A Case Study

Gervasi performs a detailed case study regarding how the cruise missile and Pershing II were sold to the American public. Warning: if you’re not already a cynic, this may be hazardous to your mental state.

I must editorialize a bit, first. What Gervasi explores here is a single example of how a destabilizing, overpriced, unnecessary weapons system was pushed out worldwide for the purposes of the defense companies and nuclear weapons shops. It’s impossible to see this as anything but a vast emergent conspiracy, and to realize that it has been played over and over and over again.

[Note: the way Gervasi jumps into the case study is by bridging it across the end of one chapter and into another, so it seems a bit odd. I have moved the chapter heading.]

24: Justifying Deployment of the Cruise and Pershing II

Government had first promised that these weapons could do what no weapons could do. Then, in order to deny that these weapons had any undeclared mission, government had to contradict itself and acknowledge that they could not do what it had promised. If they could not perform their undeclared mission, then they could not perform the declared one; if they could not perform their declared mission, no rational justification remained for their deployment.

That did not mean that they would not be deployed. The entire history of the arms race, whether of declared or undeclared policy, was a history of irrationality. This was but one more example.

But it was important to make declared policy seem rational. To justify deployment of the Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Europe as a guarantee against escalation to a wider war ran the risk of exposing the emptiness of that guarantee; it ran the risk of exposing all the contradictions and irrationalities that actually lay behind the development of these weapons, It was therefore best not to offer this justification to the public. An entirely different justification had to be found.

So the Reagan administration created a special cabinet-level intragency group, chaired by the National Security Advisor, whose “sole purpose” was to find that justification, “coordinating the Administration public relations abroad, with special emphasis on obtaining more favorable media coverage and influencing younger Europeans to adopt more sympathetic attitudes toward the presence of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy in Europe.

Authorized by National Security Memorandum 77, the group included Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Schultz; David Gergen, Assistant to the President for Communications; U.S. Information Agency director Charles Wick; and M. Peter McPherson, head of the Agency for International Development. Its special planning team was directed by former advertising executive Peter Dailey. This team “was established to develop a public relations strategy to sell” the deployment of Pershing II and Cruise missiles to Europe.

The team’s strategy was first to organize a new effort to obscure the true capabilities of those weapons, so that the risks and dangers they posed to both East and West would be less likely to emerge in public debate. The role these weapons played in developing our “nuclear war fighting” strategies of “decapitation”, “counterforce” targeting, and “flexible response” and the role they were expected to play in carrying them out, could then be denied with little fear of contradiction.

As a result, public debate of such strategies could be limited to a discussion of land-based weapons of intercontinental range, and of sea-based weapons long considered components of each superpower’s “strategic” forces. This would exclude land-based Pershing II and cruise missiles from Europe from that debate, creating the impression that they only had a “theater” and not a “strategic” role to play. That, in turn, would obscure the advantage we sought to exploit of their proximity to targets in the Soviet Union, with Pershing IIs could reach in so much less time than land-based Soviet missiles would take to reach targets in the United States. Our intention to exploit that advantage, after all, would not seem justifiable to the majority of the public.

Next, Dailey’s team would develop a public justification for deployment of our new missiles in Europe which gave no hint of their true role.

It was simple to obscure the capabilities of the weapons. That the range of the Pershing II allowed “strikes on Moscow from Germany” could be denied simply by quoting figures for its maximum range that were insufficient to cover that distance. If the implications of such figures were lost on the public, they could be spelled out. New York Times columnist Flora Lewis carefully wrote that “the Pershing 2’s range is 1,125 miles, 65 miles short of Moscow.”

The Reagan administration had given the Pershing II a range of 1,118 miles; NATO followed suit by quoting the same range. The International Institute for Strategic Studies quoted the same range. Time and Newsweek further reduced the missile’s range to 1,000 miles. In fact the Pershing II had a range of up to 1,242 miles, well over the 1,190 miles needed to reach Moscow from its positions in West Germany, as the editors of Defense Electronics knew and confirmed.

