Is war successful in achieving its political objects?

Date: 20th October 2001

Beatrice Heuser

"Professor Beatrice Heuser, is an historian and political scientist and has a chair of International Relations at the University of Glasgow. She specialises in strategic studies, especially nuclear strategy, strategic theory and strategic culture, the transatlantic relations as well as the foreign and defence policies of Germany, France and Great Britain."
source: wikipaedia

I have been asked to comment on whether war is successful in achieving its political objects, and in pondering this question, as a historian, I shall look at the use of force in Modern History, and look at its ‘success rate’ in achieving what policy-makers decided to wage it for. Then, I shall look at more recent developments of the notion that war is a useful and employable tool of politics. I shall finally comment specifically on the use of force in the ‘new world order’ which the father of the present US President proclaimed a decade ago, and, for all they are worth, share with you my thoughts about the current American and British military action in Afghanistan.

The perception of war as a political tool

When the notion of war as a political tool is mentioned, people nowadays always associate it with the name of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier/philosopher who in his famous study of war called war a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means. Oddly enough, Clausewitz himself did not develop this idea much further in his book On War, other than to point out that any war is the function of the particular historical context and circumstances in which it is waged, and to say several times that the more far-reaching the political aims for which a war is fought, the smaller the political restraints on the full unfolding of the violence of war, the closer it comes to the ideal of unrestricted violence. By contrast, he thought that in certain periods of history, war had been very restrained in character, because the political aims of the war were narrowly focused and limited.

Clausewitz was not the first to note the nexus between war and politics, but he has become famous for his formulations on the subject:

“If we consider that war emanates from a political purpose, it is only natural that this prime mover which has called it into being will remain the first and highest concern in its conduct. Yet the political purpose is not a despotic legislator:  it has to conform to the nature of the means and in the process of adapting to it, it may become significantly transformed. It will nonetheless remain the first consideration. Politics will thus permeate the entire act of war and will have a continuous effect upon it, to the extent that the nature of the exploding forces of war permit.” [1]

Nor do I think that either statement came as a total surprise for contemporaries. It is true that some might have thought that war was fought where diplomacy, and thus non-violent tools had ceased to be effective. But the nexus between a government’s overall aims and policy would largely have been taken for granted by most philosophers since Machiavelli - and even he thought of it as too self-evident to spell it out explicitly in the way Clausewitz had done, in their attempts to go back to first principles in their respective books. 

Nor was this now so irritatingly often quoted sentence ‘war is the continuation …’ what Clausewitz’s first generations of readers homed in on and regarded as most quote-worthy. Instead, until the Second World War, Clausewitz mainly owed his generally great but fluctuating popularity to his treatment of Napoleonic-style warfare, what towards the end of his life he called ‘absolute’ warfare, that is:  war unfettered by limiting political considerations. Clausewitz himself would have found it difficult to understand his own disciples, who, like Moltke, thought that, ‘Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one.’ then going on to extol what he thought to be virtues of war and beneficial effects of war on society. [2] For those for whom violence became an end in itself, and for whom war was the source of social ascendance, glory or simply power, there needed to be no political purpose to guide them.

But in turning to the generations after Clausewitz, I might as well begin here my tour d’horizon of the general success rate of achieving war aims in European history.

The ‘success rate’ of achieving war aims in European History

Until the French Revolution, the aims of many or perhaps even most the wars of European history since the Dark Ages were dictated by fate. A very high proportion of the wars was fought either because of rivalling claims to dynastic succession, which the contenders had to promote, just like actors on the stage of a Greek classical drama. They had to defend their claim to the throne, or go under. In the Middle Ages, they could call upon the popes to mediate, but they could also call upon God to give his favour to the more meritorious claimant, who could be found out by the divine ordeal, battle. Or else wars were fought, from the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century to the Thirty Years’ War that came to an end in 1648, over religious disagreements: then especially, the One and Only True God was called upon to make his choice between the contestants in battle. 

