A Defense Worthy of the Name


We Can Prevent World War III, by Sam Cohen, Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 129 pp., $13.95

There are two ways to review books: dismissing them via their defects or appreciating them by emphasizing their strengths. Samuel Cohen's We Can Prevent World War III lends itself to both approaches.

Cohen's fulminating style—those who differ are so unreasonable, it is a wonder they can put one foot in front of the other—lends itself to caricature. For political reasons, apparently, no better motive being available, "the government has been at odds with itself in not objectively using its own information." The whole point of the positive part of Cohen's contribution is that he has a different and better framework to impose upon the data, not that he has achieved what, in this context of competing visions, is a meaningless objectivity. Nor, observing him accuse everyone else of subjectivity, is anyone likely to associate Sam Cohen with objectivity. Epithets like realism and rationality are ways of foreclosing discussion by declaring victory before the intellectual battle has begun. (If I am realistic and you are not, I am right and you are wrong.) Which would be a pity, because Cohen has a lot to say that is worth debating.

In the past, with few exceptions (such as Earl Ravenal), libertarian views on foreign and defense policy have not been worth considering. They lack knowledge. The facts of nuclear life are foreign to them. Like the redistributors with whom they disagree domestically, libertarians like to think the enemy is at home, not abroad. It is not Soviet threats to their liberty but high tax rates and ridiculous regulations that will do them in. No need, then, to learn about the ins and outs of defense, because it is all a con job to justify big government.

Sam Cohen, by contrast, has spent a lifetime on defense matters. He is knowledgeable, he is not absent-minded, and he is under no illusions.

Cohen finds our nation's defense policies to be "wrong and dangerous," because they increase the prospect of conventional war leading to nuclear war while deliberately, by avowed doctrine, leaving us exposed to devastation. He would reduce the risk of nuclear war in two ways.

One way would be to reduce the prospects of conventional conflict by withdrawing from the direct defense of other nations outside the Western Hemisphere. Instead, those who had the capacity would be expected to defend themselves. Those who wished to resist but lacked the military means would be helped to obtain them.

The other way would be to decrease the size and increase the mobility of nuclear weapons, so the Soviets could not find them, while simultaneously improving civil defense, so the bulk of the population could survive attacks on military installations. When Sam Cohen spends his money, in brief, he wants to buy defense, not enhanced vulnerability. Maybe he is on to something.

Cohen is resolutely opposed to the current policy of protecting Western Europe by "our threat to commit suicide." He refers here to the trip-wire policy by which the US government pledges to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) be unable to halt a conventional Soviet attack. Starting a nuclear war in order to protect nations whose people are evidently unwilling, though eminently capable, of providing their own defense is in Cohen's view foolish. In addition to bringing the boys back home (while selling their equipment to nations that might wish to use them—a characteristic touch), Cohen would also "disband our plans for deploying forces overseas in the event of war there to make sure that if we are tempted to revert to past behavior we won't be able to do so."

A Kemp-Roth for Europe and Korea—three annual 10 percent troop reductions—does not go as far as a rambunctious Cohen would wish. But it would begin to test the hypothesis that less is more; that is, that less American conventional defense outside this hemisphere would provide more safety for its people.

Actually, Cohen does not think the Soviet Union will attack Western Europe with conventional weaponry. Not at all. Believing in fighting to win, the Soviet Union, Cohen claims, will use everything it has, including nuclear weapons. Presumably, the United States would retaliate against the Soviet Union, thus initiating full-scale nuclear war.

American policy would not only result in the death of the several hundred thousand American troops now in Europe as hostages to Soviet designs, Cohen contends, but would succeed in defending neither Europe nor the United States. Such a policy, he concludes, "would bring about our defeat; the loss of our freedom; and, in our current position of nakedness to nuclear attack, an appalling loss of U.S. lives and property." Now that is laying it on the line.

Without claiming that my views are necessarily more credible than Cohen's (or, for that matter, than supporters' of current policy), I think that by its very existence, whether it wishes to or not, America is and must remain the shield of the West. Even if a Soviet conventional attack succeeded in the conquest of Western Europe, the United States would arm itself to the ultimate. In a genuine nuclear arms race, with no domestic divisions in the United States to limit its extent, the Soviet Union would increasingly be left behind. Such a self-defeating strategy—lose if they lose, lose if they win—is extremely unlikely to appeal to the leaders of the Soviet Union.

Arms control and disarmament treaties hold no hope for Sam Cohen. For one thing, Soviet doctrine is based on surprise, and Cohen does not believe we can know what they are doing without actual on-the-ground inspection, to which they will not agree. Cohen is evidently not a trusting man. He is especially distrustful of thinking you know things from satellite observation that can only be known by being where the action is.

For another thing, there is apparently no problem Cohen perceives with nuclear defense—survivability of missiles, civil defense of the population—to which so-called arms control provides a solution. On the contrary, the arms-control formulas so far agreed upon make it difficult to get rid of bulky and immobile weapons and prohibit the acquisition of the only genuinely defensive weapons—anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) that do not reach to other countries. He calls the 1972 ABM treaty a "moral travesty…for on what grounds could a concrete effort guaranteed to save human lives be discarded in favor of a disarmament treaty that guaranteed the loss of human lives in case of war?" Amen!

