In This Review
Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years
"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." The words are Ronald Reagan's. While McGeorge Bundy, like many others, finds Reagan's thinking about nuclear weapons muddy and his administration's public presentation of nuclear reality disgraceful, this particular sentence is crystal clear. It echoes the conclusion of the only person ever to authorize a nuclear strike, Harry Truman: "Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men."
These sentences reflect the central message of Bundy's magisterial history of decisions during mankind's half-century of living with atomic fire. The message is deceptively simple: since 1945 no nation has ever come close to using a nuclear weapon, not even the United States during what is now too often remembered as a golden age of nuclear monopoly, followed by a period of superiority.
From the start of the nuclear age, Bundy argues, any superpower crisis that involved the "scent of burning" also evoked the smell of nuclear danger, and so American and Soviet heads of government were impelled toward prudence. Confrontations thus turned on other factors: the dispute over Berlin on Khrushchev's appreciation that taking action beyond his nuclear bluster would only galvanize the NATO partners; the Cuban missile crisis on American conventional superiority.
The book reaffirms Bundy's credentials for writing on this momentous subject. In the first half, which covers the nuclear age through the Eisenhower Administration, his method is primarily historical, but he walks around and around his cases searching for how they might have turned out differently.
We have, for instance, Truman's testimony that the decision to drop the bomb on Japan was not a difficult one. Perhaps it was not for him, a newcomer to the atomic secret, preoccupied with finishing the job FDR had started. For the decision to have come out another way-a demonstration shot, a warning, or an invitation of neutral observers to New Mexico for the test-would have taken analyses that were not much at hand, arguments that were "iffy" and were not pressed hard. Ideas unthought of by advisers seldom spring from the heads of presidents, certainly not from Truman's, in his circumstances.
When Bundy turns to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of which he was a central officer, his account is enriched by inside detail but not embroidered by self-justification. Throughout he is charitable to those with whom he disagrees, to a degree that underlines the sad shrillness of our recent public debates over nuclear issues. He does not shrink from admitting he still thinks he was right, but is also charmingly prepared to admit error. For instance, he regrets that the Kennedy Administration never made the case for civil defense; that by tiring so quickly of the swim against popular distaste for the idea it let what should have been simple prudence become identified as the craziness of those who were prepared to fight a nuclear war.
In discussing more recent administrations, Bundy cannot rely on the perspective of history or personal participation. As are many, he is hard put to fathom the Reagan White House, with its kindly board chairman as president. But he does have good sense, even about his own previously held views. In the conclusion he recants, without quite saying so, his earlier advocacy of a NATO pledge not to use nuclear weapons first. A retraction is not really needed, because the earlier advocacy now seems an effort to move debate at a point since passed. Yet Bundy acknowledges the liabilities of such a "made in America" solution, which deeply divided the Europeans it was intended to reassure.
His prose is compressed but clear and graceful. His insights about the behavior of officials in high office have the authority of one who knows whereof he speaks-for instance, he writes of FDR: "As presidents will, he talked more and listened less as he grew older." If Bundy's walks around his cases occasionally become tiring-in revisiting the Cuban missile crisis, for example-his observations are still wise and careful. So, too, if Bundy occasionally betrays an old Harvard dean's temptation to whittle the meaning of a sentence too finely with one too many negatives, the effect is to compel a pause for reflection.
The book is clear about what nuclear weapons have not done-unused, their threat has not determined the course of international crises-but it cannot be so clear about what they have done. With the exception of Israel, all the nations that built nuclear weapons after the United States did so less for immediate reasons of national security than for broader urgings of national identity. To paraphrase de Gaulle, if other nations had nuclear weapons, France could not be France without them. And while the good general would not have said it, possessing the bomb must have seemed all the more imperative because Britain had it, and all the more attractive because Germany did not.
