Chapter 4:  The New Look And “Atoms For Peace”


Through the summer and early fall of 1953, the White House pursued its quest for a new, comprehensive, proactive national security strategy, a so-called “New Look” in the U.S. approach to the world.  The New Look was shaped by new economic, political, geopolitical, and military realities.  It was also a response to new patterns of discourse.  And it was itself a new mode of discourse, which became, in turn, a catalyst for further changes in discourse as well as policy.  But the New Look was not meant to solve the immediate crises that demanded action in 1953.  It was meant to chart a clear course for prevailing in the global cold war struggle over the “long haul.”  So the enduring patterns of the president's discourse strongly marked the new approach to national security and its vision of the threat it aimed to avert.

Defining Strategic Goals

Searching for a clear policy direction, Eisenhower initiated the Solarium Project, a detailed exploration of three possible options for an overall grand strategy.  None of Solarium’s three task forces considered any real compromise with the Soviets.  They each suggested different ways of reducing the Soviet Union’s power and changing its internal system; they disagreed only on means, not on the goal.[1] 

By October, the clarification process led to NSC 162/2, the first full statement of the administration's basic national security policy.  NSC 162/2 began with a statement of the two basic problems facing the nation:  to “meet the Soviet threat” and “to avoid seriously weakening the U.S. economy or undermining our fundamental values and institutions.”  This was only an elaboration of the single goal set out in NSC 153/1 (a preliminary statement of national security policy developed in May and June):  “to maintain the fundamental values and institutions of the United States.” [2]

Most historians have explained the New Look as a balancing act, with anticommunist military spending competing against domestic budgetary concerns.  Although Eisenhower certainly did worry about conflicts between geopolitical and economic concerns, at a deeper level he perceived both as interwoven and synergistic parts of a single peril.  Of course there was also a third, equally dangerous, threat to be avoided:  nuclear war.  So the New Look is best understood as a three-fold defensive effort:  to prevent the enemy from overwhelming the "free world," to prevent World War III, and to prevent the economic chaos of an open-ended military mobilization.

The  specific goals laid out in NSC 162/2 described the various arenas in which continuing dangers might be encountered.  The sub-headings in the document constituted a virtual catalogue of the kinds of threats that the president had been addressing since the end of World War II.  “The Soviet Threat to the United States” was followed by “Defense Against the Soviet Threat” (“at the lowest feasible cost”).  Much of the latter section dealt with efforts to protect the “free world” alliance, and it was followed by “Present State of the [pro-U.S.] Coalition” and “The Uncommitted Areas of the World.”  In a concluding section on “Reduction of the Soviet Threat,” the key verbs all spoke of restraining that threat:  maintain, protect, defend, avoid, deter, counter, oppose, delay, minimize, retaliate.[3] 

The basic image of the United States underlying NSC 162/2 was not a dynamic force in motion, but a stationary bulwark managing and staving off the three-pronged apocalyptic peril.  NSC 162/2 was a way of enacting the Augustinian side of the president's view of politics and human nature, a geopolitical equivalent of the religious restraint demanded by original sin.

John L. Gaddis asserts that Eisenhower, unlike Truman, did not frame his cold war strategy simply in terms of repulsing transitory threats.  Instead, he argues, Eisenhower met strategic threats primarily in order to advance a comprehensive positive concept of national interests.  But what was this comprehensive concept?  Gaddis sums up his analysis using Eisenhower's words:  "The whole idea was that 'we must not destroy what we are attempting to defend.'  And what the United States was trying to defend was a way of life."[4]  So Eisenhower did not deny Truman's negative conception of national interests.  Rather, he raised it to a higher level of abstraction.  Eisenhower, like Truman, defined what his administration stood for largely in terms of what the United States stood against.  But now, instead of transitory threats in geographical places, national interests were defined by permanent threats in conceptual places. 

What the United States stood for was expressed in NSC 162/2 in typically Augustinian language:  “the security and stability of the free world.”  (A year later NSC 5501, an updating of 162/2, would call it an "orderly world environment.”)[5]  Stability, a synonym for enduring containment, was now the goal.  So the purported Soviet peril, internal economic distress, and nuclear war became forms of a single danger:  instability.  Given the pervasive apocalyptic imagery, every form of potential instability now portended the extreme of instability:  global chaos.  The ideal security would be a universal, eternal, static balance of geopolitical forces.  This ideal beckoned implicitly between the lines of NSC 162/2.

  However, Eisenhower's Augustinian "realism" put this ideal beyond the borders of reality, for the foreseeable future.  Perfect freedom and stability remained only eschatological ideals, necessary for the logic of the discourse but quite irrelevant in practice.  For "Alarmist Ike" and his advisers, the only issues worth discussing were the immediate dangers, which seemed so near and drawing ever nearer.  The words of NSC 162/2 spoke at best of a relative stability and security, maintained sufficiently to stave off disaster.

The administration had committed itself to waging a defensive struggle that was treated, for all practical purposes, as permanent.  The New Look was a strategy for protecting the U.S. by an endless round of little acts of containment.  As Stanley Hoffman has said, the Eisenhower era "turned containment into routine."  Divine suggests that this made the cold war "a problem to be managed, not an all-consuming crusade against the forces of evil."[6]  But the president had renounced only the crusader's apocalyptic goal, not the crusader's apocalyptic language of all-consuming peril.  The New Look was the strategy and the discourse of apocalypse management.  Its policies, born of fear more than hope, would all perpetuate the discourse of national insecurity.

