McGeorge Bundy
McGeorge Bundy; drawing by David Levine


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.

A second factor is the government’s addiction to secrecy. Bundy builds a powerful case against it. It was justified during the war, but the historical accident (or necessity) that led to the “first bomb project” taking place in wartime set a dangerous pattern. The commitment to secrecy delayed and restricted to an exceedlingly small number of people the debate on the dropping of the bomb. It led to agreements between Churchill and Roosevelt that nobody else knew about and that were a poor substitute for a long-term joint policy. It inhibited a conversation with the Soviets because the issue of protecting secrets became absurdly tied to the question whether the US should try to reach an agreement on nuclear weapons with Moscow. The obsession with secrecy prevented a public discussion of the move to the H bomb; it led Eisenhower’s subordinates to bury the Oppenheimer panel’s recommendation for public candor; it held Eisenhower back from explaining why the alarmist warnings of a “missile gap” favoring Russia, after the launching of Sputnik in 1957, were wrong.

During the Cuban missile crisis the decision to conceal the fact that the Soviets were told we would remove our obsolete missiles from Turkey if they removed theirs from Cuba (a secret that, according to Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson was never told about4 ) was deemed necessary by Kennedy from the viewpoint of unity at home, particularly in Congress, and in NATO, where Turkey had, earlier, objected to the removal of our missiles. Bundy now finds the reasons for such secrecy less convincing, and he recognizes it as a deception practiced on his colleagues, on the American public, and on US allies. McNamara reported his judgment that the US should never be the first to use nuclear weapons only to the President but kept it from the public. Bundy is equally harsh on the effects of secrecy on the Soviet side. 5

The most important cause of American mistakes, in Bundy’s view, is the style or character of several presidents. Roosevelt reserved everything to himself and never went beyond what had to be decided in the present; he was “the largest single cause of the absence of any serious communication with Russia before Hiroshima” (the second largest being Churchill’s determined opposition). Truman had no qualms about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he “seldom went beyond the counsel he had to choose from. He was not an initiator but a chooser; the buck stopped here, but he waited for the buck to arrive.” The decision on the H bomb “is the only one that fit him as he was by 1950.”

Eisenhower was a puzzling man, full of contrasts: between his proclaimed intention to treat atomic weapons as ordinary munitions and his extreme caution and determination to preserve control over them; between his desire to limit nuclear danger for the world and his penchant for peace schemes that were unacceptable to the Soviets because they worked only to America’s advantage; between his wisdom on the subject of the missile gap and his failure to argue and educate, thus to save his administration from increasing and unnecessary defensiveness on nuclear weapons policy. In his desire for a test ban, there were contradictions, too, between his worry about what nuclear war could do to the atmosphere and the insufficient efforts to follow up these attitudes. There was another contrast, between his own honesty and sincerity, and his reliance on such awful subordinates as Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the man who destroyed Oppenheimer in 1954 by falsifying the record, as Bundy shows in a relentless, masterly, and indignant section of the book.

Bundy admits he is “not a detached observer” of Kennedy, but he blames him and Lyndon Johnson for prolonging the American love affair with nuclear superiority. Nixon endorsed “sufficiency” as a substitute for superiority, but Bundy deplores Nixon’s and Kissinger’s lack of candor, as well as Ford’s failure to conclude a SALT II agreement, and Reagan’s and Weinberger’s “record of internal confusion and public misinformation which is the worst we have had so far.”

Still, Bundy wants to make it clear that many American policies were the correct ones. Bundy praises Eisenhower’s decisions to develop nuclear weapons—such as the Polaris submarine—capable of surviving an enemy attack, and his firm rejection of preventive war (after appearing to be tempted by the idea). He praises McNamara’s rejection of General LeMay’s notion of winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, because he had come to understand that we could never hope to destroy the enemy’s forces (and thus expect to save our cities and limit damage to ourselves).

Bundy obviously believes that the Berlin crises between 1958 and 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis were, on the whole, well handled by the US. He does not sufficiently explore, however, why Kennedy treated Khrushchev’s ultimatum on Berlin, in 1961, so much more dramatically than Eisenhower did in 1958. The differences in the two presidents’ assessments of what would be likely to deter the Soviets explain the contrast only in part. One also has to take into account such factors as the cold war activism of the early Kennedy administration, which was determined to reverse Eisenhower’s alleged passivity, and Kennedy’s apparent feeling that he had to act tough after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs and his unhappy meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. On the whole, however, what Bundy thinks went right can best be understood if one examines the second major argument of the book, and its greatest contribution—its attack on nuclear diplomacy and delusions.


