Under the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State Dulles pushed forth a nuclear policy known as MAD – mutually assured destruction. It’s a rather frightening approach, but the idea was that if we had enough weapons with enough range and power, we could basically ensure our safety by raising the stakes so high that no country – not even the Soviet Union – would ever dare start a nuclear exchange.
Eisenhower’s and Dulles’ strategy had some particular flaws – their pursuit of a MAD policy lead to one particularly powerful bomb that, should it be dropped from a bomber aircraft, the explosion would be so large that the plane would not be able to get out of the fallout zone even at maximum airspeed. It was also instituted early enough in the nuclear standoff that neither side had truly considered how to conduct diplomacy and brinksmanship in such a situation. MAD led quite directly, in my opinion, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is easily the closest we ever came to being blown off the face of the earth. This has some interesting parallels to our current situation with Iran and North Korea and their respective nuclear programs.
As Robert McNamara’s character proclaimed during the movie Thirteen Days (which I just happen to watch last night), the movement of ships and even the use of flares as warning shots to enforce the “quarantine” around Cuba was a “whole new language” being used by Kennedy to communicate to Krushchev. One particularly interesting (though not historically accurate) point was a discussion towards the end where Kennedy’s closest advisers conjectured that there had been a series of “accidents” misinterpreted as escalation. Not accidents in the sense that the Cubans turned on their SAM rocket defense systems by mistake and therefore shot down one of the US U2 spy planes, but in the sense that doing so was not intended as an indication of a more aggressive stance by the Soviets. Perhaps the SAMs were activated because missile installations needed defenses, and we flew a plane over the installation. Just like how when the Navy wants a ship to stop they fire star bursts as an indication, presumably, that the next round will be live shells. They both seemed like indications of escalation – perhaps the Soviets in Cuba would beef up their defenses or even launch smaller (nuclear?) rockets towards bases in Florida to pre-empt additional flights, or perhaps the US Navy would start firing live rounds at all ships as soon as they crossed the quarantine line. But perhaps they were also just the standard rules of engagement.
And standard rules of engagement didn’t work when one threw in the possibility of the destruction of perhaps 1/4 of the entire planet.
The latest issue of Newsweek (covering Ted Kennedy’s passing) has an article titled “Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb.” The basic premise is that perhaps the Obama administration should not base its nuclear proliferation strategy on the presumption that nuclear capability is, unto itself, bad. Also, that a country with a terrorist connection and/or extremist and/or aggressive history have such capability, that the entire world’s safety would be compromised.
The article presents some interesting arguments. First and foremost, there have been no direct conflicts between nuclear-capable nations, ever. The last time such weapons were ever used – 1945 – was also the first time they were ever used, and it was not a situation where MAD was in play. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first time where both sides had to seriously consider the results of escalation when MAD was a possibility. Throughout the transcripts from recordings during this time period (the movie is based on these transcripts, though some very reasonable artistic license is utilized to make the entire situation more accessible) one can see how the problems of escalation dawn upon all involved. Since the crisis, it has become clear that wars involving nuclear-capable nations simply cannot escalate to a point where such weapons will be used. There is no reason why Iran or North Korea, even with nuclear weapons, would want to start a war that could lead to the use of such weapons in retaliation.
Furthermore, with the use of “nuclear umbrellas,” where, for instance, the United States would declare the use of nuclear weapons against even nations without such capabilities as an attack on the US itself and act accordingly, essentially every nation would be deterred from extreme escalation. Even Iran and North Korea would be loath to push too far into a conflict, and one has to wonder whether even their rhetoric would turn into much else.
The idea of implementing a policy that essentially allows nations to pursue nuclear capability with the understanding that proliferation is actually a form of deterrent would be a pretty controversial one. One that probably would never be put into place, and certainly one that would never be openly acknowledged. Certainly the condemnation of the pursuit of weapons would have to continue (we wouldn’t want to encourage countries to just go for it).
The original implementation of MAD was probably a bit over the top. However, as a method of deterrent, there is some merit, even today.