Loose lips sink ships.

                American World War II security slogan[1]

[This is G. Sallust again. Well, here it is, Christmas day, and here I am, thinking about Donald Trump. That’s what happens when you live too close to the Capital Beltway. Actually I’m not thinking so much about Trump as about his critics and competitors. The rap on Trump is that he’s a bully; he would never be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin, among others; and is erratic and shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. Well, there are other raps as well, but let’s stick with the big three.

  • Who’s a bully? Guess what, folks? There’s late, breaking news on that! Everybody in today’s politics is a bully. Modern politicians get where they are by successfully eliminating, neutralizing, or otherwise crushing their opponents. They do that mostly by attracting big money early in their campaigns, often from large donors with crackpot agendas, and then dancing to the tune of their financial masters.
  • “Now, G,” you might say, “you can’t really say there’s a quid pro quo hiding in that process, can you; that candidates are really selling options on the offices they hope to win next November?” And you would be correct. I’m not saying that. I’m not the FBI, or the NSA; I don’t have access to solid proof, the kind that might hold up in court. But I do know one thing. The rich aren’t in the business of subsidizing candidates who disagree with them. They didn’t get rich by being stupid. Donald Trump is different, of course, because he is certifiably wealthy. If necessary, he can finance his own campaign. He doesn’t absolutely have to have help from outside.
  • So let’s move on to the next question. Will Trump cave if Vladimir Putin confronts him on one issue or another? The idea here is that schoolyard bullies, like Trump is supposed to be, always run home crying when they are beaten. That’s pretty much a myth, fostered by misinformed kindergarten teachers. Tony Soprano probably never ran home crying for any reason.[2] Most likely he plotted revenge. More to the point, recently Putin had some nice things to say about Trump.[3] Thereafter, the critical narrative switched, from “Trump is too weak to face Putin,” to “Trump is too much like Putin,” and cannot be trusted. Make up your minds, critics!
  • And finally, can Trump be trusted with nuclear weapons? This is difficult to prove, one way or the other; indeed, you might say that those who have opinions can only speculate. I’m ok with that, and here’s mine. Donald Trump impresses me as a builder, not a destroyer. He’s spent a good part of his life creating things – buildings, businesses, TV shows, etc. – and obviously enjoys doing it. No doubt this kind of thing feeds his ego, but so what? The point is, with the mindset of a builder, he’s an unlikely candidate to go to war – nuclear or otherwise – for frivolous reasons.
  • Can we say the same about some of his Republican opponents? I don’t think so. What we have there is a collection of politicians, some of whom are fixated on war, the Middle East, and nuclear politics, and all of whom want to look tough. A few seem to have an unhealthy fascination with nuclear weapons, and their awesome power to destroy.

This brings us to Senator Ted Cruz, the current runner-up to Trump for the Republican nomination. Cruz seems to advocate extreme violence, up to and including nuclear weapons to fight ISIS, our current enemy. [For those of you who have been asleep, that’s the terror organization physically located in parts of Syria and Iraq.] “’We will utterly destroy ISIS,’ he said … ‘[w]e will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!’”[4]

Sand glowing from nuclear explosions? Is that really a good policy? Should we even talk about such things? What will Russia think if we start dropping nuclear weapons in its back yard? What would we think if the Russians nuked Mexico? Of course, we don’t have much recent experience with nuclear war – our last time out was at the end of World War II – but the weapons and delivery systems are still there, in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, and are much improved in the last 70 years. And more to the point, we’ve come close to an actual hot war on more than one occasion.

Fred’s our resident expert on such wars, so I’ve asked him to take another trip down memory lane, and tell us about how they might happen today.]

Thanks, G. Today’s quote – “Loose lips sink ships” – will be the theme for my presentation, but I’ll modify it a bit to make it more topical. How about, “Loose threats start wars?” To make my point I think we need to begin with Herman Kahn, and his frightening book On Thermonuclear War.[5] If you recall, Kahn says that most governments “asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace, because it looks safer.”[6] But if convinced that war is inevitable, or even probable, a government most likely will choose to strike first.[7]

Why? It’s safer to strike first rather than absorb the other side’s initial blows.  “As soon as either side thinks that war is probable it is under pressure to pre-empt.”[8]  In thermonuclear war there are significant advantages to the side that goes first. It strikes at a time and with tactics of its choosing.[9] If successful it can neutralize a good part of the enemy’s nuclear capabilities, destroy enemy command and control, and neutralize its ground forces before they are able to deploy.  The enemy’s response would be hobbled and uncoordinated, and could be totally demoralized. Its capacities might be so reduced that it becomes susceptible to nuclear blackmail. It might even give up when told “retaliate and we’ll destroy your cities, industry, farmland, etc. next.”[10]

