When Nuclear Sabers Rattle

Those who thought the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia was a thing of the past, a relic of the Cold War long since brought under control by disarmament treaties and geopolitical changes, must have had an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu in recent days as Washington and Moscow rattled nuclear sabers once again.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted of more advanced sabers in Moscow’s scabbard than anyone knew about. Putin claimed he has new weapons of mass destruction — a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone that could be armed with a nuclear warhead, and a hypersonic missile.

These weapons, he said, cannot be intercepted and would make NATO’s missile defense “useless.”

Washington responded that Putin’s rhetoric had missed its target completely.

“This is not about defense, it’s about deterrence,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White explained, saying that U.S. missile defenses are not designed with Russia’s nuclear arsenal in mind (they’re pointed at Iran and North Korea), and Moscow knows this “very well.”

“We need to ensure we have a credible nuclear deterrent, and we are confident that we are prepared to defend this nation no matter what,” she concluded.

Russian pronouncements on its ballistic superiority go back to the days of Nikita Khrushchev, who threatened his counterpart President John F. Kennedy that if the U.S. continued on its “reckless” foreign policy path the “missiles would fly.”

But the American response to Putin was a reversal of Kennedy’s warnings in the 1960 presidential campaign of a “missile gap” between the Russian and American arsenals that put the Russians dangerously ahead. He blamed the nuclear disadvantage on the complacency of the Eisenhower administration, including the Republican presidential nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon. Only the “vim and vigor” of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” could close the gap. That, and billions of dollars to be spent by an administration committed in the Kennedy inaugural to “pay any price, bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy did not invent the “missile gap,” he merely converted it into a potent political weapon to use against Nixon. The concept had first been conjured up in late 1957 by an Eisenhower-sponsored committee headed by H. Rowan Gaither, chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation. The committee warned that if the U.S. did not act immediately, it would face defeat in a nuclear war, and three members of the group recommended a preventive strike before it was too late.

However, in the very first months of the Kennedy administration, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (than whom there was no greater master of facts and figures) delivered the conclusion of a thorough investigation: The supposed “missile gap” was, if anything, in the U.S.’s favor.

Kennedy did not right away accept this in public, too embarrassed to do so after he had exploited the issue (now deemed false) to help him get elected just a few months before. But later in 1961, when Khrushchev said he had given the order to resume nuclear testing with a 100-megaton blast, seven times what the Pentagon had last detonated, Kennedy let it be known that he was not intimidated by Soviet blast and bluster:

“We have a second-strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first. Therefore, we are confident that the Soviets will not provoke a major nuclear conflict,” a presidential spokesman said.

In later years, Khrushchev himself admitted that he was bluffing. “It always sounded good in speeches that our missiles could hit a fly at any distance. I exaggerated a little.” According to his son Sergei, a rocket engineer, the exaggeration was more than a little: “We threatened with missiles we didn’t have,” he said.

The initial miscalculation of Russian nuclear capability was due to the extreme difficulty in making any reliable measurement of what they actually had. It was never just a matter of how many missiles and how many bombs — hard enough to pinpoint. There were intricate calculations to be made about range and accuracy, payload capacity, and so on. And such assessments depended on information that was top secret, which each side could only partially obtain through human spies and airborne surveillance. It was a situation highly susceptible to error, exaggeration and bluff.

The technologies of destruction, as well as those of surveillance and concealment, have improved many times over since then. But the rhetoric and psychology of global politics have not changed much. We still live in a world of competing powers, and politicians continue to play on the pride and the fears of their people.

Whether Putin really does have new weapons that are as unstoppable as he claims, or he is exaggerating “a little” — like Khrushchev — is not known, except perhaps to the defense analysts at the Pentagon.

In any case, it is to be hoped that, as in the 1960s, the leaders of the nuclear-armed countries will pull back from the brink, and well before that.

In the meantime, we place our trust in the Ribbono shel Olam, in whose hands are the hearts of kings. Lev melachim b’Yad Hashem.