Historians have spent a lot of time studying the short-term diplomatic implications of using atomic weapons against Japan. They have spent less time exploring the subsequent relationship between strategy and diplomacy. The declassification of documents pertaining to atomic weaponry has been relatively slow, but since the late 1970s some scholars like David Alan Rosenberg have done a remarkable job outlining the trajectory of American strategic programs and examining the buildup of the atomic arsenal.* But they have not really considered the extent to which strategic and budgetary decisions were related to foreign policy goals or the extent to which perceptions of the military and strategic balance actually affected the conduct of diplomacy.
In this essay Marc Trachtenberg takes a fresh look at American strategic planning and shows the degree to which preemptive thinking lurked in the minds of many US military and some civilian officials. He reevaluates National Security Council Paper no. 68, the most famous statement of American aims and options during the early Cold War. In so doing, he casts the containment policy in new light and suggests an offensive dimension to US diplomacy that not all historians would agree with. But still more importantly, Trachtenberg argues that US policymakers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze believed that they needed to possess strategic superiority in order to carry out their diplomatic offensive. This could not be done so long as they entertained a sense of their own military inferiority, catalyzed by the Soviet atomic explosion
* David Alan Rosenberg, “American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision,” Journal of American History, 66 (June 1979): 62-87; Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,” International Security, 7 (Spring 1983): 3-71.