The Case Against Disengagement - II

AT THE END of the first part of this critique it was concluded that NATO’s current military doctrines and forces all too closely resemble what Mr. George F. Kennan said in his Reith Lectures on the BBC that they  ought to be, with the unhappy consequence that many people in Britain and on the Continent have convinced themselves that Mr. Kennan is right to insist that “West Germany’s part in NATO is more a danger to the West than a source of strength and stability, and are willing to bargain with whatever West Germany does contribute to NATO strength in an effort to buy from the Russians a relaxation of the tensions in Central Europe they find intolerable. 

There was, in fact, not much that was new in this latest expression of George Kennan’s views. The credited father of “containment” has never considered it likely that Russian Communism would use military force to expand its domain; he therefore was opposed to the Truman Doctrine to aid Greece and “Turkey against Communist pressure, and he disapproved of West German participation in the defense of Western Europe from the first. What others have regarded as proof of Russian willingness to use force when they think they can get away with it, from the Greek Civil War, through the Berlin blockade, to the Korean War and Vietnam, has never convinced George Kennan, who stands today upon the estimate he made in 1947: 

While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities. …like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism…it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige. (Italics added.) 

Thus he has alway mistrusted the West’s use of military pressures as being likely to raise questions of prestige for the Russians and cause them to resort to irresponsible action.

FOR these reasons “disengagement,” to George Kennan, as he first suggested it back in the days when the idea of  NATO was being formed, was a proposal to reduce the military pressure on the Russians in Central Europe, in order to enable them to retreat, without loss of prestige, before the inherent political pressures generated by their unwelcome domination of the satellites.

The difficulty with his thesis then, of course, was that the demobilization of the West had gone so far that there was virtually no military pressure upon the Russians, who had maintained their military forces in great strength. Consequently the opposed view, which was that the West must remobilize sufficiently to stem the Communist tide, then (1947-49) at flood as the independencies of Eastern Europe one after another succumbed to internal subversion based upon the proximity of Russian forces even when the Red Army was not present on their soil, seemed to most of Mr. Kennan’s colleagues in the US Government much more in line with the “realities” of the situation. 

To most West Europeans also, the latter view, which of course became official US and Western policy, was at that time more convincing. They were deeply disturbed by the military threat implied in Russia’s big army, and counted upon the US to guarantee their security by the threat of using its new atom bombs. At that time, however, it was not the intention of the US Government to rely exclusively upon the nuclear “deterrent,” and early  NATO plans called for a substantial conventional (non-nuclear) rearmament of the  NATO countries. Subsequently, the failure of all the  NATO countries (including the US) to meet their agreed forces goals, plus the 1953  New Look defense policy of “more bang for a buck,” resulted in NATO’s excessive, indeed almost exclusive, dependence upon nuclear deterrence. And this, now that the USSR has become a full-blown nuclear power, with both “tactical” and “strategic” weapons and delivery means, is what has produced the conviction so widely held in Britain and on the Continent today that NATO can defend itself only by committing suicide. Add the strong feeling that the unstable situation in Central and Eastern Europe might result in a conflict desired by neither the Russians and the West, but which both are powerless to avoid, and the case for a wide acceptance of “disengagement” is complete. 

Mr. Denis Healey, who presented his case for disengagement in three parts in this journal recently (issues of March 17, 24 and 31) is one of those who have come to advocate disengagement out of disillusionment with NATO defense policies. Until recently he was an ardent proponent of “tactical nuclear defense” of NATO, believing that  NATO forces, if they were armed with “small” nuclear weapons, could balance the numerical superiority of Russian forces, and thereby deter the latter from attack by posing the threat of an effective but limited defense that need not doom the people of Western Europe to destruction. Lately Mr. Healey has lost confidence in this escape from the paralyzing implications of nuclear deterrence. Referring to the article by Secretary Dulles in the October, 1957, issue of Foreign Affairs, in which the possibility of a limited and non-annihilating nuclear defense of Western Europe was proposed, Mr. Healey says:

the immediate reaction of the Continental countries to the suggestion of limited nuclear defense was totally negative…They see the new trend as an attempt to spare America horrors which she is quite prepared to see inflicted on her allies. 

