THE MOST DANGEROUS WORLD IS ONE IN WHICH THE SOVIETS HAVE IT AND WE DO NOT
Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., 1985
Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. is former Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam and Chief of Naval Operations. Admiral Zumwalt is the recipient of the Legion of Merit. Today he shares some of his central insights into the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Admiral Zumwalt, in recent testimony before the Congress you referred back to an interaction you had with former Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense George Marshall. What was that anecdote?
Zumwalt: General George Marshall, who was our World War II Army Chief of Staff, was no longer Secretary of State and not yet Secretary of Defense when I met with him in the late forties. I recall saying to him that when I was a high school student in 1938 my perception was that government spokesmen were assuring me and others that the United States would prevent the invasion of the Philippines by Japan in the event of a war with Japan. And he said that was our declaratory policy. And I said, "why didn’t we?" And he said "Lieutenant, you’ve got to come to understand the difference between your government’s declaratory policy and reality?" The reality was that we had absolutely no military capability to prevent the invasion, and privately always assumed that we would surrender the Philippines and fight our way back after mobilization. He went on to say that the democracies - France, England, the United States - both before World War I and World War II had for their conventional wisdom that the military are never satisfied, never have enough, always want more. And he pointed out that in fact, in the event we lost millions because of our lack of preparedness, and strongly judged that had we been prepared we wouldn’t have had to lose because we wouldn’t have fought.
Whiteley: In applying that recollection to the current situation facing our democracy, what lessons do you draw from it?
Zumwalt: Well in my testimony before the Budget Committee I pointed out that my experience during the third quarter of the 20th Century taught me the relevancy of what General Marshall had said, and that specifically in the 1970s, in the midst of an anti-war, anti-military mood this country had passed grossly inadequate defense budgets. As a result of which I reported to the President and the Congress that in the early 70s that we had fallen to a 35% probability of victory in a naval war, the Air Force Chief of Staff that we had fallen below a 50% probability of victory in an air war in Europe, and the Army Chief of Staff that it was only a question of how many days it would take the Soviets to reach the Channel, not who would win or lose in Europe. And that the major issue before us today is whether or not General Marshall’s description of the democratic malaise will overtake us just as the Reagan Administration has begun to buy back the deterrent capability that was given up in the 70s.
Whiteley: Four decades into the nuclear age, how safe is America?
Zumwalt: The United States today in my judgment is much safer than it was four or five years ago, with the end of the dreadful 70s when inadequate defense budgets for nearly a decade had taken us to a very low probability of victory both in the strategic nuclear field and in the conventional field. By 1988, in my judgment, if the Reagan budgets are approved we will have regained strategic nuclear parity (we’re now inferior) and we will have gained a thin margin of naval superiority.
Whiteley: As you reflect on upcoming budget choices, since irrespective of how much money is available you indicate we need to spend more, choices have to be made. How would you spend it to keep America both strong and free?
Zumwalt: In my judgment the United States has the capacity to spend what it is now spending for defense (on the order of 8% of the Gross National Product) and still reduce the deficits. In my judgment that can be done by adding very modestly to the tax rates that the Reagan plan, when he was Secretary of Treasury, suggested to raise another $40 or $50 billion, and by carrying out the reductions in some of the domestic programs along the lines of the recommendations of the Reagan Administration.
Whiteley: Analysts have argued that our deterrent capability is based on a Triad. I’d like to present that to you one leg of the Triad at a time and ask you to assess its contribution to the deterrent force of our country. First, the intercontinental ballistic missile strength.
Zumwalt: The intercontinental ballistic missile strength has deteriorated dramatically over the last decade because of the fact that the Soviet Union has been permitted, under the arms control agreements, to build a massive first-strike capability, and because the United States through restraint publicly announced, declined to achieve the combination of size and accuracy which would give it a first-strike capability with its land-based missiles.
Whiteley: So investing in missile systems that would be much more accurate, much more powerful, is for you an important step.
Zumwalt: It is for the reason that only by moving toward that position will we motivate the Soviet Union to join us in sensible reductions of land-based missiles. Indeed their new interest is in my judgment, in major degree, the result of the President’s success in the MX program.
Whiteley: Let’s take the second leg of the Triad: the air-based systems. How strong are they?
