The True Problem: Mankind against War
Herbert Scoville, Jr., 1984
Herbert Scoville, Jr. is president of the Arms Control Association and former deputy director for research of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of MX: Prescription for Disaster, and Toward a Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Mr.. Scoville, you began a recent book with a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower to the effect that the true security problem is not man against man, or nation against nation, but man against war. What were you trying to share?
Scoville: Well, the reason I did that is that I feel very strongly that the biggest danger that faces mankind is a nuclear war, and that what we must do is to avoid the outbreak of a nuclear war at all cost. Because that would be such a catastrophe for mankind, for all of us, that we must do everything we can to make it less likely that it will occur.
Whiteley: You followed that up with a quote from Bernard Brodie, who, in 1946, as one of the early nuclear strategists, said that the previous role of the military was to win wars. That the role from now on was to avert war.
Scoville: Well that's essentially the same thesis. I think it was pretty foreseeing on Brodie's part, as early as 1946, to see that from now on war was something that could only lead to the destruction of our civilization, and therefore we must avoid it all cost.
Whiteley: In that context, what do you see to be the central components of the national security of the United States?
Scoville: Well, I think we have no greater security objective than to avoid the outbreak of a nuclear war, and we should gear our security policies to make that less likely. Because no matter what happens on either side, we now - both we and the Soviet Union - have such large nuclear forces that we can wreack devastation on the other country, and eventually it may turn out to be on the whole world as well, if we ever start throwing these weapons at each other. So we must - our security objective must be to avoid the use of nuclear weapons on the part of either the Soviet Union or the United States.
Whiteley: What parts of our posture, defensively, contribute to that most effectively in your view?
Scoville: Well, what we need to have is strong so-called deterrent forces. Now deterrent forces are those which do not provoke an attack on them, but which provide a strong incentive not to launch a first-strike because the other side will know that we could retaliate with unacceptable damage to the one who initiated a strike; in other words, which would make a first-strike national suicide. Now, deterrent forces, forces that will do this job, are those that will survive a first-strike, and which don't threaten the deterrent of the other side. In other words, for deterrence to be effective it must be mutual. Neither country, the Soviet Union or the United States, must ever feel that if the other side launched a first-strike against them, that somehow the attacker could survive. Because that's just a formula for somebody to try and beat them to the punch and start a nuclear war first. And that's a very, very dangerous situation.
Whiteley: At the end of World War II the United States was in a very dominant military position and quite secure as a nation. Four decades later, how do you assess our security?
Scoville: Well, at the end of the war we were the only ones who had nuclear weapons. But it was essentially a foregone conclusion that it would not be long - and it was actually only four years - the Soviet Union also acquired nuclear weapons. And what has happened is that since that time both sides have procured thousands of these weapons, and not only thousands of the kind of weapons which destroyed Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but thousands of weapons which have an explosive force a thousand times as great as those that destroyed Hiroshima or Nagasaki. So now both sides have the capability to destroy civilization as we know it, and that has not increased our security. We are much less secure today than we were in 1946 before we allowed the nuclear arms race to get totally out of hand.
Whiteley: Is defense possible in a nuclear age?
Scoville: No, unfortunately, defense is not possible. It is, of course, a very attractive goal to have a perfect defense, to be able to make sure that an attack with a nuclear weapon would not get through, and therefore you would be immune to any damage from that attack, but technically that is just not feasible. And all of this talk about 'Star Wars', and having space-based weapons which would provide protection against a nuclear attack, is plain technological nonsense. The offense has too much of an advantage. One must remember that it only takes a very small number of nuclear weapons - ten - you can argue the number, but ten or perhaps 100 getting through to their targets which will just profoundly alter the civilization in the country that is attacked. And therefore, when both sides have tens of thousands of these weapons, your defense has to be not 90% effective - and no defense has ever been 90% effective in the past - but it has to be 99.99%, and it has to be effective against any kind of an attack that the other side could consider launching, even an attack on the defense itself. That's an impossible objective.
Whiteley: You've written that the history of the arms race is that both sides have shown their ability to catch up in short order on any kind of technological advance.
