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The Political utility o f Nuclear Weapons The 1973Middle East Crisis Barry M.Blechman and Douglas M. Hart E v e r since the Eisenhower Administration’s policy of massive retaliation failed to stem either the tide of left-leaning nationalist revolutions in the third world or continuing Soviet pressures on Central Europe, mainstream American opinion has tended to view the potential of nuclear weapons to support U.S. foreign policy rather skeptically. Because of the tremendous risks associated with the use of nuclear weapons, most observers agree, a threat of nuclear war is credible only in certain situations-those in which the nation’s most important interests are evidently at stake. As such, nuclear weapons can serve only narrow and distinct purposes. The threat of nuclear retaliation, of course, serves to deter attacks on, or coercion of, the United States itself. Also, it is widely believed that this nuclear umbrella can be extended to those few nations, primarily the industrialized democracies, for which-for reasons of history and ethnic, cultural, economic, and political affinities-an American threat to risk nuclear holocaust on their behalf may be credible. Beyond that, however, since the late 1950s few have been willing to argue publicly that other important political or military purposes can or should be served by the nation’s nuclear arsenal. There is reason to question whether this common perspective on the utility of nuclear weapons is complete, however. There is a minority view which maintains that nuclear weapons (that is, the threat of nuclear war which they imply) actually have served the nation’s policymakers more often and in more ways than are generally recognized. (Interestingly, this view is held by some on both the extreme right and the extreme left of the American political spectrum.) Indeed, there is at least some reason to believe that U.S. decisionmakers have turned to nuclear threats in support of policy in more than 20 specific incidents. Upon closer investigation, many of these incidents prove to be inadvertent, or misunderstood, or simply false; yet, there is some core number of cases-roughly one-half dozen-for which it can be documented that the nation’s leaders consciously employed nuclear threats, or at least deliberately drew attention to the risk of nuclear war, as a means of bolstering American policy. Barry Blechman is a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Douglas Hart is a defense analyst for the Pacific-Sierra Corporation. International Security, Summer 1982 (Vol. 7, No. 1)0162-28891821010132-25$02.5010 01982by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 132 Utility of Nuclear Weapons I 133 Most of these incidents took place in the 1950s, but the 1960s and 1970s have not been devoid of them. The most recent took place early in 1980, when the credibility of President Carter’s commitment to defend the Persian Gulf came into question, and there was reason to believe that the Soviet Union was preparing to move into Iran. Within ten days of the President‘s statement, U.S. officials made clear nuclear threats on three separate occasions in a desperate attempt to put a real sanction behind the President’s words.’ Given the tumultuous state of world affairs, the deteriorating character of Soviet-American relations, and the problems continuing to beset U.S. conventional military forces, the temptation to turn to nuclear threats as a means of emerging triumphant from tense international situations is likely to remain with both the present and future U.S. administrations. Indeed, the crosscutting political pressures of the budget balancers and supply-side economists alone may lead the Reagan Administration, like the Eisenhower Administration before it, to seek “more bang for the buck” in the defense area by relying more on nuclear threats.2 For these reasons alone it makes sense to analyze past nuclear incidents in some detail in order to understand the thinking of those who turn to nuclear threats, the psychological and political mechanisms set in motion when such threats are made, and the consequences of these actions both for the specific situation of concern and for broader considerations. Perhaps the most relevant of the...


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