Pespectives on the Path to Peace


Jerome B. Wiesner, 1985

Jerome B. Wiesner is President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Wiesner was Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy for Science and Technology. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Dr. Wiesner, you’ve indicated that the cornerstone of your thinking about the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age is that a first-strike is no longer possible between the Soviets or the Americans. What do you mean, and what’s the evidence?

Wiesner: Well, what I mean by that is that is what I would call a ‘successful firststrike’, namely a first-strike carried out by one nation against the other that

doesn’t result in such enormous retaliatory damage that you stop existing as a society. Obviously either country could carry-out - could launch a first-strike, but I think the data - the evidence is (my belief is) that it’s not possible for either country to so totally decimate the nuclear force of the other side that a retaliatory strike wouldn’t really wipe the other country - the culprit, so to speak - out as a viable nation. That is, if you look at a map of either country and say that you’re going to pick out 200 targets for nuclear annihilation, say 200 cities or 200 cities and rail junctions, ports, and so on, it’s very hard to find 200 targets that are worth a megaton bomb, let us say, or a half-megaton bomb because you get down pretty far in the hierarchy of targets.

And several times in my military career I worked on studies in which I tried to assess damage and defense systems; I worked on air defense systems first, in which we spent a lot of time trying to invent systems, and design and build systems that would protect the United States against a Soviet bomber attack; I worked on the Gaither Study and other studies in which I tried to evaluate what we could do to protect the United States against Soviet missile attack; and I spent many years working both in the government and here on questions related to the anti-ballistic missile as well as the air defense system. And I have become convinced that given the size of arsenals that exist, it’s just absolutely impossible for either side to avoid being totally destroyed, being essentially blasted back to the Stone Age, by the residue after a successful attack.

Whiteley: Given the fact that you think that the world would be much safer with smaller arsenals on both sides and still have that capacity to make a first-strike impossible, what are the steps that need to occur to move from where we are to where you can see the framework for a more viable and peaceful world?

Wiesner: Well, I think the first step is public understanding, particularly in this country, but around the world; certainly a better understanding on the part of the decision-makers in the Soviet Union of the facts that we’re talking about. I think the American public, for example, has a gut feeling that this is true but when leaders or some of the pro-nuclear weapons scientists, or the weapons builders stand up and say ‘I know something you don’t know; I have access to secret information’ - this is a gambit that’s been used successfully and, in my view, dishonestly, for as long as there have been nuclear weapons.

Whiteley: Why is that a dishonest argument? To the citizen the argument that ‘If you only knew what I knew, and which I can’t tell you on grounds of secrecy, you would agree with me.’...

Wiesner: Well, it has always turned out to be false. And the reason is basically that the determining issues are not the technical details of the weapons, but some things that nobody can quantify and can know, neither the most sophisticated technologist or the most knowledgeable political leader, including the President or Secretary of State, or Secretary of Defense, and that is what is a deterrent? My view is a deterrent is the degree of likelihood that most of your major cities will be destroyed. And it doesn’t take many nuclear weapons to do that. Secretary Weinberger, a year or so ago, said he believed in deterrence, but the best deterrent was a war-winning capability. Well, that’s a kind of joke, a kind of cruel joke on the public, isn’t it?

Whiteley: That war is no longer winnable in this part of the 20th Century?

Wiesner: There is no such thing as a war-winning capability in this, if you believe as I do, that a few nuclear weapons will wipe out your country. And therefore he’s seeking something which, if he really believes it, is very stupid, and if he doesn’t believe, is very dishonest and very destructive.

Whiteley: Writing a quarter of a century ago you titled the paper Peace is Possible in Our Time If. A quarter of a century later, what are those ‘ifs?’