Bundy shows that every president has realized, sooner or later, that the nuclear weapon cannot be treated as an “ordinary,” conventional instrument of war. Truman, for instance, even though he had used the bomb as a normal weapon against Japan, refused to use it in Korea, because, he said, “it is a terrible weapon,” not to be dropped “on innocent men, women, and children.” But not every president, or Soviet leader, or American expert, has understood that it is extraordinary in two other respects as well. It cannot easily be used for political blackmail, as an instrument of diplomacy; and nuclear inferiority (or superiority) need have no significant strategic or political effects.

The use of nuclear threats or deployments for political gain has in fact been attempted by both superpowers, but the record is dismal. On the American side, the only possible successes—“possible” because we don’t know enough about the other side’s actual plans—were during the two crises over Quemoy and Matsu, Taiwan’s offshore islands threatened by the forces of Mao’s China, in 1955 and 1958. Eisenhower and Dulles gave broad warnings that referred to the possible use of atomic weapons, and Chinese bombardments stopped. Not only is the evidence incomplete, but the purpose of the threat was merely to deter, i.e., to prevent a loss, not to comply, i.e., to inflict a loss.

The one attempt at nuclear “compellence” that Eisenhower made, and deemed successful, was aimed, in 1953, at forcing the Chinese and North Koreans to put an end to the interminable stalemate at the P’anmunjom truce talks. But it appears that the Chinese, after Stalin’s death, decided to stop stalling before they received the threats. When Nixon “launched a campaign of deliberate and repeated threat…’to take measures of the greatest consequences’ ” to force the North Vietnamese to stop stalling at the negotiation table, in 1969, he was forced to retreat by domestic opposition.

It may be, according to Bundy, that in the hectic Geneva Conference that put an end to the French war in Indochina in July 1954, the possibility that the US might resort to nuclear weapons to help the French if the war went on “increased the appeal of a peaceful result for the Russians and perhaps also the Chinese.” But it is, he writes, “a cloudy case.” Indeed, a few months earlier, during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower had chosen Dulles’s delaying strategy of cooperation with Congress and “united action” with allies over proposals for immediate military (and possibly nuclear) assistance to the trapped French.6

As for Soviet attempts at practicing atomic diplomacy, one case is very opaque. At the time of military clashes along the Chinese-Russian border in 1969, the Soviets warned other countries that they might use nuclear weapons; but these threats were aimed at getting these countries to press the Chinese to stop, and both sides actually pulled back from confrontation. The three serious cases of Soviet nuclear diplomacy Bundy considers are the two Berlin crises of 1958 and 1961—when Khrushchev threatened the rights of the US, Britain, and France in West Berlin—and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But as Bundy shows, “throughout his Berlin crisis Khrushchev was bedeviled by the intrinsic difficulty that the nuclear danger on which he relied for success was a danger that he knew he must himself stay clear of”—and indeed he had no intention of running a nuclear risk. The first time, he withdrew his ultimatum; the second, he settled for the construction of the Berlin wall. In Cuba, Khrushchev’s bold gamble—probably intended by him more to deter the US but “viscerally” felt as aggressive and intolerable by Americans—turned into a political disaster. (“In ways which Americans did not bother to explain to themselves, the prospect of Soviet thermonuclear warheads on a next-door island was simply insupportable.”)

The main lesson Bundy draws from the crises in Berlin and Cuba is that America’s success resulted not from its nuclear superiority at the time but simply from the danger of nuclear war. The Soviets had initiated both crises, but were held back by that danger, not by the unfavorable ratio of nuclear forces. It was up to them to make the fatal move that could have led to military confrontation and nuclear escalation. Eisenhower had understood this when he stated on April 5, 1954, “Those men…in the Kremlin…love power. They want to be there. Whenever they start a war, they are taking the great risk of losing that power.” American nuclear superiority, in a case—Berlin—where the conventional balance favored the Soviets, was not the decisive counterweight because an American initiative to resort to nuclear arms would have been disastrous for both sides, given the Soviet capacity to retaliate, even with far fewer weapons. It is not, Bundy argues, “what one can do to the enemy that is decisive when a political leader considers this risk. It is what such a war might do to his own country, his own power, and his place in history.”

