»  National Review Online

June 21st, 2001

  Too Many Nukes?

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I was interested to see, in a recent copy of The Nation, …

What's that? You want to know what an honest reactionary like Derb is doing, reading a lefty whine-list like The Nation? Well, in the first place, like Walt Whitman, I am large, I contain multitudes: humani nihil a me alienum puto. In the second place, I find a sort of nostalgic fascination in seeing that all the halfwitted beliefs I held when I was 17 are still alive and well, and being retailed by literate adults on the streets of America. (Not merely literate, either. Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation's editor, though obviously a tool of Satan, is also a babe, as those who have seen her on The O'Reilly Factor will know. Her existence casts serious doubt on my theory that we righties have all the good-looking women.) And in the third place, The Nation has the best crossword puzzle in these United States — a real British-style "cryptic" puzzle (2 down: One who tries to get even a five to turn green [7]*), not the pathetic "quiz" type (14 across: Egyptian sun god [2]), which is all that readers of The New York Times can rise to.

So I picked up my June 25th copy of The Nation — after first slipping on a fresh pair of surgical gloves, of course — and noticed at once an article by Jonathan Schell titled "The New Nuclear Danger." Now, this caught my attention, because I am interested in nuclear weapons.

I'm not sure why I am interested in them. I always have been, since I was a kid. I recall an occasion in art class once at school, when, given a free topic, I painted a lurid picture of a mushroom cloud, with lots of vivid yellows, oranges and splashes of purple, to the horror of our art master, a gentle pacifist. In my science fiction phase, I was especially attracted to books about nuclear holocaust and its aftermath: Philip Wylie's Tomorrow!, Strieber and Kunetka's Warday (in which, if I remember right, Long Island gets fried), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, a good one whose title I can't remember about a jumbo jet flying across the Atlantic when the world ends, leaving them with no un-nuked place to land, John Wyndham's beautiful The Chrysalids, and of course the grandaddy of them all, Walter Miller's weird, compelling exercise in Catholic propaganda, A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have assumed, for as long as I can remember, that there is an excellent probability I shall die in a nuclear holocaust. The Boomer generation was supposed to be "raised in the shadow of the Bomb." That is all nonsense; most of them never gave a moment's thought to the Bomb. I did, though. Even today I often find, when my mind is occupied with nothing in particular, while I am driving west on the Long Island Expressway or gazing idly out of the window of a train on the way into Manhattan, that in my imagination I see the great blue-white flash which, if it does not end human civilization, will change it beyond recognition in a matter of hours. I dream about nukes: often discovering by chance that some household object — refrigerator, leaf blower — has turned into a thermonuclear device with a blinking count-down display like the one in Goldfinger. Morbid, I suppose.

Anyway, here is Jonathan Schell in The Nation, writing about nukes. It's nice that someone is. As Schell correctly observes: "When the cold war finally did end, nuclear weapons pretty much dropped out of the conscious thoughts of most Americans. The weapons themselves, however, remain in existence — some 32,000 strong at last count." Schell says that with the end of U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the rationale for our threatening each other with "mutual assured destruction" has disappeared. He then takes us for a quick canter through the arguments against abandoning the 1972 ABM treaty, against Nuclear Missile Defense, and for total world-wide nuclear disarmament. (Arguments that were demolished very effectively by our own Rich Lowry in the April 2nd dead-tree National Review.) He ends with the nightmare prospect of "American military dominance, nuclear and otherwise, of the world," which, he warns, will lead to "a hellbent military competition with the other powers of the earth — not just one but many arms races …"

In related news, as they say, Newsweek has run an article telling us that President Bush was stunned when told of the extent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. "I had no idea we had so many weapons," he is quoted as saying. Newsweek spells out the numbers: 5,400 warheads on ICBMs, 1,750 bombs and cruise missiles to be delivered by plane, 1,670 "tactical" nuclear weapons (presumably this includes nuclear artillery shells and satchel charges — yes, there is such a thing as a nuclear satchel charge that one man can carry in a backpack) and 10,000 warheads stored in various bunkers around the country. I make that a total of 18,820 nukes. Schell's "32,000" includes other countries' nukes, I suppose.

Too many nukes? The President's advisers seem to think so. Richard Perle, former national security guru in the Reagan administration, told Newsweek: "The truth is we are never going to use them. The Russians aren't going to use theirs, either."

