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nuclear strategy, a policy for the use of nuclear weapons. The first atomic bombs were used in the context of the Allies' World War II policy of strategic bombing. Early in the cold war, U.S. policy was for massive retaliation with Strategic Air Command bombers in the event of war with the USSR. In 1949, after the Soviets exploded their first atomic device, the United States elaborated other policies, but these did not affect the ever-increasing numbers, types, and explosive force of nuclear arsenals throughout the world.
During the cold war, the nuclear strategies of the United States and the USSR ranged from straightforward deterrence to the threat of massive retaliation during the early 1950s, to limited forward deployment in the late 1950s, to various forms of flexible response in the 1960s. These have included the options of aiming nuclear weapons at other nuclear weapons and aiming them at enemy cities. Behind all of these approaches is the idea that any nuclear war would involve mutual assured destruction (MAD) for the principals, and possibly for the world as well. As a result, the United States developed a weapons arsenal large enough to ensure that enough weapons would survive an enemy first strike to retaliate effectively.
The cold war spawned a subculture of nuclear strategists who moved among jobs in academia, at think tanks (see Rand Corporation), and in government departments. Some (see Henry Kissinger; Herman Kahn) theorized on how to use nuclear weapons politically and militarily. They proposed various strategies for winning a nuclear war, including first, managing escalation so that the weaker nation withdraws before a full exchange occurs; second, staging a massive first strike that preempts an effective response; third, launching a surgical first strike that destroys enemy leadership; and fourth, a technological breakthrough that makes effective strategic defense possible.
Other strategists (Daniel Ellsberg; Bernard Brodie) concluded that nuclear weapons were so unlike conventional weapons that they changed war fundamentally. Defense proposals, such as the civil defense complexes and antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses of the 1950s and 60s (and the later Strategic Defense Initiative), were seen as destabilizing because they included the concept of acceptable losses in a nuclear conflict. At various times the United States and the USSR pursued arms control proposals designed to improve the stability of the balance of power and to prevent nuclear proliferation (see disarmament, nuclear). Opponents of nuclear war have popularized the theory that it could trigger a climatic disaster (see nuclear winter); pacifists consider nuclear weapons the ultimate argument against war. Some analysts point to the way that nuclear policy has served the interests of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”
The end of the cold war eliminated the fear of a U.S.-USSR confrontation, but both the United States and Russia retain substantial forces. The danger now comes primarily from smaller, less stable nations in more volatile areas of the world that may develop or obtain nuclear weapons capabilities. During the Persian Gulf War, the United States and its allies were concerned about how close Iraq was to developing an operational nuclear weapon. The threat of nuclear war has profoundly shaped human language and culture in the late 20th cent.
See J. Schell, The Fate of the Earth (1982); F. Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (1983); G. Herken, Counsels of War (1985); L. Martin, The Changing Face of Nuclear Warfare (1987); L. Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (2d ed. 1989).