THE CONSENSUS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND THE SOVIET UNION
Michael M. May, 1985
Michael M. May is associate director-at-large of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with special responsibility for long-range programmatic planning. His work has centered on the United States nuclear weapons program. During the six years he was director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the Poseidon and other nuclear warheads were designed.
Whiteley: Dr. May, you've indicated that both the Soviet Union and the United States have some fundamental areas of tacit agreement on how to govern their approach to nuclear weapons. The first you singled out was to have enough weapons to essentially destroy the other side.
May: Yes, that's true. There is, I think at the practical level, a great similarity between the approaches of the two countries to the specific problems of what to do about the existence of nuclear weapons and the fact that there is no overall political authority that could prevent war. And one of the major common facets to the two approaches is that both sides have nuclear weapons, and have them in sufficient numbers so that even after taking a first-strike they can lay waste the other side. They have in fact more than they need for that purpose. They can also pretty much destroy the other side's warmaking capability, that takes somewhat more weapons than to just destroy cities. But they had that number, and again too many, more than enough. The U.S., wittingly or not, went into that posture and the Soviet Union followed suit, and they're both in that situation now.
Whiteley: You indicated that both sides do not seem to expect nuclear war as an outcome of their foreign policies.
May: Right. I think that's true. I think that's an important difference between today's world and the world before World War I or World War II, or anytime earlier. World War I was widely expected and the competition between nations at that time led most statesmen to think that sooner or later there would be a war. Not all, you know; there were some famous books pointing out war would be impossible, and so on. But to many it was a matter of time. It was not something desirable; it was something which they expected as a likely possible event. Certainly something they could contemplate. And World War II was far more of a dreaded event beforehand. I grew up at a time that it was anticipated and eventually broke. But still and all people expected something like that to happen. They dreaded it, they didn't want it, except for Hitler and his followers, but they expected it. It was within the realm of a politically possible outcome in the minds of governments.
I think now there's a very different set of expectations. I'm not saying that's enough to prevent war, but it's very different. I don't recall any time during - since World War II - I may be wrong on some instance, but certainly in the last twenty years - I don't recall any time when either the United States or the Soviet Union seemed to contemplate that where a war might indeed follow from this action of theirs, and it was an outcome of policy which they would contemplate, if not with equanimity, at least as a possible outcome.
Whiteley: You've indicated that each side proceeds with caution toward what they see as the other's vital interests.
May: Yes, well that's clearly so. Most of the time again you could make an argument that the Soviet build-up in Cuba wasn't like that, but on the other hand I feel it didn't expect how seriously we would take it. We've been cautious in Eastern Europe even though we don't like the situation; we deplore it. We've done nothing about the various Soviet measures of repression in Eastern Europe, and I think we continue to do nothing. I think that's the right policy. The Soviets have been cautious whenever we've indicated a strong interest. They've been cautious in the Middle East; both sides have. When the Iran government changed, when the revolution occurred there, the Soviets did not invade even though it was on their border; they've been quite cautious. Generally speaking, both governments have given the avoidance of a situation that might lead to war a high priority.
Whiteley: They've also avoided, as you've analyzed the situation, direct conflict with each other.
May: They have. That clearly - clearly this is a dangerous situation to be in, the Soviets in their literature pointed out, and both sides have avoided it.
Whiteley: Interestingly, you've observed that peace is the overriding goal as you see each country having toward the other.
May: Between them.
Whiteley: That seems to run certainly counter to the conventional wisdom of the years since detente deteriorated to a period of hostility and belligerence. What forces do you see operating?
May: Well, I think that there is this fundamental awareness on the two sides that a war between them would have as its principle result the likely destruction of both of them. Whether it would have global effects beyond that or not, is a matter of controversy and it's not really well known. But what's clear is that if there's a war between the Soviet Union and the United States, both of them are likely to wind up largely destroyed. Certainly no policy goals that any of them has, except survival, warrants such a war. I think that's well understood on both sides. I think it underlies their actions. They will pursue their interests as best they can in areas which don't involve vital threats to the other, and they do that, and of course there's a tricky set of judgments that have to be made, so there's no guarantee the judgments will always be made correctly, that is clear. I think it's very clear President Reagan and Cap Weinberger (Secretary of Defense) and others don't want war; they, rightly or not, they see some pretty strong military build-ups necessary to firm up what they see as the peace, but their intentions are clear. The intentions on the other side also are clear. Now this is a difference from the historical situation where people really did want and expect wars.