Rollback: A Goal Abandoned

In the campaign of 1952, the Republicans had defined the nation’s problems in apocalyptic terms.  So they had to promise more vigorously proactive anti-Soviet policies to roll back the domain of communist control.  Calls for rollback were fueled by, and logically implied, a vision of a single, harmonious, capitalist system triumphant throughout the world.

Yet in NSC 162/2, the idea of a world without a communist threat became a wholly eschatological vision (what the president had once called a "pole star"[7])— deferred to the distant horizon of history, irrelevant in policy discussions, and rarely if ever mentioned in any private discourse.  Thus the policy statement signaled a formal retreat from the calls for a dynamic policy of rollback.

NSC 162/2 did call for measures “to prevent Soviet aggression and continuing domination of other nations” and for “reducing Soviet capabilities for extending control and influence in the free world,” which would entail “selective, positive actions to eliminate Soviet-Communist control over any areas of the free world.”[8]  But these measures, which might entail some degree of rollback, were mentioned only briefly and vaguely, with no indication of what they meant or how they should or could be accomplished.  In the overall context of the document, they became primarily means to compel negotiated settlements on U.S. terms. 

It may not have been easy for the president to give up the dream of “rollback.”  In the Solarium Project, one task force had been charged with presenting arguments in favor of rollback, even at “a substantial risk of general war.”  Gen. Andrew Goodpaster claimed years later that Eisenhower had rejected this option from the outset and made sure it did not prevail.  If so, he still gave it a full hearing.  And as he listened, he penciled the note:  “Global war as a defense of freedom.  Almost contradiction in terms.”  The “almost” indicated some reluctance to accept the new logic of the nuclear age.[9] 

Responding to a preliminary draft of 162/2, the State Department wanted a flat prohibition on “aggressive actions involving force against Soviet bloc territory.”  But “the President said that he personally would prefer to see this paragraph removed.”  Siding with the Pentagon, he explicitly retained the option of initiating force.  The State Department proposed wording to the effect that U.S. pressures would aim “primarily” to force Soviet acceptance of negotiated settlements.  Eisenhower flatly rejected this and sided with the Pentagon’s version, that such pressures would merely “take into account” this goal.  Perhaps Eisenhower was merely placating the Pentagon chiefs, to avoid dissension in his ranks.  But his responses were consistent with the patterns of his discourse.  He was obviously loath to give up entirely the military's more apocalyptic language.[10] 

Nevertheless, the president ultimately agreed to abandon rollback.  The final section of NSC 162/2, “Reduction of the Soviet Threat,” made no reference to any eventual elimination of that threat.  On the contrary, it stated explicitly that the U.S. did not aim to "dictate the internal political and economic organization of the USSR.”  (It was equally explicit that this would be kept secret, so as not to undermine propaganda efforts.)  The best it hoped for was to “improve the power position” of the “free world.”[11]  

Why did Eisenhower agree to abandon rollback?  There is no reason to doubt the historians’ consensus that he rejected the idea of a preventive war.[12]   The destructive power of the “new weapons,” which reinforced apocalyptic definitions of the problem and thereby raised hopes for an apocalyptic solution, helped to insure that those hopes could never be realized. 

But the existence of nuclear weapons and the dangers of war did not, in themselves, compel Eisenhower to reject rollback.  More peaceable methods of rollback were also considered. For all practical purposes, however, the president found even the peaceable means of rollback unrealistic.  When Margaret Patterson (widow of the former Secretary of War) urged him to achieve total victory in Korea, his draft response reflected on the barriers to a rollback policy—not because of the bomb, but because of the expense involved both in war and in eliminating the poverty that promoted communism.  Few "free people" wanted to "pull in their belts, endure marked recessions in living standards."  They certainly would not make the immense sacrifices needed for another war.  The challenge now was to find a strategy suited to a permanently bifurcated world.[13] 

Means To Reach The Goal:  Massive Retaliation

The New Look was supposed to give the U.S. the tools to maintain the bifurcated status quo and keep every form of impending disorder under control simultaneously.  If it worked, it would allow the U.S. to control global events, increase its leverage over the Soviet Union, and restrict Soviet influence in other nations, using not only military weapons and diplomacy, but an expanded and strengthened corporate commonwealth.  This would be accomplished in several ways:  keeping European and Japanese allies within the U.S. orbit; expanding the reach of the corporate commonwealth into underdeveloped areas; reducing the military budget; promoting productivity; shifting military expenditures from manpower to technology—especially nuclear technology—thus priming the industrial pump. 