In Cuba, what obliged Khrushchev to back down was the combination of nuclear danger, again, and American conventional superiority in the region, which gave us choices other than bombing or invading Cuba if the “quarantine” had failed to force the removal of the missiles. It was, again, nuclear peril, not US nuclear superiority, that deterred Khrushchev from “reacting to our blockade by a blockade of his own against West Berlin,” which Kennedy’s men feared. “Our fear was not his hope.” As James Blight and David Welch note in their acute new analysis of the Cuban crisis, the doves and the hawks on the Executive Committee had completely different subjective reactions. The doves were afraid of the unexpected and the uncontrollable, the hawks were confident of American might; they had radically different views of power, risk, and policy.

Bundy minimizes perhaps excessively what might have happened if the US had bombed the Soviet missiles: maybe nuclear war would not have resulted, but military escalation would have been likely, for as the son of Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan (the man who actually decided that Soviet ships would not challenge the quarantine) has stated, the Russians “could not swallow an air strike without a very strong reply.”7 But Bundy remains convinced both that American nuclear superiority was no comfort for an American leader who knew that Soviet nuclear forces “were large enough to make any nuclear exchange an obvious catastrophe for Americans too,” and that the Soviet missile deployments in Cuba constituted no military threat, because Khrushchev would not have dared to use them, and they would not have allowed Khrushchev “any confidence that he could make a winning surprise attack.” Here, Bundy could not be further away from Paul Nitze or Albert Wohlstetter, or others who believe that the Soviet missiles would have changed the balance of power.

If it is nuclear danger, not the state of the nuclear balance, that matters, then calls to exploit for political advantage nuclear superiority or a favorable shift in the nuclear balance make no sense; and Bundy shows that Eisenhower resisted such calls in 1954 and 1957, just as he disregarded Wohlstetter’s fear of Soviet nuclear blackmail after the Sputnik launching. “No marginal advantage,” he writes, “would translate the shared catastrophe into victory for anyone.”

Bundy savages Nitze’s argument, in the 1970s, about the “window of vulnerability” that would allegedly make it possible for the Soviets to exploit, strategically and politically, their growing hypothetical ability to destroy American land-based missiles. To be sure, the Soviet strategic analysts who called for enough nuclear weapons to defeat the enemy, should he provoke war, sounded more like General LeMay than like McNamara. But Bundy writes that “not one of them…supported the assertion in the title of the [Richard] Pipes essay, that the Soviet Union thought it could fight and win a nuclear war.” “Warnings about nuclear blackmail thus reflected not Soviet or American reality, but the state of mind of believers in present danger.”

Does this mean that the balance of nuclear forces does not matter at all? Bundy, wisely, does not press his point too far. A state might be willing to risk nuclear danger, in despair, if the alternative was a conventional disaster—but “each side has carefully avoided that kind of challenge to the other.” Or a state might take the risk if there was a good chance for a disarming attack on the enemy’s nuclear forces and thus hope of a nuclear victory—but both sides have been “amply deterred in fact” from “believing in such a prospect.” Bundy also recognizes that the state of the nuclear balance may affect a country’s diplomatic position: American superiority “may in some degree have stiffened American determination” in Berlin, and made Kennedy “so ready to impose the quarantine” around Cuba. By contrast, in 1984, when American superiority was gone, Reagan declared himself untroubled by “the capabilities of Soviet submarines in the western Atlantic—essentially parallel to those of the missiles of 1962 in Cuba.”

Above all, Bundy is sensitive to the disastrous effects of the perception of inferiority, even in cases where it does not matter in reality. The experience of Quemoy and Matsu in 1955 determined the Chinese to become a nuclear power. It was Khrushchev’s awareness of Soviet nuclear inferiority, and his belief in the political effectiveness of nuclear superiority (i.e., his interpretation of what had happened to him in Berlin) that led him to seek a quick fix, a cheap redress of that imbalance by sending missiles to Cuba. (Here Bundy’s explanation has been confirmed recently by Soviet officials. 8 ) It was America’s unwarranted fear about the “present danger” in the 1970s that led to such extravagance as the MX and the search for effective defenses Bundy does not say, but others have,9 that McNamara’s buildup of American forces, ordered in 1961 (although smaller than Air Force preferences), and the Soviet humiliation in Cuba are largely responsible for the Soviets’ own huge buildup during the 1970s, which set off such anxieties here.

