THE UNASKED QUESTION ABOUT THE COLD WAR
Would the West have been right morally to carry out its nuclear policy towards the Soviet Union? Peregrine Worsthorne, once the policy's supportet; now says no
understatement since the destruction would have extend- ed far beyond the territories of the two alliances directly involved; extended, indeed, to the very four corners of the earth.
Wherever an American presi- dent went during the Cold War years, he was accompanied by a black box containing the dread button and, much more burdensomely, by the knowl- edge that he might be the man called upon to use it. In the event, of course, the thermonuclear deterrent worked. The Sovi- et Union never did attack a Nato country. But if it had not worked, and one or other of the American presidents had had to press the button, in what light would subse- quent generations — if there were any have viewed that uniquely destructive act? Would some historian, emerging centuries later from the post-thermonuclear war dark ages, have judged it morally justified or so evil as to dwarf even the most mon- strous iniquities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung?
Nobody nowadays thinks of asking that question. During the Cold War, of course, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament asked it all the time. Their answer was unequivocal. It would have been regarded as the most evil act of all time — a judg- ment first promulgated by the great philosopher Bertrand Russell. With the Cold War safely won, however, the CND has fallen silent. If there is anything more pointless than flogging a dead horse it is flogging a victorious one. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction prospered, so none dare call it evil.
Armchair Cold War warriors, like myself, of course, never did call it evil, even before it prospered. At the very least we thought it the lesser of two evils, by far the greater being the extinction of individual freedom which would have been the consequence of Soviet communism's world dominion. Or so we vaguely, almost frivolously, allowed ourselves to think. Whereas CND said 'bet- ter red than dead', we said, and felt proud to say, 'better dead than red'.
That an individual could proudly say this — 'give me liberty or give me death' — is more than understandable; or even a nation through a majority in a democrati- cally elected parliament. But we armchair Cold War warriors in the West were saying more than this. We were saying that the whole human race, the greater part of which was neutral in the Cold War, should be put at risk to preserve Western liberty. How could we have believed anything so preposterous?
The answer is that to begin with our leaders, the people who mattered, didn't. They only pretended to believe it so as to make the thermonuclear deterrent credi- ble. Only if the Russians believed that the West would blow up the world in response to a conventional attack would they desist from making such an attack. In reality wiser counsel would almost certainly have prevailed. But in order to frighten the Rus- sians, our leaders had to have the means to blow up the world and a feigned willing- ness to do so. In his old age
I larold Macmillan once admitted to me that the threat was more bluff than reality. In the event of a Russian attack we would have made a token nuclear strike on a token tar- get (while talking all the time on the hotline) and under no circumstances ever have gone the whole hog. A former chief of the defence staff with whom I talked recently con- firmed this assessment. So far as the British finger was con- cerned, the button would never have been pressed down hard.
No moral problem here. Mutual Assured Destruction was all a bluff, so terrible in its nature that we were absolutely certain the Russians would never risk calling it. By this method of reassurance was Harold Mac- millan able to sleep at night with an untroubled conscience.
That is fine as far as it goes. The West wasn't preparing to blow up the human race. It was only pretending to in the virtu- ous belief that this was the best way to pre- serve the peace. To start with, this may well have been the case. Almost certainly Presi- dent Eisenhower saw the nuclear deterrent in the same light as did Harold Macmillan. Neither of them were Cold War warriors proper, perhaps because both knew too much about hot war. In other words, Eisen- hower was also bluffing. But to be effective, as I say, the bluff had to be credible and there was no way over the long haul of con- vincing the Russians that the West really was mad and bad enough to blow up the human race without the West actually becoming so. So what started as a morally justified bluff eventually became something much more real. Certainly in the Pentagon there were generals — notably Curtis Le May — who were not bluffing.
What would President Kennedy have done if Mr Khrushchev had not blinked first during the Cuban missile crisis? One would like to think that his response would only have been a token. That would unquestionably have been the advice of 'Uncle Harold'. But the bellicose generals in the Pentagon might well have had differ- ent ideas. For American generals with enough aggression to frighten the Russians could never be relied upon absolutely to do what the civil authority told them.
As for Richard Nixon, nobody will ever know what he would have done in a com- parable crisis since none materialised under his presidency. But since he took such enormous pride in boasting that he was the first president whom the Russians were really frightened of, believing him to be the devil incarnate — as did many of his domestic opponents — I suspect he might have felt compelled to live down to his rep- utation, at least in the unlikely event of a repeat Cuban-type challenge involving a thermonuclear threat to the United States itself.