In the subsequent period, often referred to as that of the Ancien Régime, war on land was waged almost exclusively in the furtherance of dynastic claims of succession, claims that simply came with one’s birth, and which one could hardly ignore. And being relatively limited in terms of human cost - limited, that is, compared to the fatalities of the wars both before and afterwards - princes easily thought that wars fulfilled the political purposes either of one side or the other. As victory in these wars rarely smiled upon just one side in the series of battles that took place, the loser’s side could easily hope that the next engagement would bring forth a more favourable outcome. And indeed, ever since the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, peace-treaties tended to be complex compromises, which could give some satisfaction to all sides, and if necessary allowed all the major contestants to benefit, at the cost of the smallest powers.

The wars of the French Revolution changed all this:  for a short while, wars were fought about fundamental differences in ideology again, just as they had been during the religious wars. The wars of the French Revolution themselves were imposed upon the French by monarchies in neighbouring countries, who, led by the Holy Roman Emperor, Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother, tried to use force to reinstate the royal couple. The war aims of the Revolutionaries were thus entirely defensive at first, but almost immediately carried with them the ideal of liberating the other oppressed peoples of Europe from the tyranny of their own monarchies. The Germans, the Italians, and all the others were thus not the enemies of the French Revolutionary nation, but only their monarchies were, as they chose to fight against the Revolution. The purely defensive war aims of the French Revolution were achieved, but when it came to liberating the rest of Europe, the victorious French armies encountered more resistance than anticipated.

As the Revolution underwent the transfiguration into Napoleon’s imperial rule, the French aim of the liberation of Europe from monarchical tyranny was ever more perceived as aggressive and unwelcome by the many other peoples of Europe. The spirit of liberation increasingly gave way to what was experienced as foreign occupation, and the Grande Armée grew to be an economic burden on those it pertained to protect against its former masters. The occupation by Napoleon’s armies was increasingly resented, first in Spain, Prussia and Russia, later throughout the areas outside the borders of Bourbon France, where aristocratic leaders joined forces to beat back and finally defeat the Corsican on the morne plaine of Waterloo. The use of force for the political war aims of bringing the benefits of French liberal legislation to the rest of Europe ultimately failed.

Once Napoleon had been ousted and the Bourbons restored, Europe entered an unusually long phase characterised by the absence of major war. The five major powers of Europe, Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and the rehabilitated because re-Bourbonised France, formed what is referred to as the Concert of Europe, in which they agreed on the aim of preserving the status quo, or at least of preventing its change by the use of force. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, one of the five, Prussia, with a growing number of principalities of Central Europe bandwaggoning with or falling into the possession of the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, sought a major change of the order of Europe by trying to build a German nation-state in Central Europe. The Habsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire, which used to dominate this area, had in 1806 been formally dissolved by Napoleon, who forcibly persuaded the Habsburgs henceforth to call themselves only Emperors of Austria and styled himself Emperor in the West-European tradition of Charlemagne. But then many Germanophone principalities of Central Europe, left without an imperial bracket to concert them once the First (Napoleonic) French Empire collapsed, who had previously looked to Vienna for leadership, now turned their eyes to Brandenburg. And here a new political aim arose, a copy of Napoleonic nationalism and yet much less universal in aspiration, and this aim was the recreation of a central European Empire, this time imbued simultaneously with Prusso-German nationalism, breaking sharply with the multi-ethnic tradition of the old Holy Roman Empire. As this new configuration would decisively augment the strength of Prussia at its centre of power, the other major powers of Europe suspected that this would unhinge the balance of power between them. This balance had been stabilised by mutual respect and goodwill in the three decades after Waterloo. But mutual respect and goodwill gave way to egotistical nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. So when Prussia began directly to challenge the status quo of the distribution of power in Europe, it was only with the use of force that it could get the other states to accept this. The result was a series of wars of Prussia and its growing number of allies and dependants, against Austria, Denmark and finally France, culminating in 1871 with the proclamation of the (Second) now purely German Reich or Empire, deliberately tactlessly staged in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles, at the centre of the defeated (Second) purely French Empire. Prussia, and Prussian-led Germany, had thrice in less than a decade experienced that war was a very successful instrument of politics, and that the more ruthlessly and mercilessly it was waged, the greater the rewards.

