By Michael Hirsch
Due Friday, March 12th
EDGE – Winter Quarter 2004
The introduction of the nuclear bomb into the international arena would forever change the face of world diplomacy. Never before had anyone imagined the possibility of such widespread destruction through such an easy means of weaponry. The concept of a nuclear warhead, capable of being launched from anywhere in the world and reaching its designated target within hours, wiping out miles and miles of land and killing anything within its blasting radius was simply terrifying. Its creation almost entirely transformed the paradigm of social thought. The frightening reality that mortality could occur at any given time or place resonated deep within the minds of the American public, affecting them in their deepest thoughts where it hurt the most.1
The harrowing advancement of nuclear energy throughout the second half of the 19th century that inevitably led to the advent of the nuclear warhead helped create feelings of distrust and uncertainty between nations as each country proved inexperienced at dealing with this sudden universal health risk. The United States had recently set the global precedent for employing weapons of mass destruction by concluding the second World War with the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.2 Any action by the developing Soviet Union seemed possible and plausible. No internationally recognized rules or principles for this new form of hazard existed, leaving each country unfairly burdened with the task of both seeking protection from this devastating weapon while simultaneously attempting to acquire its capabilities in order to increase its global power.
Until the end of the Cold War, the United States became the central figure in the international power struggle that ensued over nuclear supremacy. This power struggle consisted of shifting networks of allied and rogue nations whose true intentions regarding the weapon were never truly known. As the most economically capable nation during this time due to its precipitous rise to financial supremacy in the Western Hemisphere after the war, the United States was in the precarious position of upholding democracy and all the freedoms that it had come to entail through monetary relief. The ominous presence of the communist Soviet Union after the inception of this devastating new type of weapon, however, presented a great concern to the United States and the democratic European nations it had come to represent. If the Soviet Union were to possess one of these damaging weapons, it could potentially confront the rest of the world and challenge them to conform within their given parameters or suffer the brutal consequences that the nuclear bomb could evoke.
The grave prospect of nuclear warfare ensuing due to an ideological difference of this magnitude ultimately caused the United States to lead a group of nations from Western Europe and the Atlantic rim to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), attempting to prevent this form of attack from ever happening while protecting their central interest of democracy. The USSR and other communist nations united under the similar Warsaw pact.
The ubiquitous presence of nuclear warheads and their development in communist countries throughout the second half of the 20th century frightened the United States and its NATO constituents, causing the members of NATO to strategically defend against the Soviet Union and its members of the Warsaw Pact while constantly reverting back to the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Averting any form of nuclear warfare was always the primary objective of NATO throughout this time period and these countries all agreed not to act or feign action with any of these warheads unless it were absolutely necessary. Although each of the main powering states of NATO embodied particular differences in their foreign policies and perception of the threat of the USSR, the overall strategy of deterrence from using these warheads ultimately proved successful in preventing any form of nuclear war from ever occurring.
