Nuclear Weapons Are Most Dangerous to Their Possessors
William E. Colby, 1984
During a career notable for its diversity, William E. Colby has been active in military service, the practice of law and government service, ranging from being an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board to the Directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. For his military service in World War II he received the American Silver Star and Norway's St. Olaf's Medal. For his government service Mr. Colby received the National Security Medal, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, and the State Department's Distinguished Honor Award.
Whiteley: At the end of World War II you characterized the position of the United States as dominant in the world, and with the security that comes from being dominant. How safe are we now?
Colby: Well, we share a world in which the Soviets and ourselves can destroy each other. We share a world in which revolutionary groups, zealots and demagogues, can destroy our relationships with substantial parts of the globe. We see in Iran a totally irrational leadership declaring us as the great Satan that threatens all of existence. The situation in Iran certainly today is worse off than it was. And our relationships are worse off. It's a very dangerous kind of a world in that respect. Now that hardly existed in the late 40s, that kind of a prospect. Then we were decolonializing the major colonial empires, giving people an opportunity to become independent, sovereign, on their own, and that was mostly working quite well.
Whiteley: In the decades since World War II there has been a substantial increase in military spending. What occurs when one side makes a major investment?
Colby: The other side matches it. We've seen that all the way through the recent history. Those people who say 'ah, we have achieved a critical advantage by a certain weapon', first the nuclear weapon, then the thermo nuclear weapon, then the missiles, then the so-called multiple independently-targeted vehicle (MIRV's). Now we're talking about this wonderful cruise missile of ours that is a fantastic device, there's no doubt about it. But each one of these, up-to-date, has been matched by the Soviets, and I can guarantee you that the Soviets will develop a cruise missile fleet of their own, and we'll just have to be facing a greater level of danger in the years ahead.
Whiteley: How do you break that cycle? How does civilization intervene in what it's doing to itself?
Colby: Well, I think there are two ways. I think one way is for a responsible leader to just reach out and say 'stop, let's break through this.' I think Jack Kennedy had those feelings; I think Richard Nixon had those feelings, that the only way to stop this madness is somehow to get a mutual arrangement with the other side that you just begin to reduce this crazy arms race. The other way, in the absence of that kind of dynamic leadership, is for the people to take responsibility, to press their government to move in that direction. I think that's what you're seeing with the mutual and verifiable freeze movement. The demand by the ordinary citizen who, up till today, really left the whole problem of nuclear weapons to the experts. They were much too complicated, they were much too awesome, the ideal of negotiating about them had so many trade-offs that - even the terminology was almost un-understandable.
But today the - I think the ordinary citizen in America and Europe and even to a degree, a very limited degree, in the Soviet Union, because they don't have the kind of public opinion that we do. But in the free countries, and in the less developed world, they are saying look, these things are really very dangerous. We have to get a stop to this mad piling of these weapons up. The amount of money wasted on military weapons in the world is astronomical; the degree to which this takes capital from the growth of the developing world is fantastic. It's the developing countries that are spending a great deal of money on weapons, where they should be spending it on industries and agriculture, and light industry, and services, and things of that nature.
Whiteley: In your view, if one nation reaches out to another and both begin to work in some effective way toward breaking the cycle, can the Russians be trusted to honor their agreements?
Colby: The experience with the Russians is they certainly cannot be trusted to honor what I call 'sweetness and light' agreements, generalized statements that we are against war, we're for disarmament. That really won't amount to much. But in the experience of carefully negotiated treaties, very specific ones, with specific arrangements for sanctions, for verification, for action to be taken in case of suspicion, then generally they have complied. There have been some few steps over the edge with respect to the nuclear weapons after SALT I. But we've had the vehicle with which to stop it, and to call it, and insist that there be a change in the action. I think that in that sense, I do not believe that we should trust the Russians. But I do believe that we have the intelligence machinery today to enable us to know whether they will be complying with a treaty or not. And if they begin not to comply with it, then to catch them in a very early stage and begin to talk with them as to whether they're really going to come back into compliance, or whether all bets are off, and we are also free of compliance in such a situation. Now that's the worst alternative, and we have seen on the SALT I experience a number of occasions where we caught the Soviets stepping over the edge, called them on it, and they've pulled back. Now I think this is the function of intelligence today, and this is the way you should negotiate and deal with a power as dangerous as this.
Whiteley: With your experience and perspective, can the Russians cheat enough with our capacity for verification to make a difference?
