These tearjerkers, these fellows who are always saying what oughta been done and they weren't there and they don't know a damn thing about it. . . . They keep crying their eyes out about those people who were killed by those [atomic] bombs. I haven't heard any of them crying about those boys who were in those upside-down battleships in Pearl Harbor!
-- Harry S Truman, September 22, 19611
After the United States trumped the Japanese Empire in August 1945 with two atomic bombs, American leaders could have accomplished in the next several years what kings, city-states, nations, and empires have been attempting to do since the time of the Roman Republic--conquer the world. The fact that they did not attests as much to a lack of world-girdling ambition in the American character as to the relatively benign nature of American traditions and values. On the other hand, Potomac strategists were quite willing and determined to extend politico-economic hegemony over key regions of the earth and risk war to maintain that ascendancy. Thus they established alliances and defensive perimeters to contain the Soviet Union, and when in the next two decades the Communists tried to break through the containment barrier, they overreached to deploy military power even to the mainland of Asia.
First in Korea, then in Indochina, presidents were sorely tempted to flex America's growing nuclear muscles and deal the Communists a crushing defeat. Neither Harry S Truman, who had made the wartime decision to smash the Japanese, nor Dwight D. Eisenhower, an avowed advocate of relying on the atomic arsenal, nor John F. Kennedy, who faced the most dangerous crises of the Cold War era, nor Lyndon B. Johnson, who had at his disposal nuclear power of varied and overwhelming strength, made that decision. Instead, they chose to face down the Communists with a combination of politico-economic power backed by conventional military forces, with the nuclear ace held back in case of need. The price of nuclear abstention--or, more correctly, overexten-