Initially, American strategic doctrine was based on mutual assured destruction, the MAD doctrine, which Cohen correctly calls "city busting." Later, it changed appropriately to counterforce, that is, to military operations against targets—offensive missiles, government headquarters, nuclear submarine bases—thought to be especially valuable to the Soviet leaders who would make decisions about whether to start a nuclear war. Unfortunately, the presence of highly vulnerable offensive systems—Cohen (following others) estimates that some 90 percent of Minutemen, two-thirds of manned bombers, perhaps half of nuclear submarines, along with most command and control, would be destroyed in a surprise attack—and the absence of civil defense would leave the president, were he alive, with a choice of killing innocent Soviet citizens ("a grossly immoral act") or surrendering.

So what? Wouldn't there still be sufficient uncertainty in the minds of Soviet leaders (after all, remaining American forces could still wreak immense damage) to make war irrational for them? Since this is the question, Cohen's analysis deserves to be quoted in full:

Not to worry, the president would say, as his predecessors have said, for this problem will never arise; the Russians will never attack. As everybody knows (except maybe the Russians), they are deterred from doing this by U.S. fiat; nuclear war will be so horrible that no Soviet leader in his right mind will ever contemplate making such an attack. And the U.S. threat to retaliate against the Russian attack, however irrational and immoral it may be, is quite sufficient to deter the attack. As President Reagan has said time after time, nobody can win a nuclear war. So why would the Russians start a war they could only lose?…

Now I'm not trying to say that tomorrow, or the day after, or a month or a year after, the Soviets, based on an exhaustive analysis of their capabilities and ours (what they call a 'correlation of forces'), will have arrived at the conclusion that they can successfully pull off a surprise nuclear attack—and then make the decision to do it. Rather, what I am saying is that nobody can logically rule out that possibility; for the logic behind such a Soviet decision has to be their logic, based on their stated objective, which is the imposition of communism on the world.

To put it mildly, Cohen is not in favor of pegging American "survival on something so intangible as sowing uncertainty in the Soviet mind, which we have never really understood."

I often wonder myself how the distinguished adherents of the irreducible uncertainty doctrine can know anything with as much certainty as they know that the Soviet Union will be deterred because it cannot be sure it will get away with a surprise attack. Like relativists, whose position involves denial of their own truth value, the argument from uncertainty is self-defeating.

Cohen pleads for our nation to "turn to its own terribly neglected defense, [so as] to be able to survive." He favors a relatively inexpensive "stay-put" program of neighborhood urban shelters primarily designed to protect against fallout from surprise attack against distant military targets or low-yield nuclear weapons. Of course, these simple shelters will not protect against nearby bursts. Since Soviet doctrine militates against bombing cities (so as to have something left), and no one knows the nature and magnitude of an attack, Cohen thinks this is a worthwhile investment. I agree with him.

He does not deal with the usual counterargument, namely, that defensive measures would be regarded as a prelude to surprise attack, thereby encouraging the Soviet Union to preempt before we do. This is how "nuclear-speak," in which defense is offense and targeting cities is stabilizing while protecting people is destabilizing, got started. In any event, the Soviets spend vastly more than we do on civil defense. It saddens me to say that in this, if in no other respect, Leninism cares more for its people than does democracy.

When one hears that if everyone can't be saved, no one should be saved, despair is a natural reaction. This is not far from saying that America as a nation is not worth saving. "To expect that an unsheltered U.S. populace will not suffer a massive societal collapse," Cohen conveys his concern, "has to be whistling Dixie."

Cohen wants to build a substantial number of Midgetman (small, mobile) missiles that would roam the country so as to be undetectable by the Soviets. He rejects in advance the ideal of limiting them to military reservations, because there would not be enough room and they would not be able to merge with civilian traffic. Wisely, Cohen warns against demanding too much blast and accuracy, because these features come at a price—higher cost and heavier weight.

His favorite project, Insertable Nuclear Capsule (INC) warheads, would have Midgetman divided into three parts—boosters, carried on tractors; reentry vehicles, spending most of their time aloft; and insertable warheads. Without venturing further into a technical discussion, it is easy to visualize Cohen's design of a survivable missile. Obviously, he is generally in favor (perhaps he is an originator) of a missile-defense shield designed to shoot down some missiles before they arrive. Defense might then live up to its name.

Cohen's policy would democratize defense. The better dispersed these missiles—a function not only of small size but of blending into the entire countryside—the more the general population become targets. On a psychological basis, every American would be a target. One can find shared exposure morally desirable without losing sight of the immense political commitment necessary to carry this burden. Replacing "out of sight, out of mind" with its opposite is no mere technical move.

There are also certain implications of Cohen's argument for nuclear defense that deserve to be spelled out. Defense would become proactive. It would not wait on or be restrained by arms pacts. Once Midgetman was in place, for instance, Minuteman missiles might be phased out even if the Soviets did not reciprocate. The right issue—what sort of defense should the United States have?—not, what sorts of agreements should it sign?—would at long last occupy center stage.

Cohen is coming. He is still ahead of his time. But not, I suspect, for too long.

Aaron Wildavsky is a professor of political science and public policy and a member of the Survey Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader and Beyond Containment: Alternative American Policies Toward the Soviet Union (editor and contributor).