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Account for the evolution of American Nuclear Deterrence Strategy from Massive Retaliation (1954) to Mutually Assured Destruction

(1964) and flexible response as agreed by NATO in 1967.


The administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower reflected on the frustrating experience of the inconclusive conventional war fought in Korea and wondered why the West had not made more use of its nuclear superiority. Eisenhower was also extremely worried about the economic burden of conventional rearmament. Assigning a greater priority to nuclear weapons provided the opportunity to scale down expensive conventional forces. By this time the nuclear arsenal was becoming more plentiful and more powerful. The strategy that emerged from these considerations became known as massive retaliation, following a speech made by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in January 1954, when he declared that in the future a U.S. response to aggression would be at places and with means of our own choosing. This doctrine was interpreted as threatening nuclear attack against targets in the Soviet Union and China in response to conventional aggression anywhere in the world. The Democratic Party, whose policy under Truman was being reversedand the army and navy, whose budgets were being cut at the expense of the air forces Strateg ic Air Command charged that massive retaliation placed undue reliance on nuclear threats, which would become less credible as Soviet nuclear strength grew. If a limited challenge developed anywhere around the Sino-Soviet periphery (the two communist giants were seen to constitute a virtual monolith) and the United States neglected its own conventional forces, then a choice would have to be faced between suicide or surrender. However, by this time nuclear strategy was becoming much more sophisticated. With the RAND Corporation, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., taking the lead, new analytical techniques were being developed. These were often drawn from engineering and economics, rather than the more traditional strategic disciplines of history and politics. In a celebrated RAND study of the mid-1950s, a team led by Albert Wohlstetter demonstrated that the air bases of the Strategic Air Command could be vulnerable to a surprise attack, after which retaliation would be impossible, a situation that would expose the United States and its allies to Soviet blackmail. However, it turned out that the threat of Massive Retaliation could not prevent limited challenges. It was not an effective foreign policy tool to deal with everyday problems. Short of

an ultimate provocation, the Soviet Union could raise tensions and challenge the U.S. as the Korean War already had shown and future crises involving Berlin would again prove. In other words, more limited responses were necessary to deal with less-than-total challenges. The Soviet Union successfully tested American resolve several times. On 17 June 1953 it suppressed an anti-Communist revolt in East Berlin and in late 1956 it suppressed a national uprising in Hungary. Massive Retaliation was also detrimental towards the U.S. Firstly, it lowered U.S. credibility. It was not credible to threaten the Soviet Union with massive retaliation in the face of its growing strategic power. Even if U.S. politicians really meant it, people in other capitals would not believe it. If the threat was losing credibility in the eyes of the very nation it was supposed to deter, then the policy had lost its meaning. Second, Massive Retaliation increased the vulnerability of the opponent. As a consequence the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was becoming more vulnerable to a surprise attack. If the Soviet Union felt insecure because of Massive Retaliation, Moscow might decide to strike first. Growing vulnerability could be strong incentive for such a first, disarming strike. Massive Retaliation was only plausible as long as Soviet Union could not retaliate. In other words it was based on the assumption of U.S. territorial invulnerability. During the Cuban Missile Crisis this assumption was challenged. The Soviet Union wanted to make the United States territorially vulnerable to the extent that it itself was territorially vulnerable to Western delivery systems in Europe. However, the Soviet Union launched its first Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in 1957. When ICBMs moved into full production in the early 1960s with such systems as the U.S. Titan and Minuteman I and the Soviet SS-7 and SS-8, they were placed in hardened underground silos so that it would require an unlikely direct hit to destroy them. Even less vulnerable were submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) such as the U.S. Polaris and the Soviet SS-N-5 and SS-N-6, which could take full advantage of the ocean expanses to hide from enemy attack. Meanwhile, attempts to develop effective defenses against nuclear attack proved futile. The standards for antiaircraft defense in the nuclear age had to be much higher than for conventional air raids, since any penetration of the defensive screen would threaten the defender with catastrophe. Progress was made, using surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) such as the U.S. Nike series, in developing defenses against bombers, but the move to ICBMs, with their