Wiesner: Well, I think they’re the same ‘ifs’. A quarter of a century ago I was working as a - I had been working for President Eisenhower on the Gaither Panel, and then had been asked by him to join him in his efforts with a group (not just by myself), efforts to get a nuclear test ban and to stop the arms race. I remember him saying, ‘You know, nobody in the government wants to help me: The Defense Department isn’t interested in stopping this thing; and the Atomic Energy Commission isn’t interested in stopping it; and the State Department doesn’t have any technical competence. So a group of us on the Science Advisory Committee began to work with him. And the ‘ifs’ are very simply that you are willing to accept the notion that we don’t live, as myth has it, in a delicate balance of terror. That’s a very wrong view, but it’s a very popularly held view that if the balances shift just a little bit we’re going to be in serious trouble. If the other side has 5% more weapons than we have, we’re dangerously outnumbered.

Whiteley: There has been a recurrent myth in the last quarter of a century that there’s a "bomber gap" or a "missile gap." Do those exist?

Wiesner: No, they never have, and we’ve always realized it. Partly at one time those were at least partially the result of bad intelligence, but they also are the result of, I think, deliberate - the right word is - misrepresentations. For example, the most recent of these is the so-called ‘window of vulnerability’ which you don’t hear anything about anymore. But it turns out that the American people are more frightened of the Soviet Union and their missiles than of any single thing. And the best campaign issue is to claim that the other side - the other side in the political race (not the Soviet Union) has allowed the security to falter; that is the group in power is usually attacked by the group seeking office with this argument and they’ve often won.

Whiteley: In indicating that each nation is in an arms race with itself, what do you mean?

Wiesner: Well, the United States is of course the leader, because we are the technological leader here, but both of us indulge in the practice of building a weapon, and then as soon as we build it we imagine that the other side will have it, and therefore we invent a defense against it. And once we have a defense we have to invent a counter to that defense, and this leads us to a cycle of more and more sophisticated weapons. It also happens in the case of just the offensive weapons, because as we move from single warhead weapons to MIRVs we put the opposition weapons in more jeopardy because there are more warheads to attack it. And as we make more accurate missiles we make it more likely that you can destroy a missile on the other side, so that each of these technological inventions precipitates a response on the other side, which then requires a response on our side. The fact is that almost as soon as you start to develop the new weapon you also begin thinking about the countermeasure. For example, in the case of this Star Wars proposal, there are as many ideas about how to counter it as there are how to do it, and all the counters look simpler than the way to do it.

Whiteley: There’s a clear constituency in your view for an arms race.

Wiesner: I think that we’ve come very close to becoming a military culture in the sense that the people with a stake in perpetuating the arms race have worked at it very much harder than the majority of the people who would prefer not to have one, or would prefer to find a more reasonable way to proceed.

Whiteley: One of your critiques of the products of the military culture as striving for nuclear parity, is that parity is ultimately illusory.

Wiesner: Well, even when you know it was a very long period of time when the United States had vast nuclear superiority and people were not satisfied. They kept inventing all kinds of arguments. You mentioned the "bomber gap" earlier and the "missile gap" - but I mentioned the ‘window of vulnerability.’ During all these periods it was perfectly clear that the United States was undoubtedly vastly superior in the beginning, and marginally superior, or sort of comparable to the Soviet Union in more recent times in any way you can measure the equivalence, which is very difficult, because these weapons are so different.

Whiteley: Is it possible to agree on when parity is achieved?

Wiesner: Well, it would be possible for me to agree. I think that there are people with sophisticated - and analysts who think that the subtleties make a great deal of difference, and in all fairness to them, they invent scenarios which I couldn’t possibly refute; namely that the Soviet Union could destroy a certain number of our weapons. They might end up in a position of relative superiority, and then they might dictate to us the terms, and we might not retaliate because up to now all that had been damaged was our nuclear weapons, and they’re threatening to damage our cities. And so we might yield to whatever their demands are. Now the fact is I don’t know if you’re prepared to yield, why one can’t do that before they fired their weapons instead of afterwards, because we will be left with a vast retaliatory capability (at sea; in my view, even a fair share of the land-based missiles will be left; and the bombers and things in Europe), so it’s very hard for me to imagine a situation where a political blackmail could follow a nuclear attack any more effectively than it could before.

