Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Trembling on the Nuclear Trigger: Exaggerating the Soviet Threat: Binoy Kampmark Reflects on the False Perceptions Underlying Cold War Nuclear Deterrence Policies

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Trembling on the Nuclear Trigger: Exaggerating the Soviet Threat: Binoy Kampmark Reflects on the False Perceptions Underlying Cold War Nuclear Deterrence Policies

Article excerpt

Misunderstandings and false readings often lead to war between states. US-Soviet rivalry may well have precipitated a super-power conflict involving nuclear weapons. Recent declassified material involving a two-volume study by the contractor BDM Corporation, hired by the Pentagon in the 1990s to examine the Soviet strategic outlook on nuclear war, gives ample evidence of this. The contractor's report makes it clear that the US security establishment erred on the side of threat inflation when it came to assessing Soviet intentions. What it also reveals is a more rational enemy aware of the fearful consequences of nuclear war than was assumed at the time.


'Each side tended to assume, and see, the worst motivation by the other, to justify its own actions and deny any justification to the other side, and to discount and disbelieve expressions of concern by the other.'

(Raymond L. Garthoff) (1)


The history of international relations is often a register of false perceptions, innuendo and dangerous gossip. A certain sense of terror often fits the bill in that regard, a feeling that propels the passage of large budgets, approvals for military expenditure, all cited as urgent measures in defence of the homeland. 'Fear is a very dangerous thing,' explained Britain's post-First World War Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at a time of what appeared to be yet another arms race. 'It is quite true that it may act as a deterrent in people's minds against war, but it is more likely to act to make them want to increase armaments.'

With the discovery of atomic power and the subsequent military use of it on Japan in 1945, that principle of deterrence reached ever more dangerous levels. Countries saw it as an attractive option. Initial efforts to contain the atomic genie were fruitless, despite warnings by the American financier Bernard Baruch that humans faced that old Biblical choice 'between the quick and the dead'. But even a few years after the event, the reality of atomic power and its military uses was sinking in. The author Gertrude Stein could barely summon up any interest in such a weapon at all. In the December 1947 issue of the Yale Poetry Review, she would simply say that fear was what vested such a weapon with meaning. The desensitised would be free of concern or worry.

This was certainly very much the case regarding the origins of the Cold War, which gave birth to a host of theories on why the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict that almost resulted, at various stages, in a nuclear conflagration. A few sober theorists of strategy tend towards the realist view: that both sides sought security gains through global, generally defensive strategies fuelled by a 'spiralling cycle of mistrust'. The US side was moved, claims historian Melvyn Leffler, by insistence on the more menacing aspects of their Soviet foe. Peaceful overtures were viewed with suspicion. The Soviets were attributed 'the most malevolent of motives and the most sinister of goals'. (2)

Theories of deterrence endorsed by analysts who believe in the stability bought by the awful potential of the nuclear option will have none of it. The cornerstone of such ideas lies on the assumption that such weapons would never be used in the first place, as any counter-attack would be so catastrophic as to make the first a nullity. First came, argue such scholars as John Lewis Caddis, the effects of 'self-deterrence', when the United States decided, between 1945 and 1958, to avoid deploying atomic weapons against non-nuclear powers. The very presence of a global nuclear arsenal, one might argue, is 'self-deterring'. Nuclear non-use contributed to what amounted to a 'Long Peace', an era mourned for its passing by Cold War warriors and scribblers who had made a career out of playing with a human condition perched on the precipice of disaster) Even at the height of the Cold War, such aggressive forerunners of neo-conservatism as the political theorist James Burnham would argue that it would be missed in its power of engendering constructive confrontations in the shadow of prospective nuclear annihilation. …

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