How the Cold War Never Became a Nuclear War


By Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman

Oxford U. Press

317 pp., $49.95

'Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy," is an admirable, detailed, and authoritative account of the American role in the middle phase of the great cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Future scholars and historians will be grateful to Robert Bowie and his collaborator, Richard Immerman, for assembling this fascinating material in coherent, complete, and satisfying form. This story is basically the story of how Eisenhower paved the way for winning the cold war without suffering a nuclear war.

The authors take the story to 1960 when containment is firmly set as the basic strategy for US policy against Soviet communism. Bowie was head of the policy and planning staff at the State Department during this period.

Phase 1 was the Truman-Acheson period in American foreign policy, which is set forth brilliantly in Dean Acheson's book "Present at the Creation." During that first phase, the decision was taken to resist Soviet communist expansion (the Truman Doctrine) and to support that purpose by building an alliance of the free world powers (the NATO alliance) and to make the allies more helpful by reviving their economies (the Marshall Plan).

The strategy was "containment" and the underlying theory was that if Soviet aggression could be contained without war the Soviet system would ultimately collapse from its own internal weaknesses and contradictions. During the 1952 election campaign the Republicans attacked this policy as inadequate and proposed to adopt a forward and aggressive policy of "roll back" of the Iron Curtain.

This book tells how the new Eisenhower administration spent its first two years of management over American foreign policy in exploring possibilities more aggressive, bold, and "forward." They went a long way with ideas.

In late 1954, the planning staff had sent Eisenhower a three-stage proposal for a "roll back" which would begin with massive overflights of the Soviet Union by strategic bombers. In Phase 2 the bombs would drop on strategic targets. In Phase 3 the US would manage development of a new government and system in Russia. It was code-named "Project Control."

What comes out most clearly in this account is the firmness of Eisenhower's control and his own absolute conviction that the worst thing that could happen would be a nuclear war. He said a firm no to "Project Control" and also to any course of action that carried with it the risk of an atomic war. The fact that the cold war never became a nuclear war is heavily due to Eisenhower's absolute veto of any project that could trigger such a war.

The argument for bold action was strong in 1953 and 1954. The United States had a monopoly in atomic weapons. The argument of the hawks was that we should trigger the war when it could be fought to our advantage, not wait until the Soviets also had the bomb. Ike refused to accept this argument. He insisted that it was too risky and unnecessary. He was a true believer in the Kennan doctrine that the communist system contained within itself "the seeds of its own destruction."

By the end of his first term, Eisenhower, after exploring every other possible course of action, took his policy back to where it had started four years earlier on containment.

He had added to it two things of much importance. First, during his years he improved American military security with such projects as the Polaris submarine system, which provided a safe, secure, second-strike capability; and second, once he had a secure second-strike system, he opened negotiations with the Soviets. He laid the groundwork for the day when they would be ready and willing to talk.

Bowie provides several important pieces of information for which future historians will be thankful. One is that the decisive reason Eisenhower decided to run for the presidency was concern that if he did not, Robert Taft would win and carry the United States back to isolationism. Eisenhower was a profound believer in collective security and the NATO alliance.

Readers may be startled to learn how seriously some of the policymakers in Washington took the idea of preemptive military action against the Soviets. Eisenhower was absolutely firm in squashing any such action.

This reviewer is also thankful that during the critical second part of the story, we had a man in the White House who set as his highest priority the avoidance of a nuclear war.

* Joseph C. Harsch, a long time Monitor columnist, wrote on diplomacy and politics.

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