Colby: No. I think this is quite obvious, you look at today. The first thing to realize is that we're going to follow Soviet weapons systems whether there is ever an agreement between us or not, because we have to. The second thing is we do a very good job of it. All you have to do is look at the reports out of the Defense Department which describe in excruciating details all kinds of Russian weapons, the numbers, the character, the quality, the capabilities - not just the big nuclear ones but things like tanks, pieces of artillery, things like that. All those things could - are theoretically concealable on an individual item, but we have very good estimates of the total numbers of tanks, of pieces of artillery, and all the rest of it, enough to do our planning so that we can plan for the actions that we need to face that kind of a problem. Now, the third thing is that in a treaty, that whole process becomes easier rather than more difficult because these treaties have little provisions in them which facilitate the other side monitoring whether you are complying or not.
And lastly, the question is if you find some new development in the Soviet Union today, and you ask them about it, they will probably tell you it's none of your business. But with a treaty it is some of your business, and they have to admit it, and they have responded in the ways that I've indicated. So the answer is, can you absolutely say that there's no chance that the Soviets would ever cheat even in a millimeter size, and the answer is no. Also, the answer is it wouldn't make any difference. With the number of weapons we have today on both sides, an additional few would have absolutely no significance and, indeed, our national security is better achieved by getting the Soviets essentially to reduce, and stop building these new weapons, with even a marginal possibility of violation, than by continuing to pile up the hundreds and hundreds that are planned now.
Whiteley: In your view would the national security of the United States have been enhanced if there had been a treaty against multiple re-entry warheads?
Colby: Absolutely. Clearly one of the most dangerous problems we have today is the Soviet multiple re-entry warheads. We had a chance, possibly, to conclude that in SALT I. We skipped it. We were way ahead; why should we limit ourselves on something we had when they didn't have it, they weren't up to us. So we left it out. Now, it's our most serious problem. Comparably, the cruise missile today, we're way ahead. So why should we limit the cruise missiles. Well, in the end of this decade, I guarantee you we're going to have a serious national debate, the Pentagon is already thinking about, it according to the press statements, about the need for a massive air defense system to protect us against Soviet cruise missiles. It's inevitable it will happen. When Mr. Kennedy had the idea of the limited test ban there was a consideration as to whether we might have a comprehensive test ban in 1963. A comprehensive test ban; no more testing of nuclear weapons. If we had adopted that at that time, we wouldn't have our present generation of weapons on either side. We would have held the nuclear weapon at the level of development it had achieved in 1963, which was a marginal level, it was a dangerous level, but we wouldn't be faced with the thousands of them we have today.
In 1946, Bernard Baruch had a plan and submitted it to the United Nations that would have said that we are going to get rid of our nuclear weapons, and no other country would ever have nuclear weapons. The world would be free of them. That plan collapsed because we couldn't trust the Russians, and we didn't have good intelligence then. And when Stalin said no, you cannot have inspections into our country to insure that we are complying, because that would be a form of American espionage into our internal affairs, the idea collapsed.
But the test ban idea in 1963 of Mr. Kennedy's said that we could solve that problem by seven inspection visits a year. The Russians were ready to give us three inspection visits a year, and on the difference between those two numbers, we have the present nuclear arsenals. Now today we don't need those visits to that degree. We may need them in some respect. The Soviets have again indicated they're prepared for inspection visits. I'm not a great believer in the inspection visit as the be-all and end-all, because after all, the Soviets invented - the Russians invented the Potemkin village, and I'm sure they could pull the wool over a few inspection teams on us. But with the concept of central intelligence gathering all the information and all the hints, all the sources of information, and the technology, the satellites, the electronics, and all the rest of it, I'm convinced that we are at a stage where we could monitor this kind of a stop, and we could stop, and then we wouldn't have the next generation of these terrible weapons.
Whiteley: We just talked about the lost opportunity with past generations of choices. Let me give you several choices that are coming up and ask for your thinking on them. One topical item now, here, is the Treaty on Anti-Satellite Weapons. But in a sense it's really a precursor of other choices down the line where new generations of weapons that will be very expensive will continue to be the product of a very burgeoning technological capacity for innovation. What is your thinking about that treaty - the pros and cons?
Colby: Well, the Anti-Satellite Treaty, I think we should suspend tests on right now. The argument is the Soviets have tested one; yes, they did - a low-orbit one some years ago which had an effectiveness of about 50% minimum. Now obviously at a low orbit, since we and the Soviets have put two satellites together. It's really not very hard to put two satellites - one of your satellites up next to one of his and blow it up. So it's not that complicated, but they stopped further testing a while ago. We said that we are going to test one which is going up to middle orbits. If we do, they will go up to middle orbits, they'll steal the secrets from us in some fashion, or they'll put themselves to work on it and do the same thing. Here's a chance to stop this kind of a weapon system today. But our position is, "oh no, we're going to have to test because we've got to catch up to them", when what we're catching up to is very marginal.
