In face of what Edward Thompson has called the ‘present war crisis’, we welcome the invitation from our comrades in the peace movements and anti-nuclear campaigns of Western Europe to join in a cooperative project of dialogue and action. We want to reassure them that despite the barriers thrown up by the official media—West and East—there are Soviet citizens who hear their voices and share their deep concern about the peace of Europe and the world. Precisely because of the urgency of the situation, however, we must be patient in trying to understand the sometimes different premisses and experiences that lie behind our respective perceptions of the present crisis. In particular we would like to respond—critically yet with positive solidarity—to the very powerful arguments on behalf of a movement for European Nuclear Disarmament that Edward Thompson has recently advanced in the pages of this journal.footnote1It is important for peace forces in the West to understand why much of the argument that Thompson makes so eloquently would not be received with the same agreement or unanimity by the peace forces within the Soviet Union.

By ‘peace forces’ we do not mean the official Soviet bureaucracy or party apparatus, but the ordinary Soviet public whose fierce aversion to war has been conditioned by the historical tragedy—still vivid and haunting to all generations—of twenty million dead and twenty million more wounded and disabled in the fight against the German invasion. In particular, we think that the rank and file of Soviet society, including many of those who contest bureaucratic authority within it, would be unlikely to accept Thompson’s argument—so central to his analysis of the dynamic of ‘exterminism’—that responsibility for the current crisis can be divided equally between the usa and the ussr. Moreover, as partisans of socialist democracy in the Soviet Union ourselves (and thus, ‘Soviet dissidents’), we are also unable to agree with what seems to us to be the too fatalistic assessment made by Thompson. In representing a symmetry between the aggressive impulses of the American war machine and the equally ‘dangerous inertial push’ of the Soviet military-industrial complex, we think that Thompson overlooks important contrasts between the nature of American and Soviet society. In the interests of a realistic understanding of the current crisis and the tasks facing the peace movement, we cannot accept the notion of a functional equivalence between the ‘deep structures of the Cold War’ within both blocs.

Such ideas obscure, in our opinion, major differences in the bipolar confrontation—whether we consider the institutional role of military spending, official attitudes toward the usage of nuclear weapons, the history of previous attempts at arms limitation, popular perceptions of nuclear policy, the problem of proliferation or the ultimate logics of strategic rivalry. In the notes that follow, we try to indicate some of the asymmetries which we feel are most relevant to understanding the origin of the present arms race. It is of course true that Western societies are more open to analysis than the ussr, where state decisions are shrouded in much greater secrecy, and information about military strategy or technology is especially rigorously kept from the citizenry. Readers should bear this limitation in mind as we try to set Soviet actions and responses since 1945 in context: in some cases, moves by the ussr can only be subject to speculation. Nevertheless, despite the more open character of American society, we will argue that the role of successive us administrations has been, and continues to be, more provocative and less predictable in the global inter-relationship between East and West.

Military-industrial complexes exist in all modern industrial societies, but these are under much less responsible control in the United States than in the ussr. Undoubtedly military-industrial-research interests in the Soviet Union exercise important influence over the selection of particular weapons programmes and the manner of their production, but it would be wrong to suggest that they have ever acquired any control over the long-term strategic policies of the Soviet government—whether under Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev. They do not constitute a ‘state within a state’ as they do in the United States, but remain a subordinate part of the state. Thus we believe Edward Thompson is mistaken to believe a situation could ever reach the point in the Soviet Union when ‘hair-trigger military technology annihilated the very moment of “politics”’.footnote2 The Soviet system is too conservative and densely bureaucratised for this to happen. If the government and party apparatus do not allow any freedom of action even for editors of small and obscure provincial publications; if they refuse to allow any film or play to be presented without a special session at the Ministry of Culture; if they ban the formation of any professional association without state and party authorization; and if not a single person can go abroad without approval of several different party ‘travel commisions’ (not to speak of local and regional police authorities)—then how can one imagine that those military experts who manage the Soviet Union’s icbms could possibly launch them in an emergency without collective decisions at the highest levels of the party and state? Although we do not know the exact command structure within the Soviet nuclear forces, it is a safe assumption that strict and comprehensive safeguards exist against any possibility of either a mistaken or deliberate initiative by any level of the military hierarchy alone.

