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June 24, 1975

Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) Commentary, 'A Disappointing Paper'

This document was made possible with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY)

A disappointing paper


The Memorandum on Disarmament, long-since announced, but published finally with great delay, generally has turned out to be a big disappointment. That disappointment is not caused by an expectation that there would suddenly be presented a totally new vision on policy concerning peace and security (though the initial announcement, with quite a bit of fanfare, of an ‘active peace policy’ and the appointment – for the first time – of a State Secretary of Foreign Affairs for Disarmament Matters did give cause for such expectations). After all, one cannot expect of a government that it speaks with two voices. The course of events, also under this government, does not deviate from the usual pattern: first, the coming ten-year defense budget as part of NATO was fixed in the Defense Memorandum, and only then some things are said about the dangers inherent in this policy. No, the reason for our disappointment lies in the content of the memorandum itself.


No perspective

To this Memorandum on Disarmament, as to the complete security policy, what the Interchurch Peace Council has written in 1972[i] applies: “Generally, the peoples living ‘under the protection of the nuclear umbrella’ are not told in any way anything sensible about the question what could eventually be the ending of this system… There is …. no perspective offered on a less dangerous and less immoral system.” One could call this memorandum “low on illusions,” but also: low on creativity, low on taking the actual current situation really seriously and full of illusions on seeking security in military power.

For sure, the risks of the existing system are mentioned in so many words, the criticism against it is discussed, but for the rest only noted. The most important objection that must be made against this memorandum is that nowhere in the policy we can see the awareness that the problem of the nuclear weapons is not just a danger that must be balanced against others, but that it is literally the problem of the survival of the human race. From the stated policy it becomes clear that in the conflict between national security and prevention of war, when push comes to shove, the choice is always for the former, that the risks of every more fundamental change are broadly elaborated upon, while is said about the existing system that it “has not functioned perfectly, but still satisfyingly”[ii]; that finally there are pleas for all kinds of in themselves desirable things far removed from us, but that when it is about our own safety reservations abound. The memorandum leaves no doubt about the fact that within the usual conception of deterrence and within a security policy that, like ours, is so narrowly bound to NATO, Dutch disarmament policy in practice only has very limited room for maneuver.


Other reasons for disappointment are found in:

  • the obscurities and contradictions in the memorandum and the sometimes one-sided representation of issues.
  • the generally limited approach, placed in a formally legal and diplomatic framework and having too little attention for causes of armament and violence (though in a general way it is said that contributions to the removal of these must have an important place in policy)
  • the lack of information about concrete proposals as made by the “other side.”


In the following I will give examples of this criticism.


Positive aspects

All this does not mean that there aren’t any positive elements in this memorandum at all. The following points, among others, deserve much praise:

  • In the memorandum, the current situation in the world is characterized as one of “unbridled armament.” This goes especially for the two superpowers. Of the continuation of this arms race between them and meager results of SALT, there is fairly open criticism.
  • The memorandum is very explicit about the desirability of a reinforcement of the striving for non-proliferation. In this connection, there is a plea for a ban on all nuclear tests.
  • In principle, the pursuit of the reduction of the role of nuclear weaponsis hopeful too. (But the elaboration of this goal remains half-hearted and caught in the inconsistencies and contradictions of the philosophy of deterrence).
  • In conclusion, it is also hopeful that the authors of the memorandum – more than ever was the case in previous policy papers – do not primarily seek the causes for the failed arms control and disarmament in Soviet unwillingness and the communistic expansionism any more, but pay attention to the dynamic inherent in processes of armament. They also show that they do not want to avoid the discussion with the critics of the current policy, while there is the beginning of acknowledgement that those objections sometimes do have validity and deserve to be taken into account.

Important in this respect is the announcement that the government intends to study the question as to what economic, social and political pressure has been and is being exerted on maintaining and expansion of Dutch armament. Another subject about which the government wants to promote research, is that of the nonviolent resolution of conflicts – social defense included. These are important initiatives that deserve to be monitored carefully.


Thus, there surely are some positive aspects. But is this sufficient? With some overstatement, one could say that this memorandum waves to the left, but turns to the right: down the dead-end street of strategic thinking.


