Ours being a free country, the proponents of any course of action are entitled to argue the merits of their case before the forum of American opinion, provided that they do not overstep the bounds of simple decency and military security. If they argue honestly and if all sides to a question are competently put forth, the American public will generally show enough wisdom to choose one of the better alternatives. This is a far cry from saying that the American people will invariably act rationally in dealing with issues. We have made some pretty terrible mistakes in the past, and no doubt we shall make more in the future. But the signs of our times warn us that we had better not make too many and that there are some mistakes that we now simply cannot afford to make at all.
So the process of public debate upon the issues that press upon us for decision goes on, must go on as a necessary function of a working democracy. And the evidence is rapidly accumulating which would lead one to suspect that a debate of major proportions is shaping up for the early months of 1954.
To begin with, we have been doing two things at a prodigious rate over the past three years: spending money and developing new weapons. We are tired of the former and entranced with the latter. Since the beginning of the Korean War we have spent over a hundred billion dollars directly for national defense and have authorized the expenditure of nearly a hundred billion more. Our soldiers, sailors, and airmen come—a good many of them reluctantly—at ten thousand dollars a year. Twenty-five thousand of them have died and a hundred thousand more have been injured in three cruel and bitter years of fighting.
Now a conscript army is a decidedly unpopular thing in a democracy, even in the face of a clear and evident need for it. It can be expected that as the present armed truce in the world wears on, the present level of our armed forces may become increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of a mounting weariness with the separations, hardships, inconvenience, and economic burdens that it inevitably entails.
One of the contributing causes to this great restiveness has been and will continue to be the strategic and tactical possibilities held out by the recent advances in novel weapons. Nuclear bombs enormously more powerful than the nominal 20-kiloton Hiroshima weapon have been developed and tested. Guided missiles of a number of types are in varying stages of development, and some are already in production. Missiles capable of carrying atomic warheads have been launched from the deck of ships. The Army has successfully fired an atomic projectile from a 280 mm. cannon.
Reading as much significance as they could into the sketchy announcements of the Defense Department, many Americans have come to conclude that we are reaching the pay-point on a completely new weapons program centered on atomic bombs and guided missiles, which would provide, at a fraction of the cost in money and manpower, several times the destructiveness available from our present weapons. A battery of atomic cannon might replace, not a division's artillery, but the division itself. A few small guided missile ships might come to do the work of an entire carrier task force. A relatively few atomic bombs delivered upon a selected target system by aircraft, guided missiles, or a combination of the two would completely destroy the war-making potential of an enemy and do it within so short a period as to render superfluous and unnecessary most of our existing armaments. The era of push-button warfare, or something close to it, appears to be just around the corner.
Meanwhile, we have not been alone in the development of super-weapons. On August 20, it was officially confirmed in this country that the Soviet Union had exploded a thermonuclear device. Disregarding the technical language in which it was expressed, most Americans took the announcement to mean that the Soviet had, or eventually would have, a bomb capable of levelling a city the size of New York. The announcement fixed the position of Soviet progress in thermonuclear development as being about a year behind our own, and perhaps as much as a year ahead of what our previous estimates had considered it to be. Significantly enough, it compelled many Americans for the first time to consider seriously the matter of continental defense against atomic attack and what, if anything, could be done about it.
New Year’s, 1954, thus finds us more than ordinarily preoccupied, not only with atomic warfare, but with the burdens of maintaining both atomic and conventional weapons systems. Since a good part of this preoccupation will lead to the conviction in certain quarters that we ought to be doing something other than what we are doing (depending on whose viewpoint is at stake), it is a fair guess that our present arms program will come in for increasing criticism as the proponents of opposed views come to grips with the earthy realities of money and people in the budget-making process next spring.
On the other hand, we may expect that the present program will be stoutly defended, as it already has been in the public press, by those charged with its formulation and development. Speaking before the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia, in September, Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Anderson expressed his convictions about weapons systems in these words:
“The increasing power of the atomic bomb suggests to me that the need for improvement of the more conventional forms of warfare may well become greater, rather than less, as we approach absoluteness in mass destruction weapons.”
