Monday, April 05, 2021

The Nuclear Military-Industrial Complex

Guest Blogger

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

Jeremi Suri

If nuclear weapons were the most threatening disease of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest near-death experience. Martin Sherwin’s new book, Gambling with Armageddon, offers an alarming autopsy: “Crisis management was in the mix, but the indispensable ingredient was luck. Very good luck” (5).

            Sherwin elucidates the many pressures pointing toward war in October 1962: the U.S. military’s preparations for an invasion of Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s desire to challenge American dominance in the Western hemisphere, the belligerence of President Kennedy’s closest advisers, poor communications between the two superpowers, and, perhaps most dangerous, the limits on leaders’ control over their own nuclear forces.

Sherwin opens the book with his own experiences during the crisis as a U.S. Navy junior officer in an antisubmarine warfare training unit. Time and again, he returns to the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed submarines in the Caribbean, their brinksmanship with American surface ships, and the moments when theater commanders came close to firing their weapons. The most dangerous moment was perhaps on October 27, 1962 – the second-to-last day of the crisis – when a Soviet submarine commander, responding to American maneuvers, ordered an “urgent dive” and armed a nuclear torpedo for firing (27). Sherwin recounts how a second captain on the Soviet submarine countermanded the order shortly before launch.

The word “gambling” in the book’s title is crucial for the author’s analysis. Others have investigated the challenges of preventing nuclear Armageddon, but Sherwin’s seminal contribution is to explain that controlling the dangers was, in President Kennedy’s word, “impossible” (309). Sherwin’s meticulous and detailed narrative shows how close both sides came to sliding into war. Rejecting arguments about stability through nuclear deterrence, Sherwin concludes with a powerful pronouncement: “nuclear armaments create the perils they are deployed to prevent, but are of little use in resolving them” (469).

So why do we still build and deploy so many of these weapons? Since the end of the Cold War the number of nuclear-armed states has grown, and in the last decade efforts to reduce the largest nuclear arsenals – in the United States and Russia – have stalled. Washington, Moscow, and Beijing have all undertaken new programs to modernize, and in some areas, expand their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. The United States and Russia each currently deploy more than 1500 nuclear warheads on missiles and in aircraft – enough tonnage to make the planet unlivable many times over. (China maintains a small reserve arsenal of approximately 300 warheads; France and Britain each have under 300 warheads; Pakistan and India each have about 150 warheads; Israel and North Korea have less.)

The permanence of a bloated American nuclear arsenal reflects, in part, the emergence of an American military-industrial complex after the Second World War. Although Sherwin does not use the concept explicitly, his early chapters chronicle how U.S. military institutions and political leaders overemphasized nuclear force and under-valued diplomacy in the early “nuclear age.” For Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, nuclear technology promised superiority against the Soviet Union and other adversaries at less financial cost than conventional alternatives. The United States could project now global force, as never before. And it could deploy this global force, through a standing military bureaucracy, while still drawing limited manpower from a growing American economy. Nuclear weapons went hand-in-hand with big government investments in industry and consistent diplomatic efforts to open foreign markets. Since this military-industrial posture used force short of traditional war, it did not require extensive congressional or judicial oversight. In this sense, the national security state re-drew the constitutional balance of power to give the executive unprecedented powers as commander-in-chief of a permanent hyper-armed society.

A quick learner, John F. Kennedy understood this system well. He campaigned for the presidency accusing the Republicans of allowing a fictitious “missile gap” to emerge, although the United States had a much larger arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems than its Soviet rival. During his first months in office, he authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, which sought to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Sherwin shows that even after President Kennedy blamed the military and intelligence agencies for misleading him about the Bay of Pigs, he still remained close to his chosen chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Maxwell Taylor, and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, these two men consistently encouraged forceful responses to the Soviet Union that risked nuclear war.

The hero of Sherwin’s book is an unlikely figure: former presidential candidate and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Sherwin quotes extensively from Stevenson’s memo to President Kennedy at the start of the crisis. Warning against plans to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba, Stevenson advised: “the means adopted have such incalculable consequences that I feel that you should have made it clear that the existence of nuclear missile bases anywhere is negotiable before we start anything” (242). Kennedy never gave Stevenson credit, but he did come to agree that he should avoid nuclear war at all costs, which eventually required a public non-invasion pledge for Cuba and the secret removal of American missiles from Turkey.

