The Air Force's Enduring Legacy of Nuclear Deterrence

By Schwartz, Norton A. | Air Power History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Air Force's Enduring Legacy of Nuclear Deterrence

Schwartz, Norton A., Air Power History


On August 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman released a statement to the American people and the world that opened a new era in history:

Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on [Hiroshima] and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T It had more power than two thousand times the blast power of the British "Grand Slam" which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.... It is an atomic bomb. (1)

Three days after the crew of the B-29 Enola Gay dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima; the crew of Bockscar dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki. The two atomic bombs killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed the two cities. The explosions, coupled with the declaration of war by the Soviet Union on Japan on August 8, 1945, convinced Emperor Hirohito that the U.S. now had "a cruel new weapon" that could destroy the Japanese homeland. (2) Certainly, other actions, including the Air Force's firebombing of major enemy cities between March and August 1945, destroyed Japan's war production industry and drove millions of evacuees from the Japanese urban areas, and the U.S. Navy's blockade of Japan's maritime supply line set necessary preconditions for victory. Although the war against Japan ended, President Roosevelt's decision to develop an atomic weapon and President Truman's decision to employ it ushered in the atomic age. (3) The advent of these awesome weapons also prompted a reconsideration of national security strategy, based on a rapidly evolving novel theory of nuclear deterrence. These developments, which took place during successive presidential administrations, placed great demands on the Services to adapt quickly to meet new national policies. (4)




From the fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the global instability of the present day, the importance placed on nuclear deterrence as a pillar of national security policy has varied as a factor of fiscal reality, advanced technology, geopolitics, and national security priorities.

This article recounts how the Air Force met the demands of nuclear policy. Section I, "Evolution in Relative Stability," discusses how Airmen during the early days of the Cold War established the famed Strategic Air Command (SAC) to meet the nation's deterrent strategy, and how SAC effectively maintained its alert ready strike force for more than forty years. Section II, "Turbulent Times," describes how Airmen, in the post-Cold War era, adapted successfully to significant shifts in the international environment and national policy. The final section, "Beyond the Horizon," outlines the Air Force's plans to meet the challenges of the future as guardians of a nuclear arsenal that remains a vital component of the nation's nuclear strategy.


Evolution in Relative Stability

During the Cold War, the Soviet threat shaped American military and diplomatic decision making around a dangerous but stable bipolar alignment. Because of this threat, the United States strived to maintain "nuclear and conventional capabilities sufficient to convince any potential aggressor that the costs of aggression would exceed any potential gains that he might achieve." (5) Although other nations would develop nuclear weapons during this period, the Soviet Union alone possessed an arsenal that rivaled America's capabilities. U.S. policy makers concluded that "the most significant threat to U.S. security interests remained the global challenge posed by the Soviet Union." (6)

From 1946 to 1989, seven distinct presidential policies were formulated in response to the strategic challenge posed by the Soviets Union: the Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower's New Look and massive retaliation; Kennedy's flexible response; Johnson's policy of assured destruction; Nixon's combination of realpolitik and detente; Carter's countervailing strategy; and Reagan's emphasis on nuclear force buildup and negotiated weapons reduction. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Air Force's Enduring Legacy of Nuclear Deterrence


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.