In something of the same vein, Army Secretary Stevens observed in October, 1953, “The time is not here when it would be the part of wisdom to put all our eggs in one basket. The necessity remains for the maintenance of military forces whose successful employment has been proved.” Twice in November, 1953, General Ridgway found it appropriate to emphasize and explain in his public utterances the importance of the ground soldier in war.
As the field of maneuver thus narrowed with the approach of the coming fiscal year, we are likely to see a contest between two opposed strategic concepts revived with an asperity unknown since the days of Billy Mitchell. For purpose of identification, these views are summarized briefly in the following two paragraphs.
First, there is the air-atomic concept, very capably advanced in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly by former Secretary of the Air Force Finletter, which sees an atomic blitz as the transcendent danger to the United States and advocates a strategic atomic air-arm capability of overwhelming strength as the one decisive weapon about which our military strategy should be built. While conventional weapons would not be eliminated entirely, far greater emphasis than is now the case would be placed upon atomic devices. Within the context of current budgetary policy, this could only mean a drastic reduction in conventional armaments to provide the wherewithal to finance the increased air capability advocated.
Second, there is the much-maligned balanced force concept, which seeks to have the forces available to handle a variety of enemy capabilities, both atomic and conventional. Through it we seek to be reasonably well- equipped to deal with any eventuality, rather than to be preeminently well equipped to deal with one, and not equipped at all to deal with the others. In all fairness it should be noted here that the balanced force concept has never had anything to do with equal shares in the budget. To be specific, appropriations since the inception of our present National Security Organization in 1947 have given $69 billions to the Army, $59 billions to the Navy, and $74 billions to the Air Force. The remaining unexpended obligational authority provides $27 billions for the Army, $24 billions for the Navy, and $37 billions for the Air Force. Ideally, a balanced force is balanced against enemy capabilities—nothing more and nothing less. Within the limitations of what can be done with things being the way they are, our present force is constituted with that objective in mind.
Perhaps the first thing to be said about these two concepts is that as stated by their protagonists they are indeed incompatible with one another under a budget anywhere remotely resembling what the American people could or would support under today’s conditions. This being the case, we face the prospect of another Great Debate in the months ahead in which, ironically, the contest in the budget arena will be an interesting but irrelevant sidelight. For the real issues which confront us go far deeper than the momentary strength of the Army, or the Navy, or the Air Force, or the state of our continental defense, or the size of our atomic stockpiles. These things are but the surface evidences of a division that goes to the roots of our civilization itself. It is to be hoped as the American people encounter these issues and deal with them that they can be persuaded to believe that here is something fundamental to the survival of all that is fine and decent and worthy in our heritage, and perhaps of the world itself as we know it. For we shall be considering nothing less than the place and purpose of war in the pursuit of the objectives of a democratic society.
It is this fundamental issue that relates the Great Debate of 1954 so closely to the Great Debate of 1951. It will be remembered that one of the issues over which that conflict raged was that of whether or not our true interest would be served by enlarging the scope of the Korean conflict to include the mainland of China. We eventually decided that it would not. Another issue, and one which brought Mr. Attlee to Washington rather precipitately to discuss the matter, was that of whether we should use the atomic bomb, either tactically or strategically, on the enemy we were then fighting. We decided it would not only be profitless but dangerous to do so. And while we were never very definite about our political objectives in the Korean War, it is quite plain that they never at any time went beyond the unification of Korea, and that perhaps only while our troops were rampaging through the People’s Republic on their way to the Yalu. No one in his right mind ever had any idea of starting a new world order out of the military decision we sought in Korea.
Finally, and much later, we accepted an armistice without victory under a territorial dispensation that left Korea about as it had been three years before, and with the northern half of it firmly in the possession of an undefeated army.
