Thus readers tend to think of deterrence on a macro scale: the extensive collections of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in the face of Soviet aggression.
The goal of deterrence is always to prevent an armed conflict before it begins, by convincing a potential attacker that any aggression will meet with an overwhelming response.
By 1952, voters in the United States were tired of the Korean War. Eisenhower’s strategy was to prevent the United State from being dragged into similar regional conflicts by using deterrence on a regional scale. This was deterrence on a micro scale.
Structuring national defense systems for deterrence instead of for engagement requires a different type of planning. Prior to the Eisenhower presidency, the focus of military planning was for a large-scale confrontation with the Soviets, perhaps a land war, a re-play of WW2.
A WW2-style mobilization made no sense militarily because nuclear weapons had significantly changed strategy, and made no sense politically because the citizens were tired of protracted warfare. There was not much room, in Eisenhower’s deterrence strategies, for “tactical atomic” weapons.
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use within the context of conventional land war. They are often small missiles, with ranges of two or three miles.
By contrast, strategic nuclear weapons are large, powerful, and often delivered from thousands of miles away. They are intended either to be a part of strategic, not conventional, combat, or to deter combat altogether.
Although ‘tac nukes’ were produced in quantity throughout the Eisenhower administration, they were not a significant part of strategic planning.
Eisenhower’s goals were to get the United States out of the Korean conflict, to prevent U.S. entanglement in similar regional conflicts, and to accomplish this by developing deterrence on both a macro and a micro scale, as historian Russell Weigley writes:
The new Eisenhower administration embraced deterrence still more enthusiastically, with fewer backward glances toward plans for mobilization on the pattern of the World Wars. Apart from the asset of Dwight Eisenhower’s winning personality and prestige, the Republicans captured the Presidency in the election of 1952 largely because of voter discontent with the prolonged and puzzling Korean War. The new administration intended both to extricate the country from the Korean entanglement and to ensure against further involvements of the Korean type. It was able to succeed in the former aim, to end the fighting and the weary truce talks, for various reasons, including its political ability to be more flexible in negotiation than the Truman administration - few Americans could believe that Republicans were soft on Communism - and perhaps primarily, because Stalin soon died. Many in the new administration also believed that a threat to use atomic weapons in Korea, the message being conveyed to the Chinese through India, was decisive; this conviction was important in conditioning subsequent policy. For the second goal, guarding against a repetition of Korea, the new administration turned to an explicit strategy of deterrence, aimed at deterring local and limited as well as general wars.
Conventional war plans, on a strategic or macro level, were reactive, or at best responsive, and amounted to simply waiting for WW3 to break out. Deterrence was a more proactive approach.
Rather than make plans for a possible armed conflict with the Soviets, deterrence was designed to reduce the probability of that conflict, as historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski explain:
After the Korean War, the United States turned from a crisis-oriented military policy toward concepts and programs designed to last as long as the rivalry with the Soviet Union. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson adopted policies suited for “the long haul.” With Soviet-American competition accepted as the central fact in international relations, American policy makers regarded defense policy as a principal instrument for containing the parallel spread of Communism and Soviet imperialism. To check the extension of Soviet influence, the United States sought to reduce the chance that the Russians would threaten or use military force as a tool of international influence. For all the debate about the means and costs of defense, American policy rested upon consensual assumptions about the nature of the military challenge and the appropriate response. Supported by an activist coalition in Congress, the three Cold War presidents further refined containment, strategic deterrence, and forward, collective defense.
But on the political side, strategies of containment, deterrence, and defense are only as good as the realism needed to face the global situation, and are only as good as the will to implement such strategies.
On the American political scene, there were significant numbers of both leaders and voters who either did not understand, or willfully chose not to believe, that the crystalized goal of the USSR and the international communist conspiracy was the destruction of western societies leading to the Soviet Socialist domination of the world.
The Soviets were clearly focused on this goal, and willing to use, even intending to use, the deaths of thousands and millions of innocent civilians to reach this objective. In 1960, Senator Goldwater wrote:
The temptation is strong to blame the deterioration of America’s fortunes on the Soviet Union’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. But this is self-delusion. The rot had set in, the crumbling of our position was already observable, long before the Communists detonated their first Atom Bomb. Even in the early 1950s, when America still held unquestioned nuclear superiority, it was clear that we were losing the Cold War. Time and again in my campaign speeches of 1952 I warned my fellow Arizonians that “American Foreign Policy has brought us from a position of undisputed power, in seven short years, to the brink of possible disaster.” And in the succeeding seven years, that trend, because its cause remains, has continued.
There were enough voters and leaders, however, who accurately understood the Soviet threat. Although imperfectly, the United States was able to maintain enough deterrence that the USSR chose not to mount direct frontal attacks on either North America or western Europe.
The communists certainly continued their efforts at expansion, via proxy wars, via the acquisition of smaller defenseless countries, and via the espionage network they had established inside the United States. But America managed to deter a large-scale, massive Soviet military aggression.