The Bush Strategy in Historical Perspective Marc Trachtenberg

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The Bush Strategy in Historical Perspective

Marc Trachtenberg

Department of Political Science

University of California at Los Angeles
September 25, 2003 (7)
To be published in a volume on the Nuclear Posture

Review to be edited by James Wirtz (Palgrave Press)

In September 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government published an important document: The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. That document laid out what was called a strategy of “preemption.” The enemies of America, countries like Iraq and North Korea, were intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons, it was argued, could be used “offensively to achieve the aggressive designs of these regimes.” In such circumstances, a purely “reactive” policy—a strategy of “deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation”—was no longer good enough. America would instead exercise its “right of self-defense by acting preemptively”—that is, by dealing with “such emerging threats before they were fully formed.” And in dealing with those threats, the U.S. government would “not hesitate to act alone.” “In the new world we have entered,” the National Security Strategy document declared, "the only path to peace and security is the path of action.”1

The George W. Bush administration, the administration that had issued that document, was sharply criticized both at home and abroad for embracing a strategy of this sort. But this was not the first time the Bush administration was attacked for opting for a “preemptive” strategy. A half-year earlier, the leak to the press of the Pentagon’s “Nuclear Posture Review” [NPR] had touched off what one observer called a “mini-firestorm.”2 The administration was in fact charged at that time with moving toward a policy of nuclear preemption. “U.S. Nuclear Arms Stance Modified by Policy Study: Preemptive Strike Becomes an Option”: this was the headline of the Washington Post’s main article on the NPR.3 And according to a New York Times editorial entitled “America as Nuclear Rogue,” the NPR showed that that the government was “contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers.”4 The administration, it was argued, had broken with tradition: in the past, “non-nuclear states were exempt from U.S. nuclear attack,” but now it seemed that that policy had been abandoned.5 In the past, U.S. nuclear forces had been maintained “for the single purpose of deterring a nuclear attack.” But the NPR, the critics said, signaled “an unfortunate reversal” of that “longstanding policy, ending the taboo against nuclear weapons by including them in the full range of weapons to be used against countries with which the U.S. has major disagreements.”6

Administration officials denied that the NPR was to be interpreted in those terms. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, happened to be testifying before a Senate Committee the day the Times editorial appeared, and he was asked about the press stories on the NPR. “With respect to reports that we are thinking of preemptively going after somebody,” he said, “or that, in one editorial I read this morning, we have lowered the nuclear threshold, we have done no such thing. There is no way to read that document and come to the conclusion that the United States will be more likely or will more quickly go to the use of nuclear weapons.”7 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in testimony before a Senate committee a couple of months later, said much the same thing: the press reports were inaccurate; the “recently-concluded nuclear posture review does not change the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons one bit.”8 And indeed, judging from the excerpts from the NPR that were posted on the internet—presumably the most revealing parts of the document—it does not seem that the authors of that document were calling for a strategy of “nuclear preemption.” In fact—again, judging from those excerpts—the main problem with the NPR was perhaps that it failed to give a very clear sense for when or how nuclear weapons were actually to be used.

The Bush strategy was thus not quite as extreme as it was made out to be. Yes, the United States felt free to deal with developing threats before they got totally out of hand. And yes, the U.S. government felt free to use force before an attack had actually been mounted or was even considered imminent. But one has the sense that in acting “preemptively,” basically only non-nuclear force was to be used. To be sure, in certain cases the Americans might use nuclear weapons first. The United States might in fact use them against a non-nuclear state. If America were attacked with biological or chemical weapons, a retaliatory nuclear strike was not ruled out (and indeed nuclear retaliation in such circumstances had not been ruled out by previous administrations).9 And in the event of war certain specially-designed types of nuclear weapons might be used to destroy facilities where an enemy’s most dangerous weapons were stored before they could be used.10 But one has the sense that to the extent that dangerous regimes were to be prevented through military action from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, those military operations would not normally involve the use of nuclear weapons of any sort.

