Limited War

Must we be prepared to fight limited wars? Yes, says HANSON W. BALDWIN,the military analyst of the New York TIMES,for there hare been twenty-three of them since V-J Day. And can limited tears be prerented from extending into total nuclear war? That is the graver question which he discusses in the latter half of this searching paper.



A FEW months ago a three-star admiral publicly admitted the most significant politico-military heresy yet confessed by a man in uniform. Vice Admiral “Cat” Brown, until last fall commander of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, now NATO’s southern commander at Naples, answered a question at the National Press Club in Washington with a simple negation which struck at the heart of many of the nation’s military policies. “I have no faith,” he said, “in the so-called controlled use of atomic weapons. ... I would not recommend the use of any atomic weapon no matter how small, when both sides have the power to destroy the world.”

Admiral Brown, long noted for his sharp uncompromising judgments, his incisive mind and ready opinions, added that he did not believe there was any dependable distinction between tactical, or localized and restricted, targets or situations and strategic, or unlimited, situations.

Admiral Brown, being human, may well be wrong. But he has been a serious student of modern war, both at the Air War College and the Naval War College, and he exercised for two years one of the most important sea commands the Navy can offer — the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean— during the period of the AngloFrench-Israeli attack on Egypt, a succession of Syrian crises, the Iraqi coup, and last summer’s intervention by the United States in Lebanon. Faced repeatedly in the troubled Middle East with the possibility of limited wars which might become unlimited, “Cat” Brown renounced the use of battlefield nuclear weapons as too risky.

Brown’s statement in Washington is representative of the opinions of other students of war who feel that Henry A. Kissinger in his book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, was guilty of oversimplification. Kissinger’s major thesis with which nearly all students of war and politics in the atomic age will agree — was that the nation must be prepared to fight and win limited wars. But he advocated the waging of limited wars with small tactical nuclear weapons, and he implied that the development and proper employment of such weapons would compensate for our inferiority in land strength compared with that of the Communist powers. Our advanced nuclear technology was the answer to the hordes from the East.

But, as Roger Hilsman remarked in a recent paper. “On NATO Strategy" (written for the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research), “There is nothing to indicate . . . that a good, big atomic army would not be able to defeat a good, little atomic army.” And it is clear that Russia will have, in time, small tactical nuclear weapons in plenty; we may have a tactical nuclear advantage today, but we shall not have that advantage tomorrow.

There are many who challenge the comfortable thesis that limited wars can be fought and won despite inferiority in numbers and conventional arms by utilizing small, or battlefield, nuclear weapons. They challenge this thesis on two grounds: that of Admiral Brown, that the utilization of any kind of nuclear weapon is likely to spread the conflagration and to risk unlimited war; that of Mr. Hilsman, that, other things being equal, a small atomic army is at a disadvantage compared to a big atomic army.

This debate, which deals in its broadest terms with life or death for our nation — indeed, for civilization — requires a cold-blooded, dispassionate, objective analysis and discussion. This paper has been tailored to try to fit these guidelines, not because the author is unaware of the justifiable fears and emotional pressures of the nuclear age, but because only rational judgments can help us to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear war.

The debate calls for definitions, then for some answers to these questions:

Is limited war possible? If so, how can it be fought successfully without undue risk of spreading the conflict into an unlimited one?

Can nuclear weapons be used, without such undue risks, in limited wars? If they can, would their military advantages compensate for their admitted political and psychological liabilities?


In the Pentagon today, general war — that is, unlimited war — is usually defined as any war in which U.S. and U.S.S.R. armed forces meet face to face. There are a few, particularly in the Army, who believe that a war between the United States (and its allies) and Soviet Russia (and its satellites) might possibly be fought without the use, or with restricted use, of nuclear weapons. But such a war — a war roughly similar to World War II — scarcely fits the definition of “limited”; it would certainly be unlimited as to area, and the chances of keeping it nonnuclear would be slight. If there is a world war, unlimited as to area, between the United States and Russia no holds will be barred.

A limited war might be any war in which U.S. and Soviet forces are not fighting each other. Such a war, in a sense, was Korea, where Russia fought against the United States chiefly by proxy, utilizing North Koreans and Chinese equipped with Soviet arms. The Indochinese war, with Communism directly involved ideologically but with Russian participation limited to economic aid, weaponry, and perhaps some technological advice and assistance, was another limited war.

