1979: The Soviet Union deploys its SS20 missiles and NATO responds

Video lecture by Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges

  • 04 Mar. 2009 -
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  • Last updated: 12 Dec. 2016 11:23

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, fans of history and particularly of the history of NATO, very good to see you here today. This is the fourth in my series of lectures on critical turning points in the 60 years history of the Alliance. Today we come to the late 70s and the early 80s which makes me very comfortable, because I joined NATO in 1980. So, we pass from history as something studied and learned to history as something observed and experienced, particularly in my case.

The INF saga may have been a hardship test for NATO, but it proved to be a great opportunity for me personally in my career. Without all of the anti-nuclear protest movements on the streets in the early 1980s, which is what we’re going to talk about today, I would have probably spent my whole NATO career as a minute writer on the infrastructure committee and would never, ever have had the opportunity to get into public relations and communications by being given the job in NATO, in the early 1980s, of single-handedly taking on hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the campaign for nuclear disarmament or the other protest movements.

So I have, if you like, a bittersweet recollection of the INF saga. INF of course standing for Intermediate Nuclear Forces, the whole issue of the cruise and Pershing weapons on the NATO side countering the SS20s on the Soviet side, which dominated very much NATO’s history at that time. But which as we will see, ladies and gentlemen, at the close did prove unexpectedly to be a critical turning point for the Alliance, and indeed the first step in the end of the Cold War.

But before we get to all of that, let me just remind you of what we discussed last time which is that the 1960s were a particularly difficult time for the Alliance. First of all externally, as we said last time, the 60s were a time when the Cold War was still very much alive. Ideology was still the motivating factor in the behaviour of both super powers. And ideology, of course, had two particular components. On the one hand, a sense of manifest destiny that our system was destined to be superior to the other system and history would prove that superiority in due course. Secondly, a worst case scenario: ideology led both the US and as well as the Soviet Union to suspect the worst motives, the most diabolic designs in the behaviour of the other. And as both super powers sensed that history was on their side, neither could accept the loss of prestige that could come from a reversal. Listen to Nixon in his famous so-called silent majority speech, during the Vietnam War on the 3rd of November 1969. He said, “For the US this first defeat in Vietnam, in our nation’s history, would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia, but throughout the world.” Kissinger, who was his National Security Advisor, often said that if the US could not defeat a fourth rate power in Vietnam, it would end up as a fourth rate power itself. In other words, American prestige could not suffer a reversal for fear of forfeiting its ideological edge in the Cold War struggle.

But, it was a similar story on the Soviet side. Marxist-Leninism had preached the dialectical process of history, which whereby impersonal historical forces would inevitably lead to the victory of socialism over capitalism. So the Soviet Union neither could afford the rebuttal of a reversal. It’s clear that the Soviets were not very keen on invading Czechoslovakia in August 1968. They postponed it as long as they possibly could. They called Dubček, the Czech leader to Moscow; they dressed him down, they tried to persuade him to change course. But eventually for fear of seeing a communist regime overturned by its own people, they intervened and established the famous Brezhnev Doctrine of the limited sovereignty of Allies of the Soviet Union.

A similar episode occurred, however in December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. If you look at the memoirs of Foreign Minister Gromyko, it’s clear that for a year Gromyko advised Brezhnev and the Politburo not to invade Afghanistan. There were sentiments of what you hear in NATO today about Afghanistan. Gromyko pointed out that the country was very difficult to subdue. Even Alexander the Great had not managed it. The Soviet Union would get bogged down, the Soviet Union should not go in. But despite all of this, in December of 1979, the Soviet Union sent 75,000 troops into Afghanistan. Why?

To prop up a communist government after the murder of the communist ally Taraki in Kabul and his replacement by Amin from a different faction, a man who had been educated in the United States and who, it was claimed, was having secret talks with the Americans. The Soviet Union was distressed that as one famous KGB operative said, “that the Afghans were going to do a Sadat on us”; referring to the Egyptian leader Sadat, who in the late 70s switched from the Soviet side to the American side and took Egypt out of the Soviet camp into the Western camp. The Soviet Union simply couldn’t tolerate that the communist revolutions could be set into reverse and therefore they took the catastrophic decision to go to Afghanistan and paid the price.

The domino theory was that a setback in one place would immediately provoke a chain reaction of overall setbacks. So every local conflict – Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan – held the key to ultimate success in the Cold War. And the price for those who lost was very tough. Every Soviet leader after Khrushchev saw the lesson that Khrushchev had been deposed in 1964 because he had lost the Cuban Missile Crisis against Kennedy in October 1962. Everybody feared failure above everything else but brinkmanship therefore as it became known was equally an operating principle at that time. What it actually meant was that in public neither side could be seen to back down, but in private knowing the terrible consequences of a strategic nuclear war, both sides sought compromise where they could. As Kennedy famously said when he accepted the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The back channel, in other words secret negotiations, between the United States and the Soviet Union, particularly in Cuba over the Cuban crisis in 1962 diffused many of a problem.

In other words as the Cold War developed, publicly neither side could be seen to be abandoning the struggle, but in private, both sides were more and more ready to accept that as long as neither side tried to challenge the empire of the other side – in other words, provided that there were no attacks across the dividing line – they would be prepared to accept the status quo. This is reminiscent of the great German Chancellor Bismarck, who at the time of the Ottoman Wars in Europe in the late 1870s was once asked what he was intending to do to help the Bulgarian Christians being persecuted by the Sublime Pot. He said “I pray for them in my dreams, but they do not form the substance of my policy.” Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk later put it at the time of Czechoslovakia in 1968 when he said “It has never been an issue of war and peace between us and the Soviet Union however ignoble this may sound.”