The nuclearization of military policy was the most conspicuous feature of the New Look.  The obvious motive, and the major focus of most historians who have written on the New Look, was "more bang for the buck"—a permanent mobilization of immense military force at much less cost than conventional weaponry. Some historians suggest that the administration wanted a force so immense that its mere existence and verbal threats to use it would intimidate the Soviet leadership. Others note that the threats were not empty; the administration was making serious plans to use its nuclear weapons if worse came to worse.[14]  

There is no need to choose only one of these interpretations, for they are all complementary.  The New Look was a serious “realist” effort to use the symbolic discourse and imagery of nuclear weaponry to stave off communism, nuclear war, and economic collapse.  "Massive retaliation" was the parade example (though the phrase itself was not used by the administration; it was invented by others to describe the policy).  A credible threat to use a massive nuclear arsenal “at times and places of our choosing” expressed a fantasy of perfect centralized control.  The chief weapon would be the bomb's inescapable imagery of omnipotence, which would be used to forestall its own, and every other, threat of apocalyptic change. 

The New Look relied on its linguistic promise of “massive retaliation” to achieve its strategic goals. If it worked, enemies would accept the status quo when faced with the terrifying alternatives.  Allies would do the same, and they would allow gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in their territories, without losing confidence in the U.S. as global guardian.[15]  Third world neutrals, too, would be sufficiently impressed with American omnipotence to eschew closer links with communism.  American families would be pleased that they would not be asked to send their sons abroad in large numbers to fight many small wars.  Right-wing Republicans would be satisfied enough with the administration’s aggressive anticommunist language to support its policies; even if those policies were essentially the same as Truman’s, they now sounded much more dynamic.

“Massive retaliation” was primarily a discursive solution to a discursive problem.  It could promise to avert the use of nuclear weapons only as long as the U.S. could believably threaten to use them.  This obviously required a massive buildup of nuclear weapons and delivery systems if the imagery of omnipotence through "massive retaliation" was to be convincing.  Less obviously, it also required an arms race if its imagery of impending apocalypse was to be convincing.  The New Look was created to implement the new discourse of apocalypse management.  The policy made no sense unless there were endless apocalyptic threats to manage.  Just as the president's discourse required and legitimated the nuclear buildup, the buildup both required and legitimated the discourse. 

Means To Reach The Goal:  Covert Operations

History books often reduce the New Look to an increased reliance on nuclear weapons. But it included other equally important elements:  covert operations, strengthening the “free world” economy, building military alliances, and offering to negotiate cold war disputes peacefully. 

Covert operations indicated that the notion of a “free world” and of freedom itself was taking on a new meaning.  The president felt constrained to declare repeatedly that the U.S. wanted nothing more than the freedom of all peoples to choose their own forms of government.  In public, he often suggested that this was the fundamental goal for which the U.S. was fighting its cold war.  In private, though, he was quite ready to deny nations their right of self-determination.  He had already awarded Kermit Roosevelt a medal for secretly orchestrating the overthrow of the Iranian government.[16]  Plans were well underway to do the same in Guatemala, though they would not come to fruition until the following year, when Eisenhower would tell Senator William Knowland: 

We do so may things we can’t explain…There is a very great aggressiveness on our side that you have not known about, and I guess this is on the theory of why put burdens on people that they don’t need to worry about and therefore make them fearful that they might give away something?  I know so many things that I am almost afraid to speak to my wife.…Here’s the thing to remember:  suppose one day, we get into a war.  If too many people knew we had done something provocative—I just want to say that we might have to answer to charges of being too provocative rather than being too sweet.[17]

Critics of Eisenhower's covert operations have pointed to the apparent contradiction between his public support of democratic self-determination and his secret abrogation of that right.  In the president's discourse, however, there was no contradiction.  When he wrote to a friend that “some of our traditional ideas of international sportsmanship are scarcely applicable” in the cold war, he explained part of his reasoning:  the U.S. was fighting for truth, justice, and liberty, but “we must not confuse these values with mere procedures, even though these last may have at one time held almost the status of moral concepts.”[18] 

The logic of his discourse readily allowed him to distinguish between basic values and “mere procedures.”  Freedom and all the other basic values did not necessarily entail the ability to change and grow in independent, self-determined ways.  The self-determination of others was not an end in itself.  The only goal to be pursued as an end in itself was protecting the freedom to control oneself (rather than having restraints imposed by external force), as enshrined in “the American way of life.”  By extension, words like freedom, liberty, and justice connoted the entirety of this “American way of life.”  The president and his advisors used these words mainly as vague signifiers representing all that was threatened by the “red menace.” Everything else was merely “procedure” for protecting freedom in this narrowly-defined sense. 

Eisenhower's aims and procedures added up to what Blanche Wiesen Cook calls “the globalization of America.”  Just days after NSC 162/2 was finalized, he gave a pep talk to employees of the United States Information Agency:  “If others should happen to take governments—forms of government—in which we do not believe, that is all right.  But how are they going to be won from that?”, he asked.  He called the cold war a holding action “to maintain some kind of arrangement for getting along in this world until enough of all the world’s people come to believe with you, with us, that the things for which the Americans stand are those things which enrich life, which ennoble man because he is an individual created in the image of his God.”[19]

Freedom was merely a by-product of, or perhaps more accurately a code word for, the goal of a global stability encompassing “enough of all the world’s people.”  But there was no way to say how many was enough.  If the cold war was, for all practical purposes, endless, the U.S. would have to go on forever winning more people over to “the American way.”

