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PRESIDENT TRUMAN: We will take whatever steps are necessary to meet the military situation, just as we always have.

REPORTER: Will that include the atomic bomb?

PRESIDENT TRUMAN: That includes every weapon we have. . . . The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has.


November 30, 19501

THE CHINESE PEOPLE’S Volunteer Army—to use its official but inaccurate title—had begun crossing the Yalu River surreptitiously in mid-October. By late November it was ready, and as United Nations forces, made up chiefly of American and South Korean troops, approached the North Korean border, the Chinese suddenly struck, with devastating results. On the day of Truman’s press conference, General MacArthur’s armies were retreating in the face of an overwhelming enemy onslaught, and desperate measures to save the situation were under consideration in Washington.

On December 2nd, acting under the authority Truman had delegated, MacArthur ordered the United States Air Force to drop five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Chinese columns advancing down the Korean peninsula. Although not as effective as they had been against Japanese cities at the end of World War II, the resulting blasts and firestorms did stop the offensive. Some 150,000 Chinese troops were killed in the attacks, along with an unknown number of American and South Korean prisoners-of-war. NATO allies were quick to condemn MacArthur’s action, which he had taken without consulting them, and only an American veto prevented the United Nations Security Council from immediately reversing that body’s decision, made six months earlier, to authorize military action in defense of South Korea. The Soviet Union, under intense pressure from its Chinese ally to retaliate with its own atomic weapons, gave the United States a fortyeight-hour ultimatum to halt all military operations on the Korean peninsula or face “the most severe consequences.” When, on December 4th, that deadline passed, two Soviet bombers took off from Vladivostok, each equipped with a primitive but fully operational atomic bomb. Their targets were the South Korean cities of Pusan and Inchon, both of them critical ports supplying United Nations forces. Little was left after the bombs fell. Faced with twice the number of casualties inflicted in the attacks he had ordered against the Chinese together with an almost complete severing of his logistical chain, MacArthur ordered American bombers based in Japan to drop atomic bombs on Vladivostok, as well as the Chinese cities of Shenyang and Harbin. The news of these strikes caused anti-American riots to break out all over Japan—itself within range of Soviet bombers—just as Great Britain, France, and the Benelux countries were announcing their formal withdrawal from the NATO alliance. Not, however, before mushroom clouds were reported over the West German cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg—and so, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it might have gone.2 But it didn’t. Only the press conference exchange and the events described in the first paragraph actually happened. The next two are fiction. The Truman administration in fact rushed to reassure the press, the country, its allies, and even its enemies that the president’s words had been ill-chosen, that it had no plans to use atomic weapons in Korea, and that any decision to reverse those plans would be made only by the commander-in-chief. Despite the shock of its most humiliating military reversal since the Civil War, the United States resolved to keep the Korean War limited, even if that meant an indefinite stalemate. When, in April, 1951, it became clear that MacArthur did not agree with this policy, Truman promptly sacked him.

The fighting in Korea dragged on for another two years, under conditions approximating World War I trench warfare. By the time the Chinese, the Americans, and their respective Korean allies at last managed to agree on an armistice, in July, 1953, the war had left the peninsula devastated, with no clear victory for either side: the boundary between the two Koreas had hardly shifted from where it was in 1950. According to official statistics, 36,568 Americans died in combat. No such specificity is possible in calculating other losses, but it is likely that some 600,000 Chinese troops and well over 2 million Koreans, civilians and military personnel, perished during the three years of fighting.3 The only decisive outcome of the war was the precedent it set: that there could be a bloody and protracted conflict involving nations armed with nuclear weapons—and that they could choose not to use them.


TOTALITARIANISM was by no means the only thing the world had to fear as the global war came to an end in 1945. The very weapons that brought about the Japanese surrender—the American atomic bombs that really were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—caused as much concern as they did exhilaration, for if it was now possible for a single bomb to devastate an entire city, what might that imply for future wars? There had been few examples in the past of weapons being developed but held back: the only significant precedent had been the non-use of gas in World War II, a consequence of its extensive but imperfectly controlled use in World War I. In virtually all other instances in which new weapons had been invented, from bows and arrows through gunpowder and artillery to submarines and bombers, occasions had been found upon which to unleash them.

Atomic bombs, however, were unlike any earlier weapon. They were, as the American strategist Bernard Brodie pointed out in 1946, “several million times more potent on a pound-for-pound basis than the most powerful explosives previously known.”4 Any widespread reliance on them could, quite literally, change the nature of warfare by placing at risk not only front lines but supply lines, as well as the urban and industrial complexes that sustained them. Everything would be on the battlefield.

Wars had been fought for as far back as anyone could see. They accompanied the first tribes and settlements, and they persisted through the creation of cities, nations, empires, and modern states. They varied only in the means available with which to fight them: as technology advanced so too did lethality, with the unsurprising result that as wars became bigger their costs became greater. The first war of which we know the details—the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during the 5th century BCE—probably brought about the deaths of some 250,000 people. The two world wars of the 20th century may well have killed 300 times that number. The propensity for violence that drove these conflicts and all those in between remained much the same, as Thucydides had predicted it would, “human nature being what it is.”5 What made the difference were the “improvements” in weaponry that inflated the body count.

This grim trend led the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, writing in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, to warn that states resorting to unlimited violence could be consumed by it. If the object of war was to secure the state—how could it not be?—then wars had to be limited: that is what Clausewitz meant when he insisted that war is “a continuation of political activity by other means. . . . The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”6 States themselves could become the victims of war if weapons ever became so destructive that they placed at risk the purposes for which wars were being fought. Any resort to force, under such circumstances, could destroy what it was meant to defend.

Something like this happened during the first half of the 20th century. The German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires disappeared as a result of defeat in World War I. Two other empires, the British and the French, emerged victorious, but severely weakened. World War II produced even more catastrophic results: not just the political disappearance of entire states but also their physical devastation and, in the case of the Jews, the near annihilation of an entire people. Well before the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Clausewitz’s warnings about the dangers of total war had been amply confirmed.

Despite their revolutionary character those bombs were built under an old and familiar set of assumptions: that if they worked, they would be used. Few of the thousands of people employed in the wartime Manhattan Project saw their jobs as differing from the design and production of conventional weapons. Atomic bombs were meant to be dropped, as soon as they were ready, on whatever enemy targets yet remained. 7 Technology might have changed, but the human habit of escalating violence had not.

The bombs’ builders would have been surprised to learn, therefore, that the first military uses of nuclear weapons, on August 6 and 9, 1945, would be the last for the rest of the 20th century. As the means of fighting great wars became exponentially more devastating, the likelihood of such wars diminished, and ultimately disappeared altogether. Contrary to the lesson Thucydides drew from the greatest war of his time, human nature did change—and the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began the process by which it did so.