This Prussian experience was at the heart of subsequent German policies of colonial expansionism, which led to direct clashes of interest with the equally triumphant British, the ever-expanding Russians and the vengeful French. Britain and France had jointly succeeded in using force as political instrument against Russia in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and in the context of enlarging their empires. With Austria acquiescing in its role as Germany’s junior partner, aiming to secure German support against a Russian Empire which was encroaching on Austria’s South-East European imperial possessions, these clashes erupted in the conflagration of the First World War, with the five European-led empires colliding spectacularly. All sides saw war as a promising tool of their imperial politics. Not only that, the self-consciously martial cultures of Europe, under the crazed influence of Social Darwinism, saw in war a panacea for all the ills of their societies which were suffering from the ‘collateral damage’ caused by their rapid transformation into uprooted, spiritually disoriented capitalist industrial societies. The political war aims of the great powers on the outbreak of the Great War were thus if anything vague and ill-defined. French soldiers sang about marching to Berlin, Germans about sailing against England, and what precisely it was they wanted from each other was left for the peace negotiations to define after four wasteful, unspeakably bloody years of war. The only clear aims had been for France to reconquer Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans, which they succeeded in doing, and for Austria to keep its hold on the Balkans, which it lost - but that only made many Austrians, like the veteran Adolf Hitler, as vengeful as the French had been prior to 1914. The victorious governments of France, Britain, and their transatlantic ally the USA, came out of the Great War with a keen conviction that war could indeed further their political aims:  upstart Germany was defeated and its arrogant Emperor William II, the Kaiser with English as his mother-tongue, was sent into exile. 

But among Frenchmen and Britons, many drew the opposite lesson from the Great War. Too many had lost their sons, their brothers and husbands for this victory to be something that could be celebrated to the full. The long lists of names on the village war memorials, on the walls of company buildings, police stations and fire brigades, on colleges and even schools, bore witness to the price for which this victory had been bought. In France and Britain, the First World War gave birth not so much to a culture of triumphalism, but to a culture of mourning, which severely undercut the readiness of both nations to risk another war two decades later to cut down to size a vengeful Germany.

The Americans, too, came out of their first European war with a feeling of wariness:  they chose to detach themselves again from the Old World as far as possible, and they were dragged into the Second World War against their will. So were the Russian, whose new Communist creed had been able to spread in 1917 precisely because the state was at war, and had accepted the price of external defeat in return for internal triumph. For Lenin and Stalin, war was unavoidable until Communism had triumphed throughout the world, but neither rushed to spark off the next conflagration. Britain, France, Soviet Russia and the USA were thus so cautious about the assumption that they could further their political aims with the use of force that they made it possible for an utterly ruthless Hitler to reach one political aim after another through a mere show of force, without actually having to go to war. When in the autumn of 1939 he finally encountered military resistance in Poland, he was still counting on the success of a ‘lightning war’ campaign, and wagered his bet on the continuing reluctance of France and Britain to fight for the status quo. Here he miscalculated, but not as badly as he did when subsequently drawing the USSR and the USA into the war, by invading the one and declaring war on the other. How far Hitler’s Third Reich or Empire would have got in the pursuit of war as an instrument of its racist policies if it had not foolishly added the Soviet Union and America to its adversaries is unclear; fortunately, we need not speculate further on this point.

For Britain, France, the US and the USSR, however, Hitler’s war confirmed the perception that war was a legitimate means - indeed the only means - of furthering their own political interests. Indeed, for the Soviet Union in particular, war had been a necessity for its very survival. France tried to compensate for its hesitancy in 1939 and its defeat in 1940 by vociferously claiming its place among the victors of 1945, and protesting (almost too much), asserting its determination never again to accept the occupation of its territory in return for an armistice. Despite their war-dead, Britain and America came out of the Second World War with a feeling of retribution and self-justification that far exceeded that of 1918. Germany had asked for war and Germany had been defeated; war had thus been a successful political tool in fending of the aggressor, indeed, the only possible tool, short of allowing themselves to be colonised by Germany’s Aryan Empire which would have been the price they would have had to pay for peace.

