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David Holloway on: The Symbolic Importance of Nuclear Weapons
David Holloway Q: There are clear signs after the first tests of the Soviet and American superbombs, that both Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower realized that there was no way of surviving a hydrogen bomb war. And yet, the arms race continues. How do you explain that?

DH: I think there was by late 1955 an understanding by [Nikita] Khrushchev, [President] Eisenhower, and by [British Prime Minister] Antony Eden, that a nuclear war would really be a catastrophe for everyone. And I think, even more important, each of them understood that the others also believed that. And yet, the arms race continued. And I think this comes back to the question of the symbolic importance of the weapons. The weapons were seen, I think, to have political uses, apart from their use in war. So you might say, yes, you know what, I'm going to have a nuclear war that would be catastrophic. But you could still have a war of nerves. You could still engage in threatening people, in you know, getting into crisis and saying, no, you better back down or things will get out of hand, or you better back down, or I'll strike you with nuclear weapons.

I think Khrushchev in particular saw nuclear weapons in that way. Especially when, after February 1956, when [the Soviets] had the first test of a nuclear warhead on a missile and they launched the missile with the warhead and it detonated, you know, when it reached its target. And he went, a couple of months later on a visit to Britain, there, I think he thought, right, I've got something that's really useful here. I've got a nuclear armed missile. I can use this to threaten people. In other words, what the Soviet Union had feared in the late '40s, was the Americans are going to threaten us in this war of nerves, in this kind of atomic diplomacy. And I think the Soviet view was, you know, we were tough, we stood up to it, we did not give in. But now, we've got the instruments in our hands to play this war. And we can play it better than they can.

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