IT TOOK leadership to make this happen, and the most important first steps came from the only individual so far ever to have ordered that nuclear weapons be used to kill people. Harry S. Truman claimed, for the rest of his life, to have lost no sleep over his decision, but his behavior suggests otherwise. On the day the bomb was first tested in the New Mexico desert he wrote a note to himself speculating that “machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it.” A year later he placed his concerns in a broader context: “[T]he human animal and his emotions change not much from age to age. He must change now or he faces absolute and complete destruction and maybe the insect age or an atmosphereless planet will succeed him.”8 “It is a terrible thing,” he told a group of advisers in 1948, “to order the use of something that . . . is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. . . . So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.”9 The words were prosaic—Truman was a matter-of-fact man—but the implications were revolutionary. Political leaders had almost always in the past left it to their military chiefs to decide the weapons to be used in fighting wars, regardless of how much destruction they might cause. Clausewitz’s warnings had done little over the years to alter this tendency. Lincoln gave his generals a free hand to do whatever it took to defeat the Confederacy: well over 600,000 Americans died before their Civil War came to an end. Civilians imposed few constraints on militaries in World War I, with devastating consequences: some 21,000 British troops died in a single day—most of them in a single hour—at the Battle of the Somme. Anglo-American strategic bombing produced civilian casualties running into the tens of thousands on many nights during World War II, without anyone awakening Churchill or Roosevelt each time this happened. And Truman himself had left it to the Army Air Force to determine when and where the first atomic weapons would be dropped: the names “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” were no more familiar to him, before the bombs fell, than they were to anyone else.10 After that happened, though, Truman demanded a sharp break from past practice. He insisted that a civilian agency, not the military, control access to atomic bombs and their further development. He also proposed, in 1946, turning all such weapons and the means of producing them over to the newly established United Nations—although under the Baruch Plan (named for elder statesman Bernard Baruch, who presented it) the Americans would not relinquish their monopoly until a foolproof system of international inspections was in place. In the meantime, and despite repeated requests from his increasingly frustrated war planners, Truman refused to clarify the circumstances in which they could count on using atomic bombs in any future war. That decision would remain a presidential prerogative: he did not want “some dashing lieutenant colonel decid[ing] when would be the proper time to drop one.”11 There were elements of illogic in Truman’s position. It made integrating nuclear weapons into existing armed forces impossible. It left unclear how the American atomic monopoly might be used to induce greater political cooperation from the Soviet Union. It impeded attempts to make deterrence work: the administration expected its new weapons to keep Stalin from exploiting the Red Army’s manpower advantage in Europe, but with the Pentagon excluded from even basic information about the number and capabilities of these devices, it was not at all apparent how this was to happen. It is likely, indeed, that during the first few years of the postwar era, Soviet intelligence knew more about American atomic bombs than the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff did. Moscow’s spies—having penetrated the top levels of the British intelligence establishment—were that good, while Truman’s determination to maintain civilian supremacy over his own military establishment was that strong.12 In the long run, these lapses proved less important than the precedent Truman set. For by denying the military control over atomic weapons, he reasserted civilian authority over how wars were to be fought. Without ever having read Clausewitz—at least as far as we know—the president revived that strategist’s great principle that war must be the instrument of politics, rather than the other way around. Little in Truman’s background would have predicted this outcome. His military experience was that of a World War I artillery captain. He had been a failed businessman, and a successful but unremarkable politician. He would never have reached the presidency had Roosevelt not plucked him from the Senate to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1944, and then died.

But Truman did have one unique qualification for demanding a return to Clausewitz: after August, 1945, he had the ability, by issuing a single order, to bring about more death and destruction than any other individual in history had ever been able to accomplish. That stark fact caused this ordinary man to do an extraordinary thing. He reversed a pattern in human behavior so ancient that its origins lay shrouded in the mists of time: that when weapons are developed, they will be used.


THE DURABILITY of this reversal, however, would not depend on Truman alone. Alarmed by how many troops the Red Army had in Europe and how few were available to the United States and its allies, Pentagon planners had no choice but to assume that their commander-in-chief would authorize the use of atomic weapons if the Soviet Union should seek to occupy the rest of the continent. They were probably right in doing so: Truman himself acknowledged in 1949 that had it not been for the bomb, “the Russians would have taken over Europe a long time ago.”13 What that meant, then, was that Stalin’s response would have a lot to do with determining what the future of warfare would be.

Truman and his advisers had hoped that Stalin would sense the power of the atomic bomb and moderate his ambitions accordingly. They encouraged Soviet military officers to tour the ruins of Hiroshima, and allowed them to witness the first postwar tests of the bomb, held in the Pacific in the summer of 1946. The president himself remained convinced that “[i]f we could just have Stalin and his boys see one of these things, there wouldn’t be any question about another war.”14 This faith in the power of visual demonstrations underestimated the old dictator, who knew from long experience the importance of showing no fear, whatever the fears he may have felt.

That there were such fears is now obvious: the atomic bomb was “a powerful thing, pow-er-ful!” Stalin admitted privately.15 His anxieties led him to launch a massive program to build a Soviet bomb that imposed a considerably greater burden on his country’s shattered economy than the Manhattan Project had on the United States—the use of forced labor and the wholesale neglect of health and environmental hazards were routine. He rejected the Baruch Plan, Truman’s offer to turn the American atomic arsenal over to the United Nations, because it would have required inspections of Soviet territory. He worried about an American preemptive strike to take out Soviet bomb-making facilities before they could produce their product—an unnecessary concern, as it turned out, for there was little confidence in Washington that the United States could win the war that would have followed, even with an atomic monopoly.16 Stalin’s fears may also have induced him to allow the Anglo-American airlift during the Berlin blockade to proceed without interference. He probably knew, from espionage, that the B-29s Truman sent to Europe during this crisis were not equipped to carry atomic weapons; but he also knew that shooting down any American plane might cause genuinely atomic-capable bombers to retaliate. And he was pessimistic about the effects of such an attack. The Americans had wiped out Dresden without atomic weapons in 1945. What could they do, with such weapons, to Moscow? 17 “If we, the leaders,” should allow a third world war to break out, he told a visiting Chinese delegation shortly before the first Soviet atomic bomb test, “the Russian people would not understand us. Moreover, they could chase us away. For underestimating all the wartime and postwar efforts and suffering. For taking it too lightly.”18 The point, though, was to hide these fears, lest the Americans learn how much they haunted him. “Atomic bombs are meant to frighten those with weak nerves,” Stalin scoffed in a 1946 interview he knew Truman and his advisers would read.19 The next several years saw far more intransigence than cooperation in Soviet diplomacy: the operative word, in almost all negotiations, seemed to be “nyet!” Apart from the single instance of the Berlin blockade, it is difficult to see that the United States got any political advantages from its nuclear monopoly. “They frighten [us] with the atomic bomb, but we are not afraid of it,” Stalin assured the same Chinese he had warned about the dangers of risking war.20 The claim may not have been true, but Stalin’s strategy made sense: he had shrewdly calculated that, short of war itself, the atomic bomb was an almost unusable weapon.

