“The choice is not, as most Canadians believe, between arming or not arming our small but vital contribution to NATO with atomic warheads. Our only remaining choice is whether we’ll accept the nuclear arms or withdraw our troops from the continent, thereby threatening the stability of the North Atlantic alliance and the West's principle of collective security”
WHETHER OH NOT our armed forces should have nuclear weapons is probably the deepest current issue in Canadian public life, but few Canadians are familiar with the actual conditions that govern this choice. At least part of the reason for this confusion is the false emphasis that has been given the question by our politicians.
Most of the political arguments about Canada’s military policies centre on continental defense — on what w-e should do. or permit the Americans to do. on Canadian soil against the torrent of destruction aimed at us by the Soviet Union. It is no accident that in these discussions all our political parties either omit or brush over our NATO forces. It is in Europe, not in Canada, that our defense decisions are most imminent and most unpalatable.
Actually, Canada did decide three years ago to accept nuclear arms. Prime Minister Diefenbaker signed an agreement on December 19. 1957. by which Canada and the other NATO allies authorized stockpiling of nuclear warheads for the use of NATO troops, including the Canadian
brigade in Europe. What we are having in Canada now is a belated argument as the 1957 decision is about to be executed, and as the average Canadian citizen realizes for the first time what he has got himself into.
The choice is not. as most Canadians believe, between arming or not arming our small but important contribution to NATO w'ith atomic warheads. Our only remaining choice is whether w'e’ll take nuclear arms, or else withdraw our troops from Europe altogether.
An American general, whose own command lies alongside the Canadian brigade in West Germany, put it to me bluntly: "If you Canadians don’t make a final decision about nuclear warheads soon, there w'ill be pressure from NATO to get your troops out. Without the proper weapons, your troops are a threat to the NATO forces stationed around them.”
This was one of many conversations about Canada's military position overseas, during a month-long tour of western Europe that included a week at the military headquarters of the North Atlantic alliance in Paris. I interviewed most of the men responsible for planning NATO’s nuclear strategy, and I had an hour's private conversation with General Lauris Norstad. the studious and frankly worried U. S. Air Force officer w'ho is the supreme commander of NATO's land and air forces in Europe.
I found them all dismayed that Canada has not yet made an official commitment to equip her forces w'ith nuclear weapons — the only major power in the alliance that has not done so. Many of the generals were astounded to learn that the average Canadian citizen, and even the average MP. still argues as if we had full freedom of choice in the matter.
"It's only fair that you should accept these weapons,” one NATO official told me. "according to the principle that equal rights impose equal duties.”
The puzzlement of NATO officers is under standable. because the Canadian government has already contracted for $423,()()().()()() worth of military hardware capable of carrying atomic warheads. For our NATO infantry brigade we have bought the Honest John, a 762 - mm ground-to-ground missile that takes a nuclear warhead. Our air division will have two hundred and fourteen supersonic CE104s. the Canadian version of the U. S. Starfighter. The official definition of this aircraft's function is "strike reconnaissance," but in fact it is a medium-range bomber with Bullpup air-to-ground nuclear missiles carried under its wings.
All this new Canadian equipment will carry nuclear weapons. And. by the agreement of December 1957 mentioned earlier. Canada has already authorized the stockpiling of these warheads for NA I O s use. (Under present American law. nuclear warheads must remain under U. S. control and can be released only by authority of the president of the United States.) Only one step remains to be taken, and at that step Canada has paused. Unlike all the other major allies in NATO, we have so far refused to sign an agreement w'ith the U.S. for acquisition, in wartime, of the warheads that will make our new weapons effective. In short. our nuclear weapons are not loaded.
When 1 visited the Canadian brigade at Soest, in central Germany, senior officers assured me that their troops carry out all manoeuvres as a nuclear army. The storage depots are already being built for the nuclear warheads that Canadian soldiers expect to use. When I asked one officer whether the brigade really had to have nuclear arms, he said: "You can use a razor without a blade, too. but it won t cut any whiskers."
