The Fourth Country Problem: Eisenhower's Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy

By Maddock, Shane | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Fourth Country Problem: Eisenhower's Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy


Maddock, Shane, Presidential Studies Quarterly


"Soon even little countries will have a stockpile of these bombs, and then we will be in a mess," exclaimed President Dwight D. Eisenhower in spring 1954.(1) Eisenhower had hoped to energize an American nonproliferation policy that had languished since the failure of the Baruch Plan in 1946, but these efforts proved fruitless. Although no one in the Eisenhower administration proposed recanting Washington's opposition to nuclear spread, some officials, such as Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Lewis Strauss, began to wonder if attempting to halt nuclear dissemination was akin to an effort to hold back the tides. Arms race advocates exhibited disdain for nonproliferation schemes and intense suspicion of the Soviets, concluding that all disarmament agreements would erode U.S. security. Other U.S. policy makers, such as John Foster Dulles and Harold Stassen, believed that the arms race threatened U.S. security but also rejected comprehensive disarmament proposals as naive and idealistic. Instead, they embraced arms control plans that attempted to manage the arms race rather than end it. Eisenhower tried to forge a consensus in his administration between the arms control and arms race advocates. He too believed that an unchecked arms race posed a serious threat to U.S. survival, but he also harbored deep suspicions regarding Soviet intentions and reliability. He concluded that an already dangerous international system would become even more threatening if other countries beyond the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons.

Eisenhower took action on both the national and international levels to resolve the "fourth country" problem. He met with limited success when both Great Britain and the Soviet Union expressed interest in U.S. nonproliferation proposals. But ultimately, cold war suspicions, disagreement within the Eisenhower administration, and presidential impotence led to subordination of nonproliferation to other policy goals, especially maintaining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unity and winning the support of nonaligned nations with Atoms for Peace aid. In the face of this inaction, other countries initiated their own nuclear weapons programs, including France, Israel, and the People's Republic of China. Eisenhower's failure to conclude a nonproliferation agreement therefore raises important questions about the ability of two international rivals to cooperate in areas of mutual national interests, about the acceleration of the nuclear arms race, and about Eisenhower's presidential leadership. It also indicates that the withering of U.S. hegemony, which became most palpable in 1960s and 1970s, had roots reaching back to the zenith of American power.

Eisenhower entered the presidency with a more sophisticated understanding of nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. strategy than any of his predecessors or successors. While U.S. army chief of staff from 1945 to 1948 and later as supreme commander of NATO from 1951 to 1952, Eisenhower helped supervise the integration of atomic weapons into U.S. strategy. As president, he combined this experience with his adherence to the German military thinker Karl von Clausewitz's theories on the interconnection of war and politics.(2) But his reading of Clausewitz provided him with contradictory impulses toward nuclear weapons. Eisenhower feared that if he sustained the high level of defense spending he had inherited from Truman, it would damage the U.S. economy. He warned an aide, "If we let defense spending run wild, you get inflation ... then controls ... then a garrison state ... and then we've lost the very values we were trying to defend."(3) A military policy based primarily on nuclear deterrence offered a feasible means to reduce defense spending while offering sufficient striking force to check Soviet aggression.(4) But the new president also worried that nuclear weapons used in massive numbers violated the Clausewitzian principle that military victory must serve a clear political purpose.

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