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Nuclear Revisionism

One important by-product of the passionate antinuclear controversy earlier in this decade has been a wave of new and influential revisionist writing on the role of nuclear weapons in postwar history. The central theme of the new revisionist movement, broadly speaking, is the alleged unimportance of nuclear weapons—their limited usefulness over the last forty years, not only as military weapons but especially as diplomatic tools. In particular, these newer historians, call them “neorevisionists,” attempt to make the case that American nuclear superiority, for as long as it lasted, was far less of a factor in international politics, and less crucial to American security, than has previously been assumed.

McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, has been in the forefront of this movement. Four years ago, in a provocative essay called “The Unimpressive Record of Atomic Diplomacy,” Bundy set forth a kind of neorevisionist manifesto, challenging the traditional view that nuclear weapons had played a decisive role in a half-dozen major cold-war crises and confrontations. Among the targets of Bundy’s revisionist pen: President Truman’s latter-day boast that he had used the Bomb to dislodge Stalin from Iran in 1946; President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s more serious reports that American nuclear threats had helped to end the Korean war; and, perhaps most remarkably, the Cuban missile crisis—long seen by public opinion as proof par excellence of the efficacy of superior U.S. nuclear forces. In all three cases, Bundy argued, American nuclear superiority not only was not the decisive factor but in fact played a relatively insignificant role. The essay provoked a flurry of commentary (much of it favorable) and new historical research. Bundy, meanwhile, promised to present further evidence for these counterintuitive views in a forthcoming book.

That book, recently published,1 actually attempts to cover a good deal more than the neorevisionist controversy over “atomic diplomacy.” Billed as a comprehensive study of “political choices” about the Bomb, Danger and Survival tells in lengthy and somewhat laborious fashion the basic story of the nuclear age, beginning with the American decision to build the atomic bomb in the early 1940’s, and concluding with Bundy’s prescriptions on current policy issues. Still, at the heart of the text is the author’s effort to vindicate the neorevisionist thesis: to show by detailed historical argument that superiority in nuclear forces does not matter and never really has.

It is not an easy case to make. Take the central instance of Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis occurred at a time of almost ridiculously lopsided American superiority in nuclear weapons, when the U.S. advantage over the USSR in strategic missiles was approximately nine to one (438 to 50) and in strategic bombers approximately twelve to one (1,700 to 140). Bundy now argues that the outcome of the crisis would have been “the same” in an environment of “strategic parity.” I suppose that this is possible, but it defies common sense.

Still, it is worth looking closely at Bundy’s analysis of the Cuban episode, not only because the neorevisionist perspective is becoming increasingly influential among scholars who study these matters, but also because Bundy’s analysis reveals with particular clarity the curious political assumption at its root. Indeed, at bottom, Bundy’s argument about the missile crisis turns out to be essentially circular, based less on an analysis of nuclear weapons than on a certain attitude toward politics. This attitude, in turn, accounts for the peculiar perspective on the nuclear dilemma presented in his book as a whole.

One reason that Bundy’s verdict on the Cuban episode seems so odd at first glance is that strategic superiority would appear to be precisely what the 1962 missile crisis was all about. By Khrushchev’s own later admission, the Soviet leader put the missiles in Cuba in 1962 at least partly to remedy the USSR’s strategic inferiority (this was almost certainly his main motive). President Kennedy, meanwhile, deliberately invoked the threat of U.S. nuclear forces—not only in his October 22, 1962 speech to the nation, but in a highly visible alert of U.S. strategic forces—to get Khrushchev to take the missiles out. Yet Bundy and former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara have tried for some time to argue that local conventional strength—in the form of the U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba—rather than nuclear superiority, was the decisive factor. In 1982 they issued a “joint statement” with four other senior colleagues from the Kennedy administration asserting this view. (As became clear in discussions and interviews during and after a 1987 meeting of former crisis participants and scholars in Hawk’s Cay, Florida, not every former Kennedy official shares the Bundy-McNamara view by any means—Paul Nitze is a notable dissenter.)

