Monday, October 15, 2012

Liveblogging Smith on Ike: The Bomb

How far can we blame General/President Eisenhower for the Cold War and its umbrella of nuclear terror?  In his biography of Ike, Jean Edward Smith lays out a case that the answer is "not very much."  It's well-argued but not quite persuasive enough.

Of course Ike wasn't present at the creation: by all accounts he never learned bout the bomb until the genie was already out of the bottle. And by general agreement, he counseled Truman against using it on Japan.  Moreover as Smith makes clear, Ike strongly opposed using it in the "small wars"--Korea and Viet Nam.  In both cases, he had to sit on the heads of his own generals to get his way.  And the one thing everybody knows about Ike is that he left the Presidential stage with a valediction inveighing against the military-industrial complex.

Yet it was Ike who presided over (if he did not exactly create) the doctrine of of "mutually assured destruction"--the policy that kept a generation of school children hunkering down under their desks whie their parents dug fallout shelters.  My mother, only somewhat in jest, said she was going found a construction company called Grandma's Linger-a-Little-Longer.

It's probably Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who gets primary credit for the rhetorical incendiarism of MAD.  In other cases, Ike stifled Dulles, just as he often stifled the generals, but not here.  Why not?

If I read Smith right, the answer is three fold.  Ike felt, as I understand the argument, (1) that nukes were cheaper than ground war; (2) reduction in conventional weapons would actually reduce the scourge of ground wars; and (3) the very threat of mass destruction would be enough to keep it at bay.

O boyo boyo boy.  But before you fulminate with excess against Ike's policy, keep in mind the stark fact that it worked: we got through the Cold War precisely without the kind of holocaust that MAD was supposed to scare us out of (FWIW, I don't think this discussion as anything to do with proliferation, rogue nukes, or the other problems of the 21st Century--they were bound to happen anyway).

It worked:  my mother again: well, that's more good luck than good planning.  It might well be, and thank heavens we don't have any kind of a double-blind study designed to see how it might have gone in an alternative universe (does Harry Turtledove go into this possibility?  I don't know).  So, the fact is it worked.  But I'm still not quite persuaded that this ends the analysis.  For even if we sidestepped the unspeakable, still the fact is that MAD led is straightway into the  colossally dangerous, destabilizing and mainly  expensive arms race that MAD put in place.  In  short, precisely the sort of thing Ike inveighed against when he spoke about the military-industrial complex.

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

"the fact is that MAD led is straightway into the colossally dangerous, destabilizing and mainly expensive arms race that MAD put in place. In short, precisely the sort of thing Ike inveighed against when he spoke about the military-industrial complex."

Unintended consequence. (Only semi-joking.)

You can see the outline of what you need: a limited number of troops for "small wars," a proportionate arsenal of nuclear weapons.

If it's really less expensive to build and maintain a bomb than to train x number of troops, you save in the long run (against the counterfactual, of course). And if you can reduce your "small" wars--not try to fight where the French (1954) or the Russians (1981) failed--the budget growth is mitigated as well.

But it's a big if up there, even if you're ignoring the positive externalities of military service (which would not be available to those x troops).

In short, it's what happens when you pretend physics is a substitute for sociology, just because the latter is more difficult: a solution only an economist could love.