Why the U.S. Still Needs Nuclear Weapons Superiority


The Wall Street Journal
August 22, 2013

I saw firsthand what happened when the Allies thought the Soviets had the strategic advantage.

In a speech in June at Berlin’s Bradenburg Gate, President Obama reiterated a vision he has championed since he was an undergraduate: a world without nuclear weapons. “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” the president said, outlining a proposal to reduce U.S. nuclear forces by up to one-third, to about 1,000 deployed strategic warheads. Ideally, the Russians would similarly reduce their stockpile. But Mr. Obama didn’t rule out a unilateral U.S. reduction.

Could the U.S. afford to reduce its warheads to 1,000 without jeopardizing its security? U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton doesn’t think so. In congressional testimony on the 2010 New Start Treaty, he stated that 1,550 warheads—the number the U.S. and Russia mutually agreed upon—was the lowest the U.S. could go.

Others argue that the number of warheads the U.S. has is irrelevant, since it is unimaginable that any would be used. As a Foreign Service officer stationed in West Germany during the Cold War, I sometimes thought the same thing. Since a mutual nuclear exchange could have devastated both the Soviet Union and the U.S., a strike seemed unimaginable.

It wasn’t until the Geneva Foreign Ministers Conference in 1959 that I discovered the real reason the U.S. must maintain superiority in its strategic nuclear weapons.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite. This was a game-changer because it meant the Soviets had a rocket that could easily be converted to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the U.S. Overnight, Sputnik gave Americans a national inferiority complex. (It also resulted in a major campaign to promote science and math in our schools.)

Sputnik’s success so emboldened Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that he sent notes on Nov. 27, 1957, to the three Allies involved with Germany—the U.S., Great Britain and France—demanding dramatic changes in Berlin’s status. Specifically, he demanded that the Allies end their occupation of Berlin and that they sever their ties with West Germany, leaving the whole city open to East German control.

Soviet moves against West Berlin long posed the greatest potential for turning the Cold War into a hot one. In response to Khrushchev’s demands, the shaken Allies proposed to the Soviets that they meet in Geneva to address Berlin’s status. The conference began on May 11, 1959.

During the negotiations, the Western side came up with a compromise version of the Soviets’ proposal. Among other things, the compromise proposal posed a threat to access to Berlin; restricted Allied activities, such as radio broadcasts, in West Berlin; and generally undermined the Allies’ position and legal basis in the city. Though it was set to expire after five years, it would have dangerously weakened the West.

I asked one of the most senior members of the U.S. delegation, of which I was a member, why we were prepared to make these dangerous concessions. He told me that we were negotiating from a position of weakness because of the “missile gap” created by Soviet possession of ICBMs, which we did not have. The reason for the five-year limit on our proposal, he said, was because the U.S. estimated that it would take us five years to close this gap.

This was the moment when I first realized that strategic nuclear weapons are the “blue chips” in poker games of serious diplomacy.

Fortunately the Soviets didn’t take up the Allies’ weak offer. President Eisenhower had invited Khrushchev to the U.S., and the Soviet leader believed he could cut an even better deal with him. When the Soviet leader came to the U.S. in September 1959, he confirmed through Eisenhower’s public statements that the president’s position on Berlin was weak and could be exploited at a summit conference the following year, scheduled for May 14, 1960, in Paris.

But by mid-January 1960, the U.S. intelligence community—based mostly on U-2 flights over the U.S.S.R.—discovered that the Soviets were not producing the ICBMs they were capable of producing. There was not much of a missile gap, and no deterrent gap.

Once the U.S. realized this, its position on Berlin shifted dramatically. America strongly defended the status quo in public statements by top U.S. officials. This change confirmed what I had realized in Geneva. When this newly toughened position was also publicly confirmed by Eisenhower on Apr. 27, 1960, Khrushchev must have realized that he would come home from the Paris conference empty-handed.

Then, on May 1, 1960, an American U-2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. This gave Khrushchev a pretext for blowing up the conference once everyone had assembled in Paris. He had clearly decided to wait to see what he could get from the next U.S. president, who would be elected in November.

Khrushchev subsequently repeated his Berlin threat to President Kennedy in a disastrous summit meeting in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961. The president’s response to this threat was no doubt regarded by Khrushchev as weak. Kennedy was visibly shaken by the experience.

Though times and players have changed significantly, I believe it is still imperative that the U.S. maintain any “blue chip” advantage it might have. We should continue, as we have so far, to heed the declaration President Kennedy made in Berlin 50 years ago: America should maintain a nuclear capability “second to none.” Reducing our warheads to dangerously low levels—or unilaterally disarming—would be foolish.

Dr. Stearman, the author of “An American Adventure” (Naval Institute Press, 2012), served on the National Security Council staff from 1971-1976 and 1981-1993.



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