The difficulty in getting to this peaceful denouement was political. McNamara admitted in the famous “ExCom” meetings of the president’s closest advisers that the Soviet missiles in Cuba did not change the global balance of power – the United States still maintained a large numerical and technological advantage over the Soviet Union. “It is not a military problem that we’re facing,” the secretary of defense explained to Kennedy. “It’s a political problem. It’s a problem of holding the alliance together. It’s a problem of properly conditioning Khrushchev for our future moves…and the problem of dealing with our domestic public, all requires action that, in my opinion, the shift in military balance does not require” (272).

That was the military-industrial complex speaking through McNamara’s mouth. The United States had to maintain overwhelming superiority, it had to show allies and the domestic public that it would never give-in to the Soviet Union, and it had to emphasize strength and toughness over compromise and negotiation in all circumstances. Almost every one of Kennedy’s advisers was conditioned to accept this logic, even if it meant risking nuclear annihilation. Although the United States maintained a ring of military bases around the Soviet Union, Moscow could never establish a beachhead close to the United States. And the Soviets had to pay a price, they had to accept a humiliating retreat, for their transgression in Cuba. That is how the distinguished civilian and military leaders around the president thought in 1962. This culture of belligerence would have astonished American leaders twenty-five years earlier, before the emergence of a military-industrial complex.

Kennedy was sobered by the responsibility for war that he held as president. He took Stevenson’s advice and pushed back against his advisers’ belligerence, demanding a naval blockade, not an invasion. He then agreed to remove American missiles in Turkey, despite strong objections from most members of the ExCom. Kennedy had to make this concession secretly because he feared the political ramifications, as McNamara anticipated, of appearing weak. For the same reason, Sherwin shows, Kennedy had to lie about what really brought the crisis to a safe conclusion. Instead of emphasizing compromise and restraint in their post mortem, White House officials trumpeted a delusional show of strength that allegedly cowered their Soviet adversaries. That lie only encouraged more American belligerence in Vietnam and so many other places.

Gambling with Armageddon is a powerful condemnation of the reckless risk-taking around nuclear weapons and a warning that this behavior will eventually create irreversible disasters. Sherwin focuses on the difficult choices leaders must make to prevent future nuclear crises through diplomacy, arms control, and disarmament. Those are much more responsible alternatives, he argues, than continued focus on nuclear deterrence in American foreign policy.

This cogent case, however, raises a number of questions that Sherwin does not answer. First, how would other states, particularly contemporary Russia and China, respond to a de-nuclearized set of American foreign policies. Are these regimes likely to be more accommodating or less? Sherwin offers a formidable analysis of American decision-making, but his account of non-American actors, even during the Cuban Missiles Crisis, is not as thorough.

Second, how much choice does a president really have? Sherwin shows that Kennedy seized hold of U.S. decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he was still held hostage by the assumptions and constraints of the American military posture. Kennedy could not control how the U.S. Navy engaged Soviet submarines. He was not informed of the increased military alert (DEFCON 2) until after the fact, and he faced a barrage of pressures to show strength, with his reelection perhaps on the line. Kennedy resisted this time, in part, but the system still seemed to win in the way the story was told. Do presidents have choices in our current military-political system?

Third, and following from above, how can we reform the structure of our government to create different incentives and possibilities for policy-makers? The question of systemic reform is unavoidable if one follows Sherwin’s thread. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not the last nuclear crisis, and the militarization of American politics has only deepened since the end of the Cold War. This is evident in the wars the United States continues to fight in the Middle East, rising belligerence toward China, and even armed insurrectionary activity within the United States. If Stevenson was correct and the politics of negotiation must replace the politics of war, how can we reform our constitutional system for more of the former?

The disease of nuclear weapons in the Cold War has metastasized into a cancer of undemocratic violence in the twenty-first century. The illness is deep in our current institutions and political culture, reinforced by a mythic history that tells us that toughness and belligerence somehow made America “great.” Sherwin’s book is a powerful provocation to reexamine our history for the evidence we need to shrink the national security state, at last, and rebuild the institutions that are most crucial for the future of democracy. Inspired by this book, we might begin by returning to the serious work of reducing nuclear weapons worldwide.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. You can reach him by e-mail at suri at

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