That conclusion did not diminish Stalin’s relief, however, when in August, 1949, Soviet scientists provided him with a bomb of his own. “If we had been late with the atomic bomb [test] by a year or a year and a half,” he admitted, “then we perhaps would have gotten it ‘tested’ against ourselves.” Another observation Stalin made at the time was even more intriguing: “If war broke out, the use of A-bombs would depend on Trumans and Hitlers being in power. The people won’t allow such people to be in power. Atomic weapons can hardly be used without spelling the end of the world.”21 The misunderstanding of Truman here is understandable: the president kept his doubts about atomic weapons as quiet as Stalin did his fears. The aging dictator’s expression of faith in the American people, however, is surprising—although it parallels his concern that the people of the Soviet Union would “chase us away” if he too casually risked war. And Stalin’s vision of how the world might end is even more remarkable, for had Truman known of it, he would have agreed wholeheartedly with it. The “boys” in Moscow, it appears, really did think similarly.

But maybe that is what possessing an atomic bomb does: it causes its owners, whoever they are, to become Clausewitzians. War has to become an instrument of policy, regardless of differences in culture, ideology, nationality, and personal morality, because with weapons that powerful the alternative could be annihilation.


WHAT WORRIED the Truman administration in the dismal winter of 1950–51, however, was not so much the prospect of national or global annihilation, but rather the possibility that American and South Korean forces could be wiped out by the hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops who were chasing them—there is no other word for it—back down the Korean peninsula. The United States at the end of 1950 had 369 operational atomic bombs, all of them easily deliverable on Korean battlefields or on Chinese supply lines from bases in Japan and Okinawa. The Soviet Union probably had no more than five such weapons at the time, and they could hardly have been as reliable as their American counterparts.22 Why then, with this 74–1 advantage, did the United States not use its nuclear supremacy to reverse the worst military setback it had suffered in almost a hundred years?

Truman’s conviction that atomic bombs differed from all other weapons established a presumption against such use, but military necessity could have overridden this: had there been a Soviet invasion of Europe, it almost certainly would have done so. There were, however, practical difficulties that discouraged the Americans from using nuclear weapons in Korea. One of these was the simple problem of what to target. The atomic bomb had been developed for use against cities, industrial complexes, military bases, and transportation networks. Few of these existed on the Korean peninsula, where United Nations forces were confronting an army that advanced mostly on foot, carrying its own supplies, along primitive roads and even improvised mountain paths. “What would it be dropped on?” one American general wanted to know. The answer was not clear, nor was the evidence that dropping one, several, or even many bombs under these circumstances would be decisive.23 It would, of course, have been possible to bomb Chinese cities, industries, and military facilities north of the Yalu River, and the Truman administration did undertake planning for such an operation, even to the point, in the spring of 1951, of transferring unassembled atomic weapons to western Pacific bases. The political costs, however, would have been severe. As one historian has put it: “Washington’s European allies were scared out of their wits at the thought of an expanded war.”24 One reason was that if an atomic attack on China brought the Soviet Union into the war—there was, after all, now a Sino-Soviet mutual defense treaty—the United States would need Western European bases to strike Soviet targets, a requirement that could leave the NATO countries vulnerable in turn to retaliatory airstrikes, or even a full-scale ground invasion. Given the alliance’s minimal military capabilities at the time, using the bomb in Korea could ultimately mean a retreat to, or even across, the English Channel.

Another reason for nuclear non-use in Korea had to do with the military situation there. By the spring of 1951 Chinese forces had outrun their supply lines, and United Nations troops—now under the command of General Matthew B. Ridgway—were taking the offensive. It regained little ground, but it did stabilize the fighting front slightly north of the 38th parallel. This paved the way for quiet diplomacy, through Soviet channels, which made it possible to begin armistice negotiations in July. They produced no results—the war would drag on, at great cost to all combatants and to the Korean people, for another two years. But the principle had at least been established that the war would not expand, and that atomic weapons probably would not be used.

Stalin’s role in all of this was ambiguous. He had, of course, started the Korean War by authorizing the North Korean invasion. He had been surprised by the decisiveness of the American response, and when it looked as though MacArthur’s forces were going to reach the Yalu, he had pushed hard for Chinese intervention—but he would have abandoned North Korea if that had not taken place.25 He accepted the likelihood of a military stalemate when he approved talks to end the war, but he also saw advantages in keeping the United States tied down militarily in East Asia: the negotiations, therefore, should proceed slowly. “[A] drawn out war,” he explained to Mao, “gives the possibility to the Chinese troops to study contemporary warfare on the field of battle and in the second place shakes up the Truman regime in America and harms the military prestige of the Anglo-American troops.”26 Exhausted by the war, the Chinese and the North Koreans were ready to end it by the fall of 1952, but Stalin insisted that they continue fighting. Only after Stalin’s death did his successors approve a cease-fire, which took place in July, 1953.

There was, thus, no direct Soviet-American military confrontation over Korea—or so it appeared for many years. Recent evidence, however, has required revising this conclusion, for one other thing Stalin did was to authorize the use of Soviet fighter planes, manned by Soviet pilots, over the Korean peninsula—where they encountered American fighters flown by American pilots. And so there was, after all, a shooting war between the United States and the Soviet Union: it was the only time this happened during the Cold War. Both sides, however, kept it quiet. The Soviet Union never publicized its involvement in these air battles, and the United States, which was well aware of it, chose not to do so either.27 The two superpowers had found it necessary but also dangerous to be in combat with one another. They tacitly agreed, therefore, on a cover-up.