The advantages of striking first are, of course, only relative. No doubt it would be better to avoid a war, and its enormous costs, and settle for peace. But none of that matters if one or both adversaries think war is likely or inevitable. Each country’s military will be very aware of the relative advantages that come from striking first. And, of course, the leadership of each country will know that the other side is having the same thoughts, and may launch missiles at any time; so there is a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that further destabilizes the situation.[11]

This was Kahn’s analysis in 1960, but perhaps you didn’t know that we almost lived through it – for real – in the early 1980’s. The story is laid out in a recently declassified[12] 1990 memorandum from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board [the PFIAB].[13] To save time I’ll summarize the report, but everybody interested in War [and Peace] should read the whole thing. It’s not as long as the Tolstoy novel, and there’s a lot less fiction in it.

[There’s nothing wrong with fiction, as long as you don’t believe it’s true.]

Anyway, our story begins around 1980. Leonid Brezhnev, a long time Soviet leader, was in bad health and died in November, 1982.[14] He was succeeded by Yuriy Andropov, a former head of the KGB who, it turned out, also was not well. Andropov passed away on February 9, 1984.[15] Then came Konstantine Chernenko, another old-timer. He died on March 10, 1985.[16]

So there was disruption at the top of the Soviet Union and, at the same time, the U.S. had just elected Ronald Reagan as President. Reagan immediately announced a major peacetime military buildup and U.S. foreign policy “took on a new assertiveness.”[17] Reagan also declared that arms control treaties were “no substitute for military preparedness and characterized the Soviet Union as an ‘evil force,’ the antithesis of the U.S.”[18]

Ultimately the Soviets concluded that the U.S. indeed was looking to dominate, and might do so with military action. At the time a lot of our people in intelligence didn’t believe the Soviets really believed that. After all, everybody knows we’re the good guys; we wouldn’t attack first! But by 1990 analysts here concluded the Soviets were serious. “We [the PFIAB] believe that the Soviets perceived that the correlation of forces had turned against the USSR, that the U.S. was seeking military superiority, and that the chances of the U.S. launching a first strike – perhaps under cover of routine training exercises – were growing.[19]

So if you’re a Russian, and expecting a surprise attack, what would you do? The same thing an American would, I think: harden up, ready your forces, and send out the spies. And so they did. If you want a partial list of what the Soviets did, check out the note below.[20] President Reagan, when notified of some of these activities, commented that they were “really scary.”[21]

Yes they were. After all, following Herman Kahn’s analysis, if you think the other guy is going to hit you, you should hit him first. The Soviets were setting themselves up to do just that. Now let’s talk for a moment about the “Able Archer” exercise NATO held in November of 1983.[22] According to the PFIAB, “Able Archer” was an annual affair to practice “nuclear release procedures,” and included NATO forces “from Turkey to England.”[23] The Soviets generally kept an eye on it, when it happened; but in 1983 they went overboard. “Air armies in East Germany and Poland were placed on alert.” The spies went after NATO to look for signs of an impending attack.[24]

Of course there was no nuclear war in 1983. Why not? Well, for one thing, while the Soviets were super vigilant NATO did not reciprocate. “As it happened, the military officers in charge of the Able Archer … minimized [the] risk [i.e., of escalation] by doing nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert.”[25] So nobody was frightened into a first strike and everybody got to go home at the end of the maneuvers.

Within hours of Chernenko’s death the first of a new generation of Russian leaders took the top slot. I’m speaking, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev. He knew that we had come close to nuclear war, and said so. “Never,” he said, “… in the postwar decades has the situation in the world been as explosive and, hence, more difficult and unfavorable as in the first half of the 1980’s.”[26] He was an insider and I wasn’t; but I think he’s right.

[What if there were a Senator Cruz or, God help us, a President Cruz back in 1983, lurching about and making nuclear threats? His loose talk easily could have tipped the Soviets into striking first and if so, you can bet after the war was over, he wouldn’t have blamed himself for the mess. Instead, he would have gone after the intelligence community for not warning him. And U.S. voters, those who survived, might have bought into a dumb excuse like that.

Do you think the Ted Cruz we know today will act differently if he precipitates a disastrous nuclear war in the Middle East? What if it spreads to the homeland?]

Who can say? We’re talking about hypothetical cases here, and all we can do is speculate. But it’s worth noting that Cruz hasn’t backed away from his proposals[27], and he seems to have some public support.[28] And he did say, back in early December, that “[w]e will utterly destroy ISIS. … [w]e will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”[29] We’re going to find out? That sounds like a promise to me.

