November 4, 2012


Gambling with the Fate of the World : Evan Thomas, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World (H. W. Brands, October 24, 2012, National Journal)

MOST HISTORICAL questions have no more than modest relevance for current policy debates. Times and context change. The American economy grew rapidly under the protectionist regime of the late nineteenth century; would it thrive under a new protectionist regime? It's impossible to say, given the radically different nature of the modern world economy. The Vietnam War demonstrated the difficulty of defeating a committed insurgency aided by outside forces; is the American effort in Afghanistan similarly doomed? Maybe, but Afghans aren't Vietnamese, and the Taliban isn't communist.

Yet there is one historical question that has direct and overriding policy implications. It might be the most important historical question of the last century and must rank among the top handful of all time: Why has there been no World War III? To sharpen the question, in light of the answer many people reflexively supply: Did the existence of nuclear weapons prevent a third world war?

The question's significance is obvious, given the consequences of such a war. Its answer is less so, despite that reflexive response. Broadly speaking, there are two possible answers. One is that, yes, nuclear weapons prevented a third world war by pushing the cost of victory far beyond any achievable benefits. This answer presumes that the ideological competition between the United States and the Soviet Union would have escalated to war had the big bombs not scared the daylights out of everyone. The second answer is that, no, the nukes didn't prevent the war. Something else did. Perhaps war simply wasn't in the cards.

In order to assert that there was no WWIII you have to pretend that the 150 million victims of the Communist regimes (give or take millions) were a non sequitur.  Only a moral monster should assert such a thing, so the answer to the question must be that there was a WWIII.  This also gives the sharper question a rather clear answer: whether justifiably or not, the existence of nuclear weapons was used to extend the war and aid and abet these tens of millions of murders.  

These answers, meanwhile, lead to the great unasked question: how could it have conceivably have been worse for the US to launch a nuclear first strike and end WWIII in the 40s rather than to connive at allowing the mass murders and oppression to continue for an additional 5 decades?

Posted by at November 4, 2012 9:48 AM

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