The Long Nuclear Peace:
A B-plus for the Human Race?

Gwynne Dyer, specialist on international conflict

(ED: Over the years I have met several survivors of the atomic bomb attacks in August, 1945. Miyoko Matsubara was one. She was taken in by a Methodist family after the war who slowly showed her Americans and Westerners, were not warlike agents of destruction. She truly was “a brand plucked from the fire.” In 2015 Newfoundland-born military historian Gwynn Dyer could not let the 70th anniversary of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6, 10, 1945) pass without reminding us that none of the deadly bombs have been dropped in the last 70 years. Plus no major war between the great powers has eventuated since 1945. Thank God for all that.)

No cock-eyed optimist, military historian Dyer authored the provocative monongaph War in 1985 while an instructor at the British military academy at Sandhurst. In the St. John’s, Newfoundland Telegram of August 8, 2015 he touted the period 1945 to 2015 as representing “an impressive accomplishment” in world affairs. He is right. In an era moving at the speed of Twitter it is getting harder to sort out the relevant from journalistic overkill. Dyer’s slightly hope-filled evaluation was titled “Seventy Years without a nuclear war.”

Job Number One

For many students of international relations, Job Number One in the nuclear age, I would tell my students, was/is avoiding any kind of nuclear exchange. To that extent all U.S. Presidents since 1945 – Democrat and Republican – have served us well. President Harry S. Truman presided over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 but then refused to use atomic weapons when United Nations (including Canadian) forces were being overrun with high casualties in Korea (1950-51). Dyer speculates it may well have been the horrific pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that entered into these decisions. So we do learn something from history, perhaps. Of course, the Soviet Union had the bomb by 1949 so deterrence had definitely arrived even if based on MAD (“Mutual Assured Destruction”).

Dyer added: “Once both sides get nuclear weapons they get more cautious.” This in fact has happened between other non-Western nuclear powers – notably China and India and India and Pakistan and may cast (hopefully) a new light on the Iranian impasse.

A November 1951 nuclear test at Nevada Test Site. It had a yield of 21 kilotons of TNT and was the first U.S. nuclear field exercise conducted with live troops maneuvering on land. Troops shown are 6 mi (10 km) from the blast. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Ike and JFK

But there is no doubt that what the London Economist once called “the long nuclear peace” did not just happen. It took carefully calibrated and even courageous statesmanship to reject the nuclear option in the early years of the Cold War. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) ducked pressure from his military advisors on more than one occasion. While giving the green light to the buildup of the nuclear arsenal in the 1950s “Ike” Eisenhower began his presidency threatening Red China with atomic war if the Korean conflict dragged on. He pivoted to an “Atoms for Peace” proposal to the Soviets which was rebuffed but ended his Presidency with a “peace tour” to defuse East-West tensions. Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau picked up that mantle on his own world peace tour of 1983.

“Every decade of the nuclear age has been full of tension but the fifties felt it most,” wrote Stephen Ambrose in Eisenhower: The President, “America’s leaders had had Pearl Harbor burned into their souls in a way that younger men, the leaders in the latter days of the Cold War, had not.” For Eisenhower, “security for America required building more bombs, because that was the only area in which America had a lead on the Soviet military machine.”

When the French were trapped in Vietnam and when the Communist Chinese shelled two small islands off Taiwan, Ike bluffed and threatened and sent carrier fleets to Formosa but had no intention of risking nuclear war. His military prestige perhaps made it possible for him to duck the pressure from the hawks. A lucky thing. When President Kennedy took over in 1961, he was appalled by the number of missiles and warheads both sides possessed and yet, in spite of some bellicose screeds early on, JFK remained the leading “no nukes” advocate in his cabinet during the scary Missiles of October crisis in 1962.

Thank God for that! The next year JFK rushed to install the hot line with Moscow and to end nuclear tests in the atmosphere with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. These were signs that the Cold War would not turn hot in the crunch though it didn’t look like it at the time. Looking back, we have all been incredibly fortunate that cool and resourceful heads have prevailed.

As Dyer summarized: “In the following decades many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war, and many scientists and engineers have worked on new technologies that would achieve the same objective. But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in war.”

This would unleash the nuclear genie, as the phrase goes. Lucky us, so far. However, if terrorists get hold of a device this might be a whole new game – hence the score of B+ plus not A- on this subject. As Dyer reminds us, the number of nuclear weapons peaked in the 1980s at around 50,000 and the US and Russia still own 93% of the remaining (reduced) stockpiles. Though eight other countries have now joined the club still nobody has used one…yet.

“A First in World History”

A clear lesson of the 20th century is that major powers must not get sucked into military conflicts. Limited wars and insurgencies are cruel enough and horrifically devastating for the people involved, as we see in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere. Yet this 70 years of no great power conflict is “a first in world history” says Dyer. He summarizes: “Is this because the two world wars had been so destructive that they created institutions like the U.N. Security Council to avoid another, or because they knew that great power wars would probably be nuclear wars?”

This reflects a careful judgment. Though mercilessly underappreciated in some quarters, the United Nations is often involved in defusing some dangerous standoffs these last 70 years. We saw this most clearly in the nuclear showdown over Cuba in 1962 when debates in the UN gave both sides time to cool down. At its founding, Winston Churchill opined that “the purpose of the UN was not to lift us to heaven but to save us from hell.”

So far, the long nuclear peace has held. In Dyer’s modest summary, the human race is “making progress.” When the former Soviet Union was torn apart economically in the 1980s, leaders such as Reagan, Thatcher, Bush 41, Pope John Paul II and above all Mikhail Gorbachev had sense enough to seize the occasion for scaling down the nuclear threat. Again, in spite of his huge military build-up, no President expressed his abhorrence of nuclear war more than President Reagan (1981-89).

But…for decades we have been sleeping on a bomb, as one commentator reminded us in the 1970s. So far, the long nuclear peace has held and the worst fears of movie makers, of apocalyptic preachers and even seasoned statesmen have not been realized. For that we can all be thankful.