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Nuclear Deterrence: Behind the Strategic and Ethical Debate

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

Confusion, dissensus, and anxiety pervade our consideration of the complex issues surrounding nuclear deterrence. Disagreements abound: does the Soviet Union still “have a definite margin of superiority,” as President Reagan stated in 1982, or does the very concept of superiority mislead us into a dangerous arms race? Have arms control agreements acted to slow down the arms race or have they merely sanctioned a continuous military buildup? How important are they to our mutual security? Does the expensive new defense initiative popularly known as Star Wars really offer the opportunity to “render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete”? What are the merits of the the various proposals for a nuclear freeze or for a comprehensive test ban treaty?

Faced with a seemingly endless and irresolvable debate over such issues, one sighs with depression and skips to the book review’s latest article on the Bloomsbury set. But the discussion has extended beyond the oxymoronic “strategic community” with an urgency that commands attention. Beginning, perhaps, with Jonathan Schell’s eloquent plea in The Fate of the Earth (1982), we have witnessed a resurgence of ethical concern about the implications of nuclear weapons. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops published their influential pastoral letter on deterrence in 1983, and, most recently, the bishops of the United Methodist Church have raised their voices “in defense of creation” to condemn the strategy of nuclear deterrence outright.

Though occurring in different spheres, the debates on nuclear strategy and ethics are closely related: the technical and moral issues are bound together almost synergistically. An ethical argument may turn on questions of technical feasibility—is, for example, the distinction between military and civilian targets (“counterforce” vs. “countervalue”), crucial to the just war tradition, viable in real conditions of warfare? Can an ethical argument rest on this distinction, or have nuclear weapons, as Michael Walzer has put it, “exploded the just war theory”? Conversely, strategists grasp eagerly for an ethical argument when the technical or strictly military case seems insufficiently convincing. Thus in 1962 Robert McNamara argued (as have several defense secretaries since then) that counterforce targeting and “limited nuclear options” provide a morally superior policy for a president forced to choose between nuclear retaliation or political capitulation.

What lies behind this strategic and ethical debate? And how is the intelligent citizen—who did not learn comparative throw-weights or the physics of “bomb-pumped X-ray lasers” with his multiplication tables—to make sense of it?


Virtually from the beginning of the nuclear age, political and military strategists have disagreed about the wider implications of a radically new weapon. Could the atomic bomb be integrated into traditional military strategies or did it render those strategies dangerous and irrelevant? In his 1946 book, The Absolute Weapon, Bernard Brodie argued for the notion of a nuclear revolution: “Thus far the chief purpose of a military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose.” Similarly, in a 1950 memorandum to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, George Kennan urged that the United States treat nuclear weapons “as something superfluous to our basic military posture—as something which we are compelled to hold against the possibility that they might be used by our opponents.” For Brodie, Kennan, and other “nuclear revolutionaries,” the vast destructive power of atomic weapons definitively severed the Clausewitzian link between war and politics; as Kennan put it, such weapons “cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary.”

According to this school of thought, nuclear weapons could be used only to deter their use by one’s adversary. Moreover, the deterrence (if it works) results not from the traditional military goal of denying the enemy his objective—there is no effective defense against full-scale enemy attack—but rather from the threat of retaliation and punishment. The fear of unacceptable retaliation deters a would-be aggressor from launching an attack. So the point of having nuclear weapons is not to employ them in combat, but to prevent their use—to avert, rather than to win, wars. This line of argument eventually developed into the “doctrine” of mutually assured destruction, MAD, although as one of its chief formulators, Thomas Schelling, has recently argued, it is less a doctrine than a reality and the reality is more accurately called mutual capability for assured destruction. Why should this balance of terror (or as Schelling prefers, balance of prudence) maintain peace? Brodie answered the question thus: “It is the curious paradox of our time that one of the foremost factors making deterrence really work and work well is the lurking fear that in some massive confrontation crisis it might fail, Under these circumstances one does not tempt fate.”

