Robert A. Levine 3-3-15
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States each had thousands of nuclear-armed missiles and different ways of delivering them to their targets. In addition to manned bombers carrying nuclear bombs or missiles there were intercontinental ballistic missiles in hardened silos in rural areas in the United States and the Soviet Union that could reach each other’s territory. And there were submarines carrying nuclear cruise missiles that could obliterate every large and small city and military base of the other power.
The various methods of delivery and the excessive numbers of nuclear weapons were ways of guaranteeing that neither country could be destroyed in a surprise attack without still being capable of annihilating the other in a second strike. (However, the amount of radiation released in these attacks would possibly obliterate human life on earth according to some scientists.) This strategy of nuclear deterrence was known as Mutually Assured Destruction or M.A.D. It was apparently so named by the physicist and mathematician John Von Neumann, an early Cold War strategist. Assuming that rational players were in control of the nuclear arsenals in both the United States and Soviet Union, there would never be a nuclear war between the two countries as it would end civilization in both nations and possibly the entire world.
This concept seemed to have worked during the life of the Soviet Union with neither side challenging the other with nuclear weapons aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis. This came in 1962, early in the development of nuclear missiles and before their range and reliability were well established. From that point on, the two nations lived in a balanced fear of each other, unwilling to chance a mistake that would activate the other’s missile force, a stable but tension –filled peace. In fact in 1963 after the Cuban crisis, a hot line was installed connecting the Pentagon with the Kremlin to explain any unusual activity by either side that might be interpreted as threatening.
M.A.D. also led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. It was believed that a workable anti-ballistic missile system that could intercept incoming warheads would tilt the balance of power in favor of the country that first built an effective system. This could lead to a first strike before the Anti-Ballistic Missile System was in place, actually initiating nuclear war. Though the treaty was to be functional for thirty years, President Reagan in 1983 said that the United States was going to proceed with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or Star Wars), which was a research program to see if an anti-ballistic missile system could work. The Soviets were told that this was not to block their nuclear weapons which were overwhelming, but those of other players who only might be able to build a few missiles. Never-the-less, the SDI never became operational.
Smaller proxy wars occurred during this period of M.A.D, with thrusting and parrying by allies and some American forces (Vietnam), but never to the point where either nation felt threatened by the other. However, M.A.D. did entail maintaining nuclear parity, which meant continuous upgrading of nuclear weapons and new and better delivery systems. Some analysts believe that the Soviet Union’s collapse was at least partially due to its attempt to keep pace with the United States in building expensive armaments, a process that its economy could not sustain.
The question now is with KGB alumnus Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat in post-Soviet Russia, is he a rational player with whom America can continue to play the dangerous game of M.A.D. Or in his quest for power and the reassembling of Soviet territories, will he overstep the accepted boundaries and risk a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there have been three Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) between the U.S. and Russia, cutting the number of nuclear weapons that each nation had. Putin has been in agreement with these, though he has threatened to withdraw from START given his recent conflicts with the West over the Crimea and Ukraine. The U.S’s ability to verify the contents of the agreements have apparently also been a problem. Setting up missile shields to protect Europe and the U.S. from any rogue nuclear states (Iran and North Korea) has also been an issue for Putin who sees the shield as directed against Russia.
No one wants nuclear war. On the other hand, it was believed by all civilized nations that there would be no alteration of national boundaries by war in the 21st century. But with the upper hand in armaments, troops, and logistics, Russia changed that equation because they could. Putin is a power-hungry Russian czar who sees the West as weak and degenerate. Is he rational enough to know when to stop after he was able to take over Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, parts of Georgia, and Moldavia so easily? Is Poland next? Hungary? The Baltic states? Will Putin challenge the U.S. in ways that raise the stakes further and make nuclear confrontation a possibility? M.A.D. hangs over Russia and the United States and the world with the hope that rational players still control the triggers. But we don’t know.
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