The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War

By John Lewis Gaddis | Go to book overview

5
The Origins of Self-Deterrence: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons, 1945-1958

WITHIN the vast hangar that houses the Air Force History Museum, outside Dayton, Ohio, there rests, like some gigantic stuffed pterodactyl, what must be one of the most imposing artifacts of the nuclear age: an entire, intact, B-36 bomber, with its six rear-mounted propellors, its four jet-booster engines, its extended cylindrical fuselage that was in fact little more than an unpressurized bomb-rack, its great drooping wings stretching almost the length of a football field, its miles of wiring, linking what was, in its day, the latest in vacuum-tube technology. Built and deployed during the late 1940's, the B-36 was capable of carrying a 10,000 pound bomb load 10,000 miles: it could, at least in theory, have taken off from bases in the United States, dropped its lethal cargo over Soviet targets, and then returned, all without refueling. Four hundred forty-six of these behemoths were eventually built, at a cost of more than a billion and a half dollars. Not one of them ever dropped a single bomb in combat. 1

Once weapons are developed, it is often asserted, occasions will be found to use them. As with most truisms, this one is not always true; indeed, the nuclear era has made departures from it seem more the rule than the exception. Not only was the B-36 with its Volkswagen-sized thermonuclear weapons never used in anger: whole generations of intermediate- and intercontinentalrange ballistic missiles have been built, deployed, and eventually dismantled

This paper was prepared for a seminar at the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, organized by Robert Jervis and held in October, 1985. It has not been previously published.

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