August 20, 2001

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America's Civil Defense program

Eniwetok Atoll

Black Tom Island


John F. Kennedy Inaugeral Speech

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American Deterrence Theory and Homeland Defense

American Deterrence Theory and Homeland Defense

Dr. George H. Quester
University of Maryland

October 2000

George H. Quester is a Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses on International relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, and International Military Security. He has taught previously at Cornell and Harvard universities, at UCLA, and at the United States Naval Academy and the National War College. Dr. Quester is the author of a number of books and articles on international security issues, and on broader questions of international relations, and he is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations.

     Most Americans have come to terms with the fact that their homeland has not been physically secure since World War II. The introduction of nuclear weapons, with the airplanes and missiles to deliver them, has meant that our homes and lives could be destroyed within less than an hour of Moscow's decision to attack.

     Only a few of such Americans have bad dreams each night about a nuclear holocaust, or still flinch each time they see a bright flash of light, wondering whether they should dive under the nearest desktop.[1]

     A few others may be unaware of such nuclear threats,[2] or may instead be convinced that we must have erected and maintained anti-missile and anti-bomber air defense systems to preclude this destruction.

     For a larger number of people, the coping with this basic threat to the homeland has instead involved some rough-and-ready internalization of the basics of mutual deterrence, whether or not they have been walked through this by the basic "guns and rockets" courses on "International Military Security" that are now offered on the curriculum of virtually every American university.

     If any foreign country would destroy our cities, we would get even by destroying their cities. And thus such a foreign power is very unlikely to initiate such a destructive exchange, and we can turn our attention to other things. So goes a logic that relatively fewer Americans can present very explicitly, but which most probably carry around in their heads intuitively, making it possible for all of us to visit the "ground-zeros" of potential nuclear attacks without dwelling on the risk.[3]

Learning About Deterrence

     It took a while for this logic and its calming effect to sink in with most Americans, and some would argue that it is a far-from-perfect kind of reassurance. Many of us can remember the civil defense drills that were part of a public school education in the 1950s. After the first detection of a Soviet nuclear weapons test in 1949, popular magazines in the United States produced a spate of articles on what such atomic bombs might do to New York or Washington. And the aftermath of the first hydrogen-bomb tests in the mid-1950s produced even grimmer analyses on how the width of the crater at Eniwetok compared with the length of Manhattan.[4]

     The exposure of the American homeland to foreign attack made it much easier for the newly independent U.S. Air Force to get Americans to consider threat from across the top of the globe and not just across the ocean. A look at a polar-projection map of the Northern Hemisphere, rather than the traditional Mercator projection map (which had always made the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans seem like such an insurmountable moat protecting us) showed how easy it would be for a foreign enemy to strike Kansas, and not just at New York or California.

     If the Air Force could enlist this new geographical awareness of vulnerability to win support for some attempts at homeland defense, in the investment in NORAD, the reassurance to the American people in the end came with SAC, in the ability to hit back at the USSR crossing the same polar icecaps, and thus to protect the homeland by deterrence.

"A New Idea"?

     If deterrence was the antidote to homeland vulnerability in the 1950s and 1960s, how new an idea was deterrence, and how new a problem was homeland vulnerability? There have been theorists of deterrence who would have assumed that the entire phenomenon was the product of aviation's having opened up the third-dimension for warfare, as airplanes could deliver bombs to hit an adversary's homeland cities, even if no victory had yet been won on the ground battlefields to open such cities up to punishment, indeed even if the adversary's forces were winning the ground battle. This kind of third-dimension warfare was of course reinforced by missiles, and by submarines slipping under an adversary's dominance of surface naval warfare, and it was most powerfully reinforced by the introduction of nuclear weapons.

