a maximum for the next five or six years, before our new MX missiles and nuclear subs close the "window of nuclear vulnerability." The most tempting Soviet strategy would be (1) to try to knock out America's intercontinental nuclear forces while minimizing civilian casualties, (2) to threaten to destroy our cities with their remaining nuclear weapons if we attack them with nuclear weapons, and then (3) to defeat Europe with conventional forces or, more likely, force you to pay massive tribute to buy off their invasion. Even if they did not attack our cities, this strategy would kill and maim tens of millions of us. As long as we threaten a Soviet attack on Europe with strategic or tactical nuclear counterattack, we face a far graver danger of nuclear attack than Europe, and this danger will be at a maximum in the years immediately ahead. It is we Americans, not Europeans, who are most endangered by our commitments to defend Europe with nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger has actually argued (in The White House Years) that many Europeans all along have recognized that we Americans bear a greater risk because of NATO's nuclear strategy: "Their [Europeans'] secret hope, which they never dared to articulate, was that the defense of Europe would be conducted as an intercontinental exchange over their heads; to defend their own countries, America was invited to run the very risk of nuclear devastation from which they were shying away."

I realize, Mr. Chancellor, that this bit of cynicism is not shared by Europeans like you who support the placement of our new nuclear missiles in Europe. But I'm sure you recognize this syndrome of nuclear cynicism in many Europeans, especially in our mutual "friends" who have rejected these missiles and yet expect us to live up to our nuclear commitments on their behalf. They have told the USSR with startling clarity, "The United States should be your target, not us."

I believe this grave danger to America is growing daily for three reasons. First, the window of nuclear vulnerability will remain partially open for five or six years. Second, the rapid growth of Soviet nuclear and conventional forces in the past 10 years has brought them even with (or possibly superior to) our Western forces because we have hardly increased our own forces. It will take several years for the United States to rebuild its conventional forces (at considerable risk to our economy) and, with the partial exception of France, Europe is refusing to match our increased military preparations. Third, the economy of the Russian Empire has stagnated terribly: for 10 years their military and consumer production has depended increasingly on Western "loans" and the theft of Western technology, which gives the Soviets a growing incentive to turn Western Europe into states paying ever more tribute to keep their empire from disintegrating.

I doubt that these three incentives are at present sufficient to lead the Soviet government purposefully to launch an all-out attack, though I certainly believe we must be continually in a state of high alert during this entire period. The danger of massive destruction in the USSR by US submarine nuclear weapons, even after a first strike on us, is probably too great to start with a nuclear attack even during our most vulnerable period. Since the Soviets cannot count on many of their Warsaw Pact forces, must doubt the reliability of even some of their own forces, and could not possibly win a protracted war with the West, it is unlikely that they will launch a conventional attack unless they gain a great advantage militarily or politically that gives them hope of a quick conventional victory. But the present incentives to strike will grow perilously if the recent trends continue.

If Germany and the rest of Europe do not quickly and greatly increase their conventional military strength, within the next five years they will become far inferior to Russian forces if Russia merely continues its rate of growth in recent years. Prof. Michael Howard of Oxford has summed up the situation in a letter to the London Times:

The true vulnerability of the West still lies where it always has, in the field of conventional armaments. The likelihood of the Soviet Union believing that they could launch a nuclear attack on Europe without suffering instant retaliation is, by any standards, utterly remote. So long as the conventional balance remains so uneven, the Western strategy of relying on the first use of nuclear weapons to defend ourselves is not only morally dubious but politically and militarily incredible. But the responsibility for this strategy does not lie with the U.S. It lies with the governments and peoples of Western Europe who have, for the last thirty years, refused to take the necessary measures to provide for their own conventional defense.

It is true that America can offset this imbalance by building our own forces massively, but why should we do that and remain in Europe (and Asia)? As long as our investment in Europe (and Asia) led you to build adequate self-defense forces, it was rational for us to do so because then we did not have to bear the full cost of defense against the Soviet menace. But, if we must bear ever more of the cost in the 1980s, while our very presence in Europe is combining with Soviet incentives to attack and thus greatly increasing our risk of attack, it is then quite irrational for us to continue our military commitments to defend Europe.

Is there any rational reason why Americans would assume an ever greater share of the cost of defending Europe and an ever greater risk of nuclear attack? Those who would defend this American drift toward the abyss of the absurd offer only two rationalizations.