Zumwalt: The air arm had been permitted to deteriorate badly and President Carter’s decision to cancel the B1 was, in my judgment, a major strategic error. President Reagan’s decision to build it has regained vitality for the air arm. The B52’s were, and are, older than the crews flying them. They are now getting cruise missiles which will permit them to strike from stand-off in a retaliatory strike, and the B1’s have the penetration capability. So together they regain for us an effective air arm.
Whiteley: That gets to the third leg which is your specialty, sea power, particularly the submarine-launched missile force.
Zumwalt: The submarine-launched missile force was aging and obsolescing until the approval of the Trident submarine, which incidentally passed the Senate in the first year barely by a 49 to 47 vote, despite the fact that it is the most strategically important system we have. The new Trident submarine with its 24 missiles per boat (one of which is being built each year) at a total now of five in the operating forces and a total of about five more that have been authorized, will regain the viability of the sea-based deterrent for us.
Whiteley: What about surface ships? How strong are we?
Zumwalt: In the case of surface ships our deterioration in numbers and in quality were such that they, together with the aircraft carriers and the submarines, gave us by 1971 or '72 only that 35% probability of victory that I spoke about. As a result of the fundings of the last four years we will, in my judgment, soon have about a 55% probability of victory because of additional surface ships, additional carriers, additional aircraft, and additional submarines.
Whiteley: Related to national security for many people is the process of arms control. As you’ve thought about arms control as a process over the last decades is it for you a part of our national security?
Zumwalt: Yes, it’s a very important part of our national security. I served as Director of Arms Control for the Secretary of Defense in 1962-63, and during that period I dedicated myself to winning approval of a verifiable Test Ban Treaty which, because it is verifiable and fair, has been good for the national security of both sides. I also supported the ban on weapons of mass destruction in space and on the seabeds. Regrettably in the '70s the United States signed a series of arms control agreements which were bad, they were unverifiable, they had gross loopholes through which the Russians were able to drive huge missiles, having alleged that they would honor the spirit of the agreements, and they have further been permitted to cheat on the letter of the agreements.
Whiteley: Let’s take those agreements one at a time and ask you to assess them from the viewpoint of national security. First, what’s called the SALT I Treaty.
Zumwalt: The SALT I Treaty permitted the Soviet Union to have a 300% advantage in megatonnage and throw weight. It permitted the Soviet Union to have a 35 - they actually had a 55% advantage granted to them in ICBMs. They could give up 20% of that retaining a 35% advantage if they chose to in order to build up to the 35% advantage they were also authorized to have in sea-based missiles. They’ve done that. The other part of SALT I was an Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. We signed it at a time when we were ahead of the Soviet Union; we had permitted our anti-ballistic missile capability completely to deteriorate. The Soviets have kept their authorized site and have cheated and have deployed a whole series of systems that will make it possible for them to break out, and they are now well ahead of us in the anti-ballistic missile field.
Whiteley: So for you the ABM Treaty did not lead to the promised hope.
Zumwalt: No, it’s clear that the Soviet Union intended to use it as part of their overall strategy for winning superiority.
Whiteley: Let’s move now to SALT II. This is the treaty that was signed by the President, it took a number of years to negotiate, and then was never formally voted on in the Senate, but it was not ratified.
Zumwalt: I’m a founder and member of the Studies Committee of the Committee on the Present Danger which analyzed carefully every phase of SALT II, and we came out strongly against its ratification for the reason that again it proposed to give the Soviet Union, legitimately, major advantages over the United States. They were permitted under its terms to have twice the area destruction capability, twice the throw weight, three times the megatonnage, and five times the prompt hard target kill capability of the United States.
Whiteley: What did the proponents of that treaty offer as reasons why it was in the national interest?
Zumwalt: Their primary argument seemed to me to be that it was just the best we could get, that the Soviet Union would do better than that if we didn’t have the treaty. In actual fact since the Soviet Union violates their treaties, it seemed to me to put limits only on the United States as had SALT I.
Whiteley: Let’s move right now to the issue of verification. First, can the Russians be trusted?
Zumwalt: The Soviets cannot be trusted. The Soviets have broken their word whenever they thought it was (a) to their distinct advantage, and (b) they had a reasonable prospect of getting away with it.
Whiteley: Do we have to trust them?
