Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

By John Lewis Gaddis; Philip H. Gordon et al. | Go to book overview

5
'War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever': Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Thermonuclear Revolution

ANDREW P. N. ERDMANN1

COMMON sense tells us that nuclear weapons must have had some impact on the Cold War because of their immense destructive power. When the United States possessed a nuclear monopoly and later clear strategic superiority, its enemies must have been scared and, therefore, extra cautious when America rattled its nuclear sabre. Once nuclear parity was achieved, then both sides had to be scared and, therefore, extra cautious all the time.

But every age has at least one Bishop Berkeley who questions the dicta of common sense. The nuclear age has been no different. First came the 'nuclear revisionists' who interpreted the nuclear age as a story 'mostly about the limited value of these [nuclear] weapons', both militarily and diplomatically, in order to buttress their policy recommendations. 2 The revisionists accepted that the superpowers' nuclear arsenals instilled mutual restraint, but questioned whether the transient American superiority of the early Cold War had been significant. The critique of common sense then moved beyond mere revisionism to what can be labelled 'nuclear nihilism', a position occupied by Professor John Mueller's thesis of nuclear weapons' 'essential irrelevance' for international stability. While their destructive potential is indisputably horrific, according to this analysis, nuclear weapons merely provided an 'extra insurance' to deterring major war during the Cold War. The effective deterrents were instead the images of a large conventional conflict on the scale of the two world wars, and, restraining the Soviet Union and its allies -- the ' Detroit Deterrent' -- the belief that the United States industrial capacity would enable it to triumph in any such war of attrition. 3

For a variety of reasons, an investigation of Dwight D. Eisenhower's assessment of the nuclear weapons' impact on international relations promises to help us evaluate these challenges to our nuclear common sense. Although dissimilar in many respects, both the revisionists and nihilists perceive the

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