The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons

By T. V. Paul | Go to book overview

4 THE UNITED STATES AND THE TRADITION II:
KENNEDY TO CLINTON (1961–2001)

Make no mistake… There is no such thing as a conventional
nuclear weapon. For 19 peril-filled years no nation has loosed
the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of
the highest order. And it would lead us down an uncertain path
of blows and counterblows whose outcome none may know. No
President of the United States of America can divest himself
of the responsibility for such a decision.

—President Lyndon B. Johnson, September 1964

as discussed in the previous chapt er, the embryonic tradition of non-use emerged and survived during the key formative years of 1945 to 1960, under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Eisenhower left office with a huge nuclear arsenal in place, and with the notion of massive retaliation well ingrained in the U.S. strategic doctrine. A state of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was in operation, as the Soviet Union had developed its own matching nuclear capabilities during this period. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred under the Kennedy administration, was a pivotal event which further embedded the fear of nuclear weapons globally and, consequently, solidified the non-use tradition. This chapter addresses U.S. nuclear policy, and, in particular, the approach toward non-use against nonnuclear states from the Kennedy era to the Clinton years.


THE KENNEDY YEARS (1961–63)

John F. Kennedy began his presidency in January 1961 opposed to the massive retaliation policy of the Eisenhower administration. Instead, his administration instituted a strategy of aexible response which would rely on multiple options to respond to a Soviet attack, beginning with a conventional response and then escalating to nuclear retaliation, if warranted. This was aimed at creating firebreaks on conflicts, preventing them from going nuclear instan-

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