None of the states that now have these weapons show signs of resigning from the nuclear club, even though Bundy is surely correct in saying that none have seen their international positions appreciably strengthened by their nuclear status. Indeed, only France under de Gaulle spoke as though it expected nuclear grandeur to translate into diplomatic leverage. Yet the symbol of national autonomy persists. The symbol is, to put it mildly, unattractive to non-nuclear allies, and so France falls back on telling West Germans that they ought to be comforted by French weapons, never mind precisely why.
Bundy examines the few instances in which more-or-less explicit nuclear threats were made, and also several of the more numerous occasions that involved vaguer nuclear "threads"-when the possibility of escalation was not stated but was nevertheless implicitly woven into the fabric of the conflict. His primary purpose is to demonstrate how distant these instances remained from nuclear confrontation, how much "more prudence than menace" was present even then. That case he makes compellingly.
Yet, Bundy points out, in several early instances nuclear "threads" made for success, or at least history cannot be said to demonstrate that they failed. At Geneva in 1954 the Western powers won more than they expected in negotiations over Southeast Asia, and Bundy, agreeing with Anthony Eden, concludes that "the existence of thermonuclear weapons in the hands of the Americans increased the appeal of a peaceful result for the Russians and perhaps also the Chinese"-even if no threat was made. So, too, while Eisenhower's more explicit nuclear threats over Quemoy and Matsu look, especially now, like strategic risks out of all proportion to the prize, "within their limited terms they cannot be called unsuccessful."
During the 1973 Middle East war, the American alert contained a nuclear thread that was less a threat than a signal of resolve. It might have been redundant, but it, too, cannot be called a failure, Bundy concludes. Other thoughtful studies reach a similar conclusion: when nuclear weapons have been used to convey political signals, in the explicit hope that no fighting of any sort would occur, the signals often have succeeded in their specific purpose.1 Nor has "success" been markedly less likely for the United States since the Soviet Union came to be its nuclear equal.
Bundy's "superficially paradoxical" conclusion about Geneva in 1954 fits this broader set of cases as well:
The very weapon whose real availability seems quite uncertain, given the hesitancy and secretiveness surrounding suggestions for its use, was still a force in the process by which a temporary settlement is reached.
Indeed it is hard to escape the conclusion that these nuclear threads seemed to work precisely because the superpowers were so aware both of the nuclear danger and of its distance in a particular case. Because the danger was so remote there was space for a safe resolution. Because the danger was so terrible, the signal was understood: "make no mistake, I care very much about this issue."
The most elusive of these slippery nuclear threads is whether the state of the nuclear balance itself has an effect on national behavior independent of particular threats or signals. Henry Kissinger's changes of mind illustrate just how elusive this question can be. As a student of nuclear matters in the 1950s he fretted about Soviet "blackmail" deriving from nuclear superiority. As a defender of SALT I in the 1970s, however, he mused about what possible meaning "superiority" could have when both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons. And still later in the same decade he had turned around again, fearing, as did the Committee on the Present Danger, that Soviet superiority "must exponentially increase" Moscow's willingness to take risks.
Happily, Bundy notes, that last fear has turned out to be unfounded: Soviet risk-taking has not increased in the last decade, during which the nuclear "window of vulnerability," if it existed a decade ago, remained as wide open as ever. More likely, the window was never real: the Reagan Administration wisely closed it in 1984, at least in the language of the Scowcroft panel. The rhetorical closing can be seen as an implicit acknowledgement that the window never existed.
The nuclear stalemate is robust; a thousand weapons, more or less, do not upset it. And neither do they produce usable political advantage. Still, as Bundy observes, it does a good argument no good to push it too far. If he and his colleagues during the Cuban missile crisis were not as comforted by American nuclear superiority as outside commentaries would have it, especially those made through the rosy glasses of hindsight, neither would those men have wanted to trade nuclear places with the Soviet Union. Geneva or Quemoy and Matsu may be evidence of the political effect of dramatic inferiority, something the United States has never suffered. But marginal differences do not matter.
