Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy




Kenneth J. Hagan and

Elizabeth Skinner

On 6 August 1945 a single atomic bomb (A-bomb) dropped from an American B-29 bomber, named Enola Gay after the pilot's mother, leveled the Japanese city of Hiroshima and killed well over 80,000 residents. Three days later a second bomb smashed Nagasaki, exterminating 60,000 inhabitants. Emperor Hirohito forced the Supreme War Council to allow the government to sue for peace. Although World War II ended in the convulsive birth of the atomic age, the fiery climax failed to validate the putative war-winning efficacy of "strategic bombing." On 8 August the Soviet Union had broken its neutrality in the Pacific and declared war against Japan. News that the Red Army was sweeping across Manchuria caused greater alarm in official Japan than the latest episodes in a relentless American aerial campaign that in previous months included the fire-bombing of Japanese cities at the cost of more than 300,000 lives.

President Harry S. Truman justified history's first use of an atomic weapon on the grounds of military necessity. By the middle of 1945 the United States had dismembered Japan's overseas empire, blockaded its home islands, and razed a total of 178 square miles in sixty-six cities targeted with incendiary bombs. Still, Japan had refused to meet the long-standing American demand for unconditional surrender, a stipulation reiterated in July 1945 at the Potsdam Conference of Allied chiefs of state. Thus, short of some deus ex machina, an American invasion of Japan proper seemed inescapable. Its advocates, the strategic planners of the U.S. Army, recognized that fatalistic and suicidal Japanese resistance would "make the invasion of their homeland a horrendously costly endeavor." The disputed estimates of potential U.S. Army and Marine Corps casualties have ranged from the tens of thousands to more than 500,000. These figures do not reflect the inevitably heavy naval losses to kamikaze and midget submarine suicide attacks. Truman understandably chose to seek a cheaper victory through the shock of atomic bombing.

Devastating though it was to Japan, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had more significance for the future than for ending World War II. By 1945 twentieth-century warfare had witnessed the introduction of several revolutionary weapons systems characterized by horrifying destructiveness—the machine gun, the tank, the strategic bomber, and the submarine—but none of these remotely approached the nuclear bomb in transforming strategy and diplomacy. In the nuclear age, for the first time in history, armies and navies were no longer the principal objects at immediate risk in warfare. With their soldiers untouched and still waiting to engage the enemy, nations now could be obliterated in their entirety—populations, cities, societies. In his magisterial book The American Way of War (1973), Russell Weigley observed, "A strong strategy of annihilation could now be so complete that the use of… atomic weapons could no longer serve 'for the object of war,' unless the object of war was to transform the enemy's country into a desert." After August 1945, it therefore became the prime objective of the statesmen of the great powers to repudiate Carl von Clausewitz's famous dictum that war is merely "a continuation of policy by other means." The "other means" no longer could include the unlimited warfare symbolized by the American Civil War and the eastern front of World War II.

Despite fundamentally opposed political philosophies and almost universal pessimistic expectation, the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union grimly and steadfastly refrained from using the ultimate weapons in their arsenals during the half century between Hiroshima and the sociopolitical implosion of the USSR in 1991. Time and again, Soviet and American heads of state substituted statecraft for warfare as they patched together agreements aimed at curtailing the enlargement of one another's stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Time and again, after seeming to establish a numerical ceiling, one or the other superpower—but usually the United States—would make an "end run" around the existing agreements with a technological breakthrough in delivery vehicles or nuclear warheads. Then the game began again. Amid mutual recriminations, Soviet and American negotiators stitched together another diplomatic limit governing the nature and quantity of weapons in their arsenals. The number grew to uncountable thousands, but not one nuclear weapon was ever actually launched at the opponent and detonated in anger.

The noted Cold War historian John L. Gaddis has described the Soviet-American era of nuclear restraint as "The Long Peace," and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has suggested that "nukes" be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Gaddis falls somewhat short of the mark, and Schlesinger seems facetious, but each was trying to encapsulate the magnitude of a phenomenal achievement, one without precedent and probably without sequel. The sobering reality is that in the 1990s nuclear strategy and diplomacy entered a new epoch, one in which the inexorable proliferation of "weapons of mass destruction" among second-and third-tier states posed unforeseen and highly complex challenges to the major powers' desire to avoid actual use of such weapons in combat.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. Superb and readable discussion of the other side's nuclear diplomacy from Soviet sources opened after the Cold War.

See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Arms Transfers and Trade ; Balance of Power ; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Cold Warriors ; Cold War Termination ; Collective Security ; Congressional Power ; Containment ; Deterrence ; Doctrines ; Ideology ; International Organization ; Military-Industrial Complex ; North Atlantic Treaty Organization ; Outer Space ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Power Politics ; Presidential Power ; Science and Technology ; Summit Conferences ; Superpower Diplomacy ; Treaties .

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