This writeup is actually a response to several points raised in the node Nuclear War
, notably to Jagger
's writeup therein. In the midst of writing it, I found that I'd strayed far enough that I felt it would be unwise to burden the already charged topic of Nuclear War
with these ramblings. In that writeup, Jagger notes that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would have turned out fairly differently from either side's plans, because their plans for fighting one differed quite widely.
The Cold War did, indeed, see the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. preparing for what appear (especially in retrospect) as entirely different wars. The natural response to this for most historians, military analysts and international security types is to ask "Fair enough. Why?"
Since, as has been pointed out, we've never had a nuclear war, what led each nation to make the choices it did about the conduct of one? The following is (DANGER!) strictly my opinion, buttressed where possible with facts.
The United States
The US had just come out of World War II as a relatively unscathed victor. Despite the enormous amount of resources the U.S. poured into the war, nearly all of it was fought on other nations' soil. The highest price the U.S. paid was in blood, and even there (especially compared to the U.S.S.R., Japan and Germany) she came off quite lightly. The war's end has been hotly debated here and elsewhere; however, from the U.S. point of view, a steadily increasing homefront effort, coupled with maximal application of technology and research, led to the sharply more lethal technological devastation that her forces could and did wreak abroad.
if you survived *that* run-on sentence, let me clarify: the U.S. had first-hand evidence that the way to end a widespread and deadly war was to deliver as much destruction as possible on the other side as fast as possible. Had the atomic bomb been available sooner, some argued then and now, the war in the Pacific might have been shortened; as it was, no conventional invasion of the Japanese home islands was required. The American people were told and taught that their industrial might and technological prowess, harnessed to sudden and massive destructive use, was the way to go.
As a consequence, the U.S. military and policymaking establishment saw the atomic bomb and its newer cousins as the means to produce that same sharp, devastating blow that had ended (note I do not say won) the last war, and produce it sooner and make it even more horrific. The rationale is fairly clear - the worse we make it, and the more quickly, the sooner we can all get back to a nice cozy game of cultural and economic opportunistic hegemony. So, as the atomic bombs sprouted about the nation's arsenals, the plans for their use continued to attempt their maximal deployment as quickly as possible. Experience had shown it would best preserve the U.S. homeland, people and interests.
What many Americans (and other Westerners) either belittle or simply fail to realize is that the U.S.S.R. had just, in fact, finished fighting a nuclear war in 1945. Not with nuclear weapons, no; however, the destruction of the Soviet territories and infrastructure west of the Ural Mountains, to say nothing of the terrible price paid in lives, was orders of magnitude worse than that suffered by Japan in not only the two atomic raids, but indeed worse than those combined with the more destructive incendiary raids the U.S. forces had been regularly visiting on major Japanese cities.
The Soviet homeland had been smashed flat twice; once during Operation Barbarossa when the Wermacht rampaged east, and then again as the Red Army pushed the collapsing Germans back West towards Berlin. In the first case, the destruction of the Blitzkrieg assault on the Soviet infrastructure (rail, power, communications, industry) was worsened by an official policy (from 'The Boss' himself) to deny the advancing Germans any assets of value. This meant that the retreating Soviets destroyed everything they left, from fuel and ammunition to vehicles, farmland, and even buildings so as to deny the Germans shelter. Scorched Earth was not a new tactic, but it remained an effective (if painful) one. The Wermacht quickly outstripped its engineering and support units, pushing on after the elusive Soviets. When winter came, German units everywhere found themselves not only with no fuel, food or ammunition, but without even the roads to bring it forward, the buildings in which to shelter it and themselves, and even without crops and livestock to scavenge in replacement.
In any case, the fruits of collectivization had been concentrated west of the Urals. Most of the enormous resources pushed into (or squandered upon, depending on who you listen to) the forced industrialization of the Soviet State in the 1920s and 1930s were burned. What could be saved was carted off into and across the Urals to keep it from the Germans, meaning that most of the output from those works saved from destruction was absorbed by the simple but huge need to repair basic assets in order to operate them.
Sorry for the digression. So, when the Soviets began to push westward again, what little transport, industry and works the Germans had managed to preserve or emplace were destroyed either in battle or by the retreating Wermacht. When the war ended, the U.S.S.R. found itself in a position eerily familiar to those who had survived from 1938 - a heavily armed opponent was sitting hard on the western border, and while the Eastern Bloc had gained some buffer zones against a new onslaught, most of the ground between these new enemies and the still-rebuilding industrial and political capitals of Moscow, Stalingrad and their less poetically-named brethren was bare of any form of prepared defense, or resources to succor a defending force. In 1937, Stalin had responded to calls for increased defences against Germany with a purge of the Red Army military leadership - ostensibly due to their poor performance in the Winter War. Following that, he had stripped the defenses of the Western U.S.S.R. for reasons which are still argued over today. In any case, by 1939, the situation was so untenable for the Soviets that Stalin was forced to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty on August 23rd, essentially promising not to go to war with Germany (a nation the U.S.S.R. had sworn to destroy and vice versa) for ten years. A 'secret protocol' to that treaty ceded two-thirds of the territory and resources of Poland to Germany in the event of a German annexation.
Fast forward. In 1945-1950, the U.S.S.R. is still caught up in rebuilding not only the defenses but the economies and industry of its belt of client states to the West. The untouched (and now roaring) U.S. economy has allowed the nations of the Atlantic treaty to recover at an astonishing rate. Looked at in this manner, any future war with the West could, to Soviet eyes, only look like a 'more intense' version of what had just happened. Unable to match the West directly in industrial combat power, the Soviet war machine was prepared to sacrifice large swathes of territory (this time, however, starting with other peoples') to stop NATO. In this case, all that nuclear weapons would really do (especially given that neither side really had a credible ICBM or even IRBM force yet) would make it easy to strip Western Russia bare, either for the retreating Soviets or the advancing West.
On top of this, the experiences of the Soviet military in the recent war had been characterized by the movement and combat of large armies - possible on the flatter plains of Poland and western Russia. Armored warfare had emphasized the concentration of forces for powerful strikes, as the sparse terrain meant that guerrilla warfare, evasive maneuvering or even staunch defense of fixed points could continue fruitlessly for seemingly endless periods. Against such set piece battles, the notion of the tactical nuclear weapon is incredibly attractive. When your objective is to defeat the enemy's armed forces in the field by whatever means necessary, the nuclear weapon is simply (as the Soviet Army was known to say) 'artillery writ large.'
Even when strategic weapons and delivery systems such as ICBMs and SLBMs became available to the Soviets, their focus remained on the destruction of Allied forces on the European continent. Strategic weapons were seen mainly as a means of 'convincing' the Allies not to engage in strategic warfare - deterrence, of a sort, but (dangerously) deterrence intended to take hold after the opening of hostilities. This is not to say that the U.S.S.R. did not intend to deter war as a whole; however, their recent experience had shown that the ability to fight a war was much more desirable that the potential ability to deter one.
And thus we ended up with two very different models of nuclear war.
Again, I must emphasize - this is my own opinion. You will note the lack of footnotes and formal arguments that would characterize a scholarly argument. As a result, while I'll cheerfully argue this with anyone, I won't claim that this thought experiment has the cachet of 'fact' or 'truth' - just a logical-in-hindsight plausibility that I have arrived at over several years' study of the Cold War and its combatants.