Local View: We are blindly walking into nuclear war

From the column: "That makes it important to again clearly recognize how the Soviet Union and the United States avoided a nuclear war and kept the Cold War cold."

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We are headed for a nuclear third world war. Some talking heads seem to believe the Cold War was a poker game in which both sides were bluffing. But Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was not a bluff. Both sides had explicit plans to use nuclear weapons in any direct confrontation. The only question was whether an actual nuclear conflict could be contained short of destroying all the major cities of Europe and the United States.

The Cold War really ended in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Michael Gorbachev famously answered that question, “no.” They agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Beyond that oft-used phrase, the full agreement explicitly recognized that the only way to avoid a nuclear war was to avoid any direct conventional military conflict between the two nuclear powers.

This Reagan/Gorbachev statement acknowledged the actual experience of the Cold War: “The sides, having discussed key security issues, and conscious of the special responsibility of the USSR and the U.S. for maintaining peace, have agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Recognizing that any conflict between the USSR and the U.S. could have catastrophic consequences, they emphasized the importance of preventing any war between them, whether nuclear or conventional. They will not seek to achieve military superiority.“

Despite repeated opportunities for the two countries to go to war, war was avoided. For instance, the Soviets avoided direct involvement in the Korean War and stepped back from arming Cuba when President John F. Kennedy made it clear we were prepared to go to war to prevent it. The U.S. did not intervene when the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When the U.S. airlift broke the Soviets’ blockade of West Berlin, the Soviet Union backed down rather than trying to use force.

Now there is a real possibility of a nuclear war with Russia as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. That makes it important to again clearly recognize how the Soviet Union and the United States avoided a nuclear war and kept the Cold War cold. The myth of mutually assured destruction suggests leaders on both sides simply recognized that a nuclear war was not in their interest and refrained from attacking one another with nuclear weapons. This is true at the basic level, but it ignores the reality that both countries' leaders had plans to use nuclear weapons under some circumstances.


The U.S. and NATO's planned defense against a conventional invasion of Europe during the Cold War explicitly included the immediate use of tactical nuclear weapons to offset the Warsaw Pact's superior conventional forces. The U.S. military was convinced that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was essential to stop a Soviet invasion. U.S. leaders considered stopping such an invasion worth risking a full-scale nuclear war. While the Soviet Union made a public pledge not to use nuclear weapons first, its own plans rightly assumed the use of nuclear weapons by NATO, given its relatively weak conventional forces, making the pledge disingenuous.

Both sides recognized that any conventional direct conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States would likely quickly escalate to an all-out nuclear war. Despite MAD, both sides anticipated situations in which they believed they had interests at stake that warranted using nuclear weapons despite the destruction likely to result.

That hasn't changed. What has changed is that now Russia's conventional military is far weaker than NATO's. Like NATO during the Cold War, it compensates for that relative weakness with nuclear forces that are at least comparable.

During their meeting in 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev informally agreed that nuclear weapons should ultimately be abolished. Shortly thereafter, a Soviet general came through Minnesota on a “cultural exchange” trip and met with a small group of local activists who were involved in the nuclear weapons freeze movement.

This general made the case for abolishing nuclear weapons while one of our most knowledgeable local arms-control peace activists argued with him that it was neither realistic nor desirable. The general, apparently frustrated, finally said something that has stuck with me. Paraphrasing, “I am a military man. Faced with defeat, I will use whatever weapons I have available to prevent defeat. So long as these weapons exist, it is only a matter of time before someone uses them.”

It appears that time is rapidly approaching.

Ross Williams of Grand Rapids was executive director of the Minnesota Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which worked to end the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

Ross Williams.jpg
Ross Williams

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