NATO During the Eisenhower Years
NATO was officially signed into existence in 1949 as a result of the growing implications of the post-World War II development of weapons of mass destruction. The Treaty established by the NATO signing offered a strong alliance between the United States and Western European countries, particularly through any conditions of war.3 However, the United States did not find itself in the same exact military position that its Western European counterparts were experiencing following the signing and therefore did not always share the same opinion on how to militarily approach the encroaching Soviet Union. While the primary threat that NATO was always concerned with was possible USSR attack, the closer proximity to East Germany and Russia made the Western European states more susceptible to the a conventional ground and air war. These European countries, during the first decade of the NATO treaty, were more concerned with a formal invasion of their borders by any number of third world communist states to their east.4
Alarming statistics of the decade reveal that during the 1950’s, the USSR possessed a far more powerful army that included as many as three times the number of army divisions as the aggregate number of army divisions of all of these Western European nations.5 Therefore, the reality of the current situation demonstrated that the European constituents of NATO were more likely, during that time period, to encounter an actual army division of the USSR from across the border of the Iron Curtain and Germany then it was for the USSR to engage in a nuclear attack. The United States also remained the only NATO country with any nuclear capabilities during that time, making them even less susceptible to an attack by the Soviets as the Soviet’s would fear a strong form of retaliation.6 This fundamental difference between the perception and presence that the USSR had on both the United States and Europe during this time divided the organization’s views on the importance of defending itself against the USSR in both conventional and nuclear forms of war. These countries involved in NATO were not attempting to confront the Soviet Union with the United States already present nuclear capabilities, but were instead focusing on methods of containing the USSR’s spread of communism.7
President Eisenhower and his administration had realized during his presidency that the United States would be the most responsible member of NATO to defend against an attack from the USSR. This was glaring because of the United State’s nuclear capabilities that were only rivaled by the USSR if they so chose to employ them. While the United States did not want the USSR possessing nuclear warheads, the United States had yet to take an active approach in taking the necessary precautions of defending themselves against a possible nuclear attack.8 However, by Eisenhower’s second term as president, the USSR had developed a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States, finally causing America to take a more active approach in setting up their defense systems for the other NATO countries in Western Europe.9 The presence of the satellite Sputnik over American soil and the USSR’s subtle refernces to their own missile aresnal notified the United States of this serious danger.10
In response to the Soviet Union’s apparent nuclear capabilities, Eisenhower harkened back to his traditional values and simply favored a stronger conventional miliary force in Europe. Eisenhower did not want to rely on a nuclear retaliation for any attack on European grounds in fear that it would cause a devastating eruption of global brutality.11 Instead, Eisenhower whole-heartedly supported a dramatic increase in troops in the region in order to be prepared for any potential conventional attack on Western European countries. Eisenhower did not want to respond in any form of nuclear capacity, not even by building any new military nuclear basis on the European continent in an admirable attempt to try and diffuse the nuclear situation. As a result, Eisenhower offered more troops to boost the number of divisions present under NATO command. However, when faced with the offer, Europe recognized this notion as a sign of waning commitment to a nuclear promise to defend Western Europe to America’s greatest capacity.12 By not establishing more of a nuclear presence in the Soviet Union’s backyard of Western Europe, the other members of NATO felt that the United States was simply abandoning their responsibilities to the organization.
The belief by most members of Eisenhower’s cabinet and State Department was that an added military and army emphasis in these European nations could act as a better deterrent to USSR confrontation because it physically appeared more credible.13 They also thought that the USSR would not believe the threat of a nuclear retaliation if the USSR launched a small-scale war. It would be highly unlikely and irrational for the United States and NATO to respond with nuclear weapons to such a small war.14 This theory, however, was based only on ideal conditions, not taking into account that NATO did not have the funding to develop an army powerful enough to counter the USSR forces. As the Eisenhower administration came to an end, so did the optimism towards the strength of a conventional defense in Europe.
Kennedy’s Added Nuclear Emphasis
With Kennedy as America’s next president, the nuclear stance of the United States shifted towards a greater reliance on a nuclear defense against a conventional attack. Europe and the United States both felt that the USSR was far too powerful to defend with conventional troops. It is true that the funding necessary to create an army to rival that of the USSR greatly exceeded the budgets of the nations of NATO, however, the problem of a conventional war was simply that the USSR outnumbered NATO by as much as three soldiers to one. During his presidency, Kennedy believed that a nuclear defense was the cheapest and the most effective deterrent to any conventional war started by the USSR. Information also leaked out that that were only seven NATO missile sites opposed to 100 Warsaw sites in East and Central Europe. Robert R. Bowie of the Committee on Foreign Relations under Kennedy stated that “It may well be that policiies may have to be adapted to new facts and circmustances; that the nuclear responsibility of NATO will have to be broadened.“15
Not surprisingly, by the end of both administrations, the strategy of flexible response became popular in the United States as a compromise. This strategy offered a need for both a conventional army and nuclear weapons, proposing that small conflict deserves small armies, and nuclear weapons should be reserved for only the most desperate situations. According to this strategy, NATO needed to be prepared for any scale situation so that it could respond in kind. The problem with this theory on an international level is that the point at which Europe is in a desperate situation is decided by the United States. The United States would be more willing to face a war across the Atlantic, and would therefore be more likely to hesitate to use nuclear weapons. Europe, on the other side, greatly feared hosting another conventional war on their soil, as it was still recovering, physically and economically from the past two World Wars. The strategy was internationally flawed because it was America who had the nuclear capabilities, and ultimately it was America that could decide when to use them. The European response was one of nervousness and anxiety to what could be once again construed as a withdrawing commitment to NATO on the United States’ behalf. Their primary American objective was to spare North America the ravages of nuclear war, and they would do this by attempting to hold back a Soviet invasion by conventional means, thus inflicting on Europe the ravages of conventional war.16
Europe’s greatest defense against the USSR laid in the hands of the United States. As such, Europeans questioned whether or not they could trust the United States to enter into a nuclear war with the USSR if Europe was attacked. Not everyone believed that the United States would risk being fired upon because Europe was facing a battle across the Atlantic. Because of this uncertainty, other nations in NATO began to desire their own nuclear weapons. With horizontal proliferation comes new issues, new threats, and a new political playing field. Nuclear proliferation to new nations, especially England and France, raised interesting new questions and situations, and of course much controversy within NATO.