Midjourney AI and mjr: the secret map of cold war europe

This is consonant with a theme I have hammered on, on this blog, which is that the US has always lied about the fact that its nuclear weapons deployments are offensive not defensive. Indeed, a rational deterrent would be vastly smaller than what the US has developed and fielded, and would consist of heavy warheads capable of dodging and chaffing on their way in, with no need to deploy quickly – after all, they’re revenge missiles. Why, then, does the US keep fielding and building missiles that can precisely target command/control systems and silos? If we were talking about deterrent weapons, they would not be targeting silos at all; the silos would already be empty. If we were talking about deterrent weapons, they would not need to be stealthy they would be survivable – a cruise missile that is hard to track inbound is a first strike weapon whereas a gigantic city-killer that comes lumbering in, in a gigantic spray of chaff, to retaliate against whoever launched an attack, is a predictable arrival. I know this is not a surprise to some of you, but the degree to which these concepts are sold to the public, world-wide, might be.

I am reminded of this as I read about the games the US is playing with the GMLRS missiles it has fielded to Ukraine. Do they have 120mile range, or 250mile? Does anyone actually have any idea? There have been some attacks launched that appear to have hit substantially farther behind Russian lines than the specifications for GMLRS would imply. But why on earth would anyone in their right mind trust the manufacturer’s label? I don’t know anyone I could ask, and get a straight answer from, but what does a missile launch system do if you ask it to try to hit something 20 miles past its stated range? “I’ll try” is one thing, and “range error, please correct and try again” is another. It seems to me that no missile designer worth their salt would hard-code such things into a missile and launcher system – so, what happens if we remove half of the explosive charge or lighten the missile by removing half of its payload of tungsten ball bearings? Since these weapons are GPS-navigated, it seems to me that the missile would just do its best, and its best gets better if it’s 100lb lighter. [dod]

Of course it is necessary to reassure the Russians that the GMLRS provided to Ukraine will not be used against the Russian homeland itself. A bit of thought reveals that this is a charade, performed as though the firing location of the launcher isn’t also a critical variable in the situation. Presumably the Ukrainians and US achieved some understandings that the Ukrainians won’t use any US-origin gear for cross-border attacks. Sometimes there just isn’t enough plausible deniability to go around.

Denying that our new missiles in Europe had any strategic role would be simpler if we could also deny that we had ever conceived such a role. What better way to do this, and at the same time deny America’s responsibility for urging Europe to accept these weapons, than by claiming it was Europe which first asked for them? For then the growing number of Europeans who did not want them could be made to feel that they had only themselves to blame for getting them.

According to Strobe Talbott, Defense Secretary Weinberger privately offered other officials the following advice on how to manipulate European public opinion in order to create precisely this impression; “We’ve go to make them think that they are going to like it, and that it’s what they’ve been asking us to do.” Weinberger denies having said this.

The impression that Europe had asked for the weapons was not difficult to create. NATO did not make its decision to accept deployment of the Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Europe until 1979. Two years earlier, addressing the annual meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt expressed his concern that SALT II negotiations then in progress would “neglect the components of NATO’s deterrence strategy” because they dealt only with the “nuclear strategic weapons” of the superpowers, and did not take into account “the disparities between East and West in nuclear tactical and conventional weapons.” He recommended that NATO “be ready to make available the means to support its present strategy.”

That was all the United States needed. “Schmidt’s remarks,” John Newhouse observedm “were read by some as soliciting a response to the SS-20,” the missile the Soviet Union had begun to deploy that year in Eastern Europe, and as recommending a response, “in the form of an American make-weight based in Western Europe.”

Now, look what you made me do.


  1. crivitz says

    Only just read the first line with the hazard warning to any non-cynics reading this post. Do such folks come by here to visit at this point? My guess is that it’s only populated by us cynical doomers, staring into the abyss while it stares back at us.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    DoD tested the first cruise missiles by launching them from a sub in the Atlantic towards targets in Alabama, overflying the Florida county where I live (and had just moved to).

    And they missed – several times not even making it to the right state. We all got increasingly nervous about that. (Right-wing science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle bragged at the time about working on the inertial guidance system of said cruise missiles; I repeatedly longed for a chance to call him out to his face for the many-miles failures thereof.)

  3. says

    I didn’t really need to read past the fourth paragraph because it starts with four of the most terrifying words in the English language:

    “So the Reagan administration…”

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    And they missed – several times not even making it to the right state. We all got increasingly nervous about that.