But even a policy of “preemption” that relied on conventional forces was considered quite extreme, especially after it became clear during the run-up to the war with Iraq in 2002-2003 that the Bush administration was serious about pursuing a policy of this sort. That war was widely seen as a “preemptive” operation—that is, as designed to prevent an intolerable situation from emerging, and indeed the administration explicitly justified its Iraq policy in those terms. It stressed the importance of resolving the Iraq problem before that country’s weapons programs had developed to the point where the threat had become much greater. In one key policy speech, Vice President Cheney quoted Henry Kissinger as saying that the various elements in the Iraq problem had combined to “produce an imperative for preemptive action.” Cheney himself fully agreed and said: “If the United States could have preempted 9/11, we would have, no question. Should we be able to prevent another, much more devastating attack, we will, no question. This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes.”11

That policy was characterized not just by its many critics but also by its defenders as radically different from anything the country had known in the past. Kissinger, for example, thought that a “revolutionary” change in strategy had taken place.12 The whole idea of the international system as a system of sovereign states—the whole idea that force cannot be used simply because one believes that the development of military power by another state is potentially threatening—he argued was going to have to be rethought. In the new environment, a simple strategy of deterrence might no longer provide an adequate basis for American security.13 The Bush administration basically felt the same way. Given the nature of the states and terrorist groups the United States now had to deal with, “traditional concepts of deterrence” were in its view no longer valid, and a far more active policy was called for.14

But how new was the Bush strategy? Was it the case that U.S. policy in the past had been essentially defensive and reactive in nature, and was this the first time that the idea of “preemption” was taken seriously in high policy-making circles? To what extent was the Bush administration really breaking with traditional American policy, or indeed more generally with the way international politics had traditionally been conducted?

This issue needs to be broken down into two parts. First, there is the question of preemption in the traditional sense of the term: striking first when it becomes clear that an enemy attack is imminent, or, somewhat more loosely, when it is believed that war is unavoidable. The key issue here is whether the U.S. government during the Cold War period had opted for a strategy of deterrence pure and simple—that is, for what was called a “second strike strategy,” a strategy based on the idea that the threat of retaliation could deter an enemy from launching a nuclear attack. Was it true that the U.S. government during that period had ruled out the very idea of using nuclear weapons first? Was it true, as three prestigious critics of the NPR argued, that throughout the Cold War the United States “maintained an enormous nuclear force for the single purpose of deterring a nuclear attack” and that all American presidents until now had rejected the nuclear option “as too dangerous to the planet and to humanity”?15

The second question has to do with “preemption” not in the traditional sense of the term, but in the sense in which it is currently used—that is, with what used to be called a “preventive war” strategy. Was the whole idea of dealing with developing threats relatively early on—of launching an attack well before a threat became unmanageable—more or less inconceivable until now? Was the United States in particular the sort of country that traditionally would never dream of conducting a preventive war?

On the first question, the basic facts are quite well known and the story can be reviewed quickly. During the most dangerous phase of the Cold War, the period from 1946 to 1963, the U.S. government did not view nuclear weapons as too dangerous to be used under any circumstances, nor did it feel that the nuclear forces would only be used if America or one of her allies had first sustained a nuclear attack. The United States had a nuclear monopoly until 1949; if western Europe had been attacked in the late 1940s, America would have gone to war with the Soviet Union, and in that war nuclear weapons would certainly have been used. Those weapons were of course not used during the Korean war. But this was not because use was inconceivable as a matter of principle; it was because the U.S. government thought the West was too weak and vulnerable during the early part of that conflict to risk taking measures that might have led to a third world war. During the latter part of the conflict, nuclear options were taken quite seriously, and the Americans might well have used nuclear weapons if no armistice agreement had been reached in 1953—which, in fact, was probably an important reason why an agreement was reached at that time.

The U.S. government had a much freer hand in this area by late 1952, because by that point America had rearmed and the United States was in a very strong position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in strategic terms. In that new and vastly different strategic environment, a nuclear escalation was by no means out of the question. It is quite clear that under Eisenhower it was taken for granted that nuclear weapons would be used in a major war with the USSR; they might even have been used in a minor war outside Europe with a large Communist power. In a war with the Soviet Union, the U.S. government intended (if it could) to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and it intended to use them quickly and massively. America, Eisenhower himself said, “must not allow the enemy to strike the first blow.”16 As David Rosenberg, the most serious student of the history of American nuclear weapons policy, pointed out long ago, “massive retaliation,” the famous Eisenhower policy, really meant “massive preemption.”17 From Eisenhower’s point of view, a full nuclear attack would be ordered as soon as it became clear that war was unavoidable—and that meant, hopefully, before the enemy had launched his attack. In 1959, he thought that if the conflict over Berlin came to a head—that is, if the “acute crisis period” were reached—the United States would have to “engage in general war to protect our rights.” His “basic philosophy,” he said, was that America had to be prepared to push her “whole stack of chips into the pot” when that became necessary.”18