Horizontal Nuclear Proliferation
Even within the nations of Europe, the question of nuclear proliferation opened the floor to an endless debate of policies. One reason for its controversy was that it requires a large amount of funding to develop a nuclear program, and this funding would most likely detract from the funding used to increase conventional Allied forces. Here, the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy most likely was manifested with regards to budgets and defenses. Because the conventional defenses of Europe were outnumbered by an estimated three to one, the Europeans very much supported having a nuclear retaliation to a conventional attack. For this to occur, NATO only needed an army powerful enough to hold USSR to the border for three days. This left the conventional army with very little funding and manpower. By focusing on nuclear capabilities and not the conventional army, NATO failed to realize that had more money been used towards the armies instead of nuclear development, an army could have been created that was strong enough to deter USSR forces on its own.17 NATO did not also recognize the potential of a conventional army as their army was weak in comparison.
Although funding was indeed an issue, many people feared the concept of horizontal nuclear proliferation altogether.18 It was widely accepted that the more nations that had nuclear warheads, the more likely it was that one would be used. During the Cold War, the nuclear weapons were in the hands of very few important leaders, but with each new nation that acquired capabilities, the danger and likelihood increased of one weapon being deployed. With the extensive Alliances that created NATO and the Warsaw Pact, if one nation was fired upon, another nation would retaliate, and this would continue causing a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust with global devastation. The threat of small, less powerful nations using nuclear weapons in local conflicts could also emerge if nations continued to proliferate. If nuclear weapons became commonplace, this threat would be entirely more likely because retaliation would be less likely and would probably not result in a chain of nuclear exchanges. Although an event like this may not cause a global nuclear war, the damage would still be massive and only grow worse as nuclear capabilities increase.
Kennedy and Johnson’s presidential cabinets discussed the need for proliferation and was thought that a budding nuclear program in Europe would be very dangerous and taken as a direct threat to the USSR.19 At this time, the United States had the only strong nuclear program in NATO and was separated from the USSR by the Pacific Ocean. Both of these factors acted as a strong deterrent to a nuclear attack from the USSR, but neither distance nor power applied to the nuclear situation in Europe. Due to the small distance from the Iron Curtain, and the vulnerability to a nuclear attack, Europe developing weapons could provoke an attack from the USSR. If the USSR recognized a developing, yet still weak nuclear program in Europe, it would be entirely possible that the USSR would launch a pre-emptive first strike, knowing that Europe would not have the capabilities to sustain the damage of a nuclear explosion and still retaliate. A situation based on the importance of the first strike would lead to a war based on rapid decisions which are themselves based on speculations about the enemy’s capabilities and tactics. This in turn could lead to a mistaken nuclear war, a result of hypothesizing incorrectly about the enemy to prepare for the worst.
