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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.  Harper & Brothers, 1957.

Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy is best read as a window on the mentality of the high days of the Cold War.  Henry Kissinger intended to focus on the ways in which the foreign policy of the United States must change to conform with the realities of the nuclear age, but he could not resist offering a critique of every aspect of American foreign policy.  The result is that the book becomes more "Henry's Foreign Policy How-To Manual" and less an analysis of nuclear weapons and foreign policy as he purports in the introduction.  He ends up subsuming every foreign policy problem of the 1950s under the rubric "the nuclear age," whether it has any connection to nuclear weapons or not: the two most obvious examples are newly independent states and Soviet subversion, both of which take up an inordinate amount of space.

Nevertheless, the core of the book remains the problem of foreign policy in "the nuclear age" in its true sense.  Kissinger's main argument is that limited war was the only avenue of escape from nuclear stalemate.  He believed that the American tradition of absolute victory in war had led the United States into the dead end of "massive retaliation," in which the threat of all-out nuclear war was used to block every Soviet move.  The problem was that this doctrine was only credible if the issue was worth the price: would the United States sacrifice its cities for Western Europe?  For Korea?  For Laos?  Kissinger argued that the only escape from mutual suicide was to abandon "the secret dream of American military thought: that there exists a final answer to our military problem, that it is possible to defeat the enemy utterly, and that war has its own rationale independent of policy." (25)

Kissinger's basic goal is to translate Clausewitz's dictum that war must be subordinate to policy into the nuclear age.  In general, he is successful.  He identifies the major novelty of the nuclear age--the inability to translate the power of nuclear weapons into security--and suggests a way to deal with it.   He advocates a return to the limited warfare of the centuries bracketing the Napoleonic wars.  Only if both sides realize that mutual survival is not at stake can mutual suicide be avoided in a war between two nuclear powers.  He defines limited war as "an attempt to affect the opponent's will, not to crush it, to make the conditions to be imposed seem more attractive than continued resistance. . ." (140)

This was precisely the method Kissinger used to end the Vietnam War, but the ultimate failure of his policy should not discredit his general theory of limited war, since the Vietnamese were also attempting to "affect the opponent's will" through their own form of limited war.  The book offers many more tempting targets of criticism.  First, it is steeped in a Cold War mentality that is exemplified by the following statements: since the Soviets never believe us when we talk of peaceful intentions, we have no choice but to rely on force; unaware of any irony, Kissinger also argued that Soviet talk of "peaceful coexistence" is a Bolshevik ploy to lull us into complacency, and we should not believe it.  Second, he succumbed to the temptation to regard the end of World War II as the beginning of history.  While he held up 18th and 19th century limited warfare as his model, he generally failed to take the past into consideration.  For instance, he analyzed Soviet behavior entirely on the basis of Marxist and Leninist doctrine, ignoring the fact that the Soviet leaders did not spring forth from the pages of a propaganda tract, but were drawing on a long history of relations between Russia and "the West."

Appropriately, then, Kissinger's book is useful only in a limited way.  Much of it is so specific as to be of interest only to a scholar of the Cold War.  His insights into the problems that nuclear weapons offer to foreign policy make the book worthwhile to a more general audience of military historians, but only just.

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