Yet, on a small scale, Russian and U.S. armed forces have frequently opposed each other since World War II in shooting and nonshooting incidents without general war resulting. West Berlin is one battleground still potential as far as shooting is concerned, but the much-advertised May deadline is fast approaching. Only last fall an American battle group in Berlin, supported by tanks, was alerted, assembled, and prepared to march when the Russians stopped and held some American trucks at an Autobahn check point. There was no clash; the alert was sufficient; the trucks were released.

Again and again and again U.S. and Soviet planes have clashed in actual shooting frays, from the Sea of Japan and the vicinity of Kamchatka to the Baltic and Armenia. Numerous U.S. planes, and probably some Russian planes, have been lost in these clashes, yet there has been no war. In Korea, Russian-speaking Soviet pilots flying Soviet planes rose to do battle with U.S. pilots and planes. Again there was no general war.

Any definition of limited war, therefore, as one in which U.S. and Soviet forces do not oppose each other is too narrow. Under certain restraining circumstances (for example, in Korea the Soviet pilots utilized the fighting chiefly for training, as both the Nazis and the Communists did in the Spanish Civil War) U.S. and Soviet forces might actually fight each other without general war resulting.

Limited war is limited not so much by the nationalities of the combatants as by the objectives of both sides, the weapons and methods employed (in other words, the degree of force), and the geography and extent of the fighting. The nationalities involved are, of course, important from a prestige viewpoint, but Communism can always, if it desires and if its objectives are limited, conceal participation of Russian forces under the guise of “people’s volunteers” or in other ways.

World history demonstrates that limited wars are the only kind that have occurred since World War II. About twenty-three limited wars or war situations have been recorded since 1945. General Maxwell D. Taylor, Army chief of staff, studied seventeen of these wars and pointed out that they have not necessarily been small or short wars. “By striking a statistical time-manpower balance of all seventeen limited wars,” he said, “one finds that they have averaged about two and a half years in duration and nearly six hundred thousand men engaged.”

In none of these wars have atomic weapons been used, though they have been available in several instances and at least once their use was threatened (the Soviet missile threat at the time of the Anglo-French-Israeli attack upon Egypt).

These limited conflicts or situations have ranged in scope from Korea (where a total of half a million Americans were engaged over a threeyear period at a cost of more than thirty thousand U.S. lives — our fourth largest conflict) to the Lebanese expedition of last summer, where a total of some fifteen to sixteen thousand U.S. Marines and soldiers landed in the Levant, backed up by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. A few of these situations, like Lebanon, did not involve actual shooting for U.S. forces; the vast majority of them, including the revolt in Hungary, involved the employment by one side or the other or both of all types of ground arms available - - and often many types of air and naval armaments — short of nuclear weapons.

Thus, the lessons of history are plain; limited wars continue even in the shadow of the atomic age. General Taylor’s “inference that they will continue and that the rate of occurrence may increase" seems logical, based on past experience.

The answer to the first question — Is limited war possible? — is therefore clearly an affirmative one. But history gives us no clue as to whether or not nuclear weapons could be used in such conflicts without spreading them. For in none of the twenty-three wars since World War II have nuclear weapons of any sort actually been utilized.


Whether or not nuclear weapons can, under certain circumstances, be employed or whether, if we want to keep war limited, they must be relegated to a background role depends fundamentally upon the answer to the second question: How can a limited war be fought without undue risk of spreading into an unlimited one?

A limited war, if it is to be kept limited, must be fought for limited and well-defined political objectives, with limited military force and, generally, in a limited geographic area.

A limited war must be limited first and fundamentally by the objectives, intentions, and will of the participants. As Kissinger correctly stresses, the primary requirement for keeping a war limited is the limitation of the political and military objectives for which the war is fought. The destruction of Carthage, the unconditional surrender of Germany were unlimited aims which helped to induce unlimited wars. No war which has as its objective the absolute destruction of Russian power or the complete elimination of Communism can be limited; in fact, one can say, with the sure support of history, that ideological wars have always led to unlimited conflicts. An idea has peculiar vitality; it cannot be destroyed by the sword; from death and destruction it springs phoenixlike to new dimensions. A war of fuzzy, ill-defined, or unlimited aims encourages unlimited means. The fundamental requirement to keep war limited is to know what you are fighting for, to define the price you are willing to pay for the objectives you are determined to gain, to make certain that those objectives arc realizable without forcing the main enemy, Russia, into the position of a cornered wolf—desperate, irrational, fighting back with all-out effort.