I beg to differ. 18,820 looks like about the right number to me, though I'd feel a little easier in my mind if we rounded it up to a neat 20,000. I don't see how you can ever have enough nukes. Nukes are very, very scary. A nation with 20,000 of them is a very, very scary nation. That's the kind of nation I want to live in, so long as it is under rational, constitutional government. While I strive to see both sides of every issue, and do my best to comprehend the concerns and point of view even of writers in The Nation, I am baffled to know why anyone should object to "American military dominance … of the world." What would Jonathan Schell prefer: Iranian military dominance? North Korean military dominance? Chinese military dominance? What he really has in mind, of course, is none of these things, but a world in which nobody is militarily dominant. That's a lovely idea, but, as Schell more or less concedes at the end of his piece, is not going to happen. As for "not just one but many arms races," well, as someone said in a different context, we'll just have to win, won't we? As we have won all previous arms races … while simultaneously creating the greatest, freest economy the world has ever seen.

"The truth is we are never going to use them. The Russians aren't going to use theirs, either." Look: we don't need 20,000 nukes because we intend to use them, any more than the stickleback fish lays 250 eggs at a time because she is really, really fond of kids. Popular nightmares (and mine) notwithstanding, most nuclear weapons are not targeted on cities, but on other nuclear weapons: on silos, air bases, and so on. The main object of a nuclear attack is not to destroy the other guy's civilization; it is to destroy his nukes. This has been true for 30 years, since ICBMs and cruise missiles became sufficiently accurate to make it possible. The point of having 20,000 nukes is that if 95 per cent of them were to be destroyed in a surprise attack, you still have 1,000 left … making that surprise attack pointless. "I see no reason why we can't go well below 1,000 warheads," Richard Perle told Newsweek. But then a 95 per cent incapacitating attack would leave you with less than 50 usable weapons. Fifty nukes may still seem pretty scary to you, but it is not clear that they would deter a lunatic like Mao Tse-tung, who was in charge of China just 25 years ago, whose portrait still looks down over Tiananmen Square, and who boasted to Nikita Khrushchev that China could lose a hundred million people without noticing.

As for "The Russians aren't going to use theirs, either" — well, how does Mr. Perle know that? Russia is profoundly unstable, and not even her own leaders know what she might or might not do five, ten or fifty years from now. Implicit here is the "end of history" frame of mind. The mad despotisms of the 20th century — Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism — are all in the past, according to this way of thinking, and nothing like them will return to trouble our hedonistic dreams, ever again. Markets have won, liberal democracy is the wave of the future, what everybody all over the world wants is just to get a job trading financial futures, chatter on a cell phone and dance to Madonna records. Excuse my irritation, but what a heap of dog crap. It's not as if this kind of wishful thinking is anything new. Anyone remember the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which actually outlawed war altogether? That was in, let's see, oh yes: 1928.

Here's how I feel about the matter. This nation is the vanguard of civilized values in the world. She must prevail in any conceivable conflict. She must, in fact, keep a military profile so large and forbidding that no other nation will even think of attacking us. When, in 1996, Chinese General Xiong Guangkai threatened to nuke Los Angeles if the U.S. interfered with a Chinese assault on Taiwan, I wish someone in the administration had said out loud and clear that any such attack on a U.S. city would, swiftly and infallibly, bring about the annihilation of China. Threats like General Xiong's, threats by barbarian powers against the U.S., should be welcomed by our governments as an opportunity to state unambiguously what will happen to any nation that is damn fool enough to carry out such threats. Then, no nation will do so. It's called "nuclear deterrence," and it worked for forty years.

The human race has nuclear war in its future, I have no doubt of it. The awful, decisive power of that weapon will prove irresistible to some madman sooner or later. Human beings now alive will see that dreadful flash. Some despot somewhere will spot an opportunity to assert himself, and vanquish his hated enemies, with a well-placed atom bomb or two. I don't know where this will happen. In the Middle East, quite possibly; or in south Asia, where India and Pakistan now both have nuclear devices to play with; or possibly somewhere unexpected like Africa or the Caucasus. My own private guess is that the next use of nuclear weapons in anger will be in a Chinese civil war. It is, after all, Madame Chiang Kai-shek who owns the sorry distinction of having been the first person of importance in any nation to call for the use of nuclear weapons against her own countrymen. (She asked Truman to nuke the Maoists in 1950.) Whatever: we have very little control over what India does to Pakistan, or what the Chinese do to each other. What we can do is make a nuclear attack on the U.S.A. an extremely unattractive option for anyone at all. The way to do that is to have nukes coming out of our ears.

If Saddam Hussein has an atom bomb, we should have a hundred. If China has a hundred, we should have ten thousand. If Russia has ten thousand, we should have a million. Nukes, nukes, nukes — you can never have enough of them.

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* AVENGER. It's "a," followed by "V" (for "five") followed by an anagram ("turn …" gives the hint) of "green." New York Times readers, never mind: this stuff is too difficult for your poor brains, addled as they are by decades of reading Anthony Lewis's columns.