Excerpt on nuclear nonproliferation from Wohlstetter book’s introduction

Here’s another excerpt from “Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter on Nuclear-Age Strategy,” Robert Zarate’s introductory essay to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009). This excerpt looks at the Wohlstetters’ impact on nuclear nonproliferation issues. For more, see the earlier Wohlstetter book excerpt on:

Excerpts exclude the supporting endnotes that you’ll find if you download the book and read the introduction in its entirety.

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By Robert Zarate

Albert Wohlstetter‘s pioneering research on nuclear deterrence in the 1950s helped to establish his reputation as one of America’s premier and most controversial strategists. In the following decades, his efforts to stem nuclear proliferation — efforts which drew insights directly from his RAND Corporation studies on the requirements for a survivable, controllable, and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent — would serve to enhance that reputation. During the early 1960s, he would work to debunk an American proposal for a so-called “nuclear sharing” arrangement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to promote instead nonproliferation within NATO by convincing the United States to make stronger, clearer, and more believable its promise to protect Western European allies from any potential Soviet nuclear and non-nuclear military aggression. Moreover, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he, his wife Roberta Wohlstetter and their colleagues would conduct a sustained examination of civil nuclear energy’s military potential, and the extent to which national and international approaches to nonproliferation were effectively constraining such potential. The Wohlstetters’ analyses would help not only to reframe nuclear nonproliferation debates going forward, but also to change U.S. nuclear energy and export policy.

Alliance Commitments.

After France’s February 1960 test of an atomic bomb, U.S. policymakers faced again the same sorts of worries that Britain’s October 1952 test had raised: How would the addition of a new nuclear-armed government affect relations within NATO, especially the cohesion among allies? Would other Western European governments move to acquire their independent nuclear arsenals? Such worries led some in the outgoing Eisenhower Administration to propose that Washington establish with Western Europe a nuclear-armed Multilateral Force (MLF), an expansive “nuclear sharing” arrangement in which not just the United States, but all NATO members themselves would multilaterally command and control naval vessels manned by multinational crews and armed with American-supplied nuclear Polaris sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The belief was that the proposed MLF would satisfy NATO members who were agitating for greater roles in Western Europe’s nuclear defense, and thereby arrest the impulse for more governments to get nuclear weapons. The proposed MLF, it was hoped, would also strengthen the sinews of the alliance.

Wohlstetter, however, opposed not only the acquisition of new nuclear arsenals by individual NATO governments, but also the Multilateral Force nuclear-sharing proposal itself. As an outside adviser to the Kennedy Administration, he would help to persuade key decisionmakers to reject both. In particular, he would serve as the Department of Defense’s informal representative to the Committee on U.S. Political, Economic, and Military Policy in Europe, an advisory body chaired by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and charged by the Kennedy Administration to re-examine transatlantic relations between America and Western Europe. Albert would play a key role in helping Acheson to author draft policy guidance for the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) that would aim to promote nuclear nonproliferation in Western Europe through increased political, economic, and military interdependence among the United States and its allies, as well as through improvements in NATO’s conventional defense capabilities for resisting less-than-nuclear aggression. This draft guidance would form the basis for the Kennedy NSC’s National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 40 [link updated on 03/10/2009]. Wohlstetter’s article “Nuclear Sharing: NATO and the N+1 Problem” — published in the April 1961 issue of Foreign Affairs (at roughly the same time NSAM 40 was approved) — provides insights into the sort of arguments he made to the Acheson Committee.

To justify the French force de frappe, proponents had made use of doctrines of automatic and minimum deterrence. For example, General Pierre Gallois, an adviser to French President Charles de Gaulle, had asserted in Stratégie de l’âge nucléaire (1960) that the destructiveness of nuclear weapons created uncertainty for potential aggressors that necessarily “increases the risk, counsels discretion, and consequently strengthens the strategy of dissuasion.” At the time, Gallois believed that the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states would have a pacifying effect: “As atomic armament grows more widespread and other nations besides America and Great Britain gain possession of it, either in their own right or under a ‘double check,’ the notion of dissuasion will also become more common, each nation practicing it according to its means.” Gallois added: “It will not be long before we may have to give up war altogether.”

