Learning to Live with the Bomb


Weapons and Hope, by Freeman Dyson, New York: Harper & Row, 340 pp., $17.95

Nuclear war is like cancer. It's very bad, but none of the recipes for prevention inspire confidence. Maybe there are a few actions that will reduce the risk, but mostly one just hopes. At least with cancer there are statistics, but one can't even know the odds of getting into a nuclear war or of surviving it.

Freeman Dyson is a well-known theoretical physicist who in the 1940s helped found quantum electrodynamics, a theory whose numerical answers agree with experiment to 11 decimals. Dyson has written extensively, sensibly, and imaginatively on human expansion into the universe and other futurist topics.

Now there is Weapons and Hope, first published as a four-part series in the New Yorker in early 1984. Dyson discusses various approaches to reducing the danger of nuclear war. He doesn't guarantee any of them, but he does have something new to say. His main goal, besides advancing his own ideas, is to lead the proponents of the two main tendencies—rearmament and unilateral disarmament—to at least understand one another.

Dyson classifies attitudes toward nuclear weapons into those of "warriors" and of "victims." He characterizes warriors as valuing coolness and accurate analysis and being fascinated with the tools of war. He uses many examples from the two world wars to illustrate the type.

His characterization of the ideology of victims, however—even apart from the tendentiousness of the term—is murky. The only example he gives is Helen Caldicott, the founder of the antinuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility and the author of the recently published Missile Envy. Caldicott, he says, is characterized by moral force accompanied by fuzzy numbers. But she has always struck me as a kind of victim, not a warrior.

This is a quibble, however. Weapons and Hope has strong merits, including Dyson's emphasis on irreducible uncertainties: We can't know for certain how much of our society could survive nuclear war. Nor can we know how effective various weapons would be.

There have been numerous proposals for dealing with the prospect of nuclear war. Dyson collects them into seven different strategies.

One strategy is unilateral disarmament. Dyson is skeptical. He was a pacifist until World War II began in England. He is inclined to believe that unilateral disarmament would be good only if everyone were a Gandhi, so he reluctantly gives it up.

He thinks the Soviets couldn't occupy the United States successfully even if the country were to disarm, but he doesn't discuss how a disarmed United States might deal with methods that the Soviets have actually used in the past to get in control of recalcitrant populations. These include, for example, massive forced exchanges of population, the taking and killing of large numbers of hostages, and the destruction of villages where resistance was strong. Dyson also neglects the fact that surrender wouldn't assure even peace, since communists are just as quarrelsome among themselves as with others. We might finish as expendable cannon fodder in a nuclear war among communist powers.

A second strategy, as prominent in debate as unilateral disarmament, is mutually assured destruction, which has earned the acronym MAD. Dyson rejects it.

The MAD policy assumes a strategic balance in which both the United States and the Soviet Union maintain the ability to destroy each other's society with nuclear weapons. Peace is thus to be assured by the threat inherent in each side being able to inflict "unacceptable damage" on the other. MAD advocates consider the ability to defend one's own country against attack or to destroy the other side's military capability as irrelevant. Indeed, they even consider it harmful because destabilizing, inasmuch as this ability would undermine the other side's capacity to do unacceptable damage. MAD has been a major component of American policy since the 1960s.

MAD appeals to the mathematical games theorist, because it treats the West and the Soviet Union symmetrically and requires no analysis of the actual characteristics of either society. As Dyson points out, however, the Soviets don't follow a MAD policy. Their doctrine is that if war is inevitable, they will attack the opposition's military capability in order to protect themselves. He contends that this more-conventional military attitude is morally less evil than mutual assured destruction. Our own military men also seem to prefer this sort of "counterforce" strategy, and the actual strategic posture of the United States has always included some counterforce capability alongside the reliance on MAD.

A third approach to nuclear weapons is simply to accept nuclear war fighting. On this view, nuclear war is like other war, only worse. If one has to fight, one strives to knock out the enemy armed forces, minimize damage to one's own forces and society, and force a surrender. This is, in fact, the Soviet doctrine.

Dyson points out the enormous uncertainties involved in a major war with weapons that have never been used. For this reason, he regards as unrealistic any doctrine that holds nuclear war to be survivable. He doesn't, on the other hand, advance the common "peace movement" argument that the doctrine actually encourages US leaders to start a nuclear war.

Emphasizing the uncertainties about the effects of any nuclear war, Dyson suggests that civil defense measures would be good, although he says they can't be counted on. He admires the civil defense measures taken by the Swiss to protect themselves, but he suggests that they would be unacceptable in the United States, because if we prepare to survive nuclear war, the Europeans will feel left out.

A fourth strategy outlined by Dyson is limited nuclear war. The Soviets have attained superiority in conventional (nonnuclear) weapons compared to Europe, and Western European governments have been unwilling to use their greater population and industry to match the Soviets in this arena. NATO therefore plans to meet a Soviet tank-led assault with tactical nuclear weapons.