Kennedy also was willing to use nuclear weapons rather than accept a massive American defeat in Europe. “I suppose if we get involved in a war in Europe,” he said in 1962, “we will have no choice but to use nuclear weapons.”19 If war broke out and the Soviets “threatened to overrun Europe,” he said the previous year, America would have to “strike first with nuclear weapons.”20 And during the Cuban missile crisis, of course, the United States felt it might have to be the first to use military force. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (in executive session) shortly after the crisis, “it certainly was our clear thinking at the time if we saw these missiles in a readiness position we would have to strike them. . . . Raised and ready they would have to be hit.”21 So under Eisenhower and Kennedy at least, the U.S. government felt it might have to go first in a crisis: a strategy of “preemption,” as that term was understood at the time, had by no means been ruled out.

But what about the second question? Was the U.S. government ever willing to consider a strategy of “preemption” as that term is used in the Bush policy documents—that is, a strategy of attacking a hostile power, or of destroying its key military programs, before that power could pose a serious threat to the United States? Eisenhower and Kennedy might have been willing to go first in a crisis, or to use nuclear weapons first once fighting had broken out. But was the United States ever willing to take the initiative and begin military operations, even if an enemy was not getting ready to attack—even if, in other words, the threat was not imminent?

The answer is that American governments were much more attracted to strategies of that sort than is generally realized. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy seriously considered operations of this kind, the first to prevent the Soviet Union from developing a substantial nuclear capability, and the second to prevent China from doing so. The whole idea of taking military action to prevent the Soviets from building a nuclear force was widely discussed in American policy-making circles during the early Eisenhower period. U.S. officials had in fact been concerned with this issue from 1945 on.22 In the late Truman period, key American policymakers, people like Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his close associate Paul Nitze, wanted to pursue a very aggressive policy toward the USSR. One famous policy document from that period, NSC 68 of April 1950, called explicitly for a rollback policy—a “policy of calculated and gradual coercion” designed to “check and to roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.”23 That policy could not be implemented in 1950 because America was still too weak to adopt anything like that kind of policy. But by late 1952, the situation had changed dramatically. By that point, the massive buildup of American military power that the attack on South Korea had triggered had made it possible for the United States to take a much tougher line. Indeed, the goal of the buildup was to lay the basis for a policy of bringing matters to a head with the Soviet Union before it was too late— as Nitze put it, “to lay the basis for taking increased risks of general war in achieving a satisfactory solution of our relations with the USSR while her stockpile of atomic weapons was still small.”24

Under Eisenhower, top officials continued to worry about what would happen once the Soviet Union had developed a strong nuclear force and to wonder whether some action should be taken to deal with the problem before it was too late. That issue, for example, lay at the heart of the Solarium exercise in 1953, and came up in various key policy documents and in a number of NSC meetings in the early Eisenhower period.25 Eisenhower himself wondered at one point “whether or not our duty to future generations did not require us to initiate war at the most propitious moment that we could designate.”26

America eventually learned to live with a Soviet nuclear force. But a decade later U.S. leaders had to face the same kind of issue with China. Kennedy, it turns out, thought that the development of a Chinese nuclear capability would pose very serious problems for the United States. In his view, a nuclear China “would be intolerable.”27 The military authorities were asked to deal with the issue and they analyzed America’s options in some detail. The U.S. government also broached the issue of joint action with the USSR on a number of occasions, but the Soviet government rebuffed those American overtures.28

All of this was clearly more than mere talk.29 In neither case—the case of the Soviet Union in 1953-54 or in the case of China in 1963-64—was anything actually done. No “preemptive attack,” to use the current terminology, was actually launched. But that does not mean that what went on within the U.S. government on both occasions is unimportant. Responsible leaders were far more open to this kind of thinking—to “preventive war” thinking, as it is usually characterized in the scholarly literature—than one might have imagined. It was not as though a policy aimed at destroying the heart of an adversary’s military power before it was too late—a policy of “strangling the baby in the cradle,” to use a phrase from the title of one of the most important scholarly articles on the subject30—was dismissed out of hand. It was not as though a policy of this sort was ruled out as a matter of principle because the political leadership took it for granted that this was the sort of thing a country like the United States could never do. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, a military operation to destroy the Chinese nuclear program might well have been undertaken, if, for example, the Soviets in 1963 had been willing to cooperate with the Americans in this area—something which was not of the question, since just a few years later it was the Soviets who were pressing for action of this sort.