Like many previous revisionist movements, however, the neorevisionist approach is driven less by fresh historical evidence than by a theory. The theory in question is that of “mutual deterrence,” sometimes called “existential deterrence” or “mutual assured destruction.” The basic tenets of this theory, first advanced by the strategic writer Bernard Brodie over forty years ago, are now well known: because of the intrinsic power of nuclear weapons, superiority in nuclear forces is not really strategically meaningful or necessary for deterrence. Thus, it is argued, a nation in possession of a survivable nuclear retaliatory capability can be confident in its ability to deter aggression regardless of the superiority or inferiority of forces on either side.

It was only in the 1960’s, under the administrations in which Bundy and McNamara served, that U.S. policy began to be based explicitly on this theory. It was during the same period—not entirely coincidentally—that the Soviet Union began to gain strategic parity with the United States. The developments were partly linked: though the shift in the strategic balance was owing primarily to Soviet efforts, the Western faith in mutual-deterrence theory made decision-makers in Washington far less concerned about the Soviet missile build-up, and far less anxious to counteract its effects, than they otherwise might have been. What the neorevisionists—and Bundy’s book in large part—attempt to argue is that even before mutual deterrence became official U.S. policy and before the Soviet Union gained parity with the United States, mutual deterrence was the operative reality of the nuclear age.

Implicitly following this mutual-deterrence model, Bundy contends that what caused Khrushchev to avoid war in both the Berlin and Cuban crises of the early 1960’s was not any calculation of an American strategic advantage, but the mutual danger that nuclear war itself posed for either side. What actually deterred war was not American nuclear “superiority,” but a general and shared nuclear “danger.”

That is one way of putting the situation, but I believe it misses the point. The point is that in neither crisis of the early 1960’s—nor for that matter in the earlier Berlin crisis under Eisenhower—did Khrushchev have any intention whatsoever of going to war. Rather, Soviet leverage in these crises depended on creating the illusion that the Soviets might be willing to risk war—an illusion to which the young intellectuals in the Kennedy administration, of whom Bundy was one, proved particularly susceptible at the time. In this sense, and the Kennedy mythology notwithstanding, the Cuban crisis differs fundamentally from the Sarajevo crisis of July 1914, when Germany was perfectly willing to go to war—and did.



Since Khrushchev was not interested in war, what was at issue was not so much deterrence itself as each side’s subjective and imperfect calculation of the other side’s willingness to take risks—in particular, to take political steps or conventional military action that might eventually escalate to nuclear war. In this calculation, the perceptions of nuclear superiority and inferiority no doubt played a critical role. Interestingly, a great deal of evidence brought forward in the course of Bundy’s own narrative tends to support this view.

Two facts are particularly important in understanding the missile crisis. First, while both the U.S. and Soviet governments were aware that America had massive nuclear superiority, this was not generally recognized outside of government circles. Since the launching of Sputnik in 1957, Khrushchev had succeeded in convincing the world, and Western publics in particular, that Soviet nuclear capabilities exceeded or at least matched those of the United States. Second, one major consequence of the missile crisis—probably the most important consequence—was to confirm American strategic superiority in everybody’s eyes. The fact that Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba so quickly suggested that the disturbing Soviet nuclear threat that had worried everybody in Europe and elsewhere during the previous five years had been a paper tiger all along. As a result, the basis of Khrushchev’s power position in world affairs was seriously undermined. Not coincidentally, the relentless and frightening Soviet pressure on Berlin, which had defined the reality of the cold war since 1958, suddenly died down.

In this sense, the Cuban missile crisis was a genuine victory for the United States. But it was a qualified victory. In exchange for Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the missiles, Kennedy agreed that the United States would not invade Cuba. (There was a second, secret Kennedy concession on removing U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey, which figures importantly in Bundy’s analysis—about which more in a moment.) While an open and unprovoked U.S. invasion of Cuba was unlikely in any case—particularly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco—in practice the U.S. agreement meant accepting the Cuban regime as part of the international status quo. Notably, in the wake of Kennedy’s agreement, a major covert action against the Castro regime—“Operation Mongoose”—was terminated.

