Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy - A strategy of overkill

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman in January 1953, warmly embraced this monstrous "family." The new Republican president's conservative economic advisers demanded a balanced budget, and reduction of swollen defense expenditures was an obvious step in that direction. Complementing this fiscal orthodoxy was Eisenhower's conviction that Soviet leaders hoped their military challenge would force the United States into what he called "an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.… Communist guns, in this sense, have been aiming at an economic target no less than a military target." He abandoned NSC 68's conception of a time of maximum danger and began planning a less costly strategy for the "long haul." Throughout his two terms (1953–1961), Eisenhower limited annual defense spending to about $40 billion. He sought to deter communist aggression with an array of nuclear weapons rather than a large army. His strategic mainstay was SAC, supplemented by the navy's carrierbased atomic bombers and its new fleet of submarines (SSBNs) armed with the Polaris ballistic missile. By the late 1950s, SAC was flying 1,500 intermediate-range B-47 jet bombers from domestic and foreign air bases, and the intercontinental B-52 heavy bomber became operational, the first of a final total of 500. If deterrence or tactical nuclear weapons failed to prevent a Red Army sweep through western Europe—or if the Soviet air force dropped nuclear bombs on the United States—Eisenhower would employ his strategic airpower to destroy Soviet Russia.

Until 1957, when the Soviet Union demonstrated its technological sophistication by launching the Sputnik satellite and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of about 3,500 nautical miles, American policymakers generally considered a Soviet ground attack upon western Europe the most likely form of overt aggression. To cope with a Red Army advance in Europe, or a communist military offensive anywhere else, the Eisenhower administration adopted an asymmetrical strategy. On 12 January 1954, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated that to meet communist aggression the United States would "depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing." This public pronouncement of the doctrine of "massive retaliation" capped an intensive high-level review of American strategy begun the previous May. As early as October 1953, Eisenhower had approved NSC 162/2, a paper attempting to reconcile deterrence with reduced defense spending. The solution, labeled the "New Look," was to equip U.S. troops in Europe with tactical nuclear weapons whose destructiveness would permit him to reduce "the big, expensive army he had inherited from Truman."

To preclude bankrupting the U.S. economy with military spending, Eisenhower planned to shrink the army from twenty to fourteen combat divisions by mid-1957. He would arm this leaner army with atomic artillery and short-range, airbreathing missiles carrying nuclear warheads. In February 1954 he induced Congress to amend the Atomic Energy Act to permit divulging information about operational characteristics of American nuclear weapons to NATO allies. By December 1954 he had persuaded NATO strategists to assume that tactical nuclear weapons would be used in any future conflict with the Red Army. American General Lauris Norstad, NATO's supreme commander, succinctly summarized the new strategy in January 1956. The threat to use tactical nuclear weapons would "link the lowest and highest levels of violence and reinforce the credibility of the Western deterrent."

Although the rhetoric of massive retaliation usually did not discriminate between geographic areas, Eisenhower did have a different plan to meet aggression beyond Europe and the Western Hemisphere. If a noncommunist Asian nation were attacked, he intended to place the primary burden of defense upon that country's ground troops. The U.S. Navy's fiercely mobile aircraft carriers could be rushed into the arena, and in extreme cases the marines might be landed for finite periods. Nuclear airpower conceivably might be brought to bear, but only selectively. As Secretary of State Dulles said in a news conference on 18 July 1956, "In the case of a brush-fire war, we need not drop atomic bombs over vast populated areas." It might suffice merely to vaporize key military and industrial installations.

Abstract bombast about massive retaliation notwithstanding, in only three instances did Eisenhower actually warn other governments that the United States was prepared to launch a nuclear attack if its demands were not met. In April 1953 the Korean armistice talks between the communist Chinese and Americans had bogged down over the question of exchanging prisoners of war. At Dulles's behest, neutral India cautioned China that if peace did not come soon, the United States would resort to nuclear warfare. The two sides quickly agreed on international supervision of the repatriation of captured troops. Shortly thereafter, as the French position in Indochina disintegrated, Washington warned Beijing that direct military intervention in support of the communist Vietminh would be met with an American atomic attack on China. Finally, on 20 March 1955, as the communist Chinese bombarded the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Dulles publicly speculated about possible American use of "new and powerful weapons of precision, which can utterly destroy military targets without endangering unrelated civilian centers." This foolhardy boast sent shivers around the world, especially throughout Asia, where national leaders recalled ruefully that the only atomic bombs dropped so far had fallen on an Asian people. Eisenhower, who was privately determined to defend the islands with nuclear weapons if necessary, gradually realized that he could not rattle the nuclear sword without arousing global apprehension. According to the scholar Gordon H. Chang, communist China's conciliation had contributed significantly to ending the crisis, but at the cost of Beijing's realization that it would have to build a nuclear force to counter modern-day American gunboat diplomacy in the western Pacific.

The Soviets at the same time were providing additional stimulus for American reconsideration of the doctrine of limited nuclear warfare. They had detonated a hydrogen device in August 1953, unveiled the intercontinental turboprop Bear bomber (Tu-95) in 1954, and displayed the all-jet, long-range Bison bomber (M-4) in 1955. That year they also added a functional hydrogen bomb to their arsenal. Eisenhower's response was to build an extensive radar network and multiply the air force's interceptor wings. But the successful Soviet test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in the summer of 1957, coupled with the October Sputnik satellite launch, made these defenses prematurely obsolescent. The United States suddenly was exposed to a potential Soviet thermonuclear delivery system against which existing countermeasures were powerless. For the first time, all-out nuclear war would inevitably entail widespread death and destruction within the United States. Since it was impossible to ensure that escalation could be avoided once nuclear weapons of any sort were used anywhere in the world, the threat to use them thereafter must be restricted to crises involving areas absolutely essential to the United States: noncommunist Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

The stage was set for a policy of containment resting on conventional forces that the next president would adopt under the slogan of "flexible response." But Eisenhower's reluctance to spend large sums on defense prevented him from rebuilding or enlarging the army. For the same reasons of fiscal prudence, he also steadfastly resisted public and congressional pressure to disperse SAC aircraft more widely, to begin a crash program of ballistic missile development, or to spend tens of billions of dollars on fallout shelters. In August 1958, when the Department of Defense and some scientists warned him that discontinuation of nuclear testing would endanger further evolution of American tactical nuclear weapons, Eisenhower overrode their objections and announced a moratorium on atmospheric testing.

The sophistication of American aviation technology made restraint possible. Beginning in August 1955, the United States regularly flew extremely high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union. Dubbed U-2s, these gliderlike jets soared above the reach of Soviet air defenses. They returned with photographs proving that the Soviet Union had not built a massive offensive nuclear striking force, despite the technological capacity to do so. The sluggishness of Soviet production permitted Eisenhower to proceed at a measured pace with deployment of ICBMs and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), including the submarine-launched Polaris. Eisenhower also could accurately describe Democratic presidential candidate John Kennedy's alleged "missile gap" as a "fiction." What Eisenhower could not do was win Soviet acquiescence to any form of inspections. Negotiations in the United Nations for the limitation of nuclear armaments therefore remained deadlocked throughout his presidency.

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