Yet while the outcome of the Second World War in Europe confirmed the Clausewitzian tenet that war is a (legitimate) tool of politics, it was the end of the same war in Asia that raised the most fundamental doubts on this score. It was only really after the Second World War, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also after German-style Total War, as exemplified by both Stalingrad and Auschwitz, that Clausewitz’s comment on the nexus between war and politics became part of popular culture, and became a debated creed in ‘pol/mil’ thinking. 

One of the most famous reaction to the first use of the atomic bomb was that of the American strategist Bernard Brodie, who in August 1945, days after Hiroshima, commented:  ‘Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avoid them. It can have no other purpose.’ [3] And yet as far as conventional war is concerned, America has never given up the belief that war could further their political interests, even in a world-wide contest between their own civilisation and ideology, and those of the Soviet Union and China. It was the same for the Soviet Union and China:  all three great powers were involved in a series of wars after 1945, but all carefully sought to keep them limited to non-nuclear dimensions. Their success rate was not very high: not least precisely because they did not take recourse to nuclear weapons, all three between them restored a mere status quo in Korea, and as America failed to secure Vietnam, Communist China failed to capture Taiwan, and the Soviet Union failed to subdue Afghanistan. In a nuclear world and a Cold War context, there were limits to what political ends could be reached through war even by the greatest powers. Yet all three continued to use conventional war as a tool of politics. 

America, at least, became somewhat more cautious in its application of force even to limited contingencies. As a consequence of its failure in Vietnam, the first Reagan administration adopted the ‘Weinberger Doctrine’, called after one of his secretaries of defense. Caspar Weinberger formulated what he called ‘six tests’ which had to be applied before using US forces in combat abroad.

  • First, the United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.
  • Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all.
  • Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives. And we should have and send the forces to do just that. As Clausewitz wrote, ‘No one starts a war - or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so - without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.’  If we determine that a combat mission had become necessary for our vital national interests, then we must send forces capable to do the job - and not to assign a combat mission to a force configured for peace keeping.
  • Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed - their size, composition and disposition - must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. When they do change, then so must our combat requirements. We must continuously keep as beacon lights before us the basic questions:  ‘Is this conflict in our national interest?’  ‘Does our national interest require us to fight, to use force of arms?’  If the answer is ‘yes’, then we must win. If the answer is ‘no’, then we should not be in combat.
  • Fifth, before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress ... We cannot fight a battle with Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas or, as in the case of Vietnam, in effect, asking our troops not to win, just to be there.
  • Sixth, finally, the commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be the last resort. [4]

As we shall see presently, the Weinberger doctrine outlived the administration under which it was formulated and after the end of the Cold War seems to continue to serve as guidance for key US decision makers.

An interesting insight can be won from a study of the evolution of the strategies for general war of America’s North Atlantic Alliance and the USSR’s European Alliances. Both assumed until the late 1960s that a war between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation with Soviet participation would turn nuclear. NATO, however, soon abandoned any faith it ever had in a ‘positive’ outcome of such an all-out, East-West conflagration. 

While the US military contingency plans DROPSHOT of 1949 in case of a war started by the USSR envisaged the occupation of the USSR and the elimination of its aggressive ideology on the pattern of the occupation and de-Nazification of Germany at the end of World War II, the first NATO contingency plan of 1950 was non-specific about war aims, but it endorsed the Anglo-American ‘Roll-back’ strategy with which Britain and the USA had been trying to emulate the Soviet Union’s subversive policies by measures short of general war. NATO’s MC 14/1 of 1952 contained plans for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Soviet nuclear forces, which were also contained in MC 48 of 1954. But MC 48, famously known as the ‘New Look’ or ‘Massive Retaliation’, no longer used the term ‘victory’ as the aim of such a defensive war for NATO: it merely spoke of the ‘conclusion’ of hostilities. MC 14/2 of 1957 reiterated that the war aim would be the conclusion of such a war, while still planning the destruction of the USSR’s ability to wage general war, which would be achieved through nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union itself. MC 14/3 of 1967 modestly labelled the war aim as the termination of hostilities, with a best-case scenario of restoring the status quo ante - a term included to please the West Germans in their front-line state, but one hardly backed up by operational military plans. NATO thus abandoned ‘victory’ as its war aim in the context of a war with the Warsaw Treaty Organisation forces.

