Deception & Misdirection

The “arms race” that wasn’t

Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy

Arms control and the race with a single runner

In the best strategy games, you win by tricking your opponent into making bad moves. Of course, he won’t make a bad move if he knows it’s a bad move. So deception is important; you bamboozle your opponent into attacking you where you’re strongest rather than where you’re weakest, or into attacking you with his weakest forces rather than his strongest.

This works best when the deception involves more than a particular set of facts—say, throw-weights of a type of missile or the range of a class of bombers. A deception based on a few fake bits of data is easily penetrated; all it takes to blow it up is the interception of a secret message or the recruitment of a defector. But a deception based on an adversary’s theory of the game—his perception of the game’s rules—can be so powerful that it continues to work long after it’s uncovered.

Mitt Romney and his backers thought that they could beat Barack Obama by depicting the President as a well-meaning fellow who was in over his head, an honorable man who was a poor manager in comparison to the ultra-competent Romney. The Obama team perceived correctly that the election would turn on the question of which candidate cared more about regular people. So the Obama campaign and its media allies depicted Romney as the GOP’s best hope for 2012, then, once he secured the nomination, painted him as a stereotypical cold-hearted rich guy who loved firing people and had contempt for 47% of the population. (The Romney campaign could hardly respond that Obama was lying about Romney. Everyone knows that the President is a well-meaning and honorable guy, right? The Romney people said so themselves.) Currently, top Republican strategists are falling over each other to adopt the Left’s theories about why Romney lost… which means it’s likely that Republicans will keep losing.

During the Cold War, the acceptance by the West of a false theory of the game—the theory of arms control and an action-reaction arms race—was critical to the Soviets’ chance for success. It was a lens that distorted every fact-based assessment of what the Soviets were up to. Together with the belief, popular among Western elites, that a centrally planned economy is superior to a chaotic, free-market economy, the belief in arms control theory extended the Cold War by decades and gave the Soviets a chance to win it. (In a future post, we’ll analyze the effect of fake, Obama-type economics on the Cold War.)


Origin of arms race theory

The concept of an action-reaction arms race is of relatively recent origin.

From the 1890s until 1914, the Great Powers of Europe (Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary) engaged in what many would later call an arms race. Many saw the World War as a result of this race, which was pursued most fervently by the military. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote in War: Its Nature. Cause and Cure (1923) that “soldiers . . . imply armaments and think in terms of armaments.  It is they who push for the continual growth of armies and navies, of aeroplanes, of poison gas, of all the mechanism of destruction.  And, as we have seen, that very growth becomes itself a principal cause of war.”

The idea was also developed in the work of Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician/physicist and Quaker pacifist. The developer of models for weather prediction—including models for atmospheric dispersion critical to Biodefense science—Richardson sought to apply mathematics to human relations such as the leadup to war.  He studied the relationship between British and German armaments in the leadup to World War I, and seemed to find an action-reaction cycle.

Roberta Wohlstetter, the famed explainer of the Pearl Harbor intelligence failure, explained Richardson’s concept of the arms race this way: Like rumors of a bank’s insolvency, which lead to real insolvency, the arms race can result from a self-fulfilling prediction; a prime minister or defense minister of the fictional Jedesland who wanted only to defend his country, but was misinterpreted as being interested in aggression, and so frightened his neighbor and was himself frightened into an arms buildup leading to war.

In 1932, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, told the League of Nations Disarmament Conference in 1932 that “an immense change has come over the judgment of the world.  The proposition that the peace of the world is to be secured by preparing for war is no longer believed by anybody, for recent history manifestly disproves it. A high level of armaments is no substitute for security.  At best, it only creates the illusion of security in one quarter while at the same time aggravating the sense of insecurity in another.” Philip Towle wrote of Simon’s remarks that “Simon expressed the ideas of the majority of his countrymen who found it difficult to understand French ‘intransigence’ over disarmament.  They believed that every reduction in French armaments would make peace much more secure because they accepted the view that the First World War had been caused by the arms race.”

But, Roberta Wohlstetter noted, the action-reaction arms race model did not describe the behavior of Adolph Hitler: “In fact, in the 1930s Hitler was busy talking like the Minister of Jedesland in Richardson’s theory, making exactly the noises that the British wanted to hear, while his behaviour was signaling the opposite— that the governments of some countries at any rate had something in mind other than self-defence. While the fashionable political and sociological theories concentrated on self-fulfilling prophecies, the actual practice (reinforced perhaps by the sociological theories) illustrated the use of what John Venn called ‘suicidal prophecies’.  Hitler, when trusted, did not become trustworthy.  He took advantage of British trust, complacency, and guilt.

“Similarly, recent history suggests that the unilateral restraints embodied in our informal practices in advance of an agreement, in our lax agreements themselves in SALT [the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets], and in our lax interpretation of these agreements, encourage the Russians to believe that they can gain an advantage through the continued expansion of their defence effort.”

In fact, the greatest apparent arms race of the 1930s was between Germany and the Soviet Union—which began World War II as allies. Towle wrote that “No one seriously contends that the longest and perhaps bloodiest series of wars [since 1945]—in Vietnam—were caused by the armaments in the area.” The cause of the Vietnam conflict was the “determination of the North Vietnamese to control the whole of a communist Vietnam and the determination of the French and American governments to prevent them from doing so.”Likewise, Towle noted, the Arab-Israeli wars might not have occurred if one side or the other had not been backed by the U.S. or the Soviets, but that backing was not the cause of the conflict.  And many arms races never led to open wars. Britain did not go to war with France in the late 1800s, or with Russia in the period after 1855, other than Britain’s 1919 intervention in Russia’s civil war. Nor, for that matter, did the U.S./NATO and the USSR/Warsaw Pact ever use their arms directly against each other.

