32.4: Competition between East and West
32.4.1: The Atomic Race
Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, initiated a “New Look” for the Cold War containment strategy, calling for a greater reliance on nuclear weapons against U.S. enemies in wartime, and promoted the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” threatening a severe response to any Soviet aggression.
Analyze the risks and rewards of the competition for atomic weapons
- In 1953, changes in political leadership on both sides shifted the dynamic of the Cold War, with the death of Joseph Stalin and the ascendancy of Nikita Khrushchev in the USSR and the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Presidency of the United States.
- The New Look was the name given to the national security policy of the United States during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which reflected Eisenhower’s concern for balancing the Cold War military commitments of the United States with the nation’s financial resources, thereby reducing emphasis on ground troops and increasing focus on nuclear proliferation.
- The most prominent of the doctrines to emerge from this policy was “massive retaliation,” which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced early in 1954. This policy stated that in the event of an attack from an aggressor, a state would massively retaliate with force disproportionate to the size of the attack, thus deterring an enemy state from initially attacking.
- Krushchev developed a similar policy in the USSR, aimed at cutting military spending while creating a nuclear program to match the U.S., but while the Soviets acquired atomic weapons in 1949, it took years for them to reach parity with the United States.
- An important part of the Cold War nuclear competition was the concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD), in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.
- MAD is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.
- mutually assured destruction
- A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.
- “New Look”
- The name given to the national security policy of the United States during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It reflected Eisenhower’s concern for balancing the Cold War military commitments of the United States with the nation’s financial resources. The policy emphasized reliance on strategic nuclear weapons to deter potential threats, both conventional and nuclear, from the Eastern Bloc of nations headed by the Soviet Union.
- massive retaliation
- A military doctrine and nuclear strategy in which a state commits itself to retaliate in much greater force in the event of an attack.
Background: Political Changes in the U.S. and USSR
When Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as U.S. President in 1953, the Democrats lost their two-decades-long control of the U.S. presidency. Under Eisenhower, however, the nation’s Cold War policy remained essentially unchanged. Whilst a thorough rethinking of foreign policy was launched (known as “Operation Solarium”), the majority of emerging ideas (such as a “rollback of Communism” and the liberation of Eastern Europe) were quickly regarded as unworkable. An underlying focus on the containment of Soviet communism remained to inform the broad approach of U.S. foreign policy.
While the transition from the Truman to the Eisenhower presidencies was a conservative-moderate in character, the change in the Soviet Union was immense. With the death of Joseph Stalin (who led the Soviet Union from 1928 and through the Great Patriotic War) in 1953, his former right-hand man Nikita Khrushchev was named First Secretary of the Communist Party.
During a subsequent period of collective leadership, Khrushchev gradually consolidated his power. At a speech to the closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev shocked his listeners by denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and the many crimes that occurred under Stalin’s leadership. Although the contents of the speech were secret, it was leaked to outsiders, shocking both Soviet allies and Western observers. Khrushchev was later named premier of the Soviet Union in 1958.
The impact on Soviet politics was immense. The speech stripped Khrushchev’s remaining Stalinist rivals of their legitimacy in a single stroke, dramatically boosting the First Party Secretary’s power domestically. Khrushchev was then able to ease restrictions, freeing some dissidents and initiating economic policies that emphasized commercial goods rather than just coal and steel production.
American Nuclear Strategy
Along with these major political changes in the U.S. and USSR, the central strategic components of competition between East and West shifted as well. When Eisenhower entered office in 1953, he was committed to two possibly contradictory goals: maintaining — or even heightening — the national commitment to counter the spread of Soviet influence and satisfying demands to balance the budget, lower taxes, and curb inflation. The most prominent of the doctrines to emerge from this goal was “massive retaliation,” which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced early in 1954. Eschewing the costly, conventional ground forces of the Truman administration and wielding the vast superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and covert intelligence, Dulles defined this approach as “brinksmanship” in a January 16, 1956, interview with Life: pushing the Soviet Union to the brink of war in order to exact concessions. The aim of massive retaliation is to deter another state from initially attacking. In the event of an attack from an aggressor, a state would massively retaliate with force disproportionate to the size of the attack, which would likely involve the use of nuclear weapons on a massive scale.
