John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State during the Eisenhower administration, introduced the term 'massive retaliation' in 1954, stating that "A potential aggressor must know that he cannot always prescribe battle conditions that suit him." The linguistic variations 'massive deterrence' and 'massive response' are also used.
During the Cold War, roughly 1946 to 1989, there were concerns among some segments of the public about a devastating nuclear war. It was imagined that a scenario could be realized in which most or all of the earth's population died. It has become clear, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that such an event was very unlikely. Neither major nuclear power - the United States or the Soviet Union - was interested in such massive destruction, and both had, in fact, organized military plans to limit any potential use of atomic bombs. The officers on both sides understood that such destructiveness was in nobody's interest. Officers in SAC - America's Strategic Air Command - and in the Soviet army understood themselves as pointing powerful weapons at each other, but understood also that neither side had the desire to pull the trigger.
Yet the notion persisted that the earth was teetering on the brink of destruction. Although now seen as a needless fear, it motivated certain political movements at the time. One invention, fed by these fears and feeding these fears, was the notion of "mutually assured destruction." The phrase itself has an unclear origin. Some sources say that it was invented by John von Neumann, who held no post in any government. He was not a part of any effort to create fear among the public about a world-ending nuclear war. As a private citizen, he did consulting for the Army, the CIA, and the Atomic Energy Commission. He certainly realized the grave threat posed by the Soviet Union's missiles, but he was not an alarmist. His phrase came to be known by the acronym MAD; in all probability, he created it as a joke. But those who had been had been shaken by the scaremongers assumed that the phrase was officially part of the government's military planning, which it was not. Other sources attribute the phrase to science fiction writer Arthur Charles Clarke, but this is unlikely. A third potential creator of the phrase is Donald Brennan, an analyst at the Hudson Institute; it is suggested that Brennan coined the phrase in the 1960's, perhaps around 1966. We may never know exactly where or when the phrase first appeared, or who invented it.
Despite the widespread use of the phrase in the media, it was not, during the 1950s or 1960s, the official policy of any civilian or military branch of the United States government. The phrase was used derisively and ironically. Yet it gradually worked its way into the collective public consciousness, and many were convinced that it was somehow the "official doctrine" of the government. Eventually, it would be taken seriously, by those who were ideological heirs of the those who had used it at first as a satire.
A confusing change in terminology further fueled efforts by doomsayers to scare the public with apocalyptic scenarios about a nuclear Armageddon. The Eisenhower administration had consistently used the phrase "massive retaliation" to define its policy. When JFK took office, a very similar notion was presented under the title "assured destruction." This phrase, presented by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was close enough to the phrase "mutually assured destruction" to cause misunderstandings among the public, and to give fuel to the doomsayers. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write:
McNamara's analysis of "assured destruction" requirements, measured in part against predictions of Soviet ICBM programs through the 1960s, reinforced the secretary's conviction that the Russians would someday reach nuclear parity. It was not a conclusion that made force planning easier or enhanced Kennedy's politic future. McNamara redirected strategic force planning by checking the Air Force's bomber program; he canceled both the B-70 supersonic, high-altitude bomber and the "Skybolt" bomber-carried missile. By increasing warhead accuracy, the United States might reduce warhead yield, a development that would allow more warheads to be placed on the future generations of missiles to be placed in silos and submarines. Shortly after McNamara capped the growth of delivery vehicles (1963-1964), he approved the development of multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as the next hedge against a Soviet first strike. McNamara favored the strategic "triad" of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers, for his studies suggested that such a mixed force defied a disarming first strike and assured the ultimate deterrent of counter-city retaliation. Despite his critics' argument that "assured destruction" was only "massive retaliation" repackaged, the McNamara program, which now included substantial counterforce potential, surged forward to completion by 1967.
