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Context of 'Late 1982: JCS Chairman: Little Chance of Any Nuclear War Being ‘Limited or Protracted’'

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In conjunction with his huge peacetime military buildup (see Early 1981 and After), President Reagan strongly opposes any sort of arms control or limitation discussions with the Soviet Union.
Rostow to ACDA - As a member of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD—see 1976), Reagan had spoken out against the SALT II arms control treaty with the USSR (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979), calling it “fatally flawed.” He has opposed every significant arms limitation agreement since 1963, no matter whether it was negotiated by Republican or Democratic administrations. To continue his opposition, Reagan appoints Eugene Rostow to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). Rostow, a fellow CPD member, is flatly opposed to any sort of arms control or disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union, and had led the CPD fight against the SALT II agreement. “Arms control thinking drives out sound thinking,” he told the Senate. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 118-120] During his confirmation hearings, Rostow tells Senate questioners that the US could certainly survive a nuclear war, and gives World War II-era Japan as an example—that nation “not only survived but flourished after a nuclear attack.” When asked if the world could survive a full nuclear attack of thousands of nuclear warheads instead of the two that Japan had weathered, Rostow says that even though the casualties might be between “ten million… and one hundred million… [t]he human race is very resilient.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 126] Rostow’s aide at the ACDA, Colin Gray, says that “victory is possible” in a nuclear war provided the US is prepared to fight. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 127]
Burt to State Department - Reagan names Richard Burt to head the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, the State Department’s primary liaison with the Defense Department. Burt, a former New York Times reporter, is one of the few journalists synpathetic to the CPD, and recently called the SALT agreement “a favor to the Russians.” Just before joining the Reagan administration, Burt called for reductions in nuclear arms controls: “Arms control has developed the same kind of mindless momentum associated with other large-scale government pursuits. Conceptual notions of limited durability, such as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction [MAD], have gained bureaucratic constituencies and have thus been prolonged beyond their usefulness. There are strong reasons for believing that arms control is unlikely to possess much utility in the coming decade.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 118-120; US Department of State, 2008]
Perle to Defense Department - Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of arms control is neoconservative Richard Perle, named as assistant defense secretary for international security affairs. Perle, until recently the national security adviser to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s), will quickly become, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s words, “the administration’s chief arms control obstructionist, dubbed ‘the Prince of Darkness’ by his enemies.” Perle once said: “The sense that we and the Russians could compose our differences, reduce them to treaty constraints… and then rely on compliance to produce a safer world. I don’t agree with any of that.” Now Perle is poised to act on his beliefs. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 118-120]
Vice President Bush - Although seen as a pragmatist and not a hardline conservative (see January 1981 and After), Vice President George H. W. Bush is also optimistic about the chances of the US coming out on top after a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. During the 1980 campaign, he told a reporter: “You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition tham it inflicts on you. That’s the way you can have a winner.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 126-127]
Other Appointees - Perle’s immediate supervisor in Defense is Fred Ikle, who headed ACDA in 1973 and helped battle back part of the original SALT agreement. Ikle will be primarily responsible for the Pentagon’s “five-year plan” that envisions a “protracted nuclear war” as a viable option (see March 1982). Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger considers the standoff between the US and the Soviet Union akin to the situation between Britain and Nazi Germany in 1938, with himself and his ideological confreres as Britain’s Winston Churchill and any attempt at arms control as nothing but appeasement. Energy Secretary James B. Edwards says of a hypothetical nuclear war, “I want to come out of it number one, not number two.” Pentagon official Thomas Jones tells a reporter that the US could handily survive a nuclear exchange, and fully recover within two to four years, if the populace digs plenty of holes, cover them with wooden doors, and bury the structures under three feet of dirt. “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it,” he says. Reagan’s second National Security Adviser, William Clark, will, according to Reagan official and future Secretary of State George Shultz, “categorically oppos[e] US-Soviet contacts” of any kind. Some of the administration’s more pragmatic members, such as Reagan’s first Secretary of State Alexander Haig, will have limited access to Reagan and be cut off from many policy-making processes by Reagan’s more hardline senior officials and staffers. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 118-120, 127; Air Force Magazine, 3/2008]

Entity Tags: George Herbert Walker Bush, Fred C. Ikle, Committee on the Present Danger, Colin Gray, Caspar Weinberger, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Eugene V. Rostow, US Department of State, William Clark, Thomas Jones, Richard Burt, Richard Perle, Reagan administration, James B. Edwards, Ronald Reagan, J. Peter Scoblic, US Department of Defense, Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 136-138]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane, Leonid Brezhnev, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Brent Scowcroft, Nancy Reagan, Richard Burt, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Ronald Reagan, William Clark, Paul Lettow

