Abolishing the Taboo

Brian Madison Jones. Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961. (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011).

I found Brian Jones's Abolishing the Taboo interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the subject matter: the Cold War fear of nuclear war was the successor to the interwar fear of strategic bombing. Secondly, it's the book version of a PhD dissertation, which is something I'll be tackling myself.

The Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) was when the United States created its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, rising from the roughly 800 warheads inherited from Truman to over 18,000 by the time Kennedy came into office: as Jones notes, even after recent disarmament measures this number has never since fallen below the level when Eisenhower came into power.1 So this was the critical period when we (meaning the world) had to learn how to live with the Bomb. Jones's intention is to explain how and why this happened, through a focus on Eiseinhower's attempts to make nuclear technology normal: that is, as just another way of making the United States stronger and safer. Speaking as a non-specialist in this area, I think he largely succeeds in this. But I do have some criticisms.

Jones argues that Eisenhower used nuclear technology to strengthen the United States in four areas, which he uses to structure the book: the economy, the military, industry, and morality. The first is in some ways the strongest section. Eisenhower believed that 'Economic prosperity was as important as military strength, and [that] national security policy needed to reflect that balance'.2 His way of achieving that balance was to rely on relatively cheap nuclear weapons to offset the huge Soviet superiority in conventional arms: the New Look. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation against any Communist aggression removed the need for large and expensive standing forces in faraway lands. That much is well known, but Jones shows how Eisenhower's concerns as president derived from his experience in military command before, during and after the war, when he welcomed new technologies because the multiplied the strength of his forces. But after the war he was also worried that Truman's ballooning budget deficits were damaging the long-term strength of the American economy. New Look then seems a quite logical choice for a fiscally-conservative general turned commander-in-chief.

I found the section on Eisenhower's policies regarding the use of nuclear weapons more confusing; though, to be fair, that may be Eisenhower's fault, not Jones's. Jones stresses Eisenhower's firm belief that nuclear weapons were, after all, just another weapon, that there was no reason why there should be a taboo on their use. For example, he told a reporter, 'I know of no reason why a large explosion shouldn't be used as freely as a small explosion'.3 But in a press conference the following week he said that 'the concept of atomic war is too horrible for man to endure and to practice'.4 Such examples abound. Was Eisenhower this muddled in his thinking or is this just the logic of mutually assured destruction in action? Jones doesn't really get to grips with this, it seems to me. He suggests that Eisenhower had a preference for 'average solutions', avoiding both extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. In this case that meant putting the possibility of nuclear holocaust to one side and proceeding as if it wasn't going to happen. Taking the average of two extremes is usually misleading; but we're still here so maybe Eisenhower was right to do so.

The third section concerns Eisenhower's policies regarding industrial uses of nuclear technology. This means not only the nuclear energy industry, which Eisenhower inaugurated in 1954 by revising Truman's post-war Atomic Energy Act to allow civilian operation of nuclear power plants. (He also inaugurated it by dedicating the first such plant, Shippingport, with 'the wave of an "atomic wand" which set a bulldozer in motion from thousands of miles away'.)5 It also means less successful experiments such as the nuclear-powered 'atomic peace ship', NS Savannah, which for a decade carried passengers and cargo around the world; and Project Plowshare, a catch-all for experimenting with all sorts of ideas about using 'clean' nukes for large-scale engineering projects. (Only 26 nuclear explosions would have been needed to create a new, sea-level Panama canal. A test blast to create a deep harbour on the northern coast of Alaska never took place.) This is fascinating stuff, and Jones shows that Eisenhower's interest in harnessing the power of the atom for humanity's benefit was genuine, not a cynical attempt to distract attention from or to justify the nuclear weapons programme.

The final chapter is called 'Bolstering moral strength'. I think this is where Jones's structure runs out of steam. In terms of Eisenhower's nuclear policy, 'bolstering moral strength' includes early disarmament attempts and confidence-building initiatives like Open Skies. Atoms For Peace, a programme which transferred nuclear technology for peaceful uses to friendly countries, is also discussed in this chapter, though somewhat perfunctorily; it might have been a better fit in the previous chapter (or the Savannah might have been a better fit in this one). In between there is a lengthy section on the Eisenhower administration's concerns about the film version of Nevil Shute's On The Beach, even discussing it in a Cabinet meeting shortly before the December 1959 premiere. The concern was that the film might make people think the wrong things about nuclear war:

Eisenhower and his advisors feared the film would be a huge success and convince Americans that the world would be best served by unilateral nuclear disarmament and by joining radical "ban-the-bomb" organizations. On the other hand, the film threatened to erode American moral strength by feeding the overwhelming fear of nuclear war. The depictions of slow death from nuclear fallout might bring a spiritual and emotional depression.6

One of the proposed responses, for example, was to point out that 'fallout from a war in the northern hemisphere would never reach the southern hemisphere even if the maximum number of nuclear weapons were used'.7 Luckily for Eisenhower, the film was not a great success either with the public or the critics, and the feared reactions never took place. I found this discussion fascinating, but it doesn't really fit with the rest of the chapter, and is just introduced with no exploration of the domestic dissent Eisenhower was facing over his nuclear policies.

There are a few other problems. The main one is the first chapter: it is clearly just the literature review from the dissertation. This is a necessary thing in a dissertation, as it shows you have critically read and mastered the available secondary literature on your topic. It's very hard to read in a book though, and not very interesting to most people, even specialists. Most advice I've read is to drop the literature review and perhaps incorporate some of it in the rest of the text. Instead, this chapter might have been used to give the more general reader an introduction to Eisenhower: his life, his achievements, and the key historiographical trends in the literature about him. (Look at me: one book contract and suddenly I'm an expert!) Another is that there are what seem to me to be surprising omissions: for example, there is very little discussion of ballistic missile development, or long-range bomber development for that matter, but surely the ability to deliver all these nuclear warheads was almost as important? I was also troubled by the numerous statements about what Eisenhower felt or knew or thought (for example, 'Eisenhower felt ill at ease with a perceived lack of consistency in Truman's actions'); perhaps I'm being pedantic but from the sources cited we can at best only tell what he said or wrote.8 Finally, while I applaud Helion's initiative in publishing a PhD dissertation in an affordable edition, I wish they'd left out the illustrations: they are generally too murky to add much to the text.

I've probably been a bit harsh in this review, but overall I found Jones's Abolishing the Taboo to be informative and interesting. I haven't even touched on the fascinating parallels with the British response to the threat of bombing between the wars such internationalisation and shelter policy; and in some ways Eisenhower's concern to build military strength without damaging financial strength reminds me of Chamberlain in the late 1930s. And if the topic itself interests you then it is well worth the read.

  1. Brian Madison Jones, Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945-1961 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2011), 122. 

  2. Ibid., 45. 

  3. Ibid., 76. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid., 88. 

  6. Ibid., 114. 

  7. Ibid., 115. 

  8. Ibid., 43. 

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