For the sake of argument

Deterrents don’t prevent wars — they start them


For the sake of argument

Deterrents don’t prevent wars — they start them


For the sake of argument

Deterrents don’t prevent wars — they start them


Ever since the last war the leading Western nations have based their foreign policy on the simple assumption that a third world conflict can be prevented only by maintaining Western superiority — or at least parity — in offensive military power. This assumption is itself based on an analysis of how the first two world wars occurred. Briefly, the argument runs as follows. Both world wars broke out because the Western democracies were militarily weak. Had they armed themselves in time, the enemy would have been deterred from aggression and war would have been avoided. Therefore, to prevent a third world war, we must arm ourselves to the teeth and negotiate from strength.

The World War I myth

It is always risky to formulate current policies on the basis of historical analogies. History is not a recurring pattern of events: it is a succession of unpredictable accidents. Knowledge of the past may sometimes illuminate our vision of the future; but equally it may sometimes obscure it. And the dangers of employing the lessons of the past to solve the problems of the present are, of course, enormously increased when the past itself is incorrectly presented. Yet this is precisely what has happened in the case of the theory of the deterrent.

First, let us examine the myth that World War I occurred because Britain was unprepared. This myth is a comparatively recent one. Until 1939 most people agreed that the 1914 war was caused by the arms race, and it was only when they were confronted for the second time with the phenomenon of a German conflict — this time springing from manifestly different causes—that they became confused and began to draw false analogies. Then they remembered that there was a sizeable pacifist movement in Britain before 1914; that it included more than half the Labor Party and a broad section of the Liberals; and that, until the Germans invaded Belgium, even the cabinet opposed British intervention.

Unfortunately, the memory of these public political attitudes was gradually allowed to obscure the fact that Britain had been preparing for war for nearly a decade before 1914. Parliament may have favored a policy of no commitment, but in the Foreign Office, the Horse Guards and the Admiralty, a totally different atmosphere prevailed. The turning point seems to have come in January 1907, when Sir Eyre Crowe, assistant under-secretary at the Foreign Office, presented his famous memorandum. In it he evolved the theory of the deterrent in its purest form.

The Germans, Crowe argued, were threatening Britain’s control of the seas by building large numbers of battleships. This could lead to war. We could only prevent it by building even larger numbers of battleships, and thus provide Germany with what he called “occular evidence” of our determination to meet and vanquish the German threat. The phrase “occular evidence” is significant: it is the core of the deterrent philosophy. For the first time, Crowe formulated the theory that the physical existence of retaliatory power would, in itself, curb the ambitions of aggressor states.


Grey, the foreign secretary, showed Crowe’s memorandum to the cabinet. Its arguments sank deep into the basic thinking of British public men. Imperceptibly, they began to accept its conclusions as gospel. The Foreign Office became a citadel of anti-German attitudes, and meanwhile a huge war machine was brought to a state of readiness. For every five battleships the Germans built, we built eight. And the deterrent was deliberately brandished. From the time that Winston Churchill went to the Admiralty—in 1911—he made it his object to bring the navy to what he called "a state of instant and constant readiness." Here again the phrase is significant: it is almost identical to the words used last November by the head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command to describe his preparations to meet the challenge of the Soviet lead in the missile field.

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For the sake of argument

The army, too. prepared for war. From 1907 onward there were regular stall talks with the French. When Sir Henry Wilson became director of military operations he set about organizing an expeditionary force of 100,000 men—capable of expansion to five times that size within four months —which could be in action on French or Belgian territory within twenty days of a declaration of war. So thorough were the preparations that, despite America's vastly greater resources of manpower, the build-up of British forces in France during the first six months after our entry into the war proceeded at six times the rate of America's during the whole of 1917. Here, indeed, was the real statistical difference between a power which had prepared for war and one which had not.

No safety in numbers

It has, of course, been argued that this deterrent policy failed simply because the deterrent was not "massive" enough. But what are the facts? France and Russia began to construct a co-ordinated deterrent of vast size nearly twenty years before the conflict. As early as 1899 the peace-time establishments of the FrancoRussian armies totaled 1,470,000 men against 950,000 for Germany and Austria—a Franco-Russian margin of 520,000. By 1907 this margin had risen to 802.000 and by 1914 to a million. In March 1914. Italy signed a military convention with the Allies raising the margin by a further 273,000; and by this time it was known that Britain could now make an immediate contribution of a further 100,000. These were pre-mobilization strengths. A comparison of war strengths shows a Franco-Russian margin of 1,212,000. which, together with British and Italian contributions, gave the Allies a total margin of 1,500,000.