First, some of them assert that the Soviets have no aggressive intentions toward other nations. These victims of their words of peace have deluded themselves into thinking Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Cuba, Libya, and a dozen other "wars of liberation" have no meaning. The Russian Empire has always pursued a strategy of cautious expansion and consolidation. The massive growth of its surface naval forces in the past 15 years indicates that it intends to pursue an even more aggressive, less cautious policy of colonization throughout the world.

Second, those less blind to the meaning of Soviet actions assert that America would not dare let them seize Western Europe because they could then turn the strength of Europe against us. These cynical supporters of the "free ride" believe we are thus trapped into treating Europe as a welfare case, allowing you to become ever more dependent because we fear you might become a Soviet force directed against us.

I do not believe that for one moment. Poland shows how much the Soviets can count on the help of their satellite allies. Albert Speer, in Inside the Third Reich, says the Nazis were never able to mobilize effectively non-German manpower or industry to support their war effort. If the Russians ever "conquer" Western Europe, they will suffer far more massive and courageous guerrilla movements, internal sabotage, and spying than the Nazis ever did. If they ever have to live under Soviet tyranny, even your Marxist intellectuals will see the meaning of Soviet actions.

The second major cost to America of continuing the present situation of NATO is the financial one. The US Defense Department generally estimates the annual cost of our NATO forces at around $65 billion. Some civilian critics estimate the cost at $80 billion or more. If we were to withdraw from NATO, we could use the money saved to build a highly effective program of ballistic missile defense, coupled with large-scale civil defense measures.

I'm sure you will agree with me, Mr. Chancellor, that a military alliance and strategy is irrational and should be abandoned unless its benefits outweigh—or at least equal—its costs. But what are the benefits of our NATO involvement to America? We do not need Europe for any raw materials whatsoever. While we benefit from trade with Europe, our trade is largely balanced, and our exports to Europe are not vital to our economy. While we benefit far more from access to European science and technology, Europeans benefit vastly more from access to American science and technology. The potentially vital benefits of NATO to us are precisely those we intended to achieve when NATO was established.

The original purposes, as I noted, were obvious: the Marshall Plan and America's commitment of the nuclear umbrella and conventional forces for Europe were supposed to lead to a massive build-up of Europe's conventional forces such that the Soviets would not dare attack Europe or the United States. In the beginning most Americans, like Vannevar Bush, surely expected this European build-up would allow us to withdraw our troops from Europe, even if we had to maintain our nuclear umbrella. When the British and French developed independent nuclear forces, even the need for the American nuclear umbrella was thrown into question.

By the 1960s these initial hopes seemed dashed because Europe insisted on our keeping our forces in Europe as a "trip-wire" to warn the Soviets of our nuclear retaliation and to guarantee that retaliation. (As Kissinger says, "Our troops, to put it bluntly, were wanted as hostages.") These hopes were also dashed because our very presence encouraged Europeans to relax their rearmament and to put more and more of their rapidly growing wealth into vast welfare programs. (As Kissinger says, since they have our troops as hostages, "our allies never had an incentive to contribute to a real capacity for regional defense. To be sure, our European allies made defense efforts of their own, to avoid congressional complaints that we were carrying the whole burden. But the European effort was beset by ambivalence at its core.")

So Europeans became ever more dependent on US "military welfare" and, like the dependent everywhere, began to demand more and more as a right at precisely the same time they came to hate their dependency more and more. And so Americans fell back to hoping NATO was an alliance of equal strategic risk, equal financial cost, and the equal benefits of equal deterrence of Soviet aggression against any of us. Against all of our deepest sentiments and distrust of "foreign entanglements," we began to acquiesce in seeing this alliance as permanent. Some began to see it as "unthinkable" that the alliance should end.

Perhaps Kissinger is right that even by the 1960s we Americans were already bearing a disproportionate share of the risks and costs relative to the benefits we received from NATO. Regardless, it is obvious that our risks and costs are now growing perilously relative to our benefits. We simply cannot continue this increasingly irrational trend of events. Day by day, Europeans are failing more and more to hold up their end of the alliance. This year your own party approved a mere $19.2 billion for defense—a paltry sum compared to our defense budget and a real decrease of almost 1 percent from your defense expenditures last year. This is unconscionable, Mr. Chancellor.

