Cuba and the Nuclear Risk

Those of a skeptical nature in the United Kingdom and in France have raised the question of whether the United States could be trusted to defend the NATO countries in all contingencies, and if not, whether it might be wiser to have a nuclear striking force of European origin. This is Walter Lippmann's resounding answer, which he delivered in Paris on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Paris Herald-Tribune.
More

The closing years of the nineteenth century were also the closing years of the period of American isolation. The American doctrine of isolation was formulated by our first President: "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible." For, he went on to say, "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation." This was the rule that we lived by with only a brief interlude, during the Wilson Administration, until well into the Second World War.

Today that original American doctrine has been reversed. Now we act on the principle that the vital interests of Europe are the vital interests of America. But in addition to this, there is something radically new in our situation. If there were not something radically new, we could devote all our resources to working out the economic and social and political connections of that greater community to which Europe and the Americas belong. But while we must develop this greater community, the time we live in calls for more than that, and our problems are of a different kind.

It is not only that isolation has ended. It is that we have begun to live in the first years of the nuclear age. Ours is an epoch when the rivalry of two great social orders includes a rivalry in nuclear arms. We were very conscious of that fact during the crisis over Cuba. For in Cuba there was, for the first time in history, the kind of grim and deadly confrontation which could have led to thermonuclear war.

As a scientific phenomenon, the nuclear age began in 1945 with the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. But in world relations the nuclear age really began about ten years later. Until nearly the end of the forties, the United States was the only nuclear power in the world. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device. But it was not until the middle of the fifties that the Soviet Union began to have an armory of nuclear weapons. Beginning about 1955, the West had ceased to have a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and by the end of the 1950s, the Soviet Union had become a very formidable nuclear power.

Since 1955 there have existed in the world two rival and conflicting coalitions armed with nuclear weapons. They are in conflict at many points on the globe. They distrust profoundly each other's purposes.

The essential and novel fact in the contemporary conflict, which distinguishes it radically from the great conflicts of the past—as, for example, that between Islam and Christendom—is that the two coalitions possess nuclear weapons. These weapons differ from all other weapons, even those used as recently as the Second World War, in that they carry with them not only a greater quantity of violence but violence of a radically different order and kind.

In the wars of the prenuclear age, which ended with the bomb on Hiroshima, a victorious power was an organized state which could impose its terms on the vanquished. War damage, though great, was not irreparable, as we can see in the recovery of Europe and of the Soviet Union.

But after a full nuclear exchange, such as the United States and the Soviet Union are now capable of, there might well be over a hundred million dead. After the destruction of the great urban centers of the northern hemisphere, with the contamination of the earth, the water, and the air, there would be no such recovery as we have known after the two world wars of this century.

For all practical purposes, the devastation would be irreparable. The United States has the power to reduce Soviet society to a smoldering ruin, leaving the survivors shocked and starving and diseased. In an exchange of nuclear weapons, it is estimated coolly by our American experts that the Soviet Union could kill between thirty and seventy million Americans. I hesitate to say what would happen to Europe, whether or not it had a nuclear force of its own. But it is a fact that the Soviet Union has far more medium-range missiles capable of reaching Europe than it has long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States.

A war of that kind would be followed by a savage struggle for existence as people crawled out of their cellars, and all the democracies would have to be converted into military dictatorships in order to keep some semblance of order among the desperate survivors.

All that I have said has been said before. But it has not been said by men who have lived through an actual confrontation which could have produced such a catastrophe. If anyone wishes to understand the American position in the Cuban crisis and the American attitude toward military power in the world today, he must remember that responsible Americans do not dare to forget the reality of the nuclear age. I know some of these men. They live with these realities. For that reason, they do not find themselves in close sympathy with those Europeans who talk as if nuclear weapons were merely a bigger and better kind of artillery, and who think that the new weapons are subject to the same rules of warfare and of diplomacy as were the old.

Because nuclear weapons mean mutual suicide, the paramount rule of policy in this age is that, as between the nuclear powers, there can be no important change in the status quo brought about by the threat of force or by the use of force. Nuclear war cannot be used, as war has been used in the past, as an instrument of national policy. The Cuban affair has much to teach us about the nature of diplomacy in the nuclear age.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In