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– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Fingers on the Nuclear Trigger
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At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb. By James E. Goody

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

At last, a well-written, objective account of the evolution of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and efforts at nuclear arms control from the beginning of the nuclear age to the dangerous situation we face today. In At the Borderline of Armageddon, James Goodby examines how each U.S. president since World War II has sought to manage the atomic bomb.

U.S. presidents have had no illusions about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war. Despite great differences in personality and the challenges they faced, all presidents have come to understand that such a conflict, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, “cannot be won and must never be fought.” Although public formulations of nuclear policy have at times appeared to preserve nuclear options in certain circumstances, presidents have been very careful to step back from the borderline of Armageddon.

Goodby presents this historical review essentially as a series of case studies examining the role of each president in turn rather than the evolution of separate policy issues. This provides the reader with material to assess and compare the overall contribution of each president.

The book challenged me to review my own experiences, which somewhat parallel Goodby’s. Although prepared to be critical, I found myself in almost complete agreement with his treatment of the complex history of the period and his commentary on events and personalities.

Presidents and Precedents

President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the nuclear age when he authorized the Manhattan Project, but President Harry Truman took the decisive steps when he authorized the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and subsequently approved the then-controversial hydrogen bomb project. Goodby correctly emphasizes, however, that Truman also established numerous wise precedents for the control of nuclear weapons.

These precedents included civilian control of atomic energy, presidential control of nuclear weapons, and a rejection of preventive war, as well as attempts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and bring them under international control. He also showed a willingness to negotiate with adversaries.

At the time that the United States was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons, Truman proposed a universal ban on nuclear weapons with international controls under the United Nations. He unambiguously established the primacy of the president in controlling these arms when, during the Korean War, he cashiered General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted a free hand against China, including possibly using nuclear weapons. Truman’s legacy was a remarkable record for a simple man thrust by fate into the world’s most powerful position.

In contrast to Truman, former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had led Allied forces in World War II, came to the presidency well qualified to tackle the nuclear threat. In the wake of the testing of multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons, he concluded that there could be no winners in a nuclear war. With the growth of Soviet nuclear capabilities, however, he was under increasing military and political pressure to react. These pressures were epitomized by the 1957 Gaither Report, whose recommendations, Goodby correctly reports, Eisenhower angrily rejected.

As the Department of Defense staff representative on the study, I agreed with Eisenhower’s conclusion that the United States would become a “garrison state” if it implemented all of the recommendations, which included, among other things, a call for nationwide fallout and blast shelters and a crash buildup of strategic offensive and defensive weapon systems.

Testing Times and Test Bans

Despite pressures for a military buildup and the public shock over the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, which was seen as a proxy for a long-range ballistic missile capability, Eisenhower took the initiative in proposing a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) with the now increasingly feared Soviet adversary. As Goodby correctly points out, Eisenhower’s military credentials allowed him to propose arms control negotiations and thus helped establish another useful precedent for future commanders-in-chief.

As technical assistant to Eisenhower’s first science adviser, James Killian, I was at the center of the preparations and subsequent negotiations with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom for a CTBT. At the time, Eisenhower appeared to be acting almost alone, with little visible support within his administration in the face of intense opposition from the military, the weapons laboratories, and Congress. Goodby reports that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles supported Eisenhower in the initiative, but that only became public decades later with the release of a classified memorandum. Despite concerted efforts to sabotage the negotiations by U.S. opponents, much progress was made until late in Eisenhower’s administration when President Nikita Khrushchev withdrew from the negotiations after the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over Sverdlovsk.

President John F. Kennedy, of course, deserves great credit for his personal role in the Cuban missile crisis, which demonstrated the critical importance a president can and must play in avoiding Armageddon. Nevertheless, Kennedy was handicapped by his emphasis during the election campaign on the so-called missile gap. In reality, this gap did not exist, but the belief that it did resulted in a massive ballistic missile buildup.

Still, Kennedy resumed the test ban negotiations, which soon bogged down on the issue of the number of permitted inspections of seismic events that might have been caused by underground nuclear tests. The United States eventually called for seven or eight, while the Soviets offered two or three. My boss, Jerry Wiesner, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Kennedy and the Soviets to split the difference and propose five inspections, but there were no takers. I thought at the time and still believe that Kennedy did not really want a comprehensive test ban agreement because it had little chance of ratification in the face of rabid military, weapons laboratory, and congressional opposition. I suspect the same was true for Khrushchev, who was facing increasing domestic problems.