Every day, more Americans become aware of how perilously irrational our involvement in Europe is becoming. If this trend continues, soon the demand for American withdrawal will become a political storm that could injure our longterm relations. Though our soul-searching may turn up some more creative ideas, there are at least three obvious paths we can follow.

First, Europeans can quickly fulfill their part of the bargain. You should rapidly build your forces to the point at which you can, with our help, realistically defend yourselves against a Soviet invasion. You are now as rich as Americans and, like us, vastly richer than the Russians. Your science and technology combined with ours is vastly superior to theirs. If you do this at the same time as we continue our rearmament, the Soviets may even opt for a real detente involving real, verifiable arms controls. If not, they will quickly fall behind and will not dare strike.

There are some who fear this will lead to a preemptive Soviet strike. But this argument is absurd, for it assumes that only by continuing our present trend of getting weaker and weaker can we prevent such a strike. These Candides assume a Soviet benevolence that surpasseth imagining by rational people. They will only strike if they intended to do so someday when we were even weaker relative to them. Our build-up will show a will, vigilance, and state of alert that will make any preemptive strike by them less likely to succeed.

If you fulfill your side of the bargain, our risks and other costs will decrease greatly, thus making our commitment of the nuclear umbrella more rational. But a vital part of our nuclear forces must he stationed in Europe. Otherwise, we become the overwhelming target of Soviet nuclear forces.

Second, if Europeans do not follow this path, the United States can withdraw very quickly from NATO. If we withdraw after a political storm, I suspect this is the path we would follow. I believe it would be dangerous for us all and gravely injure our relations.

Third, if Europe does not rearm quickly, America can announce a schedule of disengagement that is rapid enough to offset our growing risks and other costs but slow enough to allow Europeans to rearm in an effective way. I suspect this will be necessary to provide the "incentive" to rearm that Europeans have not had under our "military welfare" regime. We could, for example, announce that we will withdraw one-fifth of our forces each year for five years. The first withdrawal would come one year after the announcement, allowing ample time for Europeans to replace them. At the end of that period we would withdraw the nuclear shield. That should allow Europe to expand greatly the British and French nuclear forces. We could even give any assistance necessary in developing rockets that could reach Soviet targets.

While I am willing for us to follow the first path, because of our previous commitments to Europe, I would greatly prefer the third path; and I suspect most Americans today would agree if they knew all of the arguments. We are quite capable of defending ourselves without anybody's help. That's perfectly obvious to everyone, including the Soviets. They would not imagine attacking the United States directly if we were not committed to defending Europe; we would have to shrink to a mere shadow of our present strength before it would be rational. It is Europe that is and has always been in danger of Soviet invasion, not us.

The Communist Party in the USSR desperately needs an external source of wealth to shore up their stagnating economy. So far, they have been able to get this in the form of "loans," now totaling about $70 billion, most of it from Europe. All reliable accounts reveal that the Soviet people are deeply frustrated and terribly cynical about the party. The party leaders know that, and they deeply fear a revolution or a coup. (All dictators know they are illegitimate, and they dread the wrath of the people. Speer could never convince Hitler to divert consumer goods to war production because of this dread.)

Poland is the ultimate spectre to all the apparatchiki. They dare not reduce the standard of living. They cannot repay those loans. (In Forbes magazine on July 6, 1981, George Champion, the retired chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, which has two outstanding loans to Poland and many more to other Eastern bloc nations, stated flatly, "Loans to Iron Curtain countries…can't be repaid.") All Western loans to the Russian Empire have become a veiled form of tribute.

All massive bureaucratic, imperial war machines must have tributory states to pay for their vast costs. Who will pay the tribute to the stagnating Russian Empire? The two traditional targets of their imperialism are Europe and the Middle East. They will move against whichever of the two is the weakest—or against both, if both are weak enough. (Japan is also rich enough, close enough, and weak enough to be a prime target.)

Germany and the rest of Europe can meet the rapidly growing Soviet threat by quickly and massively rearming. If you do so, you will most likely have our help, at least for some years to come.

If you do not, we will surely begin to withdraw. If we do, I hope we give Europeans time to recognize their mistake and to rearm in earnest. But don't count on that. Americans are rapidly becoming aware of this deteriorating situation. Once aroused, Americans are impetuous. Charles de Gaulle said long ago that some day Americans would want to "desert" Europe. I hope it does not come to desertion. The time grows perilously short, Mr. Chancellor.

Jack Douglas teaches sociology at the University of California, San Diego.