Stepping Back From the Brink
Weapons and Hope By Freeman Dyson Harper & Row; 340 pp.; $17.95
THERE IS A SENSE OF DESPAIR in recent writing on the nuclear armaments dilemma. The works continue to arouse emotion and indignation and to make us curse the technical advancements that gave us the tremendous power of the atom. Yet it has been several years since the flood of writing and protest began, and the nuclear threat is still very much with us. Can we ever get rid of the bombs, or at least of the imminent threat they pose? Proposals for world government have resurfaced lately as a possible answer, but, given the success of the League of Nations and the United Nations and the current state of international relations, a move towards any such world organization seems very unlikely. Is there, then, any possible path by which we cannot simply reach an agreement on "No First Use" or get the missiles out of Europe, but somehow--not actually, of course, but functionally--put the threatening genie back in the bottle?
Freeman Dyson's Weapons and Hope does not answer all the problems raised by nuclear weapons, but neither is it simply another eloquent discussion of the horrifying situation the world is in. Though it is beautifully written (and many similar studies are not), it is also one of the best presentations of the roots and magnitude of the problem of moving the world away from the brink. Combined, Dyson's erudition and realism lead him to an approach which may represent a true step towards a world in which nuclear weapons are not just absent, but also unnecessary, unwanted, and unlikely to return.
Not that such a promise is immediately apparent in Weapons and Hope. For much of the book, Dyson, an English-born physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, rambles through a grabbag of topics. Dyson recounts the activities of his uncle in the trenches during the First World War, his own experience working with the RAF Bomber Command in World War II, and his encounter with an American military officer who squirmed with excitement when discussing the course of a nuclear war.
Yet all these anecdotes serve as valuable background, for they provide the basis of Dyson's division of our nuclear world into "the warriors" and "the victims." Shaped by experiences such as those Dyson describes, the two groups largely speak past each other; little communication is possible. The warriors' basic belief is "Don't rock the boat," for they see war as a necessary evil. The victims cry "Ban the bomb," since they well know the destruction of past wars. Dyson sees both sides, and contends that neither the warriors nor the victims will be able to effect any fruitful change without the other.
His solution is to synthesize the causes of the two sides by making nuclear disarmament a militarily advantageous goal. He believes that this is possible, and that the process may even be underway. In a fascinating chapter, he discusses the growing use of precision guided munitions (PGM), "small accurate missiles with non-nuclear warheads, mainly designed to kill tanks or airplanes." These small but effective weapons, now widely deployed in Europe and the Middle East, indicate, says Dyson, a trend towards smaller and more accurate armaments. He likens their effectiveness and size to that of a David against a tank-sized Goliath.
Indeed, over last twenty years there has been a radical shift in the size of nuclear weapons, away from the multi-megaton hydrogen bombs of the early 1960's to the less powerful, but far more accurate missiles of today. If technological trends continue, precise but conventionally-armed missiles may become more attractive--that is, more cost-effective and more useful in actual warfare. As Dyson notes, "The primary requirement for carrying through any act of nuclear disarmament is the political will to do so, but the formation of such a will can be powerfully helped by a technological development deliberately aimed toward making nuclear weapons unattractive."
In fact, Dyson believes that nuclear weapons are no longer useful militarily, but have merely turned into political tools. The task before use, then, is to make this more ap- parent: "We will have a far better chance of achieving nuclear disarmament if the weapons to be discarded are generally perceived to be not only immoral and dangerous but obsolescent."
Dyson, like a few other recent writers, therefore believes that it might be possible to change the nature of war so that it is once again as it was two hundred year ago: an activity in which "small professional armies [fight] small professional wars," and "the military can exercise its legitimate skills rather than blow the world up."
Dyson carefully reviews the possible ways to avoid nuclear war, all the time stressing that we must identify a workable concept to guide our efforts and stay with it. American military wavering since World War II between the doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction and of Limited Nuclear War has produced a policy which is at once both unreliable and dangerously unstable. After noting the advantages and problems of each possibility, such as Counterforce (the current Soviet policy) and Non-violent Resistance, Dyson advocates a concept known technically as Parity Plus Damage-Limiting. This doctrine, which Dyson prefers to call "Live and Let Live," means that "we maintain the ability to damage you as badly as you can damage us, but we prefer our own protection to your destruction."
This policy would place a new emphasis not on civil defense (though that may be beneficial), but rather on small and effective defensive weaponry, so it would be the logical result of some current technological trends Large offensive weapons would lose their use and could be bargained away until the two superpowers continued to maintain only the defensive forces each considered sufficient. Nuclear arms would then become unnecessary, for each side would soon logically choose "to base [its] security upon non-nuclear resistance rather than upon nuclear deterrence."
Unfortunately, Dyson, like Jonathan Schell and other writers, has not been able to answer the question of what will insure that nuclear weapons, once eliminated, will not be re-introduced--either by one of the superpowers or by some terrorist group. But Dyson does offer a very promising suggestion, one reflected in his book's title. He believes that the successful elimination of nuclear armaments must take on the semblance of a cause; it must become a heartfelt commitment, similar to the cause of abolition in the 18th and 19th centuries.
He writes: "People who hope to push the fight against nuclear weapons to a successful conclusion must bring to their task the same qualities which won the fight against slavery, moral conviction, patience, objectivity, and willingness to compromise." We must become determined, he believes, to rid the world of unclear weapons eventually it will probably not happen in our lifetime, but we must maintain belief that at is possible and worth the battle. Hope must be our foremost tool.
Weapons and Hope is not in itself a complete answer or prescription for eliminating or even lessening-the possibility of nuclear war. But through skillful blending of history, an awareness of human nature, technical facts and the imperatives of survival. Dyson has sketched out a general plan and outlook with which to approach the difficulties of the arms race. He is undoubtedly right that a strong desire to eliminate nuclear arms is crucial if any progress is to be made. "We should not worry too much about the technical details of weapons and delivery "systems," Dyson writes. "The basic issue before us is simple. As we, or are we not, ready to face the uncertainties of a world in which nuclear weapons have been negotiated all the way down to zero?"
Unquestionably, we must be ready. But Dyson's dependence on what is basically a shift in conciousness is disturbing, could such a shift actually lead to fundamental change? Dyson maintains that. "If the turning is real, it will find appropriate political forms in which to express itself." One can but hope that he is correct, and that the warriors and the victims will soon learn to speak the same language-one that can be heard by world leaders everywhere.