But what about a conventional Red Army threat, say, to Berlin, always a much more realistic possibility? Here, I think, Nixon's dark and terrible reputation as a man who would stop at nothing might have operated in the opposite direction, giving him the courage not to push the button rather than push it. For to sacrifice New York and Chicago in defence of Western Europe, as the Nato treaty required the United States to do, was always an immensely tall order, requiring a degree of high-principled, self-sacrificial steadfast- ness to international obligation which I doubt he would have had. My own hunch is that in the event he would have come before the American people as the presi- dent who had the patriotic guts not to do the internationally correct thing; who had the patriotic guts to put the interests of the American people first.
So, I believe, at the moment of truth, would have Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter and Bush. None of those men would have risked the thermonuclear dev- astation of the United States in defence of Europe. Whether they would all have been able to stop the military going ahead with- out civilian authority is less certain. But barring that action, the Russians could have got away with calling what was essen- tially an American bluff.
True, there was always the possibility of France and Britain, Europe's two nuclear powers, pressing the thermonuclear button independently. The independent deterrent gave them the capacity to do this. But it is inconceivable to me that any of them would have done so. One can't be certain, of course, but in retrospect Alec Home, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath don't strike one as potential destroyers of the human race. Still less do any of the French presidents, least of all de Gaulle, whose contempt for Cold War warriors was proverbial.
So was the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction in all probability always a bluff? Were all the fingers on the button as unlikely to have pressed it as was Harold Macmillan's? (So far as France and Britain were concerned there was never any dan- ger of the military acting alone since they were always far less hawkish than their transatlantic counterparts.) The answer, I think, until the 1980s is probably 'yes'. One of the most influential American Cold War strategic thinkers, Louis J. Halle, explained why. He drew a parallel with the behaviour of vertebrates of the same species, amongst whom fighting almost never ends in death and rarely results in serious injury to either combatant. While pigeons with their soft bills and weak feet may fight each other all out, those that have the means to do each other mortal injury don't. Male rattle- snakes, for example, which can kill each other with a single bite, never bite each other in their combats. They lock heads, each trying to force the other sideways to the ground, at which point the successful one, having established his superiority, lets the loser escape. In the case of the rattle- snakes, Halle explained, it was genetic evo- lution which had produced behavioural inhibitions conducive to their survival as a species; for they would quickly have become extinct if they had not developed these inhibitions.
In the case of nations, a quarter of a cen- tury's experience of living in the nuclear age had done something very similar. Mankind's species-saving inhibitions would not necessarily prevent the nuclear nations fighting limited wars. But at the last moment they would always stop short of pressing the nuclear button. The fact that nuclear weapons were virtually unusable in combat, however, did not mean that they were unusable as a contingent threat in
How much is that No Dogs in the Window?'
diplomacy. Indeed, the very use of the word 'deterrent' to describe them indicated that they were usable in diplomacy. But the fact that they were usable in diplomacy no more meant that they were usable in com- bat than did the rattlesnake's willingness to use his bite for purposes of overawing his opponent (during the initial headlocking) mean that he felt free to kill with it. As much in the one case as in the other, the logic of species survival dictated that the ultimate weapon would' never be used, except as a deterrent.
Louis Halle always insisted, however, that there was one human characteristic, not shared by rattlesnakes, which might make mankind defy the logic of species survival: ideological fanaticism. If one thermonuclear power, for example, saw the nominal issue between it and its opponent as being whether the ideas attributed to Karl Marx or those attributed to John Locke should rule the world, then the con- test would indeed tend to be all-out, direct- ed to an unlimited objective that required total victory. But if the issue was one of balance of power, perhaps involving spheres of influence, then the two sides should be able to understand each other and negotiate a reasonable compromise.
In other words, nothing was more impor- tant in the nuclear age than for the super- powers to deny themselves the self-indulgence of believing in the myth, which takes many forms, that man is divid- ed into two opposed and mutually irrecon- cilable species, the good and the wicked, The two species, Halle was fond of point- ing out, might be the servants of God, ides: tified with Christendom, and servants of Satan, identified with Islam; or they might be the virtuous proletarians and the wicked capitalists or, as in the second world war, the peace-loving nations and the aggressor nation. Since the virtuous species cannot make deals with the wicked species, and communication between them is impossi- ble, the limiting of war to negotiable objec- tives becomes implicitly impossible. Morally speaking, therefore, the obligation on the statesman was not to renounce nuclear weapons — for short of disinvent- ing them that would be an idle gesture but rather to renounce ideology, the only frame of mind, he concluded, in which any- one could be mad enough to use them.