The Soviets are very deeply concerned about the President's Star Wars idea, because they have great respect for American technology. They know that if the Americans decided to put a man on the moon in a decade, the 1960s, by golly at the end of the 60s there he was right up there on the moon. And they're sure that it may be twenty years, it may be thirty years away, if the Americans go in for a massive Star Wars program, sooner or later we'll get it. And they'll have to put all the effort involved into developing a comparable system, one that contests it, and counters it, and all the rest of it.
Whiteley: Do you think defense is possible in the nuclear age?
Colby: Well, it is not really feasible to say what the President proposes, which is to bar any nuclear weapon from hitting our soil. If the Soviets launch a thousand missiles aimed at our country, and we have a magnificent defense device, it may be 95% effective. Now, if you do the arithmetic, that means 50 nuclear weapons land on America. The 950 don't, but they can do an awful lot of damage with 50, with even one or two for that matter. No, I think the deterrence is where we've rested to-date, and as I said, the problem is that the deterrence is getting increasingly fragile, because of the nature of the technology and the kinds of weapons that are being developed. So, essentially, defense against them, no; elimination of them, yes.
Whiteley: Do you think an anti-ballistic missile treaty at this point would be de stabilizing?
Colby: Well, we have one and I think we should keep it. It was a remarkable achievement that Mr. Nixon achieved. That agreement to - for both countries - not to develop nationwide anti-ballistic missile systems. To leave themselves exposed to the other. The fact was that - this wasn't just all that brilliant a thought - I mean the idea was if we developed one they would develop one. We'd be mutually deterring each other again, with both of us more frightened that the other side might be effective, and thereby he might be tempted to launch a strike against us. And we would have spent something in the order of a hundred billion dollars to produce something that wouldn't have been effective. Now we have exactly the same problem that we're facing for the future. With the Star Wars concept we could produce billions and billions of dollars - some say 25 trillion dollars or something - to produce the Star Wars system. And it really wouldn't be effective.
Whiteley: And would it ultimately abrogate the very treaty you were just talking about?
Colby: Certainly, because the treaty says that we will not develop a defense against nuclear weapons. Inherently it violates that treaty, and would have to supplant it.
Whiteley: One of the shifts in public opinion in the United States in the last decades has been in favor of a bi-lateral nuclear freeze. Would one make any difference if there was one?
Colby: I think so indeed. I think there are a number of weapons on the drawing boards in this country, a number of weapons on the drawing board in that country (the Soviet Union), which would be stopped by that kind of a freeze. On our side we would stop the MX, which is I think a marginal weapon, not of any value really, and just plain dangerous. We would stop the B1 bomber, we would stop the D5 missile, the submarine-launched missile. On the Soviet side, they would stop the development of a number of new weapons on their side: the SS24, there's greater accuracy in their submarine-launched weapons, more airborne weapons, the cruise missiles on both sides would be stopped. It certainly would stop the development of just piling up more weapons on each side. The problem is not just a waste; the problem is more complicated than that. The new weapons are more dangerous to the possessors; much more dangerous. And that's why I think it's essential that we stop this mad race in these things. The race is unwinnable. You cannot win it because whatever you do, he counters. The weapons are unusable, unilateral restraint won't solve anything, and the world we're headed toward is unlivable, resting on a fragile suspicion base which must be responded to in matters of moments if we see the wrong signals.
Whiteley: You've applied this line of thinking to the MX missile. Why do you not feel that that will really strengthen the national security of the United States?
Colby: Well, the MX missile is really a weapon which has no value at all. It's a weapon which is non-defensible. We've been looking for a way to base it for the last ten years, gone through a hundred odd different ideas, and none of them works. So we're going to put it in some holes which we decided a long time ago would not be an adequate protection for it. It's a weapon which has no great advantage over our present weapon systems in terms of the targeting. It's bigger than our present ones, but when we built our present ones we looked at the quota, whether we should build big ones or not. We decided - our general staff decided - no, we need small accurate ones, so we built small accurate ones. The Soviets went and built a lot of big ones, and so suddenly we say, well, we need big ones because they have big ones. Not because we need them, but because they have them. It's a kind of an adolescent reaction. He has a bigger baseball bat so I need a bigger baseball bat.
Whiteley: What about the argument that it shows national will...
Colby: Well, that's the only justification put up for it by the Scowcroft Commission that looked into the MX. They said the thing isn't really useful, it's dangerous and not very valuable. But they said we should build it to show national will and determination. I think there are lots of better ways to show national will and determination than building useless weapons and dangerous weapons. That doesn't show much wisdom. It may show will and determination, but I'd rather show some wisdom with it.
Whiteley: What for you would be actions that would show wisdom?
