At the time they take office, top government officials from the President on down are so poorly prepared to deal with a nuclear confrontation that they need an immediate crash course in crisis management, a team of Harvard professors reported Thursday.
“Most of these officials know almost nothing about what they would do in a nuclear crisis,” Joseph S. Nye, a member of the team, said at a symposium held by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. “It’s like force-feeding them with a fire hose.”
Nye is part of a group headed by Graham T. Allison, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, which has met with Presidents and top officials from several administrations in an effort to find what can be done to reduce the chances of nuclear war. They also have met three times with high-level Soviet officials in the search for common ground that might be ripe for improvement.
Areas of Agreement
The theory behind their work is that, independent of international efforts to bring about arms reductions, much could be done now to reduce the threat of nuclear war.
Nye said the group has even created a “new bird for the nuclear aviary,” the owl, to represent areas on which doves and hawks may find some agreement.
The Harvard professors, Allison said, are pushing “the owl agenda” at “people who can unite on the things we can do now, people who disagree violently on the right and the left but who might find some common ground.”
During the symposium--"An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War"--they cited such fundamental issues as the “decapitation of American society” during which the top leadership could be eliminated, opening the way for a nuclear attack during a period of massive confusion. That could be caused, Nye suggested, by a bomb in a rental truck during a presidential inauguration, a time when all top federal officials are gathered together in one place.
“You would find the question of ‘who’s next in command’ very ambiguous,” he said. It would make sense, he added, to have one official far removed from the area, possibly in an aircraft.
One of the three professors, who are all in the Kennedy school at Harvard, said he was shocked during extensive interviews with top government officials to learn how little they understood their roles during a time of nuclear crisis.
Lack of Preparedness
“Mostly they get their information from agencies briefing them on their bureaucratic status,” said Albert Carnesale, academic dean of the school. “They don’t know what they would do in times of crisis.”
Carnesale declined to say whether the team had met with President Reagan because officials on that level had been promised confidentiality. But, he added:
“If you ask have we met with Presidents, the answer is yes.”
All three panelists said they found the top officials extremely candid in revealing their lack of preparedness for the responsibilities they could have faced seconds after taking office--namely, responding to a nuclear crisis.
Training for those officials, before they take office, should be a top national priority, the panelists said. But, they added, there are many other things that can be done immediately.
Allison suggested that it is foolish to sit around and wait for the threat of nuclear war to end through arms negotiations.
Question Basic Strategy
“If we woke up tomorrow and found arms (in this country as well as in the Soviet Union) had been cut in half, would the situation have changed?” he asked. “The answer is no,” because the remaining weapons would still be more than enough to lead to a nuclear holocaust.
The panelists suggested that the nation’s basic defensive strategy may be wrong because it is concentrated on defending against a surprise attack, and “our expectation is that’s the least likely” way for nuclear war to begin, Nye said. Instead, he added, escalation of a confrontation into nuclear war is more likely.
But the panelists were ambivalent on the question of whether a space-based defensive system, such as Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” would stabilize or erode nuclear stability. That is partly because nuclear war could be started by a third party, the panelists noted.
Even if the “Star Wars” concept eventually proves to be workable, Carnesale said, “it is unlikely (Libyan strongman Moammar) Kadafi would be kind enough to deliver a nuclear weapon, if he has one, by the one system we could protect against.” Rather than using an intercontinental missile, he said, “it is more likely he would put it in a bale of marijuana, which we all know we can’t keep out of our cities.”
Areas for Improvements
Areas cited by the panel in which immediate improvements could be made to “protect and defend America’s interest by avoiding nuclear war” include:
- Removal of short-range missiles to reduce chances of accidental escalation of a minor conflict.
- Improve existing safety controls, and “don’t use nuclear alerts for political purposes,” Nye said.
- Develop a U.S.-Soviet communications network that is “survivable” during a time of limited war.
- Hold regular meetings with the Soviets, including meetings between top military leaders.
- Improve the training for those who must finally decide what to do.
Nye said Soviet officials who have been interviewed by the Harvard team have been quite blunt during meetings and frequently disagree with each other.
He said that two Soviets got into a mild disagreement over an analogy comparing the development of a stronger defensive system to the use of seat belts in automobiles.
One of the Soviets, Nye said, suggested that “perfect seat belts in a car could lead to reckless driving,” so perhaps seat belts may erode rather than enhance safety.
But the other Soviet official disagreed.
“The other contended that an accident in this car would be so catastrophic that you have to have seat belts,” Nye said.