Finite Deterrence

By Peter Pentz

The possibility of extinction has been evident since 1983 when the Nuclear Winter calculations were made public. We now know 'hat detonation of a small fraction (probably between 1 and 10 percent) of the nuclear bombs distributed around the world would entail a finite risk of an infinite catastrophe. Nuclear war is impossible so long as the nuclear arsenals greatly exceed the likely Nuclear Winter threshold. No one would instigate global suicide. What is possible is a mutually fatal and final catastrophe, but in no real sense can this be considered war.

Survival, then, requires the prompt dismantling of useless surplus warheads -- those that are redundant from the standpoint of deterrence but sufficient to cause a Nuclear Winter. let us set realistic goals: first steps first

As a model of what might be achieved without technical difficulty or military disadvantage, there is an apt contribution by Feiveson, UlIman and von Hippel in the August 1985 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on "Finite Deterrence." They propose an 82 percent reduction in warhead numbers on long and intermediate range U.S. and Soviet missiles, total elimination of the present 18,000 tactical and other warheads, and a cut of 94 percent in total megatonnage. Each superpower would be left with 2000 nuclear warheads, probably mainly in submarines for safety and hence with a secure retaliatory capacity. Total megatonnage would be about 800-below the Nuclear Winter threshold, thus retaining deterrence against direct nuclear attack.

Can we bring ourselves, as dedicated workers for peace to advocate such a program of finite nuclear deterrence, even as a first step towards complete and general disarmament? Our decision should surely be based on our judgment of what is both achievable and minimally necessary for the survival of humanity. To press at this stage for real disarmament is irresponsible, because it alienates that substantial proportion of our fellow citizens who still look to military power as the arbiter of national quarrels and the sole defender of their liberties.

Nothing said here implies that committed pacifists or believers in the rule of law in a disarmed world need hide their ultimate hopes and aims. We must, however make clear the distinction between the nonviolent world we would like to see some day and the minimal and immediate needs for our survival, namely a nuclear sanitation operation to remove the overkill.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986, page 20. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Peter Pentz here

Peace Magazine homepage