A "Wasting Asset": American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954
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American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954 Marc Trachtenberg I n January 1946, General Leslie Groves, the wartime commander of the Manhattan Project, prepared a memorandum on the military implications of the atomic bomb. “If we were ruthlessly realistic,” he wrote, “we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied, and in which we do not have absolute confidence, to make or possess atomicweapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons we would destroy its capacity to make them before it had progressed far enough to threaten us.”’ In the late 1940s and well into the early 1950s, the basic idea that the United States should not just sit back and allow a hostile power like the Soviet Union to acquire a massive nuclear arsenal-that a much more ”active”and more “positive” policy had to be seriously considered-was surprisinglywidespread. TheAmerican government, of course, never came close to implementing a preventive war strategy. As far as the public as a whole was concerned, the idea seems to have had only a limited appeal.2 What ran deep, however, was a tremendous sense of foreboding. If the Soviets were allowed to develop nuclear forces of their own, there was no telling what might The author is grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and to his colleagues and friends at MIT and elsewhere for their support. An earlier version of this article was presented to a conference held in May 1988 under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and SciencesCommittee on History, the Social Sciences, and National Security Affairs. The author would especially like to thank those who took part in that meeting for their comments and criticism. Marc Trachtenberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. This article was written while he was a MacArthurlSSRC Fellow in lnternational Peace and Security in the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program at MIT’s Center for International Studies. 1. General Leslie Groves, “Statement on the atomic bomb and its effect on the Army,” appendix to JCS 147716, January 21, 1946, in CCS 471.6 (8-15-45), sec. 2, Record Group (RG) 218, United States National Archives (USNA), Washington, D.C. There is a slightly different version, dated January 2, 1946, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS),1946, Vol. I, pp. 1197-1203. Eisenhower, who thought Groves’sviews were ”perhaps extreme in some respects,” nevertheless had a high regard for the paper as a whole. See Louis Galambos, ed., The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Vol. VII, pp. 760-761, 641-642, n. 7. See also James Schnabel, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staf, Vol. I, 1945-47 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govemment Printing Office [US. GPO], 1979), pp. 281-282. 2. Thus in September 1954 a Gallup poll asked: “Some people say we should go to war against Russia now while we still have the advantage in atomic and hydrogen weapons. Do you agree or disagree with this point of view?” Thirteen percent of the sample agreed, 76 percent disagreed, 11 percent had no opinion. Similarly in July 1950, right after the outbreak of the Korean War, 15 percent of a Gallup sample thought the United States “should declare war on Russia now.” Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Atomic Weapons and Nuclear Energy,” Public Opinion Quarterly , Vol. 27 (1963), p. 177; George Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971 (New York Random House, 1972), Vol. 1, p. 930. International Security, Winter 1988/89(Vol. 13, No.3) 8 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 5 International Security 23:3 I6 happen. If they were so hostile and aggressiveeven in the period of America’s nuclear monopoly, what would they be like once this monopoly had been broken? There was no reason to assume that a nuclear world would be stable; wouldn’t the Soviets some day try to destroy the one power that prevented them from achieving their goals by launching a nuclear attack on the United States?The clouds of danger...