In essence, therefore, the United States seriously circumscribed its own options vis-à-vis the Castro regime without obtaining from Moscow assurances that Cuba would not interfere in the internal affairs of other Western hemisphere nations. The mischievous consequences of this lopsided arrangement are amply apparent today—in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. So there was a price paid for the withdrawal—to say nothing of the erosion of the Monroe Doctrine, cornerstone of American foreign policy for 150 years, which Kennedy’s agreement somewhat heedlessly cast aside.



Does Bundy regard the Cuban missile crisis as having been a victory or a defeat for the United States? The answer is not clear, and herein lies the beginning of the difficulties with his analysis. On the one hand, he resists acknowledging the adverse consequences of Kennedy’s concession on invading Cuba. On the other hand, perhaps even more curiously, he fails to dwell at any length on the favorable political consequences of the administration’s handling of the crisis—Khrushchev’s loss of power position and the resultant improvement in Soviet behavior. (The change in the balance of power at the time was so pronounced that Raymond Aron argued that in the nuclear age, the international crisis had come to replace war itself as the ultimate method by which nations settle their accounts. It was as though the Soviets had actually lost a war.) If Bundy does not regard the crisis as an American defeat, neither does he treat it as a real victory. This, we shall see, holds the key to his entire view of the episode.

What about the relative importance of nuclear and conventional forces? Critics have already pointed to problems with Bundy’s basic contention that nuclear superiority did not matter. The best review of the arguments, and indeed of the neorevisionist debate generally, is to be found in Richard K. Betts’s 1987 volume, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. (Incidentally, Betts’s concise and evenhanded book would be a good alternative to the weighty Bundy tome as undergraduate course reading.) As Betts and others have pointed out, if conventional forces were the only factor, Khrushchev could have responded to the U.S. naval quarantine around Cuba by moving against Berlin, where the Soviets had a comparable conventional advantage. He did not. In addition, while the U.S. went on full nuclear alert, the Soviets never reciprocated, suggesting that the nuclear threat in this crisis was one-sided.

Bundy himself presents a remarkable quantity of evidence to support the view that nuclear superiority did indeed matter. (If he is to be commended for his intellectual honesty in bringing forth so many facts adverse to his position, there is also something maddeningly perverse in his reluctance to accept their logical implications.) To begin with, he acknowledges that American resolve in the Berlin crisis was affected by knowledge of U.S. nuclear superiority. According to Bundy, U.S. officials’ awareness of American nuclear “superiority,” and the belief that it would make Khrushchev “cautious” in pressing his demands over Berlin, “stiffened American determination.” But this admission would seem to be fatal to Bundy’s entire case. To say that American determination was affected by U.S. nuclear superiority (in Berlin, to repeat, the United States was at an acute disadvantage in conventional forces) is already to say that strategic superiority had a major effect on the outcome of the crisis.

For what were these crises about, in the final analysis, but a test of wills, a test of each side’s “determination”? In the case of Berlin, indeed, given how pliant the Kennedy team actually proved to be over Soviet demands—despite the valiant efforts of General Lucius Clay and others to stiffen the U.S. position—one wonders what Kennedy might have conceded in the absence of clear U.S. nuclear superiority. James Reston of the New York Times noted damningly at the time that, faced with Khrushchev’s nuclear blackmail, the young President in 1961 “had talked like Churchill and acted like Chamberlain.”

What about American determination in the missile crisis? Here Bundy states categorically that American officials derived “no comfort” from the strategic balance. However, Betts draws our attention to a revealing letter to McNamara from General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the height of the crisis. “We have the strategic advantage in our general war capabilities,” Taylor wrote (emphasis added). “. . . This is no time to run scared.” Some officials, then, were obviously thinking about the nuclear balance. It is interesting that Taylor became another latter-day convert to the view that nuclear weapons had been unimportant in the crisis.