Not everyone was convinced by this new logic of deterrence through the threat of annihilation. Kennan’s notion of relegating nuclear weapons to the periphery of our military strategy did not sit well with leaders determined to extract political advantage from America’s nuclear superiority. This superiority could compensate for superior Russian conventional strength in Europe; tactical versions of these new weapons could be devised for actual battlefield use. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1953 declared that “today, atomic weapons have virtually achieved a conventional status within our armed forces.” For many civilian and military strategists, there was no nuclear revolution: Clausewitz remained intact. Nuclear weapons could be used to fight and win a war. As Eisenhower put it in 1955, “When these things are used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Throughout the period of “massive retaliation” in the 1950’s, strategists like Henry Kissinger or Paul Nitze (currently a senior advisor in the Reagan Administration on arms control) worried that acceptance of the revolutionary thesis could lead to a Western paralysis of will, to our becoming a muscle-bound superpower incapable of integrating force and diplomacy. In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) Kissinger asserted that “the major problem of a strategy in the nuclear age is how to establish a relationship between a policy of deterrence and a strategy for fighting a war in case deterrence fails.” His solution then (since renounced) was to develop a tactical nuclear force capable of fighting and winning a limited nuclear war. Deterrence for the non-revolutionaries involved more than the threat of retaliation: it necessarily had to include the ability actually to fight and prevail in a nuclear conflict.

Thus at least since the early 1950’s two quite different views of the political and strategic import of nuclear weapons have contended to provide the rationale for American policy. On the one hand “revolutionaries” like Brodie, Kennan, or Hans Morgenthau argued that the limited war theorists and military men who sought to integrate an unprecedentedly destructive technology into traditional strategy were dangerously seeking to “conventionalize” nuclear weapons. For them no conceivable goal, political or military, could be reached through nuclear war. On the other hand, analysts like Nitze or Herman Kahn argued that the revolutionaries relied far too heavily on a stalemate that could break down into war; should such a war occur, Nitze wrote in 1956, “the victor will be in a position to issue orders to the loser and the loser will have to obey them or face complete chaos or extinction. The victor will then go on to organize what remains of the world as best he can.” Hardly a reassuring vision: but Kahn et al. insisted that we all “think about the unthinkable,” because they held that, contrary to popular belief, nuclear war did not mean automatic Armageddon. Our national security required that we be prepared to fight for victory; nuclear revolutionaries were both softheaded and defeatist.

This fundamental disagreement on the effect nuclear weapons have on the possibility of war, the strategy used to fight it, and, more broadly, on the conduct of international politics, has informed American strategic policy throughout the postwar period; and, as I shall argue later, it plays an important part in the ethical debate on deterrence as well. It also figures importantly in the contemporary debate on arms control and on the whole direction of American defense policy. The issue goes beyond the usability of nuclear weapons. The basic problem today concerns the limits and requirements of effective deterrence—what deters the adversary from which undesirable actions? How many of which kind of weapons do we need to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the United States? Do the same things work to prevent an attack against Western Europe or an invasion of Iran or the establishment of a base in the Western Hemisphere? Given a rough equality of nuclear firepower (or, as the jargon has it, a “mutual second-strike capability”), is the capacity actually to fight a nuclear war vital to preventing its occurrence? In other words, the debate between those who argue for continuity between the nuclear and prenuclear age and the nuclear revolutionaries extends not only to the problem of whether there are plausible and limitable uses for nuclear weapons in real combat but also to whether deterrence itself requires that we be prepared for such actual use.

It has long been recognized that the strategy of deterrence essentially involves affecting the calculations of one’s adversary. Indeed, one of the least comfortable aspects of the nuclear age is that our security depends ultimately on what they do or do not do. This dependence on mutual vulnerability is what gives perhaps the greatest impetus to schemes for defense: how nice it would be if we really could, just as in the High Frontier television commercial, have a shield in the sky to protect us from Russian missiles. But until that happens—and many regard it to be a virtual impossibility—we shall always have to rely for our security on deterring our adversary from attacking in the first place. The question then becomes how best to do this: must he be utterly convinced that we will in fact retaliate by launching a counterattack or is it enough to plant an inescapable doubt in his mind that we might? Can we determine the requirements of deterrence more or less objectively, that is by calculating how much we need for the assured second strikes, or must we weigh in our adversary’s (and allies’) subjective perceptions of what we would do? What are his intentions, and how can we be sure of them?

This formidable list of questions frames the basic issue— what deters?—and by cutting through the most exotic of the arcana in the strategic literature one can discern two competing schools of thought, “maximalists” and “minimalists,” which essentially correspond to the basic divide on the question of a nuclear revolution.