Another Canadian officer told me: "The plain fact is that we're not going to light a conventional war. We re not going to fight it. because we couldn't win it."
The purpose of war has changed. It's no longer just to destroy as much as possible of the enemy's armed strength. Now. your existence continues to be threatened unless you’re able to smash the enemy's entire war machine at the very outbreak of hostilities. Thus the defense policy of both sides now rests on the threat to wipe out each other’s populations, rather than mere armies. "It’s silly to think that the Russians don’t believe we'll retaliate, just because that amounts it* a policy of suicide." I was told by one U. S. Air Force general. "It's perfectly rational to commit yourself to a response which, if the enemy crosses certain boundaries, amounts to mutual homicide."
NATO’s function in this soul-chilling equation has been changing constantly since the alliance was established in April 1949. Until the recent switch to atomicweapons. NATO strategy has been based on the "sword and shield" concept announced by General Alfred Grucnther at Lisbon in 1952. The armies of the alliance were to have been built up to ninety divisions. a force powerful enough to hold back the first push by the hundred and seventy-five divisions that the Communists maintain west of the Ural Mountains. Behind this “shield" stood the "sword" of the USAF's Strategic Air Command — prepared, if necessary, to back up the NATO troops with attacks on the enemy's homeland.
But the ninety divisions never did materialize. France withdrew all but two of her divisions to the Algerian war. The West Germans delayed their contribution. The British left only a skeleton garrison on the Continent. It soon became obvious that Western politicians did not view' the Russian threat as being Serious enough for drastic action. The NATO shield became a sort of glorified border patrol able to do little more than signal the news of the Russian attack that would trigger off the thermonuclear deterrent of the U. S. Air Force.
At the annual heads-of-state conference in 1954, NATO's military experts were told to draw up a strategic alternative based on a leveling off' of defense expenditures by the members of the alliance. The generals produced a foot-thick secret document called MC 70. It recommended the adoption of tactical nuclear weapons by the NATO troops as a means of what the military men called “graduating the West’s deterrent."
Stripped of its jargon, this means that the NATO armies, by having nuclear weapons far less deadly than the city -obliterators in the bellies of the SAC; bombers, w'ould create a secondary deterrent — strong enough to discourage the Russians from attacking the NATO countries with their overwhelming land forces, but not powerful enough, if such an attack came, to engulf the world automatically in a thermonuclear holocaust. This plan was adopted in December 1957,
"We're not going to fight a conventional war," said a Canadian officer, "because we couldn't win"
when the heads of NATO countries agreed to equip portions of their "shield" with tactical weapons that could deliver atomic warheads.
Few of the really thoughtful strategists who have studied the problem have much faith in the distinction between tactical (against enemy forces) and strategic (against the enemy’s homeland) atomic weapons, even though battlefield nuclear weapons with an explosive yield of only a ton of I N I are now becoming available.
The supporters of the tactical weapons argue that they're the only way of taking war back to the battlefield. "They make the atom a weapon of precision and discrimination instead of a blind force of destruction." I was told by a general at NATO. "And don't forget.” he added, "that the atomic bomb is already one war old: these weapons are really conventional now."
What frightens the opponents of tactical atomic weapons is that their adoption has. for the first time in history, placed two nuclear armies face to face. This confrontation greatly increases the risk that a minor border clash will mushroom into full-scale war. “Commanders will always lend to use every weapon they possess rather than risk their troops being overrun. and in that immediate concern arcapt to lose sight of wider issues." the British strategist B. H. Liddell Hart has written.
Some military experts go even further and suggest that the nuclear armaments of the NATO "shield" and the corresponding weapons of the Communist armies provide a mechanism that guarantees the almost automatic outbreak of thermonuclear war. No individual would have to assume the dreadful responsibility for making the decision that begins World
War. III. Battle would simply grow out of a border incident, decisions would follow one another; at no specific point would the obstacle of human conscience intrude.