The Korean War, under the ground rules imposed (by ourselves, our allies, and our enemies), was a war of limited objectives. One could quarrel with those objectives, with the strategic and tactical means we used to try to achieve those objectives, and with our fluctuating policies; nevertheless, in Korea, probably for the first time in our history, we fought for something besides victory unlimited.

And, despite General Douglas MacArthur’s dictum that the object of war is victory, future wars if they are to remain limited and if victory is to have any tangible meaning must similarly stress limited objectives. For unless military victory is defined in tangible political terms, in limited terms, war is not only slaughter but senseless irrational carnage,

Hitler started World War II with definite and attainable limited objectives: the elimination of the Polish corridor and the conquest of Poland. But his ambitions, plus the fact, that he forced his adversaries into a corner, led him to substitute an unattainable and unlimited objective: the conquest of Europe and Russia - in fact, mastery of the world. The Allies, in opposing Hitler’s ends, postulated a fuzzy and unlimited aim — unconditional surrender — for what should have been well-defined political objectives.


The first requirement for a limited war, then, is a limited, well-defined political objective attainable by limited military strength. It should be stated and restated that war is not an end in itself; war is justifiable only if it is a servant of policy, if it is invoked to achieve a definite political aim, if it is fought for the vital interests of the nation, and if it results in increased security for the nation and in a more stable world.

These limited objectives require statement and restatement, emphasis and re-emphasis, throughout the conflict. This is important for two reasons: the effect upon our own people and our friends, the effect upon the enemy. When war starts, fear, hysteria, and emotion are powerful allies of unreason; they tend toward the war’s extension, the substitution of unlimited means for unlimited ends. This trend, so pronounced in Korea, can be checked and controlled only by clear-cut definitions of our aims, understandable not only and not primarily to a schoolboy but also to the parents of the boys who must die for limited ends. Reason, indeed, may not be able to cope with emotion, but unless there is a rational checkrein the end is chaos.

Similarly, such a statement is essential if a national frustration, such as that which developed during the latter stages of the Korean War, is to be avoided. The enemy, too, must be assured and reassured that our objective is limited, that we do not intend his complete destruction, that there is a way out, lest through fear he extend the conflict to an unlimited one. The corollary to this, of course, is the tacit threat—a threat credible to him — that unless he, too, keeps his aims and methods limited, we shall clobber him.

The devastating power of nuclear weapons and the speed and elusiveness of their carriers—jet planes, rockets, atomic submarines — mean that the first requirement for keeping a limited war limited is, ironically, the capability of extending it. The rifleman of today and tomorrow fights under the awful shadow of the wings of global death. The capability of invoking all-out nuclear retribution is the most certain military sanction —the surest, though an imperfect, guarantee — that a limited war will remain limited, that an enemy will not etexnd it lest he suffer terribly and unacceptably in retribution. Thus national psychology, as well as national aims, plays a part in limited war.

But if war is to be limited, we clearly cannot use unlimited means to attain limited ends. Limited war implies not only a tangible definition of restricted and attainable objectives but also a restraint on the use of force, a limitation of the means and weapons.


All-out military power today — power unlimited, power unrestrained — implies clearly the death of civilization as we know it. Enough atomic weapons now exist to destroy, if delivered, the principal cities of Russia and the West, to leave large areas of irradiated earth uninhabitable, to kill probably hundreds of millions of people. Clearly the use of large numbers of nuclear weapons implies an ever-expanding and unlimited war. Equally clearly, discrimination as to the power and size of the weapons employed is essential if a war is to be limited, for a limited war means limited devastation.

A metropolis-busting “thermonuke” with explosive power of at least a megaton (one million pounds of TNT equivalent) is an area weapon. Its blast and heat effects, though finite, are tremendous. A megaton weapon, for instance, would devastate sixty to seventy square miles and cause grave damage well beyond this area.