Means To Reach The Goal:  Profitable Trade And " Uncommitted Areas"

The Eisenhower administration sometimes articulated its goal of stability in the language of liberal internationalism, with its vision of peace through expansion and economic progress.  The president wrote to George Whitney that his economic advisers were striving for "general world prosperity…which means also general peace and security…based upon equitable and mutually profitable trade."  In his diary he put the point more succinctly:  “Mutually profitable trade must be the basis of mutual cooperation in the world.”  This was a venerable liberal internationalist axiom:  a single global economy would create peace, for nations that profited from each other as trading partners would be reluctant to fight each other.[20] 

In Eisenhower's cold war discourse and policy, however, the foundation of the argument was changed.  Under the New Look, prosperity and peace would reinforce each other, not by binding all nations together, but by strengthening the bulwark against communism.  “The great humanitarian problems,” he wrote to Margaret Patterson, “must be tackled in order to eliminate conditions that promote Communism.”  (One principal reason for avoiding wars in Asia, he added, was to free up money for this essential project.)[21]  Every effort to promote "free world" prosperity had to be framed more in terms of restraining the external foe than expanding from within. 

NSC 162/2 aimed to contain communism by bringing "stability" to "the uncommitted areas of the world."  The “unrest” and “volatility” in those areas “complicate[d] the task of building firm ties with them [and] counteracting neutralism.”  Firm ties were necessary because “their absorption within the Soviet system would greatly, perhaps decisively, alter the world balance of power to our detriment.”  To achieve a stable geopolitical balance with U.S. holding a preponderance of power, it was necessary to suppress revolutions and equally important to prevent neutralism.  Indeed the concept of neutralism had no meaningful place in the discursive framework of 162/2; those who were not tied firmly to the “free world” were, by definition, aligned with its enemies.  So all “uncommitted” nations would have to be brought firmly within the orbit of the “free world.”  NSC 162/2 called it “their orderly development into more stable and responsible nations, able and willing to participate in defense of the free world.”[22]

One brief paragraph of NSC 162/2 urged “constructive U.S. policies, not related solely to anti-communism” in neutral nations.  But their purpose would be to “persuade uncommitted countries” to “stronger affiliations” with the “free world.” This was part of a larger discussion about building a stronger alliance to contain communism.  The last substantive sentence of the document spoke of confidence in the “free world’s” ability “not merely to oppose the communist threat, but to provide a way of life superior to communism.”  In the context, though, this was meant only as a way to promote successful negotiated settlements.  Tacked on at the end of the entire text, it stuck out as an afterthought that underlined how very different was the overall spirit of the document.[23] 

In later years, other official policy documents would describe economic development in the “free world” as a valued end in itself, but this was typically mentioned as a distinctly secondary motive.  As Burton Kaufman has convincingly demonstrated, Eisenhower “justified the entire program of economic assistance to Third World nations…to contain the spread of communism.”[24]

Means To Reach The Goal:  “Agreements Acceptable”

Eisenhower wanted firm allies all along the border of the communist world to keep the U.S. invulnerable behind what he had once called “a wall of peace.”  But he was acutely aware that the turn to nuclear weapons was raising growing fear among the populace of his closest allies.  So the New Look would rely on a promise of negotiations to set allies’ fear at ease. 

In the conclusion of NSC 162/2, "Reduction of the Soviet Threat," six of its nine paragraphs proclaimed negotiated settlements as the ultimate goal of U.S. policy:  "The broad aim of U.S. security policies must be to create, prior to the achievement of nuclear plenty, conditions under which the United States and the free world coalition are prepared to meet the Soviet-Communist threat with resolution and to negotiate for its alleviation under proper safeguards."  Settlements had to be concluded while the U.S. could still meet the threat "with resolution"; i.e., while it still had superiority and thus could meaningfully threaten “massive retaliation.”  In NSC 162/2, the nuclear arsenal served primarily as a bludgeon to compel negotiated settlements on terms favorable to the U.S.  The only alternative, the text assumed, was the chaos of global war.[25]

Dulles wanted the document to say that U.S. pressures were intended “primarily” to force Soviet acceptance of negotiated settlements.  But Eisenhower overruled him.  Dulles also argued strongly for wording that committed the U.S. to "quid pro quo" and compromise in negotiations:  "We could not reduce tensions with the USSR if in each case we expected to gain all the advantage and the Soviets none.  Such settlements, he repeated, must be mutually acceptable."  But the president did not support him on this either.  Nothing in the final text referred to meeting any Soviet concerns.  It predicted that "free world" strength and pressures might some day force the Soviets "to reach agreements acceptable to the United States and its allies, without necessarily abandoning its basic hostility to the non-Soviet world.…The United States should keep open the possibility of settlements with the USSR, compatible with basic U.S. security interests, which would resolve specific conflicts or reduce the magnitude of the Soviet threat."[26]

At one point the text even raised the possibility of "a general settlement of major issues"—a code wording for perfect stability guaranteed by a preponderance of U.S. power.  But the document put little stock in this possibility.  The Soviets would probably not accept "any permanent settlement," it held.  They might "be prepared for a modus vivendi on certain issues," but even this goal lay far off.  For the foreseeable future, the best to hope for was to increase U.S. power and thereby maintain relative stability.[27] 