Whiteley: Well this returns to the theme that we began: that a first-strike, given the deployment of forces, simply is not possible. Given that analysis, you’ve proposed a series of confidence-building measures which in your view would lead to a safer world, a more dependable world, and I’d like to ask you to elaborate.

Wiesner: Well, there are a whole variety of them; of course, there are some simple things which would be accomplished without much fear. For example, the completion of the Nuclear Test Ban Agreement would make a big difference in confidence. It would mean that you no longer had to face the development of the new nuclear weapons. I would also halt testing of missiles as well - new weapons systems.

Whiteley: What about the argument that you can make nuclear weapons safer by continuing to test them?

Wiesner: Oh, they’re safe enough. I don’t know what one needs to do to make them any safer. That argument was made in the late 50s and early 60s that nuclear weapons were not what was called one-point safe; that is if a single detonator went off the bomb might in fact explode. There was no evidence that that was true but it was an argument that was used when President Eisenhower was trying to bring about a nuclear test ban agreement. In fact, there were a lot of phony arguments thrown at him as fast as those who were working with him would put down one, another one would come up. There was the question of the importance of a neutron bomb, and there was the importance of peaceful uses of nuclear power, to build nuclear explosions to build the Panama Canal. And then when we got rid of those, there was the danger that the Russians could cheat in a big hole, and we had to show that that was very difficult. So that there was just one argument after another, and one of the very important ones was the safety argument. And I would hope that by now nobody has the gall to use that argument again for stopping a test ban agreement.

Whiteley: Why is it safe to stop testing missiles?

Wiesner: Well, you’ve got your present missiles, and if you believe as I do, that they’re a more than adequate deterrent force you don’t need new ones. New ones are just feeding the arms race.

Whiteley: What other confidence-building measures can be taken?

Wiesner: Well one could actually begin the reduction of certain of these weapons, the elimination of them. And here it’s of course as much a political question as a military question. I, for example, would like to see weapons in Europe withdrawn because I think they are more dangerous than weapons in the Soviet Union and the United States mainland. But there we get into the complicated question of the Russian concern about British and French weapons, and since the United States has never been able to get the British and French involved in these negotiations, we haven’t been able to include them in our negotiations. So when we were arguing about the cruise missiles and the Pershings, the Russians were saying well, you ought to count British and French weapons in the totals. And we were saying, no, they’re not NATO weapons; they’re independent weapons. If I was a Russian looking outward from the Soviet Union, they wouldn’t look very different to me. And so we have that complicated problem.

Whiteley: How viable is arms control as a process for accomplishing these confidence-building measures that you would like to see?

Wiesner: Well, the arms control process we’ve lived with up to now hasn’t been very viable because weapons have developed faster than agreements. But if you were willing to accept unilateral measures, which is a fairly major change in attitude for both sides, then you probably could make arms control agreements as well. In fact my view would be that you should (if I was the leader of either country, I would) take a series of unilateral steps and challenge the other side to follow. Now when Eisenhower did that with the nuclear testing the Russians very quickly agreed to it, and they stayed with it as long as the West did. When the West began testing, the French did after. Incidentally, President Eisenhower had said the U.S. was no longer bound by the moratorium because we hadn’t been able to move beyond the moratorium. The Russians then did begin to test again.

So there was obviously enough uncertainty, and enough fear, that it didn’t survive and didn’t get a firmer agreement.