     Yet one already finds many discussions of homeland vulnerability, and of mutual deterrence, in the analyses of future aerial warfare put forward at the end of World War I.[5] British and other analysts (Douhet is far from alone in such analysis, and is not the most profound example) put forward projections of future aerial bombing campaigns that look more like World War III than like World War II, with assumptions that poison gas would be used in the air attacks on cities, thus forecasting a much greater devastation than London was to suffer in 1940. (We will say more a little later about the advantages of having prepared a home population for a worse attack than actually materializes.) And, for a number of such inter-war analysts, the solution, the way to handling the prospect of such great misery, was mutual deterrence. Each side could hit the other's homeland, and thus each might hold back as long as the other held back.[6]

     American writers on air warfare entered somewhat into this discussion of future bombing scenarios. After Charles Lindbergh demonstrated that one could fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the threat became somewhat more real: that what London had experienced in the bombings of 1914 to 1918 (very mild compared to World War II, but indeed causing much more panic among Londoners) might befall New York or Chicago in the next war.[7]

     Yet one can go back even a little further to look for American experience with homeland vulnerability, and for any enunciations of the concept of "deterrence". The American coastline was all along vulnerable to the British Navy or any other hostile navy, and so was American commerce.[8] Americans have always been a commercial people, and the sinking of American merchant ships has always hit Americans "at home". The National Anthem of the United States commemorates the defense of Baltimore against British attack, in the immediate aftermath of the British amphibious invasion, that had destroyed Washington.

     Sir Julian Corbett argued at the end of the nineteenth century that this British ability to harass the merchant commerce of adversaries, as well as their coastlines, should not in any way be renounced, by the treaties being proposed by the United States and other countries, because this would give up Britain's "great deterrent".[9] Thus, even before airplanes and missiles and nuclear weapons, the world's homelands had become vulnerable to the counter-value attack of an adversary; and the strategic calculation had loomed that the mere prospect of such an attack could deter, could influence.

World War I

     Commerce on the high seas has made Americans feel vulnerable at home, and so has the concomitants of such trade, allowing foreign nationals to come to our country and reside in it for long periods, ostensibly as they are buying our goods. Americans in 1914 might have felt like celebrating the 100th anniversary of the last foreign invasion of their homeland, but, as World War I began, they started to feel two kinds of new homeland vulnerability.

     First, the Great War saw Britain interfering with American ships trying to sail to Germany, and then saw Germany relying on submarines to attack similar ships going to Britain. The latter kind of attack was much more dangerous to human life and property, of course, but both interferences with American "freedom of the seas" produced indignation in the United States, and a frustrated debate about how to respond.

     As American munitions factories found a major market in Britain and France, and were unable to deliver similar goods to Germany because of the British control of the ocean surface, one then also began to see sabotage of such factories, exemplified most vividly by the "Black Tom" explosion at a New Jersey dock just opposite Manhattan, shaking the Brooklyn Bridge and breaking windows all over New York City. As a forerunner of what we have to fear today, German agents even experimented with a primitive form of biological warfare. They attempted to inflict the horses procured in America for the British or French cavalry with a disease called "glanders".[10]

     Illustrating what may be a major problem for future homeland defense, where "deterrence" may not be a satisfactory answer, the 1914-1917 vulnerability raised problems of who was accountable for the attacks (the German Embassy always disclaimed responsibility). Were the "terrorists", who were bringing the explosions and destruction of World War I right into the United States itself, definitely German agents? Or were they instead Irish opponents of British Imperial rule, or Bolshevik revolutionaries, in which case it would be much more difficult for Americans to know against whom to retaliate?

     The sabotage within the United States ended when World War I ended, and when American munitions makers no longer had customers to supply in Britain and France. It indeed ended earlier, as the police system of the United States was able to corral the agents hired by the German government, and the German Embassy itself was closed down before the American entry into the war.

     Some of the lawsuits, criminal and civil, on alleged German responsibility for sabotage were to be carried forward as late as the 1930s, as the American legal system dictated that justice be done, that guilt or innocence be established.[11] This experience thus supports a first important lesson for the future of homeland defense: it will remain very important that great efforts be made to uncover the perpetrators of such attacks, and to punish them, perhaps even after international wars have ended.

