"The Gravest Question of Our Time": A Senator Lays Out Military Alternatives in the Post-Korean War Atomic Age
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“The Gravest Question of Our Time”: A Senator Lays Out Military Alternatives in the Post-Korean War Atomic Age

For four years after the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, America held a monopoly on the production of atomic weapons. On September 24, 1949, however, news of a Soviet Union nuclear weapons test shocked the nation. The following April, a National Security Council report to President Harry S. Truman advised development of a hydrogen bomb—some 1,000 times more destructive than an atom bomb—and a massive buildup of non-nuclear defenses. The subsequent outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 justified to many increased defense spending. When fighting reached a stalemate, some in politics and the military—including General Douglas MacArthur, head of the Far East command—advocated the use of atomic weapons against targets in China. Although the Korean War was fought solely with conventional weapons, peace came only after the Eisenhower administration threatened to use nuclear weapons. Following the July 1953 armistice, government and military officials debated the place of nuclear weapons in future defense planning. In this January 1954 Collier’s article, Styles Bridges, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, laid out various proposals and assured citizens of their leaders' dedication “to finding the best solution.” Despite a test ban treaty in 1963—sparked in part by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war—subsequent arms control agreements, and a vigorous nuclear freeze movement, the two superpowers nevertheless pursued an escalating arms race that reached a peak combined total of nearly 60,000 nuclear warheads by the late 1980s.

One of the greatest debates of United States history is about to explode in Washington. The battlefield will be Congress, the participants our top leaders. The issue: national survival.

Where Do You Stand on the Gravest Question of Our Time?

By Styles Bridges, U.S. Senator from New Hampshire

Five days after Congress adjourned last August, Premier Malenkov told a cheering roomful of Red officials in Moscow that America no longer had a monopoly on hydrogen weapons. Shortly thereafter the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced that the Russians had conducted experiments involving both uranium and hydrogen reactions. Here was the ultimate threat to our civilization—the threat of its possible destruction. What should be done?

The American community of defense experts split.

The assumption that someone—in the Pentagon or Atomic Energy Commission—would have the answer was wrong. Today there are several conflicting schools, each urging its own answer with the intensity of men who believe their plan is the best bet to avoid death. This division of opinion reaches into the Pentagon, the Cabinet, the National Security Council and emphatically into the House and Senate. The argument will roar into the 1954 election.

Next spring President Eisenhower and his defense officials will hand Congress a series of military programs, many of them secret, whose cost will total some $40,000,000,000. But even these recommendations won’t be the final atomic answer; in fact, they will almost certainly kick off one of the great debates of our history—the sort of debate that occurs when anxiety crawls in on reason, when honest and able men strive to assure survival of the country. . . .

The hydrogen device which we set off November, 1952, on Eniwetok did something which was not adequately explained.

It didn’t smash or crumble things. It vaporized them. It didn’t melt sand grains so that they ran together to form lava, as an atomic explosion would. It converted dirt, trees, rock and metal machinery to dust and gas. A substantial area composed of hard physical substances—lumber, earth, steel, copper, lead—was changed in about 20 seconds into atmosphere. Those who saw the test wondered what more scientists must do to convince mankind that an era has ended . . . and that a civilization will end unless men reconcile their differences peacefully.

After Eniwetok, information on the destructive potential of hydrogen weapons began to reach Capitol Hill. One of the staggering statistics indicates that any thousand buildings—hotels, hospitals, warehouses, in San Francisco, Cleveland or Detroit—could be wiped out in one hydrogen blast. Detroit’s real property improvements are valued at $10,000,000.000, its schools at one-half billion, churches at one-half billion; damage from an atomic raid over Detroit could reach $14,000,000,000. . . .

It appears plain to me now, from my vantage point as chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the Senate, that there are several main schools of thought about how our country can be defended best. For convenience, we may call these the Perimeter Continental Defense, the Ten-X, the Balanced Forces, and (a new one that has not yet shown itself in the open) the Settle It schools.