Scoville: That's right. Generally, the United States has always been in the lead as far as new weapons technology. The Soviets did launch an ICBM before we did, but that's one of the few cases in which they did something first. We developed nuclear weapons first, we developed the hydrogen bomb first, and we have developed the more really sophisticated missile systems long before the Soviet Union did. And a classic example of where we led in the technology was in the technology of putting multiple warheads on a single missile. This is so-called MIRV technology. By putting multiple warheads on a missile, you gave that missile with those many warheads the at least theoretical capability of being able to destroy several of the other side's warheads if you launched a first-strike. Now we were ahead in that technology. We started testing it in 1968, and deploying it in 1970 to 1972. Soviets were about five years behind us. A decision had to be made in 1970 whether we would try and limit this technology in the so-called SALT agreements, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that were then going on. And the decision was made not to go ahead because we were ahead of the Soviets, let's race them, and let's hope that by demonstrating our capabilities in this area we will persuade the Soviets to not go into this kind of program. And then maybe with that kind of a bargaining chip, we can get an agreement to really limit MIRVs.
Whiteley: Would we be more secure as a society today if MIRVs had been included within SALT I?
Scoville: We would be so much more secure. It was a fatal mistake on our part because quite predictably the Soviets, five years behind us, came tagging along and they developed their own MIRVs. And then later, again a few years behind us, they developed accurate guidance systems for these individual warheads. And now we are talking about spending twenty, thirty, even a hundred billion dollars to try and protect our missiles from the Soviet MIRVs. If we had had an arms control agreement in 1970, we would be so much better off. We wouldn't be scurrying around trying to find some way to protect - and we haven't been able to find a way to protect. And so, what we are doing, is we are in a much less secure position today by having selected the arms race route as opposed to the arms control route.
Whiteley: There are numerous treaty opportunities that will be coming as new technological advances bring either more sophisticated weapons or more sophisticated delivery systems. How do you intervene and break the cycle? Is arms control, and treaties, a viable way to attempt it?
Scoville: Well, it's proving to be a very, very difficult problem. We did solve that problem, at least temporarily, in connection with ballistic missile defenses with the so-called ABM Treaty of 1972. That stopped the ballistic missile defense programs of both sides, the deployment of systems which could really threaten the deterrent of the other side. And this was an agreement which was very useful for our security. But what we are seeing now too much, is that these negotiations take far too long, and while the negotiations are going on, one is dotting all the "i"s and crossing all the "t"s in a formal agreement, and thinking of every possible eventuality that might make it a risk to our security, the weapons developments are going ahead much faster, and we're running a race in trying to control these in which the weapons are outrunning the methods of controlling them.
Whiteley: We've also negotiated, and our president has signed three treaties, and their president has signed those treaties, and then our Senate has not chosen to ratify them.
Scoville: Yes, that's absolutely true. A classic example of that is the SALT II agreement which was a follow-on essentially to the ABM Treaty of 1972, the so-called SALT I Treaty, in that it dealt with offensive weapons. Now that SALT II Treaty took, unfortunately, seven years to negotiate, and the arms race got out of hand during that time period with the MIRVs that we were just talking about. So that the SALT II Treaty was not - it put some limits on MIRVs, but it didn't stop the arms race. It was a useful treaty, and in my view, a great mistake that we did not ratify it because we would be more secure, the Soviets would have less forces today, and we would at least have an upper ceiling on what could be had by both sides. But we didn't ratify that, and as a consequence now both sides are going ahead with a whole raft of new weapons which, instead of improving the situation of mutual deterrence, is actually - these are new war-fighting, nuclear war-fighting weapons - which provide incentives for a first-strike such as the MX Missile about which I wrote the book. But that's only one example of many of the new weapons systems that are making nuclear war more likely. And this is the wrong direction to go; we should be going in the opposite direction.
Whiteley: What is it about the new weapons systems that makes war more likely?
Scoville: Well, let's just take the MX Missile cause it's a classic example. The MX Missile is a missile with ten warheads on it, and highly accurate warheads, and is being designed specifically to threaten the deterrent of the other side. Now instead of being able to put that missile in a - deploying it in such a way that it would be immune to a Soviet attack and would survive, and therefore could be used in a second-strike, there has been no way found for doing that.
Whiteley: And that's a consequence of the particular basing decisions.
Scoville: That's right. It's basing decisions plus the fact that the missile itself is a threat to their ICBM. Now maybe the president doesn't ever intend to use it in a first-strike. But the Soviet Union, sitting there on the other side, sees this missile which is only useful if it's launched against their ICBM force (which is the major element in their deterrent), and it's just asking them to launch a - beat us to the punch, launch a first-strike against us.
