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John Lewis Gaddis on: Political Use of the Bomb
John Gaddis Q: It's somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, you have this powerful new weapon in American hands, in American control. And if anything, it makes politics more difficult. It seems to have almost a contrary effect to what you would expect, in negotiations with the Russians.

JLG: Well, I've used the term "the illusion of omnipotence." You have what appears to be an omnipotent weapon. But the problem is, you don't know how to use it. You don't know what to do with it. And if we think of it in this way, since nobody had ever had an atomic bomb before, it's not terribly surprising that people would not know what to do with one, once they have one. Sure, if you're in a war, you drop it on people. But what do you do with it if you're not in a war? How do you use it as an instrument of diplomacy? No one knew. And this was something that had to be learned. And it took a long time to learn it.

Q: How do you explain that?

JLG: I would explain this partly as a function of Stalin's deliberate strategy of not revealing the fear that he felt with respect to the bomb. But I would also explain it in terms of a dilemma that would later afflict anybody who got nuclear weapons and tried to use them as instruments of coercion or pressure in the Cold War, which is simply that once you get beyond the fact that you have one, and even if you get to the point of say that you might use one in certain circumstances, there still is something that has to happen on the other side. The other side has got to be impressed by that. The other side has got to agree to be intimidated by that. And if the other side simply digs in its heals and says, "We don't believe you," or "We don't think what you've said is important," then it's very hard for the power that has the weapon to know what to do next, in conditions of peacetime. And that was the dilemma that the Truman Administration faced.

Q: In other words, you have to find some way to convince the other side that you actually might use one of these bombs?

JLG: You do indeed. Yes. And that gets at the center of the dilemma of nuclear strategy in peacetime, I think, all the way through the Cold War. How do you achieve that credibility of the deterrent? How do you achieve the credibility of the possibility that you might even, under certain circumstances initiate the use of an atomic weapon?

Q: It's a particularly tricky task for a democracy.

JLG: It's a very tricky task for a democracy. And Truman's on the record as worrying a great deal about the circumstances in which the United States could use atomic weapons. Again, it's quite clear that he felt constrained by the forces of public opinion. It's quite clear that he felt constrained by the views of the Allies. And I think, yeah, figuring out how you do this in a democracy, how you wave weapons around in a democracy and yet still persuade yourself that you're behaving as a democracy, is a really tough one.

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