February 1963 Atlantic Monthly
By Walter Lippman
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.
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 Castro and the liquidation of a Communist regime in Cuba.
It was manifestly unthinkable to use nuclear weapons against Cuba. They had no relevance to the Cuban problem. It would have been an incalculable risk to invade and occupy Cuba at the risk of retaliatory military action against Berlin, action which could have escalated into nuclear war. The President adopted limited objectives which could be achieved by limited means. He demanded the removal of the Soviet strategic missiles. He did not demand the removal of the Castro regime or even of the Cuban defensive missiles.
The President was able to achieve the objectives to which he limited himself. Soviet nuclear power was neutralized by American nuclear power, and in the Cuban area, the United States also had overwhelming land, sea, and air forces which were quite capable of destroying or capturing the Soviet missiles. The Soviet government had no conventional forces in the Caribbean area, and once its nuclear power was neutralized, it had no other force it could use.
This was, as I see it, the military rationale of the Cuban affair. But I hasten to add that, while the confrontation ended peaceably, it was possible that things might have got out of hand in Moscow or in Washington. There were rash men in both places. But for several reasons things did not get out of hand. First of all, Mr. Khrushchev and Mr. 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.
This is one of the facts of life in the middle of the twentieth century. It is as much a fact as the existence of the megaton bomb itself, and it is a fact which must be given weight in the calculation of national policy. It was kept constantly in mind in the calculation of our Cuban policy.
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.
It has, I know, been said in Europe that the United States has always had a special interest in Cuba, and that therefore the firm stand of the President is no proof that the United States would be equally firm in, let us say, Berlin.
Our answer to these skeptics must begin, I think, by asking them to look at what the United States was actually firm about in Cuba. It was firm, as I have already pointed out, about the Soviet strategic weapons in Cuba, which, in the American view, were offensive because they were good only for a first strike. Had the missiles been put in place, they would have changed seriously the balance of nuclear power in the world.
The United States deployed its whole military power, nuclear and conventional, against such an alteration of the status quo. It would do the same, and for the same kind of reason, if the Soviet Union moved with military force against Berlin or against any other point which is critically important to the maintenance of the status quo in the balance of strategic power.
JG: Very good article. We are lucky that we had a statesman in the White House back then.