Herbert York Interview (1982): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Nuclear Arms Race: Conversation with Herbert York, Director, Program in Science, Technology, and Public Affairs, Professor of Physics, U.C. San Diego; with John Holdren; 4/26/82 by Harry Kreisler

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The Dilemmas of Arms Control

Isn't the case that, fueled by the continuing deterioration of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, it becomes almost impossible to change a military doctrine as you're suggesting because of the political climate with regard to U.S. - Soviet relations? During the period that you were serving the Carter administration, we had Iran, we had Afghanistan. Some of these events the Soviets really didn't have much to do with. But that didn't matter in the overall general political climate.

Yes, you mentioned Iran. They probably didn't have anything to do with that. But it nevertheless poisoned the climate. Of course, Afghanistan, they did have something to do with it, and that came barely a month later. It reinforced what was happening. But, of course, Iran wasn't really the cause of the breakdown. The SALT was in trouble even at the end of 1978, a year before these events, and for a variety of reasons, not all of which I understand. I think maybe nobody understands quite all of them. There were problems with the SALT negotiations themselves having to do with backfire and having to do with verification. The Iran connection goes back that far, not just to the capture of the embassy, but with the original overthrow of the Shah. We lost certain of our verification capabilities which were based in Iran. That gave people who were generally negative about SALT in the first place a new opportunity to raise questions and raise old issue in new form designed to slow the whole process down. The Russians were not very helpful with respect to such things as encrypting data, and with respect to the backfire. And then at the very end of 1978, when we it looked like we might actually have a treaty finished, that, by coincidence, turned out to be the moment when Deng Xiaoping came to Washington -- that slowed things down visibly at the negotiations themselves. By the time the Russians became serious again, after Deng Xiaoping had gone home, these other issues were getting worse rather than better -- these questions of encrypting data, the questions of backfire, the question of the availability of data in the first place.

They finally signed it in June, I guess it was. And then there was this crazy business of the brigade in Cuba, [which] reflected back into the whole process. But things were already dragging and I think sometime in the fall of 1979, the Russians came to the conclusion that the odds of working something out were not good.

But does this reflect in the United States a failure of our political leadership to define a path with regard to arms control, to say, "This is very important; we must go ahead with this process, even if there are these other problems in the world"? Because it seems like the process is doomed.

That might be true. There are some successes. The trouble is the successes don't have very large consequences. But there are successes. There are some ten treaties between us and the Russians, which govern behavior in this area of arms, in particular nuclear arms. There certainly are internal difficulties unique to our system. And it's even dangerous to generalize too much, because I think that Carter's problems were unique to him and his fundamental inability to resonate with the Congress in particular and even with the public, more generally, on a lot of questions -- not just on this one. He wasn't very effective on difficult issues. And this isn't a particularly difficult issue. Paul Warnke at one point said that disarmament is an unnatural act. And there's a lot of truth in that, whatever it may mean. There's a lot of truth in it. Different presidents had different degrees of success. Carter was singular in that he tried for more and achieved less than any of his immediate predecessors.

There are other problems. These years of four-year presidencies -- and that period in our national life may not be over -- is part of the problem. What happens is it takes a year for the president to generate policy, to establish his own policies with respect to something which is this controversial. And it is controversial. Then, he has a couple of years to work, and then he's concerned about the next election. We lost SALT II, originally, because Gerry Ford, who could have achieved it on the basis of the Vladivostok agreement -- we could have gotten something concrete out of Vladivostok -- he ran into this buzz-saw called Ronald Reagan and the ...

HOLDREN: He ran into Jimmy Carter, I think?

First, Reagan.

HOLDREN: Oh, first, Reagan. You're right.