Whiteley: You've indicated that as you analyze the recent history of arms control that both sides seem willing to accept some verified arms control limitations at a relative parity.
People tend to evaluate success or failure of arms control by counting weapons. Have we gotten rid of any, are we at a lower level of weaponry than we use to be? And if not, then arms control is deemed to have failed.
May: Yes. I think what's happening in arms control in my mind is interesting and quite useful, and actually somewhat underrated by the people who try to evaluate the process. People tend to evaluate success or failure of arms control by counting weapons. Have we gotten rid of any, are we at a lower level of weaponry than we use to be? And if not, then arms control is deemed to have failed. But I think there's another way to judge arms control and that is it's something that two sides go into in order to avoid deployments, which are actually mistakes by their judgments, but which they might do them nevertheless if the other side indulged in it. For instance I look at the arms control agreement which have been successful and which no one is talking much about, but both sides have agreed to stay out of the Antarctic and of the sea bottoms, and of the moon. Well, it doesn't make sense to deploy weapon in these areas. But it's not at all clear that one side or the other might not have nevertheless tried something like that. And then the other side would have felt compelled to do the same thing and so they would have both made mistakes.
Another kind of mistake that they've avoided by arms control is, at least until now, and I think still now, is a build-up of yet more thousands of ballistic missiles. Now the interim agreement, for instance, that was signed in 1972 and was much maligned because it supposedly left us and the Soviet Union uneven and so on. It was a pretty good agreement. It reflected the realization by the two governments and their defense departments and their military, that they had enough so it didn't make any sense to get any more. Now anyone could have told them that, but it's one thing for any commonsensical person to realize that, and another for large bureaucracies which have to respond to other bureaucracies to also realize it. And so the interim agreement agreed we wouldn't get any more, and they wouldn't get any more, and we would freeze the total numerical levels partially - the bombers were not included then - even though the two deployments were widely different and still are. And SALT II, which I think was a significant improvement, and which I think was a good treaty, expanded this ceiling to all strategic weapons.
Again you could argue that they were ahead or we were ahead; both sides can argue that. I was in those discussions and both sides did argue that. The fact is both sides had essentially what they deemed was enough, and what I think is more than enough to feel secure. And they recognized jointly that this was the case and agreed not to build anymore beyond that. I think that's very valuable. I think, you know, the path to war is likely to be strewn with one or another set of mistakes. And there's one kind of mistakes that can be avoided by agreement. It would be much harder to avoid it unilaterally just because of the institutional incentives involved.
Whiteley: You've indicated that perhaps we have more weapons than are enough. A dominant hope in society is that we will have a world with fewer nuclear weapons. You've cautioned, in contrast to that apparent sentiment, that we're actually safer at this phase of our society by maintaining an arsenal with a considerable number of nuclear weapons in it. What is the reasoning behind that?
May: Yes. Well I don't pretend to know exactly what number of weapons would make us all safest, but I just want to - my reasoning just stems from the following observation: You're dealing fundamentally with two large human institutions and they are the two that have to have peace between them. The weapons themselves, of course you know, are inanimate, and it's not the weapon counts or the weapons that are going to cause war. It's one or the other or both of these two institutions, feeling somehow that a war, horrible as it might be, is necessary. It's hard to think of any reasoning that would lead to that conclusion. About the only reasoning I can think of is if you're threatened in some vital way by some incursion. Now, I just note that these two institutions, just judging their behaviors post-war, and in the case of the United States, judging the feeling and mood of the electorate and the Congress, are not going to feel secure without any weapons. At the same time they don't feel secure with an arms race, so since it's feelings of security we're talking about, it seems to me that in this century, this age we live in, both sides are going to feel most secure with some significant number of weapons, significant enough to deter the other side from any foolish action, to cause them to think before taking risks. And yet, with some agreement that doesn't lead either side to build up to where the build-up themselves would be causes of a insecurity. Now we're not in that situation yet. I mean I think we are partly there, but we have a ways to go. There are a number of areas where we could be threatening each other and where we could use some agreement. But I don't think that the zero nuclear weapons situation is one that would be considered secure given all the crises which could occur and all the differences and viewpoints.
