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  • Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace
  • Saki Ruth Dockrill
Ira Chernus , Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. 162 pp.

The Eisenhower administration was arguably the most paradoxical administration inthe history of U.S. Cold War national security policy. President Dwight Eisenhower was confident of U.S. nuclear supremacy over the Soviet Union, yet at the same time he believed that the United States was vulnerable to a Soviet surprise nuclear attack. But he did not compensate for this sense of insecurity by building up U.S. military strength. On the contrary, Eisenhower was determined to reduce U.S. defense expenditure. U.S. policymakers repeatedly reminded their allies about the importance of working with the United States toward a common security goal. Yet, simultaneously, Washington alarmed its allies with loose talk about nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States put the unity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at riskby attempting to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Western Europe. The fear of nuclear weapons was uppermost in the minds of U.S. decision-makers, yetthey inaugurated the first declaratory nuclear doctrine, known as Massive Retaliation, which threatened potential aggressors with an all-out U.S. nuclear strike. Finally, despite the administration's aggressive rhetorical stance, Eisenhower made overtures tothe Soviet Union after the death of Josif Stalin by delivering speeches about "TheChance for Peace" and "Atoms for Peace." Hence Eisenhower offered the paradoxical image of a president who waged "peace" during the high Cold War in the 1950s.

As the distinguished Oxford historian Michael Howard has often pointed out, "peace" is a difficult concept to define because it is not simply the alternative to "war." Peace can entail any situation other than "war." Peace also implies stability and order in the broadest sense, even if that stability is threatened by a sense of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. In many ways, the Cold War blurred the demarcation between war and peace.

Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has written a short analysis of Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on 8 December 1953. Chernus explores "Eisenhower's discursive construction of war, peace, and national security" in the lead-up to the speech (p.6). Despite the growing shift of recent literature on the Cold War toward the cultural and social dimensions and away from the political, one cannot escape the fact that a country's decisions about war and peace remain in the hands of a few leaders at the top. Chernus shows how public speeches by national leaders have tended to shape public perceptions and public debates. The use of words by these leaders is bound to reflect their beliefs, ideologies, and interpretations of the world. By implication, history can be shaped by a few individuals' words. In this context the "Atoms for Peace" speech can be seen as more than the president's expression of his ideas, since it constituted what Chernus describes as part of Eisenhower's "apocalypse [End Page 134] management." Leaders at the time believed that the final battle of the Cold War would be a nuclear showdown between the superpowers, and Eisenhower made strenuous efforts throughout his presidency to avoid this apocalyptic outcome.

Eisenhower's "apocalypse management" reflected his determination to reverse what he termed Truman's "negative" containment policy. Instead of avoiding confrontation, the Eisenhower administration wanted to engage head-on with the threat to the United States, especially the nuclear threat. Eisenhower's national security policy placed nuclear weapons at the core of the New Look doctrine. In the face of the Soviet Union's growing nuclear capability, the United States sought (as outlined in NSC 162/2) to maintain a "strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power." However, Eisenhower believed that unless the United States was seen to be engaged in a dialogue with its nuclear-armed enemy, his apocalypse management would be incomplete. This was the raison d'être of the "Atoms for Peace" speech in December 1953. Chernus explains the significant difference...