Nor did Britain and the U.S. go to war against each other in the 1950s, despite the fact that both were building up their military strength. Of course, they weren’t enemies. It was the status of the U.S./NATO and the Soviet bloc as enemies that made war possible, not any “race” to create arms. Wars also occur in the absence of any particular military preparation, such as in most civil wars, the Crimean War, and the Falklands in 1982.

Bruno Tertrais, a former official in the French defense ministry, wrote that, “After World War I, scholars and politicians were tempted to label the extraordinary military buildup that developed between 1870 and 1914 as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the conflict. Subsequent historical studies, however, have shed considerable doubt on this theory. Moreover, arms racing may in fact have positive aspects. NATO’s 1979 decision to deploy Pershing-2 and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20s and Backfire bombers, which undoubtedly was part of an action-reaction process, made the ‘zero option’ and the INF Treaty possible.”

Roberta Wohlstetter’s husband, nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, addressed the idea of an action-reaction arms race in his research. This is what Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, wrote in a 2008 Washington Post op-ed about the arms race and about Albert Wohlstetter’s analysis of the concept:

Despite a near universal belief to the contrary, the “action-reaction-upward-spiraling strategic weapons race” of the Cold War never really happened. . . . The idea that the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an arms race that led to reciprocal increases in nuclear weapons, steadily rising strategic budgets and an escalating danger of nuclear war was widely accepted during the Cold War.  . . .

[A]s is often the case with conventional wisdom, little serious research was done to establish whether it was true. The most important exception was the work of the late Albert Wohlstetter, America’s preeminent strategic thinker, who approached the subject with his customary rigor. In a 1976 article— “Racing Forward? Or Ambling Back?” —Wohlstetter demonstrated that U.S. and Soviet strategic weapons programs were largely independent of each other and that the number, explosive power and cost of American nuclear weapons had peaked 15 years earlier (under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) and had been declining ever since, even as Soviet programs had expanded significantly.

Using the same data that had been available to the many academics and politicians who unquestioningly accepted the existence of a deadly arms race, Wohlstetter argued that it would be foolish in principle for us to respond in kind to every Soviet development—and that in practice we had not done so.


A new era of peace?

As the 1950s ended and the 1960s rolled around, the mood among policymakers in the U.S. and much of the world was like that at the end of the 19th Century—fin de siècle—the anticipation of great change. Technology was on the advance, countries in what we now call the Third World were throwing off colonial governments, and the Soviets believed that they were entering the final phase of their struggle to defeat the West. In the U.S., the modern civil rights movement was underway, and the country was looking to a new generation for leadership in the transition from the oldest president to the youngest one ever elected. In the West, elites were weary of their competition with the Soviets, and many opinion leaders were looking for a way out via arms control (international regulation of state weaponry) and disarmament (abolition of certain kinds of weaponry).

On March 14, 1960, the Western nations participating in the ten-nation disarmament conference in Geneva issued a proposal in which they set, as their “ultimate goal,” a “secure, free and peaceful world in which there shall be general disarmament under effective international control and agreed procedures for the settlement of disputes in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter.” They proposed, as “measures . . . regarded as necessary for achieving the ultimate goal,” the “[p]rohibition of production of nuclear, chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction,” and “[f]urther reduction of existing stocks” of such weapons. Inspection and control procedures would be established under a proposed “International Disarmament Organization.”

The Soviets, on June 2, 1960, proposed a plan for “general and complete disarmament.”  Under the plan, Stage One would be the elimination of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, and the simultaneous liquidation of foreign bases. Stage Two would be the prohibition of “nuclear, chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction,” including the end of production and the destruction of stockpiles, along with ceilings for the size of armed forces (with the U.S. and USSR at 1.7 million men each). Stage Three would be complete disarmament, except for limited numbers of police/militia.


The ‘peace’ agency

Between those two events, in April, President Eisenhower moved to establish a disarmament agency.  Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota), candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, noted at the time that he had proposed such an agency two years before.

Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 and 1956 Democratic nominee for president, proposed the creation of a peace and disarmament agency during a 1960 address to the Textile Workers Union of America.  At the time, Stevenson was considered a possible stop-Kennedy presidential candidate at the upcoming Democratic national convention. The new agency would be part of the State Department.  In his speech, Stevenson urged the Western alliance to concentrate on things that can be changed rather than “things we cannot hope to change in Russia.” He called for social reforms that would match “the efficiency of central planning and dictatorship.”

Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), speaking later the same meeting, criticized the Eisenhower administration for having “permitted the power and the strength of the United States to decline in relation to that of the Communist world.” At a press conference, Kennedy discounted Stevenson’s suggestion. He and Humphrey, he said, had introduced legislation to set up a disarmament agency, though he believed it should be limited to technical aspects of disarmament such as monitoring nuclear tests.