In “Nuclear Sharing,” however, Wohlstetter countered, first, that the independent nuclear arsenals of France — and of other allies that might follow the French example — would face, in times of acute crisis, severe difficulties in deterring safely and believably a Soviet preclusive nuclear first strike. Here, he was very much informed by his earlier RAND Corporation research on strategic nuclear forces, which had revealed how hard it could be for the United States to establish a survivable, controllable, and therefore credible second-strike capability in the face of changing dangers. In his view, the independent nuclear forces of American’s allies would likely face an even harder time.

Moreover, Albert was deeply critical of how France’s raw desire for greater prestige had played a decisive role in its acquisition of a nuclear-armed force de frappe. He believed that de Gaulle’s decision would be a costly mistake with little real payoff. In The Delicate Balance of Terror, he had argued that “[m]ere membership in the nuclear club might carry with it prestige, as the applicants and nominees expect, but it will be rather expensive and in time it will be clear that it does not necessarily confer any of the expected privileges enjoyed by the two charter members.” In “Nuclear Sharing,” he elaborated this point:

The burden of deterring a general war as distinct from limited wars is still likely to be on the United States and therefore, so far as our allies are concerned, on the alliance. . . . The problem of deterring a major power requires a continuing effort because the requirements for deterrence will change with the counter-measures taken by the major power. Therefore, the costs can never be computed with certainty; one can be sure only that the initiation fee is merely a down payment on the expense of membership in the nuclear club.

Second, Wohlstetter worried about the effects that the spread of independent nuclear arsenals or the Multilateral Force would have on the Western alliance’s cohesion and decisiveness. On the one hand, independent arsenals not only were undermining the U.S. nuclear “umbrella” guarantee in behalf of Europe’s security, but also were unraveling the interdependence between the United States and some of its allies. (France would leave NATO in the mid-1960s.) On the other hand, the proposed MLF would multiply and dangerously complicate the allied decisionmaking process: In the event of a nuclear attack against one or more NATO members, which governments would have the power to decide when to use the MLF’s jointly-controlled nuclear weapons? Which governments, if any, would have the right to veto such use? Just the U.S.? All participating NATO members? What would the process for making decisions be? Simple majority? Consensus? The answers to these critical questions were far from clear.

Moreover, Albert was concerned that both independent nuclear arsenals and the MLF would erode from within America’s promise to protect Western Europe from nuclear and non-nuclear Soviet military aggression. He wrote:

[O]ne of the most serious troubles with moves towards NATO or national nuclear strike forces is that they might weaken the American guarantee in the future. If either a national or a joint deterrent can really deter the Soviet Union, it is hard to justify an American commitment for this purpose. If European nuclear forces should present merely a façade of deterrence, they might convince the American Congress even if they do not convince the Russians.

Third, and finally, Wohlstetter feared that the emergence of new independent nuclear arsenals or the Multilateral Force would set precedents encouraging ever more states, both allied and hostile, to acquire nuclear weapons. In his view, American policy needed to account not just for the “Nth” problem country — that is, the immediate would-be nuclear proliferator. It needed also to account for what he termed the “N+1 problem” — that is, the precedent for or against further proliferation which other governments would draw from U.S. policy toward the last prospective “Nth” nuclear power.

Thus Wohlstetter argued that if the United States strengthened its commitment to defend NATO allies from all forms of nuclear and non-nuclear military aggression, then this would serve to reassure allies of their security and interdependence with America, and promote nuclear nonproliferation within Western Europe. To that end, he urged Washington to retain sole launch authority over U.S. nuclear weapons; to emphasize an American “umbrella” strategy in behalf of Europe to deter Soviet preclusive nuclear attacks against both the United States and individual NATO allies; and to work with NATO members to develop more believable conventional military options to meet limited-nuclear and less-than-nuclear provocations. He explained:

The alliance is viable, because neither our allies nor the United States in the long run can survive without it. This is the reason for deliberately entangling our forces and their dependents in the lot of Europe. We identify our short-term fate with Europe’s because we think our long-term fate cannot be extricated from theirs. . . . In fact, the principal implication of my argument is that the much used notion of interdependence has to be taken seriously.

