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"Some Inadequate Nuclear War Assumptions",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, September 18, 1966,
of a book:
by Arnold L. Horelick and Myron Rush.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966



"Some Inadequate Nuclear War Assumptions"


By Arnold L. Horelick and Myron Rush.
University of Chicago Press. 225 pages $5.95.


 The nuclear strategic analysts have been active now for two decades and have become a profession, almost a cult, with their own vocabulary, assumptions, and associations. These specialist attributes, which were once so necessary, have now, to a considerable extent, become an obstacle to their views of reality. This is partly because reality changes more rapidly than they, deeply involved in talking to each other, can change their vocabulary and their basic assumptions. It is also caused by the natural process through which any specialist group tends to become narrower, more rigid, and more remote from the facts.

   This volume, already widely and favorably reviewed, is a fine example of the latter-day weaknesses of strategic analysis. Throughout, it reveals high intelligence and great diligence, and is particularly noteworthy for an admirable examination of the Cuban missile crisis. But even in this latter episode, the final conclusions are mistaken, and much of the rest of the volume is almost a caricature of the period covered rather than an accurate picture.


Some Assumptions

   These weaknesses result, chiefly, from narrowness of outlook rooted in over specialization and from unstated, and often inadequate, assumptions which are concealed by a specialist vocabulary. The title of the volume, which is also the title to Part III of the book, shows these qualities clearly: neither "strategic power" nor "foreign policy" in their accepted senses are examined because the former term is restricted to mean "ability to wage long-distance nuclear warfare," and "foreign policy" is not concerned with what Soviet Russia did, or tried to do, but almost entirely with what Soviet leaders said.

   The basis for these inadequacies is established on the second page of the text where we are told, "Political use of strategic power does not directly depend on the objective capabilities of the two sides. It depends in the first instance on their beliefs about the strategic balance and on the beliefs of one side about the beliefs of the other and of third parties. Since it involves beliefs, and beliefs about beliefs, it is a highly subjective undertaking. . . ." This has a considerable element of truth in it but it is quite inadequate and surely does not justify studying statements rather than deeds, or taking beliefs for facts.

   The central argument of this book (presented in Part II) is that the so-called "missile gap" of 1957-1961 was "a conspiracy" (page 65) based on deliberately false Soviet claims made to obtain concessions from the West without the need to build up a substantial strategic nuclear ability. This argument is misconceived in at least two ways. On the one hand, the belief in the missile gap in the United States was not based on Soviet claims, but on the fact that Soviet space achievements showed that they had more powerful rockets than we did and had very accurate guidance for them. On the other hand, every power makes claims to conceal its weaknesses, as the United States, in this same period, made claims regarding the penetration ability and accuracy of SAC bombing and the ability of the greatly inferior NATO ground forces in Europe to resist any Soviet ground attack. Our claims in these respects were quite as extreme as Russian claims about their missiles. In neither case were these claims anything more than the normal action of any government to deter the enemy and reassure their own people in areas of weakness. These authors admit (page 68) that no “comprehensive and detailed study of United States military claims in recent years” has been made. Even without such a study, the authors of this book could have recognized the type of claims which are used by all states in such situations and should have avoided their rather naive "TV-Western" point of view in which the "bad guys" are steeped in falsehood and deceptions while the "good guys" (namely the United States) are souls of truthful veracity.


Strategic Power

   Such unrealistic attitudes, which are evident in other assumptions, are consequences of a narrowness outlook which has become a major weakness of "strategic studies." The general assumptions in this book view the Soviet leadership as men in control of a powerful machine which is subject to their free decisions, in an area in which "strategic power" (nuclear capability) is the independent variable on which all other events depend. Except for a couple of passages (mentioned on pages 156, 160161, but ignored elsewhere), rising from an admission that the fall of Khrushchev may not have been caused solely by failure of his "strategy of bluff and missile deception directed against the West," these authors ignore completely the context within which Soviet political decisions are made.

   Instead of the arbitrary despots assumed here, these authors must know that the Soviet leaders are trapped in the middle of numerous critical problems and pressing demands from competing groups (food, for investment capital, rising demand for housing, for conventional military weaponry, for scientific and space developments, from increasingly restive satellite states, from the growing power of Red China, and from the insatiable underdeveloped world), when Soviet resources are hardly sufficient for any of its major problems. The contrast between the USA and the USSR in terms of resource ceilings, during the years covered by this book, is totally ignored.

