To Deter and Protect

How close were we to nuclear Armageddon? Harold Brown ’45CC, ’49GSAS, who served as secretary of defense under Jimmy Carter, speaks with Columbia Magazine about the threats of the Cold War and their lessons for today.

Published Summer 2013
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Photograph by Katherine Lambert

Columbia Magazine: Your new book Star Spangled Security reminds us that the world was a tense place when you began your term as secretary of defense.
Harold Brown: Yes, the Cold War was pretty warm in those days. There had been a period of détente during the Nixon years, but the Soviets kept building up their nuclear forces, and they seemed, at least to some people, to be trying to gain predominant influence in Africa, Latin America, and even the Middle East.

Columbia: The Soviet Union posed an existential threat. Did that fact always weigh on you?
Brown: There were two pieces to that. One was the threat of a nuclear attack. As the Soviets ratcheted up their nuclear capabilities, that concern was always present in the room. When they moved their ballistic-missile submarines closer to our east coast in 1978, reducing our warning time, it concerned us enough that we increased the readiness of our bomber force. We also worried about the increased accuracy of Soviet land-based ballistic missiles, which could affect the survivability of our land-based missiles. That preoccupied me because I had primary responsibility for responding to those Soviet buildups in a way that preserved our deterrent capability.

The other piece was geopolitical competition. I was less inclined to see this as a threat because it was clear the Soviet economic and political system wasn’t working too well.

Columbia: It was clear even in the late 1970s?
Brown: It was pretty clear to me and to the rest of us in the Carter administration. Moreover, though our military capabilities had suffered depletion during the near decade of the Vietnam War, if you asked which country could really move forces a long distance and rapidly, it was the US, not the Soviet Union.

Columbia: How real was the possibility of a land-based, conventional European war?
Brown: It was a considerable worry. After the US, Europe was the biggest center of economic production, and it was where the Soviets were poised for potential conquest. They had a large ground force, much larger than the combined forces of the Western Europeans and the US. When I came to office, it was the first thing that I concentrated on, because that’s where the perceived imbalance of capabilities was greatest. We could get to Africa or Latin America rapidly and outdo the Soviets, but in Europe they were right on the inner German border of a then-divided Germany. The general view, which the Soviets clearly believed, was that they could roll over NATO forces, US forces, and Western European forces to the English Channel within a couple of weeks.

We should not commit to doing something without knowing just how we are going to do it. Assad should go, but there are a lot of elements in the opposition who are not our friends.

Columbia: With so great an imbalance, what part did nuclear arms play in the equation?
Brown: Before we changed the balance of forces in Europe, the strategy was to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe by the threat of nuclear escalation. There were all sorts of theories and plans to use tactical nuclear weapons if the Soviets started an invasion. The hope was that it would cause them to pull back or at least stop. More likely, they would have responded with nuclear weapons and it would have escalated to a general nuclear war, which would have destroyed Europe and the US and the Soviet Union. Even if it hadn’t escalated to all-out nuclear war, who knows how it would have turned out.

Whether the Soviets were deterred, or whether they decided that it was too dangerous, which is not quite the same thing, is not clear. I think their intention was at least to overawe the Western Europeans by a predominant conventional and nuclear capability and somehow use that to gain political power in Western Europe. That didn’t work.

Columbia: Those who didn’t live through the Cold War may be baffled by the idea of developing and deploying new weapons in order to limit the risk of war. This was called mutual assured destruction, or MAD.
Brown: You’re asking about psychology. Does the threat of mutual suicide deter a potential enemy? I think the answer is that it did.

Columbia: Foreign policy might have been simpler when the US lived in a world with one big enemy. Has the world grown too complex for that? 
Brown: We no longer have that relationship with Russia, and we don’t have it with China. I expect we will not quite have it with China, even if we become more adversarial. The Chinese know our history with the Soviet Union, and we both realize that it doesn’t make sense to get into a mutual-suicide deterrent approach.

You do see it with other countries. Look at the Israelis and the Iranians, look at the Indians and the Pakistanis, and you see the same thing operating. It’s possible that there could be a nuclear war. What prevents it? The thought that it would mean mutual suicide. That’s how it was between the US and the Soviet Union.

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