So ladies and gentlemen, as we come into the 1970s we come into a period when much of the sting started to go out of the Cold War. Crises were less frequent, both sides were more conservative and more status quo oriented. In fact both camps began to experience more internal strains of problems than external rivalry and confrontation. Last week of course we focused very much on NATO, the partial withdrawal of France, arguments over detente, major arguments over the adoption of the flexible response strategy, which seemed to pledge the Europeans to accept conventional war fighting in Europe. It took many years before that new strategy was adopted. But by the 1970s ladies and gentlemen, it was also clear that the Warsaw Pact, the other camp, the communist bloc was experiencing internal strains as well. For example in 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the first war between two communist countries. That wasn’t meant to happen under the doctrine of the Socialist International.

Later on there was another fight between two communist countries when in 1979 China and Vietnam clashed along the border. There were scissions within the communist camp, it was clear already in 1962 at the 22nd Party Congress in Moscow that China was beginning to split away from the Soviet Union. In the late 50s Tito took Yugoslavia outside the Soviet orbit although he maintained of course a communist state. Albania did not join the Warsaw Pact but went the way of China. Even those two great monoliths of the communist bloc themselves, China and the Soviet Union, clashed along the Ussuri River border in 1969.

So in other words, the Soviet model was no longer seen as universal. There were different paths towards socialism: Yugoslavia under Tito, Albania under Enver Hoxha, China itself, continuing unrest as evidenced in the Czechoslovak Prague spring of 1968. It was in these years that the old Socialist International, the body directed from Moscow to uphold and export the revolution - which was originally called the First International, then the Second International, then the Comintern in the 1930s and after the Second World War the Cominform - it was at this period that that organization disintegrated. The Soviet Union increasingly lost control of its ability to police its own camp.

On the other hand from the US point of view, some of the dire prognostications about the decline of US power, the domino theory that followed the US retreat from Vietnam in 1973 didn’t happen. One of the great arguments of Johnson, as we saw last week for waging the Vietnam War, had been that if we didn’t defend against communism in Hanoi or in Saigon, we would have to do it in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii or even on the beaches of California. It’s true that Laos and Cambodia fell to communism in 1975, but the dominoes did not fall. They did not fall in the Philippines, they did not fall in Thailand, they did not fall in Indonesia.

So ladies and gentlemen, as we move into the 1970s we enter a period where both super powers became more modest in their aspirations, more realistic about their need to work out a modus vivendi for how they were going to live together – something that Brezhnev later called a peaceful co-existence – and were increasingly also aware that if they could not happily co-exist they would nonetheless accept detente not through choice, but more through necessity. Listen to Kissinger writing in 1972. “Our relative position,’ he said “was bound to decline as the USSR recovered from World War Two. Our military and diplomatic position was never more favourable than in the very beginnings of the containment period in the 1940s.”

Kissinger was convinced that detente was the management of relative American decline in the world. Listen to him again, this time writing in October 1973. “The attempt to impose absolute justice by one side will be seen as absolute injustice by all the others. Stability depends upon the relative satisfaction and the relative dissatisfaction of all the sides.” In other words, detente is about managing compromise on both sides. Each super power has to be prepared to accept less than optimal outcomes. The United States felt that it had to accept its limitations. The impact of the Vietnam War was considerable, both on American society and the American economy. It costed the United States 167 billion dollars, which doesn’t sound very much during today’s credit crunch when governments seem to be injecting those amounts into the banks virtually every week, but back in 1973 it was a colossal amount of money. The United States, the Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 which clipped the wings of the American President in terms of his ability to be able to send US troops into action. Later on after the scandals with the CIA in Chile, Congress again put limitations on the ability of the United States to fund foreign forces or foreign agents sympathetic to its goals.

The United States in the 70s felt a very, very long way from Kennedy’s great inauguration speech of 1961 when, you recall, he promised to bear any burden in the struggle of freedom. The US was forced to accept nuclear parity with the Soviet Union, particularly enshrined in the basic principles that were accepted in 1972 along with the SALT I Treaty which recognized the Soviet Union as equal in every respect. Arms control increasingly became the mode of managing the super power competition using arms control, not just as a way of codifying numbers of warheads and missiles, but also conducting a permanent strategic seminar between the United States and the Soviet Union in such a way that they would not take each other by surprise. They would be transparent, they would try increasingly to produce nuclear weapons – if this doesn’t sound too much of a paradox – that was stabilizing rather than destabilizing. Ask me in questions what that means if it’s not clear to you now.

And indeed, the early Nixon years saw a flurry of agreements. There was SALT I, there was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, again which paradoxically declared that defence was bad and offence was good and that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was better than MAS (Mutually Assured Survival), and as I said, basic principles. The United States rather than confront the communist block militarily, decided that the best thing to do was to divide it diplomatically. This was the background of course to Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972, what later became known as a policy of triangulation, that he who could have two out of the three in one camp, would reduce the other one to an isolated one and therefore dominate global politics.

The ideological battle ladies and gentlemen, had always been based on the assumption that the other system was fundamentally rotten and would ultimately collapse. As I’ve said, you just had to give it time, that’s Kennan’s containment policy of the 1940s. But by the 1970s, frankly, both super powers seemed to be doing surprisingly well, whether that be militarily, whether that be economically speaking. Growth levels were comparatively similar, the command economy in the East seemed to be producing the goods just as effectively as the free market economy in the West. The struggle was destined to go on for decades or centuries even at the time the division of Europe was the permanent status of affairs and therefore NATO Allies in the mid-70s turned their attention to how to make the situation more acceptable.

