National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma

Matt Kail

December 9, 1998

Introduction of the Author

Richard Smoke has worked in positions that show he has the expertise to write National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma. He has been a Professor of Political Science and also the Research Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. Holding these positions not only makes him knowledgeable in the area of political science, but also allows him access to large amounts of information about foreign policy. He has also written many other books, some of which were similar in nature to National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma. These other works include War: Controlling Escalation and Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice, for which he won the Bancroft Prize in 1974.

Summary of Content

Since the onset of the nuclear era, the United States has constantly been searching for the best means of preserving its national security, while spending as little money and manpower on it as possible.

The book opens with a brief description of the history of modern warfare. It mentions that until World War Two, the United States had enjoyed almost complete national security. However, in 1949 when the Soviet Union produced its own atomic weapons, the United States realized that its national security had been compromised. From this point on the book talks about how the United States has dealt with the problems that have developed from the nuclear era.

The United States' first response to the nuclear threat was Massive Retaliation. This idea was that any Soviet aggression would prompt a full-scale nuclear assault by the United States against the Soviet Union. However, as the Soviet weapons stockpile grew, it became unreasonable to think the Unites States would risk global nuclear war if the Soviet Union made a small attack in some remote location. And, as the Soviet Union further increased its ability to deploy nuclear weapons internationally, it became apparent the strategy of Massive Retaliation would only welcome wholesale death upon the world. Because the Soviet Union knew that the United States would not start this type of war, it would not be deterred by the Massive Retaliation Strategy.

As both the Soviet Union and the United States increased the size and quality of their nuclear arsenals, the United States abandoned the idea of Massive Retaliation. The next strategy adopted was Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. The idea behind MAD is that following an attack of any size by the Soviet Union, the United States would still retain the ability to devastate the Soviet Union, and vice versa. Because both sides would be assured of their destruction if they attacked, no side would ever launch an attack.

Once both the United States and the Soviet Union adopted the policy of MAD, people started to discuss the possibility of maintaining the MAD policy, but with fewer nuclear weapons than were currently deployed. This started the arms control talks. The Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1964, was the first major arms control treaty to be agreed on by both sides. The Limited Test Ban Treaty made all nuclear weapons tests illegal, except for those carried out underground. This treaty was designed to limit the development of more nuclear weapons. The next important step in arms control was SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). Both the SALT I and SALT II treaties, signed in 1972 and 1979 respectively, dealt with limiting the number of weapons systems that each side could deploy. They also banned the further development of antiballistic missile (ABM) systems. Critics of the SALT treaties said they allowed both the United States and the Soviet Union to maintain a much larder nuclear arsenal than was needed. Also the United States Senate never recognized the SALT II treaty.

During the late 1970's and throughout the 1980's, many technologies were developed. These technologies included the development of the cruise missile and the development of missiles that supported multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (these missiles are called MIRVed missiles). The development of these technologies made newer treaties virtually impossible. Because cruise missiles are so small, they can be hidden almost anywhere. Also, it is impossible to tell from a satellite picture if a missile if MIRVed or not. Due to these facts, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could tell how many nuclear warheads the other side had targeted against them. Consequently, each side began to produce as many nuclear weapons as it thought the other country might produce in a "worst-case scenario" situation. The arms race was started anew.

These new technologies, along with the problems that would develop from SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) defense programs being developed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, make the book have a rather pessimistic closing. In the closing of the book the author discusses how, with the world situation of 1986 (when the book was published), it was unlikely that the arms race would stop any time soon. He states that it looked as if the United States was trapped into making more nuclear weapons, even though it was weakening the security of the nation as a whole.

Critical Review

National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma is arranged chronologically. I think that this is the best possible organization method for this subject. Almost all the ideas involved with national security change over the years and so it is important to be able to go through these changes in their historical sequence. Had the book not been arranged chronologically, it would have been very hard to understand why certain changes in policy occurred or why the United States had a certain method of maintaining its security at a particular period of time.

I think that throughout the book the author gives excellent support for his thesis, "Since the onset of the nuclear era, the United States has constantly been searching for the best means of preserving its national security, while spending as little money and man power on it as possible." All the points that are included in the book are, in some way, related to this thesis. At the end of each chapter the author gives a summary of the information that was presented, and clearly shows how it can be related to his thesis. At the end of the chapter dedicated to arms control, for example, he shows how the information given supports his thesis by saying;

"The task became one of managing the arms race... (to) mitigate the costs and hazards along the way, and search for force structures that both sides would find satisfactory and would allow to become stable." (p 154.)

With this summary, the author is reinforcing the ideas he presented earlier in the chapter and further supporting his thesis.

The author uses many different types of evidence to support his arguments. These sources ranged from military reports to civilian analyses. They were, however, almost entirely comprised of secondary sources. This is understandable, because the author was not military personnel, which would make it hard for him to access primary sources.

Although he did not have direct access to primary sources, he does an excellent job of evaluated the credibility of his sources. For example, when he refers to The Military Balance, written by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, he mentions that this source omitted some important information, which may result in misinterpretations. The author does a good job of showing both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion and then he informs the reader how he came to this conclusion.

National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma is written with the lay reader in mind. Given the complexity of the topic of national security, it would have been quite easy for the author to use jargon only known within the national security field. He works around this problem by starting off the book without using any jargon. These words are slowly introduced the further you get into the book. Whenever a new term is introduced, it is followed immediately by its definition. A good example of this is when the author first starts to talk about MIRVs.

"One rocket booster could launch a 'bus' that would carry the RVs (defined earlier in the book as reentry vehicle) and then detach them at various times in the flight trajectory, launching them in different directions. Their target might be separated by hundreds of miles. This new strategic weapon was named the MIRV, for Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicle. MIRV is pronounced to rhyme with curve." (p 161)

The author could have only stated the term MIRV, and then what the acronym meant. Instead, he went out of his way to explain the term carefully and even included the pronunciation of the word. Also, a glossary at the end of the book includes all specific terms and jargon used throughout the book.

I think that some of the best sections of the book are the first two chapters. The first two chapters deal with the historical place of war in society and the United States' place in world politics until the end of World War Two. The topics covered in these first chapters are complex enough to be a book by themselves. However, the author realizes that is not the main point of his book, and swiftly moves through these topics, providing only the information relevant to future arguments before moving on with the rest of his book.

Illustrations were used very sparingly, but charts appear throughout the book. The charts were an excellent aid in understanding the material that was being presented. Charts were often used after a long section discussing the different concepts being talking about in treaty negotiations, or after a section about the United States' or the Soviet Union's buildup of their nuclear arsenals. These charts help the reader put specific number values with the information provided earlier. They were often used to tell the number of weapons systems either the United States or the Soviet Union had. Or they were used to give a quick overview of treaties and the numerical limits set by them.


This book would be an excellent starting point for anyone interested in how the United States changed its nuclear strategies to help increase its national security. The book provides an intriguing overview of the changes in the United States' nuclear strategies throughout the Cold War and presents the information at a level that is open to everyone. Also, the frequent use of many different sources of information ensures that all sides of the argument are being shown and that the information is accurate.

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