THE UNFAMILIAR IDEA that weapons could be developed and not used did little, however, to challenge the familiar assumption that the military applications of new technologies should be explored. That was what led a group of American atomic scientists, in the wake of the August, 1949, Soviet bomb test, to brief Truman on something they had known about but he had not: the possibility of constructing a thermonuclear or super-bomb. The device would work not by splitting atoms—the method the atomic bomb had relied upon—but by fusing them. Estimates projected a blast so great that no one could tell Truman what its uses in fighting a war might be. That had been the basis for Kennan’s opposition, as well as that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had run the Manhattan Project, and several other top advisers who failed to see how such an apocalyptic device could ever meet the Clausewitzian standard that military operations must not destroy what they were meant to defend.28 Warfighting, however, was not the basis upon which supporters of the “super” made their case. Thermonuclear weapons, they argued, would be psychologically, not militarily, necessary. Not having them would induce panic throughout the West if the Soviet Union got them. Having them would produce reassurance and deterrence: whatever advantages Stalin might have obtained from his atomic bomb would be canceled, and the United States would remain ahead in the nuclear arms race. And what if both sides developed “supers”? That would be better, Truman concluded, than for the Soviet Union to have a “super” monopoly.

In the end, as the president saw it, if the United States could build what was now coming to be called a “hydrogen” bomb, then it must build one. To be behind in any category of weaponry—or even to appear to be—would risk disaster. The problem now was not so much how to defeat an adversary as how to convince him not to go to war in the first place. Paradoxically, that seemed to require the development of weapons so powerful that no one on the American side knew what their military uses might be, while simultaneously persuading everyone on the Soviet side that if the war did come those weapons would without doubt be employed. Irrationality, by this logic, was the only way to hang on to rationality: an absolute weapon of war could become the means by which war remained an instrument of politics. Truman put it more simply early in 1950: “[W]e had got to do it—make the bomb—though no one wants to use it. But . . . we have got to have it if only for bargaining purposes with the Russians.”29 As it happened, Soviet scientists had been working on their own “super” since 1946. They never focused, to the extent that American bomb developers did, on the distinction between fission and fusion weapons. Nor did they see, in the fact that hydrogen bombs would be so much more powerful than atomic bombs, anything that would make them less morally justifiable. Because of their head start, the race to develop thermonuclear weapons was much closer than the one to build the atomic bomb had been: the Russians relied less on espionage this time, and more on their own expertise. The first American test of a hydrogen bomb obliterated a Pacific island on November 1, 1952. The first Soviet test followed in a Central Asian desert on August 12, 1953. Both explosions blew blinded and burned birds out of the sky. And that, though bad for the birds, turned out to be a small but significant sign of hope for the human race.

Struck by the phenomenon, American and Soviet observers of these tests recorded it in almost identical terms: since the “supers” could not be tried out on people, as the first atomic bombs had been, it was left to birds to suggest what the human effects might be. They were canaries in the most dangerous mineshaft ever. The witnesses also confirmed what the designers of thermonuclear devices already suspected: that there could be no rational use, in war, for a weapon of this size. “It looked as though it blotted out the whole horizon,” an American physicist recalled. A Soviet scientist found that the explosion “transcended some kind of psychological barrier.”30 It was as if they had witnessed the same event, not tests separated by nine months, some nine thousand miles, and a geopolitical rivalry that was well on the way to polarizing the world. The laws of physics were the same, whatever the other differences that now divided the planet.


ALL OF THIS caused Soviet and American scientists to see what Truman and Stalin had already begun to sense—even though neither was aware of the other’s concerns—that the new weapons could make real Clausewitz’s vision of a total and therefore purposeless war. But Truman left office in January, 1953, and Stalin left life two months later. New leaders came to power in Washington and Moscow who had yet to experience the nightmares that came with nuclear responsibility—or the task of avoiding the abyss about which Clausewitz had warned.

Unlike his predecessor in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower had read Clausewitz several times, as a young army officer during the 1920s. He did not doubt that military means must be subordinated to political ends, but he thought that it ought to be possible to include nuclear weapons among those means. He came to the presidency unpersuaded that the nature of warfare had fundamentally changed, and during the final months of the Korean War he repeatedly pushed his military advisers to find ways in which the United States might use both strategic and recently developed “tactical” nuclear weapons to bring the fighting to an end. He also allowed his new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to convey hints that such planning was under way. There would of course be objections from allies, Eisenhower acknowledged, but “somehow or other the tabu which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed.”31 The reason, from the president’s point of view, was simple: the United States could not allow itself to get into any more Korea-like limited wars. To do so would relinquish the initiative to adversaries, who would then choose the most advantageous times, places, and methods of military confrontation. That would give them control over the deployment of American resources, with results that could only deplete American economic strength and demoralize the American people. The solution was to reverse the strategy: to make it clear that the United States would henceforth respond to aggression at times, in places, and by means it would choose. Those could well involve the use of nuclear weapons. As the president himself put it in 1955, “in any combat when these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I can see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”32 But by the time Eisenhower made that statement, the physics of thermonuclear explosions had shattered its logic. The critical event was BRAVO, an American test conducted in the Pacific on March 1, 1954, that got out of control. The yield turned out to be fifteen megatons, three times the expected five, or 750 times the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast spread radioactive fallout hundreds of miles downwind, contaminating a Japanese fishing boat and killing a member of its crew. Less dangerous debris set off radiation detectors around the world. The question posed for nuclear warfighting was a stark one: if a single thermonuclear blast could have global ecological consequences, what would be the effects of using tens, hundreds, or even thousands of nuclear weapons?

The first answer came, curiously enough, from Georgii Malenkov, an oily apparatchik with an odious record who had wound up, more by luck than skill, as one of the triumvirate that succeeded Stalin. Twelve days after the BRAVO test Malenkov surprised his own colleagues, as well as western observers of the Soviet Union, by publicly warning that a new world war fought with “modern weapons” would mean “the end of world civilization.” Soviet scientists quickly confirmed, in a top-secret report to the Kremlin leadership, that the detonation of just a hundred hydrogen bombs could “create on the whole globe conditions impossible for life.”33 Meanwhile, a similar conclusion was forming in the mind of a far more distinguished statesman not previously known for his pacifist tendencies. Winston Churchill, once again British prime minister, had only a few years earlier encouraged the Americans to provoke a military confrontation with the Soviet Union while their atomic monopoly remained in place.34 But now, in the aftermath of BRAVO, he completely reversed this position, pointing out to his wartime ally Eisenhower that only a few such explosions on British soil would leave his country uninhabitable. This was not, however, necessarily bad news. “[T]he new terror,” the old warrior told the House of Commons, “brings a certain element of equality in annihilation. Strange as it may seem, it is to the universality of potential destruction that I think we may look with hope and even confidence.”35 It was indeed strange that leaders as dissimilar as Malenkov and Churchill said much the same thing at almost the same time. For them, though, the implications of “equality in annihilation” were clear: because a war fought with nuclear weapons could destroy what it was intended to defend, such a war must never be fought. Once again, a common sense of nuclear danger had transcended differences in culture, nationality, ideology, morality, and in this instance also character. But neither of these leaders was in a position to shape Cold War strategy: Malenkov’s Kremlin colleagues promptly demoted him for defeatism, while Churchill was forced by age and impatient subordinates to step down as prime minister early in 1955. It would be left to Eisenhower and the man who deposed Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev, to balance the fears and the hopes that now resided within the thermonuclear revolution.