    It’s moderately crazy to think how primitive the computers were that they were building the guidance systems out of. They would have been about par with Motorola 6800 CPUs we were running in Sun workstations at the time. On the other hand, it you’re trying to hit Alabama from the coastal waters, that’s a more or less stationary target. Let’s say “more” on the stationary side.

    I’m sure the standard response was “Y’all should just be glad we didn’t nuke you.” Only a few short years before the Air Force had managed to ‘lose’ a surprising number of warheads.

    If “precision bombing” is not on the list of oxymorons, then “military intelligence” shouldn’t be either.

  5. cvoinescu says

    jimf @ #5: Typo, surely. The Sun workstations used the 68000 family (a series of rather nice 16/32-bit processors), while the 6800 family were inexpensive, slow 8-bit CPUs used in desktop calculators, cash registers, disk controllers and other computer peripherals (things where you’d use a microcontroller today). Either would have worked as a guidance computer, but there’s quite the difference in power between the two series.

    The 68000 series even includes a microcontroller (but without built-in memory), the 683xx (aka CPU32) series — one I’ve had the pleasure to deal with recently in an old lab instrument.

  6. cvoinescu says

    Forgot to add: you might be familiar with what is essentially a faster and cheaper take on the same design as the Motorola 6800, the MOS Technology 6502. It was used in the Commodore 64.

  7. Robbo says

    I took an electronics class in 1988 or so. We used the 6502 or 6510 processor on a breadboard and some assembly language to learn about processors.

  8. says

    @7/8 Yes. The 6502 was the first micro I learned to program in assembly. It taught one important thing: I didn’t like assembly language. I also had a C-64. That gave way to the original Commodore Amiga 1000 (68k) which was then upgraded to a newer version with a 68020 (or maybe a 68030, I forget, but it did have the math co-pro). It had a whopping 3 Meg of RAM and a 40 MB SCSI hard drive, and the AmigaOS had pre-emptive multi-tasking. I was flying, baby, flying (back when all of my PC friends were still stuck at 640k, remember when Gates said nobody would ever need more…).

  9. cvoinescu says

    jimf @ #10:
    I started on a Z80 so I learned I liked assembly language.

    It was a double-bootleg Sinclair ZX Spectrum. First, it was one of the Eastern European clones where they implemented the entire Ferranti ULA in 74-series logic, plus one Intel 8255 parallel port IC: 92 ICs in all, including the 32 RAM chips and nine EPROMs, eight of which held an unauthorized copy of the Spectrum ROM (complete with “©1982 Sinclair Research Ltd” message at startup). For comparison, the original 48k ZX Spectrum had 26 chips not including the power regulator, 16 of which were the RAM.

    Second, mine was made from a reject PCB (two-layer, plated holes and vias, but no solder mask and no silkscreen; it had a couple of interrupted traces), probably stolen from the factory, and assembled by an EE student in their dorm, with a mix of Western and Soviet parts. Fun fact: you can force a К580ИК55 into the 40-pin DIP footprint of the i8255, despite one being proper socialist metric (2.50mm pin pitch) and the other being imperialist inch-based (2.54 mm pin pitch). It’s a royal pain to desolder without destroying the board when you need to replace it later. To make it even bootleg-ier, the students couldn’t get hold of the right case for the clone (Cobra), so it came with a case and keyboard from a different Spectrum clone (HC85), and a homebrew (linear!) power supply.

  10. xohjoh2n says

    New York Times columnist Flora Lewis carefully wrote that “the Pershing 2’s range is 1,125 miles, 65 miles short of Moscow.”

    That’s a very interesting statement in its own right.

    Where is the range measured to? Moscow city centre/The Kremlin? City limits? Metro area limits?

    If one were to detonate precisely “65 miles short of Moscow”, how much damage would the contents of Moscow suffer?

    A bit of googling suggests the Pershing could be vehicle launched, and was based in Heilbronn. That looks to be well over 65 miles away from the East German border. Would it have been impossible to just drive them 65 miles down the road and then, boom, you’ve got your range?

    Would the average reader really be expected to go “Oh, 65 miles out of a 1125 mile range? I guess it’s *impossible* then…”? If so, isn’t that about as depressing as the political games?

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