minimal warning time before impact, appeared to render the defensive task hopeless. Then, during the 1960s, advances in radars and long-range SAMs promised a breakthrough in antiballistic missile defense, but by the early 1970s these in turn had been countered by improvements in offensive missilesnotably multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which could swamp any defenses. (The first MIRVed ICBMs were the U.S. Minuteman III and the Soviet SS-17.) Measures of civil defense, which could offer little protection to the civilian populace against nuclear explosions and, at best, only some chance of avoiding exposure to nuclear fallout, also appeared hopeless in the face of the overwhelming destructive power being accumulated by both sides. By the mid-1960s fears had eased of a technological arms race that might encourage either side to unleash a surprise attack. For the foreseeable future each side could eliminate the other as a modern industrial state. Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense for much of that decade, argued that so long as the two superpowers had confidence in their capacity for mutual assured destructionan ability to impose unacceptable damage, defined as 25 percent of population and 50 percent of industrythe relationship between the two would be stable. Mutually Assured Destruction was based upon the size of the countries' respective nuclear arsenals and their unwillingness to destroy civilization. MAD was unique at the time. Never before had two warring nations held the potential to erase humanity with the entry of a few computer codes and the turn of matching keys. Ironically, it was this powerful potential that guaranteed the world's safety: Nuclear capability was a deterrent against nuclear war. Because the U.S. and the USSR both had enough nuclear missiles to clear each other from the map, neither side could strike first. A first strike guaranteed a retaliatory counterstrike from the other side. So launching an attack would be tantamount to suicide -- the first striking nation could be certain that its people would be annihilated, too. The doctrine of MAD guided both sides toward deterrence of nuclear war. It could never be allowed to break out between the two nations. And it virtually guaranteed no conventional war would, either. Eventually, conventional tactics -- like non-nuclear missiles, tanks and troops -would run out, and the inevitable conclusion of a nuclear strike would be reached. Since that end was deemed unacceptable by the Soviets and Americans, there was no chance of an engagement that could lead to this conclusion.

But MAD didnt exactly create an atmosphere of cordiality between the USSR and the U.S. Each side was steadily building its nuclear arsenal to remain an equal party in the MAD doctrine. A dtente, or uneasy truce, developed between the U.S. and USSR they bore similitude to two gunslinging foes, adrift alone in a life boat, each armed and unwilling to sleep. There are two defining characteristics of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. One, each side must have the nuclear capability to wipe out the other. And two, each side must be convinced the other has the nerve to launch a nuclear strike. Over time, nuclear delivery became more refined and the nightmare of an all-out nuclear holocaust less realistic. Both the U.S. and USSR invested heavily in technology that directed thermonuclear weapons from mindless, clobbering bombs to precise surgical instruments. Missile guidance systems allowed for more exact strikes, and the placement of missiles around the globe -- from allied nations to submarines cruising the worlds oceans -created a virtual nuclear minefield. All-out annihilation was replaced by other options for a nuclear strike. Both the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaties all reflected attempts by the superpowers to manage strategic nuclear developments in such a way as to stabilize mutual deterrence. Ballistic missile defenses were outlawed; "first strike" weapons were decommissioned; civil defense was discouraged. However, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union was comfortable basing their country's defense on deterrence. A nuclear power in charge of an alliance has to deter the opponent and to reassure the allies. The alternative to reassuring U.S. allies would have been for Europeans to produce nuclear weapons themselves and create core deterrence themselves either on a national basis or in cooperation with other Europeans. From the perspective of the United States, nuclear parity and territorial vulnerability required the adoption of a new strategy. The Kennedy administration accepted a new strategy, called Flexible Response. Flexible Response was no highly explicit theory nor written in a single authoritative source. Flexible Response was realistic in that nuclear weapons couldn't be used. It tried to provide credible means to match non-nuclear escalation. The word "flexible" stressed the value of having "multiple options" available should a crises arise. Having multiple options during a crisis appeared to be better than reference to a few preset war scenarios. Having multiple options was thought to enhance the credibility of the U.S. deterrent (reassuring allies while deterring

