"Strategic Theoretical Parasitism" Reconsidered: Canadian Thinking on Nuclear Weapons and Strategy, 1950-1963

By Richter, Andrew | International Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

"Strategic Theoretical Parasitism" Reconsidered: Canadian Thinking on Nuclear Weapons and Strategy, 1950-1963


Richter, Andrew, International Journal


The introduction and subsequent deployment of nuclear weapons is the most significant military development of the post-World War II era. The assumption in Canada has consistently been that Canadians are passive consumers of the nuclear doctrines and strategies of their allies. This assumption, in turn, is linked to the larger failure of Canadians to identify national strategic interests during the cold war (which Colin Gray labelled 'strategic theoretical parasitism').(1) This article argues, on the contrary, that the Canadian conceptual understanding and approach to deterrence theory and strategic stability, two of the critical concepts in post-war nuclear strategy, was distinct from the appreciation reached in the United States. Several recently declassified studies prepared by officials in the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) in the 1950s and early 1960s are compared with some of the principal contributions in American strategic thought from the same period to reveal a community of defence officials determined to reach independent judgments on issues of crucial importance. The conclusion reached is that the perception of a strategically disinterested and detached country requires revision, and indicates a need for more research in the field.

Before examining the documents, the historical context should be established. Nuclear weapons were recognized in 1945 as immensely destructive, but military orthodoxy and a reluctance to question convention led to conservative findings among defence observers/strategists in the immediate post-war period. For example, both P.M.S. Blackett in Britain and Vannevar Bush in the United States predicted that nuclear weapons would have little impact on the outcome of war for the foreseeable future.(2) Although those findings were strongly challenged by Bernard Brodie and Liddell Hart,(3) there was no initial postwar consensus that strategy had been fundamentally altered by the discovery of the power of the atom.

Inevitably, however, the nuclear (and thermonuclear) revolution(s) spurred new thinking, as strategists struggled to make sense of weapons that offered unimaginable destructive power and that seemed to turn conventional military wisdom upside down. By the early-to-mid 1950s, the gestation period of a new generation of strategists came to an end, and the modern arms debate was born. In the United States, this change was induced by the rapid growth in nuclear weapons stocks, the introduction of both tactical nuclear weapons and hydrogen bombs, the anticipated arrival of ballistic missiles, and the articulation of the strategy of 'massive retaliation.'(4)

The difference between much of the literature that emerged at this time and previous contributions to strategy, however, was the emphasis on deterrence. In the nuclear age, any use of force could have disastrous consequences. Thus, it was widely believed (particularly in the West) that the most sensible military posture was to threaten an opponent with such enormous devastation that it would never be so foolish as to risk a military challenge. If confronted, however, the only response that was considered was annihilation on a scale never before seen in human history (an approach that was believed to make deterrence more 'credible'). Literature on deterrence, then, represented a reformulation of what strategy was and what could be effectively studied under its name.

In the cold war environment of the 1950s, most of the major (American) studies attempted to address an essentially political question: how could the United States most effectively acquire, deploy, and employ its military forces to further American global interests but avoid large-scale military challenges? Dissatisfaction with the manner in which the United States-Soviet relationship was unfolding meant that early post-war American strategy was aimed at improving the quality of policy for dealing with the Soviet Union. It was not meant to be applicable in all (or even most) situations, which helps explain its essential irrelevance in much of the world during this period.

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