The specter of vaporized cities has produced a sharpened demand for continental defense. The demand springs from the fear that our present defense theory has become too great a gamble. Our defense, generally speaking, has been a notification to Russia that we will retaliate. We racked up more bombs—and more horrible bombs—than anything Russia could be presumed to possess, plus superlative bombers for their delivery. We have kept an air-atomic combination ready to deliver such horrible retaliation as to persuade any sane man in the Kremlin that if he presses the button he will cause the destruction of major Russian centers. This defense has been the deterrent, the force which, Winston Churchill said, is the primary reason why Russia has not taken Europe.

Many now consider the deterrent too much of a gamble. . . .

On the assumption that Russia would someday achieve nuclear weapons, we assigned teams of scientists to determine what defense is possible—whether a city can ever build anything that will ward off the force that vaporizes. Several such studies involved large staffs of physicists, engineers and military men; two of the groups have become well known in the public prints as Projects Lincoln and East River.

Scientist Teams Go to Work

These teams explored the possibility of offshore radar-warning networks. They set out to learn what sort of interceptors, given such warning, are needed to protect a country of continental dimensions. Others studied how guided missiles fit into the defense wall. Still others investigated the vast subject of evacuation of cities—whether cities can go underground and whether there is enough money in the world to pay for such projects as the dispersal of industries.

The secret reports, their hopes and possibilities, were studied by many. As a result there is a group spread through Congress, Pentagon and Cabinet that believes Americans should be told about the defenses outlined in these studies—that we must pay even fantastic costs, if necessary, to provide these early warning systems, plus the means to fight off at least most of the attacking planes.

On the other hand, there are those, the Ten-X advocates, who are horrified at the implication that even with the whole panoply of outlying defenses proposed by such groups as Lincoln and East River—radar bases, rocket fences, interceptors—Russian planes might still kill millions of Americans in one attack. Ten-X people wonder how anyone can consider with approval any approach that makes such concessions. They think the perimeter-defense school takes futility as its starting point. They consider wildly illogical the reasoning that urges a rocket fence because it might cut the toll of a single attack from 15,000,000 bodies to 5,000,000.

Since it is impossible to protect completely a frontier that runs around the North American continent, they ask, why bother with a partial defense—with a “few slingshots scattered in infinity”?

By logical elimination they arrive at the superdeterrent, an air-atomic establishment which by its very existence would guarantee Russian inaction. Assume, they say, that "X" stands for the Strategic Air Command, presumably the minimum air-atomic force our experts consider necessary to discourage a Soviet attack. Well, why not really stop Russia in its tracks with Ten-X—a force 10 times (or as many times as is necessary) that size?

They would stake everything on retaliation—but retaliation which is an absolute. Defense money would be concentrated in an air-atomic establishment capable of crushing Russia’s war-making potential. Such a force would, they say, immobilize Russia for an indefinite period, until many free nations possessed atomic plants and hydrogen weapons, at which time the world would be forced—one hopes—to accept disarmament.

Some believe the build-up of the air-atomic arsenal can be made at the expense of the older weapons without any increase in present spending. They would re-examine the role of all weapons and gradually shelve everything not directly in support of air-atomic. This sounds like a casual statement of military evolution until you stop to think that what they propose to discard is a large part of the ground army that fought in Korea. . . .

I have heard Ten-X called “pat,” "facile,“ "cozy” and “criminally stupid” by the Balanced Forces school. Balanced Forces people say we have or will soon have enough atomic weapons and planes to sustain heavy losses and still blast every major Russian city into rubble—enough to do with atomic bombs what we once did with TNT: saturation bombing. Russia, too, will have atomic bombs in stockpile quantity and the planes to pierce any American defense and deliver enough A-bombs to destroy a part of the nation. At this point, they argue, it will be absurd to talk of superiority; when we can annihilate their cities and they can annihilate ours, our surplus becomes meaningless. . . .

Under stalemate, wars will occur and may be fought with nonatomic weapons. One example was Korea. Russia could have supplied China with atomic bombs and poison gas. We, too, had both. Yet Korea was fought largely with the tools of World War II, including carbine, grenade and bayonet. . . . Under such stalemate, the nation that junks tanks and infantry stands helpless before the nation that has them. So, say the Balanced Forces advocates, hang onto the Army, Navy and Marines, whatever else you buy—whether Hemisphere or Ten-X.