These two presidential cabinets also analyzed their dependence on the United States and their nuclear capabilities.20 Europe throughout the Cold War questioned the credibility of the United States to retaliate if Europe had been invaded. However, it was ultimately the position of the cabinet that they [the United States] depended on Europe as much as Europe depended on the United States. Be it in economics, politics, sciences, or almost any other field, Europe and America had common interests to the extent that the United States would be willing and probable to attack the USSR if Europe was first attacked. If NATO’s conventional army was strengthened, the United States would be more likely to use nuclear weapons to protect Europe.
During the Cold War, there existed even further arguments against proliferation in Europe. A developing nuclear nation would have few weapons available to deploy. Because the nation would have so few weapons, the nation would need to harness the weapons to cause as much damage and inflict as much pain as possible. In order to do this, a weak nuclear nation could not afford to attack military sites, but would have to attack the civilian targets of large cities. The United States, on the other hand, would be able to deploy its first wave of nuclear attacks towards the military bases of the USSR, rendering them incapable of retaliating. The United States would then be able to hold the large population centers of the USSR hostage, and exploit them as a tool for deterrence. In this manner, having great nuclear capabilities can lead to a far less violent and devastating use of nuclear weapons. When describing the negative effects of a developing nuclear program in nations of Europe, Robert S. McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961-1968, explained, “In short, then, limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent.“21
Nuclear strategists in Europe offered even more rationale for Western Europe to remain free of nuclear weapons. Some people saw Europe remaining nuclear free as a sign of loyalty to the United States and NATO. At the time NATO, headed by America, strongly favored a centralized nuclear force, and not developing nuclear weapons would comply with this political system. Furthermore, by showing such a trust in the credibility of the United States’ promise for nuclear retaliation, should it be necessary, it would likely increase the United States’ desire to help Europe. By relying solely on the United States for nuclear deterrence and retaliation, it left Europe and NATO with no options but to call upon the United States for nuclear assistance, as it did repeatedly during the period of the 1960’s and 70’s through the conclusion of the Cold War, making the United States even more likely to offer its support. Conversely, if a nation such as the United Kingdom developed nuclear capabilities, its contribution to NATO would be small and almost inconsequential to the combined forces of NATO. Developing these weapons would not only be expensive, but the act of developing one’s own weapons would be seen as a withdrawing commitment to NATO. If a nation in NATO had its own nuclear capabilities, it would not need to rely solely on the will of NATO, and could therefore act in the interest of the nation over the interests of the alliance.
The proliferation attempts in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and France eventually yielded nuclear weapons for each of those states as they inevitably received the materials and data to construct nuclear bombs while breaking numerous NATO codes of conduct.22 Both nations clearly wanted nuclear capabilities for their own defense, but because of politics and nuclear strategies, it was highly controversial. Britain and France having nuclear weapons changed the role of NATO and changed the role of all of the nations that comprised NATO. Although the main reason for either nation to have nuclear weapons was to increase their own strength, both nations could not use this explanation because it would show its distrust in the credibility of NATO. These nations found themselves searching for ways to justify their actions to the other nations of the alliance and to the people of their own nation. The justifications for acquiring nuclear weapons are fewer and weaker in their arguments than the reasons for nonproliferation, which demonstrates the great need for the political and military power inherent when a nation has nuclear capabilities.
In the 1950’s, Britain explained their interest in acquiring nuclear weapons with the statistics of the United States nuclear program. Britain reasoned that the United States did not have enough nuclear weapons to deploy to all the potential targets in the USSR. Because of this, where the weapons were fired was largely determined by America’s own discretion. It was likely that America would act in the interest of itself, which may not have necessarily coincided with the interests of the European nations that comprised NATO. For Europe, relying on the United States to decide where to deploy bombs could be a potentially very dangerous situation. However, by the 1960’s the nuclear capabilities of the United States exceeded the amount of weapons needed to strike all of the potential targets within the USSR, leaving Britain to search for new justifications for national proliferation.
