Friday, August 10, 2007

Nuke Prevention Corollary

John brought up an interesting point today. Now, the point is from a book he can't find by an author he can't remember, but the point rings true - Nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the relative peace that followed WWII; rather, it was the world leader's experience of the Second World War that encouraged them not to engage in anything similar.

This has its merits - Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and De Gaulle come to mind. Generals, especially, who succeeded in the key area of "not having major foreign wars". They came close - Eisenhower had Korea, Khrushchev fell out of favor post-Cuban Missile Crisis, and de Gaulle both came to power through a coup and then ended a colonial war in Algeria. They led nations in conflicts, but they were always about keeping it contained, keeping it manageable, and about ending it. It's a valuable experience, and their respective roles in WWII no doubt had a serious effect on the outcome.

The trick with relying on memory as the reason no major powers went to war against each other is that memory fades, and people with the memories get old and die. Currently, the united states is on it's second "Baby Boomer" president, and seems ready to elect a third. Putin was born in 1952, and to continue the parallel Sarkozy was born in 1955. These people have no living memory of the second world war, and to be fair, they have no memory of Hiroshima or Nagasaki as well.

They do, however, have a lifetime of fear instilled in them over the prospect of a nuclear war. The cold war left that as a solid legacy (what is the point of 'duck and cover' if not to instill fear?), and they had the actual devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to look back on. The atomic bomb, born of the horrors of WWII, found it's place as a lasting reminder of the exceedingly high costs of war between great powers. The living memory of those first leaders is not to be discredited, (surely, if they had wanted to use the bomb they would have), but the bomb itself, that intense amount of otherworldly power in such a small capsule, will last, and will endure, as the ever-present threat and the lesson learned. Perhaps the bomb did not establish the peace - the bomb certainly secured it.


John Fleck said...

I remembered! Which is to say, an amusing trail of Googlecrumbs involving Fred Astaire eventually led to the book I was thinking of: "Retreat from Doomsday", by John Mueller. With your newfound university library privileges, you might also be able to easily score a 1988 essay he wrote on the same topic, thus avoiding having to read an entire book. It's:

The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World
John Mueller
International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 55-79

Christine Robinson said...

You are definitely right about the legacy of duck and cover. My generation...the ones who thought about it...grow up and spend our young adulthood increasingly realizing that it was not just the terrors and sacrifices of war over our heads but the possibility of the destruction of humanity. Now, that gets a person thinking.

As to damn quickly we forgot the lessons of Viet Nam.

Kelsey Atherton said...

There are plenty who remember the legacy of Vietnam. Colin Powell, for example - the Powell Doctrine (Make war only with overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy) is a prime example of that. People who didn't fight in the war, people who couldn't relate to either the veterans or the protesters (who, often enough, were veterans) are the people that forgot the lesson. WWII was universal enough to affect those who would be in power in a similar way. Childhood during the cold war was universal enough to give an impression of the power and terror of nuclear weapons, but wasn't quite universal enough to get everyone to believe that their time is past (see - renewed nuclear program). Vietnam affected the nation universally, but not in a universally similar way. The lessons learned from Vietnam were divided into several camps, and filled with gray areas. The military learned it's lesson, the media learned it's, those who would be administer unpopular wars learned their, and the protesting public learned its own lesson.

Also, tragic as quagmires are, they are not as universal as the threat of a more-or-less global extinction of humans. They're terrible, but they're a localized terrible