On 24 September 2022, Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times addressed the question of how seriously we should take Vladimir Putin’s threats of escalating the conflict in Ukraine to the use of nuclear weapons.

In his introduction to that column, he recounted how William F. Buckley had contemporaneously judged (approvingly) that then President Ronald Reagan would certainly have launched our Nuclear forces in response to a Soviet first-strike; but that he had, retrospectively, after Reagan’s death, changed his mind in that regard, concluding that Reagan would not, in the end, have actually done so.

I have no idea how to judge what Putin will or will not do, or how to judge what our response should be.  My apprehension, as everyone’s, about a nuclear exchange that escalates through fear and miscalculation beyond what anyone ever intended suggests extreme caution is warranted.  On the other hand, my apprehension about what the world will end up looking like if we allow belligerence from a megalomaniac like Putin to bully us into submission to his will suggests a healthy dose of countering belligerence of our own is in order.

I do know, however, that deterrence can only ever work if we remain absolutely convincing in our assertion of such belligerence.

I wrote this to Mr. Douthat to point out that fundamental point.  I got no reply and have seen nothing in his later writing related to it.

Update (7 October 2022):  President Biden’s remark yesterday about “Armageddon” if Putin uses a nuclear weapon — which has led to much hyperventilation among the commentariat — reinforces the original point…

24 September 2022

Regarding W.F. Buckley’s musing on whether or not, in the end, Ronald Reagan would actually have given the order to launch our nuclear response, I must point out that such ambiguity was always at the heart of the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction — that it is, in fact and by its nature, at the heart of any strategy of deterrence.

For deterrence to be successful requires two elements that must both be present:

    • That your opponent believes you have the capability to retaliate
    • That your opponent believes you have the will to retaliate (including the will to depend on retaliation, rather than backing down)

Note that neither element requires that your threat be ‘real’ — that is, that you actually have the capability in the first instance and that you actually have the will in the second.   What matters is that you can make your opponent believe both are real.

“Capability” is, in the long term, very hard to fake.  You might be able to bluff about it tactically — over some short interval on the battlefield in which uncertainty reigns — but, strategically, your opponent will eventually see through your bluff if you are all hat and no cattle.

“Willingness”, however, is more subtle precisely because it is a matter of the human heart, not a matter of material reality.  It cannot be directly observed and either verified or refuted.  It must be actively managed, reinforced, and communicated, by deed as well as by word, on a continuous basis.

A willingness, by itself, will not deter if your opponent doesn’t believe in it.

An unwillingness, by itself, will not fail to deter if your opponent doesn’t believe in it.

When I was in ROTC (during Reagan’s first term), destined to become an officer in the Air Force (during Reagan’s second term), our instructors invited discussion and debate over exactly what Buckley described — if it came down to it, would you or wouldn’t you?  Their (not so) subtle intent was to categorize us by temperament, to ensure that those they sent to man the silos and the bombers would be the ones who had no doubts — because we could not afford to let doubts in the ranks become doubts in the minds of our enemies.

For myself, I was clear in my own mind: if the purpose was, indeed, deterrence, then actually following through after-the-fact — after deterrence had already failed — would be nothing more than a pointless exercise in vengeance.  That disqualified me from becoming a steely-eyed missileman (though, to be fair, that was never where I was headed anyway).  But, should manning a silo or a bomber have ended up being my assigned fate, I was fully prepared to act the part of the most bellicose true-believer for the duration of my duty.  Why?  Because that is how deterrence works.

What is true for the common warrior must also be true — and, arguably, more so — of anyone we put into the position of Commander-in-Chief: they must project will even if they don’t feel it.  That is what those in the self-described ‘peace’ movement of the late seventies and the eighties, who found Reagan’s public persona of belligerence terrifying and who advocated for a “unilateral disarmament”, failed utterly to comprehend.

And, it is also what far too many people, observing Putin’s threats and President Biden’s responses to them, also fail utterly to comprehend.

© Copyright 2022, Augustus P. Lowell

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