Bundy’s book is, in effect, a reasoned plea against such misperceptions. He tells us that the “balance of terror” is robust, not “delicate” as Wohlstetter had once described it: neither side can hope to escape unacceptable damage if a nuclear war starts. Thus, for him, measures that strengthen the ability of nuclear forces to survive repeated enemy strikes (especially the ability to remain in command and control of them) are justified. The “band of strategic parity” is wide; therefore, enough is enough: neither side will let the other become significantly superior, and

it is not sensible to allow decisions on strategic forces to be governed by the false perception that measures of marginal advantage have the kind of weight that we assume when we count…the tanks and battleships in conventional arms races.

Mutual vulnerability is a fact of nuclear life, not the result of unwise American policies; therefore, strategic defenses on one side only spur new offensive measures on the other. Moving away from vulnerable (and provocative) fixed MIRVed land-based missiles and developing a “modest” arsenal of single-warhead weapons of low yield and high accuracy is all that is needed—the latter would be “the right answer to any ‘small’ first use by anyone.” For Bundy argues that should such a first use hit us, we should be prepared to reply either not at all with nuclear weapons or with a less than proportional retaliation, in order to prevent escalation and to present “a clear-cut invitation to stop,” in a world in which “each side must be vastly more distressed by the warheads it receives than pleased by the warheads it delivers.” But in a world in which misperceptions inevitably persist, could such rationality, once nuclear war has—irrationally—started, really prevail?

In any case, Bundy’s own confident view of the nuclear balance, and his conviction that in a nuclear war only disaster is crystal clear, while “the fog that shrouds the unknown realities of a nuclear war between the two superpowers has wholly new dimensions,” make him pay little attention to what excites most strategic analysts: the quasi-theological debates on doctrine, and the shifts in official targeting plans on both sides.10 He notes the difference between Eisenhower’s reliance on massive nuclear retaliation (in fact, General de Gaulle shared his belief in the obsolescence of large-scale conventional war between nuclear powers) and McNamara’s “flexible response,” which required larger conventional forces. But he also notes that McNamara’s revision of the Eisenhower era’s colossal plans for fighting nuclear wars still left “the options…very large.” He points out that—contrary to what some of the members of the Committee on the Present Danger have argued—American war plans never consisted in “city-busting” only, but he recognizes that many of the targeted military objectives are in or around cities. He argues persuasively that plans for limited nuclear attacks which also call for “maintaining in reserve the force required to meet the continuing…requirement for further reply to further attack” necessitate an ever expanding arsenal. No doctrine can make the prospects of nuclear war less awful; and “no American attack” on the Soviets with nuclear weapons “could reliably protect the country from a terrible reply.”

Thus Bundy sees no alternative to the avoidance of war between the superpowers, and he finds comfort both in the “tradition of nonuse” that has developed since 1945 and in the avoidance of major crises between the superpowers since 1962. The great lessons of the Cuban missile crisis were that such risks could never be run again and that the other side’s needs and fears must be better understood. Another lesson which he does not mention, but which reinforces the imperative of no major crisis, is that wise decisions require time, whereas technological “progress” now makes instant responses both necessary and dangerous.11

For the future, he advocates a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons for the defense of South Korea and Japan and in the Middle East, where “it is the political and social stability of the countries of [the] region that matters most” (a lesson that should have been learned before the Vietnam disaster). In Western Europe, where our allies dread both nuclear war and the end of America’s nuclear guarantee, Bundy rightly points out that the Soviets want no war, and that they are deterred both by NATO’s force and by détente, which it would be very costly for Moscow to destroy. Pulling back a little from his earlier plea for a “no first use” policy in Europe, he now (wisely I think) fudges a bit and suggests that a president should say that he expects “to sustain the tradition of nonuse.”