The philosophy of deterrence

The questionable assumptions and intrinsic contradictions and the extremely risky aspects of the philosophy of deterrence are expounded far too often - and to the point of weariness -  to repeat them in this place. The situation was summarized very concisely in the well-known SIPRI-yearbook 1974: “As time goes on, the severe shortcomings of nuclear deterrent doctrines are becoming known for what they are – inhumane, irrational, positively dangerous, and a bar to progress in disarmament.”[iii] Indeed, inhuman, irrational and dangerous.

The memorandum too is caught in those intrinsic contradictions of the strategy. That contradiction is fundamental and is, in short, that what is being done to preserve or improve the credibility of deterrence as a strategy to prevent war, on the contrary would lead to fatal results if the initial deterrence would fail, and one would in fact have towage war.

Of course, the authors are aware of this dilemma. Every time when their analysis should lead them to conclude that the current strategy as an operational strategy is absolutely unsuitablefor waging actual war and should lead to the most fatal results, they hesitate and emphasize that it is primarily about preventing war. The question is raised, appropriately, whether a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would produce the intended “admonitory effect.” Will the enemy comply with the “rules” of the flexible-response-strategy?


The authors must admit: “Naturally, it could naturally not be predicted in what way a conflict could develop in reality.” Subsequently, they bury their head in the sand and write: “In all this, we should keep in mind that the strategy’s primary function is not waging war, but rather preventing it…”. But the problem is exactly that threatening with something that could have fatal results when the threat should be really carried out, is not credible. One could not deter with a war that cannot be waged. It is making a virtue of necessity to make of the uncertainties of the analysis the core piece of the deterrence, as happens with respect to the so-called American nuclear guarantees and the moment of use of tactical nuclear weapons. There is a lot of attention paid to these tactical nuclear weapons in connection with the wish to push back the role of these weapons in the strategy. The discussion revolves around the question whether what is the case with the achievement of parity in strategic nuclear weapons, namely that their role has been reduced to deterring their use by the other, (even though some strategists try to get out from under that) does not also hold for tactical nuclear weapons.  That would mean that they would only be deployed after a first use of them by the enemy. The memorandum initiates some ideas in this direction. There is a plea for raising the nuclear threshold. Small nuclear weapons (the so-called mini-nukes) are rejected, because these could blur the ‘watershed’ between nuclear and conventional weapons. Finally it is noted that now that the Warsaw Pact countries also possess tactical nuclear weapons, it is not possible anymore that Western tactical nuclear weapons automatically could compensate for conventional inferiority. The authors continue: “The ‘flexible response’-strategy therefore emphasizes (because of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, p.e.) heavily the possibilities for preventing every nuclear use, consequently raising the nuclear barrier as high as possible.” Elsewhere they state: “The entire tendency of the strategy is to exercise the utmost restraint…”.

In this vision fits as well what the memorandum says about the contribution the achievement of conventional parity (a common ceiling) could make to a curtailing of nuclear weapons. Then, after all, these weapons would not be needed anymore to prevent the enemy from abusing its conventional predominance.

But all this precisely is not compatible with the flexible-response-strategy, which on the contrary wants to leave open the option of a first and early use of nuclear weapons. It is not compatible either with what we know about the actual military build-up, that involves a massive and early use of nuclear weapons also.[iv] The memorandum is silent about the operational strategy on this issue. It is questionable if it exists. The fundamental dilemma is, after all, that the United States fear that the weapons would be used too early and that the Europeans, especially the Germans, fear that they would be used too late. The idea of a selective and limited use seems a dangerous illusion to me. The SIPRI-yearbook concludes[v] (as a result of the new Schlesinger-doctrine of the ‘selective options’): ‘The heart of matter is that a nuclear war, because the officially accepted strategy of the attack of military goals makes it ‘more flexible,’ also becomes more imaginable and with it more probable…. Few people will have faith in the possibility that the nuclear war could remain a limited affair. Every use of nuclear weapons, regardless of their type, probably will result in an all-out nuclear war.” It is revealing what now officially has been confirmed, namely “that the nuclear deterrence in reality was so primitive, that it only kept open the option of a massive all-out attack…. But as bad as this situation is, the consequences of the switch to a more flexible strategy of the kind that is now accepted, are still worse.” Nevertheless, the memorandum welcomes this change, because it would reinforce the credibility of the flexible response. But as long as that strategy is employed, the attempt to decrease the role of nuclear weapons probably remains an illusion. This is proved too by the dismissal of measures initiated by others that could concretize this curtailment, such as the announcement of a no-first-use-declaration and the establishment of denuclearized zones in Europe, because these would not be compatible with the strategy and in any case are made conditional upon the achievement of conventional parity.