Any Soviet gestures of conciliation would be suspected as tactical maneuvers.  A National Intelligence Estimate, submitted just days before NSC 162/2 was finalized, evaluated the “ostensibly conciliatory tactics” of Soviet leaders as “a new challenge to the Free World.”  As Raymond Garthoff describes it, “Soviet flexibility and moves toward more cooperative and less threatening policies were regarded not only with suspicion, but as an obstacle to American interests.…Soviet efforts to reduce tensions were seen more as a problem to be met by keeping up the West’s guard than as an opportunity for improving relations.”[28] 

There was no explicit concept of mutual reconciliation anywhere in NSC 162/2, nor in the private policymaking discourse of Eisenhower and his aides, except on the distant eschatological horizon.  The negotiating table would be merely an extension of the Iron Curtain, another place to wield words of peace as weapons of cold war.  The New Look made verbal gestures of cooperation and verbal threats of “massive retaliation” the twin tools of apocalypse management.  So it was quite fitting that, while the New Look was being developed, the Eisenhower administration was also preparing its most famous image of cooperation:  “Atoms for Peace.” 

From Operation Candor To “Atoms For Peace”

“Atoms for Peace” was born from the unforeseen conjunction of the New Look and Operation Candor.[29]  By early September, 1953, C.D. Jackson and his aides were still hard at wok on Candor, planning to develop a series of speeches to be delivered by the president and other top officials.  At the same time, John Foster Dulles was pondering the dilemmas that the New Look had created.  It demanded an accelerated U.S. effort to stay ahead in the arms race.  Yet some disarmament proposals had to be made to prove to European allies that the U.S. was not leading them toward war.  So the New Look called for both more and fewer nuclear arms.  Nuclearization appealed not only because it offered “more bang for the buck,” but because it would allow the U.S. to withdraw troops from Europe.  Yet Dulles feared that talk of withdrawal would undermine the confidence of U.S. allies, which could ruin the EDC idea and make allies more reluctant to have U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil.  The allies seemed to want both more and less U.S. military presence.  And the New Look, as a discursive strategy for apocalypse management, required both credible talk about using the weapons and credible talk about eliminating them.  All in all, this was a very unstable recipe for enhancing stability.

Dulles decided that the only solution was "a spectacular effort to relax world tensions," including a plan to demilitarize Europe.  In return, the Soviets would be asked to make concessions more drastic than those suggested in the “Chance for Peace" speech.[30]  This propaganda move would assure the allies of U.S. desire for peace while running no risk of actual negotiation and compromise.  When Dulles discussed his plan with Eisenhower, the latter pronounced himself "in emphatic agreement that renewed efforts should be made to relax world tensions on a global basis."  However, he linked Dulles' plan to the ongoing Project Candor: 

We should patiently point out [he told Dulles] that any group of people, such as the men in the Kremlin, who are aware of the great destructiveness of these weapons--and who still decline to make any honest effort toward international control by collective action--must be fairly assumed to be contemplating their aggressive use.…We would have to be constantly ready, on an instantaneous basis, to inflict greater loss upon the enemy than he could reasonably hope to inflict upon us.  This would be a deterrent--but if the contest to maintain this relative position should have to continue indefinitely, the cost would either drive us to war--or into some form of dictatorial government. In such circumstances we would be forced to consider whether or not our duty to future generations did not require us to initiate war at the most propitious moment that we could designate.[31] 

Dulles summarized the president's point for Robert Bowie the next day:  “He felt that if we made a fair offer and it was rejected then we had no alternative but to look upon the Soviet Union as a potential aggressor and make our own plans accordingly.”[32]  But Robert Cutler, head of the NSC Planning Staff, explained the president’s intentions more clearly: 

The virtue of making the proposals lies not so much in the likelihood of their acceptability by the other side, but in the opportunity provided to the U.S.—once the proposals have been made and not accepted—to put into effect a new and better (for the long run) basic policy than that we now have.…Pursuit of our existing basic policy over a long period is likely to break down the free world’s economy, dislocate its individual liberties and free institutions, and provoke it through frustration into armed conflict.  The new proposals offer the opportunity for a new road more safely to travel over many years to come.[33]

As Cutler understood, Eisenhower was saying that “our own plans” would have to include permanent mobilization for war.  Under the Truman policies, which depended heavily on land armies, constant mobilization meant huge expenditures to maintain huge armies.  This expense could eventually drive the nation to consider preventive war against the Soviet Union.[34]  Only a shift away from large armies to large nuclear arsenals could avoid this dilemma; this was the “new and better (for the long run) basic policy” that Cutler referred to.  The president wanted to make a speech explaining this to people at home and abroad.  If, in that speech, he could also create an image of U.S. commitment to peace and patch up the emerging cracks in the NATO alliance, so much the better. 

Just three days after his conversation with Dulles, Eisenhower came up with an idea that became the “spectacular effort” Dulles was seeking.  He suggested that the U.S. propose an international pool of fissionable material for peaceful uses, with each nuclear-capable nation contributing X kilograms.  “The amount X could be fixed at a figure which we could handle from our stockpile, but which it would be difficult for the Soviets to match," he wrote.[35]  This was the proposal with which he stunned the world, speaking at the United Nations on December 8, 1953.  “Atoms for Peace” showed that words and images used as cold war weapons were just as likely to be aimed at allies as at the enemy.  It reflected no real hope that a presidential speech would, or should, initiate a new era of U.S. - Soviet cooperation.