How much Richard Nixon was directly influenced by this argument I do not know. But when I interviewed him in his second term in the 1970s he referred to it and, as we know, he certainly did renounce ideo- logy, as the opening to China made sensa- tionally clear. With Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, there was no need to renounce ideology since, unlike Nixon, he had never been tempted to indulge in it. For him non-ideological balance of power politics was not so much a moral impera- tive as a personal preference. In any case, during the Nixon-Kissinger period, there was no question of either side defying the logic of species survival, since under Brezh- nev the ideology was draining out of Soviet politics quite as fast, if not a lot faster, than it was draining out of American politics under Nixon.
This did not mean that the Cold War was over. The struggle (headlocking, so to speak) went on, and in Africa, for example, even became fiercer. But it had ceased to be between God and Satan; ceased, that is, to be about any issue likely to overcome inhibitions induced by mankind's instinct for survival. These were the years of detente and peaceful existence. In theory we could have all been incinerated at any time. But most of us, I believe, had stopped fearing the mushroom cloud. This was not because either side had renounced thermo- nuclear weapons but because both seemed to have renounced ideological absolutes.
Then, in the last decade of the Cold War, when Ronald Reagan came to power in Washington and Margaret Thatcher in London, everything seemed to change. Their fingers really might have pushed that button. This may have been partly due, in Mrs Thatcher's case, to a certain bellicosity of character which became even more pro- nounced after the Falklands war victory. But bellicosity of character was certainly not the explanation in President Reagan's case, nor fundamentally in Mrs Thatcher's. Fundamentally, for both of them, the rea- son was more ideological than personal, having little to do with love of war and a great deal to do with the extremity of their anti-communism or, if you prefer, with the intensity of their love of freedom. Here I really do believe that the neo-conservative intellectuals of the New Right made a major and sinister contribution. They con- cocted a piece of casuistry — as I now see it to be — which gave ideology a new lease of life; restored it to a primacy which the experiences of the nuclear age had slowly but surely nibbled away.
I remember hearing it for the first time at a lunch in the American embassy in Lon- don when the guest of honour was Mrs Jean Kirkpatrick, then a very senior foreign policy adviser to President Reagan, a lead- ing neo-conservative intellectual, friend of Irving Kristol, contributor to Norman Pod- horetz's magazine Commentary — a verita- ble high priestess of the period. Eyes ablaze, she outlined her famous distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarian- ism. Whereas former evil empires had been authoritarian, only the Soviet Union had perfected — Hitler had not lasted long enough to do so — the techniques required to render its dominion absolute and termi- nal. Therefore wherever the communist evil took hold, an eternity of damnation was bound to follow, the clear implication seeming to be that whereas the human spirit might be expected, centuries hence, to emerge from the destruction of a thermonuclear exchange, it would have no chance of surviving a Soviet victory in the Cold War. In other words, compared to a communist victory in the Cold War, the destruction of thermonuclear war on a global scale could be envisaged with rela- tive equanimity.
Most of my fellow guests, the flower of New Right. Thatcherites, found it a spell- binding performance. At long last someone had thought up a closely argued rationale for supposing that the human race would benefit, in the long run, from most of its members being dead rather than red. Even at the time, I was uneasy. Was the virus of communism really so terminally deadly? Evil the Soviet empire was, but did it really have the power permanently to alter the nature of God's creation? Was this not to endow Messrs Brezhnev and his successor Andropov not only with superhuman pow- ers but with a degree of potency which Christian theology does not even grant to the Devil himself? Such scepticism was brushed aside, rather rudely, as I remem- ber. For ideological scepticism in the days of Reagan and Thatcher had gone very much out of fashion.
But it has to be said that my reaction did not spring only from scepticism. Mixed up with the scepticism was also a measure of distaste, almost of disgust. At the time I could not quite grasp the reason for this, which only became clear the other day while reading a recently published book, formidably intelligent and erudite, by a young American academic, Paul Oppen- heimer, called Evil and the Demonic*, in which he describes the mediaeval Church's attitude to heresy. Because heresy con- demned a man's soul to eternal damnation, the Church had a duty to go to any lengths to prevent it spreading. Who could doubt that it was better for the man to have a confession burnt out of him at the stake than suffer an eternity of burning in the flames of Hell? Mercifully Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, did not have ther- monuclear weapons, only thumbscrews and faggots, with which to save mankind from heresy. Even so the death roll was quite high enough.
