Rhetorical swaggering and the nuclear arms race



LAST month, during the volley of heated exchanges between North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, Ri Yong-hu,hinted that his country could detonate a powerful hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. A wave of panic swept over the world.

This threat is reminiscent of the paranoia-inducing Cold War hostilities between the US and Soviet Union. Yet North Korea is at best just swaggering rhetorically, playing brinkmanship as it has been doing for a decade or so.

Rhetorical swaggering is one of the ways states show off their strengths, whether by bluffing about their capability or being truthful about it. The “Atoms for Peace” speech of US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 is one of its finest examples.

In this two-part column, I will revisit that pivotal moment during the Cold War that precipitated the nuclear arms race between to superpowers, and eventually spread nuclear capabilities to other states, including North Korea. Part 1 focuses on the context leading to the speech; and part 2 deals with its content.

In January 1949, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was founded by Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union. Its aim was to foster economic solidarity among socialist countries. Later that year, in August 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. Two months after, the communists won the Chinese civil war. Chairman Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China. These made American policymakers feel the pendulum of power swinging towards the Soviet Union.

To determine the appropriate American response, the General Advisory Committee to the US Atomic Energy Commission met to discuss the development of the hydrogen bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and the chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was among its vocal opponents.

Oppenheimer was part of the majority group of the panel who believed that the hydrogen bomb’s danger to humanity outweighed any military advantage it could give. The minority group held the same opinion but under the condition that the Soviet Union would also renounce the development of the H-bomb.

Others were in favor of developing the bomb. Nuclear physicists Edward Teller was among the vocal supporters. Teller explained the rationale for the invention and detonation of the H-bomb in the December 1982 issue of Science magazine. Replying to their article about the history of the bomb, Teller said that he advocated for the bomb in order to maintain America’s strength and “guarantee the stability of the world.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Brien McMahon, the chair of the congressional joint committee on atomic energy, found the reasoning of the AEC nonsensical. Reacting to the advice of the AEC, Senator McMahon wrote President Harry Truman a letter in November 1949, advocating that the US go ahead in developing the hydrogen bomb because if Russia got it first, “catastrophe becomes all but certain —whereas, if we get it first, there exists a chance of saving ourselves.”

Believing that the construction of the hydrogen bomb didn’t only involve the issues highlighted by the AEC but also political and military ones, Truman created a special subcommittee of the National Security Council (NSC) that would help him reach a decision. Meanwhile, the Joint Chief of Staffs, a committee composed of military officers established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after World War 2, told the Secretary of Defense that the US military must be in favor of the development of the thermonuclear weapon because, among other reasons, it could deter war from happening.

The debate was won by those in favor of the hydrogen bomb. The rationale for further armament can be gleaned from the National Security Council report #68 (NSC-68), released in April 1950.

Negotiating with the Soviet Union was the first course of action that was considered. But the US couldn’t “achieve an agreement which is somewhat better than the realities of [her]fundamental position would justify,” NSC-68 said. However, the military force the US possesses “is not sufficient by itself to advance the position of the United States in the Cold War.”

This position could only be achieved, the report asserted, through “a more rapid build-up of political, economic, and military strength.” It warned that the Soviet Union may be able to develop a “fission bomb capability” and “thermonuclear bomb capability” in 1954. Thus, the US must act “promptly and vigorously” in building its military strength, the report concluded.

In 1952, the US tested the world’s first thermonuclear bomb, which was a thousandfold more powerful than the nuke that destroyed Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer published an article in Foreign Affairs featuring the top secret report commissioned by Truman. The report recommended that measures be taken in order to avert nuclear catastrophe. One of them was to raise the public’s awareness of the perils of nuclear warfare.

As the policy recommendation of the report was being discussed, the Soviet Union’s Premier Joseph Stalin died in March 1953.

General Charles Douglas Jackson, Eisenhower’s special assistant on psychological warfare saw a window of opportunity in this moment of grief in the Soviet Union. Since the enemy was currently in a vulnerable state, he wanted to exploit its weakness. General Jackson had an idea.…

(To be continued on Thursday)


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