The latter, by contrast, continued to operate on strategies outlining the conquest of most or all of Western, Southern and Northern Europe as war aim for their supposedly ‘defensive’ operations, all of which, until the mid-1980s, were seen as taking place on NATO territory, which obviously called into doubt their defensiveness. It was only in 1987 that the WTO struck the quest for victory from its doctrine - much to the annoyance, at the time, of President Gorbachëv’s military subordinates and of several East European leaders like Honegger. [5]

Thus the existence of nuclear weapons at least in the context of an East-West war scenario by and by came to influence the confidence which America with its NATO Allies and later even the USSR and the states under its influence had in a victorious outcome of a war using these weapons - or at any rate victory had to be couched in terms other than the complete occupation of the enemy’s territory, which had united America and Soviet Russia in their aim for Germany and Japan in the Second World War.

British thinking after the Second World War

As a smaller power with in much earlier reach of the Soviet Union’s bombers and nuclear weapons, Britain was smitten with scepticism about the outcome of a major war earlier than its great transatlantic allies. One can distinguish very roughly speaking two different creeds in Britain after the Second World War, where major war is concerned:  those who believed that nuclear weapons could serve to ban it by deterring the aggressor; and those who pleaded for at least unilateral, but ultimately of course multilateral nuclear disarmament. For former, nuclear weapons presented not only a threat, they also held out a hope:  the hope that nuclear weapons could deter war. It is this belief, not universally shared, but shared by the mainstream of thinking within Whitehall, that has been at the heart of successive British governments' nuclear deterrence policy since the Second World War. Britain needed nuclear weapons because these weapons could, it was fervently hoped, deter an attack by the enemy. 

At the onset of the nuclear age, some wishful thinking even suggested that nuclear war had abolished all war. In 1954 Sir John Slessor, a Chief of Air Staff, confidently proclaimed

“...that war has abolished itself because the atomic and the hydrogen bombs have found their way into the armouries of the world. So the greatest disservice anyone could do in the cause of peace would be to abolish nuclear arms on either side.” [6] 

Recognised all too early as untrue, the tenet that nuclear weapons had abolished all war was nonetheless retained in the modified form that nuclear weapons had abolished major war. The restriction to total or major war, rather than all war, had become obvious to another Briton even earlier. Immediately after the atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the retired Naval officer and former M.P. Sir Stephen King-Hall circulated the following in a newsletter:

“Total War has reached its ultimate and absolute physical development, it has made political and economic nationalism a meaningless thing and so Total War has abolished itself.” [7] 

Once Moscow had the bomb, optimism about the banishment of all war through nuclear weapons waned. Britons reasoned (here in the words of the First Sea Lord, Lord Mountbatten, some years later), that once there was a ‘nuclear equipoise’ between East and West,

“...this deterrent will no longer deter war, as it does now. It will only deter thermonuclear war. Once again we shall have to face the possibility of war being fought with conventional forces … because thermonuclear action by two power blocs, each with the maximum destruction in its possession, would mean world suicide.” [8]

In the early 1960s, another former Chief of the British Air Staff similarly saw a link between the abolition of war (in which he included accidental war, if there was the danger that it might lead to nuclear war) "because nobody can have the slightest hope of gaining anything in a nuclear war". Therefore, besides thinking it totally "impracticable" that nuclear weapons could ever be abolished world-wide, he thought that "even if you achieve this, you start again to encourage conventional war". [9] Twenty years later, a junior minister in the Ministry of Defence spoke of the use of nuclear weapons as "unthinkable". Conventional weapons, by contrast, he realised were used much too easily. [10] The view that nuclear weapons could prevent also conventional major war, at least in Europe, had by then become a common place among those strategists who supported nuclear deterrence, and in British government thinking where it has remained a key tenet to this day. It is crucial, of course, that it presupposes a rational opponent, who shares the assumption that the use of nuclear weapons is "unthinkable". 