If the division of Europe was set to last, if the only way to change it radically was through military force, which was unacceptable, could you not at least open some windows into the communist bloc? That became known as the Helsinki Process which ultimately produced, as I’m sure you know, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe starting in the early 70s culminating in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 which was a genuine magna carta of European security. It contained a number of radical proposals, first of all a basket on military confidence building measures. For the first time NATO personnel were actually able to go through the Iron Curtain without being shot to pieces and to observe, albeit from very fixed positions which didn’t really give them a bird’s eye view of what was going on, but observe the military manoeuvres of the Warsaw Pact and for the first time you saw Soviet generals turn up in West Germany to observe NATO’s annual Reforger Exercise.

But by far, the most toxic part of the package was basket three of the CSCE, devoted to human rights and the free movement of peoples. At the time the Soviet Union believed that it could totally disregard basket three of Helsinki. Gromyko reassured Brezhnev, I quote “Don’t worry, we are masters in our own house.” In other words, this is just eye wash, we’ll never implement it and nobody will ever expect us to do so. We now know of course, that basket three was the beginning of the people’s popular movements in Eastern Europe: Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Echo Glasnost in Bulgaria, the German Lutheran churches, which was to prove so detrimental to communism in 1988/1989 leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It didn’t look like that at the time, but Henry Kissinger did say later that “rarely has a diplomatic process so illuminated the limitations of human foresight.” We didn’t know it.

Therefore 1970s we seem to be in a situation, as I’ve said before, where gradually the two blocs would come together. The great doctrine at the time was the so-called Sonnenfeldt Doctrine named after Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who was an aid to Henry Kissinger, who gave a speech which became a sensation which was basically the convergent theory. The West was becoming more social democratic as the years went by with the creation of the welfare state. Even the communist parties in the West, particularly Italy with the reform communist under Enrico Berlinguer were giving up the struggle and accepting the system. On the other hand in the East, communism was gradually opening up as it felt more reassured about its permanence to allowing more West to West contacts, more economic exchanges, and so as a result eventually the two systems would merge one day. The ideological struggle would disappear because we would all be social democratic, there would be more capitalism in communism, there would be more socialism in capitalism. It seemed like an extremely attractive process, indeed a sensation of sensations was a World Bank report dated 1977 which actually claimed that the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, was the world’s 10th largest economy ahead of the United Kingdom. There’s a famous story here, which I will go back into when we do 1989 next time.

But when Gorbachev turned up in October 1989 at the 40th anniversary of the GDR about one month before its collapse and disappearance, Honecker, the East German leader, in his public statement repeated that assertion from the World Bank that East Germany was the world’s 10th largest economy ahead of many of the west European countries. Gorbachev laughed. He was right to do so. It was a total hoax but it seemed at the time to be true. When Jimmy Carter became President of the United States in the late 70s, he also believed it was time to call the Cold War to an end. He gave a very famous speech at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1977 when he warned his countrymen against the inordinate fear of communism. In other words, communism was no longer a danger. It was just an ism like any other ism. He cancelled the B1 Bomber Program, he reduced the American defence budget. The 1970s were a sleepy time at NATO with detente and what seemed like to be the gradual winding down of the Cold War, as we increasingly would converge.

Indeed in the 1970s if you spoke about security to a NATO member state it would probably focus more on domestic problems. The Greeks were focusing on the Turks; the Turks were focusing on the Greeks. The biggest headache for NATO in the mid-70s ladies and gentlemen, was not the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union Operation F, it was the Greek coup in Cyprus in 1974 and the Turkish invasion of the north which divided the island in a way which remains true to this day. Britain was worried mainly about Northern Ireland and the human rights, Catholic human rights movement in the North. Germany was worried about the Baader-Meinhof groups shooting up German bankers and politicians. Italy was worried about the Red Brigades. Homeland security seemed to be more important.

Yet just a few years later, again incredible turn around, just a few years later we no longer had that mood of optimism. By the early 1980s NATO was facing an existential crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating on the streets; NATO governments at the brink of resignation over the decision to install cruise and Pershing weapons. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the United States having the nuclear clock to Armageddon, one minute to midnight on the front page of their magazine and a poll in Time Magazine of the under 30 showed that their greatest fear was the inevitability of nuclear war in their lifetime. Well, you ask, what happened to suddenly transform this situation? Well in these lectures I’ve tried from the very beginning, with all of the usual difficulty, to be as objective as I can, particularly in apportioning of blame or responsibility. But I think this time around, one has to be fair. It was the Soviet Union which unilaterally abrogated detente in the late 1970s. Why did it do so?

Well again I think there is a certain degree of the tail wags the dog which I referred to at the beginning. The Soviet Union, albeit it a conservative power, simply couldn’t sit on its hands if there was a communist ally that needed to be defended somewhere, because to allow communism to fail was to discredit the ideology. Brezhnev always made clear that when he spoke about peaceful co-existence he meant Europe, not what Jimmy Carter thought which was the rest of the world. The stalemate in Europe didn’t mean that places like Africa were not up for grabs. At the end of the 1970s Brezhnev made the mistake (Soviet politicians recognized it as a mistake later) of getting the Russians increasingly involved with the Cubans in African conflicts, support of the Cubans to Angola. Castro today mainly sends doctors around the world as part of Cuban foreign policy, but in the 70s it was troops. The Soviets got embroiled in a war between Somalia and Ethiopia. First of all they were on the side of the Somalis, then they switched to the side of the Ethiopians. The US Congress was in an uproar that the basic ground rules that Henry Kissinger had brilliantly seemed to design were suddenly no longer being respected. And yet as I said, because of the limits that Congress had put on the administration after the Chile Allende scandals, the Americans felt that their hands were tied in dealing with that.

Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That, of course, had dire consequences. Jimmy Carter had to reverse himself. He said that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the most serious threat to peace since World War Two. He ordered immediately a boycott by the United States of the Moscow Olympics in the 1980s. The US Congress refused to ratify the SALT II Treaty which Nixon and then Ford and Carter had negotiated over a six year period. Zig Brzezinski, who is still very much alive and kicking, who was Carter’s National Security Advisor, came out with the very famous phrase, he said “SALT II died in the sands of the Ogaden [the Horn of Africa].” … Died in the sands of the Ogaden.

To be frank, the SALT II Treaty was already in trouble before Afghanistan because Congress was worried about verification, could you trust the Soviets for instance. But still, Afghanistan buried it once and for all. Carter immediately ordered increase in the American defence budget. Everybody thinks that that started under Ronald Reagan, wrong, it started already under Jimmy Carter. And then in 1977 and here we broached right the INF, out in this current environment with collapsing detente, a German leader called Helmut Schmidt, who was more known as an economist – he once called himself the Chief Executive Officer of Germany rather than the Chancellor – Helmut Schmidt was invited to give the Alistair Buchan Memorial Lecture at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. This proved to be a bombshell in the history of NATO.

Schmidt drew attention to the fact that the Soviet Union had deployed 200 so-called SS20 missiles on its territory. Why was he worried about this? Well, the SS20 was a new kind of missile. All of Europe was within its range which was about 2300 kilometres. The missile had three warheads and it was mobile so it could easily be moved around wherever the Soviets needed. Why was he worried? Well, Schmidt frankly was not a friend of Carter. I don’t think from a historical view I’m giving any insalubrious revelations by saying that. Schmidt felt badly let down by Carter. In 1977 Carter had had the idea of deploying a neutron bomb in Germany, which was very unpopular with the Germans. Brezhnev called it the capitalist bomb, because it destroyed people within electromagnetic waves but left property intact. This proved a very effective Soviet propaganda ploy.

But Schmidt being a good Atlantist, a good friend in the United States, got into a big fight with the left wing of his own party the SPD, finally to persuade the German Government to deploy the neutron bomb. Carter then cancelled the whole project leaving Schmidt feeling very much left out to dry. As the SS20s came on the scene, Schmidt in his speech suddenly worried that the strategic arms talks were bringing about a situation where the strategic weapons of the United States and Soviet Union were cancelling each other out. This meant that Europe therefore was left unbalanced. There was no similar intermediate range nuclear balance in Europe. What would happen if the United States did not want to use its strategic systems in order to stave off a Soviet conventional attack in Europe? Would there be a decoupling? What Schmidt seemed to want was the nuclear deterrent should apply at all levels: short range, intermediate range, strategic range. So Schmidt said we need a NATO response.

Carter organized a summit at Guadalupe with Giscard, with Jim Callaghan the UK Prime Minister at the time, with Schmidt, and himself and the Americans came up with the bright idea of deploying 464 GLCMs, Ground Launch Cruise Missiles and 108 Pershing Two systems. The Pershing Twos because of their short range, they only had a ten minute flying time to Moscow, could only be based in West Germany, nowhere else. They had to go as far west as possible. Of course, the Pershing Twos also scared the Soviet Union because they were 15 times more accurate than the SS20s. Schmidt said, look you know we can’t have Germany holding the baby here. Other Allies, European, continental Allies, have got to take these weapons as well. The burden has got to be shared. Eventually the UK agreed to base them at Greenham Common, the Netherlands agreed to base them at Vernstraight, Italy agreed to take some Ground Launch Cruise Missiles, as well as Germany. In 1979 in December NATO took the important decision, the so-called Dual Track Decision, to deploy these systems but only in 1983, in other words not immediately, to give the Soviet Union therefore a kind of four years notice. The idea being to use those four years to try to construct some kind of arms control treaty, which would either make the systems redundant or at least would reduce their numbers.

Now I think in any previous time ladies and gentlemen, this decision would have not excited a great deal of interest. After all NATO had periodically renewed its nuclear weapons every ten years throughout the 1950s. The Americans had put 7000 nuclear weapons into Germany in the mid-50s with barely a murmur or barely a newspaper article. So why was it different this time? Why did this NATO, the Dual Track Decision, lead to governments on the verge of collapse and massive anti-NATO protest movements? The answer, of course, is the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980.

Of course now Ronald Reagan is idealized, even by the peace movements. He’s seen as perhaps the world’s greatest anti-nuclear campaigner; the man who perhaps did more than any other to bring the Cold War to an end. Reagan after he’d retired and before he tragically developed Alzheimer’s, was once asked by a journalist you know, what did you achieve in the White House? And Reagan in his typical western style said, well shucks folks say I won the Cold War, which may not in fact be a totally exaggerated claim. But those of you who are as old as I am, which doesn’t look like very many in the audience today, but will probably remember that that’s not the way it seemed at the time. Reagan seemed like an old fashioned 1940s ideologue and cold warrior. He in 1983 famously called the Soviet Union the evil empire. He said that the Soviet Union, I quote “used detente as a one way street to pursue its own aims, the promotion of revolution and a one world communist state.”