The bomb’s invisible killer, radioactivity, would pose a far less finite and far less calculable effect. The burst of neutrons and gamma rays released at the instant of the blast would be dangerous about as far as the blast and heat. But some of the atomic fission products of the explosion, strontium 90 and other long-lived particles, would be sucked up into the stratosphere and deposited around the earth gradually through months and even years, with physiological and genetic results still imprecisely known. Even more dangerous would be the local fall-out, in a wide elliptical swath downwind from the explosion, of dust and dirt particles impregnated with radioactivity by the blast. Local fall-out may vary from negligible, if the fireball is well above the earth and rain or snow does not quickly precipitate the fission products and residual particles, to very heavy, if the earth is scourged and beaten and particles are sucked up into the vortex of the atomic cloud. As the Japanese fishermen in the ill-named Lucky Dragon discovered, dangerous radioactivity from local fall-out can lay a blanket of death across hundreds of miles.

“The Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” a Department of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission handbook, states that “if only five per cent of a one megaton bomb’s energy” is spent in scourging the earth with its fireball, “something like 20,000 tons of vaporized soil material will be added to the normal constituents of the fireball. In addition, the high winds of the earth’s surface will cause large amounts of dirt, dust, and other particles to be sucked up as the ball of fire rises.”

It can be argued that the so-called “clean” bomb will reduce or eliminate radioactivity. It has, indeed, in certain circumstances already done so. But the big bombs are triggered by an initial fission reaction. The megaton-category weapons are three-stage devices. An atomic trigger explodes and provides the necessary heat to bring about the fusion (the second stage) of tritium. In turn, the fusion reaction releases neutrons which then cause the fission of the third stage, a casing of plutonium. The nuclear fission products are responsible for most of the dangerous radioactivity; if they could be eliminated, most of the long-lived global radioactivity could be eliminated and local fall-out would be reduced.

“The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” gives some startling estimates. About one and three quarters ounces of fission products “are formed for each kiloton (or 110 pounds per megaton) of fission energy yield.

“At one minute after a nuclear explosion . . . the radioactivity from the one and three-quarters ounces of fission products from a one kiloton explosion is comparable with that of a hundred thousand tons ot radium.”This means that radiation — exclusive of that released at the instant of blast — for a megaton bomb is equivalent to that of about one million tons of radium. This radioactivity decays rapidly, but nevertheless some of the long-lived products could make an area uninhabitable for years.

Actually U.S. bombs have been made cleaner by reducing or eliminating the coating of plutonium (the third-stage reaction) and by making the original fission trigger (the first stage) as small as possible. These steps must inevitably reduce the power of the so-called clean thermonuke, though it remains a city-busting weapon. But radioactivity has not been eliminated entirely. The fission trigger is still essential to produce the heat necessary to activate the fusion of the second stage. Someday, perhaps, other means of triggering a fusion reaction may be developed, and the 100 per cent clean bomb that Dr. Edward Teller and others have talked about may be possible.

Even so, this will not mean the complete elimination of radioactivity; no fission or fusion weapon can ever be clean in the sense that it will explode without any radioactivity. But the most dangerous radioactive by-products, the long-lived fission products, will be eliminated, and hence global fall-out of strontium 90 and other dangerous elements will be largely eliminated and local fall-out may be reduced. The burst of radiation incident to explosion will still occur, and if the fireball touches the earth man will still have to cope with local fall-out incident to the impregnation of dust and dirt by radioactivity.

The problem of clean bombs is, in any case, a two-edged one. For the offensive side, if a ground army is to pass over an area which has been subject to atomic bombardment a clean weapon would be tactically desirable. For the defense, a dirty weapon would increase the hazards of the enemy. For anti-aircraft use or defense of your own soil against enemy air attack the clean bomb obviously offers a desirable safety factor. In allout city-busting war, the side that used a clean bomb while an enemy used a dirty one might well be at a disadvantage. The clean-bomb problem, therefore, is far from simple; it has a Jekyll-Hyde aspect. The important point, however, is that no bomb now is completely clean; small clean weapons may in time be developed, but only if testing is continued.

