Three Dangerous Cold War Myths About Nuclear Policy

Three Dangerous Cold War Myths About Nuclear Policy

If flawed historical analogies are employed to shape nuclear policy, Washington’s unilateral restraint could actually weaken deterrence.

In next month’s congressional hearings on defense policy, the Strategic Posture Commission will undoubtedly receive significant attention. Last fall, the commission released its bipartisan report warning that the existing nuclear program of record was insufficient for the emerging two-peer threat environment. To simultaneously deter China and Russia, the report recommended preparations to upload more nuclear warheads and broaden theater strike options. This sober assessment echoes the Biden administration’s earlier acknowledgment that “it may be necessary to consider nuclear strategy and force adjustments to achieve deterrence.”

Nonetheless, these recommendations have been roundly condemned by the arms control and disarmament community. The critics decry that a robust nuclear modernization program would be tantamount to “sleepwalking” into an action-reaction arms race—an inexcusable error ignoring the Cold War maxim that nuclear competition “has no winners, only losers.”

Such alarmism echoes national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s warning, issued last June, that a nuclear buildup would trigger a senseless arms race and risk inadvertent escalation. Alluding to the Cold War, Mr. Sullivan confidently proclaimed, “We’ve been there. We’ve learned that lesson.”

But it is unclear precisely where in the annals of Cold War history Mr. Sullivan and the arms controllers have been—and, more to the point, just how they arrived at lessons that amount to dangerous myths. If these flawed historical analogies are employed to shape nuclear policy, Washington’s unilateral restraint could actually weaken deterrence. It is vital, therefore, that U.S. officials and lawmakers first disabuse themselves of three Cold War nuclear myths.

First, the Soviet-American nuclear rivalry hardly resembled an action-reaction arms race, with one side reflexively building strategic forces in response to expansion by the other. In the Cold War, prominent U.S. defense analysts mistakenly assumed—as many do today—that Washington’s “insatiable” nuclear appetite was “keeping Soviet programs going.”

But this crude action-reaction trope obscures the true nature of Soviet-American interactions. It cannot explain why U.S. nuclear dominance persisted through the mid-1960s, nor why U.S. force-building leveled off from there—even as the Soviets shot past on their way to numerical superiority. By the mid-1970s, the Soviet strategic missile arsenal enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in deliverable payload, and the Kremlin was opening up a terrifying deterrence gap by fielding theater missiles that could range all of Western Europe.

The U.S. defense establishment was stunned. In the mid-1960s, strategic planners had assumed that the Soviets were placated by mutual vulnerability and thus satisfied with nuclear inferiority. Modernization programs for a larger strategic missile and advanced bomber were consequently slashed. Hamstrung by these shortsighted decisions, the United States would not respond with offsetting deployments until the mid-1980s—nearly twenty years after force building had plateaued. As one U.S. defense analyst quipped in 1974, “It is surely stretching it to talk of a ‘race’ between parties moving in quite different directions.”

This tale of two postures throws into sharp relief the second myth: Contra widespread misconceptions during and after the Cold War, arms control agreements were not the product of a shared understanding of strategic stability—quite the opposite. Whereas U.S. officials considered mutual vulnerability “the foundation of stable deterrence,” their rivals could not fathom its appeal. Indeed, the Soviets did not accept the concept of deterrence until the late 1960s, and even then, they practiced an altogether different style.

In the Kremlin mindset, strategic stability rested entirely on Soviet nuclear primacy—not so-called Mutual Assured Destruction. As one Soviet strategic planner later divulged, Moscow “strove to achieve superiority” through the sheer scale of its strategic offensive and defensive programs. An array of massive missiles was complemented by an enormous complex of active and passive defenses that dwarfed its American counterpart—a comprehensive posture designed to survive and prevail in nuclear warfare. As such, the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were hardly the result of Washington’s power of persuasion on the merits of mutual vulnerability. According to two Soviet officials, “it was not American arguments that caused the Soviet Union to revise its stand on missile defense” but rather “insufficient technological development vis-à-vis the United States.”

Thus, the third myth: Notwithstanding popular narratives, it is misleading to depict nuclear competition as inherently unwise or reckless. The Soviet-American rivalry, after all, was anything but a “lose-lose” affair. Scholars can reasonably debate whether the United States delivered a fatal blow to Moscow by winning the “arms race.” However, it is undeniable that in overcoming its initial reluctance to compete, Washington secured landmark arms control agreements from a position of strength that facilitated the Cold War’s peaceful resolution. 

It was America’s competitive nuclear modernization program—initiated by innovative defense planners in the mid-1970s—that enabled Washington to lock in decisive advantages a decade later. Once armed with larger strategic missiles, highly accurate theater strike systems, terrain-hugging bombers, and stealth attack aircraft, the United States effectively leaped “a generation or two” ahead of the Soviets in the 1980s—much to the Kremlin’s chagrin.

As a dejected Soviet planner later explained to an American interlocutor, “Our air defense systems were not designed to detect [your theater] missiles. You had hardly deployed 1/3 of these missiles, and we were already compromising.” Indeed, even before the initial strike detachments arrived in Western Europe in 1983, the chief of the Soviet general staff had privately conceded to an American journalist that “the Cold War is over, and you have won.”

By 1986, Soviet officials were eager to conclude the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to remove a threat they characterized as “a revolver put to our temple.” Though the agreement weighed heavily in America’s favor, the Kremlin recognized that it could not withstand another round of competition with a technologically superior rival. As an exhausted Mikhail Gorbachev explained to the Soviet politburo, “If we won’t budge from the positions we’ve held for a long time, we will lose in the end.”

Debunking these nuclear myths is not a mere academic exercise, as this history has momentous implications for U.S. strategic planning. To be sure, today’s two-peer nuclear threat environment is sui generis. Furthermore, Beijing’s economic heft and defense-industrial prowess dwarfs that of the Soviet Union. Alas, the United States should be under no illusion about exploiting the same technological advantages it enjoyed during the Cold War.

Nonetheless, the nuclear past provides two fundamental lessons for the future of U.S. nuclear planning. First, strategic stability is a function of long-term competition. American unilateral restraint had opened up, in the minds of Western European leaders, a grave imbalance in the European theater. By the mid-1970s, Soviet theater advantages threatened NATO solidarity—if not the alliance’s very existence. As Moscow improved its strategic forces and fielded intermediate-range systems, Washington lacked the strike capability to reassure its anxious allies. It was, therefore, the U.S. modernization program that redressed the situation—not unilateral restraint or shared beliefs about stability.

Second, the Cold War demonstrates that arms control, much like deterrence, depends on shrewd competition. The Soviet Union revised its position on missile defense only after recognizing that the United States enjoyed a long-term competitive advantage in this area. Similarly, the INF Treaty emerged after the United States had developed superior theater capabilities and NATO exhibited the political will to deploy these systems amidst widespread public opposition.

America’s first experience with great-power nuclear rivalry thus offers a cautionary tale about unilateral restraint. Nuclear competition is neither irrelevant nor intrinsically reckless—in fact, robust deterrence and the future of arms control likely depend on it. As such, protestations of the dangers inherent in nuclear modernization should be met with healthy skepticism. Clinging to a flawed understanding of the nuclear past is a greater threat to strategic stability than doing what is necessary to deter adversaries and assure allies.

Kyle Balzer is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on great-power competition, U.S. grand strategy, long-term strategic competition, U.S. nuclear strategy and policy, and arms control. He specializes in Cold War nuclear strategy and the evolution of American deterrence theory.

Image: Zach Frank /