     As one worries about attacks on the homeland in the next century, one of our major concerns is thus indeed that such attacks can come in a form where it was not clear who had launched the attack, i.e. it will not be clear against whom retaliation should be launched. Americans knew who to strike back at, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, and they became fairly certain of whom to get angry at, and ultimately to strike back at (by entering the war), after the attacks on the Black Tom dock or the Lusitania. But they were somewhat less sure at first of who had launched the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City Federal Office Building, or on the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salaam.

     One immediate policy conclusion would thus seem to come to mind, that substantial investments need to be made in increasing our detective capacities for establishing who was to blame for any future attacks on the American homeland, not merely because of our sense of justice, but because deterrence requires that the prospective attacker face a great risk that his identity will be established, and that he will suffer punishment in retaliation.[12]

     Yet it is easier to spot the generic nature of a "solution" to the problem here, and less easy to be sure that such advances in detective capabilities will be achievable, even if substantial amounts of money are spent. The bad consequence of a widespread proliferation of the technologies for weapons of mass destruction is not just that possibly crazy political actors may get at the triggers of such weapons, but also that, when such a weapon is used, there will be a larger array of possible suspects.

The Evolution into the Cold War

     Some new German sabotage occurred at the outset of World War II, but on a smaller scale, and with less shock and outrage for an American public at seeing its homeland violated. No German air raids were launched on the North American homeland during World War II, and no serious Japanese air raids.

     The next serious wave of concern about the safety of North America loomed up nonetheless in the closing of World War II, as the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered a tangible illustration of what could befall any American city, once someone else acquired nuclear weapons, with this culminating in the discovery in 1949 that the Soviet Union had test-detonated such a weapon. And it was then in the wake of these nuclear events that the full-blown theory of mutual deterrence emerged, a theory that can only partially relieve the concerns of all of us who are no so vulnerable.

     If one combines the two historical experiences noted above, that of "Black Tom" and that of Hiroshima, one sets the stage for relating deterrence to homeland defense in the new century. If the Soviets inflicted the fate of Hiroshima on an American city, one would know against whom to retaliate, and the prospect of such retaliation thus might keep the disaster from ever happening. If one was in doubt about who had caused a dock to blow up across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Americans would be in more of quandary about who to punish, but the damage to the homeland, however frightening and unnerving, was not yet a disaster.

     But what if a rudimentary atomic bomb, or a comparably deadly chemical or biological weapon, is used against Manhattan, without the launcher of the attack being clear and obvious? What deters such an attack, what reassures us that the attack will not happen, when the launcher of the attack might not be identifiable, might not even be a state with territory of its own?

Two Other Important Lessons

     Aside from the need to enhance the identifiability of the attacker, two other lessons suggest themselves from these rounds of historical experience. As illustrated in the pluck of Londoners in 1940, who were much more exposed to attack than in 1914, but who flinched far less, much depends on conditioning a public in advance to how bad an attack might be, and thus toughening the public against that attack.[13] Almost all the forecasts of aerial bombardment printed before World War II exaggerated how bad it would be; the resilience of populations to such attacks might well have been the product of these excessive warnings.

     And much will depend on advertising to the outside world the toughness and resolve of one's homeland. An adversary who knows that Americans are unlikely to flinch, unlikely to make concessions in a contest of resolve, will be less likely to launch such homeland attacks in the first place.

     One of the big questions we will face in the next century entails predicting what the American reaction indeed will be if attacks are conducted against the American homeland, attacks that may kill many thousands of people.

     As a forerunner of the next century's threat to the homeland, which will most probably be heavily counter-value, heavily directed against homes and civilians, we have already mentioned the American shock at such attacks during our period of neutrality in World War I.