Was Torquemada evil? Paul Oppen- heimer does not directly answer the ques- tion. But he refuses to acquit simply on the 'Well wait till your Eurosceptic gets home!' grounds that he claimed to be killing and torturing for a good cause. Anybody can claim that. Such an excuse is too easy. For there was something self-indulgent, even sadistic, about Torquemada's zealotry, as if pursuing heresy was quite as much pleasure as duty. Although the Inquisitors claimed that burning heretics was God's work, the pleasure they obviously got from it raised suspicions that the Devil, too, may have had a hand in it. So many of the Church's own rules and precepts had to be broken to make the cruelties of the Inquisition possi- ble, so many of the teachings of Christ brazenly flouted. Certainly the Church itself no longer condones the Inquisition. It was the darkest of periods, over which it seeks to cast a veil.
Luckily for the Reagan-Thatcherite New Right, posterity won't ever have cause to think so ill of its zealotry. All's well that ends well. The heretics, in the person of Mr Gorbachev, recanted without the human race having to be incinerated. No cause, therefore, for regrets, still less shame. Quite the opposite. The New Right can and does now boast that their zealotry, more than anything else, proved the last straw that broke the Red Bear's back. Pos- sibly it was. Without the New Right's ideo- logical fervour the Cold War might still be unresolved.
But it could so easily have had the oppo- site effect: provoked the Red Bear into one last act of globally cataclysmic desperation. It is this possibility that I find so disturbing. For from the knowledge we now have of conditions within the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse, and probably for many years earlier, it is clear that the threat it posed, at any rate by the time Reagan and Thatcher came to power, no longer justi- fied carrying on the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, let alone carrying it on in an ideological context more highly charged than ever before.
This is not to condone communism. It remained to the end a beastly system of government and the West's determination to resist it was clearly more than justified. But by then it was manifestly not a totali- tarian system capable of stamping out the human spirit for all time. Indeed, even after 70 years of communism, Soviet litera- ture, art, music, theatre, opera and ballet were in many ways amazingly healthy, in some respects more so than in the West, having been spared, thanks to communism, the degradations of ever-changing fashion — the real tyrant of humanity. Communism did indeed wreck the Sovi- et economy, but not the educational sys- tem, or even the world of Russian scholarship, which somehow managed to carry on regardless. When under perestroi- ka Soviet scholars started to travel abroad, their Western hosts, brainwashedby Orwellian fantasies, were staggered to find how well they had kept up with advances in knowledge, in spite of living in what was thought to be a totalitarian, closed society.
Certainly the reading public had not done too badly; apart from Dostoevsky, most of the Russian classics remained available, with the result that the ordinary Russian probably knows more of his own country's literature today than the average Briton or American knows of his. Christianity, too, had survived in the Soviet Union rather more vigorously than it has in the free world.
None of this means that the Soviet Union did not continue to pose a threat. But it was no longer, if it had ever been, so awful a threat that the duty of the West was plainly to incinerate the world rather than to compromise with it. To bluff about that duty, as was the West's way for most of the Cold War, was of course justifiable. But the New Right zealots were not bluffing. They really did believe that the West should push the button, and had the Rus- sians made a seriously false move during that period, press that button is just what Ronald Reagan, abetted by Margaret Thatcher, might have done.
Certainly that is what the New Right Cold War warriors at the American maga- zine Commentary, for example, would have urged them to do. So, in all probability, would I. It makes me quite sick to think about the hawkish leading article I would have written in the Sunday Telegraph. For anti-communist hawkishness had become by then almost a reflex action, justified or even sharpened by Mrs Kirkpatrick's famous analysis.
It is this that worries me — the New Right's macho readiness, towards the end of the Cold War, to envisage thermonuclear hot war. At the beginning of the Cold War it was too frightful to imagine. Then, with experience, we learnt to accept the threat as a necessary tool in diplomacy. But in the final triumphalist period — long after the Soviet Union had become just another dic- tatorship — the New Right, in the grip of ideology, seemed almost to look forward to thermonuclear Armageddon. Fortunately they were given no opportunity to press the button. But had the Russians obliged, imagine having to defend this action at the pearly gates. Possibly Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Hitler had a more difficult task of exculpation. But the task of explaining to the Almighty just why it was unavoidable in the 1980s to save his creation from commu- nism by bombing it back to the dark ages would not have been at all easy.
A great power can only hope (as the nov- elist Rex Warner made Caesar say) that posterity will recognise that its acts were necessary and, when possible, well-mean- ing. For most of the Cold War, I think the Almighty would have found these two con- ditions well enough met. But about the last dogma-ridden decade, for which the New Right takes such credit, I am not nearly so sure.
*Paul Oppenheimer's Evil and the Demonic is published by Duckworth at £14.99.