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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.2 (2000) 125-127

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Book Reviews

Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb:
Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

John Lewis Gaddis, Philip H. Gordon, Ernest R. May, and Jonathan Rosenberg, eds., Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 398 pp. US$39.95.

The persistence of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War raises questions about their strategic legacy. Did these weapons prevent an all-out East-West military conflict during the Cold War, and if so, does their deterrent effect continue even now? Or were nuclear arms of only marginal importance in preserving stability? Did they make the conflict more intractable than it otherwise would have been, and are they still a threat to the international order? Understanding how leaders in both East and West confronted "the bomb" during the Cold War will help put these questions into sharper perspective.

The authors of this important book of essays, most of them younger scholars using an abundance of primary sources, were brought together by John Gaddis and Ernest May to test John Mueller's provocative thesis that the large arsenals of nuclear weapons were of little or no importance in preventing conflict during the Cold War. Mueller has argued that "major war" was rendered "obsolete" by the sobering experiences of the two World Wars, rather than by the destructive power of nuclear weapons alone. Naturally, it is impossible to prove or disprove a thesis about something that did not happen. Nonetheless, the book does confirm the editors' hypothesis that "nuclear learning" induced Cold War leaders to "change their views about the utility of force" (p. 141).

More important, however, the book presents overwhelming evidence that the main protagonists in the Cold War failed to come to grips with the ambivalent results of their learning. This crucial subject deserves even more discussion than is found in the book. Leaders on both sides tried valiantly but were never really able to decide what to do with their nuclear arsenals. They became mired in contradictions whenever they attempted to formulate policies for the use of nuclear arms. This confusion, which persisted at least until the late 1960s, raises doubts about the alleged role of nuclear weapons as guarantors of stability.

The essays in this volume reveal that the implications of nuclear weapons were not immediately evident to all. For some, the bomb was a "normal" weapon. S. David Broscious shows that Harry Truman was ready to use the bomb but felt morally inhibited about it even when he was provoked during the Korean War. Vladislav Zubok argues that Josif Stalin was not similarly inhibited but was constrained by the inferiority of his nuclear arsenal. With the advent of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s, however, officials on all sides knew that war would bring incalculable devastation. [End Page 125] From that point on, the dilemma of how to use the bomb without actually using it perpetually haunted the leaders of nuclear-armed states.

Among those who tried to resolve the dilemma was Winston Churchill, who is treated sympathetically in this volume by Jonathan Rosenberg. Churchill frequently changed his mind about the bomb, at times wishing to launch a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union, and at other times nurturing the hope of a deal with Stalin's successors. John Foster Dulles, who is judged harshly by Neal Rosendorf, tried harder to reconcile morality with diplomacy and grand strategy, but, according to Rosendorf, he was no more successful than Churchill. Dulles sensed, correctly, that "this thing [the nuclear standoff] must go on indefinitely" (p. 80) until there was a fundamental change in the Soviet system.

By comparison, Eisenhower's superior military education and experience, duly emphasized in the perhaps excessively admiring essay by Andrew Erdmann, did not help him sort out the contradictions of nuclear weapons. His insistence that the fundamental nature of war had not changed was inconsistent with his admission that thermonuclear weapons made war "preposterous" (p. 107). Similarly, Nikita Khrushchev, discussed by...


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