EISENHOWER did so exquisitely but terrifyingly: he was at once the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age. The physical effects of thermonuclear explosions appalled him at least as much as they did Malenkov and Churchill: “Atomic war will destroy civilization,” he insisted several months after the BRAVO test. “There will be millions of people dead. . . . If the Kremlin and Washington ever lock up in a war, the results are too horrible to contemplate.”36 When told, early in 1956, that a Soviet attack on the United States could wipe out the entire government and kill 65 percent of the American people, he acknowledged that it “would literally be a business of digging ourselves out of the ashes, starting again.” Shortly thereafter he reminded a friend that “[w]ar implies a contest.” But what kind of a contest would it be when “the outlook comes close to destruction of the enemy and suicide for ourselves”? By 1959, he was insisting gloomily that if war came “you might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself.”37 These comments seem completely at odds with Eisenhower’s earlier assertion that the United States should fight wars with nuclear weapons “exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” Now, he appeared to be saying, anyone foolish enough to fire a nuclear “bullet” at an enemy would also be aiming it at himself. Eisenhower’s position paralleled those of Malenkov and Churchill—except for one thing: he also insisted that the United States prepare only for an all-out nuclear war.

This view alarmed even Eisenhower’s closest advisers. They agreed that a war fought with nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, but they worried that the United States and its allies would never match the military manpower available to the Soviet Union, China, and their allies. To rule out nuclear use altogether would be to invite a nonnuclear war that the West could not win. The solution, most of them believed, was to find ways to fight a limited nuclear war: to devise strategies that would apply American technological superiority against the manpower advantage of the communist world, so that the certainty of a credible military response would exist at whatever level adversaries chose to fight—without the risk of committing suicide.

By the beginning of Eisenhower’s second term in 1957, this consensus extended from Secretary of State Dulles through most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and into the emerging strategic studies community, where the young Henry Kissinger made the case for what would come to be called “flexible response” in an influential book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. The critical assumption, in all of this thinking, was that despite their destructiveness nuclear weapons could still be a rational instrument of both diplomacy and warfighting. They could yet be made to fit the Clausewitzian principle that the use of force—or even threats of such use—must reflect political objectives, not annihilate them.

It was all the more startling, then, that Eisenhower so emphatically rejected this concept of limited nuclear war. Assuming even a “nice, sweet World War II type of war,” he snapped at one point, would be absurd.38 If war came in any form, the United States would fight it with every weapon in its arsenal because the Soviet Union would surely do the same. The president stuck to this argument, even as he acknowledged the moral costs of striking first with nuclear weapons, the ecological damage that would result from their use, and the fact that the United States and its allies could not expect to avoid devastating retaliation. It was as if Eisenhower was in denial: that a kind of nuclear autism had set in, in which he refused to listen to the advice he got from the best minds available.

In retrospect, though, it appears that Eisenhower’s may have been the best mind available, for he understood better than his advisers what war is really like. None of them, after all, had organized the first successful invasion across the English Channel since 1688, or led the armies that had liberated Western Europe. None of them, either, had read Clausewitz as carefully as he had. That great strategist had indeed insisted that war had to be the rational instrument of policy, but only because he knew how easily the irrationalities of emotion, friction, and fear can cause wars to escalate into meaningless violence. He had therefore invoked the abstraction of total war to scare statesmen into limiting wars in order that the states they ran might survive.

Eisenhower had the same purpose in mind; but unlike Clausewitz, he lived in an age in which nuclear weapons had transformed total war from an abstraction into an all-too-real possibility. Because no one could be sure that emotions, frictions, and fears would not cause even limited wars to escalate, it was necessary to make such wars difficult to fight: that meant not preparing to fight them. That is why Eisenhower—the ultimate Clausewitzian—insisted on planning only for total war. His purpose was to make sure that no war at all would take place.39


THERE WAS every reason to worry, now, about the influence of emotion, friction, and fear in Cold War strategy. The Soviet Union had tested its first air-dropped thermonuclear bomb in November, 1955, by which time it already had long-range bombers capable of reaching American targets. In August, 1957, it successfully launched the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, and on October 4th, it used another such missile to orbit Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. It required no rocket scientist to predict the next step: placing nuclear warheads atop similar missiles, which could then reach any target within the United States in only half an hour. Predicting the behavior of the Kremlin’s new leader, however, was quite another matter.

Nikita Khrushchev was a poorly educated peasant, coal miner, and factory worker who had become a Stalin protégé and then, after deposing Malenkov and other rivals, Stalin’s successor. He came into power knowing little about the nuclear weapons he now controlled, but he learned quickly. Like Eisenhower, he was appalled by the prospect of their military use: he too had seen enough carnage in World War II to know the fragility of rationality on a battlefield.40 He was no more prepared than Eisenhower had been, however, to declare himself a pacifist. He was convinced, as was the American president, that whatever their impracticalities in fighting wars, nuclear weapons could be made to compensate for national weaknesses in situations short of war.

There, though, the similarities ended. The supremely self-confident Eisenhower was always in command of himself, his administration, and certainly the military forces of the United States. Khrushchev, in contrast, was excess personified: he could be boisterously clownish, belligerently cloying, aggressively insecure. Dignified he never was, and the volatilities of post-Stalin politics were such that he could never be sure of his own authority. There was one other difference as well. The weakness for which Eisenhower sought to compensate with nuclear strength was the manpower deficit of the United States and its NATO allies. The vulnerability Khrushchev hoped to correct with his nuclear capabilities was his own absence of nuclear capabilities.