At the time, the Federation of American Scientists (formerly the Federation of Atomic Scientists) was among the most prominent groups of scientist-activists. FAS was rooted in the so-called “atomic scientists’ movement”—scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb project, but came to regret their work when, instead of being used to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II, the A-Bomb was used to stymie the Soviet Union after the war. In June 1960, FAS called for the creation of a new agency to conduct research on “possible ways to inspect and control the reduction of armaments.” FAS noted: “To make possible effective disarmament we must solve difficult and challenging problems in the physical sciences, engineering, psychology, medicine, law, and economics. We must mobilize the best minds we can find. We must set them to work free of the antagonistic environment of agencies devoted to designing or using weapons. . . . This can best be done in a new agency with the primary purpose of conducting this research for arms control.”

Most of the early proposals were for an agency that would do research in such areas as conflict resolution and treaty compliance verification. The idea seemed to be to create a peace-centered counterpart to what Eisenhower, in his farewell address the next year, would call the military-industrial complex.

Eisenhower’s April 1960 proposal led, in September 1960, to the creation of the U.S. Disarmament Administration, within the State Department and headed by an official with a rank at or near the Assistant Secretary level.  The staff of more than 50 (20-25 of them professionals) would be drawn from the Departments of State and Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission.   However, “The administration has been looking in vain for a prominent person to take the top disarmament job, expected to pay above $20,000 [roughly $153,000 in today’s dollars] a year and be subject to Senate confirmation.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s platform for the 1960 election stated: “A primary task is to develop responsible proposals that will help break the deadlock on arms control. . . . This requires a national peace agency for disarmament planning and research to muster the scientific ingenuity, coordination, continuity, and seriousness of purpose which are now lacking in our arms control efforts.

“The national peace agency would develop the technical and scientific data necessary for serious disarmament negotiations, would conduct research in cooperation with the Defense Department and [AEC] on methods of inspection and monitoring arms control agreements, particularly agreements to control nuclear testing, and would provide continuous technical advice to our disarmament negotiators.”

A core document in the development of arms control theory came with an issue of Daedalus, journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Fall 1960 special edition on arms control was edited by Donald G. Brennan. In a history of Daedalus, Stephen R. Graubard wrote: “Many in the United States and Western Europe, appalled by what they saw as the threat of thermonuclear war generated by the growing arms competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, were beginning to ask how an arms race with such potential hazards might be contained or resolved.  A new subject was in the making; indeed, a new discipline-arms control-was waiting to be created.  The year 1960 must be taken, for Daedalus, at least, as its annus mirabilis. The Fall 1960 special issue on ‘Arms Control,’ appearing coincidentally with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency of the United States, gave the Journal a prominence it had not previously known.  More important, it told those responsible for Daedalus that public-policy issues, of even the greatest complexity, on which able men and women might differ, were subjects that would profit from close and sustained inquiry. The task of Daedalus was not only to publish the results of conferences and meetings initiated by others, but to itself become the prime mover in causing issues that had not become the subject of mass media attention to be brought to the table.”

In June 1961, President Kennedy proposed the creation of the U.S. Disarmament Agency for World Peace and Security – what became the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The agency was to expand on the U.S. Disarmament Administration set up under President Eisenhower. Under the Kennedy proposal, the staff was to grow from 80-85 persons under the existing Disarmament Administration to 200-250 in the first year of the new agency.

The Kennedy proposal was immediately endorsed by Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) and Representative Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wisconsin), who had been pressing for such an agency.

The agency came to be referred to as the “peace agency” during the debate over its creation.

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, noted the danger of such an agency: that it would increase bureaucratic pressure for agreements that might not be in the best interests of the United States. “Conceivably, the 250-man bureaucracy and its near-Cabinet rank director might resign themselves to seeing their labors come to the same frustrating dead-end as earlier planners. But, being human, they might be tempted to pursue their declared objective single-mindedly, spurred by pressure from the Administration’s commitment to a ‘new approach.’ Since new possibilities could be exploited only as past assumptions about the Soviets were reconsidered, the planners might find themselves bound to make the risky assumptions necessary to ‘perfect’ their blueprint in order to justify themselves.

“But the fundamental flaw in the Administration’s scheme is the assumption that past U.S. efforts to achieve disarmament have failed for lack of sufficient expertise.  Implicit in the proposed gathering of experts is the idea that arms control is basically a technical problem.

“This is manifestly untrue.  While weapons technology and hence disarmament planning grow more complex, no U.S. plan has ever been rejected by the Soviets on the ground of technical inadequacy.  A case in point is the elusive atomic test-ban treaty. Negotiations, now nearly three years old, have failed because the Soviets insist that any inspection system be politically determined; a mountain of scientific data is summarily swept aside by Moscow.

“The truth is, the Communists are interested only in disarming their intended victims.  The most brazen imperialists in history ask ‘total and complete’ disarmament first, and talk of safeguards later.  So long as the Communists and their ambitions remained unchanged, so long must free men keep their heads clear.”

The measure creating ACDA was signed into law on September 26, 1961.

The Federation of American Scientists, in its October 1961 newsletter, advised that “The Agency is now seeking scientists and specialists in military analysis to fill positions with salaries up to $19,000 a year,” about $145,000 in today’s dollars. In its November 1961 newsletter, the FAS claimed some of the credit for the creation of ACDA.  FAS Chairman John S. Toll wrote: “I believe that our National Office was particularly effective in this intensive effort and that the series of breakfast briefings which were held for Senators, Congressmen, and members of their staffs with expert speakers from the scientific and disarmament fields were especially of considerable importance in the successful passage of this important legislation.”