There was a direct rhetorical line connecting this speech with "The Chance for Peace."  Both spoke of peace as permanent freedom from every threat of chaos and disaster. Both relied on a discourse of dualism.  In both, universal values and a universal desire for peace were equated with U.S. values.  Both used the language of peace to advance U.S. cold war interests.  The same kinds of proposals for negotiation were proffered now as in the “Chance” text. 

However, changed circumstances between April and December had required major changes in rhetoric.  The pragmatic aims of the Candor project now demanded a frightening confession of an unprecedented threat to the U.S.  To balance this off, the “Atoms” speech had to include an equally frightening assertion of U.S. ability and will to wage nuclear war.  Thus it had to present the “new weapons” as a threat to both superpowers and “a danger shared by all…the probability of civilization destroyed.”[36]  Even the U.S. ability to prevail in a nuclear war was assigned to “the dark chamber of horrors,” since “surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation.”  So U.S. nuclear strength could no longer be depicted as a crucial means for moving “into the light.” 

In order to appeal to the allies, light had to represent the hopes of all people to escape the ravages of U.S. as well as Soviet bombs.  The goal now had to be “a new climate of mutually peaceful confidence,” with both superpowers joining together to combat the threat of the bomb.  For the first time, Eisenhower was led to speak concretely about actual cooperation, a joint venture in which the U.S. would be a “partner…a not unreasonable or ungenerous associate,” of the Soviet Union.  The speech held out the prospect of a perfect balance between superpower arsenals safely preserving the status quo, and thus the world.  The image of a pool of fissionable material became the prime symbolic vehicle for this escape from catastrophe.  Cold war dualism and policies aiming at victory were interwoven with the language of conciliation and compromise.  And no Soviet concessions were required to begin the process. 

Eisenhower and his advisors had created the “Chance” speech primarily to avert any fundamentally new policy directions.  They were still trying to forge a geopolitical balance so stable that it was immutable.  Yet their efforts to attain perfect stability had actually rendered their situation less stable.  Now they were forced to change tack in order to avoid losing even more control of global events.  In effect, the “Atoms” speech was a confession that the dualism of the “Chance” speech had failed and could no longer be presented as a viable route to disarmament.  Staunch anticommunism backed by military strength could not, in itself, be depicted as the way to peace.  These would continue, but they would have to be somehow coupled with images of a new spirit of partnership and mutual confidence.  Apocalypse management now meant balancing all these factors, integrating gestures of genuine cooperation into the mix and making them, too, serve as weapons of cold war.

”Fresh Hope But Hard Reality”

Some Americans may have studied the full text of “Atoms for Peace.”  Most heard the president's message as it was mediated through domestic news reports.  The press was nearly unanimous that Eisenhower had done the right thing.  He had demonstrated that the nation was still committed to high ideals and, above all, to world peace.  Virtually every source identified peace with disarmament and presented the speech as part of a continuing U.S. to pursue disarmament. 

But disarmament now took on a much greater, even religious, meaning.  The technology that created apocalyptic fears could not help but stimulate utopian hopes for peace as well.  Even the smallest gesture of cooperation between the superpowers could be viewed as a symbolic eschatological fulfillment.  The Kansas City Star, for example, editorialized that Eisenhower had marked out a “new route of salvation and survival.”   Life called the speech “a glimpse of salvation by statesmanship.”  The news coverage gave relatively little attention to Eisenhower's warnings about growing U.S. and Soviet nuclear strength.  As McGeorge Bundy points out, “Instead of awakening his countrymen to the realities of the thermonuclear world, Eisenhower's speech allowed them to believe that his proposal offered a way out.”[37]

But the principal hope expressed by the media was hope for cold war victory.  The speech was a powerful thrust against the enemy, U.S. readers were assured, and thus a major step toward winning the cold war.  A New York Journal-American editorial summed up the dominant tone:  “Eisenhower has seized the initiative in the cold war.… Eisenhower boldly threw down the challenge to Soviet Russia.”  Virtually all sources agreed with the New York Times that the outcome was “up to Moscow.”  Putting the onus on the Soviets was one way to frame the speech’s new initiatives within the familiar dualism of cold war discourse.  Another was to caution that there was (as Life’s editorial phrased it) ”Fresh Hope but Hard Reality”:  the enemy was unlikely to join the U.S. on the road to peace. Yet since the West’s principal warrior had shown himself so adept at using verbal weaponry, there was new hope that the war against communism could be won with words instead of atomic bombs.[38]   

The U.S. media offered evidence of both the easing and the intensification of cold war tensions, woven together so tightly that they could hardly be separated.  The nuclear danger was no longer simply one among the many dangers posed by the communists.  A highly popular president, well respected for his wisdom in military affairs, had given the bomb’s dangers an independent and privileged status.  So apocalypse management now had to mean a predictable military situation, free from nuclear threat, as much an economic and political situation free from communist threat.  However , the only way to hold on to the old sense of communism as the greatest of all threats was to fuse the communist and nuclear threats into a single shadow of apocalyptic doom.  Both war and communism would have to be defeated simultaneously. 

