ant Party in Balance of PowerThe emergence of the United States as a dominant party in balance of
power equations is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. New military
technology coupled with increased global integration has allowed the United
States to reinvent the fundamental assumptions of international diplomacy while
propelling itself to the top of the hegemonic stepladder. This positioning was
achieved piecemeal during the course of the first two world wars, but it wasn’t
until the deployment of the atomic bomb that the U.S.. assumed its position as a
true superpower. The years that followed this unparalleled ascension are the
most fascinating times in the history of U.S. international relations. Hopefully,
an investigation into this atomic diplomacy, along with a balanced analysis of
the problems of conceptualizing and implementing containment, will provide
insight for our current efforts to devise a workable post-war national security
policy.

There is no way to tell the story of post-war national security without
also telling the story of George Kennen. Kennen, the foremost expert of Soviet
Affairs in early post-war America, is almost wholly responsible for the policy
of containment. What we must remember under Kennen’s containment is that nuclear
diplomacy is not separate from other national security measures as it is often
today. Nuclear weapons were part of an integrated system of containment and
deterrence. Truman told Kennen in early 1947 that “our weapons of mass
destruction are not fail-safe devices, but instead the fundamental bedrock of
American security” (Gaddis 56). They were never intended as first strike weapons
and had no real tactical value. The bomb is purely strategic, and its value
comes not from its destructive capabilities, but from its political and
psychological ramifications. Kennen was never naive enough to view the bomb as
an offensive weapon. In his long memorandum “The International Control of Atomic
Energy,” Kennen noted that “there could be no way in which weapons of mass
destruction could be made to serve rational ends beyond simply deterring the
outbreak of hostilities” (Kennen 39). Even at this early point, Kennen began to
also recognize the potential of the bomb to completely wreck balance of power
arrangements. Simply achieving higher potentials of destruction would not
necessarily lead to a better negotiating position with the Soviets. Truman had
never considered not creating the hydrogen bomb, despite Kennen’s objections.

Truman’s justified his adamant support of the super bomb for bargaining
purposes with the Russians. Kennen’s point, of course, had been that the very
decision to build the hydrogen bomb would inhibit bargaining with the Russians
on international control, since the Kremlin was unlikely to negotiate from a
position of weakness. Most of the American national security structure viewed
this as fallacious. Truman’s perception was that the United States, as a
technology rich but man power short nation, was operating from a position of
weakness, since of necessity is relied more heavily than did the Soviet Union on
weapons of mass destruction to maintain the balance of power. The Soviet atomic
test in 1949 had upset that balance. Only by building the super bomb, it was
thought, could equilibrium be regained. It would not be until the Kennedy
administration that Kennen would be vindicated and an awareness would develop
“of the basic unsoundness of a defense posture based primarily on weapons
indiscriminately destructive and suicidal in their implications” (Kennen 365).

The late mistakes of the Truman administration would be carried over
into the Eisenhower years. Nuclear deployment became the primary American
security measure, naturally leading the Soviets to do the same. The problems of
the Eisenhower years stemmed directly from the overconfidence in the U.S.

nuclear program to achieve tangible military objectives in the face of increased
hostilities. John Foster Dulles, the symbol of bipartisan cooperation on foreign
policy, began to advocate the nuclear response. The impotence of our standing
army compared to the Soviet’s military behemoth was clear to all U.S. policy
advisors. There was no way in which we could match Russia gun for gun, tank for
tank, at anytime, in any place. John’s brother Allen Dulles, CIA director under
Eisenhower, said “to do so would mean real strength nowhere and bankruptcy
everywhere” (Gaddis 121). Instead, the U.S. response to Soviet aggressions would
be made on our terms. J.F. Dulles’ solution was typical strategic asymmetry, but
of a particular kind. His recommendations prompted a world in which “we could
and would strike back where it hurts, by means of out own choosing. This could
be done most effectively by relying on atomic weapons, and on the strategic air
and naval power necessary to deliver them” (Dulles 147). This unbalanced
strategic equation between the two superpowers was not even the most dangerous
flaw of the 1950s.

In retrospect, the most startling deficiency of the Eisenhower
administration’s strategy was its bland self-confidence that it could use
nuclear weapons without starting an all out nuclear war. Limited nuclear
conflict was possible, as Kissenger argued in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,
“but only if those participating in it had agreed beforehand on the boundaries
beyond which it would not extend” (Kissenger 124). This was clearly impossible
with the Soviets, making Eisenhower’s policy foolhardy and naive. Given the high
amount of activity by the U.S. intelligence apparatus during the time,
especially in Russia and South Asia, it is sunrising that an international
incident of cataclysmic proportions did not take place. Strategic asymmetry,
supplemented by nuclear superiority, would not last long after Eisenhower.

Instead, it was replaced with Kennedy’s “flexible response.” The critics of “The
New Look” and past nuclear diplomacy pointed out that only newfound symmetry
allows us enough political flexibility to respond to Russian aggression in
whatever way suits U.S. interests at the time. Kennedy, possessing an economic
rationale for disregarding costs, placed his emphasis on minimizing risks by
giving the U.S. sufficient flexibility to respond to Russia with neither
escalation or humiliation. This required a capacity to act on all levels,
ranging from diplomacy through covert action, guerilla operations, conventional
and nuclear war. Equally important, though, it would require careful control.

