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Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age

Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age

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Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age

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Oct 11, 2012


We are at a critical juncture in world politics. Nuclear strategy and policy have risen to the top of the global policy agenda, and issues ranging from a nuclear Iran to the global zero movement are generating sharp debate. The historical origins of our contemporary nuclear world are deeply consequential for contemporary policy, but it is crucial that decisions are made on the basis of fact rather than myth and misapprehension. In Nuclear Statecraft, Francis J. Gavin challenges key elements of the widely accepted narrative about the history of the atomic age and the consequences of the nuclear revolution.On the basis of recently declassified documents, Gavin reassesses the strategy of flexible response, the influence of nuclear weapons during the Berlin Crisis, the origins of and motivations for U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy, and how to assess the nuclear dangers we face today. In case after case, he finds that we know far less than we think we do about our nuclear history. Archival evidence makes it clear that decision makers were more concerned about underlying geopolitical questions than about the strategic dynamic between two nuclear superpowers.Gavin's rigorous historical work not only tells us what happened in the past but also offers a powerful tool to explain how nuclear weapons influence international relations. Nuclear Statecraft provides a solid foundation for future policymaking.

Oct 11, 2012

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Nuclear Statecraft - Francis J. Gavin



History and Strategy in

America’s Atomic Age

Francis J. Gavin

Cornell University Press

Ithaca and London

For Olivia




1.  History, Theory, and Statecraft in the Nuclear Age

2.  The Myth of Flexible Response: American Strategy in Europe during the 1960s

3.  Nuclear Weapons, Statecraft, and the Berlin Crisis, 1958–1962

4.  Blasts from the Past: Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s

5.  Nuclear Nixon

6.  That Seventies Show: The Consequences of Parity Revisited

7.  Same as It Ever Was? Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century

8.  Global Zero, History, and the Nuclear Revolution



This book could not have been completed without the generous support of several organizations: the Nobel Institute in Oslo; the Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellowship; the Tom Slick Memorial Fellowship of the University of Texas; the Policy Research Institute of the LBJ School of Public Affairs; the Faculty Research Development program of the University of Texas; and, especially, the Smith Richardson Foundation, which awarded me a Junior Faculty Fellowship in International Security and Foreign Policy.

I am grateful for the wonderful research assistants who have done such great work for me over the years: Brent Chaney, Anya Cherkasova, Braden Civens, Ben Davis, Rex Douglas, Michael Gerson, Leslie Holmes, Katy Koch, Patrick McMillin, Colin Murphy, Justin Patrick, Megan Reiss, Yana Skorobogatov, Miha Vindis, and especially Jessica Mahoney.

My colleagues at the LBJ School and the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas are the best one could find anywhere, and I have been lucky to benefit from their friendship and inspiration. I have been particularly fortunate to have two deans, Bobby Ray Inman and Jim Steinberg, who provided extraordinary support and mentorship throughout this project. Running a center while completing a book was possible only with the tremendous help of Jim Langdon, Greg Engle, and especially Celeste Gventer.

Many people read portions of the manuscript or heard me present portions of the book, and I am thankful for all the valuable feedback and advice I have received. While those who have helped improve this manuscript are too numerous to list, I am especially grateful to Melvyn Leffler and Mira Rapp-Hooper for their ideas and advice. Two scholars have had a profound influence on how I think about these issues, and their imprint is on every page of this manuscript. Robert Jervis has done more than anyone to shape how we think about nuclear weapons and international politics, and while we are all in his debt, I am particularly lucky to have received his encouragement and detailed comments on this book. Marc Trachtenberg taught me how to be a historian, and I continue to learn from him. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a teacher as wise, kind, and supportive as Marc. My biggest thanks go to my most important supporters—Natalie, Catherine, and Olivia.

Material appearing in chapter 2 appeared previously in The Myth of Flexible Response: American Strategy in Europe during the 1960s, International History Review 23, no. 4 (December 2001): 847–75. By permission of International History Review. Material appearing in chapter 4 appeared previously in Blasts from the Past: Nuclear Proliferation and Rogue States before the Bush Doctrine, International Security 29, no. 3 (Winter 2005): 100–135. By permission of International Security. Material appearing in chapter 5 appeared previously in Nuclear Nixon: Ironies, Puzzles, and the Triumph of Realpolitik, in Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969–1977, edited by Fred Logevall and Andrew Preston, 126–45 (Oxford University Press, 2008). By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Material appearing in chapter 6 appeared previously in Wrestling with Parity: The Nuclear Revolution Revisited, in The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective, edited by Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent, 189–205 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010). Reprinted by permission of the publisher; copyright © 2010 by Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent. Material appearing in chapter 7 appeared previously in Same as It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War, International Security 34, no. 3 (Winter 2009–10): 7–37. By permission of International Security.


