Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965

By Timothy J. Botti | Go to book overview

22
UNPLAYABLE CARD?

O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but is it tyrannous
To use it like a giant?
-- A twist on William Shakespeare1

Why did the United States not use nuclear weapons in the first twenty years of the Cold War? When I began research for this book, the answer I thought I would find is that when you are in a poker game and are holding most of the aces and most of the high-value chips, you do not kick over the table. But many American leaders did not perceive themselves in such a favored position, nor so secure that the U.S. could remain on the defensive while the Communist wave smashed repeatedly against the walls of Containment. That is why, in crisis after crisis, Presidents contemplated use of nuclear weapons; that is why a preemptive strike doctrine permeated general war plans; that is why serious consideration was even given to preventive war. Although most American strategists knew that the U.S. had too much to lose to unleash the power of the atom in the Cold War, the real explanation of why they refrained from annihilating the Soviet Union, Red China, North Korea, and North Vietnam is more varied and complex. Given the potential military decisiveness of the nuclear option, it is still somewhat remarkable that since Nagasaki a nuclear weapon has never been detonated in anger.

Regardless of policy statements to the contrary, nuclear weapons are and were in a different military, political, and psychological category than other weapons. Not only the allies but most of the world feared the long-term consequences of using atomic bombs even before the Soviets acquired the weapon in August 1949. Without the overarching requirement of using every means available to win a world war, American presidents would naturally hesitate to reach into the military arsenal for this most awesome of weapons. They would certainly not risk nuclear war with the Soviets, or even the

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Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions in Military Studies ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • 1 - Sayonara Sanity? 1
  • 2 - War Scare 7
  • 3 - The Soviets Draw an Ace 17
  • 4 - Strategic Error 23
  • 5 - First Forbearance 31
  • 6 - The Cart Before the Horse 44
  • 7 - French Chestnuts in the Fire 55
  • 8 - The President Vacillates 66
  • 9 - Muscling Up 78
  • 10 - Sword of Damocles 95
  • 11 - The Last Sideshow 102
  • 12 - The Autobahn to Armageddon 109
  • 13 - Cocked Gun 121
  • 14 - Amateur Hour 138
  • 15 - Harebrained Schemes 151
  • 16 - Muddling Through 163
  • 17 - Multilateral Folly 171
  • 18 - High Noon 185
  • 19 - Two Bluffs 201
  • 20 - Best-Laid Plans 216
  • 21 - Strategic Incompetence 230
  • 22 - Unplayable Card? 243
  • Notes 253
  • Index 301
  • About the Author 313
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