A simple framework to understand the nuclear strategy positions of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kissinger in the early cold war.
Immediately after the Second World War there was common perception that the war in Europe was not over, with the division of Germany into American and Soviet spheres of influence, another major war, perhaps a nuclear one, awaited the continent. Indeed, much of economic diplomacy that took place in the West during this period can be read from this lens. The fact that before 1950-1955, considerations of reconstruction was restricted solely to the European continent, even though the war had ravaged distant lands such as present day Myanmar, and China, testifies to that fact. However, such fears of Europe being embroiled in war turned out misplaced, the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this short essay. Indeed, if the cold war was cold it was so only in the European continent. The violence of the cold war was strong in the turbulent and stormy politics of development in newly decolonised nations. One could argue that institutions for reconstruction and development took interest in “peripheral” areas only once this fact was recognised. The fear that a nuclear war could potentially break-out from such an engagement exercised many minds in the American academy, Foreign Service, and politics. That different schools of thought emerged to understand and combat this threat is unsurprising given the nature of the threat and its far reaching implications.
This short piece therefore provides a basic framework to capture the main ideas about nuclear warfare. The framework is restricted to the period up until approximately 1965. When the war in Vietnam was launched and when it was soon understood that the war would prolong for a long time, there was some rethinking by major policymakers, plus new American presidents such as JFK brought in their own ideas and their own nuances to the table.
Nothing hit the Americans like when they were routed in the 38th parallel by the Chinese. Immediately, some sections of American foreign policy making began clamoring for nuclear weapons to be used against the North Korean and Chinese forces which were supported by the Soviets. Truman, in the media did respond positively to the section who demanded use of nuclear weapons, however when it came down to actual military response, he hesitated. He wanted to restrict the engagement only to conventional war and only to very geographically specific regions, in this case, Korea. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Second World War was still very passionately felt.
Eisenhower became president in 1953. The Korean War, quite embarrassingly for the Americans, ended in a stalemate. Such frustrations were channeled into developing an aggressive nuclear strategy. Eisenhower was wary of regional battles draining the economic wealth of America. He therefore proposed “massive retaliation” and primarily of the nuclear sort, to break the Soviets in a manner which was economically efficient and less costly. The primary objective was deterrence.
Kissinger in his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy responded to these various streams of thought. Kissinger countered Eisenhower’s ‘massive retaliation – total annihilation’ thesis by arguing that since there was great ambiguity about what constituted threat, what actions warranted retaliation, where the “nuclear red-lines” should be drawn, Kissinger hence highlighted a practical consideration: that the cost of the Soviet Union opening another front should be made as expensive as possible. Additionally, the idea of massive retaliation assumed a certain scale of conflict, or rather, converted every type of conflict into the largest possible scale. He added that in the context of survival of both the nations; within the nuclear-red lines, limited nuclear war is the most logical strategic position because it not only guarantees the survival of both the nations, and therefore is mutually beneficial, but it enables the conditions of what Clausewitz considered war to be: politics in another form. Diplomatic maneuverability was important, especially when things weren’t defined properly.
This brief essay has briefly highlighted the strategic thinking of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kissinger, but has left out the deeper question about the relationship between nuclear weapons and foreign policy; of how the cold war dynamics shaped the thinking about the concept of power. The invention (and use) of the nuclear bomb, for instance, reduced the economic constraints to power. Also it leaves out the interesting history of how public opinion shaped foreign policy in the cold war; and the relationship between the academic world and the world of policy. Indeed, if one wants to study, what my colleague, Pavan Srinath calls the “scholar-warrior”, one must look at American strategic policy making during the cold war.
Adhip Amin is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. Adhip tweets @AdhipAmin1.