International Security Studies

Events

Book launch – At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb

September 18, 2006 // 12:00pm1:00pm

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

James Goodby provided an overview of his new book, which analyzes how American presidents have confronted the dilemma of nuclear weapons. The title of the book is taken from a telling sentence in Henry Kissinger's memoirs: "No previous generation of statesmen has had to conduct policy in so unknown an environment at the border line of Armageddon." Drawing on his own involvement in over fifty years of nuclear policy, Goodby discussed specific case studies (detailed in the book) to illustrate the decision making process and how presidents have grappled with the competing pulls between international cooperation and freedom of action, between the rules of behavior and governmental autonomy.

According to Goodby, the Quebec agreement, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill, in 1943 was the first major accord to shape the nuclear age and left a lasting legacy. It presaged later international negotiations to establish norms for the non-use of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. Truman, the first chief executive to deal with nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, established the principle of presidential control and launched the first initiative (the Baruch Plan) for international cooperation. Goodby argued that Eisenhower's major contribution was that he rejected calls for preventive war against the Soviet Union (before it developed significant nuclear capabilities) and took the first steps to negotiate limitations on nuclear armaments with the Soviet Union. The Kennedy administration negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, while Johnson completed the negotiations that led to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the international nonproliferation regime.

The Nixon and Carter administrations witnessed strategic arms agreements, which stabilized the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship, but did not produce reductions in the two superpowers' nuclear arsenals. Not only did nuclear forces grow (driven by the deployment of strategic weapons with multiple warheads, MIRVs), but strategic analysts both inside and outside of government explored scenarios about fighting a protracted nuclear war. Goodby argued that Reagan, a nuclear abolitionist, offered a new approach and is, in some respects, the hero of the book. Along with his Soviet partner, Gorbachev, Reagan began a process of strategic nuclear reductions, which were accelerated by his successors, Bush and Clinton, as the Cold War was ending.

Goodby argued that the George W. Bush's approach to nonproliferation policy has three key premises – the first of which is that the danger from nuclear weapons arises not from the weapons, but from their potential to fall into the hands of bad actors, rogue states and terrorist groups. Second, global norms are less effective in countering nuclear proliferation than coalitions of democracies, using military force if necessary. And third, the United States and other democracies should avoid restraints on their ability to maintain nuclear weapons. The unintended consequence of this approach is that it can lead allies (e.g., India) to believe there is no penalty for acquiring nuclear weapons and allow adversaries (e.g., Iran and North Korea) to conclude that they need to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

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  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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