Zumwalt: We, in my judgment, should not sign any treaties with the Soviet Union that do not permit us our own unilateral means of verification, and that, for any really meaningful arms control agreements means that both sides would have to agree to on-site inspections when they felt that there were potentially challengeable activities.
Whiteley: We’re now right in the middle of the initial phase of a new arms limitation set of talks with the Soviet Union. What’s possible in those talks? What is agreeable to by both sides that in your view would make the world safer?
Zumwalt: I believe that for the first time in about fifteen years we have a reasonable prospect of achieving fair, balanced, and verifiable arms control agreements for two reasons: (1) We have a President whom the Russians understand is a tough negotiator and will match them in defense levels - at higher levels, if they’re not willing to negotiate lower levels; and (2) because the Congress to date has been willing to fund those programs. I would be less confident that we could achieve those kinds of outcomes if the Congress makes major reductions in the President’s defense budget.
Whiteley: So one activity the United States can engage in that will influence the Soviet Union is to be willing to spend for defense.
Zumwalt: That’s, I think, one of two. The President’s MX Initiative and his Strategic Defense Initiative have both been very important in bringing the Soviets back to serious negotiations. You see the Strategic Defense Initiative permits the United States now to overcome the advantage that the Soviets achieved by cheating in the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, and to regain a defensive capability equal to or superior in time to theirs. So they want to stop that and kill it if they possibly can. I believe that the other way in which we can (over time) make progress with the Soviet Union is for us to communicate beyond their leadership which is, as the President described it, an evil empire and get to the Russian people who are I think, like all Americans, interested in peace and stability.
Whiteley: Let’s take the MX first. You’ve indicated it’s an important component of the Soviet willingness to come back to the bargaining table, an important part of strengthening our deterrent force. Its detractors have said that it, as a first-strike weapon, is inherently destabilizing. Where does that argument fall short?
Zumwalt: The detractors overlook the fact that the Soviet Union already has a destabilizing first-strike force. The world would be much safer if neither side had it. President Kennedy urged both sides not to achieve it. The United States has followed that policy and has not achieved it until the MX began to be built. The world would be safer without either side having a first-strike. The most dangerous world is one in which the Soviets have it and we do not; a less dangerous world is one in which both sides have it and are therefore both motivated to negotiate reductions in it.
Whiteley: Are weapons systems like the MX a bargaining chip?
Zumwalt: In my judgment the MX could well become a bargaining chip. It will only be meaningful to the Soviet Union if we set out to build it. Once we set out to build it the Soviet Union will in my judgment be willing to consider reductions in their huge 308 SS18’s with their ten warheads. Each of those missiles, incidentally, is twice the size of an MX.
Whiteley: Moving to the Strategic Defense Initiative, one argument against it is the assertion that technology simply cannot recreate the world that existed prior to the explosion of the first atomic bomb, that the force of nuclear weapons essentially makes them no longer viable military weapons because they’ll destroy the fabric of the civilization. How do you see defense strengthening America?
Zumwalt: Well, you know people with equal vigor and intellectual foresight use to say that if you sailed far enough you’d fall of the edge of the flat world. And we lived to find out that it was round. People before the atomic bomb was built, to a very large majority in the scientific community, believed it couldn’t be done. So I think it’s always dangerous to proclaim that something can’t be done particularly when we see the Soviet Union spending billions for strategic defense, and when we see how concerned they are that we have now set out to develop the capability ourselves.
Whiteley: So one important part of the argument for you is the fact that the Soviets have already been conducting basic research that’s quite applicable to space-based defense?
Zumwalt: That is correct, and at the very least the Strategic Defense Initiative will overtake the Soviet advantage and put us back in the position we were in when they grappled us into an Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty that we observed and they did not.
Whiteley: Inherent in your analysis is the Soviet Union as an adversary. As you’ve struggled with the question of trying to understand the Soviets, ways to improve the relationship while safeguarding freedom and peace, what can the United States do that will help improve the relationship with the Soviet Union?
Zumwalt: I think it’s mandatory first that we remember General Marshall’s admonishment and to keep our defenses strong. That is what has deterred the Soviet Union and it is what has brought about a much better behavior on their part since Mr. Reagan came into office. Second, we should not only not fear, but should welcome the competition in the economic and social field, where over time even the Russian people will come to understand the superiority of our free and open society with its conviction in the dignity and spirit of the human being as opposed to the closed and venal society in the Soviet Union in which for years slave labor camps snuffed out opposition, and even today lobotomies are used on those who are intellectually in opposition.