     To note an important distinction, someone defending the German sabotage programs of 1914 to 1917 could still have labeled them as overwhelmingly counterforce, as intended to deprive the British and French of the ammunition being assembled in the factories and docks where the bombs were being left. If windows were broken in Manhattan in the process, or American civilians were killed or wounded in the factories hit, these could be brushed off as collateral and inadvertent and unintended. Yet someone in Berlin and in the German Embassy might also have calculated that this civilian suffering might reduce American willingness to get into the war. "Bringing the war home" to the Americans might help in preventing "bringing America into the war".[14]

     Similarly, the sinking of ships in U-boat attacks was labeled as counterforce in all the German explanations for such attacks. Most shocking in particular to American feelings was the sinking of the Lusitania, with a great number of passengers being drowned as this British ocean liner went down, including some 128 American citizens. The German claim, at the time and ever since, was that the Lusitania carried munitions, thus accounting for the magnitude of the explosion when the German torpedo hit, and the rapidity of the ship's sinking thereafter.[15]

     Perhaps German planners were hoping to discourage American entry into the war by hitting the civilians, including American civilians, who felt at home on such a ship. But this would have been a terribly wrong-headed calculation, for the loss of the Lusitania played a major role in getting Americans ready to enter the war.

     More probably the German U-boat campaign was premised on the calculation that the sinking of merchant ships, and the denial of food imports to Britain, would inflict enough suffering on the British homeland to get London to negotiate a peace.

Good News: The Future Like the Past?

     A total of 128 Americans died on the Lusitania. What will be the American response if thousands die in a future nuclear, chemical, biological or even conventional attack on the American homeland?

     With the experiences of World War I and World War II, and of other wars, behind us, several generalizations can be offered.

     To begin, any foreign government, and any non-government foreign terrorist group, must be warned that it is easy to underrate the willingness of Americans to pursue these contests of endurance to a successful conclusion. Public opinion polls are notoriously misleading on whether Americans are ready to defend anything in the world. Such polling began only in the late 1930s, with the earliest sampling showing that most Americans felt it was a mistake to enter World War I, and that almost nothing was worth dispatching American forces for defense, with barely a majority even endorsing the defense of Hawaii![16]

     When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they were betting that Americans would not want to persist in a war to recover the Philippines and the other islands that Japan was seizing in the western Pacific, but would rather prefer to negotiate a peace based on the new status quo that the Japanese surprise attack had so suddenly created. This bet had been questioned by Admiral Yamamoto, the planner of the Pearl Harbor attack, who knew the United States well from having spent four years there, and who argued that the Americans would never surrender just because of the pain and suffering of persisting in the conflict, but would instead have to be totally militarily defeated, with "Yamamoto dictating peace terms in the White House". Since Yamamoto and all the other Japanese planners knew that such a Japanese military defeat of the United States was not possible, Yamamoto argued that the entire Japanese decision to launch the war was a mistake.[17]

     Stalin similarly had underestimated the American willingness to bear the burden of defending South Korea, and Saddam Hussein misread American willingness to pay the burdens of defending and liberating Kuwait. One might cite these examples to Communist leaders in Beijing, lest they underestimate American willingness to defend Taiwan.

     One prediction might thus be that a foreign attack on the American homeland will not frighten Americans into withdrawing from commitments abroad, but will lead to a substantial American response to punish the perpetrators, to defend our friends and interests abroad. If public opinion polls do not reinforce deterrence, one should remind all foreign governments and others that such polls are misleading. If everyone knows that an attack on the American homeland will not cause Americans to flinch, but will lead to a very punishing response, these attacks on the American homeland may well again be deterred, may never happen.

     The December, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might be cited as the last foreign attack on the "American homeland", although Hawaii was not yet a state at the time, and (as noted) some American public opinion polls even showed a hesitation about defending Hawaii. To be sure, the Japanese attack had to be rated as relatively purely counterforce, as the American fleet was the target, and no bombs were to be wasted on Honolulu.

     Yet the Japanese logic in initiating war with the United States was very parallel to what would be in the mind of someone attacking the American homeland in the coming century, namely a bet that Americans could be tired out by the prospect of pain and suffering, and dissuaded from opposing Japanese interests.

     The Japanese government planned on seizing a secure enough position in a quick attack in 1941 and 1942, so that the American people and their government would regard the burden of reversing this as too great a price to be paid, with Japan then being free to have its way in China.[18] Someone delivering weapons of mass destruction to an American city in some future crisis might be very similarly intent on impressing the United States that the price of getting in the aggressor's way in some corner of the world would be too high.

