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.


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Arbatov, Alexei. "Arbatov on U.S.–Russian Arms Reduction." Proliferation Brief 3, no. 16 (18 May 2000) of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A pithy analysis of Russia's decision to ratify START II, by the deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee.

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Burdick, Eugene, and Harvey Wheeler. Fail-Safe. New York, 1962. Two political scientists resort to fiction to explain what would happen if SAC lost control of any of its aircraft and the superpowers had to choose which cities to offer up in a mutual sacrifice to prevent all-out nuclear war.

Chang, Gordon H. "To the Nuclear Brink: Eisenhower, Dulles and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis." International Security 12, no. 4 (spring 1988): 96–122. President Eisenhower took the United States closer to nuclear war with China in 1955 than has been imagined.

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Friedman, Norman. The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War. Annapolis, Md., 2000. A technologically oriented analyst's comprehensive account of the strategy and diplomacy of the Cold War.

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Hewlett, Richard G., and Francis Duncan. A History of the Atomic Energy Commission: Atomic Shield, 1947–1952. University Park, Pa., 1969. The second volume of the AEC's history.

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Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956. New Haven, Conn., 1994. A full account of how Stalin instantly perceived the atomic bombing of Japan as an anti-Soviet act disrupting the international balance of power.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics. New York, 1961. A superior survey of 1945–1960 by a pioneer in the study of strategy.

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. New York, 1986. The makers of policy and strategy in thought, deed, and camaraderie from World War II through Vietnam.

Kaplan, Morton A. S.A.L.T.: Problems and Prospects. Morristown, N.J., 1973. A glimpse of the intricacies of arms limitations by a distinguished observer.

Kartchner, Kerry M. Negotiating START: Strategic Arms Reduction Talks and the Quest for Strategic Stability. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992. One of the best in-depth analyses of U.S. and Soviet-Russian policies and positions in the first START negotiations.

Kaufman, Robert G. Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics. Seattle, Wash., 2000. A highly sympathetic and comprehensive scholarly biography of the "senator from Boeing."

Kegley, Charles W., Jr., and Eugene R. W. Wittkopf, eds. The Nuclear Reader: Strategy, Weapons, War. New York, 1985. A variety of views from the American perspective on such crucial topics as MAD and civil defense.

Kissinger, Henry. Does America Need a Foreign Policy?: Towards a Diplomacy for the 21st Century. New York, 2001. A plea for admission to George W. Bush's inner circle, made at the price of disavowing his own ABM Treaty.

Kolodziej, Edward A. The Uncommon Defense and Congress, 1945–1963. Columbus, Ohio, 1966. A good summary of the military arguments presented to Congress each year.

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Messer, Robert L. The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, and the Origins of the Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982. Documents the belligerency of the Truman cold warriors and casts doubt on the diplomatic efficacy of verbal bluster.

Mueller, John. Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War. New York, 1989. Advances the dubious thesis that historical conditions other than the advent of nuclear warfare account for the elimination of major war as a serious policy option.

Myrdal, Alva. The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race. New York, 1976. A critical analysis of the arms race from the perspective of an advocate of disarmament.

Newhouse, John. Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT. Washington, D.C., 1989. A detailed and fascinating account of the first attempt to control the nuclear arms race through bilateral negotiations.

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Paterson, Thomas G., J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. Hagan. American Foreign Relations. Vol. 2: A History Since 1895. 5th ed. Boston, 2000. This revisionist but balanced survey contains at least one succinct paragraph on every major episode in Soviet-American nuclear relations.

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——. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York, 1995.

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Sapolsky, Harvey M. The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government. Cambridge, Mass., 1972. A provocative explanation of why and how strategic weapons systems are built.

Schelling, Thomas C. Arms and Influence. New Haven, Conn., 1966. The argument for practicing coercive nuclear diplomacy or atomic blackmail by an originator of deterrence theory.

Schroeer, Dietrich. Science, Technology, and the Nuclear Arms Race. New York, 1984. A stunning integration of the technical and political components of the nuclear arms race by a nuclear physicist concerned about the loss of life that would attend a nuclear war.

Sherry, Michael S. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. New Haven, Conn., 1987. Strategic bombing in the context of the historical evolution of theory.

Sherwin, Martin J. A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance. New York, 1975. Persuasively argues the pros and cons of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and criticizes the strategic doctrine of unconditional surrender.

Stimson, Henry L. "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb." Harper's (February 1947). The orthodox position on the use of the atomic bomb in 1945 by one of the participants in the decision making.

Takaki, Ronald. Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. New York, 1995. A Japanese American finds Truman fully responsible, but with understandable military justification.

Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York, 2000. A balanced look at the pivotal role the president's brother played in defusing the Cuban missile crisis.

Trachtenburg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. Contends that Germany, not Soviet-American nuclear accommodation, held the key to global peace in the Cold War.

Van Cleave, William R., and S. T. Cohen. Nuclear Weapons, Policies, and the Test Ban Issue. New York, 1987. A conservative view that is critical of test-ban agreements.

Walsh, James, ed. The Future Role of United States' Nuclear Weapons. Defense and Arms Control Studies Program Working Paper. Cambridge, Mass., August 1994. Experts from the U.S. arms control community gathered in February 1994 to discuss the present and future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and U.S. strategic policy.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York, 1973. The ageless and classic study of the American strategy of annihilation.

Weintraub, Stanley. MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero. New York, 2000. Puts MacArthur's advocacy of using atomic weapons in the Korean War into national perspective.

Weir, Gary E. Forged in War: The Naval Industrial Complex and American Submarine Construction, 1940–1961. Washington, D.C., 1993. A superb historian puts Rickover into context.

Wirtz, James J., and Jeffrey A. Larsen, eds. Rockets' Red Glare: Missile Defenses and World Politics. Boulder, Colo., 2002. Generally favorable analyses by U.S. experts of the arguments for development of a national missile defense. A wealth of historical and technical information for those unfamiliar with the issue.

York, Herbert. Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race. New York, 1970. Disturbing criticism by a disillusioned nuclear scientist who was present at the creation.

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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