Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age

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NUCLEAR STATECRAFT: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age, Francis J. Gavin, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2012, 218 pages, $35.00

In the contemporary world of television game shows that examine such things as whether contestants are smarter than a fifth grader or more adept at outdoor living than a Boy Scout, one can imagine author Francis J. Gavin moderating a game show that explores how much contemporary nuclear theorists and policy makers really understand nuclear history. Gavin argues that much of the current thinking about nuclear weapons demonstrates a propensity for two fundamental errors: first, to assume that the nuclear present is largely (or perhaps altogether) discontiguous from the nuclear past; and second, to "get the story wrong" when attempting to take the lessons of nuclear history into account.

However, Gavin's project is not merely to set the rest of us straight on nuclear history so that we can "get it right." Rather, it is to point out that the most useful insights to nuclear weapon issues are likely found at the convergence of nuclear theory, policy, and history, with the additional caution that even a firm grasp of the former two does not imply an equally firm grasp of the latter. Theorists tend to be prescriptive; policy makers, reactive; and historians, descriptive; and there is a place in the intellectual world for all three. However, while theorists and policy makers routinely have consulted each others' perspective, neither seems to have felt the same urgency to avail themselves of the historian's.

But why should we care? Are historians really the best people to navigate the ship of state through the murky waters of the nuclear world? Gavin certainly does not argue that they are. However, he challenges the reader to consider why the nuclear theorist or policy maker, invoking the nonempirical data of logic, game theory, and gut feeling (since, after all, a nuclear war has never been fought) would be any better suited to the task. He simply points out that, ignoring historical perspectives risks taking for granted many factors that should figure into something as significant as a nation's nuclear weapons calculus. But Gavin does not stop there. He additionally points to the tendency of some to conflate "nuclear history," "Cold War history," and "post-World War II history," which, although contemporaneous, are not precisely the same thing; and the facts of one do not necessarily provide answers for the others. …