Often, when a government agency or department is created, it is seen as the property to people of a certain background or mindset. The Social Security Administration, created under President Franklin Roosevelt, was the embodiment of a political movement among social workers such as Frances Perkins, who became FDR’s labor secretary, and many activists from that movement went to work at the agency. The U.S. Department of Education, created under President Jimmy Carter, was the unofficial property of teachers’ unions, especially the National Education Association, which had given its first presidential campaign endorsement to Carter; many of its initial staffers came from teachers’ unions. The Department of Veterans Affairs, created in the Reagan administration, had a similar relationship to veterans’ organizations. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency is a safe haven for environmental extremists. And so on.

In that sense, the arms control movement was embodied in ACDA.  It attracted to its ranks many young people who joined specifically to promote that cause, such as Richard J. Barnet, who worked at ACDA as an aide to John J. McCloy. (McCloy was Kennedy’s disarmament advisor and the principal drafter of the act creating ACDA.)  Barnet would later become co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that provided support to anti-U.S. organizations (some of which, such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, would turn to violence).

ACDA, a government agency that was intended as the embodiment of an ideology, provided scientist-activists a doorway into U.S. politics at the highest levels. It gave them the chance to promote arms control theory, and to test it in the real world.


A grand experiment

We now know the theory was wrong. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets treated each arms control agreement as an opportunity to get a step on the naïve Americans and other Westerners. Notably, the theory was tested by the decision by President Nixon in 1969 to shut down the U.S. biological weapons program and to negotiate a BW ban with the Soviets.

According to arms control theory, one side builds up its military might, the other arms itself in response, the first side increases its level of armament to restore its previous relative position, the second side does the same, and so on in a spiral than ends in disaster. If this process can be interrupted, disaster can be averted. In the context of missile defense, Alain Enthoven, assistant secretary of defense under President Johnson, and Wayne Smith, who served on the NSC staff, wrote that “This ‘action-reaction’ phenomenon is central to all strategic force planning issues as well as to any theory of an arms race.”

The U.S. renunciation of BWs in 1969 can be seen as a grand experiment to test the idea that the buildup of great-power weaponry is the result of an “arms race” based on the principle of action and reaction. If the theory worked, the Soviets would abandon their BW program after the U.S. and its allies abandoned their corresponding programs. What actually happened? The Soviets stepped up their program, turning it into the largest covert scientific program in the history of the world (bigger than the Manhattan Project) and weaponizing pathogens ranging from anthrax and plague bacteria to the supposedly extinct smallpox virus.

In other words, in the purest test that could be imagined for arms control theory, the actual result was the opposite of that predicted by experts.


A pseudo-intellectual fad

In the 1960s, arms control theory was still a powerful fad.

In September 1967, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara declared with respect to the U.S.-U.S.S.R. relationship: “What is essential to understand here is that the Soviet Union and the United States mutually influence one another’s strategic plans. Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions or even realistically potential actions—on either side—relating to the build-up of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive weapons, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side.  It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race.”

William R. Van Cleave, founder of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Missouri State University, wrote that arms control theorists during the Cold War “assumed that each side held a common interest in ‘stable’ nuclear arms relationships that would reduce the risks the war by surprise or accident.  Arms control would help ease the threat of surprise attack (strategic stability) or pre-emptive attack (crisis stability) by promoting more survivable deterrent forces on both sides.  (Arms control made no political distinctions: a U.S. first-strike capability was to be avoided as much as a Soviet one.)  Arms control further would reduce the likelihood of war by reducing incentives for an arms race.”

Typical of arms control thinking in the middle of the Cold War was the Woods Hole Summer Study of 1962, commissioned by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The study assumed that violations of arms control agreements would usually be inadvertent.  Thus, it suggested that parties to arms control agreements would seek transparency—that is, the ability of one side to determine easily the validity of an allegation of violation—as a mutual goal. As Woods Hole 1962 participant William R. Harris wrote in the mid-1980s: “The historical record was at odds with this Woods Hole assumption, even in 1962.  The last quarter-century of Soviet arms control behavior indicates both that most violations are not inadvertent and that violators recurringly lack incentive to provide the clearest picture possible of the violation in its military environment.”

Alva Myrdal, founder of the arms control organization SIPRI, declared in 1974 that “the overriding assumption must be that any government that has negotiated a disarmament (or nonarmament) agreement . . . will enter as a party to the agreement with no intention of breaking it or of cheating.  The historical record speaks for the validity of this assumption.  It is doubtful, in fact, that there has ever been an instance of a clandestine violation in the arms field . . . ”

With regard to the Biological Weapons Convention, the 1975 international agreement banning biological weapons, Richard Spertzel, former head of BW inspections for the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), said it was simply assumed that countries would comply.  “I think it was highly anticipated that other countries would indeed welcome such a treaty and probably comply with it—a high degree of naïveté, certainly, in retrospect,” he said.

The refusal to even consider the idea of cheating made it possible to think of arms control agreements as essentially self-verifying. There was, one might say, no downside to an arms control agreement. William R. Van Cleave wrote in 1984, “Many use a simple test for success—the mere conclusion of formal arms control agreements, regardless of their content and consequences.”