This has been part of Western preparations since the 1950s, but the Soviets have often been able to deter preparations by their threat that any use of nuclear weapons by a European government would be met with a massive nuclear attack on all their enemies, including the United States. The Soviets' ability to make good on this threat has greatly increased in recent years. Dyson therefore considers limited nuclear war unrealistic.

Nonnuclear resistance represents a fifth strategy. Dyson hopes for the development of conventional weapons, "precision-guided munitions," that would make it possible for us unilaterally to give up nuclear weapons. He ignores the possibility that still-further technological developments might restore the advantage to the nuclear side, so such renunciations could only be an expedience, not a matter of principle.

A sixth strategy, defense unlimited, involves building shelters as the Swiss have done and developing means for shooting down missiles, including space-borne and nuclear antiballistic missiles (ABMs). Its opponents claim it is expensive, ineffective, and destabilizing (à la MAD). Their worst-case scenario is that the Russians might suddenly decide that this defensive array is just about to become so effective that we would be able to destroy them with impunity and they therefore attack us. In fact, however, as Dyson notes, neither the United States nor the USSR could ever be sure about the effectiveness of defensive measures.

In my opinion, this uncertainty would dilute any impulse toward desperate measures. Insofar as it turns out to be likely to work at an affordable cost, it seems like a good option.

Finally, there is what Dyson calls the "live-and-let-live" strategy. He ascribes this concept to the late Donald Brennan, who called it "parity plus damage-limiting" and put it in opposition to MAD with the slogan, "We prefer live Americans to dead Russians." Dyson summarizes it as, "We maintain the ability to damage you as badly as you can damage us, but we prefer our own protection to your destruction." He likes it. Put this way, it's the motherhood among the strategies. It will be endorsed by the Reagan administration even with the corollary that, insofar as we develop the ability to protect ourselves, we can forgo ability to damage the Soviet Union.

Dyson sees good in each of the last three strategies, perhaps preferring live-and-let-live for now, while hoping that nonnuclear resistance will become feasible. The value of Dyson's book is not that he builds a case for any one strategy guaranteed to protect us from nuclear devastation—there is no such strategy. Rather, it is that he discusses the options in a way that allows thoughtful adherents and opponents to consider the merits and demerits of their own and others' positions.

Yet along the way Dyson ignores some important questions. What is the present military situation? The Reagan defense build-up is based on the opinion that recent years have seen the Soviets acquire a large military advantage and that rearmament is required to avoid tempting them to attack the United States. Is that right? I have no independent opinion, but I think the persuasive advocates of that position, such as Edward Teller, are thinking about the important question.

What characteristics of communism are relevant to living in the same world with nuclear-armed communist powers? Dyson doesn't mention communism in his index, and I could find only one peripheral reference to it in the entire book. His chapter on the Russians attributes their aggressiveness and suspicion to their occupation by the Mongols from the 12th through the 16th centuries, a theory he got from his colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study, George Kennan. A Russian exile to whom I mentioned this jeered, "What? Did he forget to mention swaddling clothes?" referring to the recently popular psychological theory that the Russians are rigid because they are wrapped tightly in their blankets as infants. But then, Dyson quotes Kennan approvingly with the opinion that we pay too much attention to exiles and dissidents.

Since World War II, a number of communist powers have appeared, many not under Soviet control. They share its unpleasant characteristics—aggressiveness, secretiveness, suppression of independent opinion, no orderly way of transferring power, economic inefficiency, and a low threshold for committing genocide. It wasn't the Russians who killed a quarter of the population of Cambodia. This suggests that it's not the Mongols who are to blame; it's communism.

Ignoring such facts leads to error in dealing with the nuclear-war problem. For example, Dyson thinks that we missed an opportunity in the late '40s to strike an agreement with the Russians about nuclear weapons that might have established some measure of trust. He doesn't even mention Stalin and deal with the evidence that Stalin never trusted even his fellow communists and always strove to get them under his thumb.

Communist doctrine as well as the personal characteristics of the leaders of these dictatorial regimes plays an important role in limiting the agreements that are possible. Most likely we cannot achieve substantial mutual trust with communist countries unless their societies evolve into more humane forms. But it may be that some of them will evolve into even more aggressive forms. Here Dyson should apply his own doctrine of living with uncertainty.

The fact is that we have avoided nuclear war for 40 years with a wide variety of policies. We should not let anyone stampede us into desperate measures of either military action or unilateral disarmament. Most likely nuclear peace will continue, but we will not soon achieve a world in which we will really feel safe. Dyson's book contributes to the moderation needed to live in this uncertain world.

John McCarthy is a leading researcher of artificial intelligence. He works at Stanford University.