The fourth school I spoke of, the Settle It proponents, probably will not break into the open when the great defense debate begins, but they will be there listening—perhaps waiting to see if some kind of standoff develops that will give them reason to come forward. At present, they dread the word “appeasement” so deeply that they talk only off the record, or speculatively—“just thinking out loud, you know.”

To them, settlement becomes an unavoidable alternative whenever they hear a physicist’s explanation of vaporization. Their minds jump to settlement when they learn there is a dispute as to whether the vast and costly installations proposed for continental defense are worth a hoot.

Another Reason for Settlement

Settlement springs to mind when they visualize 10 years of atomic race with Russian leaders who may not understand that the Communist-capitalist argument, brought to its ultimate conclusion, could cause a mutation of the human species.

After such reflection they reach a startling conclusion: that our government should try to defer the political showdown with Russia, to put the argument on ice. Some believe we should attempt neither to settle the argument nor aggravate it, but should try for a moratorium—so that two later generations in Russia and the United States will inherit a world where science automatically imposes an atomic stalemate. . . .

They believe the United States must acknowledge that when two major powers have hydrogen weapons, recourse to war is out, whatever the differences. The fact that one of the two powers is immoral—an imperialistic criminal—does not change the fact, they say, that our inflexibility may cause the vaporization of our cities. At about this point in reasoning some may soon start to consider “appeasement” a word with less horror than “vaporization.” . . .

Any preview of pressures can anticipate one more—that of the men who look at the cards now in our defense hand and say, “I’ll hold these,” referring to Strategic Air Command.

SAC is the organization which has helped checkmate Russia. It consists of our atomic bomber force, which is based at various points around the world and which stands ready to take off on a few hours' notice. The decision to create this force seven years ago must stand as the least controversial and one of the most prudent military decisions in American history. . . .

However terrible the news from Russia, however naked the American cities, you don’t panic if you remember what our Strategic Air Command has and what it can do. In a world of scientific and military mysteries the one enduring certainty is that American planes are manned and ready to take off with atomic armament.

The Strategic Air Force is not the Ten-X force advocated by some, but its power is such that many informed people simply cannot believe that the Russians can give serious thought to an attack on America.

Menace Value of the A-Bomb

In the course of the hot and earnest debate on what America must do to be safe, I expect there will be voices supporting the stand recently taken by Mr. Gordon Dean, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. He would have us announce now that we will use atomic bombs, possibly on Russia itself, in reply to the next Communist aggression anywhere. Doubtless there are congressmen who agree with Mr. Dean. Why have a powerful weapon and keep it in our pocket?

But I’ll make a minor prediction. If this proposal gets much serious support, it will be countered by another. All men agree that if the United States itself is attacked we should unleash everything we have. But there are many who think we should not lead with the atomic or hydrogen bomb if another minor war breaks out away from our own shores. . . .

In this trying and confusing situation I’d like to suggest, as I do to my Senate colleagues, that you be as calm as you can. The best-informed men and women in America, along with you, are doing their utmost to find the best answer, the logical solution. This threat to our national survival is a very real one. Everyone in an official position is an anxious as you are to avoid disaster for our country or any part of it. . . .

I want to assure you that we will dedicate ourselves untiringly to finding the best solution, working with the men on whose shoulders falls the responsibility for maintaining the security and defense of our country. We know the issue is crucial and impelling. We know that the destiny of our country, the greatest nation on earth, and the destinies of all free people hang in the balance. With God’s help we shall cut through the tangle of conflicting opinions to a solution that will safeguard our security and the security of our friends. 2002–03–07

Source: Styles Bridges, "Where Do You Stand on the Gravest Question of Our Time?”, Collier’s, January 8, 1954, 36–39.

See Also:"The A-Bomb Won't Do What You Think!": An Argument Against Reliance on Nuclear Weapons
"I'm Not Afraid of the A-Bomb": An Army Captain Tries to Dispel Fears about Radioactivity
"The Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom": Predictions and Hopes for Atomic Energy