All this adds up to the fact that even the cleanest weapon is not subject to precise, pre-use prediction as to extent and lethality and area of fall-out; these will depend upon the height of the burst over the earth, the speed and direction of the wind, the size and design of the bomb, the composition of the earth beneath the burst, and other factors. A metropolis-busting bomb might well be timed to detonate high above a city, to secure maximum blast effect over a maximum area; but, on the other hand, if an airfield or a missile emplacement were the target, ground or near-ground bursts which would maximize local fall-out would be used.

Thus, it seems clear that no matter what the target the use of area-type nuclear weapons in war — huge thermonukes or powerful fission weapons — would present an incalculable problem which is not subject to prediction and which would produce incalculable effects, thus dangerously increasing the chance of spreading a limited war to an unlimited one.

There might be one exception to this. A single city-buster actually used against a single city might, in the case of war between two nations of greatly differing power, produce unlimited results with, in one sense, limited means. If Russia, for instance, destroyed Istanbul with a single megaton weapon, this limited use of force on Russia’s part might bring about an unlimited result for Turkey: unconditional surrender (though Russia, of course, would face the danger of nuclear retaliation from the United States). But in the case of wars between great powers — specifically, war involving by proxy or subterfuge U.S. troops and Soviet followers — the use of megaton weapons would certainly imply unlimited war. Tremendous thermonukes, whether clean or not, almost certainly have no place in limited war.


What about the smaller atomic weapons, the so-called tactical or battlefield weapons?

Already there are some (many say not enough) of these in the American1 armory. They range in size and power from several kilotons (one thousand tons) to many hundred kilotons, and tests of experimental weapons with fractional kiloton yields were conducted in Nevada last year. The Redstone two-hundred-mile rocket in service with the Army carries a warhead which is more properly measured by megatons. The Corporal ninetymile liquid-fueled rocket, soon to be replaced by the solid-fueled Sergeant, carries a “mediumsized” warhead (many times more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Little John and Honest John field artillery rockets, with about tento seventeen-mile ranges, have a smaller atomic punch but are still mightier than the World War II bombs. The eight-inch howitzer is today the smallest gun which can fire a nuclear shell, but tomorrow’s plans contemplate nuclear weapons, like Davy Crockett, light enough to be man-packed by infantry.

Critics, including former Atomic Energy Commissioner Thomas Murray, point out, however, that the United States has no really small, “discriminating” tactical weapons today. Even a one-kiloton weapon (equivalent to one thousand tons of TNT) has almost one hundred times the explosive force of World War II’s largest conventional bomb, which was used only strategically (against cities), not on the battlefield. There is an important, though so far minority, school of thought in the Pentagon which believes that atomic weapons with yields as low as ten tons of TNT equivalent must be produced. Their advantages, as compared to conventional explosives, would be lightness and small size and discrimination, or localization of the weapons’ effects — the latter obviously important to the limitation of war.

In addition to weapons handled by ground troops there are many different types of nuclear weapons for fighter-bomber use, for air-to-air missiles, and as warheads for anti-aircraft missiles like Nike-Hercules. The Navy has nuclear depth charges and warheads for missiles (replacing guns) and torpedoes.

These so-called battlefield weapons have one common characteristic: they are all fission weapons, except for the largest, which may be fissionfusion. Long-lived fission products are, therefore, an inevitable result, and clean or even cleaner small weapons are still some time in the future, if indeed they are ever developed.

Moreover, to destroy many so-called battlefield or tactical targets — airfields, fortifications, gun emplacements, hardened missile sites — ground bursts are required. Other targets, such as troop concentrations, can be eliminated by air bursts. Faulty fusing will, of course, detonate some weapons intended as air bursts at ground level. Furthermore, since many of these weapons are small and the atomic cloud does not rise to as high an altitude as the towering clouds produced by the bigger bombs, the fission particles are not carried upward into the stratosphere to be gradually precipitated after dissipation hundreds or thousands of miles away. Local fall-out is therefore a danger.

The point is that radioactivity presents much the same problem in miniature with small weapons that it presents with big ones; the danger on the battlefield is local, rather than global, fall-out. The Army, indeed, has developed templates keyed to wind direction and intensity, size and height of burst, which, when laid down on a map and oriented to ground zero, indicate immediately to a commander the radioactive danger areas to the enemy or to his own troops. But radioactivity, in the case of the use of nuclear weapons against ground targets, tends to defy exact definition and limitation.