Perhaps not since the time of President Polk has our country been so bitterly divided over the conduct of an external war, and the acrimony of the 1951 Debate will be with us for years to come. But if we consent to view the matter objectively, and without discussing the merits of the case, we can see in our conduct of the Korean War a total departure from our two immediately previous adventures into the realm of international violence. Its significance lay in the fact that for the first time in this century we deliberately chose to fight a major war in a lesser degree than that of which we were capable. In what was truly a remarkable act of forebearance we, of our own design, limited our objectives, our methods, and the area of our military operations in recognition of the fact that a conclusive military victory was not the summary objective of our efforts.
All this was in sharp contrast to the two wars immediately preceding. There we were disposed to picture each conflict as an uncompromising fight of Right against Wrong, to insist upon beating the enemy into complete submission, and to regard negotiations for anything less than unconditional surrender as a covenant with the devil himself. In the second of the World Wars this moral hysteria betrayed us into a witless, paranoic insistence that eighty million Germans and seventy million Japanese were our mortal enemies and must be destroyed wherever they might be found and at whatever cost.
Having announced by both word and deed our intention of giving no quarter, we were properly rewarded for our short-sightedness by having to over-run every foot of Germany to the Elbe and of having to expend thousands of lives and billions of dollars to bring a capitulation to Japan who was hopelessly beaten at least a year before. Then, on the morrow of victory, we concerned ourselves mightily with the weakened state of our past enemies and began to pour out billions of dollars to restore what we had so recently poured out billions to destroy.
So the 1951 Debate turned the country’s attention directly upon the matter of the place of war within the framework of national policy. It resulted in our decision to fight a limited war, for a limited objective, by limited means. It was a significant departure from the Wilsonian credo of “force, force to the utmost, force without stint or limit,” or the Rooseveltian “Unconditional Surrender,” or of General MacArthur’s more recent “War’s very object is victory.” And it is an indication, but only an indication, of the disposition of the American people to view the matter of dealing with one’s enemies in a calmer light than they had exhibited before and to set some sort of limit upon the price in blood and treasure which we might be willing to pay to attain a political objective of limited advantage to our national security. The territorial integrity of the Republic of Korea was vital to us and worth our going to considerable expense and trouble to preserve. It was not so vital that it was worth our becoming deeply involved in a continental war with China which might end in a total global conflict and somehow we knew it.
In peace or in war, there can be but one rational basis for a nation’s acts and policies: namely the pursuit of objectives that will most effectively advance its interests. Moreover, the controlling objectives of a nation are always political ones, never military. War is never fought merely for the sake of fighting. Beyond the end of any war—and wars do end—political relationships again supervene, and in order for the war to have had any purpose for the victor those political relationships must be more satisfactory and more hopeful at its end than they were at its beginning. If a war is pursued with any other objective in mind it is being conducted irrationally and at odds with its larger purpose, and a nation which persists in such conduct will eventually go down to the ruin and destruction it rightfully deserves.
Perhaps a dawning awareness of this reality was in fact the controlling element in our deliberations about the Korean War. If this is the lesson we have gotten, however imperfectly, from our bitter experience of the past forty years, then we have indeed come a long way.
Now we are about to see the question of the limitation of war put to us again, stated in different terms than it was in 1951. Naturally enough for America, most of the sound and fury will center about weapons and weapons systems. We are a great people for gimmicks and gadgets, and, sensing this, the parties at interest will undoubtedly state the case in terms of the performance of the weapons they seek to procure. But if our understanding of the problem stops here it will indeed be unfortunate, for we shall be deceived into thinking we have a simple choice between means to the same objective.
This is not the case. The air-atomic concept is oriented in an entirely different direction from that of the balanced force concept and cannot in its very nature be employed for the same purposes. A nation is bound to pursue ends which its leadership considers essential to the advancement of its long-term interests. This it does through peace and through war, dependent upon the circumstances in which it finds itself. The strategy and weapons of the balanced force concept are designed to serve the ends of policy, and while they have not always done so, the possibility was always there, and there was nothing inherent in the nature of the concept that would preclude its being employed effectively in the pursuit of national goals.