Whiteley: As you’ve reflected on the record since World War II, is the Soviet Union bent on expansionism?
Zumwalt: There’s not the slightest doubt that they are. They say they are, they state in their writings and their speeches that they intend to have political, economic, and military hegemony over the globe, and one has only to reflect on their accomplishments to date to observe their progress: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, South Yemen, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam.
Whiteley: And what about the movement into Central America? Is that serious?
Zumwalt: Yes. Their intention in Central America is the sound geopolitical military intention of (a) winning control of Central America so they can control the Panama Canal, (b) using a military infrastructure there to separate the two continents of America in war, (c) to subvert from those bases the Mexican subcontinent, and (d) to use a client (Mexico) to dictate the terms on which its oil is delivered and to smuggle terror and drugs across our border.
Whiteley: What are the best ways to fight that?
Zumwalt: I think the best way to fight it is for the people to understand that the President is not being a warmonger when he suggests aid to the Contras and support of the regime in El Salvador, but that he is instead proposing to take a stand where it is militarily and politically most feasible as opposed to waiting until the drugs and the terrorists are coming across our own border from Mexico.
Whiteley: So as you see it, those actions are an integral part of our national security posture as well.
Zumwalt: I think they’re a desperately important part of our national security to defeat those four forward objectives that I referred to.
Whiteley: As you reflect on the fact that the world is a dangerous place out there, there’s not a world rule-of-law, there’s a state of international anarchy. Are there viable ways to get the rule-of-law back so military force need not be such a part of keeping the peace?
Zumwalt: Yes, and I think we’ve made progress in that regard. My friends at the United Nations and in the State Department tell me that there’s been a dramatic return of interest on the part of the Third World to the United States in the last four years, that Third World leaders are coming to them and saying we no longer think that the Soviet Union is the wave of the future, we see the United States regaining its military capability, we see the United States making immense progress economically as compared to the Soviet Union. And they are beginning increasingly to vote our way. This increasing influence within the Third World gives us the capability to provide politically some stability that we were losing dramatically in the 70s.
Whiteley: You’ve argued eloquently for the need for strength, that America is not as strong as it was, it was regaining that strength, and that’s an integral part of our national security. If you turn your thinking to steps that would lower the risks of nuclear war, I’d like you to first start with steps that might lower the risks of conventional war, and then move to steps that might lower the risks of nuclear war.
Zumwalt: Well, with regard to conventional war I think that you’ve got to go a step further and say that the first thing that has to be eliminated is the Soviet desire and objective of subverting at the sublimited level, one nation after another. After all their open naked invasion of Afghanistan is the first time outside of Eastern Europe that they have used Soviets troops, and in all other cases they have managed to subvert regimes from within. And it is in opposition to that that the United States is likeliest to be forced at some point to get into a conventional conflagration. So the first step I think is to convince the Soviet Union that their nefarious activity at the sublimited level to undermine and terrorize governments should come to an end. If that can be done, if we can bring the Soviet Union, out of concern for our deterrent capability and out of economic opportunities from us, to behave in a different way then I think the likelihood of conventional war is greatly deterred.
Whiteley: What about deterring nuclear war?
Zumwalt: There are, in my judgment, two ways to make it less likely. One is to destroy all our nuclear weapons and await the Soviet occupation of the United States. And the other is to build up such strength that the Soviet Union is deterred and then willing to negotiate with us verifiable and fair and balanced arms reductions.
Whiteley: Let’s move to actions that in the coming decades you’d like to see a number of groups take. Let’s start with the Congress. What actions by the Congress will enhance the prospects of peace?
Zumwalt: I would hope that over time we can regain the bipartisan consensus in support of national security and foreign policy which we had in the immediate post-World War II era when both Republicans and Democrats understood that the interests of the United States required us to have influence beyond our own borders, and that the aggressive expansionism of the Soviet Union could only be halted through a combination of power and influence and economic aid. I believe that is the primary course that we can take, and that a significant part of that is the build-up in our own military capabilities. But another very significant part of it is support by the powers for the aid that we give for both economic and military purposes overseas. We’re greatly outspent by the Soviet Union in that regard.
Whiteley: Admiral Zumwalt, thank you for sharing your insights today on the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.