The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which ruled out nuclear testing in space, the atmosphere, and underwater, still permitted underground tests as a mutually convenient way to resolve the diplomatic stalemate. I believe Goodby is overly generous in the high marks he gives Kennedy for this treaty. The agreement did reassure world opinion of improved U.S.-Soviet relations after the Cuban missile crisis. It also put an end to atmospheric testing, which had resulted in extremely high-yield Soviet atmospheric tests with significant worldwide fallout as well as high-altitude U.S. tests that produced alarming effects on satellites, which Goodby fails to note. Fundamentally, however, the Limited Test Ban Treaty simply drove testing underground where many more tests were conducted than before the treaty took effect. It also helped delay the negotiation of a comprehensive test ban treaty for more than 30 years.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, despite his growing preoccupation with Vietnam, rejected out of hand the use of nuclear weapons there. His view of nuclear war was brought home to me by his reaction at the final meeting in 1965 on the military budget to an item listed as DUCCS. In response to his question as to what this was, he was told it stood for Deep Underground Command and Control Site, a facility that would be located several thousand feet underground, between the White House and the Pentagon, designed to survive a ground burst of a 20-megaton bomb and sustain the president and key advisers for several months until it would be safe to exit through tunnels emerging many miles outside Washington. After a brief puzzled expression, Johnson let loose with a string of Johnsonian expletives making clear he thought this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard and that he had no intention of hiding in an expensive hole while the rest of Washington and probably the United States were burned to a crisp. That was the last I ever heard of DUCCS.

Nonproliferation and Arms Control

One of the few key activities Goodby fails to mention was the Gilpatric Committee, which in early 1966 reported to Johnson on nuclear proliferation. The committee’s membership included Chairman Roswell Gilpatric, formerly Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s deputy, and eight former senior government officials who were united in their recommendation for prompt action to contain nuclear proliferation and their support for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), then in the early stages of negotiation. As staff director of the committee, I participated in the hour-long briefing with Johnson, who was clearly impressed. Subsequently, when some key U.S. allies raised objections that made successful completion of the NPT uncertain, Johnson instructed Secretary of State Dean Rusk to do what was necessary to complete the treaty promptly. Without Johnson’s personal intervention, the treaty would not have been completed during his presidency.

Johnson and McNamara recognized the need to cap the rapid buildup of strategic nuclear arms and to include limits on ballistic missile defenses as well as to maintain stable mutual deterrence. Their thinking on these matters, which was initially introduced to a skeptical Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin at a 1967 summit in Glassboro, New Jersey, became the basis for subsequent negotiations leading to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Although the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 led to postponement of the initial U.S.-Soviet negotiations tentatively scheduled for September 1968, Johnson believed so strongly in the importance of the subject that he privately sought, up to the last days of his presidency, to reschedule the beginning of the talks in a desperate effort to present incoming President Richard M. Nixon, whose support was uncertain, with the fait accompli of an ongoing negotiation.

Nixon surprised both critics and supporters by vigorously pursuing Johnson’s initiatives on capping strategic nuclear arms and nuclear proliferation. Immediately after taking office, he announced that he supported the idea of talks with the Soviets on a strategic treaty. After having his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, study the strategic situation intensively for nine months, Nixon initiated negotiations that led to the ABM Treaty and SALT I. He also obtained Senate advice and consent to ratification of the NPT even though some key states, including China, France, Germany, and Japan, did not ratify the treaty at that time.

As assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), I participated in the interminable meetings leading up to and backstopping these negotiations. Although it was originally envisaged that ACDA would manage the interagency planning and backstopping process, it was soon apparent that this would not work given the strong opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department to the undertaking. I was delighted when Kissinger’s increased involvement in the planning shifted the detailed management directly to the White House, as success depended on Nixon’s conviction that it was his own treaty to achieve and defend.