Whiteley: Your fundamental point is that the United States must keep enough nuclear weapons in this period in our history to be able to mount a creditable deterrent, a second-strike, no matter what other people do.
May: Yes, I think that's my fundamental point and my reason for it is derived from the way the American electorate, government, and people seem to feel about things. You know it's not something which I cook up myself, but just looking at the situation.
Whiteley: Okay. As you assess actions that will lead to peace over the long-term, you've singled out a number of them. One is maintaining an adequate number of nuclear weapons to have an absolute strategic second-strike capability if we were attacked. A second is caution. What do you mean to apply caution to?
May: Everything. As I mentioned we have applied it when the Soviet Union took armed action against its neighbors, much to our distress that we had. We have to instill caution in them in any armed incursion against countries which we would feel very threatened if they attack. You know, not only Western Europe, but countries in this hemisphere. Those are obvious. Then I think in deployments in areas like space, I think we ought to talk to them about that. I think that we're beginning to. I think it's beginning to be recognized. I don't know, and I think no one knows at this stage of the game whether space deployments of one kind or another would be stabilizing or not. I just don't think that the data exists to make a good judgment. There's a lot of debate about strategic defenses and you can give good arguments on both sides. But I think what there is no debate about is that we can threaten each other in space, we have very important and somewhat fragile systems out there. We could improve the fragility and we could make them less fragile than we are now. It is essential that we discuss the matter and come to some sort of an agreement that is mutually satisfactory. It doesn't have to be ideal. It has to satisfy the defense departments and other bureaucratic elements involved.
Whiteley: Well that moves over into your third basic component of peace at this time in our society, which is arms control.
May: Right. Arms control is a part of caution. It's really a piece of being cautious. It means not letting the arms competition itself provide occasions for crises, just like you don't want to let Eastern Europe or Western Europe or Iran or the Middle East provide occasion for crises which cannot be dealt with.
Whiteley: Within some reasonable...
May: Yeah. Without threatening vital interests. Arms control means extending that caution to the deployment of weapons.
Whiteley: Okay. For you, arms control is an essential part of the national security of the United States. But the history of arms control is essentially a history of lost opportunities. Don't you believe the world would be safer if we did not have Multiple Independently-Targeted Reentry Vehicles?
May: You ask two questions - or you made a statement then asked a question, so let's pick up the statement. It's a history of some lost opportunities and some opportunities that were taken. I listed some agreements that were reached. And you're dealing with a group of people who are just like you and me, and very imperfect, and institutions which have strong biases and historical restrictions on them. So I think it's a matter of choice whether you decide to be critical or admiring about the record. Some things were done and some opportunities were missed, and the best thing to do is to learn from that and to try to pick up what's to be done next in a timely way, and I think to a degree people are doing that.
Whiteley: Do you think that the world would be safer today if we had had a treaty against Multiple Independently-Targeted Reentry Vehicles several decades ago?
May: Maybe, but not necessarily. And the reason is that if you analyze what makes anti-ballistic missile systems impractical, the main reason - not the sole reason - but the dominant reason, the thing that's most difficult for them to deal with are MIRVs. I was in on the early analyses of ABMs, I listened to them, I critiqued them, I watched them, and it was very clear early on that the ABM systems were largely infeasible because mainly of the possibility of MIRVs or the actuality of MIRVs, depending on when the analysis was made. If it weren't for that, if you had a MIRV ban, it might have been difficult to get an ABM ban. It wouldn't have been nearly so impractical a thing to do. So it's kind of your choice. Would you like to have a world without MIRVs and with ABMs? Many people would say yes. They would make a war somewhat less horrible, although I think it would be pretty horrible anyway. Others say, well it's safer the way we are. We've got a more invulnerable deterrent, something which will function in a second strike, even if most of our assets are destroyed. And I don't know how to decide between these two arguments; I don't think anyone else does either.
Whiteley: You want people to appreciate the complexity of the choices when these come around again. What issues have come by in the past that we need to learn from?