The conventional power relationships (MBFR)

Repeatedly, the memorandum states that the achievement of a “more or less equal level” of conventional forces is a condition for further steps, like the reduction of nuclear weapons, no-first-use and other measures, and would make an important contribution to détente. About this, one could make some remarks. In the first place, it is questionable whether there is a clear Eastern conventional supremacy. An estimation of the balance of power is surrounded by so many uncertainties, that it is nearly impossible to make any reliable assessment. The most trustworthy estimations[vi] conclude that there are imbalances in different parts, yet in general there is no considerable predominance on either side. The included table[vii] does mention the ground forces and the tanks, but not the anti-tank weapons and helicopters, where the West has superior numbers. Justifiably, it is remarked that counting airplanes in a particular area has a limited meaning. After all, they can easily be flown in from somewhere else.


The Western attempt – so far – in that situation of overall-symmetry to put right the asymmetry on one part seems to me doomed to failure. Certainly, the government is pleading, as is well-known, for inclusion of tactical nuclear weapons in the MBFR-talks, but it still holds on to the thought of the common ceiling. The idea that the tactical nuclear weapons could be exchanged for conventional troops is not (yet) put forward either. Both types of weapons are seen as separate problems and treated as such. That demand justifiably is unacceptable for the other side. It is strange that in the memorandum there is said nothing about the different negotiating proposals (this is done with the treatment of other subjects) and that there is made no distinction (in the rejection of it) between reductions in an absolute sense and in terms of percentage. In the latter case the absolute differences decrease too, after all. Therefore, it is not true that in the latter case the unbalanced relations would be confirmed. Apart from that, it is difficult to see why at a lower level a relative supremacy would become more meaningful. Not considered here is that imbalances of power necessary for successfully carrying out an attack, do not exist in the current situation.



It has already been mentioned that the memorandum rejects or in any case postpones to a, based on current conditions, very hypothetical future the issuing of a declaration that one will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Additionally, such a measure is unjustifiably represented as something one would do in an otherwise undesirable situation.

If it is said that such a declaration must at least be two-sided, then it is forgotten that this has been repeatedly proposed already by the East. It is forgotten too that such a declaration could be a good step in the direction of a ban on the use of nuclear weapons (which after all for the time being would probably leave open the possibility the use in retaliation). Such a step could have great significance as part of a policy that tries to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. A no-first-use-declaration would be the clearest form in which the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons could take shape. It would confirm that, also in the case of tactical nuclear weapons, their role – if there is one – only exists in deterring their use by the other party.

It is striking that the government here, as elsewhere, is hiding more or less behind the unwillingness of the NATO-partners to consider this idea. If a proposal is good, it should be defended, also when (for the time being) one can expect only limited support. It would serve the intellectual honesty, when desirability and practicability would be distinguished clearly.


Nuclear weapons-free zones

With regard to the idea of nuclear weapons-free zones applies what was mentioned before, that the memorandum is ready to recommend far-reaching measures to others, as long as these are far enough from our own beds. Thus, the advantages of the founding of nuclear weapons-free zones, for example in Latin America, the Middle East or the area of the Indian Ocean, are elucidated thoroughly. But when these matters come closer to home, all kind of objections are raised. It holds again, that plans for similar zones in Europe are rejected as if it is about a partial measure and not about a part of a package of measures and of a new strategy that tries to free itself from the bankruptcy of the atomic armament. It is striking that one looks past the many proposals that have been made by the Eastern side and that recently have been confirmed. When in this regard there is another plea in favor of a declaration that one wants to see a removal of all nuclear weapons from Dutch soil, that is not because we want to have clean hands or because we want to see them moved to West Germany (in fact it is more important that the weapons will be removed from Germany than from the Netherlands), but because such an announcement could be the crowbar that could loosen the discussion about these weapons. It is striking that in this regard, as in many passages in the memorandum, there are warnings time after time of the risk that a sweeping change of strategy could have a destabilizing effect and elsewhere (especially in West Germany) could feed the desire for alternative security systems, either in the form of a bilateral alliance with the United States, or in the form of a West European defense and nuclear force. More about that now.