Indeed it wasn’t just Reagan. He’d come to power on a surge of anti-Carter neo-conservatism in the United States best propounded by the so-called Committee on the Present Danger, a very effective American lobbying organisation, which had people like Richard Pearl who later became very famous, Richard Pipes the Soviet historian at Harvard, Eugene Rustow who was a notable sceptic about arms control, and Casper Weinberger who then became Reagan’s Secretary of Defence. The Reaganites seemed set on confrontation with the Soviet Union. They did not believe that stability is a good thing. This is quite remarkable. They sensed that detente sort of legitimized the Soviet Union in a role which economically or socially it had no claim to have. They did not accept the principle of equality with the Soviet Union, particularly not in the moral field. Reagan indeed believed that communism was much weaker than Kissinger or Nixon had ever believed it to be and that therefore the time was ripe to put pressure on the Soviet Union, to test its weaknesses and to see to what degree the Soviet Union might collapse as a result.

Part of this was simply out spending the Soviet Union. Reagan pushed the American defence budget up to 7 percent of GDP, a figure that it hasn’t been since the end of the Korean War or ever since for that matter. He de-mothballed the B1 Bomber. He introduced a large number of new nuclear weapons programs, notably the MX, the Peacekeeper, you’re familiar with all of those. In fact, Reagan famously said “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose final pages are even now being written.” This of course, for Europeans who were wedded to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, to the CSCE, to reaching out to the East, to the convergent theory, to the expectation that life was going to get better, this of course was a truly cold shower. Therefore the missiles, the cruise and Pershing, no longer seen simply to be the reflection of a deteriorating East-West relationship, they seemed at the time to be the cause of that East-West relationship. And of course, Reagan added salt to the wounds in March 1983, when he came up with his famous speech on SDI, the Strategic Defence Initiative.

Because this was based on the fact that he believed A) that we should rid the world of nuclear weapons and B) that it was moral and the right thing to do to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Europeans, as I said in previous weeks, had always been in the paradoxical position. They didn’t exactly like nuclear weapons, but they always believed that nuclear weapons were the one thing that stopped Europe from being safe from a conventional war. They wanted – look at Schmidt with the Alistair Backen lecture – they wanted a visible American nuclear deterrent. So, when Reagan started to declare nuclear weapons immoral and declare that the SDI in fact would lead to a situation where they would become redundant, whether you believed it was technically feasible or not to put laser beams in space, you know, to shoot missiles down in the atmosphere, the actual basis, the actual strategic principles seemed to be highly dubious.

The result was instantaneous: massive protest movements on the streets of all European capitals. 300,000 in Bonn in 1983 listening to Willy Brandt, the former German Chancellor, denounced cruise and Pershing. In Germany the famous Krefeld Appeal of 1983 which gathered 2.7 million signatures against cruise and Pershing. The revival of the CND movement in the United States, sorry United Kingdom, the ground zero, the freeze movement, even the US House of Representatives passed a freeze resolution. It wasn’t just opposition to the missiles themselves. The INF saga actually started a whole debate about the morality of nuclear deterrence.  

We had church leaders weighing in on the principle of whether NATO should abandon the first use principle of nuclear weapons. NATO would never be the first to use force, but it always reserved the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons if attacked first. The churches felt that nuclear deterrence was immoral, it was contrary to the teachings of Christ. Fortunately for us, there were a few pro-NATO, pro-deterrence churchman like Bishop Leonard of London, who entered the fray as well. The question is, is can you use any weapon no matter how repulsive if it serves the cause of preventing war or peace? It is morally just to hold a whole population hostage to nuclear holocaust if that is the only way you have to preserve peace? So it was a debate about nuclear weapons and not just about how many cruise and Pershing to deploy. Governments started to wobble. In the Netherlands, eventually Helmut Schmidt himself lost a vote of no confidence in the Bundestag in 1983. The Liberals deserted him, he couldn’t control the left wing of his own party and that opened the door for Helmut Kohl, the very famous Helmut Kohl, to become Chancellor of Germany.

NATO was helped though, despite the fact that we suddenly had for the first time since the end of the Cold War the collapse of the pro-NATO political consensus between right and left, NATO was helped by some unlikely Allies: President Mitterrand of France. He went to the Bundestag in January 1983 and he gave a very famous speech where he said to people, hey, as he said in French ‘les missiles sont à l’est, les pacifistes sont à l’ouest’. Interesting. Missiles are in the East, peace campaigners in the West. He basically said to the Germans, you have to get to be good NATO Allies and keep your promise and deploy the Pershing Twos and the cruise. That coming from a country, France - which had not participated in the Twin Track Decision, which had its own independent nuclear deterrent after de Gaulle’s partial withdrawal - this may strike you as being a bit rich, yes? But at the time it was of fantastic importance in keeping NATO together.

France saved the day, almost, because for the Germans to hear this from the United States was one thing. To hear this from their special partner in building the European Union, France, was, particularly from a socialist President of France, now that was something completely different. So the 1980s were a period when NATO seemed to be wobbling. The problem of course was that nobody expected Ronald Reagan’s zero – zero option to work. Reagan in late ‘81 had proposed in an effort to capture the moral high ground, the zero – zero option: NATO would not deploy its cruise and Pershing and in return the Soviets would get rid of their SS20s. Nobody believed it. Everybody said that this is just propaganda, this is not serious, you know, this is just a diversion. How can you expect the Soviets to give up weapons which they have deployed, for weapons that NATO isn’t going to start deploying for another few years and probably will never be able to deploy because of all of these protest movements? Indeed, the peace movement seemed to be right because when the first cruise missiles went in to the UK in 1983, the Soviets walked out of the so-called INF negotiations in Geneva and we really did seem to be back to the height of the 1950’s Cold War.

