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International Security 29.3 (2004) 100-135

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Blasts from the Past

Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s

The National Security Strategy document issued by the George W. Bush administration in 2002 portrays a world far different from that of the past. The Cold War was dangerous, but according to this document, its lessons are largely irrelevant to the making of contemporary U.S. strategy. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the United States faced a "status quo, risk-adverse" adversary—the Soviet Union—that believed that weapons of mass destruction should be used only as a last resort. In contrast, the United States is currently confronted by "rogue states" that "brutalize their own people," "threaten their neighbors," "sponsor terrorism," and "hate the United States and everything for which it stands." Most important, rogue states "are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction" to"achieve the aggressive designs of these regimes." In so doing, they have created a world that is far "more complex and dangerous" than the international system of the 1960s. As a result, Cold War concepts such as deterrence are ineffective in a "security environment that has undergone profound transformation."1

U.S. policymakers responsible for assessing international politics following the testing of an atomic device by the People's Republic of China (PRC) onOctober 16, 1964, would have been puzzled by the Bush administration's characterization of their world. Four decades ago, the threat posed by a [End Page 100] nuclear-armed China under Mao Zedong was far more terrifying than anything Iraq's Saddam Hussein or current "rogue" rulers could muster. China, with a population of more than 700 million in 1964, had already fought the United States in Korea; attacked India; and threatened Indochina, Indonesia, and Taiwan. It supported violent revolutionary groups around the world whose goals clashed with U.S. interests. Mao's internal policies had led to the deaths of millions of Chinese citizens, and he had already declared that nuclear war with the United States was not to be feared. In Mao's words, "If the worse came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist."2 To the United States, such actions and statements made the PRC appear not only irrational but perhaps undeterrable.

It is well known that the United States considered a wide array of responses to China's 1964 atomic test, including a preemptive attack. What is less well known is that the ascension of this "rogue" state into the world's nuclear ranks inspired a searching debate within the U.S. government over how to respond to emerging and potential nuclear powers. The issue went beyond the question of how China would behave with atomic weapons to the core questions that policymakers continue to grapple with today: for example, could the United States slow the pace of nuclear proliferation, and if even if it could, would the price be too high to pay? Or is the prevention of nuclear proliferation so important that it trumps other policy considerations, and no effort or expense should be spared to achieve it?

Under President Lyndon Johnson, the United States transformed its nuclear nonproliferation strategy to meet these challenges. Starting with the creation of a little-known but highly influential group of experts referred to as the "Gilpatric committee," the administration laid the foundations for a far more robust nonproliferation policy, which would eventually lead to the negotiation, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).3 This shift, which has been missed almost entirely in the historical and [End Page 101] strategic studies literature, was not inevitable. Indeed, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Johnson administration's nonproliferation policy represented a clear departure from that of John F. Kennedy's administration, which did little to halt proliferation. Nor was it a policy that would be embraced by Richard Nixon's administration, which downgraded nonproliferation as a priority. During its evolution, the Johnson administration's...


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