Following Wohlstetter’s arguments, the United States would work to reassure non-nuclear-armed NATO allies through increased American security commitments to Europe, and to convince them not to build independent nuclear strike forces. Consequently, Albert’s arguments against proliferation within the Western alliance would earn considerable fame (and infamy) in Europe. In a 1962 memorandum to the Department of State, Henry Kissinger (who at the time was serving as an outside adviser to the Kennedy Administration) would report the response of French generals in Paris when he had questioned why they believed their small and unprotected force would be capable of retaliating after a Soviet first strike: “The generals replied that I seemed infected by the pernicious Wohlstetter doctrine.”

Although Albert also had helped to convince the Kennedy Administration to bury the Multilateral Force for a time, the proposal would die a slow death. Indeed, the proposal would resurface periodically during the Johnson Administration, and at times severely encumber negotiations between the United States and the USSR within the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee, the multilateral forum from which the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT) would later emerge.

Civil Nuclear Energy’s Military Potential.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Albert split time between his professorship at the University of Chicago (a position which political scientist Hans Morgenthau had encouraged and helped him to get) and his work as an outside adviser to government, he and Roberta embarked on research to understand better civil nuclear energy’s military potential and economic viability. In late 1975, the Wohlstetters — along with their colleagues at Pan Heuristics, a consulting company that Albert and Roberta had helped to form — would complete the study Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd? for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).

Styled as a “primer for policy,” Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd? was written during a time when the U.S. nuclear industry and many within government were aggressively pushing for the domestic use and foreign export of spent-fuel reprocessing and other plutonium-related nuclear fuel-making technologies. Building on Albert’s earlier work on nuclear deterrence and nuclear nonproliferation, their study argued that the prevailing interpretation of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons was dangerously permissive, enabling and even encouraging non-nuclear-weapon states to claim legitimacy as they acquired nuclear fuel-making technologies, accumulated fissile material (principally high enriched uranium and separated plutonium), and came within months — or even days — of building nuclear explosive devices. Moreover, although the NPT requires non-nuclear-weapon signatories to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to safeguard and inspect their nuclear materials involved in peaceful nuclear energy, the Wohlstetter team worried that IAEA safeguards would not be broad enough, intrusive enough, and transparent enough to provide timely warning of a military diversion — that is, to sound a clear and unambiguous alarm in the case of a state’s misuse of civil nuclear energy for nuclear weapons or unknown purposes sufficiently early so that other governments could respond effectively before that state acquired a nuclear weapon.

From this, Albert and company identified three main paths — besides the outright purchase, theft, or gift of weapons-usable nuclear material — by which would-be proliferators could obtain material for their first nuclear explosive device. First, nations outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty could pursue, covertly or overtly, military programs to get weapons-usable nuclear material. (As Roberta would detail in The Buddha Smiles: Absent-Minded Peaceful Aid and the Indian Bomb, India did this by taking advantage of unwitting Canadian and American nuclear assistance.) Second, NPT signatories could cheat the treaty by concealing from the IAEA weapons-related nuclear activities and then withdrawing from the treaty after illegitimately obtaining fissile material. Third, NPT signatories could declare all civil nuclear activities with military potential to the IAEA, accumulate weapons-usable nuclear material in plain sight and with an air of legitimacy, and then later withdraw from the NPT to build nuclear weapons.

This last path particularly disturbed the Wohlstetter team, for it raised the risks of what they dubbed a Damoclean overhang of non-nuclear-armed NPT states, for which:

the critical time required to make a nuclear explosive has been diminishing and will continue to diminish without any necessary violation of clear, agreed rules — without any ‘diversion’ [of nuclear material declared for civil purposes] to secret military programs needed — and therefore without any prospect of being curbed by safeguards which have been elaborated for the purpose of verifying whether the mutually agreed rules have or have not been broken.

In their view, the growth of such latent or virtual nuclear-weapon states posed the fundamental challenge to nuclear nonproliferation. “The real problem of proliferation,” they wrote,

is not that there are numerous countries “champing at the bit” to get nuclear weapons, but rather that all the non-nuclear countries, without making any conscious decision to build nuclear weapons, are drifting upwards to higher categories of competence. This means that any transient incentive, in the ebb and flow of world politics, which inclines a country to build nuclear weapons at some point in the future, will be just that much easier to act upon.