Healey’s statement of his disengagement case, while easy reading, is a gross oversimplification that does little credit either to the quality of his usual comprehension of international problems, or, presumably, to the depth of his convictions in the present situation. He says, for example, that present  NATO defense policies rest upon two “unconscious assumptions” both “demonstrably false.” The alleged assumptions are that the only danger of war lies in a deliberate act of Soviet military aggression and that the US would respond by “massive thermonuclear retaliation to any major Soviet attack.” The first, however, is by no means an assumption of the NATO governments, nor of the  NATO military commanders, who are quite as concerned as Mr. Healey is about the possibility of “ambiguous” political pressures from the Russian side, and about spontaneous outbreaks, not planned deliberately by the Russians, that might result in war. And the second, providing the phrase “major Soviet attack” is taken literally, is certainly not “demonstrably false.” Also there is about his expressed hopes for the political results of a disengagement in Central Europe an unmistakably political pie-in-the-sky quality that is surprising, giving it the flavor of a campaign brochure for the British Labour Party. Thus, he says that disengagement would 

…involve a revolution in the Cold War…the great powers would have to start seeking security in cooperation rather than in conflict…it could be a turning point in the long history of mankind’s search for peace. 

Mr. Healey raises the specter of a Hungarian-type rebellion in East Germany as the major incalculable risk involved in the present situation, arguing that the Suez War  and the Hungarian rebellion prove that “neither Russia nor America has sufficient control over events on its own side of the Iron Curtain to rule out the possibility of such a local conflict.” It is indeed ironic that the possibility of an outbreak in East Germany is intimidating so many thoughtful people in the West, in whose favor it would be initiated, while it seems not to intimidate the Russians, against whom it would be directed Indeed, this one disturbing possibility seems to be making more converts for a policy of disengagement than  all the other arguments for it put together. 

What is implied by Healey’s fear, of course, is that if  the East Germans revolted tomorrow against their Communist overlords, and against the Russian forces stationed on their territory, as the Hungarians did, the West Germans would intervene to aid their brothers and the West would then be dragged into a war with  the Soviet Union. That there is some danger of this chain of events it would be foolish to deny. But also it seems quite unnecessary to assume that the danger is great and in any case it is sheer defeatism to be intimidated by it.

It should be remembered that NATO is a defensive alliance. It does not sanction aggression by NATO members against third parties. The West Germans know perfectly well, particularly with Suez as a precedent, what the  US attitude would be if they engaged in openly aggressive military action, no matter how urgent their reasons might be. Moreover, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over them, it is difficult to believe that the West Germans would be swept away by their emotions. Such “intervention” as might occur, whether undertaken privately, or in a covert fashion by the West German Government, would almost certainly not be identifiable as open “aggression,” would not offer a direct challenge to Soviet military power, and therefore would not  be considered by the Russians as adequate cause for them to assume the risks of nuclear annihilation either. 

ACTUALLY, if NATO were armed for a local defense in Western Europe that would not automatically convert a local conflict into a war of annihilation, there seems to be no reason why support should not be offered to East German rebels. If we really believe that military conflict can and must be limited in the nuclear age, it must be because we assume that both the West and the Russians will behave rationally—that is, in their self interest—in a situation such as this one. NATO’s action, therefore, would not constitute a threat to Russia’s ultimate security, and Russia’s counter-action would not take the form of an act of suicide. But more important than NATO’s actually taking action to aid an East German rebellion would be NATO’s ability to take such action. Because if NATO’s European armaments were such as  to prove this ability, and thereby indicate a possible intention to act, then the Russians would have to calculate the risks of suppressing a rebellion in East Germany, just as the West must calculate the risks of intervening. This would be a great improvement over the present situation, whereby the Russians are virtually guaranteed a free hand by the announced policies of the Western governments not to intervene in Eastern Europe, and by the fact that NATO lacks adequate military force of the type required for a limited intervention or a limited defense. If NATO had such forces at its disposal it might result, for example, in a relaxation of Communist pressures on East Germany in order to reduce the possibility of a rebellion. 

Mr. Healey is quite right to point out the double irony in a passage he quotes from the London Times in which it was said that, “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Western Europe is indebted to Herr Ulbricht,” the East German Communist boss, for keeping such a firm grip that there have been no further outbreaks since the riots in East Berlin in 1953. Moreover, he may be right to say that the status quo in Central Europe “has always been morally intolerable.” But when he goes on to say that it is “now revealed as politically most unstable and full of appalling military dangers” he is only reflecting the Western crisis of confidence. 

