The Air Force's Enduring Legacy of Nuclear Deterrence

By Schwartz, Norton A. | Air Power History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Air Force's Enduring Legacy of Nuclear Deterrence


Schwartz, Norton A., Air Power History


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On August 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman released a statement to the American people and the world that opened a new era in history:

Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on [Hiroshima] and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T It had more power than two thousand times the blast power of the British "Grand Slam" which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.... It is an atomic bomb. (1)

Three days after the crew of the B-29 Enola Gay dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima; the crew of Bockscar dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki. The two atomic bombs killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed the two cities. The explosions, coupled with the declaration of war by the Soviet Union on Japan on August 8, 1945, convinced Emperor Hirohito that the U.S. now had "a cruel new weapon" that could destroy the Japanese homeland. (2) Certainly, other actions, including the Air Force's firebombing of major enemy cities between March and August 1945, destroyed Japan's war production industry and drove millions of evacuees from the Japanese urban areas, and the U.S. Navy's blockade of Japan's maritime supply line set necessary preconditions for victory. Although the war against Japan ended, President Roosevelt's decision to develop an atomic weapon and President Truman's decision to employ it ushered in the atomic age. (3) The advent of these awesome weapons also prompted a reconsideration of national security strategy, based on a rapidly evolving novel theory of nuclear deterrence. These developments, which took place during successive presidential administrations, placed great demands on the Services to adapt quickly to meet new national policies. (4)

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From the fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the global instability of the present day, the importance placed on nuclear deterrence as a pillar of national security policy has varied as a factor of fiscal reality, advanced technology, geopolitics, and national security priorities.

This article recounts how the Air Force met the demands of nuclear policy. Section I, "Evolution in Relative Stability," discusses how Airmen during the early days of the Cold War established the famed Strategic Air Command (SAC) to meet the nation's deterrent strategy, and how SAC effectively maintained its alert ready strike force for more than forty years. Section II, "Turbulent Times," describes how Airmen, in the post-Cold War era, adapted successfully to significant shifts in the international environment and national policy. The final section, "Beyond the Horizon," outlines the Air Force's plans to meet the challenges of the future as guardians of a nuclear arsenal that remains a vital component of the nation's nuclear strategy.

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Evolution in Relative Stability

During the Cold War, the Soviet threat shaped American military and diplomatic decision making around a dangerous but stable bipolar alignment. Because of this threat, the United States strived to maintain "nuclear and conventional capabilities sufficient to convince any potential aggressor that the costs of aggression would exceed any potential gains that he might achieve." (5) Although other nations would develop nuclear weapons during this period, the Soviet Union alone possessed an arsenal that rivaled America's capabilities. U.S. policy makers concluded that "the most significant threat to U.S. security interests remained the global challenge posed by the Soviet Union." (6)

From 1946 to 1989, seven distinct presidential policies were formulated in response to the strategic challenge posed by the Soviets Union: the Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower's New Look and massive retaliation; Kennedy's flexible response; Johnson's policy of assured destruction; Nixon's combination of realpolitik and detente; Carter's countervailing strategy; and Reagan's emphasis on nuclear force buildup and negotiated weapons reduction. …

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