• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?

Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years

by McGeorge Bundy
Random House, 735 pp., $24.95


McGeorge Bundy has written an exceptionally important book. When, in 1969, he left the presidency of the Ford Foundation in order to teach history at New York University, he decided to combine his lifelong academic interest in the study of American foreign policy and his experience both on the edges of government (he had helped Henry L. Stimson, FDR’s secretary of war, write his memoirs, and been the secretary of the 1952 Oppenheimer panel on arms and policy) and in power as national security adviser of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For nine years, he worked on a book which, he tells us, is “about political choices in the fifty years of man-made nuclear fission.” It is not about all such choices, but about those that he deems important and that he thinks he can discuss in an informed and useful way.

As he warns his readers, he has really published three books in one. The first is a history, based on archives, of decisions made by Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. The second, based on his experience, reviews Kennedy’s choices. These two parts are detailed (the chapter on the Cuban missile crisis is seventy pages long), olympian in tone, inquisitively and judiciously analytical. The third part is a brief, and often very caustic, commentary on the main public debates about nuclear matters in the Seventies and Eighties—which takes up only about fifty pages. In addition to American policy, Bundy also examines the decisions of Britain, France, Israel, and China to become nuclear powers.

The fate of many large, scholarly, and closely reasoned books is to have readers who look only either at the one issue that interests them or at the conclusions. In the present case, the final chapter, on lessons and hopes, is essential, but it owes its strength to the subtle investigations of historical cases that make up the rest of the book. Bundy is not primarily interested in telling a story, or reconstructing a record. His method is the historian’s, but his concern is didactic and political. What do the actions of statesmen tell us about how to live and survive in the nuclear age, and about how to diminish its danger?

The two most important aspects of the book are the careful reconsideration of how crucial decisions that were made might have been better made, and thus have led to a safer world, and the documented dismissal of the claims of atomic diplomacy—i.e., of false, fanciful, and often fearful connections that are made between levels of nuclear force and political outcomes. Bundy reexamines the past from a point of view that his late friend Raymond Aron would have approved. He puts himself in the shoes of the statesmen and thus avoids the mistakes of ahistorical historians and polemicists, whose criticisms do not take into account the circumstances, or the limited information available to the actors. But at the same time Bundy points out both the flaws of character and style of the men who actually were in those shoes, and the failings of the political process set up by them.

In his analysis of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, Bundy notes the conviction of virtually all officials that Japan would otherwise have surrendered only after an American invasion that would have cost enormous amounts of American lives, and he mentions the “implacable” national mood that endorsed the mass killing of civilians by air assaults—even though military and civilian leaders pretended that their targets were military objectives in the cities. In these circumstances, using the bomb on Japanese towns seemed normal, and the choice of targets was left to the military (the only civilian who intervened was Secretary of War stimson, who saved Kyoto, in order to protect not its inhabitants but its temples and art treasures).

Nevertheless, the fact that the decision was practically unchallenged, except by one scientific report that urged that the US first try a demonstration of the bomb, is something that clearly troubles Bundy. He approves of the goal of ending the war as quickly as possible, but suggests that the process of discussion and decision in the government was set up too late and too narrowly, and that adequate consideration was not given to another, more promising, option John McCloy and Stimson favored: a specific warning (accompanied by an assurance that the Emperor would be allowed to remain on his throne—a decision already made, but which Washington did not want to let the Japanese know about before their surrender). “The Americans who took part in the decisions of 1945 were overwhelmingly governed by the immediate not the distant prospect.”1

Bundy goes on to examine the failure to discuss the future of nuclear weapons adequately with the Soviet Union, despite Stimson’s plea to Truman in September 1945. He finds a pattern of evasion, marked by Truman’s decision to entrust the issue to the UN, and the absence of any serious negotiation after the Soviet rejection of the Baruch-Lilienthal 1946 proposal for an Atomic Development Authority endowed with a worldwide monopoly of control and powers of enforcement that could not be vetoed. This plan was supported both by men who hoped for a Soviet refusal because they saw in the bomb a “winning weapon” (Bernard Baruch) and by scientists who thought that no less stringent scheme could save the world from nuclear danger. A far more modest approach for a deal allowing the Soviets to produce bombs, but limiting the numbers and uses for both sides, was never seriously considered.

Later, in 1949, when Truman had to decide whether to order the production of the H bomb, the “neglected alternative” was the one proposed by the scientists Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi, who sought “something very much like a thermonuclear test ban agreement,” and wanted to develop the H bomb only if the effort failed. Both the scientists who wanted no H bomb at all (such as Robert Oppenheimer and James Conant) and the cold warriors who wanted it (such as Edward Teller and Admiral Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission) disregarded that suggestion.

Eisenhower’s missed opportunities, in his first term, were largely in the field of arms control. His “atoms for peace” proposal of 1953 did not address the Soviet concern for limiting the numbers and uses of weapons. His “open skies” proposal of 1955 did not address “the question of finding a way to offer a balancing incentive in return for Soviet agreement to aerial inspection.”

