Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO

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Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO by Susan Colbourn. Cornell University Press, 2022, 408 pp.

In August 2019, the United States and Russia withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Under the treaty, the two powers had agreed to eliminate all short- and intermediate-range missiles and on-site monitoring to assure their decommissioning—an agreement widely-seen as pivotal to Euro-Atlantic security. Pundits immediately set to work retracing the treaty’s origins and how it might be resuscitated. Susan Colbourn’s Euromissiles is her vivid account of the path not only to the treaty itself but also to the states’ deployment of the nuclear-tipped intermediate missiles at the heart of the treaty: the Soviet Union’s SS‑20 and the United States’ Pershing II and Gryphon ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM).

NATO’s European countries first played host to the nuclear-tipped missiles in 1983, thanks to the Carter administration’s 1979 “dual-track” decision. The intent of the decision was to put pressure on the Soviet Union to cancel its SS-20 program first through diplomatic pressure and then through the deployment of the US-made missiles once the former failed. None of this was easy for NATO and its 16 countries, which leads to Colbourn’s central premise: This was not a Euromissile crisis but a string of crises for the ever-embattled Alliance, beset by the “structural dilemmas woven into [its] very fabric” (8).

Although Euromissiles is primarily a historical intervention, any reader interested in national security will find it informative. First, Colbourn has provided a fundamental understanding of NATO’s crucial pivot points in the final decades of the Cold War. In that regard, this book debunks any notion that the Alliance faced possible breakup only after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. A common enemy at the gates did not hold the Allies together nearly as much as intra-Alliance devotion, empathy, and careful diplomacy. Second, Euromissiles adds to a growing re-examination of the Kennedy administration’s “flexible response” strategy by paying particular attention to the issues at the tactical nuclear level. As one scholar has argued, this 1960s-era strategy to deter across a broader spectrum was more of a rhetorical strategy focused on balancing geopolitics and not a radical departure from President Dwight Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” strategy.1 Even if readers disagree with this assessment of NATO military strategy, it is worth understanding as similar misnomers exist today. Third, this book offers a thorough look into the politics of nuclear weapons—an alien realm to many outside US Strategic Command.

For Colbourn, the crises surrounding the Euromissiles did not begin with the Soviet’s deployment of the SS-20, as the predominant narrative holds. Rather, she agrees with the former chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt, and his belief that the problems arose in the 1960s following the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, the crisis stirred anxiety within NATO that the United States could not live up to its promise of “extended deterrence.” This fear would underpin Alliance politics throughout the Cold War. In this case, it came to a head as NATO’s military strategists worked to incorporate flexible response, which proved highly ambiguous. While it allowed elasticity to accommodate each nation’s political concerns, military strategists worried deeply about when and under what conditions leaders would resort to escalation.

Citing these concerns, France withdrew from its NATO military commitments in 1966. By then, concerns over Vietnam and the budget prompted the United States to begin talks with Britain and West Germany to redeploy some of its 400,000-plus American forces in Europe. These tense negotiations, known as the “offset crisis,” became emblematic of one particular strand of the European predicament: its concern over America’s commitment to fight if the time ever came. America’s nuclear arsenal seemed to be the unwavering element of Alliance security; yet, at the same time, these weapons, if ever employed, would spell its destruction.

The second strand of this predicament grew throughout the 1970s as a wave of remarkable new military capabilities emerged. Unfortunately, the same breathtaking pace of modernization occurred in the Soviet military, leading to nuclear parity between the superpowers. Europeans felt exposed by this parity and the resulting bilateral negotiations between Washington and Moscow, known as the Strategic Arms Limitations Talk (SALT). “SALT neutralizes their strategic nuclear capabilities,” Schmidt warned in a famous 1977 speech. “In Europe this magnifies the significance of the disparities between East and West in nuclear tactical and conventional systems” (66).

Hence, tactical nuclear systems mattered greatly to European leaders. Unfortunately, with each round of NATO’s military modernization, a fresh round of political concerns arose. These concerns pushed Alliance politics to the edge during the dual-track decision and its eventual missile deployment. The Soviet Union first deployed its mobile SS-20 in 1976, and because its range was under treaty limits, the weapons seemed purpose-designed for Western Europe. The following year, the Washington Post exposed the United States’ neutron bomb development, a weapon meant to extinguish human life while leaving infrastructure intact. The ensuing public debate created the framework that would underpin dual-track, and—as Colbourn insistently notes—it all happened under the Carter administration. While the neutron bomb had moved off the table, it taught negotiators that they could seek balance by deploying limited numbers of new technologies and threatening to deploy more unless the Soviets made concessions on their vast conventional forces. The key was to overcome the neutron bomb’s sticking point: European public opinion.

NATO leaders faced a titanic challenge in deploying the Pershing II and GLCM while surviving the diplomatic skill of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. By filling the tactical ground-based nuclear strike role, these missiles served as both an answer to the military’s counter-SS-20 problem and a bargaining chip for the Reagan administration. Between 1979 and 1983, Moscow tripled its SS-20 deployments, lending urgency to the problem. But the arrival of American-made nuclear weapons in Western Europe displeased a powerful pacifist movement that had arisen out of the ashes of World War II. Britain’s parliament and street demonstrators tried to shame the decision.

Were Europeans more concerned about nuclear-tipped blackmail from the Warsaw Pact or the nuclear age itself? Gorbachev’s subsequent proposals to cut the Soviet’s arsenal seemed to answer that question. His relentless bargaining drove a wedge into intra-NATO politics, as anti-missile campaigners warned that American weapons undermined European sovereignty and raised the prospects of war. Colbourn quotes Margaret Thatcher to sum up the dilemma: “I want a war-free Europe. A nuclear-free Europe I do not believe would be a war-free Europe” (196). Colbourn ultimately credits the Italian parliament and West Germany’s Bundestag for agreeing with Thatcher, accepting the missiles, and holding the Alliance together.

If for none of the reasons above, members of the US defense community would benefit from Colbourn’s view on how the Cold War ended. A lingering belief exists that the United States “won” the Cold War thanks to an intense military buildup in Europe, with its Pershing II and GLCMs forming a crucial element. It was, after all, those missiles that pervaded the negotiations between President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev. In other words, there is some justification in saying that US military readiness and innovation played a crucial role in presiding over the Soviet Union’s demise.

Euromissiles challenges that position. Colbourn paints a picture of the Warsaw Pact and NATO both in a “race to the bottom” in which US weapons brought the latter’s downward plunge (266). Open dialogue and continual outreach to the East allowed NATO to persist as the Pact crumbled. Hence, it was the Alliance’s unity that enabled its military power—not the other way around. Because Colbourn deals directly with this three-way relationship between military power, Alliance politics, and success in superpower competition, Euromissiles is worth the read.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel P. Gipper, USAF

1 Francis T. Gavin, “The Myth of Flexible Response: United States Strategy in Europe during the 1960s,” International History Review 23, no. 4 (December 2001), https://doi.org/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."