Gambling with the Fate of the World

Why has there been no World War III? A new tome probes the Cold War policy most relevant to this puzzle—Eisenhower’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” threatening a nuclear response against conventional threats.

Issue: Nov-Dec 2012

Evan Thomas, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2012), 496 pp., $29.99.

MOST HISTORICAL questions have no more than modest relevance for current policy debates. Times and context change. The American economy grew rapidly under the protectionist regime of the late nineteenth century; would it thrive under a new protectionist regime? It’s impossible to say, given the radically different nature of the modern world economy. The Vietnam War demonstrated the difficulty of defeating a committed insurgency aided by outside forces; is the American effort in Afghanistan similarly doomed? Maybe, but Afghans aren’t Vietnamese, and the Taliban isn’t communist.

Yet there is one historical question that has direct and overriding policy implications. It might be the most important historical question of the last century and must rank among the top handful of all time: Why has there been no World War III? To sharpen the question, in light of the answer many people reflexively supply: Did the existence of nuclear weapons prevent a third world war?

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