And there are times when such considerations do play a key role in shaping actual political behavior. The United States, for example, took the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in 1962 in order to prevent the Soviet Union from deploying a nuclear force in Cuba. The fact that Cuba was a sovereign state, or that an attack on America was not imminent, did not mean that the U.S. government felt it could not take military action to ensure that that deployment did not take place. That American policy was rooted in concerns about the future—about the way the strategic balance was shifting and about the importance of taking action sooner rather than later.31 To be sure, the administration did not emphasize that point when defending its policy: a defense that rested on OAS sanction was considered preferable for political reasons. But that was only because that type of rationale happened to be available. If the Latin American states had been unwilling to support the United States on this question, that in itself would not have prevented the U.S. government from threatening to attack Cuba, or even from carrying out an attack. And although the point was not stressed, the “preemptive” argument was by no means missing from official pronouncements. The president had a passage that in effect invoked this principle in his October 22, 1962, speech to the nation on the crisis. Even the relatively dovish Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in the famous speech he gave at the U.N. during the crisis, used this sort of language. “Were we to do nothing until the knife was sharpened?” Stevenson asked. “Were we to stand idly by until it was at our throats?”32

The story of American policy in late 1941 is an even more important case in point. This is in part because it shows that the sort of dynamic we are focusing on here—the pressure to act “preemptively,” before the country is itself attacked—is not a product of the nuclear age, but rather has much deeper roots. But it is also in part because the real story here is so much at variance with the conventional wisdom in this area—that is, with the idea that the United States entered the Second World War for one simple reason: because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The story here, in other words, is conceptually important because it is empirically surprising. The key to understanding what happened in 1941 is the realization that America was not a passive victim of attack, but rather that the U.S. government was pursuing a very active policy in the months before Pearl Harbor, and that that policy played a central role in the process that led to American involvement in the war.

The United States in the second half of 1941 was not a country that “asked only to be left alone.”33 As Robert Dallek, perhaps the leading student of American foreign policy during the Roosevelt period, the president at this point “wished to take the United States into the war.” As Roosevelt told the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, at the Atlantic Conference in August 1941, he would instead “wage war, but not declare it.” “He would become more and more provocative.” His goal, he said, was to “force an ‘incident.’” He “made it clear that he would look for an ‘incident’ which would justify him in opening hostilities.”34

The escalation of naval operations in the North Atlantic, especially the adoption of a policy of “shooting first” after the Greer incident in September 1941, is to be understood in the light of those remarks. Roosevelt announced that policy in a “fireside chat” broadcast on September 11, 1941—sixty years to the day before the attacks on New York and Washington. Over and over again he argued that the country had to take action before it was too late. “One peaceful Nation after another,” he said, “has met disaster because each refused to look the Nazi danger squarely in the eye until it actually had them by the throat. The United States will not make that fatal mistake.” “The time for active defense is now”; “this is the time for prevention of attack”; “when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.”35

But why did Roosevelt opt for a policy of that sort? Why did he want to provoke a war with Germany? Why was he unwilling to wait for Germany to attack America before taking the United States into the war? The basic thinking that lay at the heart of American policy was laid out in a famous document, the so-called “Victory Program” signed by General Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, and Admiral Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, also dated September 11, 1941. The fear, after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, was that the USSR would be defeated, and that the Germans would eventually be able to mobilize the resources of all of continental Europe up to the Urals, ultimately building their military power up to quite extraordinary levels. If that happened, American security would be imperiled; the United States would therefore be well-advised to act quickly, before the Germans were able “to bring order out of chaos in the occupied areas” and harness the resources of those areas to their war machine. “Time is of the essence,” the authors of that key strategy document argued, and “the longer we delay effective offensive operations against the Axis, the more difficult will become the attainment of victory.”36 It is in the context of this sort of thinking that U.S. policy in the second half of 1941 is to be understood—not just the policy of conducting an undeclared naval war with Germany in the North Atlantic, but also the policy the U.S. government now pursued toward Japan, a very tough policy that led directly to American involvement in the war.37

