Naval Historical Center home page Image of an anchorColloquium on Contemporary History Project
Flag banner

Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Head, Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center

The title of today's colloquium is "More Bang For the Buck: U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Missile Development, 1945-1965." I think it is especially important that we evaluate a key aspect of national security policy in a period of our history that has so influenced the last thirty years.

The two decades inaugurated by the detonation of the "Little Boy" atomic device over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 were perhaps the most unstable and potentially lethal years of the long Cold War. The Soviet Union, a military colossus forged by war and infused with a militant ideology, was ruled by ruthless and unpredictable leaders-Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev the most noteworthy-who at the least were bent on upsetting the global status quo. No less of a concern to the United States and its allies after 1949 was the bellicose People's Republic of China, guided by the iron hand of Mao Tse-tung, who by most accounts was unphased by the prospect of nuclear war.

The threat of direct conflict between the United States and its allies on the one side and the Sino-Soviet nations on the other was never greater than during these years, marked by crises over Taiwan, Laos, and Berlin. A climactic test of strength came with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

The peaceful resolution of this confrontation can be credited to the success of the top-priority U.S. programs to develop a superior nuclear delivery force, especially a long-range missile component. By the early 1960s, the United States had a nuclear force at sea, on land, and in the air that was powerful, flexible, relatively immune to preemptive strike, and perceived by friend and foe as technically reliable.

American concern over Soviet development of warheads, long-range bombers, and strategic missiles had inspired the energetic nuclear weapons program in this country, especially after the Korean War. Determined to avoid any more such land wars, with their high costs in American lives and national treasure, the Eisenhower administration cast a "New Look" at U.S. national strategy, which resulted in emphasis on nuclear warfighting. American leaders and planners considered such concepts as all-out or massive retaliation, selective battlefield use of tactical weapons, and even preemptive strikes on prospective aggressors.

The papers presented this morning will treat the salient aspects of the U.S. effort to develop a missile force, and the interplay between strategic, political, and bureaucratic imperatives and technological developments. As in any such large-scale and complex endeavor, many mistakes were made, as I'm sure we will learn, but the melding of national strategy and the U.S. long-range missile development program was, in the view of many, a success story.

The international environment of the early Cold War era, in many ways, is analogous to that of today. The strategic picture is certainly cloudy. What should our national strategy be and how will strategic missiles fit in? A growing number of potential enemies now possess nuclear weapons. Moreover, the command/control, targeting, and protection from theft of these systems is problematical. New, militant leaders are emerging around the globe. In that regard, today's discussion may provide us with valuable insight for dealing with someone like Russia's Vladimir Zhironovsky who reminds some of us of another long-dead, saber-rattling, shoe-pounder.

23 September 2003