In all of the recent talk about the dangers of nuclear war, almost no attention has been given problems related to nuclear peace. Even in peace, nuclear weapons may pose a perilous threat to democratic institutions--a threat very different, indeed exactly opposite, from that associated with war.
If nuclear weapons make the world too dangerous, they also make it too safe. They have destroyed a fundamental--perhaps the fundamental--sense of citizen obligation to country and have greatly weakened citizen commitments to the national community, including the commitment to provide for its national defense.
These effects become clear from considering the two fundamental ways in which the threat of the bomb has changed any major war immeasurably, and has thereby changed not only the way we think about war, but also the way citizens think about their obligation to sacrifice for the common defense.
The first change is that the bomb has made "unlimited war" unthinkable--not only nuclear war, but more important, wars unlimited in the World War II sense. Because of the bomb, all future wars must be "limited," not necessarily in resources needed to wage them, but in Sorel's sense of a social myth, in public perception. Future wars cannot press on to "victory"; as in Korea and Vietnam, they will not be wars at all, but "non-wars," simply undeclared (as in Vietnam) or declared to be only "police actions" (Korea).
The concern to localize, to avoid direct confrontation and possible escalation, rightly guarantees continuing Madison Avenue involvement to preserve the non-identity of all future wars. While opportunities to fight and die will exist as before, future non-wars will permit none of the supporting symbolism associated with patriotism and sacrifices for country. Without a draft or universal service, future wars will be fought by "others." In all future conflicts, as in Vietnam, we will insist on having both guns and butter. Without butter, the myth of the non-war becomes untenable.
The bomb, which is the ultimate weapon, has changed war in another way by eliminating the credibility of external threat. So long as we have the ultimate weapon, the reasoning goes, no conflict is possible. Most Americans thus believe that in an important sense the bomb has made national defense obsolete. The attitude is: what can they do to us? How much "overkill" do we need? This, of course, is the language of opposition to the "arms race," and its truth or falsity does not affect its existential significance. Technology, it is thought, will fight the next war; it will be a battle of technicians lurching about in underground control rooms, frantically pushing buttons. What part do conventional weapons and a conventional defense have in that?
The myth of "non-wars" will not reduce the resources necessary to wage war. On the contrary, the future non-wars, as in Vietnam, will be expensive precisely to keep them "limited." Most importantly, again as in Vietnam, "limited" will tend to mean open-ended, without opportunity for speedy resolution.
These changes combine to weaken critically citizen commitment either to sacrifice for the national defense or to permit American forces to go abroad. The public outcry over possible deployment of U.S. forces to Central America is hardly surprising. "Limited" deployments have a way of being protracted and without result. This problem is agitated, of course, by the greatly weakened sense of citizen involvement and contact with the national defense. What personal, existential contact is possible with either "non-wars" requiring no sacrifice of butter, or with wars fought by technology?
The bomb has depersonalized war absolutely, and thus has made patriotism related to war irrelevant and impossible. It has also made national defense seem irrelevant. At the deepest level, since the nation state was first established to provide for the common defense, these trends are undermining a dominant motive for love of country and for a sense of political obligation.
At a more practical level, these effects and others are--right now--influencing public attitudes toward defense spending and toward the whole posture of American foreign policy. The trends considered here are obstructing, and will obstruct, efforts by this administration and future administrations to pursue positive foreign policy objectives, particularly those which require a strong national defense. Yet despite their importance, the implications of the bomb's impact on citizens' attitudes toward their country are ignored by policymakers at the highest level.
The issues raised by questions of the freeze, deterrence, arms limitation and the like are certainly important. But the bomb's profound effect on citizens' perceived relationship to their society has defined, at the most fundamental level, the most basic issue regarding the present and future of our society.