In his thoughtful reconstruction of the Cuban missile crisis, Bundy does not find much to criticize. He spends most of his time explaining why the course Kennedy selected was better than the ones suggested then or later. In particular, he convincingly rejects the possibility that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba could have simply been accepted (just as Russia had accepted American missiles in Turkey); Kennedy’s warnings had been too clear, congressional determination was too strong, for anything less than the removal of the Soviet missiles to be acceptable. Should Kennedy, at least, have informed Khrushchev privately of America’s discovery of the missiles before denouncing them in public, announcing a “quarantine,” and requesting their removal on October 22, 1962? The administration feared that a quieter approach would give Khrushchev time to complicate things—perhaps he would go public first and then dig himself deeper in Cuba. (As Douglas Dillon, secretary of the treasury and one of the hawks on Kennedy’s Executive Committee, put it, “We needed a fait accompli to meet theirs.”2

Nevertheless, even in what Bundy clearly believes to have been Kennedy’s finest moment, he finds some things disturbing. The Kennedy strategists failed to think in advance about what to do if American warnings were disregarded by Khrushchev; they tended to see in his move only a gross deception (even though it was understood that he must have ordered the operation before Kennedy’s warnings) instead of trying to grasp the Soviet leader’s reasons for the secret deployment. Khrushchev thought that the US would attack Cuba again, after having failed at the Bay of Pigs. He “certainly knew of our program of covert action against Cuba, and he could hardly be expected to understand that to us this program was not a prelude to stronger action but a substitute for it.” Bundy also believes that his and his colleagues’ fear about the Soviet missiles becoming operational if too much time elapsed before their elimination was excessive—it would not have mattered much—and that Kennedy’s speech of October 22 was too rhetorical.

In much the same way Bundy chides Henry Kissinger for an overheated presentation, then and in his memoirs, of the famous nuclear alert of October 24, 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur War. The alert was decided on as a “signal” of US opposition to a Soviet threat of sending forces to Egypt in order to help save an encircled Egyptian army from the Israelis, who had not carried out the ceasefire the superpowers had just imposed. The crisis was quickly resolved and the talk of nuclear danger was obviously excessive.

Three kinds of misjudgment on the part of national leaders emerge from Bundy’s book. The first he mentions time and again, but never really analyzes: the tendency of most American leaders, in a contest with an enemy assumed to be on a ruthless course of world domination, to feed the arms race by decisions for “more” rather than “enough.” Bundy notes that Truman never rejected recommendations from the Atomic Energy Commission, and later from the military, for expanded nuclear production, although he could certainly have done so. Eisenhower left “an extraordinary legacy, both in its quality, and in its excess.” He accelerated the development of ballistic missiles without considering seriously a previous attempt at an agreement with the Soviets on a ban.

As for McNamara, the criteria he set for “assured destruction of the enemy”—the concept he wanted to use in order to control and limit the procurement of nuclear weapons—nevertheless were based on “worst-case assumptions about future Soviet capabilities” and in his recommendations for procurement “he regularly went above the levels required by strict analysis.”3 McNamara failed to oppose multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV) because he deemed them necessary to penetrate eventual Soviet anti-ballistic missile defenses. Not only did the Soviets, in the 1972 ABM Treaty, give up building such defenses, but a MIRVed world turned into a nightmare because MIRVs made land-based missiles on both sides far more vulnerable. “The fixed MIRVed ICBM is a good killer but not a good survivor.” It gives each side, in a crisis, a reason to want to fire its land-based missiles before the other side attacks them. Later administrations made things worse by developing the MX (whose “basic design was incompatible with a sensible basing mode”), and by launching SDI, a costly, technologically dubious and vulnerable system that will carry the arms race into outer space unless it is used only as a bargaining chip for arms control.

  1. 1

    In dealing with, and trying to refute, Michael Walzer’s moral case (in Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 1977) against dropping the bomb, Bundy is right to say that Walzer’s argument ought to apply equally to conventional indiscriminate city bombings; but Walzer agrees, except for situations of extreme emergency. And Walzer’s case rests in part on his idea that a modification of the request for unconditional surrender might have resulted in Japanese capitulation without any resort to the bomb—a point Bundy does not meet head-on. He rightly dismisses as unfounded the notion that the bomb, dropped on Japan, was also aimed at affecting Soviet behavior.

  2. 2

    Quoted in James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink (Hill and Wang, 1986), p. 49. See also Bundy’s comments there, p. 245.

  3. 3

    McNamara, in Blight and Welch, On the Brink, p. 30, recognizes that the buildup he ordered in 1961 was based on CIA estimates that assumed “that the Soviets would use their full capacity at full tilt”—a perfectly self-fulfilling prophecy. See also John Newhouse, War and Peace in the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 1989), pp. 198–199, on the huge proliferation of the European-based nuclear stockpile, which began under Eisenhower and continued under McNamara.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print