That said, the Wohlstetters and their colleagues rejected fatalism regarding the spread of nuclear weapons. Such fatalism sometimes found expression in phrases like “nuclear proliferation is inevitable,” a statement which mechanistically envisions the further spread of weapons-usable nuclear fuel-making and fissile materials, and appears to imply that little, if anything, can be done politically, economically, or otherwise even to slow, let alone reverse, the rate of this spread. “A fatalism which holds that nothing can be done today may be an unconscious cover for a desire to do nothing, to continue as before,” they countered. “While it is very likely that there will be some further spread, how much and how rapidly is not a matter of fate, but a subject for policy.”

Indeed, the Wohlstetter team stressed that the world’s movement toward a nuclear-armed crowd is not inevitable. “Although there is a real chance that many countries will take the additional step and acquire nuclear weapons, it is not certain,” they argued. “There exist contradictory forces which may substantially moderate the rate of acquisition of nuclear weapons.” The steps by which nations decide to acquire nuclear weapons are “more complex than the exponential physical and biological steps which have suggested the standard metaphors of proliferation,” they continued. “They are not automatic, but depend on a complex set of political, military, and economic conditions.”

To balance better the aims of national security, nonproliferation, and energy security policies, they put forward a number of prudent alternatives for limiting nuclear proliferation and managing its risks when it did occur. In particular, their study urged the United States:

  • to strengthen its security commitment to and interdependence with non-nuclear-armed allies, including those outside of the NATO alliance system, and assure them of their safety in the face of changing proliferation dangers so as to obviate any movement toward getting their own nuclear weapons;
  • to interpret the NPT less permissively and more pragmatically, using the extent to which the IAEA can
    effectively safeguard a given type of nuclear material or civil nuclear activity as a key metric for determining whether or not Article IV of the Treaty’s “inalienable right” to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes . . . in conformity with Articles I and II” actually protects the material/activity in the first place;
  • to evaluate transparently the economic viability and military dangers of nuclear energy and nuclear fuelmaking;
  • to limit government energy subsidies and loan guarantees not only to the nuclear industry, but also to other energy industries, so as to enable all energy alternatives — nuclear, fossil fuels, natural gas, cleaner coal, and renewables — to compete on a neutral, market-driven playing field;
  • to establish stringent domestic and international controls on the export and use of fissile material and fuel-making technologies; and
  • to work both with the IAEA and with other governments to revise and adequately fund the Agency’s safeguards system so that it could have a better chance of providing timely warning of a state’s close approach to nuclear weapons capability.

With this and later studies, Wohlstetter and colleagues worked with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s director Fred C. Iklé, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Victor Gilinsky, and others, to forge a consensus in Washington regarding the dubious economic rationales for, and the military dangers of, hitherto encouraged weapons-relevant nuclear activities — in particular, the use and export of plutonium-based fuel and fuel-making technologies.

Partial yet nontrivial changes to America’s energy and export policies followed. In October 1976, President Gerald Ford decided to defer America’s commercial use and export of plutonium-related fuel and fuel-making capabilities, and to call for an international moratorium on the export of plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment technologies. (Ford’s deferral decision effectively killed earlier proposals to export nuclear fuel-making technologies to the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran.) In April 1977, President Jimmy Carter made Ford’s deferral indefinite. And in 1978, the Congress passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (P.L. 95-242, 92 Stat. 120), which among other things established stricter guidelines for U.S nuclear cooperation with and nuclear exports to other governments. As Atomic Industrial Forum president Carl Walske — who, as the nuclear industry’s chief representative, had vehemently opposed such changes to U.S. policy — would grudgingly concede:

The most significant single event [in the current call for change], in my view, was the appearance in December 1975 of Albert Wohlstetter’s study for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency entitled, Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd?

Significant revisions to international nonproliferation controls would not follow, however. Although nuclear proliferation would often take a backseat to the larger struggle between the West and the Soviet bloc, proliferation problems would come to dominate U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War’s end, especially in the early years of the 21st century.

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To read more of Robert Zarate’s introduction to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009):

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