Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy - Henry Kissinger

This book was written by a then obscure (at least to Europeans) Harvard professor in 1957. I read it in the summer of 1960.

This was a time when we all feared that nuclear holocaust might be imminent. Any hopes of a lasting peace after WW 2 based on the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons turned out to be shortlived indeed, when the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb in 1949 and the much more powerful fusion bomb in 1953, just months after the U.S. In 1957 the Soviet Union demonstrated its capability to deliver those weapons to any point on the globe, by launching the first artificial satellites. There was much concern over a possible "missile gap" in the United States.

Apocalyptic visions were common. Many films were based on the theme of a world after a nuclear exchange. Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" was made into a movie in 1958. There was a Belafonte film in 1959 called "The World, The Flesh, and the Devil" with a similar scenario. There were lots of advice on how to construct a fallout shelter in your own backyard, what supplies to stock etc. When I first visited the U.S. in 1961, I was shocked to see signs everywhere in Washington D.C. and New York pointing to public radioactive fallout shelters.

Kissinger's central thesis was that the threat of nuclear annihilation was nearly useless as an instrument of foreign policy because of its lack of credibility. The U. S. needed to improve its capability to fight limited wars, and accept that total victory in a limited war might not be necessary.

This may sound very obvious today, but at the time it was a controversial view. It might be argued (and was!) that a reduced emphasis on "strategic bombing" (and later "mutual assured destruction"), would just lead to a further erosion of the credibility that the U. S. would actually go to war over a feared invasion of West Berlin or indeed western Europe. The U. S. would then have to engage the enemy on the enemy's terms, perhaps in land wars in Europe or Asia.

All of these points were examined and, I thought, very competently analysed by professor Kissinger. Just months later, the incoming president John Kennedy de facto endorsed Kissinger's views, being very concerned at the Soviet Union's openly announced intent to support "national wars of liberation", where the threat of a nuclear response would be particularly inappropriate. - Of course, Kissinger was not alone in advocating these views, and I have no idea whether Kissinger's book made a direct impression on Kennedy.

"Henry the K" later became extremely influential and powerful as Nixon's foreign secretary and security advisor. His views are still sought, especially in times of crisis.

His recent views on nuclear proliferation can be found in a 2005 newspaper article.

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    Last edited or checked April 10, 2008.  

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