There is a widely held belief that we are at a profound and critical juncture in world politics. Nuclear proliferation, strategy, and policy have risen to the top of the global policy agenda, and nuclear issues receive more attention now than at any other time in recent memory. The Obama administration laid out a long-term vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. The United States and other countries continue to condemn Iran and North Korea for their nuclear efforts, and aggressive action to cripple their programs has not been ruled out. Fears of nuclear terrorism and concerns over nuclear tipping points are widespread. Arms control has taken on a new prominence, not seen since the Cold War, with the signing of the New START treaty with Russia in 2010 and efforts to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime.¹ The Obama administration also conducted a vigorous internal review of US nuclear strategy and made significant changes. These policies are taking place in a dynamic international environment, where nuclear and nonnuclear powers from East Asia to the Middle East to Latin America are making crucial, and in some cases far-reaching, decisions about their own nuclear policies.

The United States is making make big bets in the nuclear arena, bets that could have lasting consequences. That nuclear weapons have had a profound influence on world politics is accepted by almost everyone. But there is a wide degree of difference as to the meaning and consequences of this revolution and what the appropriate policy responses should be. How should we evaluate various proposals and the ideas that animate them? The most important thing we can do to is to better appreciate the historical origins of our contemporary nuclear world. Understanding that past is my goal in this book. Surprisingly, this is rarely done. On the one hand, many policy analysts claim that the past has little to tell us about the new and frightening nuclear challenges of the twenty-first century. This view is wrong-headed. I do not argue that nothing has changed, but there is far more continuity than we acknowledge. Many questions that appear novel have in fact come up before, and those issues that are truly new often have their foundations in past experience. What is as alarming is that those who do base their arguments on the past often get the story wrong. Each of the chapters in this book uses history to break open long-held nuclear myths. Taken together, they challenge the widely accepted, stylized narrative about the nuclear revolution and its effect on international relations and US foreign policy since 1945. Bad history is almost worse than no history. We cannot begin to devise effective policies until we recognize the importance of our nuclear history and, just as important, get it right.

Many are skeptical that history can provide anything of use to policymakers. As I explain in chapter 1, History, Theory, and Statecraft in the Nuclear Age, historians have for a variety of reasons not played a key role in understanding the nuclearized world we live in. As Jill Lepore has pointed out, the American historical profession defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study.² Even those historians who are interested in contemporary history may think they have little to offer decision makers. Historians emphasize complexity and uncertainty when looking at the past; they dismiss the possibility of predicting future events and even question whether it is possible to generalize. The military historian Michael Howard captured this view when he claimed he was conscious above all of the unique quality of an experience that resulted from circumstances that would never, that could never, be precisely replicated.³ Policymakers are understandably impatient with this way of seeing the world. Clear-cut policy guidance, parsimonious explanations, and reliable predictions would seem to better serve the needs of decision makers.

In this book I attempt to demonstrate how historical analysis can provide us with an understanding of the complex and at times contradictory ways nuclear weapons have influenced international politics in the past—and how it can also provide useful guidance to decision makers facing hard choices in the future. Like the integrated essays of John Lewis Gaddis, Robert Jervis, and Marc Trachtenberg, this book uses new historical evidence to wrestle with competing interpretations of the postwar nuclear order rather than simply telling a chronological story.⁴ The historical lessons are both interesting and important in and of themselves, and they are crucial to making better policy in the nuclear arena today.

There are also observers who question whether there is much new to say about the fundamental question—How do nuclear weapons affect international politics? This issue had been deemed so important that it spawned its own field in the earliest days of the nuclear age, the field of security studies, which is marked by vigorous, sophisticated debate and analysis. Although scholars with a historical background contributed to these discussions, strategists, international relations theorists, economists, and scientists drove most of the work on nuclear issues. The sometimes ahistorical quality of this scholarship was not really that surprising: one of the key tenets of security studies was that nuclear weapons had revolutionized military affairs and world politics, and applying rigorous and at times cutting edge social science methods to the nuclear question was more important than having a deep understanding of the past.⁵ And, really, after countless books and articles since 1945, what more was there to say about the nuclear age? As Steven Walt, a political scientist, pointed out when discussing the decline of scholarly interest in nuclear questions, one reason is that there hasn’t been that much new to say about the subject; the essential features of deterrence theory are well- established by now, and the infeasibility of any sort of ‘nuclear war’ seems to be pretty well-understood (at least let’s hope so).