May: In the sense of missed opportunities, you mean? Well, I think that we had and still have an opportunity to conclude a SALT type agreement, START agreement, if you want to call it that. I thought SALT II was good and we missed the opportunity to ratify it. Now that was in part because of the Russian's actions in Afghanistan, but I thought it was a good treaty. I think the START negotiations, while they were on, were leading to potentially an even better treaty with a cut-back in weapons by a factor of two or something close to that. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had made excellent proposals and they just didn't mesh. But they would have meshed with more negotiations. I'm still hopeful we'll do that. I think the limitation on European Intermediate Range Forces which were being negotiated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, until about a little over a year ago, were leading to some good proposals, good arms control measures. The rumor is that it's hard to establish that Mr. Nitze, the principle American negotiator had tentative informal non-binding Soviet agreement to a proposal that would have cut back on their forces quite a bit to something like the level of the British and French forces of this type if we hadn't deployed the Pershing II. Well, I thought that was the basis for a good agreement and I think that something close to that where possibly we deploy a few Pershing IIs or possibly some other kind of weapon still would be possible and would help stabilize that situation. In the same sense that I said before where both sides understand a little better what the other side is doing, or it's going to do, there's some accepted limits, and so you diffuse that area as a potential source of tension. We have all the others to deal with but you diffuse that one.
Whiteley: If a comprehensive test ban treaty came along again as a viable alternative would that be in our interests?
May: Well, I don't think so. Now there I'm heavily influenced by my own background designing nuclear weapons. You have to take that into account. But my own judgment has been from the beginning that that was not a good arms control measure because if we have nuclear weapons in the stockpile we're going to have to change them for a variety of reasons. You change them because the missile changes, and the missile in turn changes because you find a different way to launch them, like mobile missiles, or you find something that is either more survivable or more economical. Once the missile changes, usually the warhead has to change also. You make some minor adjustment in sizes and you have to test it. You make a discovery like less sensitive high explosive which would not detonate in a plane crash, for instance. You want to incorporate that, you have to test the weapon. There are literally dozens of things you have to do to maintain your stockpile, even if you never increase it, even if you decrease it, which require testing. Now this is a technical view of the matter, and as I say, my background has been in part to design and oversee the testing of these things. And so of course I'm biased by my background. But for what it's worth, I don't think that's a good arms control measure.
Whiteley: You've indicated that a central dilemma of this period in our history is that we are going to continue to have nuclear weapons with us, that they for the time being are an important part of our national security. As you project ahead, what hopes do you have for a safer long-term human condition?
May: Well, this is something that I feel very inadequate to deal with but I'll give you my present thoughts on it, and they may change. As you say, I think nuclear weapons are here to stay for a long time, and if we didn't have them others would have. Many countries don't get them, like Germany and Japan, for instance, because they rely on U.S. deterrent. I think - so we have to go in some direction different from total disarmament to improve the situation, and I think that one direction we might go into is our revising the views that we have regarding empires and geographical expansion and sending troops abroad. And the Soviets have further to go in that line than we do, as a matter of fact, but we have some ways to go ourselves. I think it's interesting that if you look at ultimate security in the nuclear age it does not really depend on whether you have forces stationed abroad or not, in most cases. And it doesn't really depend on whether you control some land areas abroad or not. And neither does your prosperity depend on these things. In a modern world prosperous countries like Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, and others have not many natural resources and not much land, and the wealth of the modern world comes from the value added by human labor, so that the old fashioned concepts about wealth being derived from an empire, or security being derived from an empire, I think have less reasons, less validity than they had. They still have some, but less. So I think that for the long term, and this is perhaps a little bit idealistic, but I think it's not; I think it's realistic.
For the long term, the way to greater security, and certainly for the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or any modern country is start with agreed withdrawals from regions of the world where we might now be and find ourselves in contention. Now, in a way we began to do that through arms control. We're not stationing weapons in the Antarctic and places like that. Those are very remote areas. I think we could find other places without talking about Europe, which probably would be the last place where we both want to withdraw. Europe is pretty sensitive. But some parts of the Middle East, Africa, the Indian peninsula, those are places where we are not now in force and where we could have some agreement not to be - the Indian Ocean perhaps. I think that these are small steps perhaps, but they go in the direction which I think we ought to go into to have a safer and more civilized world, namely where there is little or no projection of force abroad. As I say, that sounds idealistic and when I made this point in giving a talk on this in Moscow, I was told that was fine but it was idealistic. But at the same time if you ask for a direction for long-term improvement, I think that probably is the direction.
Whiteley: There will continue to be a number of decisions confronting our country with respect to its national security coming up in the years ahead while we struggle toward whatever the idealistic solution that gives a lessened risk of nuclear war and a framework for a more enduring peace. I'd like to give you some of those issues before the country, and ask you to share how people ought to think about them. The first is the MX missile.