William R. Graham noted, “Those who can be persuaded that arms control transcends being an instrument of national security and diplomacy are candidates for accepting inequitable agreements in the pursuit of arms control as a goal unto itself, rather than a means to achieve U.S. goals of freedom, security, and peace.”

Just as the action-reaction of an arms race could lead to disaster, arms control could lead to peace, according to experts.  Donald Brennan wrote that, “If the habit of cooperation can be established in the field of armament policy, it may well prove ‘catching’ in other areas . . . [and] facilitate the achievement of some political solutions, which in turn would facilitate further measures of armament cooperation, and so on.”

Van Cleave commented: “Eventually, this more optimistic, mirror-image view came to dominate the arms control community, both in academia and government.  As it did, expectations grew and arms control assumed greater importance, especially in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and with the development in the United States of strategic concept of assured destruction and mutual assured destruction.  Consequently, concern over a superpower action-reaction ‘arms race’ seized both academics and senior government officials.  Arms, control, an arms race image, and strategic deterrent concepts became mutually reinforcing and greatly elevated the importance and role of arms control in U.S. thinking and policy.”

Over time, U.S. elites accepted the idea of an action-reaction arms race as fact.  Paul Warnke, head of ACDA in the late 1970s, once described the U.S-Soviet arms race in a Foreign Policy article entitled “Apes on a Treadmill.” Carl Sagan, the voice of popular science in the 1980s, described the race as like “two men standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” Even a former political cartoonist named Theodore Seuss Geisel—“Dr. Seuss”—expressed his belief in the concept, in The Butter Battle Book, which likened the U.S.-Soviet conflict to two nations engaging in an arms race over which side of a piece of bread the butter goes on.

Once the idea of an action-reaction arms race was planted in the minds of U.S. elites, the next step was the suggestion that, of the two parties, the U.S. was primarily at fault.

John Lenczowski, who was President Reagan’s advisor on Soviet affairs, wrote: “Much of Soviet propaganda . . . promotes the idea that the ‘arms race’ is the principal source of suspicion and tension between the two sides. If we accept this notion, then we can come to accept the possibility that our own behavior – our own efforts to defend ourselves – actually contributes to those tensions.  And once we accept this, we put ourselves in the position of searching for things we can do unilaterally to reduce those tensions.”

Michael Ledeen, who served as a special advisor to Secretary of State Al Haig, noted that, “By the time of the Vietnam generation and Watergate, many had come to believe that Communist behavior, and in particular the behavior of the Soviet Union, could be explained primarily, if not entirely, in terms of the legitimate fears Communists had of the United States and its nefarious plans for world domination.  In the field of strategic weapons, the fashionable position of the late ’60s and ’70s concluded that the entire arms race had been brought about by American initiatives, and that the Soviet Union, justifiably terrified by our nuclear arsenal, was merely struggling to keep pace.”

In response to President Reagan’s 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in which he blamed the Soviets for the rising level of armaments, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote: “One may regard the Soviet system as a vicious tyranny and still understand that it has not been solely responsible for the nuclear arms race.  The terrible irony of that race is that the United States has led the way on virtually every new development over the last thirty years, only to find itself met by the Soviet Union.”


Type B deception

The idea that there was an action-reactions arms race for which the U.S. was mostly responsible is what Edward J. Epstein calls “Type B deception” – a type of deception aimed at “distorting the interpretation of the meaning of a pattern of data, rather than at the observable data itself.  Type B deceptions are designed to confuse, confound or mislead the cognitive processes of an adversary.  Type B deception need not rely on camouflage or concealment.”

In Type B deception, the more closely one observes, the more likely one is to be fooled, as when Hitler convinced himself (with Allied help) that the Normandy invasion was a carefully planned deception and refused, day after day, to let himself be tricked by it. Supporters of President Obama’s policies often point to the failure of those policies, from the “stimulus” to support for the “Arab Spring,” as proof that the President’s ideas weren’t followed with enough zeal. People who believe that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement are racist see the election, due to Palin/Tea Party support, of the majority of the country’s “nonwhite” governors and U.S. senators as vindication of their belief (because those officials are Republicans, therefore Uncle Toms and traitors to others of their ethnicities). James Hansen, a leading proponent of the theory of catastrophic man-made Global Warming, wrote recently in the Washington Post that the failure of Global Warming theory to predict actual events meant that proponents of Global Warming theory were even more correct about the threat than they had realized.

During the Cold War, the Soviets were very effective at Type B deception.  In negotiations for the arms control agreement known as SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), the Soviets persuaded the Americans that they shared U.S. elites’ “action-reaction”/“arms race” ideology, including a belief in Mutual Assured Destruction (the idea that peace would best be maintained if each side could destroy the other). Because the deception involved the Soviets inner thinking—their beliefs and intentions—no improvement in National Technical Means (monitoring systems such as spy satellites) could expose the deception.  Every increase in Soviet strength could be seen as another response to what the U.S. was doing.

Likewise, with regard to biological weapons, the Soviets persuaded U.S. elites that they shared both their “action-reaction”/“arms race” ideology and their disgust for BWs.  Therefore, if they were freed of the need to compete with the U.S. in the field, the Soviets would, of course, give up their own BW program, even if they had one.