Well I’m glad to tell you ladies and gentlemen, but I think you know it already, that all of this saga has a happy ending in the shape of Gorbachev who became, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader in 1985, in March 1985. Even today, you know historians are really at a loss to explain how a system so known, you know for lack of vitality, for lack of innovation, for fear of creativity, how that system which had elected just before Reagan – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. Reagan used to joke that the reason why he didn’t have a summit with a Soviet leader in his first term is that every Soviet leader died on him and there is some truth in this. How suddenly out of that system somebody like Gorbachev could emerge? Even George Kennan, the famous Sovietologist, when he was asked about this on American TV said “I really can’t explain it.” He was at a loss for words.

But it wasn’t only Gorbachev. By the early 1980s the Soviet Union was beginning to understand that all was not well. As Hamlet said, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”; something was rotten in the Soviet Union. Georgi Arbatov of the US Canada Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, he said, you know “we were arming ourselves like addicts without any apparent political need.” As the famous American Defence Secretary Harold Brown said, “When we build, the Soviets build. When we stop building, the Soviets build.” Or Henry Kissinger again put it, “Absolute security for the Soviet Union means absolute insecurity for everybody else.” But it was people around Gorbachev that were beginning to realise that simply building up weapons was leading the system into a dead end. Indeed, we now know that by 1980 the Soviet defence burden was three times that of the United States with a GDP one sixth of that of the US.

Secondly, it was the KGB not Gorbachev who were becoming aware of an increasing economic break down in the Warsaw Pact. Whereas the system seemed to be working in the 70s, by the 80s countries like Poland, Hungary and the GDR were getting themselves into fantastic debt. I’ve got some figures here. In 1971, the combined debt of the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries was 6.1 billion dollars. By 1980 it had gone up to 66.1 billion; by 1988 it had gone up to 95.6 billion dollars. This was loans from the West mainly used to produce consumer goods to keep the population happy, what became known under Kadar in Hungary as ‘goulash communism.’ In 1988 Poland was spending one third of its credit line on consumer goods. In other words the Soviets were increasingly aware, particularly as their own deficit was 56 billion dollars by 1980, that they would not be able to bail out Eastern Europe. The problems in Afghanistan, they lost 15,000 dead – fortunately today, thank God, NATO is still a very, very long way from that figure – before they withdrew. The Soviet Union, once the bread basket of Europe, in 1914 the Soviet, Russia under the Czars had the highest GDP in Europe 20 percent, Germany 19 percent, UK 17 percent. In 1914! By 1980 of course the Soviet Union was importing food from China. Japan had overtaken it as the second largest producer of goods and services. So it’s not just Gorbachev the personality, although yes we can’t discount the creativity of his mind, it’s also what Brezhnev would have called the correlation of forces, objective factors which led to a change.

But I also think that Reagan has to take some of the credit here. It takes two to tango. Because Reagan was facing a choice: continue a policy of confrontation, outspend the Soviet Union, condemn it as he famously said “to the ash heap of history”, keep the confrontation going or having rebuilt American strength – he increased the US defence budget twice between 1980 and 1985 – then negotiate from strength. And fortunately for Reagan, fortunately for us, Reagan listened to George Schultz, Jim Matlock and Paul Nitsay more than he listened on this to Daniel Pipes, Casper Weinberger and Richard Pearl. Reagan decided to negotiate and the result was the INF Treaty, the zero - zero option which was finally signed in 1987.

There had been some wobbles before that. For example in Reykjavik at 1986 one of the most incredible meetings in the whole of human history, Reagan and Gorbachev left to themselves over a dinner had decided to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. The Europeans were horror struck that this could be done – even American and Soviet advisors were horror struck. In fact, one American advisor afterwards, and I love this, famously quoted a Russian who had commented on a meeting between Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1905, when again in a dinner they had settled all outstanding differences and the advisor of the Czar quoted had said “One should never forget that a discussion between two Princes is propitious only when it confines itself to the weather.” But it’s also … in other words, bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey Appleby in the Yes Minister series on British TV hate it when their politicians decide things when they’re not there or against their advice. But Reagan had not agreed to Gorbachev’s request to give up the Strategic Defence Initiative as a quid pro quo for getting rid of all nuclear weapons, so Reykjavik, although it came very close to being a transcendental summit, ultimately was a failure.

Still detente continued and Gorbachev went to the United Nations and made his famous speech in which he declared that everybody had freedom of choice and announced a unilateral withdrawal of half a million Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. And as I’ve said in December 1987 the INF Treaty was signed. It not only eliminated, ladies and gentlemen, the cruise and the Pershing and the SS20s, it eliminated the SS4s, the SS5s, the Pershing Ones. In fact, the Soviet Union withdrew 2700 weapons as a result of that treaty and the United States eventually ended up destroying about 800 all told. It was the first ever arms control agreement in history, which had not simply reduced numbers but eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons, but more importantly it provided for massive information sharing and inspections. In other words, if the Soviet Union was finally allowing the United States to go on its soil or to fly over its territory to inspect the destruction of missiles, then the Soviet Union no longer feared the United States at all. In other words, although we didn’t know it then, the INF Treaty was the first indication not just that we were being able to negotiate with the Soviets, but that the Cold War, as we’d known it, was really coming to an end.