He faced the need to do this because although the Soviet Union’s thermonuclear weapons worked well enough, its long-range bombers were few, primitive, and capable of reaching most American targets only on one-way missions. And despite his claims to be turning out missiles “like sausages,” there were far fewer of them than his boasts suggested and they lacked sufficiently precise guidance to place their warheads where they were supposed to go. “It always sounded good to say in public speeches that we could hit a fly at any distance with our missiles,” Khrushchev later admitted. “I exaggerated a little.” His son Sergei, himself a rocket engineer, put it more bluntly: “We threatened with missiles we didn’t have.”41 Khrushchev first tried this trick in November, 1956. Soviet troops were crushing a rebellion in Hungary just as the British, the French, and the Israelis—without informing the Americans—had seized the Suez Canal in an abortive effort to overthrow the anti-colonial Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. On the spur of the moment, with a view to deflecting attention from the bloodbath in Budapest, Khrushchev threatened Britain and France with “rocket weapons” if they did not immediately withdraw their forces from the canal. They immediately did so, but not in response to Khrushchev’s warning. Eisenhower, furious at not having been consulted, had ordered them to evacuate Suez or face severe economic sanctions. Because Khrushchev’s threats were public and Eisenhower’s were not, however, the new Kremlin leader concluded that his own huffing and puffing had produced the withdrawal—and that this practice could become a strategy.42 From 1957 through 1961, Khrushchev openly, repeatedly, and bloodcurdlingly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation. Soviet missile capabilities were so far superior to those of the United States, he insisted, that he could wipe out any American or European city. He would even specify how many missiles and warheads each target might require. But he also tried to be nice about it: at one point, while bullying an American visitor, Hubert Humphrey, he paused to ask where his guest was from. When Humphrey pointed out Minneapolis on the map, Khrushchev circled it with a big blue pencil. “That’s so I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly,” he explained amiably.43 It was a logical observation, at least in Khrushchev’s mind, because amiability was part of his strategy as well. He had rejected Stalin’s belief in the inevitability of war: the new goal was to be “peaceful coexistence.” He took seriously what his scientists told him about the dangers of continuing to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In May, 1958, he even announced a unilateral moratorium on such experiments—admittedly with crafty timing, since the Americans were about to begin a new round of nuclear tests.44

Khrushchev shifted back to his belligerent mode in November, when he gave the United States, Great Britain, and France six months to withdraw their troops from the sectors they still occupied in West Berlin, or he would transfer control of western access rights—always a touchy issue after Stalin’s 1948 blockade—to the East Germans. He hoped thereby to resolve the increasingly inconvenient problem of having a capitalist enclave in the middle of communist East Germany, and he was convinced that Soviet missile strength would make this possible. “Now, that we have the transcontinental missile,” he had earlier explained to Mao, “we hold America by the throat as well. They thought America was beyond reach. But that is not true.” Berlin, he told his advisers, was “[t]he Achilles heel of the West.” It was “the American foot in Europe [that] had a sore blister on it.” Later, he would use a more startling anatomical metaphor: “Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”45 Only up to a point, though, because Khrushchev also wanted a more stable superpower relationship, respectability for himself and his country—and an opportunity to visit the United States. When Eisenhower refused to yield on Berlin but reluctantly extended the long-sought invitation, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity to tour the country he had threatened to incinerate. “This is incredible,” he told his son Sergei. “Today they have to take us into account. It’s our strength that led to this—they have to recognize our existence and our power. Who would have thought that the capitalists would invite me, a worker?”46 Khrushchev’s September, 1959, visit to the United States was a surreal extravaganza. Worried about behaving appropriately, but also about being treated inappropriately, he was determined not to be impressed by what he saw, but equally determined to convince the Americans that his country would soon catch up. He insisted on flying to Washington in a new and untested airplane so that its size would intimidate his hosts. He acknowledged the richness of the country in a White House toast, but predicted that “tomorrow we shall be as rich as you are. The next day? Even richer!” He held court for leading capitalists while sitting under a Picasso in a New York town house; he visited—and purported to be shocked by what he saw there—a Hollywood soundstage; he pouted over being denied the opportunity, for security reasons, to visit Disneyland; he got into a shouting match with the mayor of Los Angeles; he inspected corn on an Iowa farm; and he discussed war and peace with Eisenhower at Camp David—after being assured that an invitation to this dacha was an honor and not an insult.47 No substantive agreements came out of Khrushchev’s meetings with Eisenhower, but the trip did confirm that the Soviet Union had a new kind of leader, very unlike Stalin. Whether that made him more or less dangerous remained to be seen.


POTEMKIN VILLAGES work as long as no one peeks behind the façade. The only way for the United States and its allies to do that in Stalin’s day had been to send reconnaissance planes along the borders of the Soviet Union, or to release balloons with cameras to drift over it, or to infiltrate spies into it. None of these measures worked: the planes got shot at and sometimes shot down, the balloons got blown in the wrong direction, and the spies got arrested, imprisoned, and often executed because a Soviet agent, Kim Philby, happened to be the British liaison officer with the American Central Intelligence Agency.48 Stalin’s U.S.S.R. remained a closed society, opaque to anyone from the outside who tried to see into it.

Khrushchev’s strategy of rattling rockets he did not have required sustaining this situation. That is why he rejected a proposal from Eisenhower, at their first summit conference in Geneva in 1955, to allow the United States and the Soviet Union to fly reconnaissance missions over each other’s territory: it would have been, he complained, like “seeing into our bedrooms.”49 What Khrushchev had not known was that Eisenhower had a secret backup for his “open skies” inspection plan that would soon accomplish precisely its purposes.

On July 4, 1956, a new American spy plane, the U-2, made its maiden flight directly over Moscow and Leningrad, snapping excellent photographs from a height well above the range of Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft missiles. That same day Khrushchev was enjoying the annual Independence Day reception in the garden of Spaso House, the American ambassador’s residence in Moscow: whether he was visible in the photos has never been made clear.50 The flights continued at regular intervals over the next four years. The Russians, who could detect them on radar but could not shoot them down, confined themselves to perfunctory protests, not wanting to advertise their inability to control their airspace. The Americans, aware that the flights violated international law, said nothing at all while reaping an intelligence bonanza.

The U-2 photographs quickly confirmed the limited size and inferior capabilities of the Soviet long-range bomber force. Determining Soviet missile capabilities took longer, however, because the missiles themselves—in the quantities that Khrushchev had claimed—did not exist. By the end of 1959 his engineers had only six long-range missile launch sites operational. Because each missile took almost twenty hours to fuel, leaving them vulnerable to attack by American bombers, this meant that the total number Khrushchev could count on launching was precisely that: six.51

What the Soviet Union did have by then, however, was an improved anti-aircraft missile. “The way to teach these smart-alecks a lesson,” Khrushchev told his son, “is with a fist. . . . Just let them poke their nose in here again.”52 On May 1, 1960, they did: the Russians shot down what might well have been the last U-2 flight Eisenhower would have authorized, captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and threatened to put him on trial for espionage. The president had become convinced that Khrushchev’s missile claims were fraudulent, but he had also begun to worry about U-2 vulnerability. The first American reconnaissance satellite was about to go into orbit, and Eisenhower expected—correctly—that it would render the U-2 obsolete. So the plane went down at the end of its usefulness, but Khrushchev turned the crash into a crisis nonetheless.

