Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

By John Lewis Gaddis; Philip H. Gordon et al. | Go to book overview
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6
Bear Any Burden? John F. Kennedy and Nuclear Weapons

PHILIP NASH1

ON 7 December 1962, in an address he gave at Los Alamos, New Mexico, President John F. Kennedy asked how the United States had successfully led the struggle to contain the 'Communist empire'. He answered by citing not only the United States Strategic Air Force,' but also its 'sons and brothers in Viet-Nam and Thailand and all around the globe'. 2 The President's oblique reference to nuclear weapons, before an audience that derived its livelihood from nuclear weapons design, typified his claims that he had reduced the country's reliance on them. But had he done so in reality? What were Kennedy's views on nuclear weapons? What role did those weapons actually play in his foreign policy? This chapter will attempt to answer these questions.

Two caveats about evidence are in order, though. While we 'bastards' may always be there with our 'pencils out,' 3 we do not have much evidence regarding official discussion of nuclear weapons policy in the Kennedy administration. Does this mean that policy-makers simply did not discuss the weapons? Or did they raise the subject, but keep no record? Or did they take notes which have yet to become available? It is also difficult to come to grips with Kennedy's own views on nuclear weapons. He kept no significant diary, his early death denied us a memoir, and a great deal of relevant material from his presidency remains secret. Scholars will continue to depend heavily, therefore, at least into the near future, on published sources and the fallible memories of JFK's advisers, who are highly accessible and actively involved in shaping the history they helped make in the first place. 4 These qualifications mean that any conclusions about Kennedy and nuclear weapons must be tentative. This does not mean, however, that such a study is premature; an interim account is valuable if only because most of the relevant documents will not be available for years and because the recent secondary literature could use synthesis.

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