Like George Kennan, Denis Healey appears to believe that the Russians must want a disengagement as much as he does. What he actually says on this point, however, is inconclusive, and to some extent seems contradictory. For example, he remarks that “it is now clear that Soviet control of Eastern Europe depends on the presence of the Red Army.” Yet he says in another place that even after a disengagement “most of [the satellites] would remain friendly to the Soviet Union and would retain many of the economic and social characteristics of a Communist society.” But if this is the case Soviet control obviously does not depend upon the presence of the Red Army in most of the satellite countries and there is nothing to prevent the Russians from applying the pattern of Poland, a gradual liberation, more widely. In fact, the argument always comes back to East Germany. It is there that the Russian presence is “morally intolerable” (though certainly not to a Communist) and that the status quo is “full of appalling dangers.” 

He makes a different point, however, when he adds that the threat of additional nuclear powers has led both sides in the Cold War, “for the first time in history,” to take a genuine interest in disarmament, and that “it is now clear that disarmament can start only with a pilot scheme in the limitation, inspection and control of armaments.  …“But when he concludes that Central Europe is the ideal area for such a pilot scheme because it “is not vital to either America or Russia “and because “the two sides have a common interest in cooperation rather than in conflict,” he seems to have parted company with history. Surely Central Europe is a center of tensions just because the opposed interests there are considered vital by both sides, hardly a situation that can easily be shifted from conflict to cooperation. 

With Mr. Healey’s “blueprint for mutual withdrawal” (NR, March 31) there would be little reason to quarrel, provided he had really justified his disengagement. But the crux of the matter is that he and others who think as he does regard the “Question of Germany” as presenting an intolerable risk of war. They are proposing a solution there is no indication that the Russians—who have insisted repeatedly upon their own solution of the German issue—will accept, and a solution that would gravely weaken the West just where it most needs to recruit its strength. Moreover, there are good reasons for believing that the situation in Europe following a disengagement, even one that went exactly the way Healey wants it to go, would be less stable and even more “full of appalling dangers” than is the present situation. In order to explore these reasons briefly, I want to ask three questions relating to subjects which Mr. Healey has omitted from his discussion, or which he has passed over rather too hastily. 

First, what happens to Western Europe during the long period that both Mr. Kennan and Mr. Healey concede would be necessary for the negotiation of disengagement, and then afterwards? 

George Kennan noted, belatedly, in the very last lecture (after he had apparently eliminated Germany from the “Western spiritual and cultural community”) “the exciting progress” made recently in Western Europe toward integration. Mr. Healey does not mention it at all. There has indeed been substantial progress toward a united Western Europe, the basic impulse of which is political, though the institutions so far devised (Schuman Plan, Euratom and the Common Market) are economic. The question, then, is: can the military arrangements for the defense of Western Europe be so cleanly separated from the economic and political life of Western Europe that isolating Germany in the first respect would not affect its participation in the second? To anyone who comes to this question from a background in postwar German affairs there can only be one answer: Even the proposal that a disengagement be negotiated would begin to divert Germany’s attention from the West, and during the long process of negotiation, and even more afterwards, if a disengagement were agreed, the German domestic political scene would be subjected to irresistible pressures from other directions. The best guess is that Germany’s national purposes would eventually change completely, either toward a “third force” effort to play West off against East, or at least toward concentration upon a drive to control the neutral zone itself. The great vision of a Franco-German reconciliation, which has motivated men like Schuman and Adenauer, would come to nothing. To the French, Germany would again become an object of fear and suspicion, to be inspected, harassed, and kept as weak as possible. To the Germans, France, which would certainly be most insistent among the Western powers upon a rigorous application of the arms inspection, would become a hostile force, seeking to undermine German strength and security and thus to render her vulnerable to the inevitable pressures from the East.

The second question I address to the advocates of disengagement is: what, in all this, are the most likely prospects for Central and Eastern Europe after a disengagement? Professor Hans Morgenthau has suggested (in the March Commentary) that the neutral zone would eventually become a new German empire. It is, indeed, probable that the Germans would feel themselves compelled to work toward that as an objective. But it is improbable that they would succeed, so long as the Russians could prevent it. The best likelihood, then, is that the neutral zone would be torn apart by hostility between the Germans on the one side—who would be hoping for Western support and blaming every failure of the West actually to support them upon the French—and the Poles and Czechs on the other, dependent upon Russian support, and getting it so long as they “remain friendly  to the Soviet Union” and “retain many of the economic and social characteristics of a Communist society.”  In other words. East and West would still be engaged in Cold War in the heart of Europe, though with two  major differences. The West would have weakened itself gravely, not only by having disowned West Germany  but also by having allowed the Franco-German enmity  to be reborn. In addition, what Mr. Kennan describes as  the present “abnormal” situation in Central and Eastern Europe would have been replaced by a far more unstable  one. Perhaps it is “abnormal” for Russian power to be extended so far to the West. But at least we  know what it is and where it stops. After a disengagement we could not be so sure; it is possible, indeed, that we might not know, in the political and psychological in-fighting in the neutral zone—a form of conflict in which we do not often outshine the Kremlin— just how  far the Germans were actually on our side. 

