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Richard Rhodes on: The Arms Race
Richard Rhodes Q: The story is very rich in paradoxes. You create this enormous weapon of war, and many people argue it keeps us, or has kept us so far, out of war. In some ways, it's a tremendous scientific accomplishment. But it also might wipe us off the face of the earth.

RR: The people who were opposed to the arms race said again and again and again, from the very beginning, from 1944 (when Niels Bohr went to Roosevelt and [Winston] Churchill), they said: "There's no way that an arms race can lead to decisive victory. It can only lead to mutual suicide. Under those circumstances, war is not an option for resolving what are basically political disputes." [Enrico] Fermi said in 1947 or `48, when someone was talking about a war between Russia and the United States, "Where will they fight?" By which he meant: there's no territory in dispute between these two nations. These were political questions. Ultimately, they have to be and had to be resolved politically. And indeed, they were resolved politically, by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What's, I think, particularly horrible about the arms race was the conclusion that the way to resolve political conflicts with an enemy was to build terrible weapons and try to be prepared to kill them all. Even though we had good reason to fear the totalitarian mentality of the Soviet Union, it was at the same time a very cautious and conservative state. There's, I think, not much question that they never made any moves that they couldn't quickly withdraw from, toward us. They were all small and symbolic efforts, like the Berlin air lift business and the war in Korea. Korea probably was a total inoculate for the Soviet Union against ever having any direct confrontation. And the truth is, we fought out the Cold War on the periphery, in Third World countries, where it was easier to find people to die.

Q: There is also an argument to be made that if the United States turns the Strategic Air Command into an incredibly fearsome fighting force then the Soviets will do what ever they can to avoid war with the U.S.

RR: I think what disturbs me about the argument that if you have a big enough deterrent you'll never have to use it, is: of course, you have to be prepared to use it. There's an inherent mental instability, a sort of a sharp edged fulcrum point that you're balanced on. [General Curtis] LeMay also clearly pushed as hard as he could, whenever he could, to provoke the Soviet Union. This is a controversial statement and it's difficult to document. But it's clear that by having overflights of the Soviet Union--which we did all through the 1950s, even before the U-2, and most dramatically and frighteningly, during the Cuban missile crisis, when everything we had was in the air, orbiting over the Mediterranean, orbiting over northern Canada, waiting for the slightest sign from the Soviet side that they might be making a provocative move. And had they done so, LeMay would have hit them with everything in the arsenal, and it would all have been over. And he was bitter afterwards. He said, "We lost the war as a result of the Cuban missile crisis." He meant: We'll never again have a chance to strike the Soviet Union and get away with it (if we indeed would have gotten away with it).

So I think it's not-- It's easy to be high minded and say the deterrent worked; SAC was there when we needed it to be. But the truth is, we were taking a terrible risk. And we didn't necessarily have to take such a terrible risk. I like to point out that both France and Great Britain--and China, for that matter--feel secure with a couple hundred, maybe 400 nuclear weapons, and could easily feel secure with 100 nuclear weapons. We felt secure with 100 nuclear weapons in 1948. We felt secure with no nuclear weapons in 1946. Just the bare knowledge that we knew how to make them gave us a sense of security.

So the arms race was something else. And a lot of what it was, was politics, domestic politics. A lot of what it was, was inter-service rivalry, because if you, the Army, had a bomb, then damn it, the Navy had to have a bomb, and the Air Force had to have three bombs. These had nothing to do with the--these long-term and high minded issues at all. They had to do with the grubby business of power. And I think it was immoral.

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