True, the Franco-Russian forces were at a disadvantage in one respect. The slow rate of Russian mobilization meant that the full weight of Allied superiority could not be brought to bear immediately. But again, long before the war, plans were devised to remedy this. Russia, with French financial support, began a massive program of railway construction to speed up the transfer of reserves to the German front. The program was due to be completed in 1917. and it was for this reason that the military experts on both sides picked 1917 as the most likely year for a conflict. Their reasoning was significant and gives the lie to the entire deterrent theory. For they foresaw that the period of maximum danger would coincide precisely with the moment when the deterrent became complete. Hence the deterrent was not a deterrent at all, but a cause of the conflict.

Indeed, the final proof that the deterrent, though of massive size, failed to deter, is to be found in the evolution of the German war plans. These envisaged a sharp onslaught on France through Belgium, followed by a more prolonged offensive, after the destruction of the French army, against Russia. They took final shape at the end of 1912 in a general-staff memorandum. It is often argued that had Britain publicly declared her intention of coming to Belgium's aid, the Germans would never have marched. This myth is demolished by the German memorandum for it is based on the assumption that Britain would intervene and would have a force in the field within a month. In it, the total Allied strengths are accurately calculated. Nevertheless, victory is assumed as rapid and final. Similar reports, drawn up in France and Russia, tell the same tale of unshakable military optimism. In short, though the deterrent obviously played some part in winning the eventual conflict, it did not, and could not, play any part in preventing it, for the simple reason that the German generals did not regard it as a deterrent but as a challenge—and even a provocation.

But today, it is argued, the existence of megaton bombs has abolished the concept of a victorious campaign and has therefore produced a qualitative change in the attitude of the generals to war itself. Has it? Military leaders on both sides, while acknowledging that thermonuclear war must be catastrophic, still proclaim their invincible faith that, if needs be, their own forces can win it. The new British Defense White Paper fully admits that “no country can hope to gain anything by war,” which would “imperil the safety of humanity.” But it goes on to imply that, should war come, the West would undoubtedly win it. “The over-all superiority of the West,” it says, “is likely to increase rather than diminish.” The advent of intermediate-range rockets, it claims, will increase western military power but for geographical reasons they will not afford “any corresponding strategic advantage” to Russia. The paper actually envisages the outbreak of total war: “In that event, the role of the Allied defense forces in Europe would be to hold the front for the time needed to allow the effects of the nuclear counter-offensive to make themselves felt.” In short, the generals on our side are still thinking in terms not only of war, but of victory; and so long as generals still believe victory can be won, war cannot be dismissed as unthinkable. Which brings me to my central, and very simple, contention: nations acquire arms not to prevent wars, but to win them.

So we turn to the origins of World War II, on which the main historical case for the deterrent theory is based. Again, it will not bear examination of the facts There is no evidence that Hitler, at any stage, was deterred by the military strength of his adversaries. In 1941, Britain was weak, isolated and ripe for final annihilation; he nevertheless embarked on an unprovoked and unnecessary invasion of Russia; and a few months later he accepted an additional, and equally avoidable, conflict with America. Neither of these actions seems to have been influenced by military factors. After all, if it was the military weakness of Britain and France which led Hitler to war in 1939, why did he not attack immediately, when that weakness was at its most pronounced?

In my view. Hitler was not influenced by rational considerations — on which, of course, the deterrent theory is based— and once he had consolidated his power in Germany, war was inevitable. Had Britain and France kept pace with German rearmament the conflict would merely have occurred sooner. And had it done so, world opinion, which eventually and with good reason swung round behind Britain, would have been bitterly divided. We now know that Canada and other British dominions were not prepared to back Britain in a conflict with Germany at any stage prior to the Polish crisis; and America, certainly, would have declared her neutrality and maintained it. Anglo-French rearmament in the mïd-thirties would merely have precipitated a war which, in all probability. Britain and France would have lost.

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Indeed, the more we study the origins of wars the clearer it becomes that the deterrent not merely fails to deter, but tends to have the opposite effect. And this for a simple logical reason. By making the deterrent the principal instrument of your foreign policy, you. inevitably place its direction, to a greater or lesser extent, in the hands of the military. There is no evidence that soldiers are occupationally more bellicose than politicians or diplomats. But, of necessity. they do not think in precisely the same ■way. To the soldier, the ultimate evil is not to fight a war—but to lose it. He must give priority to the second contin|ency. Hence a soldier may find it his duty to resist measures which, though they would prevent a currently threatening conflict, might place his country at a military disadvantage in a subsequent one. A classic case is the projected Anglo-German agreement of 1912—the one serious attempt, throughout the period, to achieve a broadly based AngloGerman understanding — which was sabotaged by the French government on the advice of its general staff. Many other examples could be drawn from the negotiations of the United Nations disarmament sub-committee. Any diplomat vho has taken part in them will tell you that the military members of the delegations invariably have the last word; and this is inevitable, so long as the primary consideration is the maintenance of the deterrent.