My third and final question is this: if the source of Western insecurity is the unsatisfactory nature of a defense based too largely on the nuclear “deterrent,” marked  by an inadequacy of local collective defense, why  has  the obvious remedy been ruled out? Surely, the obvious remedy is to build up NATO’s local military forces, particularly their capacity for a conventional defense.  George Kennan, as we have seen, has little confidence in collective local defenses in any form. Denis Healey has apparently lost confidence even in the effectiveness of a local “tactical” nuclear defense. But Kennan and Healey both rule out a local conventional defense, simply by assuming that once troops have nuclear weapons, as the US and British troops on the continent do now,  they either cannot or will not fight without using them.  At the same time, both emphasize the deterrent and defensive effect of German conventional forces, once Germany is outside NATO. And Healey argues that Polish conventional forces would in effect be added to the  German by a disengagement, and Polish territory to German territory, to provide a stronger conventional buffer between NATO and Russian nuclear forces. 

As for the twin assumptions that troops armed with nuclear weapons will use them without authority, or would be ineffective if the nuclear weapons were not used,  there is little warrant for either in military opinion. Moreover, it is difficult to see why, if German conventional forces are expected to be effective outside of NATO, they would not be even more effective within the  NATO commands. And as for the Polish military forces, it can reasonably be argued that they are a more valuable asset to the West now than after a disengagement.  For, at the moment, Polish fear and mistrust of Germany is mitigated by the belief that Germany is constrained by its close association with the West in NATO. And it may be, as a consequence of this, that the Russians  cannot really count upon Polish military support against the West in any kind of military operation that is not clearly defensive. But after a disengagement, the Poles would probably welcome Russian help against the Germans in almost any circumstances. 

We come then to the conclusion that a disengagement that would satisfy Mr. Kennan and Mr. Healey would only confirm and perpetuate the weakness of NATO precisely where it most needs strengthening—and that is in its ability to maintain a usable local defense in Western Europe. Moreover, it would create a new status quo in Central Europe more racked by tensions and “appalling dangers” than the one it replaced. This conclusion may seem depressingly negative, in a situation that cries out for positive action. But it applies only to the proposals that have been examined here, and specifically to the separation of the German Federal Republic from NATO and from Western Europe. It is not to be construed as an endorsement of other foreign and defense policies of the US Government, nor of the manner in which those policies have been carried out.

Certain of those policies have been more than a little responsible for the dangerous—indeed potentially disastrous—crisis of confidence in Britain and on the Continent today. For though the precise date could not be foretold on which the peoples of the West would come to realize that they could no longer rely for their security exclusively on deterrence based upon the predominant nuclear power of the US, it was as sure as anything ever can be that such a day was coming—and soon. Yet none of the NATO governments did anything to prepare their people for the coming shock. When Mr. Dulles last October finally got around to a public acknowledgment of the possible shortcomings of “massive retaliation” against a power fully capable of returning the favor, it was, indeed, too late to repair the damage that easily. 

There is perhaps little reason to believe that this Administration can repair the damage, though it may be able to weather the worst of it by stubbornly hanging on. What is needed is not only a more flexible and a more confident diplomacy and more finesse in the propaganda phases of the Cold War, as so many critics of the Administration have demanded. What is needed even more is a new philosophy of NATO defense that will not paralyze the spirits of the people it is intended to defend. There must be a soft-pedal on “deterrence” by declamation and a return to the effort to build versatile local defenses in Western Europe. This kind of rearmament, which calls mainly for conventional forces, is not inconsistent with an over-all disarmament, for in any negotiated disarmament the objective must be to reduce the West’s reliance upon nuclear military force while at the same time balancing the total military forces (nuclear and conventional) of East and West at a lower level.

This article appeared in the April 14, 1958 issue of the magazine.