Q: We hear how the Soviets have gotten stronger and how they've made gains all over the world.
A: I, myself, believe they've gotten weaker. That may sound naive when one says it in the face of what has clearly been an increase in the number of their nuclear weapons and an increase in their conventional forces -- not nearly as great, by the way, as many say, but still an increase. But I think they've gotten weaker because, economically and politically, there have been some very serious failures. In my opinion, they are in a weaker position today than they were 14 to 15 years ago.
Q: You said that the increase in Soviet conventional forces is not as great as many say.
A: I'll expand that to make two points: Soviet conventional strength is not as great as many state it to be, and the NATO conventional weakness is not as great as it is frequently said to be. Therefore, the conventional balance is not as favorable to the Soviets as is often assumed. The Soviet advantage in tanks is frequently used to illustrate the strength of the Soviets and the weakness of the West. I believe the Warsaw Pact countries have three times as many tanks as the NATO countries. But our response to the Soviet tanks should not necessarily be a one- to-one expansion of our tank force, but rather an expansion of our antitank weapons. and that is exactly the way NATO has responded. So the fact that the Soviets have three times as many tanks as NATO is not necessarily an indication of Soviet strength and NATO weakness. One could argue whether NATO has adequate antitank forces, but they certainly have very strong antitank forces. I simply use that as an illustration of the point I'm making. In this country we commonly exaggerate the imbalance of Warsaw Pact and NATO conventional forces. In my opinion, NATO conventional forces are very strong indeed. They are not as strong as I would like to see them, not as strong as they ought to be, not as strong as they can be by applying modern technology within realistic budget constraints. But, still, they are a much greater deterrent to Soviet aggression than we commonly recognize.
. . . We overstate the Soviets' force and we understate ours, and we therefore greatly overstate the imbalance. This is not something that is new; it has been going on for years.
Q: Did it go on while you were secretary of defense?
A: Of course it did. I tried to correct it; I frequently made statements correcting it, but because it appears to serve the interests of some to consciously or unconsciously overstate the Soviet strength and understate ours, that frequently occurs.
Q: Who are the "some"?
A: Well, particular elements of our society that feel their programs are benefited by that. The missile gap of 1960 was a function of forces within the Defense Department that, perhaps unconsciously, were trying to support their particular program -- in that case, an expansion of U.S. missile production -- by overstating the Soviet force. I don't want to state that they were consciously misstating the facts, but there is an unconscious bias in all of us. In any case, it ws a total misreading of the information, and by early 1961 all who had examined the evidence concluded that there was no missile gap, despite the fact that in the latter part of 1960 it was a rather common belief.
Q: Going back to the showdown over the missiles in Cuba, (what)do you feel . . . compelled or encouraged the Russians to engage in that buildup?
A: That was October, 1962 -- by 1962 they had under way a plan to substantially build up their nuclear forces. One possible explanation of their action, and I don't put it forward as the only explanation, is that they were moved to rapidly expand their forces because they thought we were trying to achieve a first-strike capability, that is to say, a large enough numerical superiority to give us the power to attack their nuclear weapons and destroy so many that the remainder would be inadquate to carry out a second strike against us. That was never our intention. It was not only not our intention, but we didn't believe we could possibly achieve such a capability. But they, looking at our force and the substantial numerical superiority of that force, might have believed that we either had that capability or were trying to achieve it. And they might have looked upon the movement of the weapons into Cuba as a means of reducing that capability.
Q: On the first-strike question, was there a shift? You are always associated with the "mutually assured destruction" deterrence notion. Yet some people have argued that within the period in which you were in charge, there was a shift in the targeting scenario, and that was when the beginning of the notion of limited nuclear war actually started.
A: No, no. We moved from Dulles' strategy of massive retaliation to what was called "flexible response." That was, I think, a major advance, because it substantially reduced the risk of nuclear war. And the level at which nuclear weapons might be used under flexible response was raised so high that it was, in effect, the equivalent of mutual assured destruction. The point on the Soviet concern about our first strike is an important one. (McNamara lifts a document). This is a recently declassified "top secret" memorandum from me to President Kennedy, dated Nov. 21, 1962 (a month after the Cuban missile crisis). In the memorandum I state, "It has become clear to me the Air Force proposals are based on the objective of achieving a first-strike capability. In the words of an Air Force report to me, 'The Air Force has rather supported the development of forces which provide the United States a first-strike capability.' " This is my memo to the president and that is a proper quote from the Air Force. The Soviets didn't have this document, at least I hope they didn't. But they may have heard talk that we were trying to achieve a first-strike capability and, in any case, they saw the size force we had. The issue of first- strike capability is absolutely fundamental. And I have no question but that the Soviets thought we were trying to achieve a first- strike capability. We are not. We did not have it; we could not attain it; we didn't have any thought of attaining it. But they probably thought we did. If I had been the Soviet secretary of defense, I'd have been worried as hell at the imbalance of force. And I would have been concerned that the United States was trying to build a first-strike capability.
Q: If you couldn't have achieved a first- strike capability then, how could one make the claim that the Soviets could do it now?
A: They no more have a first-strike capability today than we had then. No one has demonstrated to me that the Soviets have a capability of destroying our Minutemen (land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles). But even if they could destroy our Minutemen, that doesn't give them a first- strike capability, not when they are facing our Polaris submarines and our bombers. The other two legs of the triad are still there.
Q: The argument that is made is that they would destroy enough of ours that they could come back... ..
