Saturday, April 10, 2021

Nothing Was Inevitable

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Knopf, 2020).

Martin J. Sherwin

Many thanks to Professors Stephen Griffin, Sanford Levinson, Jeremi Suri, and Amanda L. Tyler for their generous comments and keen insights, and a special nod to Professor Jack Balkin for hosting this symposium. 

Gambling with Armageddon is divided into two books, the second of which focuses on the Cuban missile crisis.  Understandably it was the primary subject of the reviews.  But before addressing those reviews, I want to highlight some of the salient points in Book I that established the centrality of nuclear weapons and led directly to the crisis. After all, the overarching argument of Gambling – as the subtitle proclaims -- is that the crisis was the result of how (irresponsibly) nuclear weapons were seen, valued and used, initially by the United States, but also by the Soviet Union, during the seventeen years between 1945 and 1962.

It is worth emphasizing an obvious point to be certain that it is obvious to everyone.  The crisis of October 1962 was a missile crisis.  Initiated by Khrushchev, it was his response to his and Fidel Castro’s conviction that in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 the United States was planning to invade and overthrow Cuba’s Communist government.

Why Khrushchev chose to protect his ally with provocative strategic missiles is the central point of Book I.  There were less provocative ways to safeguard Castro’s government: officially admitting Cuba into the Warsaw Pact, creating a separate defense pact, deploying a large number of Soviet troops to Cuba to serve as a “tripwire,” announcing the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to defend the island, or all of the above.

But Khrushchev chose to secretly deploy strategic missiles to Cuba, a provocative act that his most informed and trusted Presidium adviser, Anastas Mikoyan, warned him against.  The United States would not tolerate such a deployment, he insisted.  “We have to defend Cuba,” he said, “but with this approach we risk provoking an attack on them and losing everything.” [195]

Or gaining everything, in Khrushchev’s view.


That was his missile gamble: a high-stakes bet that if successful would protect Cuba, enhance Khrushchev’s prestige, even the “balance of fear,” demonstrate Soviet resolve, provide him with additional diplomatic leverage, and make it clear to the United States that by stationing its Jupiter missiles close to the Soviet Union (in Turkey), it had invited the Soviet Union to station its missiles in Cuba.

Even before 1962 Khrushchev had become convinced – as a result of the Eisenhower administration’s espousal of nuclear weapons (the New Look, Massive Retaliation and Brinksmanship) – that strategic missile strength had become the sine qua non of great power diplomacy.

It began with Hiroshima.

Each of the reviewers commented on the extraordinary fact that there are no checks on a President’s decision to use nuclear weapons.  That was true in August 1945 and it is true today. JFK remarked on this troublesome fact.  It was “insane,” he said after surviving the crisis, “that  two men, sitting on the opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” 

What made this possible?

My favorite counter-factual addresses the origins of our nuclear dilemma.  It posits that the atomic bombs were not used in August 1945.  Influenced by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who warned President Truman on April 25, 1945 that the Manhattan Project was producing a weapon that “could destroy civilization” and that “our leadership in the war and in the development of this weapon has placed a certain moral responsibility upon us which we cannot shirk without very serious responsibility for any disaster to civilization which it would further,” Truman declined to authorize any atomic bombings.

After the war, the counter factual continues, there was a Congressional investigation at which Stimson testified.  Asked why the atomic bombs were not used against Japan he explained that they were not necessary to end the war and they were weapons that could destroy civilization. No civilized society would consider using them, the venerable 76 year old Secretary of War insisted. The United States had higher standards than the debased moral standards of the Axis Powers.  We would not introduce weapons that could destroy civilization (. . . and so on). 

If nuclear weapons had been thus introduced to the world as unacceptable, immoral, unusable weapons shunned by the United States – rather than as legitimate weapons for war as Hiroshima and Nagasaki affirmed –- do you think the seventeen years between 1945 and 1962 would have been different?  I have often thought that this was a counter factual that every serious citizen should consider.*

*(It is also important to note that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not lead to Japan’s surrender.  The Japanese surrendered because the Soviet Union declared war against Japan on August 8th (as Stalin had promised he would).  The Imperial forces could not fight a two-front war (Soviet invasion from the north; USA invasion from the south.) Moreover, and most important, Japan’s leaders were rabid anti-communists and the prospect of the Soviet Union participating in the occupation of Japan, with the certainty that Stalin would seize Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, suddenly transformed surrender to the United States into Japan’s best option.

So why were the atomic bombs used?  “It was ever present in my mind,” Truman’s influential Secretary of State, James Byrnes recalled in an interview, “that it was important that we should have an end to the war before the Russians came in.”)  [Think of Byrnes as Truman’s ExComm.]


Nuclear weapons are promoted and defended as a deterrent against aggression, but in fact their primary role during the cold war (and even now) was diplomatic coercion, and that is what makes “deterrence” theory a fraud and so dangerous. 

In January 1950, five months after the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb, President Truman ignored the recommendation of the General Advisory Committee [GAC]] to the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] to reject a plan to build hydrogen bombs. “Its use carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations,” the GAC argued. But Truman was not thinking about the military use of hydrogen bombs; he was most concerned with its coercive usefulness. The decision was necessary, he insisted, “if only for bargaining purposes with the Russians.”

Truman’s rationale had momentous consequences. Accumulating weapons for “bargaining purposes” established an escalation logic that had no military limit. Arguments that a particular number of nuclear weapons were a sufficient deterrent held little sway compared with the diplomatic (coercive) bargaining value of more and better weapons.