During the Cold War, U.S. scientist-activists concocted, or certified as credible, “innocent” alternative explanations for evidence that should have exposed the Soviet BW program, such as the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk (an accident at a BW factory that was blamed on “tainted meat”) and the use of Yellow Rain, a weapon based on fungal poison, that was used in Afghanistan and Laos but explained away as the confused reaction of primitive peoples to the defecation of swarms of bees. Due largely to these propaganda efforts, the public would not become fully aware of the Soviets’ illegal BW program until the 1990s.

Although some U.S. scientist-activists undoubtedly knew what the Soviets were up to, and lied about it, others were victims of self-deception about Soviet BWs. The Soviets couldn’t be conducting a massive biological weapons program, because arms control theory said they wouldn’t. To those scientist-activists, people who refused to accept arms control theory as a reflection of reality were Cold Warriors, Reaganites, and dangerous paranoids.

Rooted in a Type B deception, scientist-activists’ belief in this regard survived long after the Cold War was over, and long after the truth was known about Soviet BWs.  Consider the case of the Council for a Livable World, one of the scientist-activist groups that grew out of the atomic scientists’ movement. (In the 1960s, Harvard professor Matthew Meselson, the most prominent BW expert among U.S. academics, served as a CLW spokesman and he is, at this writing, listed as a member of its board. Meselson was the creator of the “bee droppings” theory of Yellow Rain and helped establish as credible the “tainted meat” theory regarding Sverdlovsk.) The Council for a Livable World and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation—which was formerly known as the Council for a Livable World Education Fund and which describes itself as CLW’s “sister organization”—are leading proponents of action-reaction arms control theory.

In 2001—nine years after Boris Yeltsin admitted that the Soviets violated the BWC, and two years after Ken Alibek (Kanatzhan Alibekov), former top scientist of the Soviet BW program, went public with details—Douglas Feith, a former Defense Department official who had taken the lead during the 1980s in exposing the Soviet program, was nominated for Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. CLW opposed Feith’s nomination in part because “While at the Reagan Pentagon, Feith authored a controversial report claiming the Soviet Union was stockpiling, proliferating, and using biological weapons and advocated that the U.S. continue to consider them as viable weapons.”  One section of CLW’s statement on Feith deals specifically with the Biological Weapons Convention, and reads in full:

Biological Weapons Convention

The New York Times: “Mr. Feith, in testimony last month before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the Soviet Union ‘has built a large organization devoted to the development and production of offensive biological weapons.’” “He said that the Pentagon had changed its view that such weapons were not militarily significant and added that the treaty prohibiting such weapons ‘must be recognized as critically deficient and unfixable.’” (September 3, 1986)

According to Feith’s report: “They (Soviets) have transferred biological warfare to their clients in Southeast Asia” – the Vietnamese – (and) have themselves used toxins against their enemies in the Afghanistan War.” (The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 17, 1986)

Associated Press: “Feith’s report calls the BW ban ‘worthless.’” (Aug. 17 1986)

“The prevailing judgment of years ago that BW is not a militarily significant weapon is now quite unsustainable.” (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Technology Review, April 1987)

Thus, it is clear that CLW considered Feith’s correct analysis related to Soviet BWC violations and the collapse of the BWC with regard to the Soviet Union to be a factor disqualifying him for the job for which he was nominated.

The lingering effect of the U.S.-is-always-at-fault idea can be seen in a press release from a PBS station about a 2007 documentary on the U.S. biological weapons program: “While Nixon’s declaration ended America ‘s offensive bioweapons programs, military leaders and researchers had opened a door that could never be shut. ‘They’ve bequeathed on a world this knowledge and we now have to control it and contain it and make sure the biological weapons are never used,’ cautions historian Brian Balmer.” The press release blaming the U.S. for opening Pandora’s Box came some eight years after Alibek’s revelations regarding Soviet BWs and some 15 years after Yeltsin’s admission that the Soviet program existed.

Consider also a comment about the weaponization of smallpox by Thomas Schelling, an heir to Lewis Fry Richardson in the application of mathematics to the arms race.  In 2007, nine years after the public revelation of the massive weaponization of smallpox by the Soviet Union, Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence recounted in the Wall Street Journal a recent interview with Schelling, mentor of Henry Kissinger and, like Spence, a winner of the Nobel Prize:

We spoke, also, about bioweapons. “Three years ago,” Tom explains, “there was a lot of interest in, and concern about, the use of smallpox as a weapon. I was involved in a meeting that included a number of bioweapons experts, and after considerable discussion, I asked how long it would take for a smallpox epidemic deliberately started in the U.S. to spread around the world. The answer was ‘Not long.’ Then how practical are infectious diseases as bioweapons? Is it really likely that terrorists in the Middle East would use smallpox against a neighbor? Because of these considerations the interest in infectious diseases as weapons (as opposed to anthrax for example, which does not spread infectiously from person to person) has declined. But I was struck by the fact experts in bioweapons are not strategists, and by the thought that if our experts hadn’t thought of this, could we be sure that others, including terrorist organizations, had?” Smallpox, in a nutshell, cannot rationally be used as a weapon because it would spread too quickly, a kind of self-inflicted wound and mutually assured destruction. [Emphasis in the original.]

A smallpox weapon cannot rationally be used as a weapon, says the theory. Yet, in reality, the Soviets weaponized it. One is reminded of the legend of the mathematician who proved that bumblebees cannot fly. Regarding that tale, Science News once noted, “The real issue isn’t that scientists can be wrong. The real issue is that there’s a crucial difference between a ‘thing’ and a mathematical model of the ‘thing.’”