Target selection and elimination present another problem in the attempt to exercise restraint, to limit war, in a conflict in which tactical nuclear weapons are used.

Admiral Brown rightly observed that it is difficult to distinguish between so-called tactical and strategic targets. A two-hundred-mile Redstone missile might be fired at some supply area, railroad junction, or communications bottleneck far behind the line of contact. Is this a tactical or a strategic target? This missile might well hit a city or damage it, with consequent danger — as in World War II, when area bombing by one side accelerated area bombing by the other — of spreading the war.

In the simulated battlefield nuclear exercises that have been held by U.S. forces, notably Operation Carte Blanche in Germany and Sage Brush in Louisiana, the limitation of the conflict proved difficult and, to the area involved, meaningless. The “wars” started with both commanders utilizing nuclear weapons in relatively small numbers and of small to medium power, against airfields, troop concentrations, and river crossings. But both sides quickly upped their ante. To ensure destruction of the enemy’s airfields, planes, missiles, and missile sites, more and larger weapons were employed, most of them as ground bursts. Before the exercises were concluded, much of Western Europe and much of the Southcentral United States were theoretical shambles, with large areas impregnated with radioactivity. Airfields and missile sites were the targets which attracted larger and larger and more and more bombs, and they present the major difficulty in limiting a nuclear war.


Even if targets are restricted to troops and guns and tanks and to communications and supplies in the immediate battle zones, the problem of making this restriction stick presents appalling difficulties if two large armies, both equipped with all kinds of nuclear weapons, stand face to face. The temptation will still be to up the ante, and in closely knit, thickly settled areas like Western Europe the radioactive debris spewed forth by even the smallest weapons is bound to extend far beyond the fighting zones. This is particularly true since the Army’s concept of our nuclear-age tactics envisages a battle zone with units dispersed over very great frontages and vast depth. Modern ground battlefields may, in other words, literally extend across entire countries.

Thus, in considering the possibility of utilizing small nuclear weapons in limited war, one must take into account not only the power and type and number of the weapons used, not only the targets against which they are employed, but the geography of the battle area. For favorable geographic factors, it is clear, can help to keep a war limited; unfavorable ones mean its certain extension. Any consideration of geography — always a key factor in war — makes it apparent that generalization about the utilization of nuclear weapons in limited war is footless and futile. Each case differs; the risks in one theater are overwhelmingly apparent, in another, slight.

All of the foregoing discussion tends toward one conclusion as far as thickly settled, closely integrated, compact Western Europe is concerned. Limitation in war must mean, if it is to mean anything, limitation of devastation. Yet, in Europe target systems are too intermixed: civilian and military, area and point, tactical and strategic; the battlefield is too small and not sufficiently defined by natural barriers. A limited nuclear war in Western Europe is impossible; the use of nuclear weapons in this area would invoke catastrophe. One bomb would lead to another, a conclusion that has a direct bearing on the problem of Berlin.

Moreover, as far as Western Europe’s opposing ground forces (with their supporting tactical air and missile forces) are concerned, it is at best questionable whether nuclear weapons give any great advantage to the defense. Today, yes; tomorrow, no. Today, yes, because the West probably possesses a greater variety and number of tactical atomic arms; but tomorrow, when both sides have these arms in quantity, a “good, big atomic army” with no major geographic barriers to curtail and choke its power will possess an advantage over a “good, little atomic army.” Some critics even foresee the possibility that Soviet Russia may soon surpass us in variety and numbers of small atomic weapons. As one authority puts it, “Barring changes in present concepts and conditions [budget limitations and lack of interest at the top level] it is not likely that smaller weapons will be stockpiled in significant quantities.”


But there are other battlefields in the world where the nuclear stalemate has not inhibited action, cold or hot, and where geography does aid the defense. Last year during the Quemoy crisis, United States Marines moved some eight-inch howitzers from Okinawa to Quemoy, emplaced them, and turned them over to the Chinese Nationalists. The significance of this move was lost upon much of the world but not upon Peiping and Moscow. These guns have the capability of firing nuclear shells. We did not give the Nationalists any nuclear shells. But the mere emplacement of eight-inch howitzers on Quemoy served as a dual warning. In the first place, their arrival broke the Communist blockade at one stroke as far as artillery ammunition was concerned. A few nuclear shells flown in by plane would equal the power of thousands of conventional rounds, which had to be brought in by sea. In the second place, eight-inch nuclear shells, if fired to detonate above an invading fleet of amphibious vessels and small craft, would doom the invasion. The eightinch howitzers discouraged by their mere emplacement Communist ideas of conquest.