“Once the alarm is given, the machine takes control

the sequence of events flows inexorably”

Nor, alas, is this all. When two power blocs confront each other in a state of "instant readiness,” purely military factors assume such importance that they themselves can become the cause of conflict. This can happen in two ways. The first, and less dangerous, is by accident. Today, with both SAC and the Soviet air force maintaining H-bomb patrols, var can break out solely because a pilot goes insane. Or—more likely—because of a confusion in signals. “Instant preparedness” means a considerable devolution in authority, and it is now within the capacity of a junior officer to unleash the nuclear deluge. Misunderstandings constantly occur in military chains of command. In 1940. for example, a drunken British major gave the signal for the invasion alarm, and plunged East Anglia into confusion. Far more serious was the destruction of Rotterdam by the German air force, which occurred because a junior officer misinterpreted a signal.

Such possibilities, however, are less alarming than the inherent perils of a war machine in a state of "instant readiness" — of a catastrophe springing not from accident but from the nature of the machine itself. The deterrent, supposedly the slave of diplomacy, has an inevitable tendency, in its search for speed and effectiveness, to become diplomacy's master. The document which persuaded the German government to invade Belgium in 1914 was an army memorandum presented on July 29. This pointed out. in the strongest terms, the disastrous consequences of a European war, which, it said “will annihilate for decades the civilization of almost all Europe.” Nevertheless. it went on. the Russian mobilization would, for purely mechanical reasons, lead to a progressive, mathematical increase of the military odds against Germany with every day that passed: therefore an early German declaration of war was vital. Thus Germany entered the war not for any long-term political aims, but because of short-term military factors which sprang directly from the policy of “instant readiness.”

The Russians, too, were the slaves of , their war machine. The essence of the deterrent was the capacity to mobilize swiftly. But the physical process of Russian mobilization made it inevitable that, within a week of the decree being published, Russian troops would cross the German frontier. Either the deterrent worked within the first two days, or it would not work at all. For troops would begin to reach the forward railheads from the first day; they would then pile up in ever increasing numbers. If the frontier was not crossed, the organizational structure of the army would become confused, there would be no place to put the troops, and Russian war plans would be revealed. Hence there was no alternative but to cross the frontier. It is difficult to think of a better example of purely military factors dictating issues of peace and war.

Tantamount to war

Today w'e face a situation which is basically similar. The Strategic Air Command is a world-wide force of three thousand heavy bombers and fleets of tanker planes. Each squadron has its allotted targets and timetables; but the entire operation is co-ordinated down to the last bomb and second. Once the alarm is given, the machine takes control—as it must — and the sequence of events flows inexorably without any politician’s hand to guide it. On Nov. 2, 1956, at the height of the Suez crisis, the National Security Council in Washington—the ultimate controlling authority of the Western deterrent — met in emergency session. The day before, Bulganin had launched a virtual ultimatum against Britain and France. Throughout the night, intelligence reports indicated Soviet military overflights in Turkey and Persia. Mr. Dulles wished to respond to these moves by alerting SAC and deploying its squadrons in a manner which would provide “occular evidence” of America’s will to resist. But the air-force chiefs explained that such an action would be tantamount to war; that the size and nature of SAC meant that it could not get all its aircraft airborne, and begin the complex process of aerial refueling, without revealing to the enemy its axes of attack, knowledge of which would undermine the deterrent, unless it was really intended to use it this time. Moreover, they added, once it became clear that SAC was getting into position, the Russians would be bound to do the same, and then a conflict would become virtually inevitable.

Fortunately, while the council was still sitting, further intelligence reports revealed that there was no radar evidence of Soviet overflights. The crisis passed: but it revealed the fatal lack of flexibility of the deterrent. Since then the SAC commanders have attempted to devise a system of permanent semi-mobilization —of which the H-bomb patrols are one aspect—which will make SAC an effective instrument of fear without allowing it to glide over into the abyss and become an instrument of provocation.

Are they likely to succeed? We do not know. But we should remember that the Russians, confronted with precisely the same problem in the years before 1914. also devised a system of semi-mobilization which, they calculated, would frighten their enemies without provoking them. As we have seen, it was a disastrous failure. ★