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Peace and Deterrence

Page history last edited by Peace Studies 15 years ago

FrontPage         Resources        Concepts:Themes    



Schell, J. (1982) The Fate of Earth, New York: Random House

Excerpts taken from Philosophical Perspectives on Peace (1987) ed. H.P. Kainz, Athens Ohio: Ohio University Press.


The central proposition of the deterrence doctrine – the piece of logic on which the world theoretically depends to see the sun rise tomorrow – is that a nuclear holocaust can best be prevented if each nuclear power, or bloc of powers, holds in readiness a nuclear force with which it ‘credibly’ threatens to destroy the entire society of any attacker, even after suffering the worst possible ‘first strike’ that the attacker can launch. Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense for seven years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, defined the policy in his book The Essence of Security, published in 1968, in the following terms: ‘Assured destruction is the very essence of the whole deterrence concept. We must possess an actual assured-destruction capability, and that capability also must be credible. The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering’. Thus deterrence ‘means the certainty of suicide to the aggressor, not merely to his military forces, but to his society as a whole’. [p.301] …..

The possession of nuclear weapons by the great powers, it is believed, will prevent the use of nuclear weapons by those same powers. Or, to put it more accurately, the threat of their use by those powers will prevent their use. Or, in the words of Bernard Brodie, a pioneer in nuclear strategy, in The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, a book published in 1946: ‘Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose’. Or in the classic, broad formulation of Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1955: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation’.

This doctrine, in its detailed as well as its more general formulations, is diagrammatic of the world’s failure to come to terms with the nuclear predicament. In it, two irreconcilable purposes clash. The first purpose is to permit the survival of the species, and this is expressed in the doctrine’s aim of frightening everybody into holding back from using nuclear weapons at all; the second purpose is to serve national ends, and this is expressed in the doctrine’s permitting the defense of one’s nation and its interests by threatening to use nuclear weapons. The strategists are pleased to call this clash of two opposing purposes in one doctrine a paradox, but in actuality it is a contradiction. We cannot both threaten ourselves with something and hope to avoid that same thing by making the threat – both intend to do something and intend not to do it. [p.302]…..

If the virtue of the deterrence policy lies in its acceptance of the basic fact of life in the nuclear world – that a holocaust will bring annihilation to both sides, and possibly the extinction of man as well – its defect lies in the strategic construct that it erects on the foundation of that fact. For if we try to guarantee our safety by threatening ourselves with doom, then we have to mean the threat; but if we mean it, then we are actually planning to do, in some circumstance or other, that which we categorically must never do and are supposedly trying to prevent – namely extinguish ourselves. This is the circularity at the core of the nuclear deterrence doctrine; we seek to avoid our self-extinction by threatening to perform the act. According to this logic, it is almost as though if we stopped threatening ourselves with extinction, then extinction would occur. [p.305] …

… Nuclear deterrence requires one to prepare for armed conflict not in order to ‘win’ if it breaks out but in order to prevent it breaking out in the first place. But if armed conflict breaks out anyway, what does one do with one’s forces then? In pre-nuclear times, the answer would have required no second thought: it would have been to strive for the decision by arms – for victory. Yet nuclear deterrence begins by [p.306] assuming correctly, that victory is impossible. Thus, the logic of the deterrence strategy is dissolved by the very event – the first strike – that it is meant to prevent. Once the action begins, the whole doctrine is self-cancelling. In sum, the doctrine is based on a monumental logical mistake: one cannot credibly deter a first strike with a second strike whose raison d’être dissolves the moment the first strike arrives. It follows that, as far as deterrence theory is concerned, there is no reason for either side not to launch a first strike. [p.307]

… To grasp the reality of the contradiction, [p.307] we have only to picture the circumstances of leaders whose country has just been annihilated in a first strike. Now their country is on its way to becoming a radioactive desert, but the retaliatory nuclear force survives in its silos, bombers, and submarines. These leaders of nobody, living in underground shelters or in ‘doomsday’ planes that could not land, would possess the means of national defense but no nation to defend. What rational purpose could they have in launching the retaliatory strike? Since there was no longer a nation, ‘national security’ could not be the purpose. Nor could defense of other peoples be the purpose, since the retaliatory strike might be the action that would finally break the back of the ecosphere and extinguish the species. In these circumstances, it seems to me, it is really an open question whether the leaders would decide to retaliate or not. [p.308]



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