Atomic Diplomacy Essay, Research Paper
The emergence of the United States as a dominant party in balance of power equations is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. New military technology coupled with increased global integration has allowed the United States to reinvent the fundamental assumptions of international diplomacy while propelling itself to the top of the hegemonic stepladder. This positioning was achieved piecemeal during the course of the first two world wars, but it wasn’t until the deployment of the atomic bomb that the U.S. assumed its position as a true superpower.
The years that followed this unparalleled ascension are the most fascinating times in the history of U.S. international relations. Hopefully, an investigation into this atomic diplomacy, along with a balanced analysis of the problems of conceptualizing and implementing containment, will provide insight for our current efforts to devise a workable post-war national security policy. There is no way to tell the story of post-war national security without also telling the story of George Kennen. Kennen, the foremost expert of Soviet Affairs in early post-war America, is almost wholly responsible for the policy of containment. Nuclear weapons were part of an integrated system of containment and deterrence. Truman told Kennen in early 1947 that, “Our weapons of mass destruction are not fail-safe devices, but instead the fundamental bedrock of American security”.
They were never intended as first strike weapons and had no real tactical value. The bomb is purely strategic, and its value comes not from its destructive capabilities, but from its political and psychological ramifications. Kennen was never naive enough to view the bomb as an offensive weapon. In his long memorandum “The International Control of Atomic Energy,” Kennen noted that, “There could be no way in which weapons of mass destruction could be made to serve rational ends beyond simply deterring the outbreak of hostilities”.
Even at this early point, Kennen began to also recognize the potential of the bomb to completely wreck balance of power arrangements. Simply achieving higher potentials of destruction would not necessarily lead to a better negotiating position with the Soviets. Truman had never considered not creating the hydrogen bomb, despite Kennen’s objections. Truman’s justified his adamant support of the super bomb for bargaining purposes with the Russians.
Kennen’s point, of course, had been that the very decision to build the hydrogen bomb would inhibit bargaining with the Russians on international control. Most of the American national security structure viewed this as fallacious. Truman’s perception was that the United States, as a technology rich, but man power short nation, was operating from a position of weakness, since necessity is relied more heavily than did the Soviet Union on weapons of mass destruction to maintain the balance of power. The Soviet atomic test in 1949 had upset that balance. Only by building the super bomb, it was thought, could equilibrium be regained. It would not be until the Kennedy administration that Kennen would be vindicated and an awareness would develop “of the basic unsoundness of a defense posture based primarily on weapons indiscriminately destructive and suicidal in their implications”.
The late mistakes of the Truman administration would be carried over into the Eisenhower years. Nuclear deployment became the primary American security measure, naturally leading the Soviets to do the same. The problems of the Eisenhower years stemmed directly from the overconfidence in the U.S. nuclear program to achieve tangible military objectives in the face of increased hostilities. John Foster Dulles, the symbol of bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy, began to advocate the nuclear response. The impotence of our standing army compared to the Soviet’s military behemoth was clear to all U.S. policy advisors.
There was no way in which we could match Russia gun for gun, tank for tank, at anytime, in any place. John’s brother Allen Dulles, CIA director under Eisenhower, said, “To do so would mean real strength nowhere and bankruptcy everywhere”. Instead, the U.S. response to Soviet aggressions would be made on our terms. J.F. Dulles’ solution was typical strategic asymmetry, but of a particular kind. In retrospect the most startling deficiency of the Eisenhower administration’s strategy was its bland self-confidence that it could use nuclear weapons without starting an all out nuclear war. Limited nuclear conflict was possible, as Kissenger argued in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, “But only if those participating in it had agreed beforehand on the boundaries beyond which it would not extend. This was clearly impossible with the Soviets, making Eisenhower’s policy foolhardy and naive.
Strategic asymmetry, supplemented by nuclear superiority, would not last long after Eisenhower. Instead, it was replaced with Kennedy’s “flexible response.” The critics of “The New Look” and past nuclear diplomacy pointed out that only newfound symmetry allows us enough political flexibility to respond to Russian aggression in whatever way suits U.S. interests at the time. Kennedy, possessing an economic rationale for disregarding costs, placed his emphasis on minimizing risks by giving the U.S. sufficient flexibility to respond to Russia with neither escalation or humiliation. This required a capacity to act on all levels, ranging from diplomacy through covert action, guerilla operations, conventional and nuclear war. Equally important, though, it would require careful control. Walt W. Rostow, Kennen’s replacement as Chairman of The Policy Planning Council, was chosen as usual on behalf of the Kennedy administration to spell out the problems the new flexible response policy would solve, It should be noted that we have generally been at a disadvantage in crisis, since the Communists command a more flexible set of tools for imposing strain on the free world than we normally command. We are often caught in circumstances where our only available riposte is so disproportionate to the immediate provocation that its use risks unwanted escalation or serious political costs to the free community. This asymmetry makes it attractive for Communists to apply limited debilitating pressures upon us in situations where we find it difficult to impose on them an equivalent price for their intrusions.