A: The argument is without foundation. It's absurd. To try to destroy the 1000 Minutemen, the Soviets would have to plan to ground-burst two nuclear warheads of one megaton each on each site. That is 2,000 megatons, roughly 160,000 times the megatonnage of the Hiroshima bomb. What condition do you think our country would be in when 2,000 one-megaton bombs ground- burst? The idea that, in such a situation, we would sit here and say, "Well, we don't want to launch against them because they might come back and hurt us," is inconceivable! And the idea that the Soviets are today sitting in Moscow and thinking, "We've got the U.S. over a barrel because we're capable of putting 2,000 megatons of ground-burst on them and in such a situation we know they will be scared to death and fearful of retaliation: therefore we are free to conduct political blackmail," is too incredible to warrant serious debate.
Q: Those in the United States who put forward such a Soviet view stress that the argument is one of nerve and perception, and that the Soviets will perceive us as being weak and take advantage.
A: The world isn't run that way. Political leaders, responsible political leaders, don't behave that way. The first responsibility of a political leader is to preserve the safety of his people. No political leader I know of -- including the Soviet political leaders -- would run that kind of a risk.
Q: Their argument is that an American president would not order our submarines to fire their missiles once our Minutemen were destroyed because that would just invite a greater retaliation from the Russians.
A: But when they say that, they fail to take account of the fact that the Soviets know that he might, and I am convinced he would. No Soviet leader would wish to accept that risk.
Q: Let's return to the issue of the buildup of nuclear forces. How did it occur?
A: Go back to 1960 when many in the U.S. believed there was a missile gap favoring the Soviets. With hindsight it became clear there wasn't any missile gap. But Kennedy had been told there was. What actually happened was this: In the summer of 1960, there were two elements in the U.S. intelligence community disagreeing on the relative levels of the U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear forces. One element greatly overstated the level of the Soviet nuclear force. When one looked over the data, it didn't justify this conclusion. And within two years of that time, the advantage in the U.S. warhead inventory was so great vis-a-vis the Soviets that the Air Force was saying that they felt we had a first-strike capability and could, and should, continue to have one. If the Air Force thought that, imagine what the Soviets thought. And assuming they thought that, how would you expect them to react? The way they reacted was by substantially expanding their strategic nuclear weapons program.
Now, when they did that, we sat back here and saw the way they were moving -- and we always had to take account of their capability more than their intentions, because we weren't sure of their intentions -- we looked at their capability and they were building submarines, missiles and planes, and experimenting with new warheads, at such a rate that we had to respond. We probably over-responded because it is likely that their capability, which we observed, exceeded their intentions. So you have an action-reaction phenomenon. And the result is that during the last 25 years, and particularly during the last 15, there has been a huge buildup, much more than people realize, in the nuclear strength of these two forces. That has changed the nature of the problem and increased the risk greatly. I have read that the inventory of nuclear warheads in the two arsenals is on the order of 50,000.
Q: What is so scary about this, and it's not just from you, I've interviewed hundreds of people who end up using words like, "They are crazy!" or "Madmen!" But how did this happen?
A: Because the potential victims have not been brought into the debate yet, and it's about time we brought them in. I mean the average person. The average intelligent person knows practically nothing about nuclear war -- the danger of it, the risk of it, the potential effect of it, the changes in the factors affecting the risk.
Q: I interviewed Hans Bethe, the nuclear physicist, and he said, "I was very scared in 1945, 1947, and I thought the world would only last two years. Then I stopped being scared because I realized that the leaders, certainly in our country and hopefully on the other side, would recognize the danger. Now I'm scared again because...."
A: He is scared again because there are some people talking about nuclear bombs being no different than rifle shells or artillery shells. And some people are talking about fighting and winning nuclear wars and preparing for a six-month nuclear war. The problem is, there is no counter to that. There should be. And I think there is going to be one; one is beginning to bubble up.
Q: Have we been drifting towards the direction that, when you have weapons, you want to use them?
A: I don't really put it that way. I think, though, that as you vastly increase the number of weapons and as you try to develop characteristics that in some people's minds bring them closer to conventional weapons, such as a neutron bomb, you increase the risk of use of those weapons.
More and more there are suggestions that we should be prepared to fight and win a nuclear war -- that we can recover from a full strategic exchange in from two to four years. And while others are not prepared to go that far, they say we should be equipped, and perhaps are equipped, to fight and win a limited nuclear war.
Q: When you push people, even in the Reagan administration, they'll say, "Well, we don't welcome this, but we think that is what the Russians are aiming at, otherwise how do you explain their continuous buildup of...."
A: The way you explain it -- and you must understand that I am not justifying it -- the way you explain it is by putting yourself in their shoes. When I've done that on several occasions, I must say I would do some things that were very similar to what they did. I'm talking about the action they took to build up their force. Read again my memo to President Kennedy. It scares me today to even read the damn thing: "The Air Force has rather supported the development of forces which provide the United States a first-strike capability credible to the Soviet Union by virtue of our ability to limit damage to the United States and our allies to levels acceptable in light of the circumstances and the alternatives available." My God, if the Soviets thought that was our objective, how would you expect them to react?
Q: When I interviewed Ronald Reagan as a candidate, he said that the problem with that whole calculation -- and he mentioned your name and MAD (mutual assured destruction) and everything -- is that the Russians are monsters, they don't have the same respect for human life that we do, therefore they could take the 20 million, 30 million or 40 million casualties.
A: The Russians are people that I would not trust to act in other than their own narrow national interest, so I am not naive. But they are not mad. They are not mad. They have suffered casualties, and their government feels responsible to their people to avoid those situations in the future. They are more sensitive to the impact of casualties on their people than we appear to be in some of our statements and analyses of fighting and winning nuclear wars which would extend over a period of months. So they are not mad. They are aggressive; they are ideological; they need to be restrained and contained by the existence of our defensive forces. But they are not mad, and I see no evidence that they would accept the risks associated with a first strike against the United States.