Were nuclear weapons therefore a magic potion against the curse of war?  The Labour MP Richard Crossman [11] in 1961 described the nuclear weapon as the logical development of Western civilisation, the "logical fulfilment of the strategy of area bombing evolved by our own Bomber Command and employed by the Americans in their fire-bomb raids against Japanese cities."

“With these new weapons, ... we could do what the Romans were never able to do - defeat the barbarians without fighting them. Armed with nuclear weapons, our leaders had the wonderful feeling that they could keep the peace and preserve Western freedom without the burden of using mass armies. Not unnaturally, this nuclear strategy was particularly popular among the politicians, who realized the unpopularity in a democracy of maintaining large armed forces in peacetime.” [12]

In the West, as Laurence Martin, then Head of the Department of War Studies at King's College, London, argued, there was "a growing consensus that the utility of force has diminished, is diminishing and should diminish further". [13]  (His predecessor Michael Howard would have pointed out, citing Clausewitz, that this might be true for what some have called the "developed countries", one could hardly claim that this has been true for the rest of the world. [14]

But here is Martin's argument: he saw this "consensus" arising on the one hand from the rise of the "gods of welfare economics" and the rejection of those of martial glory, from the conclusion "that trade, investment... are the route to success, rather than conquest and mercantilist rivalry", conclusions typical of industrial societies. This assumes that "the chief national purposes are economic", and that in societies with mass politics and with mass media clamouring for steady economic improvement, this goal is immutably fixed. On the other hand he saw

“...changes in the instruments of conflict and in particular to the self-defeating nature of the supreme nuclear power wielded by the great states. Just as the modern goals of states are no longer to be sought by force, so military means have become incommensurate with any conceivable rational end. Between nuclear powers, ... victory would be neither necessary to destroy one adversary nor sufficient to preserve the other, still less to achieve the victor's purpose. By fear of the process of escalation... the inhibitions of strategic nuclear power reach down to inhibit the use of lesser force for lesser ends. “

And hence the widespread belief, he argued, that limited nuclear war made no sense, and that "nuclear power is unusable". [15] But again, here is the dilemma:  if this were indeed the general conviction among the "developed nations", would this not lead to the demise of deterrence?  As one British General, exasperated by the peace-movement and by cuts in defence spending, exclaimed, why should Britain's allies bother about Britain "if the British no longer display any interest in defending themselves?" [16]

Not impossible or unthinkable, but pointless, was the adjective given to nuclear war by many other Britons, particularly pacifists and other nuclear disarmers. An early example of the presentation of this argument is that of Philip Toynbee, novelist and foreign correspondent of the Observer, in his emotional piece of 1957: 

“It would be wicked and pointless to launch a nuclear attack on Russia before we have ourselves been attacked. Wicked for obvious reasons, pointless because we would immediately get back a great deal more than we were able to give. It would be wicked and pointless to launch a nuclear attack after we had ourselves been attacked. Wicked for obvious reasons; pointless because we would no longer have anything to gain by it. We would only be contributing to the general destruction of the world, in the manner of Hitler trying to bring down all Germany and Europe in his fall.” [17]

Emotive though it is, this argument goes to the heart of the deterrence paradox, and reflects the crucial problem that Britain, like other Western civilisation, increasingly had with the contemplation of total war, and with the mass killing of civilians. Thus, from being a reassuring belief about the pointlessness of a nuclear attack on Britain (from the perspective of an aggressor), the argument of the pointlessness of nuclear war at the same time undermined either the credibility, or the morality of the Western (British) deterrence position. 