Thus, in Quemoy, for the first time in history, tactical nuclear weapons played the ancient role of the fleet in being. They were never used; the nuclear weapons were, indeed, never sent to Quemoy, but they could have been sent there; the means of delivery, the howitzer, was at hand, and this was one of the factors which induced Peiping to back away. The United States won a limited, incomplete victory in the Quemoy crisis last year; we closed one chapter in an unfinished book with the advantage on our side. An island position thus offers some natural advantages to the defense and, from the point of view of geography, an optimum environment for the utilization of certain types of nuclear weapons with minimum risk of spreading a war.

Shells or missiles or tactical nuclear bombs used against an invading fleet at sea (in the defense of Taiwan, for instance) or the NikeHercules nuclear missile employed against raiding bombers would represent a finite and limited, as well as a defensive, utilization of atomics. The sea and the sky are broad enough to absorb without serious danger the radioactive by-products, and a minimal number of weapons would be necessary to ensure a defensive success. No great risk of spreading the war would be involved; the enemy’s temptation to spread it, to use “nukes” against Taiwan, would be discouraged by the strategic threat of our massed bombing fleets and missiles.

If, on the other hand, the United States in the defense of Quemoy or Taiwan undertook to knock out the Chinese Communist airfields on the mainland, the possibility of limiting the war would be much reduced, particularly when the Chinese acquire nuclear weapons. Thus, there seem to be some grounds for believing that nuclear weapons could be used purely defensively to hold some positions that are sharply delimited and defined by terrain or other natural barriers, particularly island positions or peninsulas such as Korea.

Similarly, nuclear weapons might be used at sea in the form of nuclear depth charges against submarines or possibly in anti-aircraft or air-to-air missiles without too great a risk of larger involvement. But again a sine qua non for keeping a limited war limited would imply their defensive use; if they were used offensively, by enemy planes or submarines against our shipping or by our planes or missiles against enemy land airfields or missile emplacements, there would be far less possibility of limitation.

Thus, it is clear that limited war of any kind, but particularly limited war fought with nuclear weapons, must imply sanctuaries for both sides immune either to attack of any kind or to certain forms of attack.


In weighing the desirability of utilizing nuclear weapons in limited war the alternatives must be considered, and the effects of such use upon political sentiment and mass psychology.

The alternatives to the use of small nuclear weapons in the defense of Quemoy might be defeat for the Chinese Nationalists and for the United States, their ally, or the development, deployment, and maintenance in the Taiwan Strait of far larger conventional forces than the U.S. Seventh Fleet can now muster. If the U.S. Seventh Fleet were ordered today to “take out” all Chinese Communist mainland airfields from which fighter-bomber attacks could be staged against Quemoy and Taiwan, the numbers of sorties required would be approximately one thousand times greater if conventional weapons were used than if nuclear bombs were used. Instead of seven sorties against seven airfields, seven thousand might be required. The United States today does not maintain enough aircraft to mount such a large-scale conventional assault.

This narrowing of alternatives, therefore — defeat, or a far larger conventional force — funnels our efforts more and more toward the utilization of nuclear weapons in limited wars, despite the risks involved. And this canalization is occurring despite the obvious negative political and psychological effects of the utilization of nuclear weapons — particularly if used against Asiatics.

The use of A-weapons in Asia or Africa by the United States or our allies against the colored races would be certain to raise more of a ruckus, even if they brought a quick and advantageous end to the conflict, than the use of A-weapons by Asiatics against Asiatics or by Americans against Russians. This may not be logical, but emotion even more than logic is a major factor in war. The Asiatics cannot forget that so far the A-weapon has been used only by a Western country against an Asiatic one. They associate nuclear power with materialism and colonialism, and the whole is melded by fairly effective Communist propaganda into an anti-Westernism which provides inflammatory tinder for a fission or fusion explosion.

