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:: Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Strategy Introduction to Nuclear Strategies

Nuclear Strategies, Doctrines and Concepts

The term nuclear strategy refers to a military strategy employed by nuclear weapons states, i.e states that posses nuclear weapons. Nuclear strategy details how many nuclear weapons to deploy, what delivery systems to put them on, and what kind of policies to adopt regarding the circumstances in which they would be used.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and cannot be made to serve rational ends.

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Nevertheless, nuclear weapons states claim that nuclear weapons are able to deter nuclear or conventional attack by threatening disastrous retaliation. This policy is called nuclear deterrence.

Throughout human history war has served an end. The famous historian and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz coined the phrase that "war is politics with other means." With the advent of nuclear weapons, however, war and strategizing for military conflict changed its character.

On July 16, 1945--the day before the principal allies in World War II (United States, Soviet Russia, Britain) met during the Potsdam Conference to negotiate the shape of the postwar world-- the United States detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. In August of the same year the A-bomb found its first application. In part to shock Japan into surrender and to end the war in the Pacific as soon as possible, the Truman administration decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the beginning the A-Bomb was scarce, costly and too bulky for efficient delivery and skeptics expected that atomic bombs would be limited to about the same power (20 kilotons of TNT) and spatial effectiveness as the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. The strategic implications of the first atomic bombs, however, were radical in the extreme.

Effective strategic bombing was considered to be the dominant form of war in the postwar world. It was assumed that strategic bombing would rely entirely on air forces and that strategic bombing could be carried out successfully over any distance separating the powers involved. In

the long run, however, the strategic changes served, among other things, to end completely American territorial invulnerability.

The military strategic implications of atomic bombs were closely related to the general East-West climate and the development of two hostile blocs of countries. The Soviet Union continued its occupation of Eastern Europe and the United States decided to become the leading country to contain Soviet power. In the military realm, the Strategy of Containment was closely related to nuclear deterrence.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States had a monopoly on the atomic bomb and attempted to hold on to it as long as possible. In part as a response to the possibility of nuclear blackmail, the Soviet Union vigorously pursued the development of its own nuclear capacities. In 1949 the Soviet nuclear program was successful.

In August 1949 the Soviets unexpectedly detonated an atomic bomb. From that moment on the United States could not use nuclear weapons as instrument of offensive warfare.

What strategy would the United States pursue, now that both sides had the atom bomb? George Kennan advised the U.S. to do the following:

  • In times of peace the U.S. should engage in a policy of "minimum deterrence." The U.S. should restrict the number of weapons that it would take to make an attack on this country (or its allies) a risky, unprofitable, and irrational undertaking.
  • In times of war the U.S. should accept a strategy of "no first use."

The Truman administration, however, felt publicly weakened by the Soviet bomb and in an effort to compensate for its loss of "prestige" decided to build the hydrogen bomb. The decision to build the hydrogen bomb , together with the formation of NATO, the creation of an independent West German state, and the insistence on keeping U.S. forces in Japan was intended to establish a position of U.S. strength. Quite understandably the U.S. decision precluded negotiations with the Soviet Union. Moscow, however, had no interest to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Sources : John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security (Oxford University Press, 1982).