For the “maximalists,” who currently dominate the Reagan Administration, what deters an enemy attack is the capability and will to match or dominate that attacker at every conceivable level of conflict. As Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger put it in the 1984 Defense Department Annual Report, deterrence requires that “the Soviets recognize that our forces can and will deny them their objectives at whatever level of nuclear conflict they contemplate.” In this formulation we are back to the traditional world of deterrence by denial rather than deterrence by the threat of retaliation and punishment. To deter a nuclear war, we must be able and willing to fight it—”to deny them their objectives.” This view of deterrence requires a massive military establishment, for if we are to match or dominate our adversary at every level of conflict—the ambiguity represents the rather limited range of possibilities within this position—we must have the necessary hardware to do so.

Several important assumptions underlie this position. First, maximalists assume that the distinction between civilian and military targets is not only viable; it is essential for the effective conduct of warfare. Second, given the importance of this distinction, we must have weapons which are numerous, varied, and accurate enough to deploy in a wide range of combat scenarios. Much of the specialized literature is devoted to imagining and planning for such scenarios. Analysts like Albert Wohlstetter place great stock in the “accuracy revolution” in nuclear weaponry, frequently arguing that this greater accuracy blurs the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons. Arguments like those of the early 1950’s about integrating nuclear weapons into our overall military strategy are now common, this time emphasizing that a “new generation” of weapons opens up a whole range of operational possibilities. Colin Gray argues that, given these possibilities, American strategy needs a “theory of victory.”

A third and crucial assumption implicit in the first two is that a nuclear war can be ended after a “limited exchange,” before one is left claiming victory over what a 1956 National Security Council document called a “smoking, radiating ruin.” What the theorists call “intrawar deterrence” is a vital component of the maximalist position. They vehemently deny the notion that any nuclear exchange will inevitably escalate beyond control. Moreover, they assert that the ability to fight and dominate a limited nuclear war bolsters the credibility of the initial threat and hence of deterrence itself. If we can legitimately claim to be able to defeat the Soviets without unleashing a total nuclear holocaust, we shall remove their incentive to start even a limited war. Gray puts it rhetorically: “Why the Soviet Union should be interested in starting a war it would stand little, if any, prospect of winning is, to say the least, obscure.” But even if a war began, assuming that we had the necessary weapons to “match or dominate” at every level—an unavoidably expensive proposition, for, as Edward Luttwak writes, “to threaten less, one needs more”—the Soviets would recognize the futility of their effort and would give up before we were all incinerated. Or as the jargon would have it, “the limited exchange would enter the war-termination phase.”

The argument that we need to be able to fight and win a war and so deter our adversary by denying him his objectives rests not only on abstract logic but on a particular view of our chief antagonist. Maximalists see the Soviet Union as an ideologically relentless power, ruthlessly expansionist and opportunistic, whose leaders are willing not only to take risks on behalf of empire but also to sacrifice much of their population to ensure their continued domination. Richard Pipes, for example, in a Commentary article called “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Can Fight and Win a Nuclear War” assumes that the Soviet leadership would tolerate the level of civilian deaths it suffered in World War II for the sake of a victory over the United States. Maximalists argue that the Soviet military has never accepted the logic of mutually assured destruction, and they have little sympathy for arms control agreements that, in their view, do little to restrain the Russians and induce a false sense of security in the West. Thus it is not surprising that maximalists opposed the SALT treaties and remain deeply skeptical about the real (as opposed to transitory political) benefits of any negotiated arms control treaty. Their view of the Soviet Union leads them to mistrust any treaty to which the Soviets would agree and to demand a standard of verification some consider to be impossible.

Pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative is very high on the maximalist agenda. Even before President Reagan’s March 1983 speech, analysts of this school were writing that the treaty banning defensive missiles (ABMs) worked against American interests by making our land-based missiles increasingly vulnerable to Soviet attack. The new defense initiative, for them, provides the opportunity to reverse this vulnerability. And although few experts even in this school regard a “leak-proof” defense to be technically feasible for a very long time, they still think that any reasonable defense enhances deterrence because it “complicates the task of Soviet strategists” and increases the operational possibilities of the American arsenal. If we have even a halfway effective defense, after all, we are in a better position to “deny them their objectives at whatever level of nuclear conflict they contemplate.” Thus strategic defense fits in perfectly with the other assumptions of the maximalist school: it increases our military flexibility and hence strengthens deterrence by making our threat to respond to any attack more believable.