What were the essential features of the received wisdom? There were disagreements among scholars, of course, but a consensus of sorts emerged on what were the important questions and what were the best ways to assess various claims. The focus was on the nuclear weapons themselves—raw numbers, capabilities, deployment—and how their presence and the strategies to use them shaped incentives in the international system and drove state behavior. Of overriding concern was the interaction between the nuclear forces of the United States and the Soviet Union, the two powers that dominated what came to be called the bipolar order. In particular, analysts exploited innovative tools such as game theory to recommend what nuclear strategies the United States should develop to deter the Soviet Union from aggressive actions.

A narrative emerged, the rough outlines of which are well known. There was little in the way of strategy in the early days of the nuclear age. Policymakers struggled to come to terms with the enormous impact these weapons had on questions of war and peace. In the early to mid-1950s, the Eisenhower administration developed a strategy based on the massive preemptive use of strategic nuclear weapons to deter the Soviets and prevail in a possible war.⁷ By the late 1950s, however, critics were arguing that the strategy of massive retaliation was not credible.⁸ The emergence of what was called secure second strike meant that no matter how effective a massive preemptive strike against Soviet nuclear forces might be, the Soviet Union would still have enough atomic firepower to retaliate and cause unacceptable damage to the United States. Combining this belief with the fact of superior Soviet conventional forces in the European theater led many to doubt whether the US strategy could effectively deter the Soviets, particularly in Europe.

Enter the so-called whiz kids. The young and dynamic president, John F. Kennedy, along with his brilliant cadre of strategists and defense intellectuals, transformed US nuclear strategy in the early 1960s, as rigid massive retaliation gave way to the more nuanced and modern flexible response. This new strategy included a wide array of nuclear packages, calibrated military responses, and more robust conventional force options up and down the escalatory ladder. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara laid out the new strategy during speeches in Athens and Ann Arbor in the spring of 1962. Although intense debate and disagreements would continue in the decades to come, the new approach laid out the basic contours of US nuclear strategy for the rest of the Cold War.

There is a problem with this story, however: it is largely incorrect. Top US decision makers such as President Kennedy and Secretary McNamara, and later President Johnson, did not actually spend much time thinking about the issues that concerned those in the security studies field. When secret documents were declassified, it was revealed that they did not want more US conventional forces in Europe (quite the contrary), did not spend much time or effort on creating strategic nuclear options that were more flexible in any meaningful way, and had far more in common with the Eisenhower administration than anyone would have guessed. And, despite the obvious sophistication and brilliance of the security studies literature, there was little evidence that tools such as game theory captured the dynamics of how top decision makers made nuclear policies.

This was all quite surprising—virtually every major work in the field had highlighted the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ flexible response as a dramatic shift away from past strategies and had emphasized the influence of the strategic studies community in bringing about this change. If the documents told a different story, as chapter 2, The Myth of Flexible Response, makes clear, could other aspects of conventional wisdom surrounding nuclear history also be called into question?

This question highlights the methodological power of historical work that looks at policy and strategy during the postwar period. I did not set out to study nuclear issues when I visited the archives. But while doing research on a book about US international monetary policy, I came across all sorts of evidence that called into question the received wisdom about how top policymakers thought about and made nuclear policy. Time and time again, for example, I found that each of the presidents I was looking at—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—pressed their aides to find ways to reduce the balance-of-payment costs of stationing US troops in Europe, even if it meant bringing troops home (a policy in direct contradiction to the received story about flexible response). This alerted me to surprising and previously unknown causal connections, referred to in the first chapter as horizontal history, which provided insights into how the policymaking process actually worked.

A fundamental issue underneath many of these causal linkages concerned the question of how nuclear weapons influence international politics. Are such weapons stabilizing or destabilizing, and under what circumstances? We have lots of international relations theories on this issue, but what did the historical record reveal? One way of testing these questions would be to reexamine what was arguably the greatest period of nuclear tension—the four years that began in late 1958 with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev demanding a change in Berlin’s status and ending with the denouement of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. What role did nuclear weapons play in both creating and resolving these terrifying tensions? Was the story of what actually happened, the policies actually pursued, at odds with the conventional interpretation? In other words, was there a gap between our theories and the history similar to the one that plagued nuclear strategy? Could a better understanding of the past close this gap, and perhaps even provide insight into how nuclear weapons influence international politics today?

