In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, US and Russian warships have been circling each other warily in the Arabian Sea. B-52 bombers have overflown the region. Washington is scrambling for Indian Ocean bases. And Americans are debating the need for draft registration.
The threat of nuclear war between the superpowers may or may not be real, but it is being talked about more seriously than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
"Our government today as well as the Soviet government is planning for nuclear war, training for nuclear war, and arming for nuclear war," contends Retired Rear Admiral Gene La Rocque, director of an organization called the Center for Defense Information in Washington and a longtime critic of US defense strategy. ". . . We and the Soviets together have 50,000 nuclear weapons. They have 20,000 and we have 30,000, and we're planning to use those nuclear weapons in a theater nuclear war."
Admiral La Rocque was one of several speakers at a recent two-day symposium at Harvard entitled, "The Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War." The conference, organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility and sponsored by Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine, examined both the likelihood and the effects of nuclear war.
The Admiral, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, told a capacity audience at the Harvard Science Center that "it is our national policy to use nuclear weapons in Europe first if the situation requires it. That is our national plan. Most Americans don't realize it, and most of them don't believe me when I tell them."
Explaining that the 7,000 US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe "sit right up on the front line" so that when fired they hit East German territory rather than West German, he observed that the US will have to use them first "or we'll lose them."
He feels certain that the Soviet Union would resort to tactical nuclear weapons if the US and its allies appeared to be sweeping on the gates of Moscow. "At least we have to assume they will," he observed. "Now since both sides assume the other is going to, that puts the nuclear weapons in central Europe on really hair triggers because both sides would want to knock out the other fellow's nuclear weapons first."
Turning to the threat of strategic nuclear war, Admiral La Rocque asserted that there is "no defense against Soviet missiles. Absolutely none. And I find people out in the Midwest and South simply don't believe that we've been spending all this money all these years and we don't have any defense against Soviet missiles. But there isn't any. There just is no way feasible to develop an anti-ballistic missle. You can saturate any system with a lot more offensive nuclear weapons."
the admiral maintained, moreover, that "there is no control over a nuclear war once it starts. some people suggest that if we improve our command-and-control we'll be able to fight a controlled nuclear war. It only takes on nation to start a nuclear war, but it takes at least two nations to stop it. So no matter how good our [command-and-] control is, it's not under our control to stop a nuclear war once it starts."
He observed somberly that a recent study by the National Security Council predicted some 140 million US deaths and 113 million Soviet ones in the event of a massive nuclear exchange between the two countries.
Republica presidential aspirant George Bush recently observed that the side suffering the lesser damage in a nuclear war could be deemed the winner. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times he spoke of the "survivability of industrial potential" and the "protection of a percentage of your citizens," which several speakers at the symposium made clear they regarded as glib and misleading talk. Soviet planning, Mr. Bush asserted to interviewer Robert Scheer, "is based on the ugly concept of a winner in a nuclear exchange."
Admiral La Rocque went on to observe that "there's still an old idea around that we have conventional forces. [But] we have nuclearized our conventional forces, our army divisions, our air wings, and our ships, completely nuclearized [them] all over the world. Over 70 percent of our combatants in the navy now carry nuclear weapons."
When US forces intervened in Lebanon in 1958, he alleged, they took their nuclear weapons with them. "they are so organic and so built in to the training of our officers and men that it would be a natural thing for us [to use them]."
In reply to arguments of US strategic inferiority, Admiral La Rocque asserted that the United States has twice as many strategic nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union. "We've got 2,100 strategic delivery vehicles, and the Soviets have 2,500 .