And the utilization of nuclear weapons by the United States would also produce a great surge of public opinion among our allies — perhaps in the United Nations — which, depending upon the circumstances, might hamper or help us in achieving our political goals. Security in the atomic age is thus a complex equation.

It is clear that many factors govern the utilization of nuclear weapons in limited war: The objectives to be attained; the type, military utility, and manner of employment of the atomic weapons selected; the target system; the geography; the probable reactions of the enemy; the probable reactions of our friends and of neutral nations; the political, economic, and military alternatives.

In some circumstances, under certain conditions, some types of nuclear weapons could be used without undue danger of making a big war out of a little one and probably should be used, all factors considered. Under other circumstances their use would be fatal. Our policymakers must make the weapon fit the battlefield and the enemy; the force used must be tailored to the objective desired.


Thus our military policy today presents something of a paradox. For, between extensive global political commitments, some of them to dangerous salients like Quemoy, and an increasingly limited military budget we are narrowing the alternatives available to us. We seem to be committing our armed forces more and more to the utilization of nuclear weapons in small wars as well as large, despite the risks.

Limited wars require conventional arms, not nuclear weapons. If an enemy is prepared to fight with both large and small nuclear weapons we would be at a fatal disadvantage unless we were similarly prepared. Just as we must keep the right fist of strategic nuclear power ready in order to deter enemy nuclear attack upon our cities, so we must maintain highly efficient tactical nuclear capabilities to deter the battlefield use of Aweapons.

What general conclusions, then, can be drawn? A limited war can be fought with weapons — depending upon geographic, political, economic, moral, and military circumstances - that range from atomic bombs to cloaks and daggers.

The larger and the more powerful the weapon, the less the limitation in selectivity, in destruction, and in particularization.

The right fist of all-out nuclear power must remain ready as a sanction to help ensure limited war. But this right fist will not alone deter an enemy from embarking upon a limited war, nor can it win such a war without transforming a local conflict into a global one.

This establishes the requirement for a second capability, the capability of deterring and if necessary winning local and limited wars, with or without the use of nuclear weapons.

This may seem a large order. But it is not an impossible one. Such a deterrence implies, of course, more than a military capability: creeping Communism cannot be stopped by the sword alone. It implies economic, moral, psychological, and political, as well as military, measures.

Commander Malcolm W. Cagle, USN, in “Sea Power and Limited War,” an article in the July, 1958, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, has summarized the problem of limited war well:

First let us recognize that being ready, willing, and able to fight limited wars is a grim business, fraught with vast danger. Let us recognize that limited war is not a separate and distinct type of war. Limited war and total war are inseparably related; and limited war might spill over and become total. It need not, but it might. We must recognize, therefore, the inherent, inescapable possibility that in projecting ourselves into any limited conflict, we may come face to face with the unwanted total war. But if limiting a future conflict is not possible, then indeed our only choice is between surrender and total war, possibly total destruction.

The problem, the great problem, of our military planners is to organize and maintain armed forces capable of fighting any kind of war anywhere. We cannot afford not to prepare to fight any kind of war anywhere. This does not, of course, mean that all kinds of forces — strategic air, defensive air, tactical air, conventional land power, nuclear land power, submarines, carriers, amphibious forces, airborne forces — should be maintained at great strength, ready instantly for war. It means, rather, that we must keep alive the art of fighting any kind of war anywhere in the world, that we must have at least cadre forces of many different types keyed to different missions, capable of expansion in case of war. We must have fire-fighting forces, police forces capable of taking the first shock, and a mobilization potential to raise more of the same after war starts.

If we do not maintain these diverse capabilities we shall freeze, in a one-weapon, one-concept mold, not only tactics but strategy, and our foreign policy will be rigidly tied to an inflexible strategic concept that permits us no freedom of action. Yet the art of diplomacy, the art of politics, the art of strategy and war, is the art of choice. We risk defeat in peace or war if we limit our military capabilities to nukes and thermonukes.

In this time of troubles let us remember that if physical force has to be invoked it must be tailored, to accomplish its purposes, to reasonable and limited objectives and used always with moral restraint and a sense of decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

  1. The Russians arc known to have some tactical nuclear weapons, but details about types, yields, and numbers are, at best, guestimates.