the opponent). At the same time, however, flexibility made it also improbable that the U.S. would want or need nuclear attack. In effect Flexible Response called for the continued presence (in Europe) of sizable conventional forces. Conventional forces were to serve two functions, a deterrent function and the function to fight limited wars. The main argument of the Eisenhower administration had been that conventional forces were too costly and nuclear weapons would have "more bang for the buck." In short, the purpose of flexible response was to ensure that that the first shots across the Iron Curtain would not lead automatically to nuclear holocaust, and the United States accepted the need for a clear link between a land war in Europe and its own strategic nuclear arsenal. Kennedy wanted to deter all wars, general or limited, nuclear or conventional, large or small. Eisenhower and Dulles wanted to achieve similar goals but at minimal cost. Their risk was to either not act at all or respond at all levels of threat beyond the original provocation. Kennedy disregarded costs and emphasized sufficient flexibility to avoid either escalation or humiliation. In particular Kennedy wanted to increase the range of available options prior to resort to nuclear war. The threshold beyond which the President might have to decide to initiate the use of nuclear weapons had to be raised. Also, the damage caused by a war with tactical nuclear weapons seemed to high. Furthermore, Kennedy believed that the European allies should contribute more to their defense. Moreover, a continued reliance on nuclear weapons could lead to their further proliferation. The basic idea of Flexible Response, however, was to increase the ability to confine the response to non-nuclear weapons. McNamara had originally thought new conventional weapons weren't needed. The Berlin Crisis (1961-1962) convinced him that additional troops were needed not only as a sign of resolve to the Russians but more specifically to increase the number of escalatory steps. Throughout much of the Cold War, U.S. declaratory policy (i.e., what policymakers said in public) closely approximated MAD not flexible response or massive retaliation. The view, most clearly articulated by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was that there was little utility in adding strategic weapons above those needed for MAD, that nuclear superiority was meaningless, that defense was useless, and that this bizarre configuration was in everyone's interest. Indeed, the implication was that the United States should not only avoid menacing the Soviets' retaliatory capability but also help the Soviets make their weapons invulnerable -- an idea that intrigued McNamara.

Critics like military strategists Herman Kahn and Colin Gray disagreed. They argued that nuclear warheads were immensely destructive but not qualitatively different from previous weapons of warfare. Consequently, the traditional rules of strategy applied: Security policy could only rest on credible threats (i.e., those that it made sense to carry out). The adoption of a policy that involved throwing up your hands and destroying the world if war actually broke out was not only the height of irresponsibility; MAD also failed to address the main strategic concern for the United States, which was to prevent the Soviets from invading Western Europe. The stability that MAD was supposed to provide actually would have allowed U.S. adversaries to use force below the nuclear level whenever it was to their advantage to do so. If the United States could not have threatened to escalate a conflict by using nuclear weapons, then the Soviets would have had free rein to fight and win a conventional war in Europe. Privately, most generals and top civilian leaders were never convinced of the utility of MAD, and that skepticism was reflected in both Soviet and U.S. war planning. Each side strove for advantage, sought to minimize damage to its society, deployed defenses when deemed practical, and sought limited nuclear options that were militarily effective. Yet, for all these efforts, it is highly probable that a conventional war in Europe or, even more likely, the limited use of nuclear weapons would have prompted a full-scale nuclear war that would have resulted in mutual destruction. MAD's credibility plummeted even further during the last stages of the Cold War, as the Soviet military buildup convinced U.S. policymakers that the U.S.S.R. did not believe in MAD and was seeking nuclear advantage. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and its African adventures revealed that MAD could not protect all U.S. interests. In response, U.S. leaders talked about the significance of nuclear superiority and about the possibility of surviving a nuclear war. Most dramatically, President Ronald Reagan called for missile defense, declaring in 1983 that "to look down to an endless future with both of us sitting here with these horrible missiles aimed at each other and the only thing preventing a holocaust is just so long as no one pulls this trigger -- this is unthinkable."