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The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy : by Tom Gervasi (Harper & Row: $24.95; 545 pp.)

September 07, 1986| Nathaniel Davis | Davis, the Hixon Professor of Humanities at Harvey Mudd College, teaches arms - control subjects. For six years, he held the Nimitz Chair of National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and earlier was senior adviser on Soviet affairs in President Lyndon Johnson's White House. and

It is with good reason that Tom Gervasi titles his book "The Myth of Soviet Military Superiority." He thinks the story of the Soviet Union's preponderance in arms is all a big fabrication. Not only are the Soviets behind us in strategic weapons, he says, but they are behind in intermediate range and tactical nuclear arms in land forces and conventional strength on the European front, and in overall military spending.

Gervasi goes on to argue that the Reagan Administration's massive defense buildup has been sold to the U.S. public with lies and manipulated information, and that the Administration has systematically suppressed dissent by using threats, punishments and selective favors.

As a result, Gervasi concludes, most of the main-stream press and think-tanks have been dragooned into a conspiracy of deceit. The real reason the United States is amassing ever-greater arsenals, Gervasi states, is because the defense industrialists want to increase their already-swollen profits.

Perhaps because of the iconoclastic views presented, this book is sure to be quoted frequently, and its message will be widely spread. Gervasi, the director of the Center for Military Research and Analysis in New York, has amassed formidable statistical information. The appendixes, footnotes, end notes and index constitute more than half of the volume. The dust jacket notes with pride that "comprehensive notes and appendixes document where every piece of evidence was obtained." So the quality of the author's command of facts, his care in argumentation, and his identification of sources become crucial in judging the book's value.

Unfortunately, Gervasi indulges in much the same use of half-truths and tailored arguments for which he so justifiably excoriates his opponents. Regarding bombers, for example, Gervasi calls them and their weapons the "most important" (emphasizing megatonnage), "most accurate" of all, and highly dependable in reaching their targets. In supporting these assertions, however, he obscures the distinction between bombers which would penetrate Soviet air space at some risk to drop bombs or launch missiles, and aircraft which would stand off in relative safety and launch cruise missiles from a distance. Regarding submarine-launched ballistic missiles, he talks about the U.S. SLBMs of today being superior in accuracy to Soviet land-based rockets. While the U.S. Trident II D-5 missiles of tomorrow may have these characteristics, presently deployed U.S. SLBMs do not. One is left with a suspicion that the virtues of bombers and submarines are exaggerated and the effectiveness of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles minimized because Soviet strength is concentrated in the last category.

Regarding U.S. command and control, Gervasi argues that there is not "necessarily any need for a communications system that is sure to survive a nuclear attack. A retaliatory attack does not have to rely on such a system." A hundred pages later, the author discusses the threat to Soviet command and control posed by Pershing-II missile deployments. There he quotes Defense Electronics magazine approvingly: "The removal of C2 (command and control) capability by a comparatively small number of Pershings would render much of the Soviet ICBM first strike and retaliatory forces impotent." Gervasi seems to be arguing the case both ways.

According to Gervasi, U.S. Establishment spokesmen claim that American use of nuclear weapons in Europe would carry "no risk" of escalation to an intercontinental exchange. Perhaps one or two spokesmen have made such foolish claims, but there surely cannot have been very many of them. Gervasi also asserts, in arguing the balance of land forces in Europe, that Soviet forces "in the Leningrad, Baltic, Byelorussian and Carpathian military districts . . . are not in Europe."

In quite a few cases, Gervasi's end notes do not support his statements in the text. For example, he cites a 1949 interview of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to claim that Dulles acknowledged that there was then no real evidence of a threat from the Soviet Union. This did not sound like the Dulles I knew, so I looked up Gervasi's end note, which cited "interview, U.S. News and World Report (March, 1949)." The citation carried no reference, incidentally, to the volume, number, date or page in the magazine, and I went through all four weekly issues of that month finding no interview.

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