50 Years Ago in The Atlantic September 2004

“When Russia Is Ready”

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the question of whether protecting U.S. national security warranted a preventive war was fiercely debated. The question was not new. In the September 1954 Atlantic, Thomas K. Finletter, who had recently served as the Secretary of the Air Force, broached it in a very different context.

The day is about to come when the Russians will have enough bombs and the aircraft with which to deliver them to make a sneak atomic attack on the United States which will destroy our major cities and most of our industry …

We should assume for the purposes of our national policies and planning that the Russians will reach this absolute point during the year 1956.

The Russians have and always will have one great advantage in the air-atomic race which we cannot take from them. This is the willingness—which they have and we do not—to make a sneak Pearl Harbor-type attack …

This is why some men think of preventive war. Moral arguments lose their weight in the presence of a simple logic: to live under a threat of obliteration by the Russians, at a time of their choosing, is intolerable. The Russian Communist government is not likely to hesitate to blow us to pieces if it thinks it would advance Russia's interests, nor will the Soviet government be deterred by the possibility of heavy losses in the course of the attack and of our counterattack; it is therefore wrong, immoral, the proponents of preventive war argue, for those whom we have elected to run the United States government to allow the country to be put in such a position; whereas if we should attack the Russians before they get their absolute power we could destroy this threat. Why do we hand the Russians this advantage of being the only ones who would strike first?

The fact is that we are handing the Russians this advantage, and I believe that we shall continue to hand it to them. I do not believe that the present Administration, or its predecessor, or any Administration that will succeed it, would or will make preventive war.

[Volume 194, No. 3, pages 29—30]

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