The maximalist position, then, emphasizes that deterrence of a nuclear war requires the capability to fight, limit, and win such a war. Obviously, deterrence is their goal: no sane strategist looks to the actual fighting of even a limited nuclear war with equanimity. But they insist on the possibility of such a war and on the importance of being prepared to fight at every rung of the escalation ladder in order to avoid a terrible choice of capitulation or mutual annihilation. In short, maximalists believe that even in the nucler age Cicero was right: Si vis pacem, para bellum.


In contrast to this position, minimalists begin by accepting the notion of a nuclear revolution. They rely on what McGeorge Bundy has called “existential deterrence,” which he defines in these words: “As long as each side has large numbers of thermonuclear weapons that could be used against the opponent even after the strongest possible preemptive attack, existential deterrence is strong and it rests on uncertainty about what could happen.” Leon Wieseltier is even more categorical: “The strategy is determined by the weapon. The missiles have only to exist, and deterrence is the law of existence.” In other words, given a mutual second strike capability, A is deterred by B by the risk of uncontrollable escalation, even if B has smaller nuclear forces.

For the purer minimalists (or in Robert W. Tucker’s rather derisive term, the “deterrence faithful”), all one needs is an assured second strike, that is, some critical mass of weapons, such as those on submarines, which are invulnerable to an enemy attack. There is no need to calibrate one’s arsenal to the other side’s latest deployment because the weapons have no meaningful battlefield use. As Theodore Draper has written, “any level of nuclear weaponry over and above what is necessary to have devastating effect on the other side- is no more than an exercise in redundancy. He advocates a “plain, simple, and sufficient deterrence which any nuclear power can determine for itself.” The British defense analyst, Solly Zuckerman, agrees: “The continued growth of nuclear arsenals not only fails to increase, but actually decreases, national security.” Perhaps the most influential academic advocate of this position is a Columbia University political scientist, Robert Jervis. In a series of books and articles he has argued that “the nuclear revolution is real and cannot be undone” and that the maximalist argument misapplies the logic of a conventional war of attrition to a nuclear war. For all these theorists, what deters is not the prospect of denying the enemy his objective but his fear that by attacking he risks unprecedented and devastating damage to his own country.

Other minimalists like Bundy, Robert McNamara, or Michael Howard believe that it is probably prudent to have some capacity for fighting at low levels so escalation could at least in theory be limited in case deterrence should fail. But they emphasize that this has existed throughout the nuclear age; despite the changes in public strategic doctrine, actual targeting policy has remained remarkably consistent. The president has never had to capitulate or unleash everything; “limited options” have always been available. They urge that in the name of prudence our conventional capabilities should be upgraded so that early resort to nuclear weapons does not become inevitable.

The other assumptions of the minimalists are essentially the opposite of those held by the maximalists. For them the distinction between “counterforce” and “countervalue” is untenable and even tendentious. They point out that 60 military targets have been identified within the city of Moscow alone. Even targeting relatively deserted land-based missile sites would cause unprecedented civilian casualties. As for the accuracy revolution, they concede that it may make it possible to imagine strictly military uses of weapons, for example, an exchange between ships isolated at sea; but weapons of greater accuracy in no way reduce the risks of escalation. Indeed, to the extent that such weapons encourage military planners to treat them conventionally and to rely on their early use, they may actually make nuclear war more likely. By making nuclear weapons seem more ordinary and usable, one may actually make a nuclear conflict more likely. Recall Bernard Brodie’s paradox: what makes deterrence so effective is the fear that it might fail. If the consequences of its failure are perceived to be tolerable, it may more easily fail.

Minimalists insist perhaps most strongly on the unlikelihood of keeping a limited nuclear war under control. They quote military figures like Lord Mountbatten (“In all sincerity, as a military man I can see no use for any nuclear weapons which would not end in escalation with consequences that no one can conceive”) or American General A.S. Collins, Jr. (“No one can be sure what will happen, and no one should ignore the fact that control of events passes to the other side”). They also point out that even proponents of limited options like former Defense Security Harold Brown equivocate, admitting even as they advocate such “combat flexibility” that “avoiding escalation to mutual destruction is not likely.” A limited nuclear war would require unprecedented communication and cooperation between adversaries in a situation fraught with new dangers and uncertainties. As Zuckerman observes, “both the logic of the situation and the results of war games show that escalation to all-out nuclear war is all but implicit in the concept of fighting a field war with “tactical” and “theater” nuclear weapons. . . . There are no rules in nuclear or any form of warfare like those which apply in the boxing ring.”