On the other hand, deterrence, or the belief that one's own nuclear forces would deter any potential aggressor from attacking the West, was as welcome a hope in Britain as it was in France. One could subscribe to the need for the weapons for deterrence and simultaneously oppose any actual use concept. [18]  

The attraction of nuclear weapons (particularly strategic nuclear forces) lay, after all, in their deterrent function, not in what might be done with them in war. The ultimate deterrent - the threat that one would use one’s own nuclear weapons against the enemy’s targets of greatest value, his cities - brought with it increasing moral scruples. This was true even there, where in the heat of the Second World War, which could not clearly be seen to be lost or won by either side until very late, little or none had existed in the context of bombing German or Japanese population centres. But gradually, from the mid- to late 1950s onwards, the mass killing of civilians that this would deliberately bring about was increasingly widely seen as morally problematic. Nevertheless, without the threat of this ultimate form of escalation, nuclear deterrence could barely exist, and if it was believed that the preservation of peace depends on the upholding of deterrence, this presented Western decision-makers with a moral dilemma difficult to resolve. [19] 

If the contemplation of the horrors of nuclear war in part gave way to a more general, deeper re-examination of the morality of any form of war and the evolution of ethics in modern societies, the Euromissile crisis and the experience of the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster brought the debate full circle back to nuclear weapons. Again, as in the 1950s, it was nuclear physicists who were most gloomy about the lessons:  Chernobyl was described by one eminent physicist as having shown that "the nuclear bomb contains its own deterrent" as the poisonous fall-out created by it would affect the user and the target of nuclear weapons alike. "[I]t follows then", he wrote, "that we could dispense with our deterrents without any fear of nuclear attack..." [20] 

But the counter-argument continued to be put forward by the successive governments, and the strategists who believed in the stability of nuclear deterrence, namely that it was precisely the dangers involved in nuclear war that would (hopefully) deter all war in Europe:  as the 1987 British defence white paper stressed, a wholly "defensive defence" posture in Europe, i.e. one without nuclear weapons, "would not be sufficient to provide full security for the West". [21] 

Indeed, it was emphasised by major policy makers that conventional war, too, was now so horrible - "A holocaust in its own right" (Defence Secretary George Younger) - that it must not be contemplated, but that both conventional and nuclear war should be made impossible by the threat of nuclear punishment. [22] A scientific adviser to the government, Professor Sir Hermann Bondi, a mathematician, who was recruited from his chair at King's College London to become the Chief Scientific Adviser of the Ministry of Defence (1971-1977) and subsequently Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy (1977-80) described in dispassionate terms the horrors resulting for modern society from the consequences of mere conventional air-raids raid on electrical power stations:  cities without heating, light, food, and thus, soon, the spreading of epidemics, starvation and massive fatalities. Consequently, in his view, "[t]he prime aim of defence policy must be the avoidance of any major war, nuclear or conventional."  And if nuclear deterrence worked, both tasks would be fulfilled:  he therefore approved strongly of a credible nuclear deterrence posture. [23] 

The crucial question the answer to which divided the disarmers and the deterrers concerned the likelihood of deterrence "working". Those who had faith in deterrence thought, on balance, that it would work, and that Britain (and NATO) would thus manage to do two things at once:  not yield to Soviet political-cum-ideological pressure, and not have a war with the Warsaw Pact either. Deterrers tended to fear conventional war almost as much, as the above examples show, as nuclear war. Disarmers, however, were less convinced that deterrence would "work". For them, nuclear war presented itself in a category well apart from any other disaster, one to which they thought Britain to be uniquely vulnerable.

That conventional war - the use of force to stamp out the Malayan Communist insurgency, to counter the North Koreans in their attack on South Korea, or to try to wrest the Suez Canal away again from Nasser - continued to be a reasonable and successful tool of politics, however, was doubted in Britain only by outright pacifists. For looking back on two centuries of experience, Britain had almost invariably come out on the winning side in such contests. We shall see this reflected in British security policy in the post-Cold War world order, where Britain has perhaps been the power most strongly in favour of military intervention, including the use of ground forces, among all the Western powers.

