What was the apogee of U.S. nuclear excess? Numerically speaking, one could argue that it was in the 1960s, when the overall size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile peaked, or in the 1980s, if we’re counting the number of warheads associated with strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. In terms of U.S. declaratory policy, I would argue that the peak period of U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons came briefly in 1954, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (above, on another occason) rolled out the doctrine of massive retaliation.

The Eisenhower administration had two significant objectives in mind when Dulles delivered an important address at the Council on Foreign Relations on January 12, 1954: (1) Avoiding another long, punishing land war in Asia; and (2) Avoiding budgetary red ink that would result from the maintenance of overly large conventional forces. The Eisenhower administration’s solution? A brief flirtation with the doctrine of massive retaliation.

Here’s how Dulles characterized the new U.S. nuclear policy:

… to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing. Now the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff can shape our military establishment to fit what is our policy, instead of having to try to be ready to meet the enemy’s main choices. That permits of a selection of military means instead of a multiplication of means. As a result, it is now possible to get, and share, more basic security at less cost.

Massive retaliation was rolled back almost as soon as it was announced. The Eisenhower administration soon realized that an all-or-nothing approach to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war-fighting wasn’t very helpful, and that nuclear weapons were a poor substitute for conventional military capabilities. Smaller states with new-found nuclear capabilities have subsequently encountered similar dilemmas of relying on massive retaliation, but with fewer remedial options.

Critiques of the U.S. doctrine of massive retaliation were never in short supply. Bernard Brodie (right), writing in Strategy and the Missile Age (1959), judged the timing of the Eisenhower administration’s new nuclear strategy to be “bizarre,” coming only a few months after the first Soviet test of a thermonuclear weapon.

“Where,” Brodie asked, “would the government summon the courage – or brashness—for this kind of conduct?” Brodie subsequently (in War & Politics, 1973) creatively characterized massive retaliation as a doctrine of nonintervention.

Some other insigntful critiques of massive retaliation:

It should be judged, not as a coherent strategic doctrine, but as a political expedient – or even as a diplomatic communication. — Michael Howard, 1970

The strategy was more retrospective than prospective. It explained how the Korean War ought to have been fought. — Lawrence Freedman, 1981

Other than the period immediately following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has there been another time in our shared nuclear history where nuclear weapons have had greater salience in U.S. national security strategy? After Dulles’ speech, succeeding U.S. administrations sought safer ground, which paradoxically required more nuclear options, as well as heavy reliance on conventional deterrence and a new-fangled enterprise called arms control.

Why return to this dingy corner of the shoe box? As a reminder of how far we have traveled to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in our national security policies – and how far we have yet to go.