The Multilateral Force (MLF): Tom Lehrer’s and Albert Wohlstetter’s respective critiques

When I brought up Albert Wohlstetter‘s sharp criticisms of the Multilateral Force (MLF) nuclear weapons-sharing proposal during a dinner with colleagues last week (yes, I know, I’m an absolutely delightful dinner conversationalist…), my friend James urged me to look up “MLF Lullaby,” a 1964 song by the singer, songwriter and satirist, Tom Lehrer. I’m happy to write that I found online a video of Lehrer performing the very ditty:

For those interested in more context . . .

The Multilateral Force was a proposed nuclear weapons-sharing arrangement in which not just the United States, but all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), would have jointly commanded and directly controlled naval vessels manned by multinational crews, and armed with U.S.-supplied nuclear-armed Polaris sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Research leads me to believe the MLF proposal was first conceived by Robert A. Bowie, director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff under President Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957, in a 1960 report known as the “Bowie Study”:

The North Atlantic Nations: Tasks for the 1960s, a report to the Secretary of State, August 1, 1960, SECRET, declassified on January 9, 1986, DDRS No. CK3100227683.

MLF came in the wake of Gerboise Bleue, France’s February 1960 test detonation of a plutonium-fueled, fission nuclear explosive device in the Algerian desert. ( apparently has a silent film of France’s test nuclear bomb detonation.) Worried that ever-more NATO members would follow Britain and France to build and test nuclear bombs of their own, some in the State Department pushed the MLF as way not just to dampen nuclear proliferation within the Alliance, but also to draw the Western European nations closer together politically. In fact, so-called “European Integrationists” in the State Department of the 1960s had hoped the MLF might someday make it easier for a sort of “United States of Europe” to emerge, and for this European superstate eventually to absorb Britain and France’s nuclear arsenals as its own.

In early 1961, both Bowie and Wohlstetter jointed 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 the United States and Western Europe. Wohlstetter — who, as a consultant to the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, had emerged as one of America’s most inventive and provocative thinkers of nuclear-age strategy — served as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara‘s informal representative to what came to be known as the “Acheson Committee.”

During the Committee’s deliberations, Bowie pushed hard the MLF proposal. Wohlstetter pushed back, but not just on the grounds that the MLF would make the spread of nuclear weapons more likely among allies, as well as potential adversaries. He also believed that the MLF would tend to weaken — not strengthen — the sinews of Alliance.

Wohlstetter countered that the MLF would make it difficult for the Allies to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of potentially severe yet deeply uncertain nuclear dangers, with indecisiveness or disagreement dissolving Western cohesion in times of crisis. The proposed MLF, he argued, would multiply and dangerously complicate the allied decision-making 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? Only the United States? Or, all participating NATO members? Or, just some? And what would the process for making decisions actually be? Simple majority? Consensus? The answers to these critical questions were far from clear.

Wohlstetter instead argued to the Acheson Committee that the United States should retain direct control of America’s strategic nuclear forces (SNFs). That the final decision of whether or not to use SNFs in a crisis should belong to the U.S. President. And that the United States and its NATO allies should establish better non-nuclear, conventional military options to defend Western Europe, not just to deter more credibly less-than-nuclear aggression on the Continent, but also to assure America’s closest partners and make less likely knee-jerk calls for recourse to nuclear weapons. The sort of arguments he privately made to the Acheson Committee found public expression in the following, difficult-to-find 1961 Foreign Affairs article that Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writing of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009) has made available again:

Albert Wohlstetter, “Nuclear Sharing: NATO and the N+1 Country,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3 (April 1961), pp. 355-387.

The Acheson Committee’s final report would not recommend Bowie’s concept of a Multilateral Force:

A Review of North Atlantic Problems for the Future, the Committee on U.S. Political, Economic and Military Policy in Europe’s Policy Guidance to the National Security Council, March 1961, SECRET, declassified on December 30, 1996, DNSA No. NH01131, esp. pp. 7-11.

The Kennedy Administration’s National Security Action Memorandum No. 40 adopted the recommendations of the Acheson Committee, with the effect of killing — for a time — the MLF:

Policy Directive Regarding NATO and the Atlantic Nations, National Security [Action] Memorandum No. 40, April 24, 1961, CONFIDENTIAL, declassified on May 4, 1977, DNSA No. BC02034.

The MLF concept, however, would die a slow death. Indeed, it would rise — zombie-like — throughout the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and bog down relations between the United States and USSR during the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) talks that would lead (eventually) to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968, known more commonly as the Nuclear Nonproliferation or NPT.

Speaking of the NPT, I thought I’d end this post with “What’s Next?” Tom Lehrer’s satirical ode to the sort of proliferation that people worried might follow the October 1964 test detonation of a nuclear explosive device by the People’s Repubic of China at Lop Nur:

In turn, China’s detonation of a nuclear explosive device led the Johnson Administration to assemble an interagency Task Force on Nuclear Proliferation, chaired by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric. The Gilpatric Committee’s final report — which is available as item 64 here — played an important role in convincing President Lyndon Johnson to suspend America’s attempts to negotiate in the ENDC for a treaty on complete and total disarmament, and instead to focus exclusively on getting the ENDC to conclude a much more modest nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

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