But perhaps the most important question concerns Soviet resolve in the face of American nuclear superiority. Was Khrushchev’s behavior in the crisis wholly unaffected, as Bundy implies, by his knowledge of the U.S. nuclear advantage? Was it merely a mutual nuclear danger and an imperative to avoid nuclear war that shaped his actions? Here again, Bundy himself notes that CIA director John McCone, alone among the Kennedy officials and in defiance of CIA analysts, predicted that Khrushchev would try to put missiles in Cuba. Bundy attributes McCone’s special insight to the latter’s strong belief in the importance of nuclear superiority—a belief he shared with the Soviet leader. But if McCone was better at predicting Khrushchev’s behavior on this basis, does not this raise doubts about Bundy’s own revisionist portrait of the Soviet leader as an implicit believer in mutual deterrence?

On this issue, moreover, we have one relevant fact which Bundy does not manage to put before the reader—namely, some striking testimony from Khrushchev himself. In reporting to the Supreme Soviet two months after the crisis, the Soviet leader not only drew attention to the U.S. nuclear alert during the crisis but added: “If [imperialism] is now a ‘paper tiger,’ those who say this know that this ‘paper tiger’ has atomic teeth. It can use them and it must not be treated lightly.” It is clear that American nuclear capabilities played a prominent role in Khrushchev’s calculations.



A part from its direct effect on deterrence, the nuclear balance was bound to affect each side’s estimate of the other side’s willingness to take military action even below the nuclear threshold at any given moment, knowing that this might easily escalate to a wider war.

This factor seems to have been critical at the key turning point in the Cuban missile crisis, on Friday and Saturday, October 26 and 27, 1962. On October 26, Kennedy received Khrushchev’s famous first letter—a long, emotional document (Dean Acheson later called it “maudlin”) with the mark of Khrushchev’s own hand. The letter stressed the dangers of nuclear war and offered what appeared to be a sliver of light, hinting at the possibility of trading withdrawal of the missiles for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba.

This possibility had been raised more explicitly in a curious episode early the same day. A senior KGB official in Washington, Alexander Fomin, proposed precisely such a formula for a settlement to an intermediary, ABC reporter John Scali. Scali in turn took Fomin’s message to the administration. The administration was heartened by the prospect of a way out, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave Scali a message for Fomin indicating that such a solution might be possible.

Then on Saturday came a reversal. Radio Moscow began to broadcast a second Khrushchev letter, this one probably composed by committee, with harder terms. The new letter demanded the removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. On the same day, the administration received news that U-2 pilot Rudolf Anderson was missing over Cuba; he had been shot down. The shootdown of Anderson would greatly heighten domestic pressure for decisive action on Kennedy’s part.

After long and tense deliberations, the President sent his brother Robert to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin with both a secret concession and a kind of ultimatum. The President would be removing the obsolescent missiles from Turkey anyway (plans had begun months before), but did not want this to be a part of a public deal. Also, the President’s brother was instructed to emphasize, time was short. The Soviets were given until the next day to respond.

As U.S. forces massed for an air attack and invasion, Robert Kennedy’s message was fortunately reinforced by an angry Scali, who “denounced” his KGB interlocutor Fomin for “‘a stinking double-cross’” and added: “If you think the United States is bluffing. . . . you are part of the most colossal misjudgment of American intentions in history. We are absolutely determined to get those missiles out of there. An invasion of Cuba is only a matter of hours away.”

Bundy believes that the angry Scali-Fomin exchange—which was entirely on Scali’s own initiative, without instructions from the President—had a big effect on Khrushchev, and one is inclined to agree, since the public Soviet message on withdrawal of the missiles came the next day. Khrushchev obviously settled because he did not wish to risk the onset of military action by the United States. Scali’s encounter with Fomin no doubt helped make this risk seem more real. However, because Khrushchev had offered the basic terms of the trade on Friday, Bundy argues that these warnings “affected the speed of Khrushchev’s response more than its substance.”

In politics, as in drama, timing is often everything. Bundy’s complacency about the importance of the strategic balance goes hand in hand with an effort to discount the importance of the Soviet response to the pivotal American warnings on October 27. This rests in turn on two highly questionable suppositions: (1) that time was on the American side, and (2) that a public trade of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the Cuban missiles—Kennedy’s probable fall-back position in the event his Saturday proposal was refused—would not have been a bad outcome.