In chapter 3, Nuclear Weapons, Statecraft, and the Berlin Crisis, 1958–1962, I wrestle with these questions. I offer two tentative but provocative counterfactuals to help get at these important issues: First, how might a superpower crisis over Berlin have unfolded in a nonnuclear environment? Would it have happened at all? Second, and related, how would the nuclear dynamics between the United States and the Soviet Union have differed if there had been no disagreement about the status of Berlin? The goal of this exercise is not to provide a definitive answer to unanswerable questions: counterfactuals should be used, if at all, with great care. Instead, the idea is to explore whether the Berlin situation was simply unusual and perhaps sui generis, if only to give us pause before we try to extract generalizable lessons from the crisis. Much of our theoretical work on nuclear brinkmanship, crisis dynamics, and the role that the balance of power and resolve are taken from this unique period, and those theories play into our notions about how stabilizing or destabilizing nuclear weapons can be in the contemporary world. If, on the other hand, the lessons from Berlin are generalizable, the influence of nuclear weapons on the behavior of both the Americans and the Soviets between 1958 and 1962 can be understood as undermining arguments about the stabilizing effects of the nuclear revolution. Because these issues play such an important role in our thinking about the hazards of nuclear proliferation—far larger than we often recognize—understanding the real story from this volatile period is all the more important.

As I continued my historical work, a second serious problem with the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons came into focus. When looking at the late 1950s and early 1960s, I saw that the security studies literature zeroed in on the strategic dynamic between the nuclear forces of the United States and the Soviet Union, almost as if this interaction took place in a political vacuum. The documents, however, made clear that decision makers were primarily concerned with the underlying geopolitical questions animating the standoff between the superpowers. Both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations recognized that resolving contested issues could ease the sense of crisis between the superpowers. For example, if the superpowers could come to an understanding on the military and political status of Germany, many of the other issues, including arms control, would fall into place. This dynamic—far more than abstract notions of how nuclear weapons did or did not drive behavior—is crucial to understanding the crisis period of 1958–62.

This emphasis on underlying political questions exposed a third problem with the conventional wisdom: policymakers focused far more on the spread of nuclear weapons, what came to be called nuclear proliferation, than on the strategic interaction between the Soviets and Americans. The subject of proliferation was not completely ignored by the security studies literature, but until the Cold War ended, it took an undeserved second seat to what has been called vertical competition between the superpowers. While the strategic community was slow to understand the importance of nuclear proliferation, by about 1960 profound changes in world politics were forcing policymakers to confront new nuclear challenges. US and Soviet officials began to recognize that their early, lackadaisical attitudes toward nonproliferation were no longer prudent. Who would and would not get access to nuclear weapons became an issue of fundamental importance, not only between the superpowers but also within each alliance and in the nonaligned world as well.

Although it is true that in the early days of the Cold War, US and Soviet nonproliferation efforts were less than vigorous, prospects for effective global nonproliferation policies improved in the early 1960s. There were four reasons for this change. First, as Lawrence Wittner has shown in his path-breaking work, Resisting the Bomb, grassroots antinuclear groups gained popularity throughout the world. The development of thermonuclear weapons, and the dangers associated with nuclear testing, brought emerging environmental groups together with peace advocates to demand that governments ban the bomb. Nongovernmental organizations in the West, as well as political leaders from the nonaligned movement, were especially important in advocating a nuclear test ban treaty.¹⁰ This grassroots, global antinuclear movement expanded and increased its influence in the decades to come.

Second, the tense standoff between the Soviets and Americans between 1958 and 1962, initially over the status of Berlin and culminating in the Cuban missile crisis, brought the world close to the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945. Approaching the nuclear precipice—Secretary of State Dean Rusk called it the most dangerous crisis the world has ever seen, the only time when the nuclear superpowers came eyeball to eyeball—both the Soviets and the Americans recognized the need to reduce tensions, halt arms racing, and limit the chances of an accidental nuclear war.¹¹ A world with fewer nuclear weapons and fewer atomic powers, it was thought, would be much safer. Both governments increasingly made both bilateral and global nuclear arms control a priority after the October 1962 missile crisis.

This led to the third concern—the idea that if proliferation were not stopped, there could be a domino, snowball, or tipping point phenomenon resulting in dozens of new atomic powers. President Kennedy told the world in 1963 that he was haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, fifteen or twenty.¹² In 1961, the strategist Hermann Kahn claimed that with the kind of technology that is likely to be available in 1969, it may literally turn out that a Hottentot, an educated and technical Hottentot it is true, would be able to make bombs.¹³ In 1965, analyst Fred Iklé warned that if proliferation went beyond the middle powers, it could lead to owners of nuclear weapons who cannot be deterred because they feel they have nothing to lose.¹⁴

The fourth and most important reason for the shift toward stronger nonproliferation polices was geopolitical. Until the early 1960s, it could be argued that the countries that had developed nuclear weapons—the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France—were status quo powers, unlikely to change postwar borders through force. Other potential proliferators—Sweden, India, Australia, even Israel—had understandable (if controversial) security motivations to acquire weapons for defensive and deterrent purposes. Two other potential nuclear powers, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), fell into a much different category. The possibility that either or both of these states might gain access to nuclear weapons threatened the stability of Europe and East Asia and challenged both US and Soviet interests.

