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Face to Face with Armageddon

John Garnett assesses the pros and cons of ‘mutual deterrence’, the nuclear defence strategy that both escalated and controlled tensions between the superpowers during the Cold War.

Two developments, one technical, the other political, have shaped East-West relations for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The first was the development of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons together with delivery systems with intercontinental ranges. The second was the onset and evolution of the Cold War, which, though fluctuating in intensity, provided the political context in which the new weapons of mass destruction had to be evaluated. These twin developments led to the strategy of nuclear deterrence which came to dominate the military policies of both superpowers from the mid-1960s, and reflected and exacerbated the Cold War.

Gradually, deterrence evolved into a highly sophisticated body of related ideas about the role of nuclear weapons. But in the late 1940s, when the Cold War was just beginning, the complicated ‘theology’ of deterrence did not exist, and strategists and policymakers were still struggling with the implications of the newly invented atomic bomb. Everyone felt that a new era in destructive warfare had arrived, but even those who thought about it were not sure what this meant. Among some fairly wild speculation about ‘push button warfare’, ‘suitcase bombs’ and the imminence of Armageddon, some basic military realities were emerging. It became clear that there was no defence against these new weapons, that population centres were particularly vulnerable and that a surprise attack could give an aggressor a decisive advantage. It was this gloomy analysis which focused minds on nuclear deterrence and the belief that since states could no longer protect themselves by traditional measures, then enemies could, henceforth, only be deterred from aggression by the threat of devastating retaliation. This view provided the basic rationale for the most expensive military strategy the world has ever seen.

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