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Sunday, March 1, 1981

A Reviewers Notebook: Survival in the Nuclear Age

The dilemma of the libertarian is that, in his revolt against any reliance on the State, he must trust that Marxist states organized beyond his own borders will leave him alone. Laurence W. Beilenson, in a stimulating book, Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age (Regnery-Gateway, Chicago, Illinois, 169 pp., $10.95) has a natural sympathy for the libertarian’s position, but he is sure that simple trust is not enough. To keep one’s enemies at a distance in the age of the intercontinental ballistic missile requires a canny mixture of what Beilenson calls avoidance and deterrence. Avoidance demands nimble diplomats; deterrence dictates the spending of money, which, of course, brings the hated tax collector into the picture.

Since Mr. Beilenson believes in freedom, he wants to make the best deal for his country that can be managed within the bounds of realism. As the author of The Treaty Trap and Power Through Subversion he knows that we have always had wars in the past and, presumably, could have them in the future. When wars do occur, the embattled governments may follow conven tions up to a point. But nobody is going to forswear the use of a weapon, no matter how hideous, if, by turning to it, one can insure one’s survival. The chances are that nuclear weapons would come into play in a war for western Europe the minute that one side or the other was threatened with defeat.

Mr. Beilenson doesn’t want to give western Europe to the Communists. But, on the other hand, he doesn’t want to see the United States trapped by its present commitment to pour conventional forces into a theater where reliance on convention would be abandoned practically at the outset.

A Policy of Deterrence

Thinking the “unthinkable,” Mr. Beilenson calls for an approach that accepts nuclear war as the norm in the European theater unless some way is to be found to forestall war of any kind. Treaties signed with the Communists won’t help—the Soviets used SALT I as a screen behind which they vastly added to their nuclear capabilities. What the United States should do is to match the Soviets in deterrence, but with an effort to develop simpler and cheaper weapons (say the neutron bomb and the cruise missile). Civil defense should come into the picture. Then, having informed the world through our actions that we mean to defend ourselves, we should put it up to the West Europeans to do something on their own behalf.

Mr. Beilenson would share our nuclear knowledge and weapons with the other NATO nations even at the risk of wide atomic proliferation. The West Germans should have nuclear weapons on their own soil. Meanwhile our forward garrisons in West Germany should be reduced over a five- year period. Once western Europe has been persuaded to become a real power center on its own, the United States will no longer be the primary target for Soviet ballistic missiles. Europeans shouldn’t object to this, for with two targets to worry about, the Soviets would be less inclined to start anything.

With American ground forces withdrawn from Europe and Asia, and with Washington matching Moscow “nuke for nuke,” we would be combining a minimum of forward area provocation with a maximum of reserved menace if, by any chance, our diplomacy should fail. Mr. Beilenson’s proposal creates an odd perspective. But the perspective accommodates the two values of avoidance and deterrence.

A Flexible Stand

With the two values in mind, we would be forced to rely on the same type of thinking that has enabled the followers of Lenin to win victories without risk of premature embroilment. The Leninists have followed a double-pronged strategy, mixing subversion with opportunist exploitation of occasional revolutionary situations. Detente and “wars of liberation” are ideologically incompatible, but when they are separated geographically they have not resulted in any world-wide “final conflict.” Mr. Beilenson doesn’t ask for any foolish consistency from our policy makers as long as the Russians are permitted their inconsistency. His suggested rules amount to what he calls “the Lenin Adaptation in Reverse.” The rules begin with a statement that “we are for peace and we will not go to war to aid communist dissidents.” But if we do not propose to be an “international busybody,” we should nevertheless stand ready to give financial and other aid to dissidents short of sending troops.

Angola would have been a good staging area for the Lenin Adaptation in Reverse. Mr. Beilenson thinks Jimmy Carter acted wisely when he refused to send American soldiers to oppose the Cubans in Angola. But Carter was mistaken when he put his faith in merely deploring what Castro had done. In Beilenson’s opinion Carter should have “sent American foreign aid for freedom after open announcement. He should have said bluntly: “The Cubans are foreign intruders in Africa. To any Africans willing to kill the Cuban intruders, the United States will give cannon. And the weapons we give will match in quality the Soviet weapons.’”

This would be giving the Soviets tit for tat. Our policy of subversion should be conducted in the open, not “covertly.” It should be just as honest as Lenin’s own opportunism.

Mr. Beilenson thinks that much of our so-called strategic thinking in regard to “flanks” and “lifelines” is based on past wars. To be worried about the control of the oil “lifeline” through the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope is silly when the real danger is that the Soviets might close the Persian Gulf ports by parachute drops and local coups d’etat. Similarly, it is a waste of time to be concerned with the “northern flank” of Denmark and Norway in Europe when the real menace is a nuclear clash in the West German center.

An Energy Policy

Where Mr. Beilenson’s book lets the reader down is in his failure to tell us what we can do about energy while we are trying to move toward the policy of balancing between “avoidance and deterrence.” It would be futile to see American troops taken out of western Europe and South Korea merely to send them to Sinai or Oman or Turkey or Saudi Arabia. However, that looms up as a dangerous possibility. Threatened with a gasoline shortage, American motorists may shortly be importuning Congress to commit “mobile” forces to the Persian Gulf area.

We need a policy of building quickly to an energy sufficiency within the western hemisphere if “avoidance and deterrence” are to have a real chance. The hope here is that free pricing will lead to the discovery and exploitation of thousands of new gas wells in Louisiana and the beginnings of “tertiary recovery” in the oil fields of West Texas. With our cars running and our furnaces working, Mr. Beilenson’s ideas would have some chance of success. But if we don’t have energy we could be led into some disastrous adventure before we have the “deterrence” we need.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.