That time was on the American side hardly seems self-evident. “Each week,” Bundy argues, “would have endangered the position of Khrushchev and his supporters much more than it endangered us.” But one must ask: which sort of government is more likely, over time, to come under domestic pressure to waver from its original purpose or to suffer more when its public loses a sense of urgency about a crisis—a democracy or a totalitarian regime? The notion that time is on the side of the democracies in foreign affairs, it would seem to me, perished in the jungles of Vietnam.

Second and more fundamental, however, is the issue of the Jupiters. Even though he advised Kennedy otherwise at the time, Bundy now argues that “a formidable set of arguments” could have been marshaled “in support of [Kennedy’s] acceptance of a public trade.” Here is where Bundy’s argument turns circular. Bundy’s retrospective judgment to the contrary, the political difference between a public trade of the missiles and the secret deal Kennedy actually got was absolutely fundamental. It was the difference between victory and defeat.



The major outcome of the crisis was the perception that Khrushchev had been forced to back down. He had been. The very fact that Khrushchev was compelled to keep the American Jupiter concession secret indicated that the U.S. had the upper hand. Khrushchev could use the concession on the Jupiters to save face with his Politburo colleagues, but not with the world at large. That was a fact of critical importance, for it destroyed the illusion of Soviet nuclear predominance that had formed the whole basis of his power position in world affairs. (Thereafter, having been robbed of the illusion of predominance, the Soviets would seek to achieve the reality of predominanace through their subsequent long military build-up: as First Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov said to John McCloy during their November negotiations on the removal from Cuba of the Ilyushin-28 bombers, “You Americans will never be able to do this to us again!”)

The problem with a public trade of the Jupiters was the one Bundy saw at the time—in his words then, “[I]t would be clear that we were trying to sell our allies for our interests.” Rather characteristically, Bundy told the President the European view would be “irrational” and “crazy” but was nonetheless “a terribly powerful fact.” It was not irrational and crazy; the Europeans would have been right—since to permit the perception of a sellout under Soviet pressure was to sell them out in reality. The effect, in short, would have been roughly the opposite of the secret arrangement. Khrushchev would have been perceived not as losing face, but as gaining a significant concession—witness how large the issue of INF missiles has loomed in Western European consciousness in this decade—through his daring gambit of putting missiles in the Americans’ own backyard.

To argue that a public trade would essentially be the same as the secret trade is to argue that losing would have been the same as winning. If you believe that, as Bundy seems to do, then you are not likely to place much importance on the effect the nuclear balance might have had on Khrushchev’s calculations or resolve or on the nature or timing of his October 27-28 decision. If the political outcome was irrelevant, then whatever marginal effect U.S. strategic superiority may have had on Khrushchev’s assessment of the willingness of the Americans to initiate military operations against Cuba was unimportant.

That is to say, to the degree that attention shifts away from the political consequences of particular crises and confrontations, to the mere question of whether nuclear war was or was not avoided, the importance of strategic superiority naturally diminishes. This, it seems to me, is the key to the neorevisionist approach. When Bundy writes, “I think the result of the confrontation in 1962 would have been the same with strategic parity as it was with American superiority,” it is important to ask what he means by “the same.” If by “the same” he means with or without a public trade of the Jupiter missiles, as I think he does, I suppose one might even agree with him. But it is a circular argument, a tautology: if you don’t care about political outcomes, you don’t have to worry about the details of your power position (of which nuclear superiority would obviously be a major part).

But the distinction between “winning” and “preserving peace” is a false one. Bundy’s implicit denials notwithstanding, an adverse political consequence for the United States over Cuba would have deeply hurt future prospects for peace. If Khrushchev had been perceived as winning the missile crisis, or even as fighting the Americans to a draw, Soviet pressure on Berlin would undoubtedly have continued, and new, perhaps more dangerous, crises would likely have followed. These crises in turn would have raised anew the possibility of war.

Indeed, Bundy’s account inadvertently shows how close the Kennedy team came to bungling the whole affair, even as they held all the cards. History owes something of a debt to John Scali, who did what some more official emissary of the President should have been explicitly instructed to do when the Jupiter concession was delivered: tell the Soviets in no uncertain terms that this was the last offer.

