Henry Kissinger wrote two early, influential books on the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) and The Necessity for Choice (1960). I bought these used books at bargain-basement prices at the Princeton University bookstore. The name on the inside cover suggests that I was the beneficiary of Klaus Knorr’s decision to thin out his library. I was at Princeton on a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship to write Strategic Stalemate: Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in American Politics (1984).

The Necessity for Choice appeared at a time of great apprehension about Soviet strategic advances and the Eisenhower administration’s seemingly sluggish response. Kissinger, like many others, was under the misapprehension that the missile gap was real and that the Soviet Union was running laps around the United States in the strategic competition. The subsequent discovery that the Missile Gap was imaginary did not calm strategic anxieties because nuclear technologies and delivery vehicles were advancing so rapidly that no one could confidently predict a safe passage in this competition. Kissinger’s concerns resonated greatly at the time. Some have continued relevance. Here are a few passages:

A nation unsure about the circumstances that impair its safety can hardly be expected to address itself with confidence to its positive tasks. It will be torn between complacency and premonitions of catastrophe, between obsession with military security and dismissal of it. When it thinks itself in jeopardy, it will act as if military security were its only problem. When the danger does not materialize immediately it will lapse into euphoria. Its measures are likely to be fitful. Its national mood will alternate between hysteria and smugness…

A gesture intended as a bluff but taken seriously is more useful as a deterrent than a bona fide threat taken as a bluff…

In any given situation a country may be inferior militarily but superior psychologically. It may be able to deter not because it is militarily stronger but because it values an objective highly enough – or can make its opponent believe this – so that it can make plausible a threat to exact a price its opponent is unprepared to pay…

A gap inevitably opens up between deterrence and the strategy we are prepared to implement should deterrence fail…

Since deterrence depends not only on the magnitude but also the credibility of the threat, the side which has a greater reputation for ruthlessness or for a greater willingness to run risks gains a diplomatic advantage…