Adapted from Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon Press), © Hudson Institute

Some Problems in the Near Future

(From Thinking about the Unthinkable, Horizon Press, 1962; pp. 212-217; © Hudson Institute)

Founder, Hudson Institute

1. Greater opportunities for blackmail, revenge, terrorism, and other mischief-making. In a world which is armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons, every quarrel or difference of opinion may lead to violence of a kind quite different from what is possible today. Today there are technical problems in rapidly escalating problems of mobilization, transportation, logistics, etc. This time and effort means that there are built-in safety features on the use or threat of violence. In the future these technical constraints may disappear. Even a relatively innocuous quarrel over fishing rights could involve the early use of a nuclear weapon or two as a demonstration (the literal modern equivalent of a shot across the bow). The other troublesome international problems, such as disputed frontiers or irredentist movements, can give rise to local "games of chicken." These games would build up pressures to threaten all-out war and violence on a scale previously unknown, in order to show resolve. It is not unreasonable to believe that every so often someone would miscalculate in this game of chicken and actually unleash a nuclear war.

2. More widespread capabilities for "local” Munichs, Pearl Harbors, and blitzkriegs. I have already mentioned an increased tendency to play the game of chicken and some of the increased risks to the players. An irresponsible, desperate, or determined decision maker might not waste time on the lower rungs of the escalation ladder. He might simply launch a disarming attack on his victim and present the world with a fait accompli. Even if the potential victim has a nuclear capability, it may not have enough second-strike capability to deter such an attack. While the other nations are likely to be indignant, they are not likely to start a nuclear war to avenge an accomplished fact. The attacker might even use the attacked nation as a hostage to prevent effective reprisals.

Sometimes an aggressor may not even need to launch his attack. He might merely launch an ultimatum. In many circumstances this will force the other side to choose between backing down or launching an attack itself. Both courses may be dangerous, but a competent aggressor should be able to make the second look worse; between accommodation and thermonuclear war, most will choose accommodation. Therefore, it should not surprise us if such choices are manufactured. Where opportunities for gain are large in the event of extremely aggressive behavior, some nations will choose to indulge in such behavior. A world armed with nuclear weapons would provide a fertile field for paranoiacs, megalomaniacs, and indeed all kinds of fanatics.

3. Pressure to preempt because of points one and two. To the extent that the aggressive behavior described above might actually occur, one could reasonably expect decision makers, at whom it might be directed, to note that they risk disaster by not acting, and therefore to note the importance of acting first. While few would wish to be either executioner or victim, most would prefer the first role to the second. A world in which "reciprocal fear of surprise attack" (or surprise ultimatum) is ever present is also a world in which there would be little stability. There would also be greater pressure toward psychological and political preemption. In any situation in which an important advantage can be gained by announcing, "One of us has to be responsible, and since it isn't going to be me, it has to be you," there is a tendency to use committal strategies, that is, to say it first and firmly.

4. Tendencies to neglect conventional military capabilities. Because of an over-reliance on nuclear capabilities or fear of the other side's nuclear capabilities, it is likely to be difficult for most nations to remain committed to the notion of limited conventional war. Since nuclear weapons provide "more bang for the buck," they are unlikely to allocate money, manpower, thought, and other scarce commodities, to conventional or other limited-war situations. This is so notwithstanding what could well be their realization that they might be unwilling to use their nuclear capabilities in a crisis, and so must either wage an inadequate conventional war or issue rather weak threats in that direction. This tendency to neglect conventional military capabilities may well create many kinds of instabilities and opportunities for bluff, counterbluff, or actual attacks that could result in defeat or escalation.

5. Greater danger of inadvertent war. The possibility of inadvertent war would no doubt increase not only because there would be many more weapons and missiles available, but because there will be many more organizations in existence, each with different standards of training, organization, and degrees of responsibility. The possibility of unauthorized behavior, irresponsibility, misunderstanding of orders, or lax discipline inevitably increases. Mistakes can occur and the probability of most mistakes would increase if the military or political organization were weak or slipshod.

To be sure, a mistake need not set off a large-scale chain reaction. In fact, every small war or accident would bring pressures to reform the system, pressures that are likely to spur a relatively peaceful evolution out of the current system of virtual anarchy. Hopefully, nations will refuse to accept a situation in which nuclear accidents actually do occur, and, if at all possible, they will do something to correct a system which makes them likely.