     The Pearl Harbor attack is indeed analogous to our problem of how to deter an attack on the American homeland. To repeat, it offers a cautionary lesson to those who think that Americans will not retaliate. If the Japanese had understood the Americans better, they would have been deterred from attacking Pearl Harbor, and they would have been deterred from continuing their attack on China, or compelled to withdraw from China.

Bad News: The Future Unlike the Past?

     Yet a pessimistic counter-prediction could be advanced that the future threat to the homeland we are discussing here is significantly different, enough so to make Americans much more likely to shrink back than to respond, and hence to make this come out much more an example of appeasement and surrender, rather than successful deterrence.

     To begin with the most obvious point, the destruction inflicted on the American homeland would be much greater than anything experienced in 1916, or anything anticipated before 1945, with the prospect that the nuclear, chemical or biological attack that had just been inflicted on an American city would be inflicted again, if the United States did not make the concession demanded, did not withdraw its forces from some area.

     It may be dangerous to underestimate American resolve, as our response to the Pearl Harbor attack showed. Yet it would be unrealistic to impute unlimited resolve to the same Americans, assuming that they were ready "to pay any price..." as John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech had phrased it; the reaction to the casualties imposed in Vietnam, or indeed in Somalia, suggests something different.

     And to return to the first lesson we noted, Americans will be frustrated by uncertainties as to who launched these attacks, uncertainties about whom to hit back against.

Policies for Toughening Up

     As to what can be done to stiffen the prospect of resolve (the prospect that such retaliation would indeed be inflicted when the adversary had been identified, that Americans would not instead flinch in the face of further attacks), the policy suggestions might again be obvious, but with the feasibility also again being under some doubt.

     If there are some elementary population-defense precautions that can be taken to reduce the death and suffering after an WMD attack, these grow in priority in face of the new threats that are looming; this is because of our elementary humane concern for protecting our innocent citizens, and because such precautions will increase the prospect that deterrence would work, the prospect that Americans would hit back at the perpetrator of such an attack, rather than give in to his demands.

     The homeland attacks we have to fear will be part of a contest of endurance, a game of "chicken", where the other side is guessing that he can win by imposing pain on Americans. As with the contests of guerrilla war or conventional war in the past, or the more minor terrorist attacks we have experienced to date, Americans stand a better chance of winning such contests, and indeed of keeping such contests from even beginnig in the first place, if they show signs of having protected themselves somewhat, of having reduced the suffering that we would undergo in the process.

American Resolve in the Future?

     Rather than retreating and conceding all the political issues at stake after a major counter value attack on the United States homeland (or after such an attack on an overseas base of the United States), it is also still very possible that Americans would thereafter feel inclined to go to the other extreme, to impose a maximum of punishment on the perpetrator of the original attack.

     Such punishment could come, of course, in a simple matching of attacks on homeland, once the guilty party is identified, as the United States is still a long way from divesting itself of its nuclear warheads or the means of delivering them.

     Alternatively, and morally more appropriate where the decision to attack the American homeland was not made by the people of another country, but by some leader who may never have been freely elected, the American response might indeed be to go to the maximum effort of deposing and arresting those leaders, just as we went to such an effort against the Japanese and German leaders in World War II.

     The United States and its allies did not go to Baghdad to arrest and punish Saddam Hussein, and no Iraqi leaders were put on trial for war crimes. But it is a reasonable guess that this would indeed have been the response if Iraq had launched a chemical or biological attack on an American city, or indeed had launched any such WMD attack anywhere in the world, even in the immediate combat zone.[19] The prospect of such a total pursuit of unconditional surrender might still be one of the most effective ways of establishing a deterrence barrier to attacks on the American homeland.