In retrospect how did NATO pull it off despite all of the tensions? I think first of all clear US leadership. Reagan knew what he wanted. He was somebody who built up strength for a purpose, not just to be strong but in order to be able to negotiate. He had an idea and he stuck to it. He was able to accommodate ideology to practical reality in a way that few leaders are able to do. We have those who have good tactics with no visions and those who have vision but no tactics. Reagan was rare. He had both and he had the personal ability to communicate Gorbachev over the head of his officials and to strike deals.

Secondly, NATO had a clear strategy. Deployments on the one hand, but linked to arms control and of course the willingness to actually deploy the weapons to show the Soviet Union that we were really serious as the sine qua non for getting the Soviets to be ready to make concessions. If you like, we had to go through the pain of deployments before we got the gain. Thirdly, realizing that the only way that you’re going to win the argument is to carry out your strategy. Before the deployments there were two camps: those who said – ah, this is going to bring about World War Three, and those who said – no, no, no, deploying these weapons will persuade the Soviet Union to negotiate. How could you win that argument? By deploying. As Napoleon used to say, ‘on s’engage et puis on vois.’ We engage first and then we see.

This happened afterwards ladies and gentlemen, in the 90s with NATO enlargement where people again said that NATO enlargement will lead to a new world war with the Russians and other said – no, no, no, the Russians will accept this and it will stabilize Europe. How did we win the argument? By doing it. You cannot win intellectual arguments without creating facts. And then, a lesson very much that applies to today and Afghanistan: strategic communications. We had a big problem with the peace movement but in a way, frankly, which I’ve never seen since the early 80s, NATO governments actually got behind the communications effort. Maybe it was, you know, the thought of my imminent hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully yes? But the UK set up a special department called DS-19 to take on the CND, ministers went out making speeches, governments funded in my country organizations like Peace Through NATO or the Coalition for Peace Through Security, NGOs, to get the arguments out. They pushed brochures out and so on and again, you know we lament so much today in Afghanistan that we’re not getting the message across, but I see nothing comparable to the mobilization of government information efforts that was made in the 1980s.

And finally, smart NATO diplomacy. A special consultative group in NATO worked day and night. The Americans came to brief constantly on what they were up to in negotiations with the Soviet Union. The Americans made sure that they had NATO blessing for every new proposal before Maynard Glitman, the American negotiator, took it to Geneva to the Soviets. The Alliance really felt that it was in the same boat. I suppose it was like Benjamin Franklin, either we all hang together or we hang separately. But again that is very much a lesson for the modern day that only united did we have a chance of succeeding, but if we went alone following our own national agendas we would certainly fail.

So ladies and gentlemen in conclusion the INF saga, as difficult as it was at the time, marked the first instance of what I call catastrophic success. In other words, what happens to NATO when you get what you want? Remember the Chinese curse: give somebody what he wants is the quickest way to destroy him. We had this again in 1989, we’ll talk about this next time, catastrophic success, the wall comes down. What happens when you succeed beyond your wildest dreams? At the time I must say, particularly as Reagan left office and George Bush (not George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, number 41, not number 43) as he took over there was a great mood of scepticism towards Gorbachev. You know this Gorbamania in Europe, this Gorbasm, as one German commentator called it, you know, was it really a trick by Gorbachev? Was he sort of a devilishly clever new sort of Stalin like Soviet leader who was going to sort of de-nuclearize Europe, neutralize Europe through charm rather than through threats but with the same idea of driving the Americans out?

You know Gorbachev just looked too good to be true and the early Bush administration was much more suspicious about what he was up to and therefore perhaps not as willing to take him at face value as Reagan had been. This reminded me of Tallymoore, who famously said when he heard of the death of the Russian Ambassador “I wonder what his intention is.” But it very quickly became clear as the INF Treaty gave way to the CFE Treaty on Conventional Forces, more summits between Bush and Gorbachev, the gradual loosening of Soviet control in Central and Eastern Europe, that catastrophic success was going to pose as many questions for the future of NATO in a world in which we no longer had an enemy as it would pose for the Soviet Union. I come back in my concluding remark today to Georgi Arbatov, of the US Canada Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who was going around the conference circuit very gleefully after 1987, after INF, saying, “We have done something terrible to you: we are taking away your threat.” Thank you. Any questions?

Questions and answers

Q:  The picture you have drawn from Ronald Reagan was rather a positive one, but a couple of months ago, I don’t know if you are aware of this Able Archer story and this spy story Topaz, it’s a very famous spy which was disclosed in the 90s I think, and then was sentenced to prison for a couple of years. But it was thanks to him that we did not end up in a third world war because he was a spy at NATO and I wanted to know more about this if you know anything about this spy story.

Dr. Jamie Shea: Well, Topaz, Rainier Rupp was somebody who worked two offices from me back in the 1980s and he used to give me financial investment information every day and I looked upon him as a financial guru because he had several houses, apartments in Brussels, and I thought how can somebody on a NATO salary have several houses and apartments in Brussels. He must be a financial genius! You know in terms of investing on the stock market and so I looked upon him as people looked upon, look today upon Warren Buffet, you know the sage of Omaha, you know as a guru on investments. And of course when he was unmasked as the famous Topaz it was a genuine surprise because, but it also meant that all of the financial tips he’d given me were nonsense because you know he’d financed the apartments out of money from the Kremlin, not out of his own acumen. It was a great disappointment.

