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John Lewis Gaddis on: Cold War Nuclear Diplomacy
John Gaddis Q: You talked earlier about the transfer of nuclear components to the Asian theater. Is that how you send a message? How do you send these nuclear diplomacy messages?

JLG: Well, this is a very good question. How do you send the message? Truman tried transferring components on the assumption (and [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles did the same thing, actually; the Eisenhower Administration does the same thing), on the assumption that the other side - the Chinese, the Russians - will find out about it. It's a little bit like what the Truman Administration did at the time of the Berlin blockade in 1948, transferring B-29 bombers, which we know did not carry nuclear weapons, but it's a way of sending that signal.

What's interesting about the Korean case is that it's not at all clear that the signal got through to the Chinese in particular. Dulles went to New Delhi, talked to [Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru, and tried to convey through Nehru a semi-explicit threat to use nuclear weapons if the fighting did not cease. It's quite clear that this message did not get through, whether because Dulles was too vague, or whether because Nehru did not pass it along in the way that Dulles had intended, or whether because the Chinese misunderstood it when it was passed along. Whatever is the case, it's clear that the signaling did not work very efficiently here.

I think this only reinforces a larger point about nuclear history in the Cold War, which is that the signals that one side was trying to send quite often were garbled or misunderstood or misapprehended by the other side. And so the idea that you can make these things into precise instruments of communication is probably a very fallacious idea.

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