It is odd, perhaps, to portray Roosevelt as pursuing a “preventive war” policy in 1941. Germany was seen as a threat primarily because of what she had done outside her borders—because of her attacks on Poland, on France and on Russia. German power was on the rise, but the shift in the balance had resulted from conquest and aggression. Isn’t that fundamentally different from a shift in the balance that results from what a country does at home? The answer is that while there obviously is a difference, the difference is not quite as fundamental as one might think. If a state’s overall behavior is viewed as threatening, then the growth in that state’s military power is bound to be a source of concern, and it is essentially a secondary issue whether it results from actions taken abroad or at home.

There was nothing anomalous about Roosevelt’s behavior in 1941. International relations theorists often argue that states are led to pursue aggressive policies for essentially defensive purposes; from that point of view, the sort of policy Roosevelt pursued in 1941 was in a sense to be expected. Such policies, in other words, need to be seen as natural—that is, as built into the basic structure of the system. In the midst of the Iraq crisis, Secretary Rumsfeld justified American policy by telling a group of European journalists that preventive war was as “old as history itself.”38 Rumsfeld was on to something: preventive war logic is more powerful than people think, and in many contexts people have no problem accepting that kind of logic.39 After 1945, for example, one of the great lessons drawn from the story of the origins of the Second World War was that the western powers had waited too long to take a stand against Germany. The appeasement policy was more or less universally condemned; the idea was that it would have been better to deal with the German problem early on, while that problem was still manageable. This, for example, was the central point of Winston Churchill’s great history of the origins of the war, The Gathering Storm. Churchill’s theme in that volume was: “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”40 No one at the time was shocked by the argument that the western democracies should not have allowed them to do so.

And this was not simply because everyone took it for granted that Nazi Germany in the 1930s was such an extreme case that the standard rules did not apply. It is important to remember that traditionally even the most moderate statesmen assumed that some dangers had to be dealt with before things got totally out of hand. Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary in the post-Napoleonic period, was one of the most reasonable, thoughtful and distinguished diplomatists in modern history. But even Castlereagh recognized that it might be important to take action even if there was no immediate threat of military attack. He in fact was prepared to take action even if the balance of power was threatened by developments of a purely internal nature—for example, by a revolution in the Low Countries that would take that area into union with France. According to Castlereagh, it was better for the statesmen of Europe to “meet that danger which they cannot avoid” than to wait for it to be “poured in the full tide of military invasion upon their own States.” “The actual Existence of such a danger,” he recognized, “may indeed be inferred from many circumstances short of the visible preparations for attack.” If the threat was serious enough, action would be warranted even if an attack was not imminent.41 It is not the least bit unusual to find statesmen arguing along such lines. But the fact that this kind of thinking was so common historically suggests that the approach embodied in the Bush strategy documents is more deeply rooted in the basic structure of international politics than one might think.

That basic point is also reflected in the fact that the U.S. government had been moving toward a “preemptive” policy for some time. In 1994, the Clinton administration seriously considered taking “preemptive” action against the North Korean nuclear facilities; in 1996, the U.S. government also threatened to take “preemptive” military action against Libya if that country moved ahead with its chemical weapons program.42 The elements of continuity from the Clinton to the Bush period are in fact quite striking. The September 2002 National Security Strategy document called, for example, for an active “counterproliferation” policy, but the term “counterproliferation” (which in itself implied there was a need for something more energetic than the old non-proliferation strategy) had been coined during the Clinton period, and the original architects of that policy described it in terms that are virtually indistinguishable from those used by the Bush administration in describing its own counterproliferation policy.43

If these continuities exist, and if preventive war thinking is so common historically, it is because the incentives to pursue this sort of policy are much stronger than people seem to realize. The Bush strategy is no flash in the pan, and the basic idea of “preemption” is not going to disappear forever when the Bush administration leaves office. When you look at this issue in historical context, one key point emerges: that idea is more deeply embedded in the basic structure of the international system than many people nowadays are prepared to admit—and this in fact is what makes this such an important issue.

1 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, The passages quoted are from the introduction signed by President Bush, (dated September 17, 2002), and from pp. 6, 14, and 15.

