The Dawn of Nuclear Diplomacy

Every president of the postwar era longed for the approval of Walter Lippmann, the voice of the Eastern establishment. Here, Lippmann praised Kennedy for avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

Representatives of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy picket near the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1961 to protest Moscow's decision to resume testing nuclear weapons.  (Associated Press)

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 10 years later … 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 …

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 pre-nuclear 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 …

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 …

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.

The United States has for some time possessed a marked superiority in nuclear weapons. This superiority was quite sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from using or from threatening to use nuclear weapons to enforce its purposes in Cuba. But our superiority was not sufficient to permit the United States to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to enforce all of our own purposes in Cuba.

President Kennedy was able to prevail because, having the power to achieve a limited objective, he had the wisdom to narrow his objective to what he had the power to achieve.

Thus, he had the power to deter the Soviet Union from attempting to break the blockade by Soviet naval action and by the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles. But the president himself could not use America’s nuclear power to bring about the overthrow of [Fidel] Castro and the liquidation of a Communist regime in Cuba …

For several reasons things did not get out of hand. First of all, [the Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev and Kennedy have intimate knowledge of nuclear weapons, and they have a poignant personal realization of the meaning of nuclear war. For another reason, throughout the crisis, the two heads of government kept channels of personal and official communication open.

Finally, and decisively, the United States, which had overall nuclear superiority and conventional superiority around Cuba, was careful to avoid the ultimate catastrophic mistake of nuclear diplomacy, which would be to surround the adversary and to leave him no way to retreat.

Washington did not forget that while nuclear war would be suicidal lunacy, it is an ever-present possibility. Nuclear war will not be prevented by fear of nuclear war. For, however lunatic it might be to commit suicide, a great power, if it is cornered, if all the exits are barred, if it is forced to choose between suicide and unconditional surrender, is quite likely to go to war …

There is a line of intolerable provocation and humiliation beyond which popular and governmental reactions are likely to become uncontrollable. It is the business of the governments to find out where that line is, and to stay well back of it.

Those who do not understand the nature of war in the nuclear age, those who think that war today is what war was in the past regard these careful attempts of statesmen not to carry provocation beyond the tolerable limits as weakness and softness and appeasement.

The Chinese do not understand the nuclear age, and they charge the Russians with appeasement for drawing back in Cuba. There are a good many people in the West who do not understand the nuclear age, and they are forever charging us with appeasement because we do not brandish the nuclear bomb in all our controversies with the Soviet Union. But prudence in seeking not to drive your opponent into a corner is not weakness and softness and appeasement. It is sanity and common sense and a due regard for human life.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.