Lessons from Crises
The light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on
the waves behind us.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge1
The role of the nuclear factor in international crises since 1946 is all too commonly underestimated, even among the community of specialists. A reexamination of the period since World War II made possible by many declassified documents, especially from the United States, shows just how mistaken that perception is. Tentative steps— sometimes cunning, sometimes blundering, now subtle and then blustering—to translate nuclear capabilities into effective deterrence, compellence, or blackmail are in fact present in a variety of crises that hold a series of lessons for international security in the 21st century.
Granted, nuclear deterrence does not operate only when crises occur. It does reinforce caution and moderation even in peacetime. The interest in crises, though, stems from the fact that they test deterrence in a situation of tension, since they can be described as twilight regions between peace and war,2 with stakes of such magnitude in nuclear matters that mistakes in this twilight can be devastating. The aim during a crisis is to prevent not only war but also significant political losses. Both are failures of deterrence, but while the first constitutes the “unthinkable” that must be prevented at (almost) any cost, the second has the ability to modify the strategic balance in ways that could lead to crises in the future that are more damaging than the previous ones if credibility has been badly damaged.
1Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, London: Harper & Brothers, 1835, p. 11.
2 See President Eisenhower’s closing comments in a press conference on March 4, 1959: “We are living in sort of a half world in so many things. We are not fighting a war, we are not killing each other, we are not going to the ultimate horror. On the other side of the picture, we are not living the kind of normal, what we’d like to call a normal life of thinking more of our own affairs, of thinking of the education and happiness of our children, and all that sort of thing that should occupy our minds.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The President’s News Conference of March 4, 1959,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959; Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to December 31, 1959, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Federal Register, 1960, p. 236.