(select here for the second part of this document - "Thinking in France and the Federal Republic of Germany")



[1] Vom Kriege I.1.23, p 210.  >

[2] Helmuth von Moltke: Aufzeichnungen, Briefe, Schriften, Reden (Ebenhausen bei München: Wilhelm Langewiesche-Brandt, 1942), p 337f.  >

[3] Bernard Brodie ed., The Absolute Weapon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946), p 76.  >

[4] Full text in Handel, Michael I. (ed.): Clausewitz and Modern Strategy (London: Frank Cass, 1986), p 188f.  >

[5] Beatrice Heuser: “Victory in a Nuclear War? A Comparison of NATO and WTO War Aims and Strategies”, Contemporary European History Vol. 7 Part 3 (November 1998), pp 311-328.  >

[6] Italics in original: Marshal of the R.A.F. Sir John Slessor: Strategy for the West (London: Cassell, 1954), p 15  >

[7] Newsletter of 16 August 1945, cited in King-Hall: Defence in the Nuclear Age (London: Victor Gollancz, 1958), p 11  >

[8] Macmillan to Richard Crossman, Anthony Sampson: Macmillan (London: Lane & Penguin, 1967), p 61.  >

[9] Sir Dermot Boyle; "Thoughts on the nuclear deterrent", Journal of the RUSI Vol. CVII (Feb. 1962), p 12  >

[10] Peter Blaker: "Das Kräfteverhältnis zwischen konventionallen und nuklearen Streitkräften und die Rolle der neuen Technologie", Europäische Wehrkunde Vol. 32 No. 4 (April 1983), p 160  >

[11] Originally a philosophy don, Richard Crossman served as Director of Psychological Warfare against Germany in the Second World War where he had been assessing the effect of aerial bombardment of the enemy; he subsequently became a politician, cf. R.H.S. Crossman, M.P.: "Western Defence in the 1960s", Journal of the RUSI Vol. CVI (August 1961), p 334  >

[12] Crossman: "Western Defence in the 1960s", Journal of the RUSI Vol. CVI (August 1961), p 334 f.  >

[13] Laurence Martin: "The Utility of Military Force", in "Force in modern society: its place in international politics", Adelphi Papers No. 102 (1973), p 16  >

[14] Michael Howard: Clausewitz Past Masters Series (Oxford, Oxford University Press Paperbacks, 1983), p 46  >

[15] Laurence Martin: "The Utility of Military Force", in "Force in modern society: its place in international politics", Adelphi Papers No. 102 (1973), p16  >

[16] Major-General J.D. Lunt: "The British and Defence", Army Quarterly and Defence Journal Vol. 106 No. 2 (April 1976), p 139  >

[17] Philip Toynbee (ed.): The Fearful Choice: A Debate on Nuclear Policy (London: Victor Gollancz, 1958), p 14  >

[18] Lord Solly Zuckermann: "Europe in a nuclear shadow", Guardian (24 Jan. 1983); and see the Synod of the Church of England's call to renounce first use, "Multilateralists `must redouble efforts'", Guardian (17 Feb. 1983).  >

[19] For an intellectually very rewarding discussion of this issue, see Sir Michael Quinlan: "The Ethics of nuclear deterrence: a critical comment on the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic Bishops", Theological Studies Vol. 48 (1987), pp 3-24  >

[20] Professor Lipson: "How Chernobyl has exploded a deterrence theory", Guardian (23 May 1985); see also David Owen: "Europas Strategie der nuklearen Abschreckung", Europa-Archiv Vol. 41 No. 13 (July. 1986), p 371  >

[21] Statement on the Defence Estimates 1987 Cm 101-1 (London: HMSO, 1987), § 112; and see David Fairhall: "Nuclear-free Europe `war risk'", Guardian (7 May 1987).  >

[22] Francis Pym (Defence Secretary): "Britain's Nuclear Weapons", Atlantic Community Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 1980), p 52; Speech by George Younger (Defence Secretary) at Chatham House: "Nuclear Weapons - is there a choice?" (11 Mar. 1987), §§ 2, 4, 13, IISS press archive.  >

[23] Hermann Bondi: "The case for a nuclear defence policy", Catalyst Vol. 1 No. 2 (Summer 1985), pp 19-25; see also John Baylis: "The Polaris replacement debate", International Relations (May 1980), p 770 >


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