Colby: Well, reaching across to the Soviets and indicating that we perceive their fears and their concerns, and insist that they understand our fears and our concerns. And negotiate with them, not from a point of view of one-upping them, but from a point of view of seeking out a relationship that will be beneficial to both sides, will save both sides useless and even dangerous activity.
Whiteley: What process to you is viable? We've negotiated three treaties in the last two decades that have been signed by both presidents, and then not ratified by our Senate, including SALT II.
Colby: Well, here I think you have got your finger on the question that you asked earlier. How do you accomplish this? And I said either by a particularly brilliant leader, or by pressure from the base, from the population as a whole. And I think at the moment we really have to have our own negotiating proposals looked at. President Reagan said that he didn't realize that his initial negotiating proposal would have required the Soviets to eliminate something like three-quarters of their land-based system. That wouldn't have affected ours much at all. Now, if our leader doesn't realize what the impact of his proposal on the other side is, you don't have a negotiation. You've got to think it out, and work up a negotiation that does recognize the concerns of the other side. So that's the first thing is to develop a proper negotiating position. They've certainly told us what they're concerned about. They're concerned about the anti-satellite, they're concerned about the Star Wars, they're concerned about the MX, they're concerned about the D5, they're concerned about the cruise missile. They have a big thing about the cruise missile.
Now all of those are in their concerns, and what are our concerns? We're concerned about some of their new ones, we're concerned about some of their tactical level ones, the intermediate ones in Europe - the SS20. Now those are concerns on our side. Now I think out of that realization of what concerns each side, one can construct negotiations which give a reasonable doubt. This doesn't mean that they will immediately accept it; they're very tough, hard bargainers. And sometimes their bargaining is very negativist and really not seeking a solution. But then as in any contract negotiation that we all go through even when we buy a used car, or whatever, you then give a little to get him to come towards you. And that's the nature of the negotiation we're endowed to, there's nothing very unique or mysterious about it. We're just trying to make a deal with the other fellow, and he's a used car salesman and you're a rather simple open society, and you've got to watch that you don't get euchred by it, but there are ways in which you can buy used cars and drive away quite happily.
Whiteley: Your assessment is that with our new national means of verification, that arms control treaties can be a viable way for increasing the security of the United States.
Colby: Yes. The intelligence business is the mechanic that investigates your used car and sees whether it's any good or not before you buy it. We investigated after we bought it to make sure that it stays good.
Whiteley: The second way that you've indicated that wisdom can be shown is bringing about needed social and economic change in countries that are at risk around the world.
Colby: That doesn't really deal quite so much with the Soviet problem; it deals with the other problem of our national security. Now we receive millions of people in this country every year as refugees, as migrants, and so forth. Now we're not going to solve that by putting up barriers at our borders. The way we're going to solve that is to get the economies of some of those countries, and particularly those in the lands to the south of us, booming so that they have jobs and hope there, and don't have to come here to seek their livelihood. Now, that I think is a move toward our national security. It's the security of our communities, our urban cities, it's the security of our relationship between our citizens here not to have a whole new wave of outsiders coming in, and then have to be absorbed, and all the rest of it.
Whiteley: At one time in your service to the country you had the occasion to tell President Brezhnev of the Soviet Union that the more we know about each other the safer we will be. What were you hoping he would understand from that?
Colby: Well, I was hoping that he would understand that that is the real function of intelligence today, to clarify on both sides, misunderstanding. Now, I wish I could have said that he agreed with me but he turned and passed along. That's a very big jump for Soviets, to open themselves up. They're fearful of it. They've been invaded a few times, they're fearful - they're in awe of American society and the way it works and the enormous productivity. And they're just afraid that there is enough negative attitude toward the Soviets here that it would be dangerous for them to open themselves entirely. But they are opening. They are being forced to open by the march of technology, by the satellites, by the way transportation and communication works nowadays. They can't run a totally pre-Meiji Japan society, closing off the rest of the world.
They are becoming more open and they've made some steps in this direction. Really quite exceptional steps for Soviets, of announcing their number of nuclear missiles, telling us how many. For a long time they wouldn't admit it. They knew we knew, but they didn't want to say so. Because if they said so they had to tell their own people as well, so they went through this myth that these things were secrets when they really weren't. We knew all about them. But now they've made that minor step of opening slightly. You're dealing with a very reluctant empire trying to open itself and adjust to the modern world. But when the students on the streets of Moscow will pay $100 to $150 for a pair of jeans, you know that something is going on - that opening, that yearning for contact with the real world out here does exist, it's still very limited, still very controlled, but it's an inevitable process.
Whiteley: Mr. Colby, Thank you for sharing with us today your insights to the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.