On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the pilot survived and eventually returned home to the United States, but his mission went unfinished. Originally, the U-2 mission had begun to confirm the "missile gap" that so many in the Pentagon were sure existed between the allegedly gargantuan missile stockpile the Soviets possessed and the tiny missile force sported by the Pentagon. At the time, lawmakers estimated that the Soviets possessed about 500 ICBM’s. It turns out that they had exactly four. In 1960, the United States was the country with the advantage in the missile gap, and it would continue to have the advantage through the end of the Cold War thirty years later.
Then as now, however, lawmakers driven by ignorance and the grim political necessities of mass democracy promised to build thousands of bigger and better missiles to deter the enemy. Estimates were made of how many Russians and Chinese we would be able to take out with such an arsenal. Estimates hovered around 350 million Europeans and Asians, but unfortunately, the price of success was about 100 million Americans. Freedom would win the day in the end, though.
The willingness in Washington to gamble with so many lives prompted many to be rather skeptical about the wisdom of the entire exercise. In 1963, while the Soviets were desperately cranking out missiles to keep up with Kennedy’s plan for 1,000 ICBM’s, Pope John XXIII issued the enclyclical Pacem in Terris in which he examined the dynamics of the arms race, its disregard for human dignity, and the likelihood that, if war should come, it would undoubtedly be touched off by some inexplicable and unpredictable accident of history:
There is a common belief that under modern conditions peace cannot be assured except on the basis of an equal balance of armaments and that this factor is the probable cause of this stockpiling of armaments. Thus, if one country increases its military strength, others are immediately roused by a competitive spirit to augment their own supply of armaments. And if one country is equipped with atomic weapons, others consider themselves justified in producing such weapons themselves, equal in destructive force.
Consequently people are living in the grip of constant fear. They are afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of such weapons. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.
Back in New York, Murray Rothbard was more blunt:
Some people may prefer death to communism; and this is perfectly legitimate for them — although death may not often be a solution to any problem. But suppose they also try to impose their will on other people who might prefer life under communism to death in a "free world" cemetery. Is not forcing them into mortal combat a pure and simple case of murder? And is not anti-Communist murder as evil as murder committed by Communists?
Rothbard considered the Soviet nuclear threat to be a political myth, convenient for inflating government budgets, and he was right. He was not alone in such criticism either. Dwight Eisenhower had warned against unwarranted hysteria and paranoia over the alleged missile gap, and in his famous "military-industrial complex" speech urged caution against a foreign policy formulated by weapons contractors.
The prescience of men like Rothbard and Eisenhower does not necessarily mean that those who pressed for the arms race were fools. Given the perennial incompetence of the CIA, the paranoia in retrospect seems somewhat understandable. It is more difficult to see, however, how John XXIII’s logic on proliferation was so easily dismissed and the fact that nuclear proliferation by one government cries out for others to proliferate as well was so steadfastly ignored. If one compares the nuclear policy of the Cold War to the policies of lawmakers today, though, the old Cold Warriors come off as almost noble.
Only the most bloodthirsty hawks of the Cold War ever planned to establish nuclear arsenals as anything other than a deterrent, and it was never an option to use nuclear weapons on a country that did not possess its own nuclear weapons. The "first strike" option was never really considered a viable option by any American president, and nuclear weapons were only to be used if it was clear that millions of American deaths were an inevitability. Such was the noble insanity of the Cold War.
Fast forward to 2002, and we find that things have changed considerably. In February, someone at the Pentagon who had not yet completed the transformation into a complete sociopath leaked the "Nuclear Posture Review" which outlined plans for a nuclear "end game" with Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria, none of which possess nuclear weapons. The report also outlined plans to let the missiles fly on Russia and China as well, even though virtually everyone on the face of the Earth thought we had actually normalized relations with them. It turns out, much to the surprise of the Chinese and the Russians, that they are still potential enemies in a nuclear holocaust.
The biggest change in nuclear policy however, has been the movement away from a "last resort" mentality on nuclear weapons to a "first strike" mentality. The neo-conservative hawks and their allies in Washington have been pushing for years to develop low yield nuclear weapons. The idea behind the low-yield arsenal is that, since everyone pretty much accepts that it is insanity to kill millions of civilians in a 50 megaton blast, it is therefore more threatening to possess a 10 megaton device that might actually be used, and would thus only kill about 100,000 civilians. One can claim to be slightly less loony to use such small time weapons, and thus their deterrence power is increased. As one might expect, The American Conference of Catholic Bishops and many in Congress have criticized the plan for "blurring" the line between conventional and nuclear war. As it has become more and more clear in recent years that some in the Pentagon are willing to use low-yield nuclear weapons on non-nuclear countries, it appears that the line has been blurred indeed.
The latest rationale behind the development of these new semi-conventional nuclear weapons has been the hysteria over "bunkers" in so-called rogue nations. According to National Review’s Rich Lowry, these new bunker busting nuclear weapons are absolutely essential to ensure that no one, anywhere, will be out of reach of the American arsenal. It’s nice to think that we could develop weapons that can destroy military targets with pinpoint accuracy, but if there’s anything we have learned time and time again in the day of smart weapons, it’s that the weapons may be smart, but the people dropping them make mistakes, as when we mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia. The question we must ask ourselves, then, is even if we have low-yield, bunker busting, super accurate, nuclear weapons (a pretty bad assumption), will there ever be a situation where they can pass moral muster? Assuming that these bunkers are somewhere other than the middle of nowhere (a pretty good assumption) are we willing to drop nuclear bombs (with all their accompanying radiation, fallout, and lung-busting shock waves) and then claim it was worth the lives of some 50,000 impoverished peasants living nearby?
American nuclear policy has come a long way since the days of the Cold War. In 1960’s we felt threatened, paranoid, and backed into a corner. At times it seemed that our only option was to be prepared to let loose the end of the world if it allowed us to make our enemies feel even more threatened and paranoid than we were. Today, without any military rival, and with no nuclear power making professions of ill will toward the United States, we have developed plans for the utter destruction of friends and enemies alike, and have developed weapons for use in first strike nuclear attacks in case they prove necessary as a "pre-emptive" measure, or if some adversary threatens our "National Interest" as defined by Donald Rumsfeld. The moral bankruptcy here ought to astound all who confront it, but then, the United States government abandoned the moral high ground a long time ago.