But the reason I was involved in some of those negotiations when I was working for President Kennedy - we came what I would say was very close to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, which ended up in being a partial test ban. Some of my colleagues wouldn’t agree with my statement, but we - the Kennedy government - was offering six inspections as a point of agreement. This had always been the central disagreement in the case of the Eisenhower Administration and the Kennedy Administration. The West always wanted much more inspection than the Soviets were prepared to give. In fact our initial demands were something like 100 opportunities to inspect, to look for clandestine Soviet tests. But it became perfectly clear that this was an enormous effort and required (even a single search) required a major expedition that we were very unlikely to carry one out. And I certainly came to the conclusion that you needed the inspection, not because the Russians were likely to test (because you couldn’t in my view, accomplish very much with one or two or three clandestine tests), but we needed as a deterrent against our own domestic problem and pressures. If we had no right to inspect when we thought there had been an explosion, the pressures inside this country would build up, even if there hadn’t been any, that you can imagine the arguments that would be made by the people who wanted to destroy the treaty.

Whiteley: Okay, it has now been a quarter of a century and weapons technologies continue to develop, we’ve negotiated three arms control agreements with the Soviet Union under three different Presidents that haven’t been ratified by the Senate, verification is far more complex now than it was...

Wiesner: It’s better too, much better, much more effective.

Whiteley: But what has to happen to get treaties agreed upon and ratified?

Wiesner: Well, what has to happen is the public in this country, since we’re talking about treaties ratified in this country, has to come to understand the things we’re talking about; namely, that does it matter very much just exactly how effective and efficient a bomb is; that not much can be accomplished by cheating that matters, therefore the incentive to cheat isn’t very great. The danger of somebody doing clandestine cheating is insignificant: somebody makes a slightly more accurate missile or a bomb that has a slightly greater yield doesn’t change our weapons. And since what we’re depending on is our deterrence and our capability to damage the other side, that isn’t affected in the least by improvements in the other side’s weapons. If one believed that it was possible to clandestinely make a defensive system that was 99.9% effective, then you would have something to worry about. But since I don’t believe you can even get into the 20 or 30% effectiveness with a major defensive system against a one firsttime attack (which is what it will have to work against), I don’t think that’s a danger at all. And if you thought a clandestine defensive system was a danger, it remains a danger whether you have an agreement or not.

Whiteley: You continually return to the importance of the citizens in a democracy, of the need to understand. A corollary of that for you is that there are really no experts on matters of deterrence and on nuclear strategy. What do you mean?

Wiesner: What I mean by that is that there are plenty of experts. Obviously, the people who know all about missiles and bombs, and the average citizen couldn’t go in and design a missile or bomb anymore than I could. But about the issues that really matter: What keeps these things from being used? What makes them into a deterrent? How many weapons does it take to make a deterrent? That’s a matter of judgment, and it’s your judgment and mine or the public judgment. It is every bit as good as the judgment of the Secretary of Defense or the President, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In fact probably better because we’re not involved in public pressures, we’re not involved in service rivalries, we’re not involved in industrial pressures. All we want to do is make a judgment about what we think will keep the Soviet Union from attacking us, and in their case, what they think will keep us from attacking. And certainly the total destruction of our society by something we start, or something they start for that matter, is a deterrent. It seems to me there is nothing that they could want from us or vice versa that is worth the total and complete annihilation of our own society. And actually now when we’ve come to believe a nuclear war means annihilation of most living things on this planet (or at least a possibility of that), so it’s hard to imagine either side wanting something badly enough that the other has to justify that, including power. The only thing that conceivably could precipitate such an activity would be fear, fear that it was going to happen to you before you reacted, and therefore you react.

Whiteley: That returns to the theme with which we began; namely, that a firststrike is not possible anymore without the consequence of destruction of your own society. Given that your thinking evolves from that central conclusion, what actions do you want your fellow citizens to take in the future?

Wiesner: Well, first of all I’d like them to believe this and understand it: Understand how solid a deterrent a few secure weapons are. I would then like them to elect a government whose major purpose and commitment was to try to find a way to stop the current madness and to persuade the Soviet Union that they should - that we have no ulterior designs on them, that we’re not going to force them to change their form of government, to force them to behave in ways that we want to dictate, and convince them that they have to accept us and our way of life as well. My own view is that this is something that has got to be done; it’s not just a nice view. If we expect the world to survive we have to change.

Whiteley: Dr. Wiesner, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.