This new national security policy approach, reflecting Eisenhower’s concern for balancing the Cold War military commitments of the United States with the nation’s financial resources, was called the “New Look.” The policy emphasized reliance on strategic nuclear weapons to deter potential threats, both conventional and nuclear, from the Eastern Bloc of nations headed by the Soviet Union.
Thus, the administration increased the number of nuclear warheads from 1,000 in 1953 to 18,000 by early 1961. Despite overwhelming U.S. superiority, one additional nuclear weapon was produced each day. The administration also exploited new technology. In 1955 the eight-engine B-52 Stratofortress bomber, the first true jet bomber designed to carry nuclear weapons, was developed.
Soviet Nuclear Strategy
In 1960 and 1961, Khrushchev tried to impose the concept of nuclear deterrence on the military. Nuclear deterrence holds that the reason for having nuclear weapons is to discourage their use by a potential enemy. With each side deterred from war because of the threat of its escalation into a nuclear conflict, Khrushchev believed, “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism would become permanent and allow the inherent superiority of socialism to emerge in economic and cultural competition with the West.
Khrushchev hoped that exclusive reliance on the nuclear firepower of the newly created Strategic Rocket Forces would remove the need for increased defense expenditures. He also sought to use nuclear deterrence to justify his massive troop cuts; his downgrading of the Ground Forces, traditionally the “fighting arm” of the Soviet armed forces; and his plans to replace bombers with missiles and the surface fleet with nuclear missile submarines. However, during the Cuban missile crisis the USSR had only four R-7 Semyorkas and a few R-16s intercontinental missiles deployed in vulnerable surface launchers. In 1962 the Soviet submarine fleet had only eight submarines with short-range missiles which could be launched only from submarines that surfaced and lost their hidden submerged status.
Khrushchev’s attempt to introduce a nuclear “doctrine of deterrence: into Soviet military thought failed. Discussion of nuclear war in the first authoritative Soviet monograph on strategy since the 1920s, Marshal Vasilii Sokolovskii’s “Military Strategy,” focused upon the use of nuclear weapons for fighting rather than for deterring a war. Should such a war break out, both sides would pursue the most decisive aims with the most forceful means and methods. Intercontinental ballistic missiles and aircraft would deliver massed nuclear strikes on the enemy’s military and civilian objectives. The war would assume an unprecedented geographical scope, but Soviet military writers argued that the use of nuclear weapons in the initial period of the war would decide the course and outcome of the war as a whole. Both in doctrine and in strategy, the nuclear weapon reigned supreme.
Mutual Assured Destruction
An important part of the Cold War nuclear competition was the concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Mutual assured destruction or mutually assured destruction is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.
While the Soviets acquired atomic weapons in 1949, it took years for them to reach parity with the United States. In the meantime, the Americans developed the hydrogen bomb, which the Soviets matched during the era of Khrushchev. New methods of delivery such as Submarine-launched ballistic missiles and Intercontinental ballistic missiles with MIRV warheads meant that each superpower could easily devastate the other, even after attack by an enemy.
The strategy of MAD was fully declared in the early 1960s by United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In McNamara’s formulation there was the very real danger that a nation with nuclear weapons could attempt to eliminate another nation’s retaliatory forces with a surprise, devastating first strike and theoretically “win” a nuclear war relatively unharmed. True second-strike capability could only be achieved when a nation had a guaranteed ability to fully retaliate after a first-strike attack.
The United States had achieved an early form of second-strike capability by fielding continual patrols of strategic nuclear bombers with a large number of planes always in the air on their way to or from fail-safe points close to the borders of the Soviet Union. This meant the United States could still retaliate even after a devastating first-strike attack. The tactic was expensive and problematic because of the high cost of keeping enough planes in the air at all times and the possibility they would be shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft missiles before reaching their targets. In addition, as the idea of a missile gap existing between the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed, there was increasing priority given to ICBMs over bombers.
- The Atomic Race
“Mutual assured destruction.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Brinkmanship (Cold War).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brinkmanship_(Cold_War). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“President_Eisenhower_and_John_Foster_Dulles_in_1956.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Look_(policy)#/media/File:President_Eisenhower_and_John_Foster_Dulles_in_1956.jpg. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.