clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Question: What are the probabilities of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union?

Answer: The probabilities are nil.Question: Why, then, are both superpowers intent upon maintaining obscene levels of nuclear arms?

Answer: Don't ask stupid questions.

That is about where matters stand in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the United States. The Soviet leader is agreeable to reducing strategic nuclear forces by roughly 30 percent. President Bush is equally agreeable. The newspapers provide neatly tabulated data on the pledged reductions.

But the trouble with the figures is that they are essentially meaningless. The tabulations wash over our minds like so many waves, leaving not even a residue of foam behind. Faintly, vaguely, we can imagine the devastation caused by a single nuclear weapon. After all, most of us have seen photographs and read descriptions of Hiroshima after the bomb struck in 1945.

The atom bomb of 1945 was a sort of Model T bomb. It carried the destructive equivalent of only 17,000 tons of TNT. In a fraction of a second that bomb leveled a city and killed nearly 100,000 human beings. Now we make hydrogen bombs that are lots more efficient. Now we can kill a million human beings in a single blast. Isn't that progress?

At present, the United States maintains a strategic arsenal of 2,450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 3,024 sea-launched ballistic missiles, 3,000 short-range missiles and l,600 air-launched cruise missiles. For its part, the Soviet Union maintains 6,530 ICBMs, 3,642 submarine-launched missiles, 400 short-range attack missiles and 640 air-launched cruise missiles.

Under the pending agreement, the United States would have 1,444 ICBMs, the Soviet Union 3,060. We would have 3,456 submarine-launched missiles, the Soviet Union 1,840. Other missiles would be divided as if they were marbles - so many for our side, so many for their side. There would be 18,430 in all. And every one of these missiles is from 10 to 100 times as destructive as the bomb of 1945.

Question: Who needs them?

Answer: Why do you persist in asking stupid questions?

In theory, the policy of the United States is a policy of "strategic sufficiency," but the criteria for defining "sufficiency" are contrived from moonbeams. To such nuclear fanatics as Gen. John T. Chain Jr., commander of the Strategic Air Command, enough is never enough. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser, thinks along the same lines. As Talleyrand remarked, war is indeed too serious a matter to be entrusted to generals.

For all the talk of a 30 percent to 50 percent reduction in strategic arms, the prospect remains a prospect of mutually assured smithereens. We would blow each other to bits, to the merest fragments. The Soviets would strike. We would strike back. In an hour a great part of the planet Earth would be a smoking cinder. Clouds of radioactive dust would blot the sun and swirl in deadly currents around the globe. Neither side could win such an exchange. The putative victor would have spoils not worth possessing.

There will never be such an exchange. The probability has been remote for the past 45 years. Given the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the revolutionary changes in Europe, the maintenance of huge nuclear arsenals becomes all the more pointless.

Surely a strategic sufficiency could be preserved with a few hundred verifiable weapons apiece. Total nuclear disarmament is out of the question, but it is insane - wastefully, dangerously insane - to talk of spending an additional $100 billion over the next decade on such stupidities as two mobile missile systems, four more Trident submarines, and 75 B-2 bombers for which there is no plausible mission.

Yes, the Soviet Union continues to produce and to deploy hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. So what? The idea of nuclear parity is an idea that has never made sense. All that is required is a deterrent against the unthinkable.

This observer does not fully trust Mikhail Gorbachev. By his own assertion he remains a fully committed communist. If he is toppled from power, other communists will succeed him. But we ought to distinguish between communists and madmen, and in the name of common sense we ought to abandon folly and pursue a policy of prudence instead.