The inherent weakness of the air-atomic concept and the source of its incompatibility with sound national objectives arise out of the fact that its weapons cannot be used at all except in total war. And total war in the light of today’s weapons capabilities means the irretrievable loss of all objectives of every nation involved in it. None of the belligerents could ever win such a war; most of them could not even survive it.
It may be argued, with some merit, that American atomic air power was the principal deterrent to a general attack by the Soviet in the years immediately following the Second World War. That may be true, but it is also irrelevant. 1947 is not 1957. The Soviet atomic capability has gone a long way toward neutralizing our own, and our own atomic capability now gives us small comfort indeed.
Threat of the use of atomic weapons did not deter, for example, the North Korean invasion of June 25, 1950, nor did it deter the entry of the Chinese “volunteers” into the conflict six months later. It did not deter the conquest of China by the Communists—a staggering blow to our position in the Far East. It did not deter the Communist intervention in Greece. It did not deter the Berlin blockade. Despite our obvious and vital interest in French Indo-China, it does not deter in the slightest instance the operation of the Viet Minh forces there. In no possible way does it deter the ceaseless political, economic, and ideological warfare carried on against us year in and year out. Further—and this is something we all should think about very carefully—it is not going to deter an attack upon our Allies in Europe by an enemy deliberately restricting his operations to conventional methods under a quid pro quo with his victims against the use of atomic armaments. For it is not ourselves and not our President who in these circumstances will have the last word in the use of our atomic air power. Rather it will be the nations whose continuing consent is necessary for our use of the air bases we have constructed within their boundaries, and upon whose policies and attitudes we shall have to depend, for many years to come, upon the full and effective employment of our atomic capabilities.
Despite these limitations, our atomic air power is, within its proper field of effectiveness, an indispensable part of our military power. It suffers principally from being oversold and from having capabilities ascribed to it that it never in fact possessed.
It cannot deter political, economic, or ideological warfare, nor can it deter conventional military operations. But it can, and must, deter an attack by a hostile power using atomic weapons, and in this, and this alone, lies its whole purpose and justification as a method of warfare. Its real value is that of an uncommitted reserve, and it loses that value the moment it is committed; for if atom bombs fall on Leningrad and Moscow, they will surely fall upon Washington and New York, and the sum of this bloody business of trading queens will very likely be ruin and stalemate for both sides. Ironically, atomic air power can be justified only for the sole purpose of insuring that it will never be used. Be it based on Air Force or naval capabilities, this is what our possession of atomic air power means, and this is all it means.
Atomic air power deters atomic air power, period. If we want to deter anything else and if we want to have the means of dealing with the situation in case the deterrents fail, we must be able to counter, promptly and effectively, any aggressive movement, whether by a hostile army, navy, or air force. We must have weapons and concepts suited to the needs of every level of military operations between the border raid and all-out global war. If our forces are to play their part effectively as an instrument of national policy, we must have this broad capability and our enemies must know it. If we do not have such a capability and if we narrow our freedom of action to fit the limitations of a single weapon concept, we court a very dangerous possibility.
If, by our concentration on a single weapon, we reduce our other military capabilities to the point where we can make no adequate reply to an act of limited aggression, we can, when confronted with such an act, have only two alternatives: We can capitulate, and stand idly by, watching our position in the world being nibbled away, or, perhaps stung by frustration and humiliation of successive defeats, we may invoke our atomic power and in so doing extend the conflict to a scope and level of intensity totally unwarranted by the circumstances of the aggressive act. In this way, by limiting our capability of dealing with the acts of limited warfare, we substantially increase the chances of atomic warfare. Worse still, the atomic superiority upon which we relied as a deterrent to war would, through our weakness in conventional measures, serve to invite the very conflict we seek to avoid.