Walt W. Rostow, Kennen’s replacement as Chairman of The Policy Planning Council,
was chosen as usual on behalf of the Kennedy administration to spell out the
problems the new flexible response policy would solve: It should be noted that
we have generally been at a disadvantage in crisis, since the Communists command
a more flexible set of tools for imposing strain on the free world than we
normally command. We are often caught in circumstances where our only available
riposte is so disproportionate to the immediate provocation that its use risks
unwanted escalation or serious political costs to the free community. This
asymmetry makes it attractive for Communists to apply limited debilitating
pressures upon us in situations where we find it difficult to impose on them an
equivalent price for their intrusions (Rostow 173).

The administration’s desire to reduce it’s dependence on nuclear weapons
did not, however, imply any corresponding determination to cut back on either
their number or variety. “Nuclear and non-nuclear power complement each other,”
Robert McNamara insisted in 1962, “just as together they complement the non-
military instruments of policy” (Gaddis 218). McNamara is only partially correct.

Widespread nuclear deployment as a means to complement peacetime diplomatic
goals often backfires. For example, the presence of Jupiter misses in Turkey
became a public issue in 1962 when Khrushchev made their withdrawal a condition
for removing Soviet IRBMs from Cuba. Although somewhat over-dramatized in most
historical accounts, the Cuban Missile Crisis proves the award relation between
nuclear security and political reality. But whatever the frustrations of dealing
with Cuba after the missile crisis, the administration regarded the handling of
that affair as a textbook demonstration of “the flexible response” in action,
and therefore a model to be followed elsewhere. A draft of National Security
Action Memorandum of February 1963 emphasized the need in the future to employ
this “controlled and graduated application of integrated political, military,
and diplomatic power” (Gaddis 231). The peaceful end to the crisis had shown
that none of these concerns lay beyond the capacity of a “flexible response”
strategy now validated by the test of practical experience.

Once Kennedy was killed, there was an era of make-believe in the
Pentagon. Vietnam was starting for real, and the constant deployment of U.S.

troops against Communist forces added a new element to our national security
equation. Vietnam stands testament that the atomic bomb is a tactically useless
weapon that aids an attacking nation in no way tangible way. Perhaps simply
possessing the bomb is a psychological outvoting over the enemy, but the effects
of this in Vietnam will nil. Later, Henry Kissenger would point out that in no
crisis since 1962 had the strategic balance determined the outcome. There is no
easy answer that best explains the Johnson administration’s inability to come up
with alternatives in Vietnam. Whatever the answer, we can say with relative
confidence that it had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Kissenger has
pinpointed the reason early in the war: “Nuclear weapons, given the constraints
on their use in an approaching era of parity, were of decreasing practical
utility” (Kissenger 29). Around this time, we can conclude that the world has
entered an age in which there is a strong and binding nuclear taboo. A nation
that employs nuclear weapons to attack its enemies is considered evil. Therefore,
all the hegemonic power gained from atomic weapons was absolutely worthless in
Vietnam. While limited success was achieved in some international arenas during
the Kennedy and Johnson years, Vietnam seals the coffin on the flexible response.

Gaddis agrees, saying Vietnam “was the unexpected legacy of the flexible
response: not fine tuning, but clumsy overreaction, not coordination but
disproportion, not strategic precision, but in the end, a strategic vacuum”
(Gaddis 273). The 1968 campaign was unusual in that, unlike 1952 and 1960, it
provided little indication of the direction in which the new administration
would move into office. In addition, the world facing the new administration of
1968 was one ripe with possibilities of new approaches. To usher in these new
strategies, Nixon choose Dr. Henry Kissenger as his national security advisor.

Kissenger’s conceptual approach to the making of national security policy
eliminated the crisis based flexible response system. “Crises,” he said, “were
symptoms of deeper problems that if allowed to fester would prove increasingly
unmanageable” (Kissenger 275). Kissenger was one of the first to recognize the
shift from a bipolar to multipolar world. This was a natural result
modernization, and therefore, traditional bipolar nuclear strategy began to lose
importance, like Kissenger had predicted five years earlier. Before this point,
United States interests were effectively met by its Pax Americana enforced on
the world by U.S. weapons of war. By 1968, however, Nixon knew he had to deal
with the world in a much less dynamic fashion.

What Nixon and Kissenger did with their concept of a multipolar world
order was to arrive at a conception of interests independent of threats. Gaddis
points out that “since those interests required equilibrium but not ideological
consistency, it followed that the United States could feasibly work with states
of differing and even antithetic social systems as long as they shared the
American interest in countering challenges to global stability” (Gaddis 285).

This has become the primary guiding doctrine in American foreign policy since
that time. Once this official policy shift was made, nuclear weapons became
exactly what they originally were: symbols for deterrence. The only continuing
reason any nations of the nuclear club still deploy nuclear weapons is to deter
hostility from other nations. The depth and complexity of American security
policy reaches far beyond the scope of this investigation, but hopefully the
role of the atomic bomb in U.S. foreign affairs is somewhat more clear. Today,
nuclear diplomacy is dead. The world has somehow adapted to weapons of mass
destruction, and the diplomatic and military strategy of nuclear weapons is far
from the minds of U.S. officials in the State Department. The world has moved on
to a new age in international relations. Kissenger said in 1968 that “there was
now no single decisive index by which the influence of states can be measured”
(Kissenger 277). As much as we might like to indict the policies of nuclear
diplomacy for all its self-indulgent insanity, we must bear in mind that it was
somehow successful. Not one atomic bomb fell onto a nation from Kennen to
Kissenger, and that should show the altruistic commitment by men of power to
keep the unthinkable thinkable.
Category: History