Nuclear Winter and Twisted Logic : Would Shift to Small Weapons Make War ‘Thinkable’ Again?


For 35 years, Albert Wohlstetter, one of the country’s leading strategic thinkers, has been advising Washington on what kinds of strategy and forces are best calculated to avoid nuclear war without joining the “better Red than dead” club.

The Los Angeles-based analyst has been a major intellectual force behind the effort to avoid the spread of nuclear weapons, the drive to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by developing non-nuclear weapons capable of doing the same jobs, and the development of safeguards to prevent unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

The nature of Wohlstetter’s advice to the Reagan Administration remains private, but in the current issue of Foreign Affairs he makes an intriguing contribution to the ongoing dialogue about “nuclear winter.”

The theory of nuclear winter, as it has emerged in the last couple of years, is that the fireballs from thousands of exploding nuclear warheads would set forests, fields and cities ablaze. Plumes of dark smoke would rise, ultimately coalescing into one big belt of particles girdling the Earth.


The smoke and dust would shut out all but a tiny fraction of sunlight for weeks or months, causing a sharp temperature drop and changing the world’s climate in possibly deadly ways. The extinction of man could not be ruled out.

Wohlstetter observes that scientific proof of the nuclear winter theory is still a bit sketchy, and that some of the studies have made extravagant assumptions.

The National Academy of Sciences, for example, assumes the use of 25,000 or more nuclear warheads--about half the world’s arsenal--3,500 of which would be exploded over 1,000 cities. A Swedish study postulated nuclear attacks on Jakarta, Bombay, New Delhi and a number of other Third World cities where there is no U.S. or Soviet military presence. (Why would either the Americans or the Russians include them on their targeting lists?)

Wohlstetter does not really challenge the conclusion that enough nuclear warheads aimed at enough highly flammable targets might indeed put the world into a deep freeze. His quarrel is with the marriage between nuclear winter theorists and those who believe that the only way to avoid nuclear war is to keep alive the threat of global annihilation through the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.


Like the U.S. Catholic bishops in their report two years ago, the Californian finds the threat to exterminate tens of millions of civilians morally repugnant. In the upside-down intellectual climate of our time, however, those who favor a nuclear deterrent based solely on the threat of mass extermination are frequently looked upon as the good guys, while those who want to limit the potential horror are accused of scheming to make nuclear war thinkable.

Under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that emerged during the 1960s, this country supposedly would respond to even a limited use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union with all-out nuclear retaliation against Soviet cities. (Actually, most American nuclear weapons are aimed at military targets rather than Soviet population centers, and have been since at least the dawn of the missile age. Soviet military literature suggests that the same is true of the other side).

In recent years, some influential folk have carried the doctrine of mutual assured destruction to truly MAD proportions. They want to deprive the American President of any means of retaliation other than a massive blow against Soviet cities--a step that would guarantee the wholesale destruction of America in return.

The goal is deterrence, but if deterrence failed it would leave our President only two choices: surrender or national suicide.


To Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan and like-minded folk, the emergence of nuclear winter theory is manna from heaven. They reason that a country tempted to use nuclear weapons would be deterred not only by the prospect of massive retaliation but by the likelihood of extinction from the effects of its own weapons. So nuclear weapons become passe.

However, as Wohlstetter convincingly points out, there are some very dangerous holes in such logic. To begin with, if American political leaders were known to believe in nuclear winter but the Soviets didn’t, there is an obvious danger that the Kremlin would not be deterred from using nuclear weapons. In the more probable case that Soviet leaders come to take nuclear winter seriously, it is still unlikely that they would react in the way that this country’s nuclear winter enthusiasts like to think.

Most military analysts agree that a massive surprise nuclear attack--with dozens or even hundreds of combustible cities in the fireball areas--is the least probable beginning of nuclear war, with or without the threat of nuclear winter. Such a conflict is much more likely to begin with selective nuclear attacks (against troop staging areas, airfields or the like) in order to avoid defeat in a conventional war.

As Wohlstetter observes, the Soviets could design an attack that would avoid nuclear winter by using relatively small but accurate nuclear weapons, including earth penetrators, that can destroy military targets while stirring up far less smoke and dust (and killing far fewer people) than the large, indiscriminate weapons favored by MAD extremists.


Furthermore, the temptation to risk such an attack would be greater if the American President’s only choices were surrender or massive retaliation, with the attendant risk of nuclear winter, than if he had available discriminate weapons of his own.

To Wohlstetter, the logic is inescapable that a good supply of non-nuclear smart bombs and small but militarily effective nuclear warheads offers the best hope of avoiding nuclear war of any dimension.

A sizeable body of intellectuals, however, operates on a different wave length. Freeman Dyson, author and Princeton physicist, fears that the discovery of nuclear winter, if confirmed, will only set off a race among military planners to make war “safe” again.

As quoted by Science Digest, Dyson dourly predicts that the response of military planners on both sides to the specter of nuclear winter will be to “change targeting doctrine and deployment and produce only warheads of less than 100 kilotons. . . .”


It’s a mark of how strange the nuclear debate has become that so many people think that lowering the killing power of nuclear weapons is a bad thing.