Concerning the intentions of the Soviet Union, minimalists generally agree with the sort of differentiated analysis offered over the years by George Kennan; the idea that they would easily tolerate losses comparable to those in World War II they regard as absurd. But regardless of their assessment of Soviet goals, they argue that it is the maximalists who assume like behavior from the Soviet Union. The whole notion of limited nuclear war, far more than mutually assured destruction, requires that the Soviets follow a military strategy we have defined as rational for them. As Jervis argues, “the U.S. doctrine rests on rules the Russians simply show no sign of accepting.”

Thus the minimalists argue that effective deterrence rests on a healthy fear of the consequences of its failure, not on what they regard as a chimerical attempt to find ways to fight and limit an actual nuclear war. So they oppose the strategic defense initiative because they regard its stated purpose to be illusory (as Schelling has written, “How it can be thought that space-based defenses can completely deny the delivery of nuclear explosives to the proximity of U. S. population centers by land sea and air, I do not know”) and because they see its more feasible aspect of defending land based missiles as both needlessly expensive and as another example of conventionalizing nuclear weapons. As for arms control, most minimalists support it, not as a panacea but as a path to mutual confidence and restraint if pursued sincerely by both sides.


Behind these two strategic arguments there are also competing ethical claims. Maximalists claim that their version of deterrence is more credible and hence more likely to succeed in keeping peace—manifestly a virtue. Moreover, they argue, if deterrence does fail, we have ethically acceptable methods for fighting and limiting nuclear war. The alternative to their position, they believe, promises only unlimited destruction. The minimalists, needless to say, will have none of this. “To pretend,” writes Draper, “that moral distinctions can be made between allegedly different types of nuclear war is already taking a most slippery and menacing step toward breaking the nuclear barrier. If we should bite off our tongues before uttering one word in this discussion, that word is morality.” To the minimalists, by making nuclear war seem both fightable and winnable in conventional terms, the maximalists are actually making it more likely. To them deterrence must remain at all costs prewar; “intrawar deterrence” and “limited nuclear war” in their lexicon are contradictions in terms.

The ethical debate itself occurs in a different framework, dividing along different, more fundamentally philosophical lines; but the strategic positions just outlined inform this debate in sometimes surprising ways. Bishops and moral philosophers consciously or unconsciously choose sides in the strictly strategic debate we have just considered.

As in moral philosophy in general, writers on the ethics of deterrence divide into those who adopt a deontological or absolutist moral position and those who make moral judgments by weighing the consequences of competing actions. Interestingly enough, both deontologists and consequentialists divide in their judgment of nuclear deterrence, and the divisions in both schools can be explained largely in terms of their position on the question of a nuclear revolution.

Absolutist thinkers—whether Kantians, Christian just war theorists, or secular contractarians—categorically reject the idea that deliberate targeting of civilians, and still less the actual use of indiscriminate retaliatory weapons, can be morally sanctioned. But they divide on two points: first on the moral status of the threat embodied in deterrence and second—and more fundamentally—on the question of whether there can be any actual use of nuclear weapons which would meet the traditional just war criteria of discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, proportionality, and reasonable hope for success.

One group of deontologists condemns deterrence on both grounds. Many Catholic thinkers take the position that if it is wrong to do something, then it is wrong to threaten to do it. As R.A. Markus wrote in 1960, if “no condition can render the dropping of H-bombs morally justifiable, no such condition can render the intention to do so morally justifiable either.” In a recent book (The Logic of Deterrence) which brilliantly argues for phased nuclear disarmament, Anthony Kenny puts the absolutist condemnation of deterrence thus:

The most important moral point. . . is the principle, basic to European morality since its enunciation by Socrates, that it is better to undergo wrong than to do wrong. The principle holds good even when the evils in question are, considered in isolation from the question of who perpetrates them, comparable in scale. But of course the evil we would do if we used nuclear weapons in a major war would be incomparably greater than the evil we would suffer if the worst came to the worst after nuclear disarmament.

