How should the US see its responsibility for dealing with the conflicted moral legacy of the Cold War? Russia, with its history of authoritarian rule and a staggering burden of social transformation, is ill equipped to lead on this issue. It falls unavoidably to us to work painfully back through the tangled moral web of this frightful 50-year gauntlet, born of the hellish confluence of two unprecedented historical currents: the bipolar collision of ideology and the unleashing of the power of the atom.
The consequences of these cataclysmic forces confronted the US with a tortuous dilemma: how to put at the service of our national survival a weapon whose sheer destructiveness was antithetical to the very values upon which our society was based?
Over time, as arsenals multiplied on both sides and the rhetoric of mutual annihilation grew more heated, we were forced to think about the unthinkable, justify the unjustifiable, rationalize the irrational. Ultimately we contrived a new and desperate theology to ease our moral anguish, and we called it deterrence .
I spent much of my military career serving the ends of deterrence, as did millions of others. I want very much to believe that it was the nuclear force that I and others commanded and operated that prevented World War III and created the conditions leading to the collapse of the Soviet empire. But in truth, I do not and I cannot know that it was. It will be decades before the Cold War era is adequately understood.
It would not matter much that informed assessments are still beyond our reach – were it not that we continue to espouse deterrence as if it were now an infallible panacea. And worse, other nations are listening – having converted to our theology – are building their arsenals, are poised to rekindle the nuclear arms race, and to reawaken the specter of nuclear war.
What a stunning, perverse turn of events. In the words of my friend, Jonathan Schell, we face the dismal prospect that the Cold War was not the apogee of the age of nuclear weapons, to be succeeded by an age of nuclear disarmament.
Instead, it may well prove to have simply been a period of initiation, in which not only Americans and Russians, but Indians and Pakistanis, Israelis and Iraqis, were adapting to the horror of threatening the deaths of millions of people, were learning to think the unthinkable. If this is so, will history judge that the Cold War proved only a sort of modern-day Trojan horse, whereby nuclear weapons were smuggled into the life of the world, made an acceptable part of the way the world works?
This cannot be the moral legacy of the Cold War. And it is our responsibility to ensure that it will not be.