Robert McNamara, then, found it important to balance weapon delivery option among submarines, bombers, and missiles. Although his effort to cap the number of missiles and bombers, while simultaneously multiplying strike capabilities by means of MIRVs, made a sort of mathematical sense, it sent a mixed message as to whether or not he was interested in strengthening the nation's ability to protect itself. McNamara also failed to grasp the importance of having both defense and deterrence. He apparently felt that deterrence alone was defense. His failure to develop an adequate defense system against incoming Soviet (or other) missiles necessitated a scramble to catch up after he left office.
McNamara rejected the options of active and passive defense against Soviet missile attack, for the Secretary believed that strategy, economics, and public ignorance made defense pointless. Although OSD improved the bomber defense system and supported major improvements in satellite and ground radar surveillance, McNamara beat back service-sponsored anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programs until Congress and President Johnson forced him to accept a minimal commitment to ABM in 1967. McNamara never argued that the Army could not hit an incoming warhead, only that the Russians could overwhelm either a point defense or area defense system with a minimal increase of warhead numbers. McNamara applied similar logic to the protection of urban Americans from the effects of nuclear weapons. In the technical sense the availability of fallout shelters would no doubt save lives if war came. Such public shelters, however, would cost around $40 billion, the same loose estimate as for the ABM system. McNamara's strategic advisors also feared that the civil defense systems might lead the Russians to conclude that the Americans believed they could wage nuclear war and survive. When public hysteria greeted a minimal government shelter program in 1961-1962, McNamara found an additional excuse to rely on "assured destruction."
Unwittingly, various government officials furthered the myth of "mutually assured destruction" (the phrasing varied between the adjective 'mutual' and the adverb 'mutually'). Neither the phrase, nor the idea it represents, were part of any defense planning, either by any branch of the military, or by the civilians in the Department of Defense. After the invention of the phrase, which was probably done in rather detached philosophical analysis of the situation by a distant think-tank occupant, not a hot-headed radical. If it was John von Neuman, it would have been in line with his penchant for developing rather ironic acronyms. If it was Donald Brennan, the intellectual atmosphere of a think-tank allows for a calm-headed investigation of concepts in a detached fashion, far from the fear and anxiety which some people would seek to create with the phrase. The news media and entertainment industry began to use 'MAD' as if it were a standing military doctrine. But it was included, at that time, in no document of any of the armed services.
By the mid-1970s, the phrase "mutually assured destruction" had been circulating for a decade, and the more accurate and rational "assured destructed" and "massive retaliation" had been around for two decades. The pervasiveness and longevity of the MAD fairy tale eventually planted seeds in the minds of those who came of age in its presence. A new generation of policy-makers, elected and appointed, had absorbed the ubiquitous fable as fact. And so MAD, which began as a witticism, was assumed by some to be a reality. This false assumption would reach high levels in the government, much to the frustration of serious analysts and military thinkers, who tried in vain to inform officeholders and the public that MAD was a fiction. Multiple layers of irony intersected, when President Carter, who assumed that MAD was the operative strategic doctrine of the military, and who was opposed to this non-existent doctrine, felt that he had to support it against his own will, and provide the military with the tools to implement it.
The first Carter defense policy reflected both post-Vietnam public opinion and the noninterventionism of the President, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Vice President Walter F. Mondale rather than the confrontationist bent of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzenzinski. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, the most experienced and least ideological of Carter's advisors, coped with both camps and tried to fashion programs that satisfied the divided counsel at the White House. When Carter took office, public opinion polls showed that Americans thought that defense spending was adequate, that the armed forces could perform their missions, and that Russia might have increased its military capability but did not intend to use its military for coercive purposes. The public thought that only nuclear deterrence and the defense of NATO justified military spending. Carter's first two defense budgets reduced Ford's projections for real growth in military spending; when modified for inflation, Carter's proposed spending levels resulted in a slight decline in real authorizations and outlays. The administration managed its economies in a number of ways: canceling the B-1 bomber program, cutting the Navy's shipbuilding plans, stretching out the costs of expensive programs like the MX ICBM and tactical aircraft procurement, slowing the growth of military pay, and reducing operations and maintenance spending.