In the end, however, Bundy’s presentation of the crisis is deeply paradoxical. His narrative seems to cut one way, even as his analysis cuts another. His narrative, if anything, emphasizes the roles of chance, timing, and individual courage (particularly on Scali’s part) and fear (on Khrushchev’s part) in the crisis outcome. Yet his analysis attempts everywhere to deny the critical importance of these factors. The strong implication of his narrative is that Khrushchev’s October 27-28 decision depended heavily, perhaps decisively, on Scali’s warning to Fomin—an irrational factor. At the same time, he tries to construct a larger, rational picture in which the significance of this critical episode somehow fades.

One can understand a reluctance to accept the implications that follow from a view of Scali’s role as crucial: it would imply that the Kennedy administration’s success in the crisis was indeed, as a disdainful Dean Acheson later said it was (on the basis of his own first-hand observations of the crisis deliberations), an “homage to plain dumb luck.” Still, in attempting to deny the importance of the particular resolution achieved, and the particular factors that produced it, Bundy is turning his back on something fundamental in politics—on what amounts to the essence of a political decision. This denial turns out to be central to the book and to his view of nuclear weapons as a whole.



Again and again in Danger and Survival Bundy supposes that there was some easier and better alternative than the one actually chosen by decision-makers. The book begins with the faint suggestion that the United States might have altogether avoided building the atomic bomb in the first place. It goes on to suggest that President Truman could have taken what was essentially some scientists’ advice at the time and detonated the Bomb publicly as a warning, instead of dropping it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is followed by discussion of the earliest effort at nuclear disarmament—the 1946 Baruch Plan for total “international control” of atomic energy—in which Bundy implies that a different sort of agreement based on more modern arms-control principles might possibly have been negotiated with Stalin. The habit of contra-factual hypothesizing reaches a kind of absurd climax in the chapter on the H-bomb decision, in which Bundy actually constructs a hypothetical, “different” U.S. President (not Truman) who proposes an H-bomb ban that Stalin hypothetically accepts.

In all this—as in the analysis of Cuba—there is a basic refusal to accept the essentially tragic and irreversible character of the most important political decisions. Bundy argues that all these decisions might have turned out better. But is it not more probable that they could have turned out worse? What if the United States had neglected atomic energy, and a totalitarian power had been first to develop the Bomb? What if the scientists’ proposed demonstration of the Bomb had backfired, lengthening World War II, promoting dissension among the Allies, and costing thousands upon thousands more lives? What if some imprudent arms arrangement had been negotiated with Stalin, at a time when European confidence in American power rested heavily on atomic weapons? What if the Soviets had been first to explode the H-bomb, as they were first to test an intercontinental ballistic missile a half-decade later? One emerges from the first third of this book with a certain sense of gratitude that America’s postwar world position was well established by tough-minded men before thinking like Bundy’s came to influence policy.

Indeed, what is missing in this study of “political choices” is precisely a feel for the character of political choice—for the environment in which the most important decisions of statecraft are made, an environment of uncertainty where timing is often of the essence and chance is always a factor. (Often enough in history all that has stood between a victorious outcome and disaster for an entire nation has been one man’s courage, one man’s willingness to assume risk, one man’s ability to rise to a moment that passes in a blink and is gone.) It is precisely on this margin where the most fateful human decisions are so often made, and it is here that factors like strategic superiority begin to count, where the psychological edge provided by a superior power position, however theoretically unprovable, may be all that stands between total victory and disastrous defeat.

In this sense, “mutual-deterrence” theory is more than an effort to deny the relevance of nuclear superiority; at its heart it is a denial of politics. It assumes that a structure of “mutual balance” can be erected outside of time, exempt from time and variation, from human irrationality and chance, which will preserve peace. It ignores the deeply temporal, fortuitous, and fundamentally human character of political power. To embrace it wholeheartedly is to lose sight of politics; to act upon it consistently is, in all likelihood, to lose the political struggle itself.




1 Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years, Random House, 735 pp. $24.95.

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