Above all, it is the president who matters; here, at the very end, Bundy ties together his critique of the past and his analysis of the imperative of coexistence in a world of inescapable nuclear danger, in which technology rules out completely verifiable disarmament as well as perfect defenses. He finds that presidents have been too distant from “the planning, the procurement, and the doctrinal guidance of nuclear defense policy.” Their initiatives are indispensable to the progress of negotiated arms control and unilateral moderation. Bundy favors a START agreement in which the Soviets would accept drastic cuts of their heavy missiles in exchange for constraints on SDI—the deal that Reagan has obstinately resisted.


Bundy’s book is eminently sane, as well as scholarly. If one accepts the now familiar distinction between doves, hawks, and owls—owls being, I believe, sophisticated doves without illusions—Bundy is, here, the owl par excellence. Only rarely does the former official of the somewhat overconfident, arrogant, and nationalistic Kennedy administration prevail over the wise, reflective, and unprejudiced analyst. He describes very well how the British, the French, the Israelis, and the Chinese became nuclear powers. He writes that the US has been remarkably unconcerned about Israel’s nuclear program. He could, however, have gone further in studying the reason for Israel’s official silence on the matter. As he says when he deals with countries that have not yet built a bomb, it may be because boasting of it would amount, for the Israelis, to “stimulat[ing] a mortal threat to themselves by presenting it” openly to their neighbors.

In his treatment of the British and the French, moreover, a distinctive American note creeps in. Churchill, he says, understood that “the right way to deal with the Americans was to win their trust and then rely on it.” But the record of troubled wartime cooperation and of postwar British frustration tells another story. Bundy notes in passing that when the McMahon Act, in 1946, prohibited providing nuclear information to any foreign nation, “no one in authority” explained to Congress Britain’s contribution to nuclear development during the war.

Bundy’s account of French nuclear policy is sound and sympathetic. I agree with him that De Gaulle meant his 1958 request to Eisenhower for a tripartite American-British-French “directorate” dealing with decisions that might lead to nuclear war to be taken seriously. I would only add that De Gaulle always had “two irons in the fire,” and was ready to pursue a policy of aggressive independence if the request was rejected, as it was. But when Bundy concludes that Britain and France have derived no usable influence from their nuclear status, and were determined only by their need of the bomb for self-respect, I think he is too abrupt. To be sure, the bomb would not have helped the Allies during the Suez crisis—but it might have “stiffened their determination.”

Bundy does not see that France’s nuclear policy was above all an investment in a longtime insurance policy against a Soviet bully, should the American protector falter (a calculation comparable to the one Bundy endorses, in China’s case), and an important element in the protection of Western Europe (as he recognizes near the end of the book). As in China’s case, the French bomb was a way of repudiating past humiliation. It was also a way of avoiding a conventional buildup, which De Gaulle deemed absurd since the purpose of policy in Western Europe has to be peace, and nuclear weapons, he thought, are a better deterrent of war. The Kennedy administration’s excommunication of independent allied nuclear forces, its insistence that such forces be “integrated” in NATO, could only be seen in Paris as a power play.

Still, Bundy is right to worry about nuclear proliferation, and about the ability of nations to prevent it, although he remarks that “there is room for external influence” in all the cases of states that are “now thought to be within reach of nuclear-weapon capability.” Twenty-six years ago, the Oppenheimer panel on arms policy for which he worked forecast “a very rapid expansion of stockpiles,” a situation in which neither superpower could have usable superiority, and a nuclear world that might “enjoy a strange stability arising from general understanding that it would be suicidal to ‘throw the switch,’ but ‘a world so dangerous may not be very calm.’ “

The forecast was prophetic, and Bundy has amply documented its (and his) early wisdom. Nuclear weapons have deterred war between the superpowers, but the global powder keg keeps growing, the need to preserve nuclear parity and stability weighs obsessively on Soviet and American leaders, and the nuclear stalemate has recurrently made them seek not-too-dangerous yet violent ways to gain advantages, with results that range from mediocre to miserable. Bundy offers no radical way out, no “reinvention of politics” in the manner of Jonathan Schell, but his analysis as well as his recommendations give reasons for hope. They provide statesmen with seemingly modest but important ways of making the world both calmer and safer. Bundy’s longstanding but insufficiently heeded views complement, reinforce, and are reinforced by, the new thinking of Gorbachev. Let us hope that the coming American president will find the time to read Bundy’s huge, elegantly written, and admirable book.

This Issue

February 2, 1989