A harrowing account of the early years of American nuclear strategy, this book offers an unconventional defense of President Dwight Eisenhower. Craig, a diplomatic historian, challenges scholars who have depicted the early Cold War as an era of exceptional stability. The avoidance of nuclear war in that era, he plausibly insists, was indeed a close call. At the core of the book is the long-running debate between advocates of "massive retaliation" and "flexible response." Eisenhower's conviction, fortified by his reading of Clausewitz, was that war with the Soviet Union could not remain limited. His antagonists, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, objected to the choice between "holocaust and humiliation" that such an all-or-nothing policy entailed.
Craig provides a solid assessment of the policies of "war-avoidance" that resulted from Eisenhower's acute understanding of the folly of thermonuclear war, but he does not satisfactorily refute advocates of flexible response. There was no necessary connection, as he implies, between a military strategy that recognized gradations of conflict and a diplomacy that was extravagant and risky.