Kenny and other moral absolutists like Jonathan Schell believe deterrence to be participation in a threat to commit murder. They reject the idea that nuclear weapons can be used discriminately against military targets and otherwise accept the minimalist argument about the character of deterrence. “The reason,” Kenny writes, “that the possession of nuclear weapons works as a deterrent on B is that B does not know whether or not A will be mad enough, when the time comes, to launch a nuclear counterattack.” Where they differ from most minimalists is in their absolute condemnation of the strategy and in their belief that “we are morally obliged to renounce nuclear weapons regardless of what the other side may do,” as Markus puts it.

Other deontologists are less categorical, ranging from Protestant theologians Paul Ramsey and James Turner Johnson to the American Catholic bishops in their pastoral letter to Catholic neo-conservative Michael Novak, whose Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age is a critique of the bishops’ letter from the right. Detailed exposition of all these positions is impossible here; but what is common to all is a belief that under certain circumstances, the actual use of nuclear weapons may be just. For the bishops, those circumstances are radically circumscribed; as their staff consultant, J. Bryan Hehir, has stated, they leave only a “centimeter of ambiguity” about a possible second strike use against a strictly limited target. But they condemn the threat of first use of nuclear weapons embodied in NATO strategy, and they insist that acceptance of deterrence is conditional on three factors: a continual rejection of fighting nuclear war, opposition to the quest for nuclear superiority, and an insistence that deterrence be used as a step toward progressive disarmament. Robert W. Tucker has aptly described them as arguing for the “moral equivalent of minimal deterrence.”

Ramsey and Johnson are casuistic just war theorists. They lay great stress on the possibility of discrimination between civilian and military targets, regarding it as virtually a moral imperative for us to seek strategies for fighting limited war should deterrence fail. In his work Ramsey spends countless pages trying to justify deterrence through the principle of double effect, i.e., the notion that morally intended just means may have unintended but permissible evil side effects, Perhaps the least satisfying of his arguments is a complicated justification of deterrence by virtue of our intention to attack only military targets. If, in consequence of these attacks unintended civilian casualties occur, and if because of his knowledge of the likelihood of such casualties our enemy is deterred from attacking us, then this kind of deterrence is permissible: we never threatened or intended to kill innocent civilians. The British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe gives this sort of argument short shrift: she calls it “doublethink about double effect.” In his learned books, Johnson does not make this argument, but it comes as something of a shock to learn that a strategy of “decapitation”—targeting the leaders in the Kremlin with low yield, accurate warheads—in his view meets the criteria of the just war theory. Nowhere does Johnson discuss how a war might end if the Russian leaders were thus “decapitated” and the command and control of Soviet forces in chaos.

A third deontological position is advanced by Michael Novak. Novak begins by accepting all of the maximalist analysis and indeed extends it to a remarkable assertion that the Soviets “already possess” a first-strike capability against our land-based missiles. (President Reagan’s Scowcroft Commission rejected precisely this assertion.) Unlike the American bishops or Kenny, Novak regards the maintenance of nuclear deterrence to be a moral imperative: “To abandon deterrence occasions the greatest evil, for it entails endangering that liberty which is more precious than life itself.” Novak recognizes that his argument approving of deterrence sounds consequential and thus risks moving outside the Catholic deontological tradition in which intentions count as heavily as purported consequences. But he tries to escape this charge by invoking “new paradoxes” about the meaning of intention, distinguishing several kinds of intention and arguing that “the nature of the intention in deterrence is different from intention in ordinary moral action.” The heart of his position is stated in these terms: “The fundamental moral intention in nuclear deterrence is never to have to use the deterrent force.”

As the philosopher J. M. Cameron has pointed out, this formulation in no way describes an intention: one cannot intend “never to have to do” something. (He invites us to compare this statement to Novak’s: “I intend never to have to divorce my wife.”) Novak simply redefines intention into hope or desire so that he can cleanse the threat involved in nuclear deterrence from its conditional intention to commit an evil (that is, to kill innocent civilians with little or no chance of observing the just war standards) absolutely condemned by Catholic or deontological morality. Although Novak’s position enjoyed some initial reputation (William F. Buckley devoted an entire issue of National Review to it, and Billy Graham contributed a preface), his argument has been largely ignored by serious Catholic philosophers and theologians, and Novak’s claim that his statement influenced the German bishops in their statement seems farfetched. In their letter, the German bishops did not appeal to a “fundamental moral intention” (or to the “secondary” or “organized, objective intention” later discussed by Novak) but based their conditional acceptance of deterrence on these grounds:

We are choosing from among various evils the one which, as far as it is humanly possible to tell, appears the smallest. It is the confirmed goal of our efforts, firstly to contribute towards ensuring the prevention of the looming holocaust of mankind and a gradual reduction in the number of weapons of mass destruction, and secondly to strive for a comprehensive system of peace and justice beyond the arsenals of weapons and systems of oppression.