With Kissinger’s participation, the ABM Treaty was successfully negotiated and received the Senate’s advice and consent by an overwhelming vote of 88 to 2, and the SALT I Interim Agreement received strong congressional approval. Remarkably, Nixon accomplished these breakthroughs in arms control as well as the opening to China despite remaining mired in Vietnam for almost his entire tenure and the developing domestic problems that eventually led to his resignation.

President Gerald Ford’s brief term was marked by failure to make progress on SALT II, which was important because SALT I was only an interim five-year agreement. Whatever Ford’s personal intentions, he was unable to rise above the quarreling over nuclear policy among the strong-willed advisers he inherited: Kissinger and Secretaries of Defense James Schlesinger and Donald Rumsfeld. Goodby describes these internecine battles well.

President Jimmy Carter came to office with strong views on the need to step back from nuclear annihilation with a broad and impressive arms control agenda. Despite his excellent intentions and generally sound judgment, unforeseen external events and poor timing conspired to limit severely what he was able to accomplish. At the outset, in addition to efforts to complete the long-delayed SALT II, he launched a fusillade of new initiatives, including a CTBT, a ban on anti-satellite systems, and even limits on conventional weapons.

Although all of these proposals were highly desirable, they were too much for the U.S. bureaucracy and its aging Soviet counterpart to handle in the face of strong, hostile, vested interests. These and other initiatives floundered against the background of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Frustrated and angry, Carter decided to withdraw SALT II from Senate ratification. As acting ACDA director, I advised Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to oppose this action, even though immediate ratification was not in the cards, because, I argued, under the circumstances every effort should be made to keep avenues of contact with the Soviet Union open.

While pursuing his broad arms control agenda, Carter was confronted with a number of proposals for major new military programs designed to increase U.S. nuclear deterrent and war-fighting capabilities. He received much unwarranted criticism for correctly canceling or opposing several of these programs, of which the so-called neutron bomb was the best-known example. The neutron bomb, which was touted as a more acceptable way to utilize tactical nuclear weapons in Europe because it killed people with less impact on property, did not in fact differ in any significant way from existing low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Carter sensibly canceled the unnecessary program when Germany, after originally enthusiastically championing it, refused to permit deployment of the weapons on its territory.

In the closing days of Carter’s administration, I was assigned to head the U.S. delegation to negotiations with the Soviets to explore the possibility of an agreement on Theater Nuclear Forces. My instructions were to discuss anything I wanted except the possibility of mutual zero levels for intermediate-range nuclear missiles, a concept that was then anathema to Germany because it was seen by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as destroying the “seamless web” of nuclear deterrence. This restriction was discouraging because I thought this was the only basis for an agreement. The Soviets chose not to pursue this option, and the talks ended with Reagan’s election victory.

Reagan’s Astonishing Evolution

Goodby documents how Reagan’s initial negative view of arms control gradually evolved, amazing critics and supporters alike as he became an advocate of radical proposals that went beyond traditional arms control to proposals that cut, rather than merely limited, nuclear weapons. At the outset, he rejected ratifying SALT II and then proclaimed as the centerpiece of his nuclear policy the Strategic Defense Initiative, which had the impossible goal of developing an impenetrable shield that would make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” Interestingly, he did not call for repudiation of the ABM Treaty but proposed instead a bizarre “broad” interpretation of the treaty that would allow precisely what the treaty was designed to prohibit.

With the passage of time, however, Reagan initiated the negotiation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) to reduce rather than simply cap the number of strategic nuclear systems. He also negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banning all intermediate-range nuclear missiles, a concept that only a few years earlier had been considered beyond the pale. At a truly remarkable summit at Reykjavik, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchanged proposals to ban all strategic nuclear missiles but failed to agree on the treatment of ballistic missile defenses. One wonders if agreement had been reached at Reykjavik whether it could have actually led to a full-fledged treaty, given the obsession with details subsequently demanded in START I. It is also interesting to ponder what the consequences of such a treaty would have been for international security.

In describing the record of President George H. W. Bush, Goodby leads the reader to the conclusion that Bush accomplished more actual arms control than any other president. Goodby notes that Bush quickly completed and ratified START I and negotiated START II, which called for much deeper reductions of strategic delivery systems. Even more significantly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union looming, he recognized the potential danger of the chaos that might ensue and the opportunity it presented to bring the world a major step back from nuclear disaster.

