ANDREAS WENGER, Living with Peril: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nuclear Weapons (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 461 pp. $26.95 paper (ISBN 0-8476-8515-2).
The end of the cold war has brought many works that have reexamined crucial aspects of the cold war period. Another entry into this field is Andreas Wenger's Living with Peril: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nuclear Weapons. The author is deputy director of the Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.
Wenger seeks to examine and explain American thinking about the political role of nuclear weapons by providing a detailed analysis of the development of U.S. nuclear weapons policy in the period 1953-63. Employing a careful examination of the documentary record (especially national security policy papers and National Security Council memoranda), Wenger dissects the debates and highlights the nuances of developing U.S. nuclear strategy.
The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations reacted to the challenges of the changing nuclear equation by adjusting U.S. policy and thinking in ways that contributed to the avoidance of war. Wenger concludes that "over the years, the political leadership of the United States learned to fear the nuclear danger, it learned to accept the political limitations of both nuclear superiority and nuclear threats, and it learned that coexistence with the Soviet Union was an essential prerequisite to the future survival of the two superpowers" (p. 313).
The development of a degree of nuclear stability between the superpowers was a long, difficult, and dangerous process. Wenger argues that nuclear learning under Eisenhower and Kennedy evolved in three distinct phases, related to the changing U.S.-Soviet strategic balance. In the first phase (1953-57), the United States possessed overwhelming nuclear superiority. Eisenhower's New Look defense policy relied on U.S. nuclear forces to match superior Soviet conventional forces. By relying on nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration was able to continue Truman's policy of modified containment. The relatively low cost of nuclear weapons made it possible to balance the demands of security and fiscal responsibility. Wenger stresses just how important it was for Eisenhower to merge fiscal restraint on defense spending into his overall security policy.
In the second phase (1957-61), the Eisenhower administration was faced with a situation of growing mutual...