The air-atomic concept, moreover, is singularly at odds with our participation in any program which might have for its objective the control of atomic weapons. It has consistently been our policy to seek a basis on which atomic weapons might be effectively brought under international control. We have gone so far as to author a plan for such a purpose which has won support from all the membership of the United Nations save the Soviet bloc. But if atomic weapons become our only effective means for exerting force, we can hardly countenance any arrangement which would deprive us of our only means for defending ourselves. Once committed to the air atomic concept, we must necessarily abandon once and for all the search for ways of outlawing nuclear weapons; yet to do so is to abandon hope that the world can ever move so much as an inch out of the shadow of the atomic bomb.
Something remains to be said about the proposal that atomic weapons be employed for tactical purposes while forswearing their use in strategic operations, the idea being to establish certain limits upon the types of operation and, to an extent, the geographic area in which maximum force could be used. If such a delineation could in fact be accomplished, the non-military elements of the nations involved might regain much of the privileged status they enjoyed prior to World War II and the military decision might be brought off with far less destruction and far more purpose than might otherwise be the case.
In point of practice, however, there seems little prospect that any kind of line can be drawn, either as between tactical and strategic operations, or between military and non-military targets. Most prospective battle areas are rather densely populated. Armies fight in, around, and for cities. The combat zone in a war of mobility may be fifty miles deep, and a target classified “strategic” one day may well become “tactical” the next. Battlefield interdiction, a legitimate and necessary tactical operation, demands the destruction of roads, railroads, rolling stock, port facilities, and waterways directly serving an enemy’s battle formations. Almost without exception, the most lucrative of these communications targets will be found firmly imbedded in a matrix of non-combatant installations. If anything as imprecise as an atomic bomb is used upon them the whole case for differentiating between targets falls down. It makes little difference if ground zero happens to be in the middle of a railroad marshalling yard if the town around it is blown sky high as well.
This simply means that we need to know a great deal more than we now know about the tactical possibilities, both offensive and defensive, of atomic weapons. There is good reason to look for their use against such obvious targets as convoy formations, concentrations of troops and shipping during amphibious operations, and particularly important individual ships such as aircraft carriers. It is our misfortune that in the nature of our circumstances as a sea power we should present so many targets which are clearly and exclusively military or tactical, or both. We are thus relatively more vulnerable than a land-based enemy to any convention restricting the employment of atomic weapons to certain categories of targets and operations—which is all the more reason why we should seek to ban them altogether.
There might still possibly be a use for the atomic bomb as a weapon to be applied directly against troops in open country, but its value in such cases is open to serious question. Even a thermonuclear bomb, to be worthwhile, demands a certain minimum density of personnel and equipment in the target area, and whether this minimum requirement would ever be met is something no one can know for certain. The use of atomic weapons, or even the threat of their use, by both sides in an operation leaves the whole matter of future land warfare open to conjecture. Only this much seems certain: when the last bomb has been detonated and the last gun has been fired, the issue of the battle will go to the side whose soldiers are in possession of the ground over which it was fought. The ultimate weapon is the man, not the bomb.
As long as we exist as a people on this earth we are bound to have enemies, and our central problem of survival consists of finding ways to live with them under terms which effectively serve our interests, not in perfecting ways to expunge them from the face of the earth. For politics is continuous, while war is episodic, and there is abundant evidence at hand to show how quickly allies can turn into enemies and enemies into allies. It is asking too much of a distraught and grievance-ridden world to suppose that its peoples will at any time soon consent to be locked together in some sort of timeless status quo which will miraculously dissolve all elements of controversy. As long as great inequities exist in the world, as they surely do, we shall continue to have the basis for conflict among nations and bitterness among men. We should recognize this, and we should have the good sense to draw from it the conclusion that the terms “peace” and “security” in our world can never have more than relative meaning and that the realities these terms represent can only suffer by any attempt to confer upon them the status of absolutes.
If we cannot avoid conflict, it becomes doubly important that we learn to deal with it at the least practicable level of violence, and in installments small enough to give some promise that a settlement might be reached.
We must proceed, a step at a time, to reduce tensions and areas of disagreement wherever and whenever we can do so. If the diplomatic contest boils over into military action, we should strive within the realities given us to see that the military operations we undertake do not prejudice the outcome of the political negotiations which we must resume at the end of hostilities. We should have the modesty to admit that it is not within our power to settle all or even a substantial part of the world’s problems and the patience to recognize that even the unpretentious settlements we do achieve are not likely to be very permanent.