**6. Internal political problems (civil war, coup d'etat, irresponsibility, etc.) and external factors (arms race, fear of fear, etc.)**. Even in a world that is much less dangerous than the one I have been describing, there will be both responsible and irresponsible peace and accommodation movements. If every time a hard decision has to be made, a major portion of the country has to be risked; if every time a country's diplomat walks into a hostile conference room, every man, woman, and child feels threatened; if every time a nation stands firm against aggressive probes, panic seizes the hearts of many of its citizens, then many citizens will simply adopt an attitude of denial or apathetic fatalism. Others will call for "peace" at any price with such intensity that their governments will have to get out of their way. There may even be some who will say, "Better a fearful end than endless fear." Responsible political life is likely to suffer disastrously as a result of a combination of apathy, denial, and hysteria. The trouble with "negotiating" in this atmosphere is that, to put it mildly, it is not likely to produce thoughtful, considered suggestions or programs. It will instead invite blackmail and deception by the government which is in better control of its people, and irresponsible rigidity or destabilizing weakness by the government which cannot manipulate its people. The anxieties created by such a perilous world may increase the dangers even more should "peace" movements be accompanied by violence or even large-scale non-violence. Organized political life may be threatened even more gravely. Their threat might activate less pacific groups which in turn might encourage governments to practice a rigid despotism in an attempt to prevent even small military or political groups from obtaining and using weapons either for protest or for revolutionary purposes. And, eventually, even the best of safeguards may fail.

7. Diffusion of nuclear weapons to irresponsible private organizations. To the extent that these advanced weapons or their components are treated as articles of commerce, perhaps for peaceful uses as in the Plowshare program, their cost would be well within the resources available to many large private organizations. In fact, if prices are lowered to $100,000 or so—and this is not all implausible—they are in some sense available to vast numbers of individuals. (Almost any dedicated or fanatic member of the middle class of any advanced nation could save up all or an appreciable fraction of this sum.) Exactly what this could mean is hard to grasp without detailed consideration of various "scenarios," but few will feel comfortable in a world in which Malayan guerrillas, Cuban rebels, Algerian terrorists, right-wing counter-terrorists, the Puerto Rican Independence party, or even gangsters and atomic extortionists, might obtain access to nuclear weapons or other means of mass destruction. Even if nuclear weapons and their delivery systems do not become articles of commerce, almost all of their components will have peaceable "relatives" and therefore may become generally available. Only a few special parts or assemblies would have to be specially manufactured by organizations or individuals who wish to obtain actual nuclear weapons' capability.

8. More complicated future problems of control. Once weapons are allowed to become widely diffused, it becomes much more difficult to work out methods of arms control. Moreover, even if some serious crisis leads to a general agreement to prevent the use or threat of nuclear weapons in the future, it is likely to be harder to ratify and implement such an agreement once nuclear weapons have spread. The small powers would then have to be asked to accept a reduction in their current capability rather than simply to abstain from acquiring weapons. Of course, if the control measures were sufficiently complete, it might be that all nations could be treated equally. Even then it would be difficult if not impossible to get all of them to junk their nuclear weapons systems peacefully. As our experience with France has shown, it can even be quite difficult to induce a nation to acquiesce in controls that would prevent its acquisition of such systems and it will be even harder to find, or even estimate, the size of hidden stocks which would be a nucleus around which future arms control violators could base their conspiracy.

9. Intensified agent-provocateur problems. One thing which restrains the behavior of "respectable" large nations is that they do not wish to acquire a reputation for being blatantly aggressive. Therefore, when a nation wants to be aggressive it usually needs an excuse to make its aggression seem defensive or, at least, very special and limited. In the absence of a special situation, such as Berlin, it may become more difficult to bring about such "justifiable" aggression. It is, after all, almost impossible for a large power to make a small power look so provocative as to justify an attack. When the small nations have acquired nuclear weapons, however, not only does the danger of accidental incidents go up sharply but the dangers of "arranged accidents" also increase. Thus it becomes easier for the large power to arrange for, or to counterfeit, the firing of a nuclear missile by the small power. This incident then could be used to justify all kinds of ultimatums, or actual reprisals, up to and including the forceable disarming of the small power. If the arranged incident has been successfully and imaginatively staged, many will applaud the punishment of the small power which had shown itself to be so dangerously irresponsible.

10. Catalytic and Anonymous War. The widespread diffusion of nuclear weapons would make many nations able, and in some cases also create the pressure, to aggravate an on-going crisis, or even touch off a war between two other powers for purposes of their own. Here again the situation is so complicated that one must construct and consider many scenarios to get a feeling for the many possibilities. However, even without systematic exploration one can list dangerous possibilities for anonymous mischief-making by third parties who control nuclear weapons. If a nation finds two of its cities destroyed by missiles from Polaris type submarines, how is it to react? Presumably it would be impossible to tell which of several nations was responsible. Moreover if any one nation was the obvious candidate, it might make it all the less dangerous for a third power to launch its attack. When the possible development of suitcase bombs is considered it becomes clear how private groups might foment a war between two nations.

Fortunately, although we may not have unlimited time before our system reaches the breaking point, we may have thirty or forty years.