Britain found a justification within the psychology of the enemy. Britain inferred that the USSR would not see the United States’ nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a small- scale invasion of Europe. Britain proposed that the USSR would doubt the credibility of America’s commitment to NATO, and therefore would be willing to risk an attack. In reality, this statement could very well have been a gentler way of telling the United States that it was Britain who did not trust the commitment of America to NATO.
Politically, Britain had ulterior motives for wanting nuclear weapons. Once the United States and the USSR developed their weapons, the United Kingdom was no longer in the upper echelon of the world powers. Having nuclear capabilities raises the status of a nation across a significant divide. The nations with nuclear weapons automatically enter into an elite group who will do anything to preserve peace between them so as to avoid a nuclear war in which both sides are devastated. A nuclear country will avoid war with another nuclear country at almost all costs. Also, nations that do not have nuclear capabilities will need to depend on a nuclear country for deterrence, giving nuclear nations great international political power and influence.
The End of the Cold War
As it played out in history, the tenets of communism as it was constituted in this particular setting did not invariably withstand the test of time. At the time of 1987, President Reagan ordered the production of more than 13,000 warheads in 1987 alone, which had been the most produced ever in one year for the United States. 23 Nuclear tension was still very high as it maintained through the 1980’s and Reagan’s reign as president, but the establishment of NATO’s principles of combating the nuclear threat from the East endured in its similar matter until the Cold War was ultimately resolved. After the fall of the Berlin wall and the effective end of the Cold War, President Clinton ordered the massive reduction of nuclear warhead by 300% of production, causing National Security Council for former president Clinton Robert Bell exclaimed, “Nuclear weapons play a smaller role than at any time in the 20th century.”24
In 1995, 181 countries from the United Nations signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that states the understanding that non-nuclear weapons states would not develop or receive nuclear weapons and that the nuclear weapons states agree not to proved them to these non-nuclear weapons states.25 This treaty is strong global attempt to limit the role of nuclear weapons as instruments of international policy by dwindling their numbers and establishing an open dialogue between states about their nuclear capabilities.
Lessons Taken From U.S.-Western Europe Response to Nuclear Weapons
The Cold War was a war that was based largely on strategy and deterrence rather than action. This demonstrates an accepted theory that with the arrival of nuclear weapons, military strategy has changed. It is now the goal of an army to avoid war instead of fighting one. Because of unequal strength and different global locations, Europe and the United States found themselves consistently debating which was the best way to deter the USSR from beginning any size war. The United States faced only the possibility of a nuclear war, while Europe faced a potential nuclear war or the even more likely threat of a conventional war. Due to the differences in opinion that divided NATO, the European nations grew wary of the United States’ promise to defend Europe against any type of invasion at all costs. The European nations eventually decided to proliferate, once again changing world politics forever. Despite all of the dangers and reasons against developing nuclear weapons, nations in Europe proceeded to obtain their own. The will of European nations to acquire nuclear capabilities clearly demonstrated the power of the weapon in all domains, be it political, economical, and of course destructive.
The Cold War is over but little has changed in respect to US nuclear weapons policy. Yet the nature of the threats to US security from nuclear weapons has shifted dramatically since the end of World War II. The United States and its NATO constituents admirably established an effective policy that witnessed them refuse to engage in any type of nuclear warfare. If the NATO members had not as been as adamant about this belief, the world could potentially be a much worse place than it is today.
My Solution to Nuclear Weapons
I believe that it would serve in both the United States’ and world’s best interest if the U.S. and Russia reduced the number of nuclear weapons they each possessed to roughly 100 so that they would equal the number of warheads the “nuclear” countries of Great Britain, France and China currently possess. With this number of nuclear weapons still available to each one of these countries, the current strategy of deterrence could remain implemented while each of these countries would possess the necessary number to launch a barrage of them if the extreme situation ever did present itself. Of course the strict enforcement of refraining from its usage would be carried out to the utmost extent and I would further recommend that NATO adopt a “no-first-use” policy that it is currently lacking. I feel that if all of these policies were fully implemented and enforced throughout the globe, the world would be a safer environment, free from danger and distrust. While nuclear weapons will never just vanish from our society, they can be safely monitored so that they would not negatively affect our lives.
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