It is always easy and almost always unfair for reviewers to ask authors for something more. Still, I wish Bundy had turned his conclusion into an exploration of the relation between the nuclear decisions that are his subject and the attitudes of the citizens in whose name they were taken. His own calm understanding seems very far from the tenor of our recent debate. So, too, while I hold no brief for my fellow strategists as a profession-there have been many, in uniform or out, promoting half-cocked schemes-the best of them have seen the nature of nuclear reality clearly from the beginning of the nuclear age.
Thus, the first American nuclear strategist, Bernard Brodie, writing in 1945, captured that reality in a paragraph that has not been improved upon since:
It seems hardly likely, at least as among great powers at some distance from each other, that an attack can be so completely a surprise and so overwhelming as to obviate the opponent's striking back with atomic bombs on a large scale. For this reason, the atomic bomb may prove in the net a powerful inhibition to aggression. It would make little difference if one power had more bombs and were better prepared to resist them than the opponent.2
Bundy does pause over the corrosive effects of secrecy. Wartime concealment of the Manhattan Project became the postwar secret, understandably cherished as a legacy. Yet by continuing wartime habits, postwar leaders hid much more than they needed to, and made their early attempts at international atomic control still more one-sided than they needed to be. Presidents at least through Eisenhower were inhibited in sharing with fellow citizens their own understanding of nuclear reality. The Eisenhower of Bundy's detailed history is a far cry from the nuclear bomb-rattler he used to be seen as having been.
Secrecy no longer is a problem, but truth-telling by national leaders is still in short supply. A little would go a long way, as Bundy says. Those leaders conjured fanciful visions, in earlier times, of easy nuclear answers to hard international crises, or, more recently, of easy escapes from nuclear reality through disarmament or defense. Both of President Bush's immediate predecessors spoke loosely of ridding the world of nuclear weapons when they should have known better. One, President Reagan, evoked a leakproof nuclear "umbrella"; Brodie knew better two generations ago.
Technology or better political relations may one day lead the world away from nuclear deterrence, but that day will not come soon. Until then, we will live with the fact of deterrence. And with decisions as decent as those of the last half-century, the nuclear danger can be contained. We may come to feel, as Thomas Schelling has noted, not that we are consciously deterred through terror, but rather that nuclear weapons remain unused for the same reason that we do not step blithely into busy streets: we simply know better.3
It may be, finally, that we cannot think clearly about nuclear weapons for the same reason we need not worry they will be used: they are too horrible. One of Bundy's reviewers, the eminent British scientific adviser, Lord Zuckerman, has worried that the horror has diminished, that nuclear weapons have come to be seen as "normal components of a usable armory of weapons."4 He is not alone in expressing this concern, but in my view it is a profoundly mistaken judgment. Rather, the stigmatizing of nuclear weapons grows with each year; each generation rediscovers the horror afresh.
The real danger is that by shrinking from thought, leaders will make the world less safe. For all the wisdom of Bundy's analysis, for instance, it underestimates the risk that the current arms control track, from the "zero option" in 1981 to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, is leading toward a worryingly unpredictable nuclear future in Europe.
There is reason to welcome all the work, including this splendid book, that has gone into making sure that nuclear weapons, unusable and unused, will never be used. But there is reason to regret that the nuclear horror has monopolized attention even as it has discouraged thought. As a result, we have devoted too little attention to those conventional weapons that are used to such devastating effect around the world every day.
1 For instance, Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, eds., Force Without War, Washington: Brookings Institution, 1978.
2 "The Atomic Bomb and American Security," Yale Institute of International Studies Memorandum No. 18, Nov. 1, 1945; reprinted in Philip Bobbitt, Lawrence Freedman and Gregory F. Treverton, U.S. Nuclear Strategy: A Reader, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
3 Thomas C. Schelling, "What Went Wrong with Arms Control?" Foreign Affairs, Winter 1985/86, p. 233.
4 The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 18, 1988, p. 38.