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The Pentagon releases its tightly classified five-year plan for the US’s military policy, the Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance. A central element of the plan is its acceptance of the winnability of a “protracted nuclear war” with the Soviet Union. Although such an idea is publicly repudiated by President Reagan (see March-April 1982), the idea is set into policy by the White House’s National Security Decision Directive 32, which mandates the modernization of US nuclear forces with regard to “developing a capability to sustain protracted nuclear conflict” (see May 20, 1982). The Defense Guidance document mandates that during a lengthy nuclear conflict, US forces “must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.” The Defense Guidance document is leaked to the New York Times, which reports its existence in an article entitled “Pentagon Draws Up First Strategy for Fighting a Long Nuclear War.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 127; Air Force Magazine, 3/2008] In 2008, J. Peter Scoblic will write that the Reagan administration’s position is not, at first glance, markedly different from that of its predecessors; since the Kennedy administration, the government’s various agencies and departments have worked to provide some sort of viable “nuclear flexibility” that would give the US a nuclear option besides an all-out nuclear strike—a “war orgasm,” in nuclear war scholar Herman Kahn’s terminology. But Scoblic will note that those other administrations recognized the likelihood of any limited nuclear exchange quickly escalating into an all-out barrage by both nations. The Reagan administration does not accept this as a likelihood, Scoblic will observe. No other administration had made specific plans for a nuclear war that would last six months, with, as Scoblic will write, “pauses for reloading silos and firing fresh volleys of missiles.” The Pentagon plan provides for what it calls “a reserve of nuclear forces sufficient for trans- and post-attack protection and coercion,” or, in Scoblic’s words, “having enough weapons to win one war… and immediately be ready to deter or fight another.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 128]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Herman Kahn, US Department of Defense, J. Peter Scoblic

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The Pentagon’s long-term Defense Guidance plan, which presents “protracted nuclear war” with the Soviet Union as a viable option (see March 1982), is made part of the official Reagan administration policy in the issuance of National Security Decision Directive 32. The directive states, “The modernization of our strategic nuclear forces… shall receive first priority.” It continues, “The United States will enhance its strategic nuclear deterrent by developing a capability to sustain protracted nuclear conflict.” [Air Force Magazine, 3/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Air Force General David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the idea of winning a protracted nuclear war, as espoused by the Pentagon (see March 1982), is not tenable. “I don’t see much of a chance of nuclear war being limited or protracted,” he says. “I see great difficulty in keeping any kind of exchange between the US and the Soviets from escalating.” He adds: “If you try to do everything to fight a protracted nuclear war, then you end up with the potential of a bottomless pit.… We can’t do everything. I personally would not spend a lot of money on a protracted nuclear war.” [Air Force Magazine, 3/2008]

Entity Tags: David Charles Jones, US Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

National Security Decision Directive 75 is signed into law by President Reagan. It further embeds the idea that a “protracted nuclear war” can be won (see March 1982), saying in part that Soviet calculations about war must always see “outcomes so unfavorable to the USSR that there would be no incentive for Soviet leaders to initiate an attack.” [Air Force Magazine, 3/2008] NSDD 75 stipulates that the US must “contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism” and “promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system.” Conservatives and hardliners will later interpret Reagan’s words as indicating the US would actively engage in “rollback” of the USSR’s control over other nations. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 145-146]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, still shaken from the near-catastrophe of the “Able Archer” exercise (see November 2-11, 1983) and his viewing of the nuclear holocaust film The Day After (see November 20, 1983), receives a briefing on the nation’s nuclear war plans (see March 1982). Reagan had put off the briefing for almost two years, causing some of his more hardline advisers and officials to wonder if the president was losing his taste for a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Some of them privately believe that Reagan might never order a nuclear attack on the USSR no matter what the provocation. The briefing is anchored by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Vessey. They explain to Reagan that the US has 50,000 Soviet sites targeted for nuclear strikes; half of those sites are economic, industrial, political, and population centers. If the US launches such a strike, they say, the USSR would almost certainly retaliate, destroying the US as a functional society. Officials at the briefing later recall Reagan appearing “chastened” and brooding afterwards. In his diary, Reagan calls the briefing a “most sobering experience,” and writes of how much the briefing reminds him of The Day After: “In several ways, the sequence of events described in the briefings paralleled those in the ABC movie.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 133] He also writes in his diary how he is “even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and the Russians had nothing to fear from us.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 139]

Entity Tags: Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan, John Vessey

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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