The administration’s desire to reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons did not, however, imply any corresponding determination to cut back on either their number or variety. “Nuclear and non-nuclear power complement each other,” Robert McNamara insisted in 1962, “Just as together they complement the non-military instruments of policy”. Once Kennedy was killed, there was an era of make-believe in the Pentagon. Vietnam was starting for real, and the
constant deployment of U.S. troops against Communist forces added a new element to our national security equation. Vietnam stands testament that the atomic bomb is a tactically useless
weapon that aids an attacking nation in no way tangible way. Perhaps simply possessing the bomb is a psychological advantange over the enemy, but the effects of this in Vietnam will nil. Later, Henry Kissenger would point out that in no crisis since 1962 had the strategic balance determined the outcome. There is no easy answer that best explains the Johnson administration’s inability to come up with alternatives in Vietnam. Whatever the answer, we can say with relative confidence that it had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Kissenged has pinpointed the reason early in the war:
“Nuclear weapons, given the constraints on their use in an approaching era of parity, were of decreasing practical utility. Around this time, we can conclude that the world has entered an age in which there is a strong and binding nuclear taboo. A nation that employs nuclear weapons to attack its enemies is considered evil. Therefore, all the hegemonic power gained from atomic weapons was absolutely worthless in Vietnam. While limited success was achieved in some international arenas during the Kennedy and Johnson years, Vietnam seals the coffin on the flexible response. Gaddis agrees, saying, Vietnam was the unexpected legacy of the flexible response: not fine tuning, but clumsy overreaction, not coordination but disproportion, not strategic precision, but in the end, a strategic vacuum. The 1968 campaign was unusual in that, unlike 1952 and 1960, it provided little indication of the direction in which the new administration would move into office. In addition, the world facing the new administration of 1968 was one ripe with possibilities of new approaches. To usher in these new strategies, Nixon chooses Dr. Henry Kissenger as his national security advisor. Kissenger’s conceptual approach to the making of national security policy eliminated the crisis based flexible response system. “Crises,” he said, “were symptoms of deeper problems that if allowed to fester would prove increasingly unmanageable. Kissinger was one of the firsts to recognize the shift from a bipolar to multipolar world. This was a natural result of modernization, and therefore, traditional bipolar nuclear strategy began to lose importance, like Kissenger had predicted five years earlier.
Before this point, United States interests were effectively met by its Pax Americana enforced on the world by U.S. weapons of war. By 1968, however, Nixon knew he had to deal with the world in a much less dynamic fashion. What Nixon and Kissenger did with their concept of a multipolar world order was to arrive at a conception of interests independent of threats. Gaddis points out, That since those interests required equilibrium but not ideological consistency, it followed that the United States could feasibly work with states of differing and even antithetic social systems as long as they shared the American interest in countering challenges to global stability. This has become the primary guiding doctrine in American foreign policy since that time. Once this official policy shift was made, nuclear weapons became exactly what they originally were symbols for deterrence. The only continuing reason any nations of the nuclear club still deploy nuclear weapons is to deter hostility from other nations. The depth and complexity of American security policy reaches far beyond the scope of this
investigation, but hopefully the role of the atomic bomb in U.S. foreign affairs is somewhat more clear. Today, nuclear diplomacy is dead. The world has somehow adapted to weapons of mass destruction, and the diplomatic and military strategy of nuclear weapons is far from the minds of U.S. officials in the State Department. The world has moved on to a new age in international relations.
Kissenger said in 1968, “There was now no single decisive index by which the influence of states can be measured.” As much as we might like to indict the policies of nuclear diplomacy for all its self-indulgent insanity, we must bear in mind that it was somehow successful. Not that an atomic bomb fell onto a nation from Kennen to Kissenger, but also that should show the altruistic commitment by men of power to keep the unthinkable, unthinkable.