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John Lewis Gaddis on: President Eisenhower's Military Strategy
John Gaddis Q: There is a significant transition in leadership in '53. You have Truman making a pretty strong statement in his parting address about the dangers of nuclear warfare. And then you have a new president coming in who seems to be almost cavalier in comparison. He institutes a new defense policy, the "New Look". What does he try to accomplish with that?

JLG: Well, I think it's fair to say that the Eisenhower-Dulles team had developed a critique of the Truman Administration's strategy during the 1952 campaign. The ideas here really originate with [John Foster] Dulles. The idea is that one should use the nuclear capability, the nuclear superiority that we had; make overt and direct threats; be prepared to use atomic bombs and later thermonuclear weapons, if necessary and, as Dulles said at one point, to break down this psychological taboo that distinguishes nuclear weapons from other weapons; that we ought to just treat them as being like any other weapon, make them normal instruments in the arsenal.

Eisenhower had some qualms about this strategy, and it's evident from the correspondence between Eisenhower the candidate and Dulles, his adviser in the 1952 campaign. But on becoming president and facing the situation of how to end the Korean War and how to keep the war from breaking out again once the ceasefire is originated, Eisenhower in effect buys into the Dulles strategy. There are some fairly explicit public statements made about the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Korea if a ceasefire is not arranged, and then even more explicit statements about the possibility of using them if the ceasefire should be violated. And the fact that the ceasefire occurs, and the fact that it is not violated, I think, caused Eisenhower and Dulles to believe that this strategy worked, that it had paid off. And so they make it a general strategy of, in effect, cutting back on the amount of spending for non-nuclear weapons and relying more heavily on the nuclear deterrents to protect American global interests.

Q: And it may have been a misunderstanding. There's also a very significant change in the Kremlin at around the same time, with new leadership presumably no longer willing to pursue Stalin's policies in Korea.

JLG: Well, yes. I think the Eisenhower-Dulles attitude that nuclear threats had paid off in the Korean War was indeed a misunderstanding, because there is no evidence from the Soviet or the Chinese side that that was the case. The Chinese in particular had claimed even not to have been aware of the nuclear threats that were being conveyed somewhat directly while the Korean War was on. And it is quite clear from Soviet sources that the decisive event in bringing the Korean War to the close was the death of Stalin in March of 1953. So I think it was a misapprehension on Eisenhower and Dulles' part that these threats had worked as efficiently as they thought they had in the Korean War.

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