The FRG, or West Germany, was part of a divided land, only a generation removed from the Nazi legacy of terror and war, feared by its Eastern bloc neighbors and mistrusted even by its closest European allies. The FRG demonstrated an interest throughout the 1950s in having access to the most modern weapons available.¹⁵ At least West Germany was a liberal democracy; China was in many ways the original rogue state. Veering between the iron rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, the anarchy of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, China’s successful program to develop its own atomic weapons worried both its neighbors and the Cold War superpowers. President Kennedy believed that a Chinese nuclear test was likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.¹⁶ Some argued that the Chinese are the biggest problem of all, made the rest of our problems seem academic,¹⁷ and that the United States should do whatever it could to keep China permanently out of the business.¹⁸

But how could nuclear proliferation be slowed? Once again, the documents lead in an unexpected direction. While exploring the personal papers of former deputy secretary of defense Roswell Gilpatric (1961–1964) during a visit to the JFK Presidential Library (for the purpose of my work on the US balance-of-payments deficit), I found extensive notes to a commission he chaired that was tasked with recommending US policy in the wake of China’s first nuclear test in October 1964. The deliberations of the so-called Gilpatric committee are detailed in chapter 4, Blasts from the Past: Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s. They provide a window into how the US government wrestled with the challenges of nuclear proliferation.

The committee’s recommendations laid the groundwork for a transformation of US policy, paving the way for the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that shapes global nuclear politics today.¹⁹ It was not obvious or inevitable when the committee deliberated, however, that US policymakers would reverse their skeptical attitudes regarding nonproliferation and move in this direction. Three things were particularly surprising in the documents from this period. First, there was no shared faith among top decision makers that a robust US nonproliferation policy was possible or even wise. Second, they recognized that designing an effective nonproliferation policy would involve lots of difficult trade-offs and deep opportunity costs. Would a no first-use policy or missile defense system encourage or hinder proliferation? Should all potential proliferators be treated the same, or should the question of atomic spread be dealt with on a case-by-case basis? As a 1964 Hudson Institute report argued, retarding the spread of nuclear weapons is a situation where the best may be the enemy of the good, and an attempt to get ‘everything’ may risk achieving substantially less than…would be possible with more modest ambitions.²⁰ What was the role of different tools of statecraft, including appeasement, alliances, and preemption? The final insight was perhaps the most important one—once again, the question of nuclear proliferation could not be isolated as an arms control problem but needed to be viewed in the larger geopolitical context. The politics of the German question were central to the nuclear issue, without which the dramatic shift in policy that emerged during the 1960s cannot be understood.

The power of historical insight, however, is often found in exposing the exceptions rather than the rule. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson increasingly questioned the political benefit to the United States of nuclear weapons; but there was one president whose views on their utility were quite clear. On the surface, President Richard Nixon had what arms controllers would call an exemplary record. On his watch, the United States ratified the NPT, banned biological weapons, and negotiated the landmark Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union. As is often the case with declassified records, however, the divide between public perception and actual policy turns out to be vast. Chapter 5, Nuclear Nixon, highlights a leader dismissive of arms control and obsessed with finding ways to exploit nuclear weapons as a tool for his ambitious statecraft. Confronted and tormented by the realities of nuclear parity, Nixon nonetheless strove to find ways to manipulate the risk inherent in nuclear confrontations to his advantage. The Nixon period provides a fascinating laboratory for the question of how much the nuclear balance matters and whether strategies that seek to exploit the balance of resolve are effective.

Even if Nixon was unwilling to face up to the realities of nuclear parity between the superpowers, others were. In chapter 6, That Seventies Show: The Consequences of Parity Revisited, I assess the three broad responses to the emerging strategic balance between the superpowers. The first—the mutual vulnerability/strategic stability school—believed that there was no point to seeking strategic superiority. The powerful structural pressures of a world dominated by the security dilemma required international arms control to save states from themselves. The mutual vulnerability school, which occupied the high ground among scholars and intellectuals, was a strange mix of realism and international law and not without its own deep internal contradictions. The second school—nuclear superiority/damage limitation—offered a wide range of arguments in favor of superiority, from the need to extend deterrence to the

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