It was because of Reagan that Ford didn't accomplish SALT II. It was the primary campaign of 1976, where it was evident to Ford that, first of all, it was going to be a close race, which it was; and second, that Reagan was going to take the right-wing hawk position on all of these questions. And that it was not to Ford's benefit to go too far in the other direction. As usual, you're trying to get the middle more than any one particular wing, even within the Republican Party. So Ford backed away from his own position with regard to arms control and his own agreement achieved at Vladivostok because of Reagan. And then, of course, came the national campaign, when nothing can happen no matter who the president is. So this problem has happened repeatedly, that the four-year presidency means there's only really two years of work. In the case of this administration, they used the requirement for preparing good positions as an alibi during the first year. They're still using that as an alibi. I don't know what will eventually happen but I'm really very pessimistic as far as this particular administration is concerned.

HOLDREN: President Reagan has made some extraordinary statements about this strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. He's, I think, the first president to make, at least in a very long time, a flat statement that the Soviets enjoy strategic nuclear superiority over the United States.

Yes, I think he's the first ever, not just in a long time.

HOLDREN: There have been arguments before about missile gaps and bomber gaps and so on. But a flat, across-the-board statement of superiority, I've never heard of such a thing before. Now, you were the first director of the Lawrence Livermore Lab. You were the ambassador to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties. You're clearly a well-informed individual on these matters. Do you think that it is possible even to define in a meaningful sense "strategic nuclear superiority"? If it is, do the Soviets have it? If they don't, why is the president saying they do?

My answer to the theoretical question of is it possible to define is that I think, yes it is. On the other hand, not in precise terms and not even within a factor of two. My assessment is that the current situation is one of parity. But I would say that if you change things in either direction by a factor of 50%, or even in the factor of two in either direction, the situations of the two countries are quite asymmetrical in every way -- geographic position, political position, relations with allies, the status of technology. And so it's no surprise that the there are a lot of asymmetries in the forces themselves, with respect to size, accuracy, MIRVing, types, and so. If you, for some political reason, want to say that things are bad, you pick a certain set of parameters in which they are probably ahead. If you're trying to make the case that things are satisfactory, you can pick a certain set of parameters in which we're ahead. I think the situation now, for all practical purposes, is one of parity or balance. And that it is fairly broad -- it's a fairly broad state of parity. That is to say, small changes in any one of these parameters, whatever you use megatons, number of missiles, number of warheads, number of submarines, or whatever -- small changes in any of those simply do not change the overall balance.

Isn't there a very great political problem here? If you take the case of the so-called window of vulnerability, that whole debate, which in a sense was part of the Reagan mandate, to correct that really didn't address the question of whether technically it was possible to ensure that the land-based missiles remain invulnerable. So you get this situation where candidates raise technical issues and don't properly explain them to the public. And then, in fact, when they come in, there really is no way to address the issue. And no administration seems capable of saying, "Well, maybe we need to move these missiles to sea." Or in some other way ensure that they will remain invulnerable.

Well, this whole issue of Minuteman vulnerability or window of vulnerability is, in my view, a false issue anyway, because it's based on a fairly complicated and yet quite precise scenario. That is, the people who claim there is a window of vulnerability, describe a set of events which follow each other in a very well-prescribed and orderly fashion -- starting out, usually, with some sort of an ultimatum, and then, if we don't answer correctly to that, they will strike the land-based missiles, then sending us another ultimatum that says, "We've hit your land-based missiles, but we won't touch anything else and don't you dare strike back," and so on. It's a complicated scenario, each of which steps is, to me, unbelievable. It's a removed. These are things which just are made up for the sake of making operations analysis and don't correspond to the kinds of events that happen in the real world.

Then, in addition to this complicated scenario, which underlies the whole theoretical idea, there is worst-case technical analysis. There is an analysis of the Soviet capability, which involves the accuracy of their systems -- the reliability of their systems, in many senses -- including their ability to get them off and to do that out of the blue, so there's no preceding warning. It involves a worst-case analysis of our situation with regard to the hardness of our missiles and the question of how we would respond, how quickly we would respond, and so on. It even involves worst-case analysis again, still in the technical arena, about depressed trajectory, launchings of missiles from Soviet submarines posted at certain distance from the coast who do their launches under very carefully ... with just perfect timing, and so on. So there are a large number of technical considerations, in all of which one makes the extreme assumptions: this is the so-called worst-case analysis. And then there is a bizarre scenario [described above]. So I reject the whole notion of "window of vulnerability."