Straightforwardly consequential thinkers have tended to justify deterrence by admitting that the threat and intention it embodies is unquestionably wrong, but that this is outweighed by its consequences, which have been to prevent nuclear war itself. As Michael Walzer writes in Just and Unjust Wars (a book which otherwise argues for a morality of absolute rights), “we threaten evil in order not to do it, and the doing of it would be so terrible that the threat in comparison seems to be morally defensible.” But Walzer insists that no use of nuclear weapons can be justified, and otherwise adopts the minimalist analysis of deterrence. Similarly Joseph S. Nye, in his recent book Nuclear Ethics, argues cogently for a broadened consequentialist perspective which comes to conclusions similar to those of the American Catholic bishops. He too is skeptical that any use of nuclear weapons could be kept limited, but he argues nevertheless for the prudence and morality of seeking and maintaining such a capability. These thinkers are poised somewhat uneasily between a clearly consequentialist justification for deterrence, a desire to retain the restraints of the just war theory, and yet a minimalist doubt that any use could be kept limited. Like Johnson, Nye argues that “it is quite possible to think of uses of nuclear weapons that do not violate the just in bello criteria,” but he is considerably less sanguine than Johnson apparently is about the prospects of avoiding catastrophic escalation.

Other consequentialist thinkers essentially jettison the just war criteria altogether. For Robert W. Tucker “the prospects of fulfilling [its] requirements can be no more than rhetorical.” For consequentialists of this stripe, the maximalist analysis of deterrence makes sense: they are inclined to regard the “marginal” cost of maintaining a war-fighting capability to be worth the increment in deterrent credibility it purports to add. To the extent that political leaders make an ethical argument on behalf of deterrence, they reach for this sort of consequentialism. A given weapons system is said to enhance deterrence and therefore must be justifiable. Our current leaders take this a step further: since the Soviets respond only to unquestionable strength, an arms build-up is a moral imperative if we are to discourage Soviet aggression and adventurism. In support of this view, the strategic analyst Edward Luttwak has written that “the West has become comfortably habituated to defeat” and that “our own society is threatened by a process of debellicization that would deny any opportunity for victory, and thus for any purposeful resistance to aggression. Unless that process is firmly opposed, unless we refute the counsel of impotence, the only possible choices left open will be appeasement or outright defeat.” This is maximalist consequentialism with a vengeance: any evil involved in fighting a war and seeking victory is far outweighed by the evil which would follow if we rejected such a quest.


Which of these positions, ethical and strategic, is most persuasive? Obviously, given the uncertainties, the abstract and hypothetical character of much of the reasoning, and of course the profound moral dilemmas raised by nuclear deterrence, no argument can claim to be definitive. The Reagan Administration is certain that its arms buildup, its wariness about any arms control agreement, its huge investment in space-based defense and antisatellite warfare will enhance our security by matching or overwhelming any putative Russian buildup. For them, secure deterrence requires us to be ahead in every possible category; the nuclear age has not changed that fundamental imperative. But superiority in the nuclear age may be an endless pursuit of a chimera, for both sides will always be able to cause unprecedented and obviously unacceptable destruction. A marginal advantage in a given category of weaponry will not change this basic reality. Moreover, the precise requirements for successful deterrence will always remain in dispute, no matter which side claims or thinks it is “ahead.” Are we deterred by Soviet SS-20s? Will more accurate submarine warheads prevent another Afghanistan? The bare fact is that we do not really know what deters the Russians from which actions; no one, save the Russian leadership itself, can say with confidence why they haven’t done what they haven’t done. We know only that nuclear peace has prevailed for 40 years—through all our scares over Sputnik, the bomber gap, the missile gap, the window of vulnerability, the deficiencies of SALT II.