     The only major problem with this kind of deterrent is that we might need to couple this threat to other possible actions by a rogue-state adversary. Is an attack on an American city the only transgression for which Saddam Hussein might have to be punished by his arrest and the total deposition of his regime? Most probably not, for the same might have to be the response if Iraqi forces launched another major conventional invasion of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or if Saddam broke chemical or biological weapons out for use against a neighbor, or perhaps if he merely insisted on acquiring nuclear weapons. If the major punishment is to be applied for such lesser offenses, however, what is the deterrent being held in reserve, to keep Saddam Hussein or any similar political actor from attacking the American homeland?

Some General Conclusions

     Deterrence has been successful against the prospect of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union and by the other states possessing such weapons. It has been a "success" in that the attacks have not occurred, and also in that Americans have not had to brood about the prospect of such attacks. Looking at the longer history of the deterrence concept, and the longer history of threats to the American homeland, our question has been how such a deterrence success can be achieved now that the threats have changed.

     The three "lessons" noted above all address the logical prerequisites of deterrence. One has to enable oneself to identify the guilty party, the perpetrator of the attack. One has to toughen up one's population so that we are all ready to persist in a contest of wills. And one has to make one's own resolve clear, lest the potential attacker under-rate American willingness to retaliate.

     The logic of deterrence is clear enough to make these lessons relatively easy to identify. Implementing these lessons, however, may be much more difficult.

Click on endote number to return to article.

[1] For a discussion of how Americans have handled their vulnerability to nuclear air attack, see Spencer Wiart, Nuclear Fear (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1988).

[2] For a citation of callers-in to a radio "talk show" who did not know that nuclear weapons still existed, see Robert Manning, "The Nuclear Age: The Next Chapter", Foreign Policy No. 109 (Winter, 1997-1998) pp. 70-84.

[3] The basics of nuclear deterrence logic are discussed in Albert Wohlstetter, "The Delicate Balance of Terror", Foreign Affairs Vol. 37, No. 2 (January, 1959) pp. 211-234.

[4] On the impact of the first H-bomb test, see James R. Shepley and Clay B. Blair, The Hydrogen Bomb (New York; David McKay, 1954).

[5] This author's more extended analysis of the pre-World War II deterrence thinking can be found in George H. Quester, Deterrence Before Hiroshima (New York: John Wiley, 1966).

[6] For an example, see Jonathan Griffin, Alternative to Rearmament (London: MacMillan, 1936).

[7] On American speculation about air attack between the wars, see William C. Sherman, Air Warfare (New York: The Ronald Press, 1926).

[8] On the strategic interactions here, see Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1967.

[9] Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911) p. 99.

[10] A very readable overview of German sabotage and the American reaction can be found in Jules Witcover, Sabotage at Black Tom (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Press, 1989).

[11] See ibid, pp. 126-127, 136-137.

[12] This was a key policy lesson identified at a Workshop on Homeland Defense convened at the National War College on January 14, 2000, with participation by researchers from the ANSER Corporation.

[13] On the British home front during the "Blitz", see R.M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: H.M.S.O., 1950).

[14] Germany's 1917 thinking about the American willingness to accept pain is analyzed in Karl Birnbaum, Peace Moves and U-Boat Warfare (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970).

[15] On the very significant case of the Lusitania, see Patrick O'Sullivan, The Lusitania: Unraveling the Mysteries (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Sheridan House, 2000).

[16] For such early polls, see Hadley Cantril (ed.) Public Opinion: 1935-1946 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951) p. 781.

[17] On Yamamoto's special understanding of likely American resolve, see Edwin Palmer Hoyt Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990).

[18] Japanese overall calculations here are outlined in Edwin P.Hoyt, Japan's War (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986).

[19] The logic of such a response is developed in Victor A. Utgoff (ed.) The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests and World Order (Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT Press, 2000).


2001-05-31 03:29:39 Posted By Christopher Brown
“Remember the Alamo’ ‘Remember the Maine’ ‘Remember Pearl Harbor” should not only serve as reminders of history, but now perhaps, should serve as warnings to those rouges who believe a significant defeat initially will lead to victory against the US. Once again, thank you Dr. Quester, and might I say that I hope one day to sit in one of your classes and learn more about your theories.