In the Carter administration, then, it was the President who would embrace the concept of MAD. Carter did not support or endorse MAD, but thought that it was an actual strategy and school of thought, despite the fact that it was a sarcastic slogan created to express precisely what its framer was working to avoid. Among serious nuclear strategists, there was a diversity of opinions, but they were working to avoid something - and to give that 'something' a name, they had invented MAD.
The administration based its initial strategic arms programs upon the assumptions of mutual assured destruction, for Carter was convinced he could use SALT II negotiations to accomplish sharp reduction in the levels of nuclear weapons. This optimism was short-lived. In 1977, abandoning the Vladivostok Accords, the Carter administration proposed to the USSR that each side make deep cuts in its MIRVed ICBM force. Since most of the Soviet's strategic forced are ICBMs, this reduction would have borne most heavily on the USSR. Not surprisingly, the Soviet objected sharply to the Carter plan. Thereafter the administration returned to more traditional and modest plans to reduce the Russian counterforce first-strike potential. In June 1979, Carter and Brezhnev signed a second set of strategic arms control agreements, that SALT II treaty. Focused upon curbing the growth of warheads on MIRVed ICBMs, the "basic agreement" of seven years' duration established tiered caps on all strategic systems: 2,250 on the total number of missile launchers and heavy bombers; a subceiling of 1,320 on all MIRVed missiles and bombers armed with air-launched cruise missiles; a subceiling of 1,200 on all sea-based or land-based MIRVed missiles; and a final limit of 820 on all MIRVed land-based ICBMs. A three-year protocol put temporary restraints on mobile ICBM and cruise missile development. SALT II's parameters allowed the United States to complete its existing strategic modernization programs and placed a cap on the Soviets' most menacing program, the deployment of heavy ICBMs with MIRVs in numbers and accuracy that might create a disabling first-strike capability.
The deep flaw, however, in the SALT II talks was that the Carter administration was proceeding on the assumption that MAD was the underlying doctrine behind both the American and the Soviet nuclear weapon programs. MAD was a operational principle in neither. The gap between the military and think-tank organization on the one side, and the civilian political structure on the other side, was conceptual. The slogan "mutually assured destruction" had been developed as a convenient phrase to characterize the type of situation to be avoided at all costs; an analyst in a think-tank or a military officer in the SAC might, in comparing a number of strategic possibilities, justify his rejection of one of those configurations because it would lead to a MAD situation. But the policy makers in the civilian government took the phrase to refer to an operative principle - a strategy - and felt that, even if they found MAD abhorrent, it was their duty to develop a defense policy which would enable the services to maintain a MAD stance. The civilian leaders hoped to eventually persuade the military services to abandon MAD; the civilian government didn't understand the the military had never embraced MAD!
Eventually, a different view began to emerge in the civilian government. It rejected MAD, embraced the "massive retaliation" strategy which had been the core of military thought all along, and also saw an opportunity to win the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself funding the arms race. Segments of the civilian government in Washington saw that the Cold War would be won by economics. Missiles and guidance systems are expensive. If American could challenge the Soviet Union to a spending race, which is the essence of the arms race, it would certainly win. America, following the doctrine of massive retaliation, would develop ever-more sophisticated weapons systems. Trying to keep up with the United States, the Soviet Union would bankrupt itself, collapse, and end the Cold War without firing a single ICBM.