2 Andrew Krepinovich, “The Real Problems With Our Nuclear Posture,” New York Times, March 14, 2002, p. A31. A copy of the report was given to Los Angeles Times contributor William Arkin. See William Arkin, “Secret Plan Outlines the Unthinkable: A Secret Policy Review of the Nation’s Nuclear Policy Puts Forth Chilling New Contingencies for Nuclear War,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002. Another copy was leaked to the New York Times. See Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Nuclear Plan Sees New Targets and New Weapons,” New York Times, March 10, 2002, section 1, p. 1. Key excerpts were soon posted on the internet (, henceforth cited as “NPR Excerpts.”

3 Walter Pincus, “U.S. Nuclear Arms Stance Modified by Policy Study: Preemptive Strike Becomes and Option,” Washington Post, March 23, 2002, p. A14.

4 “America as Nuclear Rogue,” New York Times, March 12, 2002, p. A26.

5 Mary McGrory, “Nuts About Nukes,” Washington Post, March 14, 2002, p. A27.

6 “Three Nobel Laureates Criticize Bush Nuclear Posture Review,” March 18, 2002,

7 U.S. Senate, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations on S. 2778, March 12, 2002, p. 264 ( See also the transcript of Powell’s appearance on Face the Nation, March 10, 2002 (

8 “Transcript of testimony by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at Defense Subcommittee of Senate Appropriations Committee,” May 21, 2002, (response to question from Sen. Feinstein).

9 After the NPR was leaked, the White House took care to point our that there was nothing new to the policy of threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, if those states sought to use chemical or biological weapons against America or her allies. Two statements to that effect from top Clinton administration officials were quoted by the White House press secretary shortly after the original stories appeared. Press briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 14, 2002, See also Richard Sokolsky, “Demystifying the US Nuclear Posture Review,” Survival, vol. 44, no. 3 (Autumn 2002), p. 136.

10 “Nuclear weapons,” as the NPR put it in one widely criticized passage, “could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities).” NPR Excerpts (pp. 12-13 in the NPR).

11 Vice President’s address to VFW 103rd National Convention, August 26, 2002, ( For the Kissinger article Cheney was quoting from, see Henry A. Kissinger, “The Politics of Intervention: Iraq ‘Regime Change’ is a Revolutionary Strategy,” Los Angeles Times Syndicate, August 9, 2002.

12 Kissinger, “The Politics of Intervention.”

13 Kissinger, “The Politics of Intervention,” and Kissinger testimony in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, “Next Steps in Iraq,” September 26, 2002 (, pp. 59 and 61. See also Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), pp. 21, 236.

14 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p. 15.

15 “Three Nobel Laureates Criticize Bush Nuclear Posture Review,” March 18, 2002,

16 NSC meeting, March 25, 1954, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1952-1954, vol. 2, pp. 640-642.

17 David Rosenberg, “Toward Armageddon: The Foundations of U.S. Nuclear Strategy” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1983), p. 221.

18 Eisenhower meeting with congressional leadership, March 6, 1959, FRUS 1958-1960, vol. 8, p. 433, and meeting with a group of congressmen that same day, Declassified Documents Reference System [DDRS], 1996/3493.

19 Quoted in John Ausland, “A Nuclear War to Keep Berlin Open?” International Herald Tribune, June 19, 1991.

20 Kennedy-de Gaulle meeting, June 1, 1961, DDRS 1994/2586. On the issues dealt with in this and the preceding paragraphs, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 89 (and especially the sources cited in n. 91 on that page), 158-165, 286-297, and 318.

21 Dean Rusk testimony before Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 11, 1963, Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series), vol. 15 (Washington: GPO, 1987), p. 10. This is not a distinctly American way of approaching issues of this sort. Note, for example, a comment made in March 2003 by the Japanese defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, in connection with the North Korean threat. If North Korea started fueling its missiles, he told a parliamentary committee, “then it is time to strike” Quoted in Howard French, “Japan Faces Burden: Its Own Defense,” New York Times, July 22, 2003.

