Herbert York Interview (1988): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reminiscences from a Career in Science, National Security, and the University: Conversation with Herbert York, Director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation; 2/6/88 by Harry Kreisler

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The Eisenhower Nuclear Revolution

What do you account for Eisenhower's insight and perception on these issues? Was it the fact that he had been a great general, that he had led Allied forces in World War II?

Surely, it played an important role that he knew war, and the enormous pain and suffering it could cause. That conventional war without nuclear weapons was already beyond what could reasonably be borne, and that nuclear weapons only made it worse. And somehow or other, that had to be faced directly. That simply relying on nuclear deterrence for maintaining peace, while that was necessary at the moment and for, at least, the foreseeable future, was not the way to plan the indefinite future.

In looking at the Eisenhower administration, you make the argument that that administration put into place a paradigm that defined our nuclear arsenal and what it could do; you call it a revolution, and say that all that followed was evolutionary. What was the tenets of that revolution?

I could expand on that almost indefinitely. From the point of view of theoretical ideas, Eisenhower believed that we needed to maintain a high level of military preparedness, including nuclear forces, in order to preserve stability and peace, but that that was not the way to go about it in the long run, and that one needed to promote negotiations, alliances, and one needed to follow other approaches of that sort. So there were those two things. Given the chaos or disorder in the world and lack of a system of law or law enforcement, it was necessary to maintain a substantial level of military preparedness, but it was also necessary to negotiate and find something better. And then, at a somewhat different level of detail, it was the conclusion that defense is impossible, and the first approach is to this question of strategic defense, which was made early in the Eisenhower administration; was abandoned by the end of the administration.

Then in another, more detailed sense, if you just looked at all the numbers that characterize the present systems, all of those numbers derived from the Eisenhower administration. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, the basic planning called for about 1,080 intercontinental ballistic missiles. When we finally had a lot of rethinking and study and so on during the Kennedy administration, we came out with 1,054, the same number. The notion of the triad came out of the Eisenhower administration. The notion of extended deterrence, that is, not just deterrence of nuclear war, but deterrence of other major actions of aggression, comes out of the Eisenhower administration. That's been much refined with, you know, more complications added to it. But the basic notion is there. And, as I say, the triad, but even the details of the triad. The Eisenhower administration had concluded that 45 nuclear missile submarines was the right number, and a restudy of that in the Kennedy administration came out with 41. So that essentially, a major restudy of the detailed numbers in the Kennedy administration came up with numbers which were always within a few percent of the numbers that had already been decided by a more intuitive process during the Eisenhower administration.

What was driving this system? Technology and bureaucratic politics set a number ... ?

And money. I would say the most important factor is money, the availability of funds. Because all of these decisions, whether to do something or to not do something, are made, essentially, in a funding context. The question of the size of the current American strategic nuclear force -- the number of delivery vehicles -- which is about 2,000, was decided in the period 1954, 1955. It's never changed. It hasn't changed in more than thirty years. At that time, it was a debate between the World War bomber generals on the one hand, who thought about how many airplanes we needed in terms of an attack on Europe with conventional bombs, and the kind of synergism that the attacking forces get through having large numbers overcoming their defenses. In other words, the bomber generals deciding how many airplanes they needed on that basis and telling the administration that they want more. And, as usual, the comptrollers and the budget directors telling them there isn't that much money, "You can't have that." And an iterative year-by-year budgetary process, eventually, came out with 2,200 as the number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles that we decided to have in 1955 on alert. And we've never varied by more than 10 percent from that to today.

Now, interestingly enough, as this was going on in the late fifties, during this period of transition to the next administration there was a public outcry in reports, like the Gaither Report, that we really weren't doing enough, that there was a missile gap and so on. Then, as you were saying, the Kennedy administration came in and changed very little. The numbers stayed the same. Does that tell us anything about the way this nuclear arms system has meshed with the political system?

Well, not just the nuclear system, but it tells you something about the inertia in any budgetary process of this size and complexity. People talk about starting with a blank piece of paper, but you simply can't do that with a large and complex system. You always start with last year's budget and modify it. As far as the Defense Budget is concerned, and as far as the components of the Defense Budget are concerned, the major inputs are:

Once in a great while, something happens that forces everybody to rethink things. The Korean War was such an external event. The development of the hydrogen bomb and the development of intercontinental rockets were technological events. And those things did work revolutions. The military budget after the Korean War (there was a big peak during the war) is three times bigger than it was before. That's a revolution. Likewise, the introduction of intercontinental weapons carrying thermonuclear warheads was also a revolution. But those things don't happen very often, and there hasn't been one now in more than a quarter of a century.

What is the end result of the ideological populist sentiments that are aroused during the electoral periods? During the Kennedy period, one thinks of the missile gap, which he raised against the Eisenhower administration. Many years later the Reagan campaign was talking about a window of vulnerability. Do these things matter much in terms of changing the course of our defense policy?

They can matter and they do matter to a degree. But, when they finally work themselves out, when the elections are over and the bureaucracy has to actually figure out what to do, they come up with an answer that's not very different because the circumstances really haven't changed all that much.

I don't want to belittle the notion that changes do happen. The change from Eisenhower to Kennedy was nowhere near as much as people expected, or, even, I think, as many analysts think actually happened. It's almost a commonplace among academics to say that there was a big change. And I dispute that.

The change, though, from Carter to Reagan really was a bigger change. The way defense budgets changed on an annual basis, and then cumulatively over five to seven years, was major. Although, the defense budget is still not nearly as big as it was during the Eisenhower/Kennedy years, as a percentage of GNP, it's nevertheless substantially up from what it had been. There was really a change in the spending trends that took place when Reagan came in. And in the early Reagan years, the approach to negotiations was entirely different also. There's been, now, a second revolution within the Reagan administration in which the approach and negotiations is not all that different from his predecessors. But it took a number of years for that second change to take place.

This experience in government during the Eisenhower administration led you to a conclusion about the dilemma that we face in the area of nuclear weapons. You were involved in the transition. You worked with Mr. McCloy in discussing the issues that the country faced and then later, in testimony before the Congress, you talked about this dilemma. Tell us what you had mind at the time of your service in the Eisenhower administration.

There are a number of dilemmas and a variety of ways of putting them. But one of them has to do with defense itself. I did, after several years in the Pentagon and looking at the entire program, come to a conclusion which was new to me at that time (although other people had said it before), and that is that defense against a strategic nuclear attack really is impossible. I concluded that not only was it impossible in terms of what we knew at that time, but my judgment was that it was going to remain impossible. And that meant, in somewhat expanded form, that there is no technical solution to the national security dilemma we face. And by the national security dilemma, I mean that the harder we try, the more dangerous the situation gets, although it's reached a saturation point in the last decades. I don't see the situations changing very much today. But back at that time, it was still getting worse. The harder we tried to fix it, the worse it became, and the greater the threat to our own particular survival as a nation and a greater threat to mankind as a whole.

So the conclusion was that there is no technical solution to that problem. It can only be solved by political means. As years have gone by, I've expanded that conclusion somewhat to the notion that even political means can't solve it very quickly. What is required is a substantial evolution in the international system, the kind of evolution that necessarily takes time.

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