"Soon even little countries will have a stockpile of these bombs, and then we will be in a mess," exclaimed President Dwight D. Eisenhower in spring 1954.(1) Eisenhower had hoped to energize an American nonproliferation policy that had languished since the failure of the Baruch Plan in 1946, but these efforts proved fruitless. Although no one in the Eisenhower administration proposed recanting Washington's opposition to nuclear spread, some officials, such as Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Lewis Strauss, began to wonder if attempting to halt nuclear dissemination was akin to an effort to hold back the tides. Arms race advocates exhibited disdain for nonproliferation schemes and intense suspicion of the Soviets, concluding that all disarmament agreements would erode U.S. security. Other U.S. policy makers, such as John Foster Dulles and Harold Stassen, believed that the arms race threatened U.S. security but also rejected comprehensive disarmament proposals as naive and idealistic. Instead, they embraced arms control plans that attempted to manage the arms race rather than end it. Eisenhower tried to forge a consensus in his administration between the arms control and arms race advocates. He too believed that an unchecked arms race posed a serious threat to U.S. survival, but he also harbored deep suspicions regarding Soviet intentions and reliability. He concluded that an already dangerous international system would become even more threatening if other countries beyond the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons.
Eisenhower took action on both the national and international levels to resolve the "fourth country" problem. He met with limited success when both Great Britain and the Soviet Union expressed interest in U.S. nonproliferation proposals. But ultimately, cold war suspicions, disagreement within the Eisenhower administration, and presidential impotence led to subordination of nonproliferation to other policy goals, especially maintaining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unity and winning the support of nonaligned nations with Atoms for Peace aid. In the face of this inaction, other countries initiated their own nuclear weapons programs, including France, Israel, and the People's Republic of China. Eisenhower's failure to conclude a nonproliferation agreement therefore raises important questions about the ability of two international rivals to cooperate in areas of mutual national interests, about the acceleration of the nuclear arms race, and about Eisenhower's presidential leadership. It also indicates that the withering of U.S. hegemony, which became most palpable in 1960s and 1970s, had roots reaching back to the zenith of American power.
Eisenhower entered the presidency with a more sophisticated understanding of nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. strategy than any of his predecessors or successors. While U.S. army chief of staff from 1945 to 1948 and later as supreme commander of NATO from 1951 to 1952, Eisenhower helped supervise the integration of atomic weapons into U.S. strategy. As president, he combined this experience with his adherence to the German military thinker Karl von Clausewitz's theories on the interconnection of war and politics.(2) But his reading of Clausewitz provided him with contradictory impulses toward nuclear weapons. Eisenhower feared that if he sustained the high level of defense spending he had inherited from Truman, it would damage the U.S. economy. He warned an aide, "If we let defense spending run wild, you get inflation ... then controls ... then a garrison state ... and then we've lost the very values we were trying to defend."(3) A military policy based primarily on nuclear deterrence offered a feasible means to reduce defense spending while offering sufficient striking force to check Soviet aggression.(4) But the new president also worried that nuclear weapons used in massive numbers violated the Clausewitzian principle that military victory must serve a clear political purpose.(5) At a meeting with military leaders, Eisenhower challenged them to imagine the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. He observed, "Here would be a great area from the Elbe to Vladivostock and down through Southeast Asia torn up and destroyed, without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you what would the civilized world do about it?"(6) Later in his administration, as Soviet nuclear strength increased, he remarked, "You can't have this kind of war.... There just aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets."(7)
The president also contended that nuclear armaments posed a greater threat to American than to Soviet national security, if only because atomic weapons favored "the side that attacks aggressively and by surprise." Because, in his opinion, the United States would never initiate an undeclared war, the continued existence of the nuclear threat actually worked to the Soviets' advantage.(8) The abolition of nuclear weapons, therefore, would favor the United States because the Soviet Union could not match its industrial capacity in the event of conventional war.(9) Eisenhower's fears about the consequences of nuclear weapons compelled him to embrace nuclear disarmament as the third major pillar of his national security policy, along with defense and deterrence.(10) But these three national security approaches did not receive equal emphasis because the president could not divorce arms control negotiations from the overarching anti-Soviet thrust of U.S. foreign policy. The Eisenhower administration therefore achieved few clear disarmament successes. More important, the United States failed to develop a consistent and effective nuclear nonproliferation policy from 1953 to 1961. Eisenhower did not fully understand the intricacies of nuclear physics and the multiple avenues of potential proliferation.
The most telling example of the president's ignorance of proliferation hazards emerged from his Atoms for Peace proposal of December 1953. The new plan would emulate the spirit and design of the Truman administration's Marshall Plan and Point IV program. With the sponsorship of the U.S. government, private firms would spread American products around the globe and demonstrate the greater technological development and prosperity possible under liberal capitalism than under communist economies.(11) Atoms for Peace would also demonstrate to the American people that all the money and energy invested in atomic energy could have positive as well as destructive uses.(12) By offering other countries aid in creating nuclear power plants, the Eisenhower administration ignored the primary findings of Truman administration officials: peaceful and military technologies cannot be segregated.(13) Although cast in terms of beating swords into plowshares, the Eisenhower administration ignored the fact that nuclear plowshares could be recast as swords.(14) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did try to warn the president of the proliferation danger, but Eisenhower brushed Churchill's worries aside, asserting that the materials and information promised under the plan would not constitute a threat.(15) But the president made this claim before consulting the General Advisory Committee of the AEC. Even after consultations with nuclear physicists, the administration appeared more concerned with the possibility of sudden military seizure of internationally controlled uranium and plutonium stores than with the gradual diversion of fissionable materials from nuclear reactors into weapons development.(16) Rather than being a first step toward an international nonproliferation agreement, Eisenhower's speech on December 8, 1953, opened the door to unchecked nuclear proliferation.(17) Few commentators noted this danger immediately after the speech. Congressional leaders, the press, and foreign governments generally praised Atoms for Peace.(18) Even leaders of some American peace groups supported the plan.(19) A few disarmament advocates, however, believed it failed to go far enough and noted its lack of safeguards.(20) Critics among nuclear nationalists labeled the plan "Watts for Hottentots" and saw it as an ill-conceived government giveaway program.(21) The critics, despite their small number, proved prescient. Through Atoms for Peace, the United States indirectly aided several nuclear weapons programs, including India, Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa, and Israel.(22) At the end of Eisenhower's first year in office, U.S. nonproliferation policy barely clung to life.
In 1954, the status of nuclear nonproliferation policy changed dramatically. Two explosions, one thermonuclear and the other diplomatic, awakened American nonproliferation policy from its slumber. The first blast occurred in the Marshall Islands, a U.S.-administered, United Nations (UN) trusteeship. The AEC detonated its first deliverable hydrogen bomb, code-named Bravo, on March 1, 1954. The blast's fireball expanded outward for nearly four miles, and radiation spread out even farther, bathing American servicemen, scientists, and the people of the Marshall Islands with dangerous radiation.(23) U.S. physicists had miscalculated the level of thermonuclear reaction in the bomb core, allowing the experiment to run almost out of control.(24)
The Eisenhower administration tried to restrict public knowledge of the test's unexpected results. The AEC simply announced that a minor accident had occurred during a routine nuclear test. But the AEC's public relations campaign collapsed when reports started to emanate from Japan about a crew of ill fisherman. On March 14, the ironically named Japanese tuna trawler Fukuryu Maru--the Fortunate Dragon--returned to its home port with irradiated fish in its hold and its crew exhibiting signs of radiation sickness.(25) The American and world public demanded a...