Arms control theory = a failure

Here’s why Soviet behavior on biological weapons puts a hole right through arms control theory:

Back in 1969, to those who believed in the “arms race” idea, U.S. renunciation would rid the world of biological weapons before they became a serious threat, and the other superpower, the Soviet Union, would have no reason to pursue BWs.  The biological arms race would be over before it really got underway.  And BW disarmament would lead to disarmament in general.

  • James Russell Wiggins, a managing editor of The Washington Post and President Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations, stressed the importance of outlawing biological weapons before they proliferated widely.  “When we have a situation in which no country in the world is far into this dreadful traffic, it would be easier to stop it at the start – to use Churchill’s phrase, ‘to smother the baby in the cradle’ – than it would be to wait ten or twenty years hence when military figures will have made a large investment of prestige and money in laboratory development and field trials in these weapons.”
  • In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences Ivan Bennett, chairman of the PSAC panel that examined chemical and biological weapons, said that the idea of a BW ban presented a great opportunity for mankind.  “If we separate the B from the C in CBW, we have an opportunity to ban, for the first time, the very existence of a weapon.  [Emphasis in the original.] . . . The journey toward the goal of general and complete disarmament will be long and hard.  It is high time that we took this first step, no matter how small it might seem.”

Describing the three approaches to arms control and disarmament, Philip Towle, a prominent expert on security and the military, wrote: “The disarmers regard weapons per se as the cause of warfare and seek to abolish them under the process known as GCD [general and complete disarmament]; the arms control lobby seeks stabilising measures which, very often, means equalising the forces of potential enemies, whilst the ‘humanitarians’ support attempts to limit the use of weapons and so the destructiveness of warfare.”

By abolishing U.S. biological weapons, Nixon and Kissinger sought not only to achieve a ban on a particular type of weapon, but to take a step toward an overall reduction in superpower arms based on the idea of a balance of power.  Lauren Holland of the University of Utah wrote: “For Nixon, who subscribed to the principle of realpolitik, arms control was not an ethical goal or an end in itself, but a practical component of an integrated set of foreign and defense policies that sought to promote the national (material) interests of the United States and other nations (including the Soviet Union) through the creation of a stable international order.”

After Nixon’s renunciation of biological weapons, the U.S. came to support a BW ban that did not include chemical weapons.  Likewise, after initially opposing the separation of chemical weapons from biological weapons, the Soviet Union produced, in March 1971, a draft convention banning biological and toxin weapons.  Such was the Nixon administration’s level of self-delusion that it took the Soviet move as a gesture of peace.  “At the time, the U.S. assessment was that the Soviet Union used the treaty to signal its interest in arms control and engage the Nixon Administration in strategic nuclear issues,” Gregory D. Koblentz wrote in his doctoral dissertation.

The Soviet Union’s raison d’être was the destabilization, toppling, and replacement of capitalist governments, so the Soviets found humor as well as strategic advantage in Nixon’s belief that they were seeking a stable international order.  Arkady Shevchenko, the highest-ranking Soviet to defect during the Cold War, told the Daily Mail: “My most revealing experience came when I realized that our military chiefs were just laughing their heads off over disarmament.  While the talks were going on they were promoting a massive rearmament programme.  The start of détente was accompanied by the creation of the most ominous war machine.

“One of the great fallacies of détente was the idea that, if the Soviet Union were engaged in economic, trade, cultural and other agreements, the West would be able to moderate the Soviets’ voracious appetite for expansion and promote a shift in the USSR’s global aims.  Nothing could be further from reality.  The Soviet Union has never contemplated agreeing to arrangements that would in any way tie its hands in the pursuit of what it wanted.”

Even Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a top Kissinger aide and an architect of détente, acknowledged that, in arms control negotiations, the Soviets did not have the same motivation as U.S. policymakers. “Another difference between U.S. and Soviet styles is that the Americans tend to negotiate in behalf of broad and universalist objectives such as stability, while the Soviets are concerned essentially with their own national security.  They will not permit arms control agreements to limit significantly their military programs but invariably seek to have agreements limit, to the greatest extent possible, U.S. defense programs that concern them.  The United States, of course, also seeks to limit disturbing Soviet programs.  However, there is an asymmetry in that the Soviets have no one in their policymaking apparatus trying to use arms control to limit their own programs, while the United States does have such influences.”

When it came to biological weapons, the Soviets and U.S. arms control advocates were in the position of bootleggers who, as George Mason University economist Bruce Yandle has noted, team up with Baptists to vote for Prohibition laws. The Baptists take a moral stand for temperance, and the bootleggers get a monopoly on booze.

Of course, not everyone was oblivious to the idea of cheating. Fred Iklé wrote, in the classic Foreign Affairs article “After Detection—What?”:  “It has been argued that all countries will be deterred from violating a major arms-control agreement in present circumstances because to do so would set off an unrestricted arms race that would eventually lead to disaster for the guilty as well as the innocent.  But this is an assumption which may not be shared by a country set on violating the agreement.  Its leaders may reason that the very prospect of an unrestricted arms race might itself inhibit the injured party from reacting to the violation.  And in fact the injured party might feel it safer to write off the violation as a loss rather than risk new dangers by a policy of rearmament—especially if he now finds himself in a weaker military position as a result of having complied with the agreement.”