Yes, it’s absolutely true. We have had repeatedly in NATO, during the Cold War, spy scandals. Topaz was the most famous but there were, there were many others. But incidentally we now know of course that there was a phenomenal amount of Soviet and East bloc penetration of Western society. The main aide to Willy Brandt, Gunter Guillaume, was unmasked as a GDR spy. We later learned after the collapse of the Berlin Wall that the Stasi had employed 25 German members of the Bundestag to give them information. If you go to that building in East Berlin, which houses the Stasi files, they extend 174 kilometres in length. One in every six East German had a file on him and quite a few foreigners as well. A friend of mine at Oxford, who is a very, very famous commentator on East-West relations called Timothy Garten Ash, he lived in East Berlin during the Cold War and was in love with an East German woman. And after the wall fell and he got access to his file, he inevitably discovered that his East German girlfriend was a Stasi agent spying on him. He later wrote a very good book on it called The File which I recommend to you, it’s a fantastic sort of vignette on communism.

But anyway what I’m telling is, yes, there was a fantastic effort by the East bloc to buy that information, to buy those agents of influence. Did it make any difference in the long run? It was embarrassing at the time, it compromised things at the time, but did it really interfere with NATO political decisions or the overall strategic debate? I’m not so sure, frankly. I’m not personally so convinced of the value of spies. Stalin had fantastic spies. He had probably the best spy since Markus Wolf, the head of the East German Intelligence Service, in the history of spying called Richard Sorge. And Richard Sorge, who was a German, got all of the news about Operation Barbarosa, in other words that Hitler was going to invade the Soviet Union. Stalin just didn’t believe him and discounted it with the results that you know. So I don’t know. It’s embarrassing. I think for propaganda purposes of course one side always loves to be able to turn somebody or to have somebody on the inside. But I find little historical evidence that spying or the results of spying have really influenced broader strategic trends.


Q:  Well firstly thank you because that gave a very good overview of those two decades and I have to say that during those two decades it sounds like there were, whether it was strategy, whether it was by accident, there was some success, at least from the Western point of view in terms of fighting the enemy in that sense. My question has to do with what, looking at those lessons learned and I think you’ve mentioned a few of them and we can see how dialogue actually fit a lot into this, how can we take that and now that NATO is again being tested in 2009 in terms of its reach outside of Europe really in this, I’m talking about Afghanistan in that sense. What lessons learned can we take from these decades and now start to apply again because now we’re fighting a different ism as you were saying before, so?

Dr. Jamie Shea:  Yes, thank you, that’s a very good question. The first thing I would say is that what happened after de Gaulle took France out of the integrated structure in ‘66, what happened after we had the pressure of the anti-nuclear protest movements in the 80s, was that NATO subject to pressure pulled together. We also had this to some degree in Bosnia, which we’ll come to in the final lecture, in the 90s when again NATO was very divided, things weren’t going very well and then one day Warren Christopher came here. He was the US Secretary of State under Clinton, and Christopher, I remember this in 1994 said, “Okay, NATO is more important to us than Bosnia.” You may disagree with that but he said it. What he meant that at the end of the day, unity in the Alliance, keeping NATO going, working with the Allies is so important that if we have to compromise we will.

So in other words in previous times of difficulty NATO has pulled together. It may sort of be like the wagons circling the wagons, but we’ve done it. What worries me about Afghanistan today is that at a time of difficulty instead of pulling together as an Alliance, understanding each other, finding a strategy we can believe and working together, there is obviously too much of a tendency to say – no, no, no, my national position is right, your position is wrong, I’m here to defend my national position and not to forge a compromise. The unity of the Alliance is no longer the greatest value.

I’m not saying that that will happen on Afghanistan, I hope it will not. The Strasbourg Summit we’ve got in a few weeks for the 60th anniversary, when Afghanistan will be key, the idea of making a bigger effort, hopefully is going to sort of change that situation around. But of course that would be my major conclusion there that times of difficulty we’ve got to pull together as an Alliance, be prepared to compromise and so on. That is the condition of success. Not all believe that the difficulty proves that I’m right, my analysis is right, you’re analysis is wrong and, and blame each other and drive apart. Of course, the Alliance was much smaller in those days, we only had 15, 16 members. Of course today we are nearly double that number of 28, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. But it certainly means that leadership of the Alliance, somebody taking the lead in the way that happened in the 60s, happened in of course to some degree with Reagan at the end in the 80s, pulling the Allies together is key. This is not an alliance that runs on automatic pilot. Things don’t just naturally happen. NATO is not a naturally stable organization because it’s democratic, countries have their own views. So somebody has got to pull things together and so that’s why I emphasize the leadership.

I emphasize strategic communications, particularly as I mentioned because that subject has now come back with Afghanistan but in an optimistic sense. I too often hear the view, oh you know we can’t out communicate the Taliban, oh, it’s too difficult, you know, oh, our publics are never going to support this. Well, you know we had much more public pressure in the 80s, we had millions of people on the streets, so believe me, we had those marches being led not just if you like by the alternative lifestyle people, but by serious well-known politicians, I mentioned Willy Brandt. And yet governments still showed, that if they devoted resources and a bit of will to the effort, they could turn the situation around somewhat. So I think there was a lesson there as well. It would be little value for me quite frankly doing this historical series if there weren’t some kernels of lessons there to be applied to today’s situation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very grateful to you for attending today and in a couple of days’ time we’ll have the next lecture which will really start bringing us into a period that even you, youngsters that you are will associate with, November 1989 and the fall of the wall. Thank you.