WASHINGTON — Nearly 50 years have passed since Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning that it was essential for the United States to move quickly to develop the nuclear bomb.
In that half-century, the world's inventory of these weapons has increased from zero to 50,000. And on average, each of these 50,000 has a destructive capability roughly 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. A few hundred of the 50,000 could destroy not only the United States and the Soviet Union but, through atmospheric effects, a major part of the rest of the world as well.
Weapons are widely deployed, supported by war-planning strategies. Detailed plans for their use are in the hands of field commanders. And the troops of each side routinely undertake exercises specifically designed to prepare for that use.
This situation has evolved over the years through a series of incremental decisions. I myself participated in many of them. Each decision, taken by itself, appeared either rational or inescapable. But they were made without any reference to an overall master plan. Because we lack a long-run plan for the nuclear age, the number of weapons continues to multiply. And now we appear on the verge of an escalation in the arms race that will not only place weapons in space, but will seriously increase the risk that one or the other adversary will be tempted, in a period of tension, to initiate a preemptive nuclear strike.
It is true that four decades have passed without the use of nuclear weapons. And it is clear that both superpowers are aware of the dangers of nuclear war. But history is replete with examples of occasions when emotions have taken hold and replaced reason.
During the seven years that I served as secretary of defense, confrontations carrying a serious risk of military conflict developed on three separate occasions: Berlin in August, 1961; the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962; the Middle East War of June, 1967. In none of these cases did either side wish war. In each, we came perilously close to it.
In the tense atmosphere of a crisis, each side will feel pressured to delegate the authority for firing nuclear weapons to field commanders. A single nuclear submarine could unleash more firepower than man has unleashed against man throughout history. And as the likelihood of attack increases, these field commanders face a desperate dilemma. Either use the weapons or risk losing them.
Now, because the strategic nuclear forces and the complex systems that are designed to command and control them are perceived by many to be vulnerable to a preemptive attack, they will argue the advantage of a preemptive strike. But the West has not found it possible to develop plans for the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the Soviet Union that would both assure a clear advantage to the West and avoid the high risk of escalating to all-out nuclear war. The risk that military conflict will escalate into nuclear war is far greater than I am willing to accept on military, political and moral grounds.
The conviction that we must change course is shared by groups and individuals as diverse as the anti-nuclear movement, the majority of the world's top scientists, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. All agree that we need a plan to reduce the long-run risk of nuclear war. But there's no consensus on what course to take; five quite different proposals have been presented:
--Achieving political reconciliation between East and West.
--Eliminating all nuclear weapons through negotiation, proposed by Gorbachev.
--Replacing deterrence with defense, elimination of offensive nuclear weapons by the substitution of defensive forces, as proposed by the President.
--Strengthening deterrence by adding defensive forces to offensive forces, as proposed by Henry A. Kissinger and others.
--Accepting the proposition that nuclear warheads have no military use whatsoever except to deter an opponent's use of such weapons.
The East-West military rivalry is a function of the political conflict between two blocs. Many people have argued therefore that any long-term attempt to reduce the risk of nuclear war must begin by addressing the source of the tensions: the political rivalry. A long-term stable relationship between East and West is, I think, both desirable and attainable even in an atmosphere of competition and mutual suspicion. There are common interests. This relationship must rest on twin pillars of firmness and flexibility. Detente without defense would amount to surrender on the installment plan. And defense without detente would increase tensions and the risk of conflict. So I strongly urge that we embark upon a program of what might be called sustained engagement. But this process will require time, patience, consistency of purpose--and there are limits to the results. It is not, therefore, a substitute for other actions designed to reduce the risk of military conflict.