President Eisenhower transformed the cold war into a confrontation calibrated on the number and quality of nuclear arms.  “We have got to consider the atomic bomb as simply another weapon in our arsenal,” Eisenhower told a National Security Council meeting four months after his inauguration. The key to success, in the former general’s view, was to promote America’s superior nuclear arsenal.

The United States possessed approximately 1,200 nuclear weapons of various types when Ike became president.  Eight years later, when he gave his famous farewell address that warned about the dangers of the military industrial complex, the United States nuclear arsenal included over 22,000 nuclear weapons.  It was an “insane accumulation,” noted the journalist-historian James Carroll, that “cast the [nuclear] arsenal in its iron mountain of permanence.”

Eisenhower’s commitment to nuclear weapons —promotionally dubbed the New Look— was formally promulgated in the top-secret National Security Council document, 162/2, which he signed on October 30, 1953. Designed “to meet the Soviet threat . . . [and] to avoid seriously weakening the U.S. economy,” it decreed an expanded and expansive role for nuclear weapons.  It called for “the effective use of U.S. strategic air power against the USSR” and the establishment of overseas bases as “essential to the conduct of the military operations on the Eurasian continent in case of general war.” It mandated “a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive [nuclear] striking power.”

“Eisenhower personally intervened in the final discussions of 1953 to insure [sic] that [the Strategic Air Command’s [SAC] nuclear bombers] should be recognized not as ‘a major deterrent’ to Soviet aggression, but as ‘the major deterrent,’” McGeorge Bundy wrote in his history of the first fifty years of the nuclear arms race.

At the core of NSC 162/2 was the revolutionary strategic posture—a significant extension of NSC 68—that the United States will consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions.”


The Cuban Missile Crisis

From his first briefing on nuclear weapons in September 1953, Khrushchev understood their savagery in general, and the special terror of the hydrogen bomb. “When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn’t sleep for several days,” he recalled. “Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again.”

And, perhaps, to dream about how those horrific weapons could support his most ambitious policies.

By 1962 Khrushchev was obsessed with nuclear weapons. They were a transformative force that defined national power. They were fearsome instruments of war (which he was determined to avoid: “Any fool can start a war,” he often repeated), but as such they were splendid for reinforcing diplomacy. John Foster Dulles had made that clear from the beginning of the Eisenhower administration. What else were the doctrines of massive retaliation and his brinkmanship threats but intimidating ultimatums in the service of U.S. diplomatic objectives?

If Eisenhower and Dulles could use the threat of nuclear war to coerce the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union could use those same weapons to threaten the United States. Eisenhower’s New Look became the blueprint for Khrushchev’s nuclear diplomacy.

“My thinking went like this,” Khrushchev explained. “If we installed the missiles secretly, and then the United States discovered the missiles after they were poised and ready to strike, the Americans would think twice before trying to liquidate our installations by military means. . . . The main thing was that the installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government.”


It didn’t work out as planned.  Worse, it almost led to what Khrushchev was determined to avoid: a war. If the ExComm had had its way, there would have been a war.  If the Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS] had had its way, there would have been a war.  If a Soviet submarine captain had had his way, there would have been a war.  And, perhaps, most troubling, if the U.S. Congressional leadership had had its way, there would have been a war.

All the reviewers are understandably troubled by the fact (as I am) that congress has no role in deciding whether a president can initiate a nuclear war.  The assumption we all share is that there would be less chance of a bad choice if the legislative branch had a role in such a decision. 

But the history of the Cuban missile crisis does not support that view and, of all the disturbing discoveries I made researching Gambling, President Kennedy’s meeting with the Congressional leadership on October 22nd, shortly before he gave his televised speech announcing the blockade, is the most disturbing of all.  [chapter 34]

The blockade was inadequate, Senator Richard Russell, lectured the president. The Soviets had been warned, very clearly, against stationing offensive weapons in Cuba, but had ignored the warnings. “We’re either a first-class power or we’re not. . .” The United States was fully justified, Russell insisted, in carrying out its announced foreign policy, and “we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation.”

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee continued: “We’ve got to take a chance somewhere, sometime, if we’re going to retain our position as a great world power,” a remark he buttressed several minutes later with the declaration that “a war” was “coming someday. . . . Will it ever be under more auspicious circumstances?”

Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was equally critical of the president’s blockade initiative, albeit for different reasons.

Russell’s cavalier approach to war shocked the president and he left the room as angry as Ted Sorensen had ever seen him. “If they want this job, they can have it—it’s no great joy to me,” he fumed— probably the most exaggerated inaccuracy he ever uttered.

My takeaway from this disturbing episode is that structural rearrangements, such as Congressional participation in decisions for or against war in a crisis, do not guarantee the right result.  As Jeremi Suri wrote, even though Kennedy commandeered decision making during the crisis “he was still held hostage by the assumptions and constraints of the American military posture.” 

Assumptions dominate.  If you are convinced like Senator Russell that war is inevitable then you will accept war.  And, since we are discussing nuclear war, with its potential for “destroying civilization,” our only rational recourse is to work for “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” as George Shulz, William Perry, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger argued in their famous Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, on January 4, 2007.

Anything less leaves our species dependent on good luck or dumb luck.  Either way, as President Kennedy averred, it’s “insane.”


Martin J. Sherwin is University Professor of History, George Mason University. You can reach him by e-mail at martysherwin at 













Older Posts
Newer Posts