So the news media framed the speech’s rhetorical structure—moving from fear of war to hope for peace—within a larger passage from fear of communism to hope for cold war victory.  Fear now became the opposite of both peace and victory.  The securing of peace meant the ending of fear, but both became merely the means to the same double-sided victory.  The press depicted Eisenhower's promise of cooperation as the path to that victory.  But the reporting assumed that the U.S—unlike the communists—held peace through cooperation and mutual understanding among its highest of values.  There was no way to talk about the hope for world peace without invoking the superiority of American values.  And that meant invoking the specter of a continuing communist threat and the hope of defeating that threat.

As mediated to the public, “Atoms for Peace” became yet another call to the final battle against evil.  Though the speech seemed to offer a new era of cooperation between the superpowers, its discursive scaffolding was as dualistic as ever.  The meaning of the battle was defined by a chain of verbal equivalents, built on the rhetorical equations of Eisenhower's inaugural address, but now made larger, more complex, and more paradoxical:


peace = superpower cooperation = ending the nuclear threat = eternal stability = national security = military strength = U.S. preponderance of power = perfect containment = continuing vigilant cold war efforts = cold war victory = order = self-restraint = disciplined cooperation for the good of the whole = freedom = hope = light = religion = salvation = the fulfillment of “our whole faith” = apocalypse management


conflict = superpower rivalry = continuing threat of nuclear war = instability = insecurity = military weakness = Soviet encroachments on the “free world” = weakening or ceasing cold war efforts = losing the cold war = disorder = selfishness = lack of discipline and self-sacrifice = slavery = fear = darkness = atheism = damnation = the demise of “our whole faith” = uncontrolled apocalyptic peril


Within this discursive complex, words like security, stability, peace, freedom, and victory implied the need for, and inevitability of, waging a continuing cold war. 

The media never spelled out the contours of this new discursive paradigm.  They never offered any analysis of its deeper implications.  They never warned the nation explicitly of this dramatic new turn in its public life.  They treated the speech as a major event in the foreign, not domestic, affairs of the nation.  So its profound impact on American political discourse went largely unnoticed. 

There is no evidence that the president noticed this impact, either.  In preparing “Atoms for Peace,” he had subordinated the goals of Operation Candor to the demands of foreign policy.  He hoped that the speech would allow him to resist pressures for a new, more conciliatory direction.  This was the key to the global balancing act he intended to perform in his quest for stability.  The most delicate balance in apocalypse management was the discursive balance it required.  It was a tottering construction that threatened to bring down the edifice of meaning it was meant to uphold.  And if the discursive foundation cracked, the policy based upon it could hardly stand.

There was already mounting evidence that the ideal of stability would be elusive at best.  NSC 162/2 and “Atoms for Peace” had both abandoned the ideal.  The secret policy document had substituted apocalypse management for perfect stability as the meaning of peace.  The public rhetorical proposal had substituted genuine cooperation for invulnerability and control of change as the meaning of peace.  One factor explains both of these changes:  the rapid recognition that the New Look’s route to relative stability was itself destabilizing. 

Eisenhower’s cherished “middle way” was an inherently unstable compromise, compounded of peace and war, hope and fear, cooperation and enmity, separation and engagement, apocalyptic victory and negotiated settlement, static balance and endlessly dynamic cold war.  When he spoke of cold war victory, the president most often employed a vocabulary drawn more from Wilsonian liberal internationalism and his accustomed Augustinian tendencies than from apocalyptic holy war.  Maintaining the Augustinian, liberal internationalist, and apocalyptic elements in his discourse, he could not reconcile the three nor make any one of them the clear basis of national security policy.

Beneath the surface appearance of a harmonious and effective discourse, these contradictions lay like unseen fault lines.  They were reflected in the conflicting goals of the “Atoms for Peace” speech.  Because the speech had arisen out of Operation Candor, it had to aim at evoking greater cold war fear at home while keeping that fear at a controlled level.  Because it had been transformed into a message to the world, it had to subordinate its frightening words to its hopeful message of peace.  The message to the world was aimed, above all, at persuading the European allies to accept the U.S. nuclear buildup abroad.  However, with the foreign press amplifying the hope for peace, the speech actually promoted the growing demand for U.S. policies to match the peaceful words.  Public reaction to the speech was already indicating that the president could not control the impact of his own words.  In 1954, the fault lines that his discourse had created would begin to tremble, revealing themselves as the most basic source of instability.  


Notes to Chapter 4

[1] The Solarium Project is studied in Bowie and Immerman, Waging Peace, 123-138; Brands, “Age of Vulnerability,” 966-968; Snyder, "The 'New Look' of 1953," 406-410.

[2] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 578, 590; NSC 153/1, 6/10/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 381.

[3] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 594-95.  An advisory committee on psychological warfare, headed by William Jackson (no relation to C. D. Jackson),  had already described the United States as “the principal obstacle in the path of the Soviet drive”:  Jackson Committee press release, 7/8/53, quoted in Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower, 176. 

[4] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 135-136.

[5] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 587;  NSC 5501, 1/7/55, FRUS 1955-57, 19: 31.

[6] Hoffman, Primacy or World Order, 6; Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War, 11.  Richard Immerman describes Dulles’ role in similar words:  He "all but institutionalized the cold war ":  John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War, 278, 281. 

