From Nuclear Military Strategy to a World without War: A History and a Proposal

By Roger Hilsman | Go to book overview
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Chapter 8
McNamara II, the Schlesinger Doctrine, and Star Wars

For many people, in and out of government, the Cuban missile crisis exposed most of the debate on nuclear military strategy as irrelevant. When confronted by missiles in Cuba, Kennedy and the ExCom became convinced they had no alternative to threatening a full nuclear retaliation -- junking the notion of city avoidance and the rest. What is more, they also became convinced it was imperative to disperse the B-47s to civilian airfields. Since most of these airfields were right next to cities, the action denied the Soviets a counterforce option, as Kennedy and his advisers well understood.

For many people, in and out of government, the crisis also marked the end of the "foreign policy consensus" in the United States. It has often been said that the Vietnam War was responsible for the breakdown of the consensus on foreign policy. But it was the Cuban missile crisis that was at least the beginning of the end. For many of us who were involved in the deliberations, the crisis destroyed Churchill's assumption that the balance of terror would bring a stable peace, or at least it destroyed any hope that the stable peace could be expected to last forever.

The crisis also raised with exquisite poignancy and urgency a question that remains unanswered to this day: What strategy should be followed if deterrence fails? The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated to many of those involved that, balance of terror or not, sooner or later another nuclear crisis would occur. It did not really help that the crisis would most likely be precipitated by some action that was never intended as a move toward war. Sooner or later one side or the other would handle a crisis with less skill than Kennedy and Khrushchev had handled the Cuban missile crisis, and the result would be war (the compliment does not apply to Khrushchev's decision to deploy missiles to Cuba in the first

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