BOOK REVIEW: Fingers on the Nuclear Trigger

By Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr. | Arms Control Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: Fingers on the Nuclear Trigger


Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr., Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: Fingers on the Nuclear Trigger At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb By James E. Goodby Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, June 2006, 224 pp.

At last, a well-written, objective account of the evolution of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and efforts at nuclear arms control from the beginning of the nuclear age to the dangerous situation we face today. In At the Borderline of Armageddon, James Goodby examines how each U.S. president since World War II has sought to manage the atomic bomb.

U.S. presidents have had no illusions about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war. Despite great differences in personality and the challenges they faced, all presidents have come to understand that such a conflict, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, "cannot be won and must never be fought." Although public formulations of nuclear policy have at times appeared to preserve nuclear options in certain circumstances, presidents have been very careful to step back from the borderline of Armageddon.

Goodby presents this historical review essentially as a series of case studies examining the role of each president in turn rather than the evolution of separate policy issues. This provides the reader with material to assess and compare the overall contribution of each president.

The book challenged me to review my own experiences, which somewhat parallel Goodby's. Although prepared to be critical, I found myself in almost complete agreement with his treatment of the complex history of the period and his commentary on events and personalities.

Presidents and Precedents

President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the nuclear age when he authorized the Manhattan Project, but President Harry Truman took the decisive steps when he authorized the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and subsequently approved the then-controversial hydrogen bomb project. Goodby correctly emphasizes, however, that Truman also established numerous wise precedents for the control of nuclear weapons.

These precedents included civilian control of atomic energy, presidential control of nuclear weapons, and a rejection of preventive war, as well as attempts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and bring them under international control. He also showed a willingness to negotiate with adversaries.

At the time that the United States was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons, Truman proposed a universal ban on nuclear weapons with international controls under the United Nations. He unambiguously established the primacy of the president in controlling these arms when, during the Korean War, he cashiered General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted a free hand against China, including possibly using nuclear weapons. Truman's legacy was a remarkable record for a simple man thrust by fate into the world's most powerful position.

In contrast to Truman, former General Dwight D. Elsenhower, who had led Allied forces in World War II, came to the presidency well qualified to tackle the nuclear threat. In the wake of the testing of multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons, he concluded that there could be no winners in a nuclear war. With the growth of Soviet nuclear capabilities, however, he was under increasing military and political pressure to react. These pressures were epitomized by the 1957 Gaither Report, whose recommendations, Goodby correctly reports, Elsenhower angrily rejected.

As the Department of Defense staff representative on the study, I agreed with Elsenhower's conclusion that the United States would become a "garrison state" if it implemented all of the recommendations, which included, among other things, a call for nationwide fallout and blast shelters and a crash buildup of strategic offensive and defensive weapon systems.

Testing Times and Test Bans

Despite pressures for a military buildup and the public shock over the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, which was seen as a proxy for a long-range ballistic missile capability, Elsenhower took the initiative in proposing a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) with the now increasingly feared Soviet adversary. …

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