   Even in their own narrow field of strategic analysis, Horelick and Rush are too specialized and out of date to do justice to the subject. They are constantly concerned (as on page 15) and all of Part IV) with distinctions between strategic superiority, strategic parity, and strategic inferiority. These distinctions are now generally recognized to have little meaning, which is why the "missile race" has petered out. The meaningful factor in the situation is the ability to inflict unacceptable nuclear damage on an opponent, something which might be done from a level of gross "nuclear inferiority." Yet this book ends with a consideration of Soviet future policy conceived in terms of alternative choices among these three levels of comparative nuclear power.


Nuclear Stalemate

   The authors mention, but ignore, the implications of nuclear deterrence and nuclear stalemate. They envisage Moscow (and apparently the United States as well, pages 105, 125) as totally unwilling to engage in nuclear war, but do not see that this leaves the field wide open to lesser types of conflict and that these lesser, and even non-political, types may proliferate just because of nuclear stalemate. As a consequence, strategic nuclear weaponry is not, as they assume, the independent variable in Soviet-American relations and has been reduced, not to a dependent variable but to a constant factor, to part of the framework within which other factors work out the course and resolution of international conflict.

   From this failure to see the true role of nuclear stalemate, are derived other faulty assumptions, such as that strategic inferiority inhibits tactical successes (page 154). And from all of these misconceptions emerge a gross misunderstanding of the history of the period covered by this book. The whole basis of Soviet foreign policy as stated in the first paragraph of Part III (page 105) is misconceived, unrealistic, and scholastic (in the worst sense). The Berlin crisis is interpreted solely as a failure of "the Soviet strategy of bluff and deception" (page 117), a failure which "stemmed from the adverse strategic balance" (page 126).

   The chief weakness of this book is revealed in the sentence (p. 126), "Since war was wholly unacceptable, not even the first step on the road that might lead to it could be taken." The true situation was (and is), "Since nuclear war is wholly unacceptable to both sides, either of the superpowers, and even more clearly third parties, are free to engage in lesser tactical conflicts. The question today is what can be done locally and tactically under the umbrella of nuclear stalemate." There are the terms (with the addition of competing demands on limited resources) in which future Soviet foreign policy should have been examined in Part IV of this volume, rather than in the meaningless terms of a Soviet choice among strategic inferiority, parity, or superiority.


The Berlin Crisis

   In the Berlin crisis, victory was won by the West in the long winter of the "Berlin blockade" and it was won by tactical factors under the framework of nuclear stalemate. The two chief tactical factors were the unbreakable resolution of the West Berliners and the incredible achievement of the United States Air Force in supplying the city by air in spite of darkness, adverse weather, and Soviet harassment.

   The same kind of error vitiates the authors' conclusions to their generally excellent analysis of the Cuban missile crisis. They fail to see the implications of President Kennedy's imposition of the "quarantine" on strategic arms shipments to Cuba, on October 22, 1962. According to these writers, by this action, "the United States shifted to the Soviet Union the immediate burden of deciding whether or not to resort to violence." By "violence" the authors mean a major war, but since they insist (quite correctly) throughout the book that a major war likely to lead to nuclear violence was excluded from the Soviet range of options, the quarantine did not, in fact, re-establish such a war to that range, but instead shifted the conflict to the area of local naval activity, where our preponderance was overwhelming. That is why 16 out of 18 dry-cargo Soviet ships en route to Cuba at once turned away from Cuba. They were in fact turning away from the United States naval vessels cruising there and did so not because strategic nuclear power was an independent or dependent variable in the situation but because nuclear stalemate was a constant in a situation where the outcome could thus be settled by local tactical factors. The final conclusion of Horelick and Rush on this crisis (page 153-154) is that "it dramatized and sharpened even more the main military-political problem that has confronted the Soviet leaders in acute form since at least the fall of 1961: how to achieve, in the face of manifest United States strategic superiority, a military posture adequate to support Soviet foreign policy objectives. . . Not only did they fail to improve their strategic and related political positions, but their failure revealed more starkly than before the limitations upon Soviet policy imposed by strategic inferiority."

   My comment upon this would be that strategic inferiority means relatively little so long as nuclear stalemate continues, and that such a stalemate makes the limitations on Soviet policy far wider than is recognized in this book, and that, in addition, these limitations on Soviet foreign policy objectives arise as consequences of causes quite different from "strategic inferiority." In fact, it might be argued that Soviet acceptance of strategic inferiority and abandonment of the missile race has freed Soviet resources and attention to a much wider range of problems with a wider range of options and has permitted it to turn to domestic problems and the growing problems of China and South Asia.


Scans of original review

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