The next summit conference with Eisenhower was to convene in Paris two weeks later. Khrushchev showed up for it, but only for the purpose of wrecking it. He had decided, just before leaving Moscow, that the U-2 incident made further cooperation with the lame-duck Eisenhower administration impossible. “I became more and more convinced that our pride and dignity would be damaged if we went ahead with the conference as if nothing had happened.”53 He would wait, therefore, for Eisenhower’s successor. It was an impulsive decision, but it reflected an awkward reality: having seen the quality of the photographs from the downed plane, Khrushchev had to know that his Potemkin strategy was in trouble.

John F. Kennedy took his time in taking advantage of this. He had made much, during the 1960 campaign, of the alleged “missile gap” that Eisenhower had allowed to develop. To acknowledge its absence too soon after taking office would be embarrassing. There followed, though, a string of setbacks that made Kennedy’s first months in the White House themselves an embarrassment: the failed Bay of Pigs landings against Fidel Castro’s Cuba in April, 1961; the Soviet Union’s success that same month in putting the first man into orbit around the earth; a badly handled summit conference at Vienna in June at which Khrushchev renewed his Berlin ultimatum; and in August East Germany’s unopposed construction of the Berlin Wall. When Khrushchev announced shortly thereafter that the Soviet Union would soon resume nuclear weapons testing with a 100-megaton blast—almost seven times the size of BRAVO—Kennedy had had enough.

Drawing on new, copious, and convincing evidence from reconnaissance satellites, he called Khrushchev’s bluff. He let it be known through a spokesman that the Soviet Union’s nuclear and missile capabilities had never come close to surpassing those of the United States: “[W]e have a second strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first. Therefore, we are confident that the Soviets will not provoke a major nuclear conflict.”54 Khrushchev responded by going ahead with his big-bomb test—he did show some ecological responsibility by cutting the megatonnage by half—but this was thermonuclear posturing and nothing more. “Given Khrushchev’s assumption that even a seeming strategic superiority could be decisive,” his biographer has pointed out, “the actual American advantage was doubly damaging: not only had he lost the kind of atomic leverage he had been employing for four years, but the Americans had gained it.”55 X.

HISTORIANS ASSUMED, for many years, that it was this—having his Potemkin façade ripped away—that drove Khrushchev into a desperate attempt to recover by sending intermediate- and medium-range missiles, which he did have in abundance, to Cuba in 1962. “Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?” he asked in April, noting that it would take a decade for the Soviet Union to equal American long-range missile capabilities.56 It is clear now, though, that this was not Khrushchev’s principal reason for acting as he did, which suggests how easily historians can jump to premature conclusions. More significantly, the Cuban missile crisis also shows how badly great powers can miscalculate when tensions are high and the stakes are great. The consequences, as they did in this instance, can surprise everyone.

Khrushchev intended his missile deployment chiefly as an effort, improbable as this might seem, to spread revolution throughout Latin America. He and his advisers had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Never mind that Marx himself would never have predicted this—there being few proletarians in Cuba—or that Fidel Castro and his unruly followers hardly fit Lenin’s model of a disciplined revolutionary “vanguard.” It was enough that Cuba had gone communist spontaneously, without assistance from Moscow, in a way that seemed to confirm Marx’s prophecy about the direction in which history was going. “Yes, he is a genuine revolutionary,” the old Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan exclaimed, after meeting Castro. “Completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood!”57 But Castro’s revolution was in peril. Before it left office, the Eisenhower administration had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, imposed economic sanctions, and begun plotting Castro’s overthrow. Kennedy allowed these plans to go forward with the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs landing of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, an event that gave Khrushchev little reason for complacency or congratulation. Rather, as he saw it, the attempted invasion reflected counter-revolutionary resolve in Washington, and it would surely be repeated, the next time with much greater force. “The fate of Cuba and the maintenance of Soviet prestige in that part of the world preoccupied me,” Khrushchev recalled. “We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.”58 The United States could hardly object, because during the late 1950s the Eisenhower administration—before it had convinced itself that the “missile gap” did not exist—had placed its own intermediate-range missiles in Britain, Italy, and Turkey, all aimed at the Soviet Union. The Americans would learn, Khrushchev promised, “just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.”59

But Kennedy and his advisers knew nothing of Khrushchev’s reasoning, and those who survived were surprised to learn of it a quarter century later when the opening of Soviet archives began to reveal it.60

They saw the missile deployment in Cuba—about which they learned only in mid-October, 1962, from the new mission the U-2s had been given of overflying the island—as the most dangerous in a long sequence of provocations, extending all the way back to the Kremlin leader’s threats against Britain and France during the Suez crisis six years earlier. And this one, unlike the others, would at least double the number of Soviet missiles capable of reaching the United States. “Offensive missiles in Cuba have a very different psychological and political effect in this hemisphere than missiles in the U.S.S.R. pointed at us,” Kennedy warned. “Communism and Castroism are going to be spread . . . as governments frightened by this new evidence of power [topple]. . . . All this represents a provocative change in the delicate status quo both countries have maintained.”61 Just what Khrushchev intended to do with his Cuban missiles is, even now, unclear: it was characteristic of him not to think things through.62 He could hardly have expected Americans not to respond, since he had sent the missiles secretly while lying to Kennedy about his intentions to do so. He might have meant the intermediate-range missiles solely for deterrence, but he also dispatched short-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads that could only have been used to repel a landing by American troops—who would not have known that these weapons awaited them. Nor had Khrushchev placed his nuclear weapons under tight control: local commanders could, in response to an invasion, have authorized their use.63 The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis. He was so emotionally committed to the Castro revolution that he risked his own revolution, his country, and possibly the world on its behalf. “Nikita loved Cuba very much,” Castro himself later acknowledged. “He had a weakness for Cuba, you might say—emotionally, and so on—because he was a man of political conviction.” 64 But so too, of course, were Lenin and Stalin, who rarely allowed their emotions to determine their revolutionary priorities. Khrushchev wielded a far greater capacity for destruction than they ever did, but he behaved with far less responsibility. He was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun.

As children sometimes do, though, he wound up getting some of what he wanted. Despite what was still an overwhelming American advantage in nuclear warheads and delivery systems—depending on how the figure is calculated, the United States had between eight and seventeen times the number of usable nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union did65—the prospect of even one or two Soviet missiles hitting American targets was sufficient to persuade Kennedy to pledge publicly, in return for Khrushchev’s agreement to remove his weapons from Cuba, that he would make no further attempts to invade the island. Kennedy also promised, secretly, to dismantle the American intermediate-range missiles in Turkey that Khrushchev had hoped to make a visible part of the deal. And long after Kennedy, Khrushchev, and even the Soviet Union itself had passed from the scene, Fidel Castro, whom the missiles had been sent to protect, was still alive, well, and in power in Havana.