A West European nuclear force

The authors’ standpoint vis-à-vis the problem of the West European nuclear force – incidentally not described or defined anywhere in the memorandum – is clearer than in the Defense Memorandum[1], where the problem was identified as ‘not very topical’ and the possible mutual incompatibility of goals such as maintaining the Atlantic ties, establishing a European Union and preventing a European nuclear force was analyzed insufficiently. It is recognized now that the danger is not so much in the, indeed unlikely, establishment of a West European nuclear force as a “crowning achievement” of political integration as an act of political willpower, but especially in the gradually developing interim- and preliminary phases that are not forbidden by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, the impression remains that one keeps postponing the problem and only recognizes hypothetical frictions. In what way one wants to resist the processes just mentioned remains unclear. But it is not possible to analyze this within the formal judicial framework of this memorandum, which does recognize the significance of technological, economic and military pressures in the direction of more and more armaments, but only identifies these pressures and does not incorporate them within the further analysis.

Striking is that, while on the one hand the difficulties for the establishment of a West European nuclear force are called “nearly insurmountable,” elsewhere there are constant reminders of the danger, that the changes of policy advocated by others could bring the West European nuclear power closer.

It seems therefore, that the critics of a West European nuclear force, who also criticize the current conceptions of deterrence, are in danger to get caught in a trap in which they could be challenged with their own arguments. The solution is found in arguing, and rightly in my opinion, a) that the processes that could lead to a West European nuclear force are less ‘guidable’ than is commonly thought and are thus less sensitive to political actions originating from feelings of reduced safety, and b) that the alternative strategy advocated (defensive deterrence, no-first-use, nuclear weapons free zones, reduction of tactical nuclear weapons) will in fact improve the stability and security, also psychologically, so that the observed danger of the West European nuclear force is an illusion, with which we do not have to be preoccupied.


The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)

Especially because the memorandum in the beginning justifiably states that a peace policy must be directed toward the removal of causes of tensions and conflicts, it is disappointing that the paragraphs dedicated to the CSCE, which hopefully will enter its third and for the time being concluding phase in the near future, are so noncommittal. If this indifferent and uninterested way of writing about this conference is an indication of the real importance the Netherlands attaches to it, then the fine words about an “active peace policy” become quite empty. In contrast with what is being said in the memorandum, I think that we should not make more freedom for the exchange of ideas, persons and information – as desirable as these are on their own – a condition for détente. This goal can only be reached as a consequence of political and economic rapprochement and integration. As long as this is not the case, this pursuit will appear to the other party, correctly or incorrectly, as an attempt of subversion.


The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

I have already mentioned as one of the positive aspects of this memorandum, that it argues so strongly in favor of a strengthening of the current treaty against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Partly as a result of the recently held so-called “Review Conference,” where the functioning of the NPT has been discussed, certain measures are welcomed which eventually could close the holes in the proliferation net. In this regard there is a correct reference to how the ongoing nuclear arms race between the superpowers mortgages efforts to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Although this argument should not be used as an argument in favor of proliferation, the power of this argument is underestimated. Is the government serious enough in her attempts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and is it convinced of the necessity to make concessions in this field, to be a credible voice in the area of non-proliferation? As long as one thinks that nuclear weapons are indispensable for one’s own protection and considers this politically and morally acceptable, the striving for non-proliferation remains hypocritical and not very effective.