But is your analysis adequately presented in the public domain when it really matters -- during the heat, for example, of the presidential campaign?

I don't know whether it's adequately presented or not. I'm not sure the other [analysis] is adequately presented, either. I think the people who support the president's policies with regard to the need for more deployments either don't mention window of vulnerability or, if they do, they don't know what it means. The number of people who actually use this question as a major element in determining their own view or in presenting their arguments is probably small on either side.

HOLDREN: Herb, I wonder if we can pursue this point a little bit further. You have said that for all practical purposes, approximate parity exists in strategic nuclear weapons. And you have said that the vulnerability of land-based missiles is, in a real sense, an illusionary issue. What is in it for the Reagan administration to claim inferiority where no meaningful inferiority exists? Is this simply a way to get the American people to pay for a massive military buildup that they will suffer with if they think we're badly behind, but would never tolerate if they thought we were about equal?

Yes, generally speaking, that's true. Now, I don't go so far as to say that the people who are promoting this are knowingly using a false argument for this purpose. But I will say that they find it very convenient, indeed, that this particular argument fits their more basic purpose, which is to do what they call re-arming. I mean, to accomplish a substantial increase in the American defense budget, in general, and in certain programs in particular.

This is not only in the strategic area. We hear the same thing with regard to the conventional balance in Europe. And we hear it with regard to the navy, where we have this same kind of argument going on with respect to parity. It's a question of which figures you use. The basic fact is that the Russians have more naval vessels than we do, but we have substantially more naval tonnage than they do. The reason we have more tonnage and fewer ships is because our admirals, over several generations, have decided that bigger ships and more sophistication was the way to go. Now, suddenly, we have somebody discover that this is terrible -- it has to be reversed -- wants to build more ships. Not the kind of smaller ships the Soviets have, but more big and sophisticated ships. So that this question of who's ahead and who's behind, and then how dangerous it is to be behind, applies not just in the nuclear area but in many other areas as well.

HOLDREN: I take a slightly less charitable view of at least some of advisors on these questions high in the present administration in the following sense: it seems to me that many of the best-informed advisors must know in their hearts that, for all practical purposes, parity does exist. And that by doing what they're doing -- seeking, apparently, to erase that situation and establish superiority by a massive buildup in the United States -- they must believe that such superiority is possible. They must think it's desirable. And therefore, I have to ask: what are these people really getting us into?

I think that these arguments are based on one or another of several false premises. With some people, the argument is simply based on ignorance. I think this is the case with the very highest level of people in the administration -- the president and a number of others. They do not understand the situation. Their backgrounds were such that they knew very little about foreign policy or about defense policy. And now that they're in Washington, information is coming to them in a flood. They don't have the proper background in which to place this new information. So they remain ignorant, even though they have this flood of information. That's one group of people. They simply don't understand it and, in essence, they accept the view of their advisors -- that the situation is bad, that it's not a case of parity, that we ought to fix it.

There's another group who do understand the details but who are just very doctrinaire in their approach to all of these issues, who believe that the American people are too soft and too fearful about nuclear war; who believe that this fear of nuclear war either is, or will, in some important way, cramp our style, interfere with our foreign policy, make us more timid, and make us pull back from commitments all over the world. And they want to create a situation in which, not only is there parity really, but in which it is obvious to everybody that there's either parity or, if there isn't, the situation's in our favor. So there is this group of very doctrinaire people, who have the ear of the highest authorities, and who believe the situation is very bad, but who want to prepare a better at-home base from which to cope with this situation.

Next page: The Next Stage in Arms Control

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