The issue of strategic defense proved to be the linkage between accelerated nuclear deterrent programs and continued arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Reagan himself found the idea of protecting American cities emotionally appealing and politically congenial, but his advisors thought in more limited terms, using strategic defense either as a SALT bargaining chip or as a more limited point defense system for American missile, submarine, and bomber bases. Although the ABM Treaty seemed to outlaw strategic defense in the name of mutual assured destruction, Reagan ordered the Joint Chiefs to give the matter more attention. He embraced a phrase from a JCS briefing: "Wouldn't it be better to protect the American people than avenge them?" In a major speech in March 1983 he announced his "Strategic Defense Initiative," or SDI, a major program for defense against Soviet ballistic missiles. Reflecting a popular movie of the time, the program became "Star Wars," even though its space-based elements were far from intergalactic. Nevertheless, the Pentagon established a Strategic Defense Initiative Office with its own budget, tripled to $3.1 billion by 1986, and authority over the separate ABM military programs then in existence. These programs investigated the application of nuclear, laser, and kinetic energy systems against missiles as well as the requirements for acquiring targets in the various stages of missile flight.
Several elements came together for SDI: first, the understanding by the civilian government that MAD had never been America's operative policy and that massive retaliation was a better doctrine; second, technological advances that allowed for the interception and destruction of ICBM's flying at extremely fast speeds high above the earth before they could strike targets in the United States; and third, the confirmation of SDI potential by means of the Soviet Union's strong objections to, motivated by fears of, it. The Department of State produced this text:
Reagan was quite adamant that the goal of U.S. defense research should be to eliminate the need for nuclear weapons, which he thought were fundamentally immoral. In terms of the Cold War conflict with the Soviets, a successful defense system would destroy the Soviet ability to make a first strike, which in turn would undermine the USSR's ability to pose a threat to the United States at all. So success in this area, supporters of SDI argued, could potentially also bring an end to the Cold War.
At the Department of Defense, the Missile Defense Agency stated:
In April 1984, following a year of technical and strategic studies to determine how best to pursue the president's goal, the Defense Department established the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) under the leadership of its first director, Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson of the U.S. Air Force. This organization was to carry out the SDI program of research and development (R&D) to resolve the feasibility issue.
After two and a half years of R&D, at the end of 1986 the President and Secretary of Defense decided to enter a missile defense system into the defense acquisition process. SDIO began to develop defenses against widespread missile attacks.
SDI, with its amazing technological breakthroughs, was but one part of the larger strategy of forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into its own demise. At the Department of Defense, Fred Ikle was a leading strategist who helped to formulate the overall doctrine which included SDI and other programs. The Wall Street Journal wrote:
Along with the late, great Albert Wohlstetter, Ikle (pron. Eclay) was among those who fashioned U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy during the most dangerous days of the Cold War. They resisted the arms-control fads of the 1970s as naive and dangerous. Instead they focused on maintaining a credible deterrent against Soviet adventurism, while also making the U.S. arsenal and the world in general less dangerous.
Part of the success which the United States experienced in winning the Cold War was ending the fairy-tale of MAD. It had to be clear in the minds of all involved that the United States would not embrace, and had not embraced, a strategy of "mutually assured destruction," and was focused instead on massive retaliation. The National Review wrote:
the 1980s were a critical time for America and the world. And a critical player in the Reagan administration was Fred Ikle, an official in the Pentagon. He was both a thinker and a doer, a strategist and an implementer. Like many great Americans, he was an immigrant, coming to this country from Switzerland after the war. He was in his early twenties. He earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, and held a string of positions in academia and government. Like Reagan, he thought that we could do better than detente: that we could actually push back the Soviet Union and free large portions of the world. Like Reagan, he hated MAD, which is to say “mutual assured destruction.” He wrote that this concept “rests on a form of warfare universally condemned since the dark ages — the mass killing of hostages.” Therefore, he supported anti-missile defenses, derided by Ted Kennedy and the rest of the Left as “Star Wars.” Ikle did all he could to help Central Americans and others who were struggling against tyranny.
To say that Ronald Reagan, Fred Ikle, SDI, and "massive retaliation" won the Cold War is a simple truth and an accurate assessment of the events as they occurred. Yet, it is also true that there is much more to the story: the Polish solidarity movement, Margaret Thatcher, and the churches in East Germany and Romania also were crucial to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. By any account, however, the free democratic capitalistic West won the Cold War, and the Soviet Union with its collectivist socialist utopianism lost.