Bush seized the moment and announced the unilateral withdrawal and elimination of most of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. This allowed Gorbachev to announce his decision, several days later, to return to Russia the thousands of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons deployed in the territories of Warsaw Pact members and the non-Russian states of the Soviet Union with a commitment to eliminate most of them. Thus, without protracted formal negotiations, both sides vowed to eliminate a significant portion of their nuclear weapons stockpiles, including those tactical Soviet nuclear weapons that were most exposed to potential diversion. He also initiated implementation of the imaginative proposals of Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to assist Russia and the other newly independent states in complying with the dismantlement provisions of START I and the INF Treaty.

President Bill Clinton was unable to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the collapse of the Soviet Union because of unrelenting opposition from Congress and to some extent the Russian Duma. He did make a major contribution in persuading Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states and to return to Russia for dismantlement the strategic nuclear warheads remaining on their territories. If this had not been done, Ukraine and Kazakhstan would have become the third- and fourth-largest nuclear-weapon states.

However, on the negative side, succumbing to congressional pressure, Clinton decided to deploy a modest missile defense system consistent with hopefully mutually agreed-on minor modifications to the ABM Treaty. This contributed to START II never entering into force and helped prevent the negotiation of an anticipated START III with further substantial reductions.

Clinton also took the lead in achieving the indefinite extension of the NPT, which was set to expire in 1995 after 25 years, and provided the necessary leadership in completing the long-delayed multinational negotiation of a CTBT. In 1999, however, the Senate Republican majority forced the Senate to reject ratification of the treaty, leaving the treaty in limbo, where it remains today.

In an excellent chapter on George W. Bush, Goodby characterizes the current president’s mindset as believing that “the time had finally come to scrap the old order.” To date, he has been quite successful in this objective. Goodby notes that other presidents helped build up the international nonproliferation and arms control regimes that they saw as supporting U.S. national security. Yet, Bush clearly believes that the United States, as the only remaining superpower, should be prepared to shape the international order unilaterally and has rejected treaties that would in any way restrict U.S. freedom of action. To this end, he withdrew from the ABM Treaty, despite strong Russian objections, and replaced the unratified START II with the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Also known as the Moscow Treaty, SORT lacks verification provisions, and its limits on future U.S. strategic forces are effectively toothless.

Although Bush has given high priority to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to perceived U.S. enemies, his actions have either been ineffectual or counterproductive. At the beginning of his term, he overruled the decision of Secretary of State Colin Powell to continue very promising negotiations that the Clinton administration had begun with North Korea, thus spurring Pyongyang to advance its nuclear weapons program. Disregarding the precedent followed by previous presidents, he initiated a preventive war against Iraq on the false grounds that it was illegally developing nuclear weapons. Most recently, he has agreed to negotiate a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India, despite long-standing U.S. and Nuclear Suppliers Group policy to deny such aid to Pakistan, India, and Israel because they have not signed the NPT and are known to have nuclear weapons.

Today, confronted with the difficult problem of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons ambitions, Bush has made clear that all options are on the table if Iran refuses to terminate its uranium-enrichment program. Because UN agreement on effective sanctions is unlikely, rumors abound that Bush is seriously considering military actions in another preventive war. Given the international hostility that his policies have created, it is clear that any such action would have to be carried out unilaterally, with disastrous results to long-range U.S. security.

Goodby’s book demonstrates effectively the critical role that presidents have had in developing nuclear policy and avoiding nuclear Armageddon. Overall, it makes a persuasive case that all previous presidents have performed remarkably well in this regard, despite having to deal with events beyond their control, difficult adversaries, and an often uncooperative Congress.

I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the evolution of U.S. nuclear policy or seeking a challenging text for a college course. Our current president might well profit from this book as he contemplates his legacy. In addition, it should be mandatory reading for any aspirant to the presidency in 2008.


Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr. first worked in the Office of the President in 1956 when he served on the staff of the Gaither Committee. Subsequently, he served as a technical assistant to the president’s science adviser under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and concurrently as a senior member of the National Security Council staff under Kennedy and Johnson. Under Presidents Nixon and Carter, he served as assistant director and then deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Keeny was executive director and president of the Arms Control Association from 1985 to 2001.


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