The Great Debate: Theories of Nuclear Strategy
Some half-dozen years ago in his book On War Raymond Aron wrote: “The atom bomb, developed at a moment when two states were overwhelmingly more powerful than all others, has reinforced the bipolar structure of the diplomatic field. On the other hand, once the bomb is at the disposal of every state, it will contribute to the dissolution of the structure.” As the coda of the cold war alliances this is eminently concise and irrefutable.
With this prognosis fulfilled by the decay of NATO and the fission of the Sino-Soviet bloc, Aron has recently been concerned with the problems of alliance and diplomacy in the age of nuclear diffusion. In his massive Guerre et Paix entre les Nations, to be published in America this spring, he looks at future history through the eyes of a pessimistic philosopher. In The Great Debate he focuses on the narrower, but perhaps more pressing, problem of nuclear strategy: where it came from and what to do about it. Weaving the various, and continually changing, American defense doctrines into a coherent pattern, he both explains and defends them to a skeptical French audience. At the same time he touches upon some of the political disputes within the Atlantic alliance which have been fed by the debate over nuclear strategy. This book, with its descriptive subtitle. Theories of Nuclear Strategy, grew out of a series of lectures given by Aron two years ago in his role of professor at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris. It is a tribute to his acumen, and a comment on the intractability of alliance diplomacy, that the dilemmas he poses are pretty much the same today as when he unveiled them to his students. Revised by Aron last spring, and translated with style, clarity, and an admirable verve by Ernst Pawel, this is a valuable study which elucidates the still-unresolved debate over nuclear strategy that has roused NATO into a simulation of activity.
Starting from the generally accepted premise that atomic weapons have thrown most of the old theories of warfare—defeat on the battlefield, disarming the enemy, occupation of his homeland—out the window, Aron shows how both offense and defense have given way to something quite different: the art of deterrence. Nations don’t build hydrogen bombs to use them, but to prevent enemies from using theirs. Now that the victor can expect to suffer the same fate as the vanquished, the recourse to atomic warfare becomes in itself the acceptance of defeat. Thus all nations possessing the Bomb dare not use it as an instrument of warfare, yet they must threaten to use it in certain circumstances if the deterrent is to work. “It is,” Aron comments of this paradox, “as if the non-use of these weapons for military purposes were inseparable from their continuous use for diplomatic ends.”
Deterrence being a juggling act by definition, the balance is constantly changing as new nations and weapons are thrown into the arena. Kennedy came to power with the inheritance of a…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.