22 The issue is discussed in some detail in Marc Trachtenberg, “A ‘Wasting Asset’: American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954,” in Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

23 NSC 68, April 7, 1950, FRUS 1950, vol. 1, pp. 253, 255, 284.

24 Paul Nitze, “A Project for Further Analysis and Study of Certain Factors Affecting our Foreign Policy and our National Defense Policy,” September 15, 1954, Project Control Papers, U.S. Air Force Historical Research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

25 For the details, see Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, pp. 132-146.

26 Eisenhower to Dulles, September 8, 1953, FRUS 1952-1954, vol. 2, p. 461. Emphasis in original text.

27 Kennedy’s views described by his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy in a January 10, 1963, meeting with CIA director McCone, quoted in William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson, “Whether to ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle’: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64,” International Security, vol. 25, no. 3 (Winter 2000/2001), p. 67.

28 Burr and Richelson, “Strangle the Baby,” especially pp. 67-72 and 75. See also Trachtenberg, Constructed Peace, pp. 385-386, and the sources cited there.

29 As Burr and Richelson point out explicitly with reference to the China case in their article: “Strangle the Baby,” pp. 54-55.

30 The Burr-Richelson article cited in n. 27 above.

31 See Kennedy’s remarks in a meeting with his top advisors on October 16, 1962, in Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 71, 90, and Trachtenberg, Constructed Peace, pp. 350-351.

32 The decision to go to the OAS was made only after Edwin Martin, the assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs had given his strong assurance that the United States would be able to get the necessary vote in that body. See the record of a top-level meeting, October 19, 1962, FRUS 1961-1963, vol. 11, pp. 117-118. See also May and Zelikow, Kennedy Tapes, pp. 256-257. Note also the discussion in Abram Chayes, The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 16, 32-33, and esp. 63 (where it is shown that one draft of the president’s speech on the crisis contained a reference to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter which, in the opinion of the State Department legal advisor’s office, would have amounted “to a full-scale adoption of the doctrine of anticipatory self-defense”). That explicit reference was dropped for mainly political reasons, but the passage in question in its final form did implicitly invoke that principle. “We no longer live in a world,” the president declared, “where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive, and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.” For the quotation and a brief discussion, see Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 699-700. For Stevenson’s remark, see Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 823-824.

33 A.J.P. Taylor’s characterization, in his The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 278.

34 Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979; paperback edition, 1981), p. 285.

35 Fireside Chat on National Defense,” September 11, 1941, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, comp. Samuel Rosenman, vol. 10 (New York: Harper, 1950), pp. 388-390. George Shultz, incidentally, also used the rattlesnake metaphor in his article calling for action against Iraq; “Act Now,” Washington Post, September 6, 2002.

36 The “Victory Program” of September 11, 1941, officially entitled “Joint Board Estimate of United States Over-All Production Requirements,” was published in American War Plans, 1919-1941, ed. Steven Ross, vol. 5 (New York: Garland, 1992), pp. 160-189 for the main study, and pp. 190-201 for the appended “Estimate of Army Ground Forces.” For the passages quoted, see pp. 4-5 in the original study (pp. 193-194 in the Garland volume) and p. 4 in the “Estimate of Army Ground Forces” (p. 193 in the Garland volume).

37 The point about policy toward Japan rests on a more complex argument and cannot even be summarized here. It will, however, be developed at length in the fourth chapter of a book I am writing with the tentative title “Historical Method in the Study of International Politics.”

38 Charles Lambroschini and Alexandrine Bouilhet, “Donald Rumsfeld: ‘La guerre préventive est aussi vieille que l’Histoire,’” Le Figaro, February 10, 2003. Rumsfeld specifically alluded in the U.S. policy in the Cuban missile crisis in this context.

39 By far the most important book on the subject is Dale Copeland’s The Origins of Major War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000). This book should be read with some care by everyone interested in this question.

40 Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948); the “Theme of the Volume” appears at the beginning of the book, just before the table of contents. A key passage from the Churchill book, stressing the importance of acting before it is too late—that is, while the balance of power is still favorable—was in fact quoted in one document which made the case for a “preemptive” attack on the Chinese nuclear facilities, “Can the Genie Be Put Back in the Bottle?” This document, probably written by deputy assistant secretary of defense Arthur Barber in around June 1963, was declassified in 1997 and can be found in the “Briefing Book on US-Soviet Non-Diffusion Agreement for Discussion at the Moscow Meeting,” in box 265, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.

41 Lord Castlereagh State Paper of May 5, 1820, in Harold Temperley and Lillian Penson,

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