UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Maximalism and minimalism in American strategy, 1954-1968 Paton, Lorne Cheatham Flather


This thesis will examine the content of American nuclear strategy between 1954 and 1968, and will analyze the factors shaping that strategy. The first problem will be examined within the theoretical context of the maximalist-minimalist strategic continuum. Minimalism, the pole toward which Washington was inclined at the beginning of the thermonuclear age, involved a countervalue threat, or a threat to enemy population and industry, and a relatively low assessment of the forces required for this mission. Maximalism, on the other hand, involved a counterforce strategy, that is to say a strategy directed primarily against enemy strategic forces, and a relatively high estimate of the forces required. Although never entirely embraced by the highest American decision-makers, this latter pole represented the general direction in which American nuclear strategy evolved in the first nine years after Dulles enunciated the doctrine of massive retaliation in 1954. This tendency was evident in Eisenhower's gradual acceptance of the necessity for planning on the basis of a greater than expected threat; it was also manifest in his reluctant acceptance of coercive deterrence, a strategy dependent primarily upon deterrence through a countervalue threat but also involving a marginal capacity for damage limitation. Even more marked changes came with the advent of Kennedy and McNamara to power in 1961. Between then and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 there was a distinctly more pessimistic assessment of the greater than expected threat against which provision had to be made. Of yet greater significance, there was also a more energetic pursuit of a capability for coercive deterrence and an important refinement of that strategy in the form of the "hostage city" doctrine, a doctrine which provided for city-avoidance in a thermonuclear exchange. After the missile crisis, however, this tendency was reversed to a substantial extent, and by early 1968, when McNamara left office, American nuclear strategy was in large measure similar to that of the latter Eisenhower years in its emphasis on a nuclear "sufficiency" and on a countervalue policy. The second problem - the factors underlying these developments - will be examined in terms of four main variable clusters. Idiosyncratic factors, those characteristics of the decision-makers which are peculiar to them as individuals, exerted some influence in the policy process; Eisenhower's tendency to believe that he could "muddle through" and the more vigorous and rationalizing tendencies of Kennedy and McNamara played a distinct role in the evolution of American nuclear strategy. Technical factors, the state of military research and of the strategic balance, were nevertheless of greater importance. Counterforce arguments, for example, could not gain even marginal acceptance until there had been an improvement in offensive weapons technology. More important, the central fact facing American decision-makers was that it was highly probable that both superpowers would suffer unacceptable damage in a thermonuclear war and that even their greatest efforts could not save them. In the light of this latter consideration, prevention of a thermo nuclear conflict was ever the first priority of the United States. Societal and external factors, though, were most crucial. Influences which were external to the United States, such as the course of Soviet diplomacy and the state of the N.A.T.O alliance, played an essential part in defining the role which nuclear strategy must fulfill. It was generally agreed, for example, that the Russians did not desire a thermonuclear war, but their desire for expansion of their political influence carried with it some danger of escalation into such a conflict. Given the former consideration, it was hard to justify an all-out effort to attain a warfighting capability; given the latter, it was still necessary to provide at least a countervalue capability, and a case might even be made at times for developing a damage limiting capability. Finally, the nature of the society itself was a central influence. As was seen during the debate over the "missile gap," the tradition of military superiority still coloured the thinking of the people of the United States, causing them to exaggerate the threat to their security and to hanker after some form of 'nuclear superiority" even when they realized that a thermonuclear war would probably result in a mutual disaster. Itself a component of the credibility of the American deterrent, the climate of public opinion was brought to bear in Congress and at election time. Eisenhower, whose policies failed to sufficiently reassure his people, found this failure to be a substantial domestic liability, and a military-diplomatic liability of even greater magnitude. His successor was inclined to adopt policies more in accord with the temper of the American people, both from conviction and a sense of political expedience. Thus, the increasing effectiveness of American offensive forces, the seemingly unremitting hostility of the Soviet Union and the concomitant divisions within N.A.T.O. combined with the optimistic activism of the Kennedy administration and the domestic currents underlying that spirit to create the more aggressive policies pursued by that administration. Its partial retreat from those policies during its last year, and the more extensive retreat during the Johnson administration was the result of the increasingly apparent futility of the arms race, the Soviet-American detente, and a public opinion which was less concerned with the quest for superiority.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.