But the Cuban missile crisis, in a larger sense, served much the same function that blinded and burned birds did for the American and Soviet observers of the first thermonuclear bomb tests a decade earlier. It persuaded everyone who was involved in it—with the possible exception of Castro, who claimed, even years afterward, to have been willing to die in a nuclear conflagration66—that the weapons each side had developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to one another. This improbable series of events, universally regarded now as the closest the world came, during the second half of the 20th century, to a third world war, provided a glimpse of a future no one wanted: of a conflict projected beyond restraint, reason, and the likelihood of survival.


THE KENNEDY administration had by no means anticipated such an outcome: indeed it had entered office in 1961 determined to rationalize the conduct of nuclear war. Shocked to discover that the only war plan Eisenhower had left behind would have required the simultaneous use of well over 3,000 nuclear weapons against all communist countries, Kennedy instructed his strategists to expand the options. The task fell to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who insisted that it ought to be possible, not only to devise a spectrum of possibilities for how a nuclear war might be fought, but also to get the Russians to agree on what the rules for such combat might be. The basic idea, he suggested in the summer of 1962, would be to fight a nuclear war “in much the same way that more conventional military operations have been regarded in the past.” The objective would be “the destruction of the enemy’s military forces, not of his civilian population.”67 There were, however, certain problems with this strategy. For one thing, the conduct of wars had long since blurred the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In World War II at least as many civilians had died as military personnel, and in a nuclear war the situation would be much worse. McNamara’s own planners estimated that 10 million Americans would be killed in such a conflict, even if only military forces and facilities, not civilians, were targeted.68 Second, there was no assurance such precise targeting would be possible. Most bombs dropped in World War II had missed their targets, and missile guidance systems—especially on the Soviet side—were still primitive. Moreover, most military facilities in the United States, as well as in the Soviet Union and Europe, were located in and around cities, not apart from them. Finally, McNamara’s “no cities” doctrine would work only if the Russians followed the “rules” and did not themselves target cities. But that depended on getting Khrushchev to think like McNamara, a highly unlikely possibility.

The Cuban missile crisis confirmed how difficult that task would be: one lesson that came out of it was the extent to which Russians and Americans had failed to think similarly going into it. What had appeared to be “rational” behavior in Moscow had come across as dangerously “irrational” behavior in Washington, and vice versa. If a common rationality could be so elusive in peacetime, what prospects would there be for it in the chaos of a nuclear war? McNamara himself recalls wondering, as he watched the sun set on the most critical day of the crisis, whether he would survive to see it do so again.69 He did survive, but his conviction that there could be a limited, controlled, rational nuclear war did not.

What kept war from breaking out, in the fall of 1962, was the irrationality, on both sides, of sheer terror. That is what Churchill had foreseen when he saw hope in an “equality of annihilation.” It is what Eisenhower had understood when he ruled out fighting limited nuclear wars: his strategy left no option other than an assurance of total destruction, on the assumption that this, rather than trying to orchestrate levels of destruction while a war was going on, would best prevent any war at all from breaking out.

McNamara, characteristically, transformed this reliance on irrationality into a new kind of rationality in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. He now repudiated his earlier idea of targeting only military facilities: instead each side should target the other’s cities, with a view to causing the maximum number of casualties possible.70 The new strategy became known as “Mutual Assured Destruction”—its acronym, with wicked appropriateness, was MAD. The assumption behind it was that if no one could be sure of surviving a nuclear war, there would not be one. That, however, was simply a restatement of what Eisenhower had long since concluded: that the advent of thermonuclear weapons meant that war could no longer be an instrument of statecraft—rather, the survival of states required that there be no war at all.

Nuclear alarms—even alerts—occurred after 1962, but there were no more nuclear crises of the kind that had dominated the superpower relationship since the late 1940s. Instead a series of Soviet-American agreements began to emerge, at first tacit, later explicit, acknowledging the danger nuclear weapons posed to the capitalist and communist worlds alike. These included an unwritten understanding that both sides would tolerate satellite reconnaissance, the vindication of another Eisenhower insight, which was that by learning to live with transparency—“open skies”—the United States and the Soviet Union could minimize the possibility of surprise attack.71 There was also the realization that the time had come, if not for the international control of nuclear weapons, then at least for agreements on how to manage them. The first of these came in 1963 with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which abolished nuclear tests in the atmosphere. There followed, in 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, requiring nations possessing nuclear weapons not to help other states acquire them. And in 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Interim Agreement restricted the number of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles to be allowed to each side—with verification of compliance to take place by means of reconnaissance satellites.

Most intriguingly, though, the Soviet Union and the United States also signed, in 1972, an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that banned defenses against long-range missiles. This was the first formal acknowledgment, by both sides, of Churchill’s—and Eisenhower’s—idea that the vulnerability that came with the prospect of instant annihilation could become the basis for a stable, long-term, Soviet-American relationship. It also reflected Moscow’s acceptance, not easily arrived at, of Mutual Assured Destruction: persuading the Russians that it was a bad idea to try to defend themselves had been a negotiating challenge of the first order. The success of the effort—that American officials could now be educating their Soviet counterparts on how to think about national security—suggests how far things had come since each side’s development of nuclear weapons, in the first years of the Cold War, had terrified the other.

And so, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it did indeed go. The Cold War could have produced a hot war that might have ended human life on the planet. But because the fear of such a war turned out to be greater than all of the differences that separated the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, there was now reason for hope that it would never take place.


FOUR DECADES after the Cuban missile crisis, another novelist, Yann Martel, published Life of Pi, an improbable story about a lifeboat that could have become a deathboat.72 The major characters were a boy and a Bengal tiger, both victims of a shipwreck, stranded together on an uncomfortably small vessel drifting across the Pacific Ocean. There being no common language, there could be no rational discussion between them. But there was, nonetheless, a compatibility of interest: the tiger’s in having the boy catch fish for him to eat, the boy’s in not himself being eaten. Both somehow figured this out, and both survived.

A Cold War fable? Whether Martel intended it as one hardly matters, for the sign of a good novel is what it can cause its readers to see, even if this lies beyond the author’s own vision. What nuclear weapons did was to make states see—even in the absence of a common language, ideology, or set of interests—that they shared a stake in each other’s survival, given the tiger they themselves had created but now had to learn to live with.

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