Whiteley: If the recent history of the arms race is to increase the likelihood of nuclear war, it makes arms control agreements all the more significant. We've talked about the several that were not ratified; a major one that was signed that then has not been implemented. How do you - what are the viable vehicles within our democracy and in this world system, which is essentially an anarchic system, to get viable arms control agreements soon?
Scoville: Well, I think something has to be done in the process to try and speed it up, to provide so that the time for reaching a formal agreement is not so long that the weapons race has gotten out of hand. In my view, the best way of doing that is to have both nations exercise restraint in their weapons program while the negotiations are going on; not buying weapons as fast as you can as so-called bargaining chips, which never work, for the negotiations. What you do is, while you're negotiating, both sides exercise restraint and not procure these new weapons systems which you never seem to be able to get rid of once you've got them.
Whiteley: Can you trust the Russians to exercise restraint?
Scoville: Well you don't have to trust them. You can watch and see what they do, and if they don't follow through and exercise some restraint, and it doesn't always have to be symmetrical restraint, why then you don't have to make the next step. Now that process has been proven to work and the classic example of where that worked was in 1963 with the Limited Test Ban Treaty which stopped nuclear tests in the atmosphere and outer space and underwater. President Kennedy, in June of 1963, made a speech at the American University in which he said that as of that date the United States would no longer test in the atmosphere as long as the Soviet Union exercised similar restraint in this area. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States have tested in the atmosphere since that date. And two months after that statement by President Kennedy we had the Limited Test Ban Treaty which formally banned all atmospheric tests, and we have something like 120 nations around the world who have signed this treaty foregoing this option. Two countries have not, such as France and China, but essentially most atmospheric testing has ended, and this has made the atmosphere a lot safer for mankind.
Whiteley: What can be done to decrease the amount of time that it takes to negotiate a viable treaty?
Scoville: Well, I think the time to negotiate a treaty can be decreased very significantly if one is not simultaneously, while the negotiations are going on, building more and more new weapons. Because then you're negotiating from a static position, as opposed to dealing with a moving target all the time. Now, for example, let's take the current situation; the MX Missile again is a good example. Rather than buying more MX Missiles, and deploying them where they're vulnerable, where they're a direct first-strike threat to the Soviet Union, I think there is a better chance of trying to stop the procurement of these kinds of weapons on both sides if we made the national decision, which should be made on strictly selfish security reasons, to forego the MX program altogether. It doesn't improve our security, and I think it would demonstrate that we are serious about trying to avoid the procurement of weapons which are making nuclear war more likely. And I think in that climate there's a much better chance of getting the Soviet Union to cut back on their program. For example, they are now, as a result of our MX program, procuring a new missile, the so-called SS24, which is a missile which, to some extent, is very similar to that of the MX. I think we could get them to stop that program if we stopped our MX. But as long as we buy the MX, go ahead with that, negotiating an agreement which stops their program, in this area, is going to be very difficult.
Whiteley: There's been a shift in citizen opinion on the bilateral nuclear freeze. It's very clear from public opinion polls that most Americans want such a program. We don't have one. In your view, would we be more secure if we did?
Scoville: Yes, in my view, we would. I think the concept of freezing where we are today is a very sound concept. The problem we have is that, while it's not a happy situation here today, but basically with the existing forces, neither side has any incentive to launch a first-strike, and start using these nuclear weapons. And if we froze the programs where we are today, we would then keep that situation, and would be then in a position to start reducing the existing forces to make them even more stable, and make nuclear war less likely. On the other hand, if we don't freeze and go ahead buying the MXs and the SS24s, and a whole raft of these other new weapons which provide incentives to start a nuclear war, what we're going to do is never - we're just going to move to a much less stable situation, a much more dangerous situation as far as the initiation of nuclear war than we are today. So the concept of a freeze in my view is a very sound one. And you perhaps can't stop everything overnight, but you can give priority to the most dangerous type of systems and freeze those first.
Whiteley: If there was a freeze at the current levels of numbers and the current types of systems, both weapons and delivery systems, is the United States in a relatively balanced position, vis-a-vis, the Soviet Union?