To make tactical nuclear weapons a limiting influence on war would require some kind of gentleman’s agreement with the Russians that they too will fire only the smaller-yield warheads. The Communists have instead repeatedly warned us that they will react to any use of nuclear weapons by the West in the NATO zone with all-out missile and bomber raids on Europe and North America.
This kind of analysis of the situation, reply the supporters of the tactical weapons. ignores the fact that NATO simply cannot do without them. Since we’ve been unable to raise the ninety divisions set as a minimum protection for the NATO section of the Iron Curtain, we must have and keep the only weapon that prevents the enemy from concentrating his numerically superior troops for mass attacks. "Were the shield force too weak to deal with an attack, the alternatives facing us would be either to accept defeat on the narrow ground of the enemy's choice, or risk a general war," says General Norstad. NATO's military commander. "If we have strength enough in our shield forces, the dilemma passes to the aggressor. It is the aggressor who then must choose between risking all or attempting nothing.” He insists that only with a full range of deterrents can the West aim its defenses directly against the forces engaged in any area of aggression, enforcing a pause before the local clash develops into all-out war.
The controversy over the tactical atomic weapons continues, but another, far more serious issue is beginning to disturb the alliance. Norstad has a list of
objectives several hundreds of miles inside Communist territory he must be prepared to destroy as part of his defense strategy. At the moment, these targets are covered by Thors and Jupiters based in England, Italy and Turkey, but these missiles are in turn vulnerable to Russian rockets.
It is hoped that from 1965 on. Minuteman and Titan intercontinental missiles can cover the Communist targets directly from the U. S. But in the interval. Norstad says he must have a mobile, mediumrange missile force available in Europe. At NATO’s annual meeting this month, he will present a plan for distributing three hundred solid-fueled Polaris missiles — the weapons now being installed in American atomic submarines — throughout the European NATO countries. They would be mounted on constantly shifted barges and railway flatcars to escape the aim of Russian missiles.
The scheme is militarily sound, but politically even more contentious than the adoption of tactical atomic weapons. It makes nonsense of the "shield" concept on which NATO was founded. The Polaris has a range of 1.560 miles, and each one bears in its snout a thermonuclear warhead as powerful as that of the Allas ICBM. The adoption of the Polaris wouid turn the NATO shield into a sword. When U. S. Defense Secretary Thomas Gates was reminded at a recent Paris press conference that the Polaris is a strategic rather than a tactical missile, he replied: "Too much difference is made between tactical and strategic weapons. We need one effort, one defense, one punch. "
Norstad insists that the Polaris would be used only against tactical targets, never to bomb Russian cities, but the foreign ministers of western Europe are still afraid of the Russian reaction to turning their armies into offensively equipped forces.
As a sweetening device. Washington has hinted that it might be prepared to give NATO its nuclear independence. T his would require a change in the law, and would place the nuclear warheads for the Polaris and tactical weapons under NATO rather than American control. It would also help to solve Canada's nuclear dilemma by giving the NATO Council of Ministers, where Canada has an equal voice, final control of the contentious warheads.
NATO's nuclear strategy is being realized much faster than most of the citizens of its adherent nations realize. One analyst has compared the process to a clock mechanism that the governments of the alliance wind and rewind with the support of a lagging public opinion, but whose actual motion, like that of time, eludes intervention.
On my last day at NATO headquarters I lunched with one of the men responsible for drawing up plans for the nuclear defense of western Europe. “Force by itself doesn’t guarantee our future,” he remarked, "but it does offer the possibility that there will be a future.” We glanced at the fifty or more generals eating around us. their variously tinted uniforms giving the room more the atmosphere of a masquerade party than a military mess.
"Yes," said my companion, "it's a strange sight. But we must be ready. We must be prepared. We can't keep our heads in the sand, ignoring the realities no matter how unpleasant they are." Then he illustrated his point by quoting a Russian proverb: "The pig spends his life looking into the ground. He sees the sky for the first time at the moment when he is butchered.” if
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.