There are further reasons why the intersection of military and industrial interests in the ussr comprises a much weaker and less autonomous complex than in the United States. Neither munitions workers nor factory directors fear loss of employment in the event of reconversion to civilian production; in fact most defence workers would probably welcome it, since they would no longer be exposed to some of the dangers inherent in arms manufacture. The scientists and researchers in the defence establishment would likewise welcome transfer to civilian projects, since at present their work is so tightly classified that they receive no public honour or acknowledgement for their achievements—a source of intense frustration to them. A case in point is the late Sergei Korolev, architect of Soviet rocket technology, whose prizes were classified and who remained quite unknown in Russia until after his death in 1966. For its part, the Soviet officer corps is a secondary component of the political establishment; generally speaking it is not in a strong position to control the flow of procurements. Moreover, unlike the United States where competition between the Army, Navy and Air Force has traditionally propelled a persistent tendency toward the ‘overproduction’ of arms systems, inter-service rivalry is insignificant within the more unified and subordinated Russian military establishment. Finally, Politbureau members are typically more generalist in their careers than most us politicians or government bureaucrats—they are less tied to special interest groups on whom they depend for the maintenance of their career positions.

Let us now turn to the question of the perceptions each of the parties have of each other in the Cold War. There are at least three possible scenarios in which a full-scale nuclear exchange might occur: as an act of deliberate aggression, as a pre-emptive strike in anticipation of aggression by the other side, and as a retaliatory strike. If we confine the arena of possible nuclear war to Europe, then the likelihood of a sudden blitzkrieg by either nato or the Warsaw Pact seems zero. In our opinion there are no longer any border disputes, ‘Danzig Corridors’ or revanchist tendencies capable of producing the kind of crises that paved the way to the past two world wars. Even if one tried to adopt the mentality of the American cold war right, and attempted to imagine (as has Frederick Forsyth in his bestseller, The Devil’s Alternative) that the Soviet Union was ultimately forced to invade Western Europe for economic reasons, it would, of course, be absurd to think that the ussr would destroy it first with nuclear weapons and contaminate it with radioactive debris for centuries. Equally, Western aggression against the ussr or the Eastern bloc that might provoke a Soviet nuclear retaliation seems also highly improbable. This leaves the possibility of pre-emptive first strike as the remaining scenario. Now a pre-emptive strike is conceivable only if one side sincerely believes or has clear knowledge that the other side is preparing deliberate aggression.

The problem—and potential fatal danger—is that there is a huge difference between ‘sincere belief’ and ‘clear knowledge’. ‘Sincere belief’ is an entirely subjective notion implying a range of different levels of interpretation and imputed probability. In our opinion, the evolution of the strategic arms race since Hiroshima has been in part based on this problem of the subjective perceptions of the intentions and worldview of the other side. For example, if we consider the public explanations advanced by the Western leaderships for the ‘modernization’ (in fact, a qualitatively new buildup and escalation) of nato’s nuclear arsenal, they purport to be based on the ‘sincere belief’ that the Soviet Union really does have aggressive intentions toward Western Europe. Even where the Western media take a liberal view of Soviet attitudes, they almost always assume that these can be regarded as essentially similar to those on the American side. Thus in cbs’s recent major documentary about the dangers of nuclear war (‘The Defence of the United States’), which greatly irritated Weinberger and the Pentagon, Walter Cronkite was sent to Moscow ‘to see what general impressions the “enemy” may have of us. Not surprisingly, they tend to think of America as the aggressor and are quick to refer to a long list of alleged grievances. . . . Mr. Cronkite reaches the conclusion: “Who are these Russians? No one can say with certainty. But if their perception of America is as flawed as we believe it is, then our perceptions of the Soviet Union just could be flawed, too. In the absence of any real dialogue, the same old fears and doubts continue to dominate our relationship.”’footnote3