What explains this nuclear peace? My own view, strategically, is close to the moderate minimalists. The balance of terror is not as delicate, deterrence is not as sensitive to the current numerical balance, as the maximalists would have us believe. Deterrence succeeds not because the Russians know that our tactical nuclear weapons can deny them an objective in West Germany but because they dare not risk an attack whose ultimate consequences no one—no one—can predict with certainty. Regardless of the balance in theater or tactical weapons or of the attractions of precise low-yield nuclear warheads, it is a matter of profound doubt whether any nuclear exchange could be kept limited. And yet the maximalists claim that their version of deterrence is more credible precisely because it relies on a threat whose execution is supposedly more plausible, that is, the capacity to fight and “prevail” in a limited nuclear war.

But limitation after any use of nuclear weapons would require restraint in the conduct of warfare that history gives us almost no reason to expect. After all, we are dealing not with a Bismarck in 1866, fighting a limited war for limited aims, but with ideologically hostile superpowers who find it difficult to communicate in peacetime. (And even Bismarck had a hard time controlling his generals.) With casualties—at the least—in the tens of thousands, passions inflamed, communications disrupted, reliance on a reassertion of rationality at the brink seems optimistic in the extreme. Nuclear “war termination” is considerably easier to program into a computer simulation than it would be to achieve in real life.

Far better, then, to prevent any resort to nuclear weapons in the first place—as the Catholic Bishops say, “we must continually say “no” to the idea of nuclear war.” Deterrence does not result from our adversary’s conviction that we will somehow deny him his objective through tactical nuclear combat; neither he nor we can be certain that things would stop there. Nor does deterrence require that an aggressor be certain that we will unleash an all-out attack in retaliation for his transgression. Given the enormous risk of uncontrollable escalation, it is enough to say that he cannot be convinced that we will not respond. Theodore Draper’s conclusion, echoing Bernard Brodie’s, seems to me apt: “The main reason nuclear weapons have not been used thus far is precisely the belief that they cannot be launched for any useful political purpose and that mutual mass destruction can be of no conceivable benefit to either side.” He advises us to resist the “Pied Pipers of a protracted nuclear war and of precise and discriminating nuclear weapons trying to lure us to break through the psychological and political barriers to nuclear war.”

Here Draper overstates: I am convinced that not even the fiercest maximalist wants any kind of nuclear war. And the proponents of a nuclear just war theory are right to warn us not to abdicate all attempts at human control should deterrence fail. It is both prudent and moral to have some limited options in that tragic event; as Nye urges, it should be a basic imperative to minimize harm to innocent people. But we need not and should not rely on those options for deterrence itself. Our strategy should be directed at strengthening, not fudging, the line between conventional and nuclear weapons. And, as the Bishops argue, we should work to reduce our dependence on nuclear deterrence over the long term.

In the ethical debate, I lean toward the view of the consequentialists who conditionally justify deterrence, at the same time that I find the purely philosophical logic of the absolutist opponents irrefutable. Stripped of jargon, nuclear deterrence involves a mutual threat to commit genocide: one can hardly expect our moral leaders, the segment of the community Reinhold Niebuhr called our “prophetic minority,” to approve such threats. At most, we can accept the view that for the time being, in the world as it now is, the strategy of deterrence is the morally dubious means by which we protect our core values and prevent the incalculably greater evil of nuclear war itself. But surely the bishops are right to insist that our acceptance of this strategy must be conditional and temporary: not everything justified in the name of deterrence deserves to be accepted. Indeed the real imperative is to dismantle and avoid destabilizing systems which might tempt us or the Russians to use them preemptively. A detailed argument cannot be offered here, but the MX and the vast network of complex hardware envisaged by the Strategic Defense Initiative are examples of such systems. Beyond this, there is a wide range of joint and unilateral measures that can reduce the risks of nuclear war through accident, misunderstanding, and fear of preemption in the midst of a crisis. The main point is that a strategy of deterrence can and must be distinguished from a strategy of use— which in my view can never be justified.

In his classic treatise On War, Karl von Clausewitz, not known as an ethical thinker, provided practical advice which reinforces a moral imperative. “Theory,” he wrote, “demands that at the outset of a war its character and scope should be determined on the basis of political probabilities. The closer these political probabilities drive war to the absolute, the more belligerent states are involved and drawn into its vortex, the more imperative the need not to take the first step without considering the last.” Given the horrifically destructive character of the last step in this nuclear age, let us hope that states—for whatever precise reason—continue to avoid taking the first.


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