A lot happened in 1967. Israel went to war with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan for a grand total of six days; the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and United States ratified a treaty banning the placement of nuclear weapons in outer space; The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and Queens Park Rangers became the first English Third Division team to win the League Cup, beating West Bromwich Albion 3-2.
But perhaps more significantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) published a policy paper entitled MC 14/3, or ‘Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the NATO Area’. A dry report by anybody’s standards, MC 14/3 was the product of years of research and debate. The authors called for the American-led alliance to abandon its strategy of ‘massive retaliation’, which demanded an all-out nuclear response to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, in favour of a more flexible posture. MC 14/3’s architects were largely American and British, with U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara being its most enthusiastic advocate. They argued that NATO member states should be prepared to fight a conventional war in Europe should the need arise. Such a scenario was, they suggested, entirely feasible, even in the nuclear age.Although ‘flexible response’ always had competition from ‘pure deterrence’ in the marketplace of ideas, it served as official NATO doctrine right up until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
So, what made Western decision-makers believe that a conventional war in Europe was possible?
First, many of them had been wary of Soviet power ever since George F. Kennan crafted his famous ‘Long Telegram’ in early 1946. And truth be told, a significant number had worked themselves into an anti-communist lather much earlier. The common view from this side of the Elbe was that the men in the Kremlin were hell bent on expansion, willing to take risks, and easily provoked. The two Berlin crises of 1958 and 1961, together with the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed to confirm this narrative.
Second, policymakers such as McNamara and his deputy, Paul Nitze, believed that a strategy of ‘all-or-nothing’ left the West with two equally ludicrous options in the face of Soviet aggression: suicide or surrender. They thought this might tempt Soviet leaders to exploit their supposed conventional superiority in the belief that an American president would be unwilling to sacrifice Washington D.C. for Bonn. The political scientist Glenn Snyder referred to this as the ‘stability-instability-paradox’, whereby a stable strategic nuclear balance (Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD) encourages violence on a smaller scale.
Third, there was a belief amongst some policy elites that NATO could win a conventional war by gaining ‘escalation dominance’. If NATO had military superiority across the board—from infantry and tanks to tactical and theatre nuclear weapons—then it would be in a position to deny the Soviets the ability to achieve their political objectives through the use of force. A state or group of states with the means to provide a graduated response to aggression would be able to fight a conventional or limited nuclear conflict and win it. At some point, an opponent would recognise that their only option was to escalate into a position of inferiority, start a thermonuclear war, or sue for peace. Faced with such a choice, rational leaders would be forced to opt for the latter. In theory, then, a strategy designed to achieve escalation dominance would allow a state to use force with discrimination and do so without endangering its own survival.
The Problem with 'Flexible Response'
As Martin Amis observes in Einstein’s Monsters, the problem with all this is very simple: it requires thousands of human beings to act rationally under the most stressful and complex of circumstances. There is no room for error. Indeed, the nuclear strategies that came to dominate American and NATO strategy during the period 1967-1991 arguably stemmed from an inability on the part of some to recognise this most basic flaw in their own logic. In short, the desire to treat the bomb as just another tool in the arsenal represented, and still represents, a futile and potentially dangerous attempt to escape the profound consequences of the nuclear revolution.
If you found this article illuminating, you might also be interested in our collection on British military intelligence during the Cold War.