October 21, 2017

1967. Washington's Nuclear Poker Game with Moscow

A Costly Missile Defense Proposal
"A Nike Zeus B missile is launched from the Pacific Missile Range at Point Mugu on 7 March 1962" (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 11, 1967

This is Bill Downs in Washington for ABC Reports.

The United States is now engaged in history's most dangerous nuclear poker game with the Russians. Defense Secretary McNamara wants to call the Kremlin's bluff, but Congress wants to raise the ante.

When Secretary McNamara took the new defense budget to Capitol Hill the other day, he touched off a debate that affects the lives and pocketbooks of every American.

It really began last fall with the revelation that the Soviet Union had started work on an antimissile defense system. The announcement shook up a lot of Congress, which is dedicated to the proposition that anything the Russians can do we can do better.

Secretary McNamara agrees, but he also says that no nation can build a truly effective antimissile missile, that the Russians are wasting their money; America should not make the same mistake.

To Congress, however, the antimissile defense program also is political. Even if McNamara is right, they point out, the Russians will have a psychological advantage which will not go unnoticed by the American people. And even if the proposed US Nike-X antimissile system does cost an outlandish $40 billion, the American economy can stand the strain.

So goes the argument among the men in Washington whose unhappy job it is to gamble with America's nuclear future.

McNamara says we can now and in the future call any military bet the Kremlin wants to make with our terrible nuclear power. The worried congressman might say maybe so, but let's raise the pot again and try to play it more safely.

But there's another element. In no-limit poker, a gambler plays his hand based on his own capacity to read his opponent's cards. He'll attempt to capture the pot when he convinces himself that his challenger is bluffing and that he holds the winning hand.

Thus, if the United States does not begin on an antimissile system, the Kremlin might be led to misjudge America's truly annihilating nuclear power.

Sitting behind their own ABM system, they may convince themselves they could devastate the US and escape with acceptable losses to themselves.

You see, the Russians are better chess players than they are at the deadly game of no-limit poker.

This is Bill Downs at the Pentagon for ABC Reports.