October 17, 2012
The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the pivotal moment of the nuclear age. More than anything else, it revealed the potential for catastrophe that lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence. That potential does not arise just from the risk that accidents or misjudgments may overwhelm strategies and plans. The danger exists because the brute facts of military, political, and human reality are at odds with the basic presumption of nuclear deterrence.
In Jonathan Schell's wonderful book The Gift of Time, Gen. Lee Butler, who served as commander-in-chief of the United States Strategic Command, a position in which he had planning and operational responsibilities for all US strategic nuclear forces, explained that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, "[t]he goal — the wish, really — might be to prevent nuclear war, but the operational plan had to be to wage war. After all, actual nuclear 'deterrence' — which is to say a mental state of restraint brought about by terror of annihilation — was nothing that we could bring about by ourselves. In the last analysis, it was up to the enemy whether he would be deterred or not. What both sides had to do in the meantime was plan for nuclear war. Wish and plan collided at every point — psychologically, intellectually, but, above all, operationally."
This inevitable conflict between the idea of nuclear deterrence and the operational plans for nuclear war that are required to make deterrence workable was what set off the Cuban Missile Crisis in the first place. And, as Butler observes, once the two countries entered the crisis, "thoughts of deterrence vanished."
My colleague Zia Mian once summarized the state of affairs succinctly: "Deterrence is hope masquerading as strategy." Reliance on this hope comes with a very high price. As the Cuban Missile Crisis reminds us, the search for deterrence using nuclear weapons can transform the normal dangers that flow from military crises and war into extraordinarily destructive ones.
Science and Security Board
Deterrence: A flawed construct