The reason why not

Why doesn’t the action-reaction model work?

One explanation was offered by Uri Ra’anan in the book Intelligence Policy and National Security:

There is a fundamental fallacy involved in this approach, which, for want of a better term, we may call the ‘hidden portion of the iceberg’ factor.  “Action/reaction” might constitute a viable model, particularly in the area of security affairs, only if the “visible parts” (that is production and deployment) alone were of significance.  It would make sense to utilize this particular metaphor if, upon sighting an adversary’s deployment, once could “react” by counter-deploying instantly.  In the real world, however, there is a small problem known as “Research and Development” involving another “detail” called “lead time,” which may cover a period of anywhere from five to ten years or more between the moment at which a certain technological development first becomes theoretically feasible and the day on which the appropriate item then comes off the assembly line and achieves “visibility.”  A party that would be “reacting” merely to the actions of its adversary, that is, the new developments “on the other side” that could be detected, would ensure simply that it was lagging behind by a significant number of years.  A realistic planner, therefore, and there is no reason whatever to deny the Soviet leadership that sobriquet, does not want to “react” to developments that can already be seen on someone else’s turf, but, rather, is liable to give the ‘go ahead’ soon after a certain technology first becomes theoretically available.

Ra’anan added that “we have reason for thinking that Soviet leaders do some ‘mirror-imaging’ of their own, that is they assume, apparently, that the logical way of acting is to take it for granted that, if technology renders a certain development feasible, then the appropriate steps are bound to be taken.  They believe, it seems, that the adversary will behave in precisely the same manner; consequently, they ‘react’ not to actions ‘on the other side,’ as they become visible, but rather to the assumption that ‘if it is feasible for us, it is feasible for them, and if it can be done, then they will do it.’  This is a form of ‘action/reaction,’ if you like, but certainly not the kind to which so much of Western thinking about the Soviet Union has become habituated.”   (Emphasis in the original.)  The Soviets certainly assumed that the United States would not be so foolish as to give up its biological weapons program.

Besides, from the 1940s forward, the Soviets had, as evidence of the U.S. government’s interest in BWs, the published works of a prominent academic named Theodor Rosebury.  Rosebury was a prominent member of the U.S. BW program during World War II and wrote (with a colleague) a famous journal article and a famous book on BWs. (A copy of Rosebury’s book was found at an Al Qaeda facility in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion.) Rosebury was vilified by the Soviets, who rationalized their own work on these horrific Weapons of Mass Destruction by pointing to Rosebury’s work. It was evidence, they believed, that Americans were working on such weapons, so they had no choice but to do the same.

The astonishing irony is this: Rosebury was working for the Soviets. He was a member of the American Association of Scientific Workers, a Soviet front group, for which he and his colleague wrote their first paper on BWs. He continued his active membership in AASW for decades after it was exposed as a Soviet front, and he supported many causes in support of the Soviets throughout the Cold War. That means that the Soviets’ belief in evil U.S. intentions regarding biological weapons was based in part on the work of their own guy.

Like Keynesianism and Communism, arms control theory is a theory that might work, if only we could eliminate human nature. It’s human nature to see the worst intentions in the eyes of your adversary, and that makes it impossible to use arms control to establish good faith, which means that each side must act as if the other is cheating.

Keith B. Payne noted in The Washington Quarterly that the action-reaction theory ignores such basic factors as:

  • Competing foreign policy goals and defense requirements,
  • Inter- and intraservice rivalries,
  • Bureaucratic politics,
  • The specific character and style of political and social systems,
  • Electoral politics,
  • Resource availability or limitations,
  • Organizational momentum, and
  • Technological innovation/limitation.

Perhaps the problem with the action-reaction arms race concept, as we see from the Soviets’ willful and complete violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and its ban on biological weapons, is that sometimes the arms race isn’t really a race.  The Soviets created a massive program for waging biological war without regard to whether the U.S. was developing biological weapons.  This is true regardless of whether, or to what degree, Soviet leaders may have assumed that the U.S. was going forward with its BW program.   (If, as Soviet defenders and U.S. critics suggest, the Soviets went forward with BWs because they assumed the U.S. would cheat on its agreements—so what?  The result was the same regardless of their motivation.  One does not say of Charles Manson: It’s not his fault, because he’s evil.)

As Harold Brown, President Carter’s defense secretary, concluded in 1979, “When we build, they build; when we stop building, they nevertheless continue to build.”

Is it an arms race if only one side is running?

In a 2001 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Stephen Schwartz claimed that the action-reaction model was reflected “at every key juncture in the Soviet-American competition.” Despite the failure of their “arms race” theory to predict nations’ behavior during the Cold War—even in the case of biological weapons, which presented the perfect case of an absolute ban—arms control advocates have never reexamined their theories.

That is not surprising. A large number of proselytizing groups, including many religions, began with a prediction/prophecy that failed. Leon Festinger et al., in When Prophecy Fails, analyzed cases in which endtimes predictions failed. Festinger and his colleagues found that the most fervent believers often took the failure of the prediction as evidence that their intervention—e.g., their prayers—had been successful.  They became even more confirmed in their beliefs. They attracted more followers, and their leading proponents often become highly influential.

From Keynesianism to global warming, that is the model for how government policy is made, especially when it’s said to be based on “science.”



This article includes material that appeared in Dr. Allen’s previous works.

Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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