Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present

By Shane J. Maddock | Go to book overview

6
Tests and Toughness
JFK’S FALSE START ON THE PROLIFERATION
QUESTION, 1961–1962

“Courage,” John F. Kennedy claimed, stood as the “most admirable of human virtues.” As a senator, Kennedy lent his name to Profiles in Courage, a ghostwritten paean to politicians who bravely resisted popular pressure to compromise their “ethics,” “integrity,” and “morality.” Principle proved more important to these leaders than did political success. While campaigning for president, Kennedy invoked their virtuous examples, portraying himself as a war hero and a “tough-minded” leader. In practice, JFK proved far more attuned to his electoral fortunes than to his private convictions. While senator, he had warned “of a nuclear holocaust being initiated for irrational reasons by a fanatic or a demagogue” should nuclear proliferation continue unchecked. As president, he made clear that the demagogue he most feared ruled in Beijing. The Soviets also hoped to impede Chinese, as well as West German, access to the bomb. Yet Kennedy and Khrushchev faced domestic critics, especially in their own defense establishments, who did not support a modus vivendi to contain proliferation. Unwilling to sacrifice his political standing for an agreement with Moscow, Kennedy resorted to false machismo and a traditional positions-of-strength policy, including a massive military buildup, and he resumed nuclear testing, all undercutting his arms control goals. By spring 1962, the prospects of a nonproliferation agreement seemed dimmer than at any other point since 1958.1

-145-

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