[7] Eisenhower, Peace With Justice, 6.

[8] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 594, 595.

[9] Bowie and Immerman, Waging Peace, 126, 127, 137. 

[10] NSC, 10/7/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 530, 531 (see NSC 162, 9/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 513); NSC, 10/29/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 568-569.

[11] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 594.

[12] See, e.g., Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 132-41; Buhite and Hamel, “War for Peace”; Wenger, Living With Peril, 50-54, 65-69; GE, 78-80, 163, 213, 247. 

[13] Eisenhower to Margaret Patterson, 6/15/53, PDDE, 14: 293.  See Challener, “The National Security Policy from Truman to Eisenhower,” 67.  For Eisenhower's earlier complaints about the public’s unwillingness to sacrifice in order to protect the nation, see, e.g., GE, 32-33, 149, 202, 211, 254

[14] On the economic benefits, see Hogan, Cross of Iron, 399; Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Question, 47.  On the tactical use of threats, see Wells, "The Origins of Massive Retaliation," 51, 52; Dallek, American Style of Foreign Policy, 210; Immerman, “Confessions of an Eisenhower Revisionist,” 340; Garthoff, Assessing the Adversary, 13.  On plans to use the weapons, see Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 138-147; Wenger, Living With Peril, 50-54. Before becoming president, Eisenhower had dealt with nuclear weapons primarily on the level of symbolic meaning rather than military tactics; see GE, 123-134.

[15] This was a major concern of Eisenhower, and even more so of Dulles; see FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 457-459, 574.

[16] Lyon, Eisenhower, 587.  Roosevelt “worked intelligently, courageously, and tirelessly,” Eisenhower wrote privately:  diary, 10/8/53, PDDE, 14: 572.

[17] Beschloss, Mayday, 84.  In 1954 Eisenhower authorized a policy of continuing covert operations “in the interests of world peace and U.S. national security”:  NSC 5412, 3/15/54, cited in Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower, 182. 

[18] Eisenhower to Lewis Douglas, 3/29/55, PDDE 16:1643-1644.  A draft of this letter suggested that it would be foolish to eschew covert methods merely because “they would have been considered, in Victorian times, completely outside the pale”:  PDDE 16: 1645, n.7.

[19] Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower, 176 (see also ibid., viii, xvi, 153); Remarks to USIA, 11/10/53, PPP, 1953, 754, 755.  For Eisenhower's earliest development of the meaning of freedom, see GE, 85-93.

[20] Eisenhower to George Whitney, 6/24/53, PDDE, 14: 323; diary, 10/24/53, PDDE, 14: 602.

[21] Eisenhower to Margaret Patterson, 6/15/53, PDDE, 14: 293.  When Defense Secretary Wilson urged, “We must find out why Communism was being so widely accepted,” the president responded tartly that “it didn’t seem to him that you had to look very hard to find the motivation.…In many underdeveloped areas the motivation was all too plain”:  NSC, 6/24/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 697. 

[22] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 587.

[23] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 593, 595.  NSC 153/1 had briefly mentioned an international system, based on the UN Charter, as a future goal, but it gave that goal no relation to present policy:  FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 382, 385.

[24] Kaufman, Trade and Aid, 9; see, e.g., NSC 5810/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 100, 105.  On the subordination of economic development issues to cold war goals, see also Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World, 50-52.  No doubt Eisenhower and his top aides would have endorsed the basic axioms of liberalism, as Packenham describes them ( see, e.g., 124, 128, 149, 163).  But they rarely raised those axioms explicitly as they discussed policy decisions.  When Eisenhower talked about the benefits of trade, he was more likely to focus on the need to prevent the U.S. from becoming an economically isolated island, cut off from trade partners; see GE, 118, 245, 273.

[25] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-4, 2.1: 594-595.

[26] NSC, 10/7/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 530; NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-4, 2.1: 581, 584.

[27] NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 581, 584, 594.

[28] NIE-99, 10/23/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 552; Garthoff, Assessing the Adversary, 9.

[29] The following discussion of “Atoms for Peace” is a summary of the findings in Chernus, Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace, 53-131.

[30] Dulles to Eisenhower, 9/6/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 456-58.

[31] Eisenhower to Dulles, 9/8/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 458-61.

[32] Memorandum for Mr. Bowie, 9/8/53, John Foster Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 1, “White House Correspondence 1953 (2).” 

[33] Cutler to Eisenhower, 10/19/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1233.  When he wrote this memo, Cutler was shepherding the final drafts of NSC 162/2 toward completion.  Dulles had first discussed his “dramatic idea” with Cutler, who in turn discussed it with Eisenhower before the latter met with Dulles.  Therefore Cutler was in the best position to understanding the two leaders’ intentions. 

[34] See LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 155.

[35] Cutler to Jackson and Strauss, 9/10/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1213.

[36] The text of “Atoms for Peace” is in PPP, 1953, 813-22.

[37] Kansas City Star quoted in SLPD, 12/9/53, 7B; Life, 12/21/53, 6; Bundy, Danger and Survival, 295.

[38] New York Journal-American quoted in SLPD, 12/9/53, 1B; NYT, 12/13/53, 4: 1; Life, 12/21/53, 10.