This should be no cause for great disillusionment among people who as individuals have become accustomed to regard life as “just one damned thing after another” and who accept its trials and vicissitudes in a spirit of forebearance and good humor that permits them to lead full, decent, and useful lives in spite of their troubles. It simply means that we shall have to stop viewing our prospects in terms of stark absolutes, as if there were no place for the conduct of our national affairs between the extremes of total peace and total war. It requires, in the words of George Kennan, “a new attitude among us toward many things outside our borders that are irritating and unpleasant today—an attitude more like the doctor toward those physical phenomena in the human body which are neither pleasing nor fortunate—an attitude of detachment and soberness and readiness to reserve judgment.”1 We shall serve the cause of humanity far better by conducting our public business in this manner, seeking limited objectives and piecemeal gains, rather than attempting a permanent, global settlement through some militant, self-righteous crusade which can only lead to bitterness and bloodshed.
If a civilization is going anywhere, except downhill, the product of its activities over a period of time must amount to an increase in the sum of human happiness within its boundaries. We are thus bound to stand for the spreading and diffusion of the things we recognize as good. We stand for human freedom and the brotherhood of man. We stand for a decent standard of living. We stand for tolerance and justice and understanding. But none of these things can be propagated by force. Compulsion belongs to tyranny, not to us. The cause of civilization is not advanced by the hatred and destruction and brutality of war. We cannot find brotherhood at the end of a bayonet, and we cannot dispense human freedom from the barrel of an 8" gun. We cannot raise the standard of living by destroying the means which make it possible to live at all. The best that war can possibly do for a democracy is to obtain its survival against the day when it can resume the advancement of civilization by the political processes available to it in peace. But war, of itself, can in no positive way serve the goals of a democratic society.
Knowing this, we need to adopt a sensible attitude toward the purposes and possibilities of atomic weapons. At this particular moment we are absolutely dependent upon them, and our safety and the safety of the entire civilized world depends upon our having an atomic capability sufficient to devastate any energy who might elect to initiate an atomic attack upon us. We must have our delivery capability effectively dispersed between land-based and carrier-based aircraft, lest one or the other be seriously crippled through a concatenation of political and military events which we cannot now fully foresee. But beyond our having such a capability there seems to be no point in saturating ourselves with weapons and bombardment aircraft for the sake of having “overwhelming air superiority,” whatever that expression connotes. It is rather like a man buying three overcoats when he really needs a pair of galoshes.
We must recognize that the only purpose our atomic capability can have is to obtain the conditions which effectively enjoin an enemy from using his. It can never be used as an instrument of policy, either military or diplomatic, and because of this fact our requirement for the more conventional types of weapons remains as insistent as ever. We must never relinquish the idea of international control of atomic weapons, and we must work patiently and wholeheartedly to make the idea a reality. Just as importantly, we must be prepared to accept such control without prejudice to our own interests, if and when we reach the basis for an agreement. This means a level of conventional armaments adequate to meet the needs of our national security in the absence of atomic weapons.
Above all, we must stop boggling at the spectre of atomic warfare as if it were the only possibility that confronts us. The state of mind of a democracy is an important thing, and it is important just now that we get ourselves disentangled from the witchcraft of our atomic alarmists. We don’t want to go to sleep on the matter, of course, but we don’t want to go crazy, either. It is up to us to see the atomic bomb in its proper perspective within the great context of political, military, economic, and spiritual realities which bear upon our problem of survival, and to see to it that our efforts—and they are very great efforts—come to some fulfillment in terms of the objectives we wish to see attained. If we pursue this course, we shall be doing about all we can reasonably expect to do, and we shall be moving—slowly, haltingly, but still moving—in the direction of a world in which men can live in freedom, and can face the future with some assurance.
1. Kennan, George, American Diplomacy, Chicago, 1951, p. 103.