Scoville: It is at the moment a very good balance. Both sides have very large numbers of weapons, more than enough needed to ensure that they could retaliate under any circumstances. The United States has a much better deterrent strategic force than does the Soviet Union because we made the right decisions in the 60s and 70s not to put all our eggs in the land-based missile, the ICBM basket, and spread our efforts into putting a large number of missiles and warheads on submarines, and then also keeping a bomber force which are now being armed with cruise missiles to ensure they can penetrate air defenses. The Soviets put 75 to 80% of their warheads on land-based missiles which are now becoming vulnerable. So we have a much more survivable overall deterrent force than does the Soviet Union.
Whiteley: In your view, to make the arms control process a more viable one, it's ultimately a two-way street. It's got to be a relationship with the Soviet Union. But what should the Executive Branch of government do differently to make arms control viable?
Scoville: We and the Soviet Union have a very strong common interest. That common interest is to avoid nuclear war. I think that the Soviets and their leaders recognize very clearly that a nuclear war would be a disaster for them, and I know the people of the United States feel that as well. So with that common interest, we ought to be working to reduce the chances that a nuclear war would begin. And I think what we have to do is to build on that common interest, and in the negotiating process is one in trying to come up with measures of controlling these weapons which are in the mutual interest of both sides. You're never going to get an arms control agreement in which one side gains an advantage over the other. And I'm afraid, unfortunately, that far too often we are looking at negotiations as a one-sided gain, hoping that somehow or other we can pressure the Soviet Union in the negotiating position which would put us relative to them stronger than we are today. I think that is a misguided hope and is not the way you have successful negotiations. We have to find things which are in our mutual interest.
Whiteley: What needs to be done differently so that we negotiate agreements with a greater chance that the Senate will ratify them?
Scoville: Well, that's a very difficult problem, getting Senate ratification, because in the first place it takes two-thirds of the Senate to get a treaty ratified. And there are, unfortunately, a rather hard-core number of people who just don't believe that anything you do with the Soviet Union is to our advantage. They can't see that reducing the risk of nuclear war by an agreement is really to our advantage. So you have this hard-core of people - I don't know what it is - 20 to 25 or maybe 30 people who are against any agreement no matter what it says. Since it only takes 33 votes to kill it, it's a very difficult process. I think what one has to do is to, first of all, get public education, to get the public to understand and get them to translate that understanding into political pressure on their elected officials.
Whiteley: What do you want the people to understand. If you were designing an educational system to help people understand the realities of the nuclear age better, what would be in it?
Scoville: Well, first and foremost, and I think the people understand this quite well now - I think there's been a very successful education - is they must understand the real dangers of nuclear war, what a disaster it would be no matter who launches first or what the - what kind of forces we have. And I think the people do recognize that. I think the second thing that they have to recognize, and I think they're beginning to, although this is a harder job, and that is that it is to our advantage to control these weapons rather than to just build more. Building more does not add to your security.
Perhaps one of the points that I find hardest to get across to the public is that we are safer, and we are more secure, if the Soviets feel more secure. Somehow or other there's a sort of popular conception that we are safer if we can only make the Soviets scared. Now that's just the opposite of what the actual facts are. If the Soviets are scared, and are worried about our first-strike, and their backs are up to the wall, then they are likely to lash out and start using their nuclear weapons in a crisis, and that's certainly not to our security advantage. So I think this concept has got to be gotten across that the Soviets feeling secure is to our advantage as well. And what we must try and do is to find ways in which both countries feel more secure, and are less prone to use nuclear weapons in a crisis.
Whiteley: Projecting ahead to the year 2000, and taking your principle that it will be a safer world if the major protagonists feel more secure in the relationship, what kinds of arms control agreements would you like to have seen accomplished, and what would you have our deterrent force be?
Scoville: What I think we ought to be doing is moving more and more toward truly survivable forces, forces that cannot be destroyed in a first-strike, and therefore don't provide a tempting target for a first-strike. Secondly, we must have the kind of forces that in turn do not threaten the deterrent of the other side. And since that can be done with much smaller forces than either side has today, then one can cut back to a very great extent and maintain this mutual deterrent posture with much smaller forces. But the important thing to do is, since the numbers are so large now, is the numbers are not as important; the important thing to do is to stop this technological arms race, which is making nuclear war more likely. And that's what we ought to be doing.
Whiteley: Mr. Scoville, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the quest for peace in the nuclear age.