By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Nuclear weapons have been attractive because of their comparative cheapness. They’re very destructive, but are relatively economical. For a democracy like the United States, they’re an extremely attractive option as the basis for the nation’s foreign policy, because American politicians are aware that one of the best ways to get reelected is to be in favor of cutting taxes, or to actually cut taxes. Nuclear weapons offer a powerful defense policy on the cheap.
A Strong Soviet Union
Because the Soviet Union was autocratic and didn’t have representative democracy, the Russians weren’t constrained in the same way as Americans. They could devote far more of their gross national product to weapons development, and they could build both a powerful nuclear arsenal and maintain massive conventional forces as well, so that throughout the Cold War, in terms of conventional soldiers, the Eastern bloc—the Soviet powers—usually had far more soldiers deployed than the Americans did.
That’s one of the reasons why the Americans would never disavow potential first use of nuclear weapons, because they could anticipate that if it were a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe with conventional troops, it would only be through the use of battlefield nuclear weapons that the Americans would be able to repel them. That was one of the issues that conditioned Cold War military thinking.
Also, with a small conventional army and a nuclear-based defense policy, far less American people have to serve in the army. That’s another politically popular option: not forcing people to do military service.
Thus, throughout the long standoff between 1946 and 1989, the Americans knew that they probably couldn’t withstand the conventional invasion of West Germany, and would have to resort to first use.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The great downside of nuclear weapons, and especially an entire foreign policy based on them, though, is that they’re too destructive. They’re so catastrophic in their effects that it’s hard to find an incident adequate to deserve retaliation in nuclear form. If one is basing their defense policy on nuclear weapons, it tends to become rigid; it lacks the flexibility of smaller-scale responses.
However, deterrence was the basis of this policy. In other words, each side, because it’s got the nuclear weapons, deters an attack from the other side, because the adversary thinks if we attack, perhaps we’ll suffer nuclear attack as the consequence: nuclear deterrence.
It was central to the Cold War. In the actual 44-year standoff, they were never used. Each side dreaded the consequences of the other side’s retaliation.
Nuclear war-gaming created complex logical sequences, as defense planners thought about how they should think about using them. For example, by the 1960s, when more and more of the defense policy was based on missiles in silos, what should the targets be? Should we target the enemy’s cities, or should we target the enemy’s missile silos?
At first glance, it might seem as though the best thing to do would be to target the missiles because it’s more humane; we’re not threatening massive populations. Then, however, the only reason to attack a silo would be if the missile were still in it. In other words, the implication is that we’re planning a first strike because there’s no point in hitting an empty silo.
What happened then is that the targeting policy was to target the cities as a way of reassuring the adversary that they were only going to attack if it attacked them first. It’s actually a little way of deescalating and therefore contributes to stability.
In the same way, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 argues the superiority of having missile defenses in each country, because they imply that what one might try to do is to launch a first strike against the enemy, and then shoot down their retaliatory strikes. Better to make oneself defenseless as a way of bearing witness to the fact that we’ve got no intention of striking first; weird counter-instinctual ways of thinking about defense policy.
Negotiations over Weapons Policy
Concepts like MAD, ‘mutual assured destruction’, and ‘overkill’ were also some of the euphemisms of this period: the knowledge that each side could completely destroy the entire population of the other. This meant that the Russians and the Americans, despite their profound mistrust, were in some ways negotiating with each other over weapons policy. They faced common problems in deciding how to use them.
In 1963, for example, they both signed the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. Both sides recognized that there’d been so many nuclear tests in the 1950s that the background level of radiation in the atmosphere was increasing, and that rates of diseases like leukemia and skin cancer were also increasing very rapidly, which could be traced to radiation. They commonly agreed that from now on their tests would take place only underground where the radiation effects could be contained using seismic measurements to test the force of the blasts.
Many influential Americans opposed dependence on nuclear weapons altogether, and there were two great antinuclear movements, the first culminating in the early 1960s, and the second culminating in the early 1980s.
In the early 1980s, the American Catholic bishops wrote a pastoral letter against nuclear weapons. It’s called the ‘Challenge of Peace’, and it caused great anxiety to the Reagan administration, because it put a church, to which about a third of the American people belong officially, on record as condemning the basis of America’s defense policy.
The nuclear confrontation underlay every element of American foreign policy. Although the nuclear war possibility wasn’t always in the foreground, it was always there, and it conditioned everything else that happened in the Cold War years.
Common Questions about How Nuclear Weapons Conditioned Everything in Cold War Years
The great downside of nuclear weapons is that they’re too destructive. They’re so catastrophic in their effects that it’s hard to find an incident adequate to deserve retaliation in nuclear form.
In 1963, America and Soviet Union signed the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. Both sides recognized that there’d been so many nuclear tests in the 1950s that the background level of radiation in the atmosphere was increasing. They agreed that their tests would now take place only underground where the radiation effects could be contained.
In the early 1980s, the American Catholic bishops wrote a pastoral letter against nuclear weapons. It’s called the ‘Challenge of Peace’.