Social defense

While in 1968 the then minister Den Toom rejected a suggestion to pay attention to the ideas of nonviolent and social defense as undermining deterrence, now for the first time there is some serious attention paid in a government paper to a nonviolent alternative to military power! That is a gain, as is the encouragement of a further inquiry into it. The idea is still rejected, because the chances of effective nonviolent resistance are not deemed very high and therefore the system would not deter sufficiently, at least an initial start has been made in thinking about an alternative conception, which of course at the moment is not yet well-thought-out, but deserving of closer investigation. But then it is necessary to assess both conceptions, the military and the non-military, in the same way. If the social defense must be dismissed, because “it does not offer a sufficient guarantee for the security of the state and its subjects against the exertion of violence,” then that goes equally for the prevailing system, through which, after all, even physical survival cannot be guaranteed. When the military deterrence fails, the war is over, because annihilation is then a fact; in the case of social defense, the battle then only begins.


Education and consciousness-raising

The memorandum rightly states that the disarmament policy must be supported and driven by an educated and conscious public opinion. “That is why the government attaches greater value to the stimulation of consciousness-raising regarding issues of peace and war.” It is satisfying that the authors of the memorandum are ready, “within the bounds of their possibilities,” to help consolidating the base of this educational work. It is satisfying also that they have in mind not only the Dutch Institute for Peace Issues, but also other private organizations and institutions active in this field. It is the task now of the organizations involved quickly to elaborate some proposals for this proposed cooperation.



I have tried to show that the memorandum does not draw the necessary conclusions from its own analysis of the contradictions of the deterrence philosophy. Precisely because one eventually ends up conforming to the current security system, in spite of the more or less outspoken criticism of it, there remains only very little room for a real disarmament policy. This certainly applies to the European situation, in which we are involved most. Through exaggeration of the risks connected to policy changes, the available margins are left unused. Sometimes it is not clear whether the government itself does not want this or that it fears a lack of agreement among the allies. It should be acknowledged that these restrictions are real as long as the Netherlands remains a member of NATO, and whether the possibilities outside of it will be bigger remains questionable. But the burden is on the people who regard NATO as the best way to achieve our goals and who want to frighten us against all alternatives.


A different policy

Without breaking completely with NATO and its philosophy of deterrence in advance, once can certainly imagine some moves that break with the current situation enough to open up new perspectives on a less risky system. One could think about:

  • not basing the military deterrence on a very improbable, big and deliberate attack, but on controlling largely unplanned crisis situations
  • recognizing that tactical nuclear weapons can have as their only function the prevention of their use by the enemy; when they do not play a role anymore as a compensation for conventional weakness in crisis management, their number could be reduced drastically, even one-sidedly
  • in such a new strategy could fit logically also the issuing, possibly unilaterally, of a no-first-use-declaration and denuclearized zones in Europe
  • at the MBFR talks abandoning a common ceiling for conventional troops in Central Europe and accepting reductions in terms of percentage
  • stimulating the conversation about nuclear armament by bringing into the discussion the deployment of nuclear weapons on Dutch soil; renounce nuclear tasks by the Netherlands.
  • elaborating a policy regarding the West European integration, so that the danger of a West European nuclear force, also in its early stages, is prevented as effectively as possible.


Leiden, 24 June 1975

Philip P. Everts



[1] The government’s national security policy paper, “Defensienota” of 1974.

[i]The future of Europe, Standpoint of the Interchurch Peace Council, Voorburg, 1972.

[ii] Because I only had a copy, there are no direct references here to specific pages in the memorandum.

[iii]SIPRI Yearbook on World Armaments and Disarmament 1974, Stockholm, 1974, p. 64.

[iv] Cf. M.J. Brenner, ‘The tactical nuclear strategy and European defense: a critical reappraisal’, International Affairs 51 (1975) pp 1, 23-42.

[v] Quoted here: NIVV Summary Wapenfeiten (Facts of Arms) 1975, p 15

[vi] For example: SIPRI publication Force Reductions in Europe, Stockholm, 1974.

[vii] Quoted from The Military Balance, 1974-1975, London, 1974, p 101.

Philip E. Everts expresses disappointment and criticism over the Dutch government's memorandum on disarmament and security.

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International Institute for Social History, Amersterdam, Archief Interkerkelijk Vredesberaad, Notulen en vergaderstukken 1976, box 12.


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