May: Well, the MX missile is, despite its long history on the front pages, and despite the fact I spent several of the better years of my life worrying about how to deploy, is not a very important issue. We are talking about, I think the latest count is 50 or so missiles, a small fraction of our ICBM force, and smaller fraction of theirs. In my view it's not a particularly good choice of a missile. I think it's too big, I think it was chosen in part because the Soviets had big missiles and we wanted some. I think that's a poor line of reasoning, but replacing some of the Minutemen by MX is not going to change the balance of power. It's not the best thing I can think of to do with the taxpayer's money, and I testified against the MX because I thought it was too large. But it's not a big deal. It doesn't particularly scare the Soviets. They have hundreds of missiles that large and larger. They perfectly well understand our doing this even though they complained about it. So in the last analysis, I think the MX is something that has had more than its share of attention; it's not that important as a driving issue.
Whiteley: What about the development of anti-satellite weapons?
May: Now that is an important issue, and that is something that we ought to discuss with the Soviet Union. My present feelings, which could change depending on what I might learn in the coming years, is that neither side needs anti-satellite weapons, and that would be a good area for mutual restraint. It's a complicated argument. On balance, looking at overall capabilities on both sides, I would argue that some sort of ASAT ban, and you have to be careful as to what you put in in an ASAT ban because it has to be very viable, but some sort of ASAT ban would be in the interest of both countries. And that is an issue with leverage, as I mentioned. We're both concerned about our space assets.
Whiteley: There's a substantial sentiment in this country for bilateral-lateral nuclear freeze. What issues would you have your fellow citizens think about in deciding how to vote on proposals such as that?
May: Well, I would have people ask for a specific description of the nuclear freeze. There are many nuclear freezes around and the words tend to be a little too general to be really very useful. If we're talking about freezing the numbers of weapons or weapons systems in a verifiable way, I think that's a good thing and I think in fact we should go beyond that and cut them down. And really the SALT type agreements were aimed at that. They didn't aim at the weapons themselves because they're too small, but they aimed at the delivery capabilities which is equivalent. So if you're talking about freezing numbers, reducing numbers, I think that's necessary, useful. If you're talking about freezing the actual objects, you take this particular thing that's there now in the stockpile, and you're not going to change it. That's not workable. It's going to deteriorate. It's going to change. It's got chemicals in it which are going to change. It's got radioactive materials. You're going to have to replace it. Now if you replace it with an exact carbon copy, even though you have the possibility of making it safer for instance, that's just silly. I mean that doesn't serve anybody's goal.
So if the freeze means leave the things as they are - first, that's not really very viable, and second, that doesn't serve to make both sides feel more secure, which is the end purpose of this whole exercise. On the other hand, if the freeze means freeze the numbers, don't add to them, cut it back, that's fine. I'd be for that.
Whiteley: You've talked to the notion in a nuclear age of having both Superpowers feel more secure. As you project ahead what actions would you like to see so that there will be greater security to go with the caution you've already urged in the use of nuclear weapons.
May: Well besides caution in arms control, I think that's not so much an action - the best evolution that takes place is one in the direction of realizing that the Soviet Union is not a monolithic enemy over there, but it's a pretty complex entity of its own, with its own drives, blind spots, imperatives, it's own problems. Dealing with them is dangerous just like they're dealing with us is dangerous, and that would have been the case that was foreseen a century ago, it would have happened communism or no communism, just because we're the two big ones. And the continuing improvement in realizing the human dimension of the two sides and of the two institutions in a realistic way, two bureaucracies, is the best hope for peace. War would serve absolutely no one's purpose, it would solve no problem, it would leave both sides worse off. It wouldn't solve even the problems that might have led to that war. Both sides know that. The only good thing perhaps nuclear weapons have done is to have made that lesson absolutely obvious so that no one could overlook it. And the best hope for peace is that getting away from the feeling that because they are different, because they have different ideals, different ways of reaching those ideals, we need not necessarily fear them for that. And that applies to the Soviet Union and it applies to the Chinese, it applies to the Japanese, it applies to everybody else.
Whiteley: Dr. May, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the role of nuclear weapons in the modern era and your thoughts on the way to a safer world.