Nuclear Weapons in Kennedy's Foreign Policy
Nash, Philip, The Historian
When President John F. Kennedy spoke at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in December 1962, he attributed U.S. success in containing communism to the nation's army, navy, and "strategic Air Force." The president's oblique reference to nuclear weapons, before an audience that derived its livelihood from nuclear weapons design, typified his claims that he had reduced the country's reliance on its nuclear arsenal. Such claims were justified, since nuclear weapons played a limited role in Kennedy's foreign policy.(1)
Primary evidence regarding official discussion of nuclear weapons in the Kennedy administration is scarce. For now, scholars have to depend largely on published sources and on the fallible memories of Kennedy's advisers, who have helped write the history they made. Conclusions about the role of nuclear weapons in Kennedy's foreign policy must therefore be tentative. This study, however, offers a needed synthesis of available documentation and recent scholarship.
Kennedy's foreign policy strategy was based on Flexible Response, a term coined by General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor, who served Kennedy as an adviser and later as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), defined Flexible Response as "a capability to react across the entire spectrum of possible challenge, for coping with anything from general atomic war to infiltrations and aggressions such as threaten Laos and Berlin." Within the conceptual framework of Flexible Response, nuclear weapons played a lesser role than they did under Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower.(2)
Like all U.S. deterrent strategies, however, Flexible Response relied to some extent on nuclear weapons. Thus, Kennedy quickly embarked on a large strategic buildup. One of Kennedy's first major defense decisions was the acceleration and expansion of the Polaris and Minuteman missile programs. His decision to build roughly 1,700 strategic nuclear missiles amounted to more than a 50 percent increase over the 1,100 projected by Eisenhower's last defense budget. The number of strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal grew under Kennedy from 3,000 in April 1961 to 5,000 by July 1964 - a 66 percent increase, although much of this was "in the pipeline" before Kennedy took office.(3)
Traditional worst-case thinking was a factor in Kennedy's buildup. The U.S.-Soviet "missile gap," which had figured prominently in the 1960 presidential campaign, gradually faded in 1961 as improved U.S. intelligence techniques revealed how small the Soviet nuclear arsenal was. However, there was no guarantee that a genuine gap would not develop. In his notes for a 1962 talk to the National Security Council (NSC), Kennedy stated, "[t]o be honest, we would probably be safe with less - but we believe in an ample safety factor." Also, pressure for a U.S. buildup from both Congress and the military was formidable. Kennedy maintained that congressional demand for "more nuclear weapons is pretty strong. I don't think such sentiment can be rationally defended, but there it is." Such innovations in nuclear strategy as the concepts of "counterforce" and "damage limitation" also helped propel the buildup. Other considerations had a marginal influence, such as Kennedy's belief in "negotiation from strength," the difficulty d disavowing his missile-gap rhetoric in the 1960 campaign, and perhaps even the need to create jobs.(4)
At the same time, however, the administration attempted to stabilize the arms race. In 1961, Kennedy was reluctant to order the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing after Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev did so. Two years later Kennedy vigorously pursued and achieved a limited test ban (a comprehensive ban remained his goal throughout the negotiations). He ordered improvements in the invulnerability, command, and control of U.S. strategic forces as well as the placement of electronic locks on strategic weapons to prevent unauthorized use; the administration then leaked this technology to the Soviets. …