[I understand. Loose threats indeed can start wars. Ted Cruz is a debater, but not a smart one; he’s too in love with the sound of his own voice. If anyone can talk us into an accidental nuclear war, he’s the one to do it, especially if he decides to drop H-bombs in the Russians’ back yard.  Compared to him, Donald Trump is the soul of discretion.

That’s my opinion, and I guess I’m stuck with it.]

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) at p. 526, Military Slogans, n. 13. Henceforth this dictionary will be cited as ODQ at __.

[2] Yes, I know Tony Soprano is a fictional character. It’s a metaphor.

[3] If you follow this kind of stuff, you should add the National Security Archive, hosted by George Washington University, to your source list. See George Washington University,  National Security Archive , at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/

[4] See Politico, Glueck, Cruz pledges relentless bombing to destroy ISIL (12/05/15) at      http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/cruz-isil-bombing-216454

[5] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___.

[6] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See Thermonuclear War at p. 128.

[10] Actually I’ve adapted this scenario from one that suggested the old Soviet Union might have followed if we had intervened in 1956 revolt in Hungary, then a member of the Soviet Bloc. See Thermonuclear War at p. 128

[11] See Thermonuclear War at p. 136. “I will point out later that the instability is increased by the ‘reciprocal fear of surprise attack,’ in which each side feels a pressure to strike mainly because it feels the other side has exactly the same pressure.”

[12] See note 3.

[13] See President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, The Soviet War Scare (February 15, 1990), available at        http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb533-The-Able-Archer-War-Scare-Declassified-PFIAB-Report-Released/2012-0238-MR.pdf  The Report was really classified. It was marked “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON.” Henceforth, the Report will be cited as PFIAB at __. If you’re interested in the latest wisdom on security clearances, and how to justify restricting access, take a look at DOD Manual 5200.45, Instructions for Developing Security Classification Guides (April 2, 2013), available at http://dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/520045m.pdf  By the way, in the past even the names of some of the restrictions – GAMMA, UMBRA, etc. – might have been classified. See also the Wikipedia entry on Classified information, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classified_information#Compartmented_information

[14] Actually, it was on 10 November of that year. See PFIAB at p. 41, n. 16.

[15] Id.

[16] See PFIAB at p. 91.

[17] See PFIAB at p. 2.

[18] Id. Actually, I remember the description as “evil empire,” not evil force. But perhaps that was George W. Bush. But wait! Probably I’m wrong.  GWB was concerned about an “axis of evil,” not an evil empire.

[19] See PFIAB at p. vii.

[20] See PFIAB at p. v, vi. “The changes in Soviet military and intelligence arrangements included: improvements of Warsaw Pact combat readiness … an unprecedented emphasis on civil defense  exercises, an end of military support for gathering the harvest (last seen prior to the 1968 Czech invasion), the forward deployment of unusual numbers of SPETSNAZ forces, increased readiness of Soviet ballistic missile submarines and forward deployed nuclear capable aircraft, massive military exercises that for the first time emphasized surviving and responding to a sudden enemy strike, a new agreement among Warsaw Pact countries that gave Soviet leaders authority in the event of an attack to unilaterally commit Pact forces, creation within the GRU of a new directorate to run networks of illegal agents abroad, an urgent KGB … requirement that gave the highest priority [to] the gathering of politico-military indicators of USD/NATO preparations for a sudden nuclear attack, establishment of a special warning condition to alert Soviet forces that a surprise enemy strike using weapons of mass destruction was in progress, and the creation of a special KGB unit to manage a computer program (the VRYAN model) that would objectively measure the correlation of forces and warn when Soviet relative strength had declined to the point that a preemptive Soviet attack might be justified.”

[21] See PFIAB at p. 17.

[22] See PFIAB at p. vi, 7, 8, 9.

[23] See PFIAB at p. 7.

[24] Id.

[25] See PFIAB at p. x. The PFIAB also said: “But these officers acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance, for in the years leading up to Able Archer they had received no guidance as to the possible significance of apparent changes in Soviet military and political thinking.”

[26] See PFIAB at p. ii. The quote is from February, 1986.

[27] See  New York Times, Rappeport & Schmitt, Ted Cruz’s Call to ‘Carpet-Bomb’ the Islamic State Draws Scrutiny (Dec. 16. 2015) at http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/12/16/ted-cruzs-call-to-carpet-bomb-the-islamic-state-draws-scrutiny/

[28] See Opposing Views.com, Allen, How Ted Cruz’s Supporters Feel about Carpet Bombing ISIS (Video) (December 17, 2015) http://www.opposingviews.com/i/politics/sen-ted-cruzs-supporters-want-carpet-bombing-video

[29] See n. 4, supra.