Containing the Atom: Paul Nitze and the Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons

By Reid Pauly
Cornell International Affairs Review
2010, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

On November 30th, 1950, President Truman held a disastrous press conference on the situation in Korea. Upon being pressed by several reporters, Truman declared that the atomic bomb was under active consideration for use, and that military field commanders would be responsible for deciding whether to use it or not.60 The statement was untrue, but negative reaction was immediate. Upon hearing of the President’s public proclamation, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flew to Washington to meet with Truman personally, imploring him not to use nuclear weapons in Korea. The whole incident was a public relations mess for the White House. Nonetheless, what is most interesting is that Truman must have known what he was saying was incorrect, since he was well aware of his own personal role in permitting the use of atomic weapons.

It is possible that in that moment, Truman knew he needed to maintain a public position of strength with regard to the credibility of the American nuclear deterrent. In a way, Truman was forced into his unfortunate answer by acknowledging that he could not publicly declare that he was not considering the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean War. If he had made a statement about the sheer abhorrence of nuclear use and an American desire not to use nuclear weapons, then the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent would be diminished in the eyes of the Soviet Union. In this way, Truman perhaps inadvertently and certainly inelegantly gave voice to the spirit of NSC-68.

On November 4, 1950, Nitze wrote a memo to Secretary Acheson about considerations for the use of atomic weapons in Korea. He concluded that if a bomb were to be used for tactical purposes on only military targets, the civilian damage would be minimal and it could prove effective for the UN mission.61 However, he urged against any such action. Given that the US military was in Korea under the auspices of the United Nations, be pointed out that using the bomb would have “world-wide repercussions” that could “leave us in a disadvantageous moral position.”62

A few years later, Nitze also disapproved of the use of atomic weapons to defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu off the coast of China.63 After Eisenhower backed away from his original 1958 plan to use nuclear weapons, Nitze attended a meeting with Senator Bill Fulbright (D-AR), who turned to Nitze at one point and said, “You know, Paul, I wish the President had stayed with his decision to use the nuclear weapons.” “Good God, Bill,” replied Nitze, “you can’t really be serious about that!”64 As it turns out, Senator Fulbright was merely curious about what would have happened, but his inquisitiveness had struck a chord of disdain in Nitze. Around the same time, Nitze told Dean Acheson, then former Secretary of State, that it was an “asinine” idea to use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan.65

Figure: The Emergence of the Tradition of Non-Use

Figure: The Emergence of the Tradition of Non-Use

In 1957, the Gaither Report explicitly rejected the policy of preventive war by the United States.66 Nitze was a member of the Gaither Committee and supported its conclusions, conclusions that were consistent with his thinking for many years. He remained a conventional hawk, and while he never completely foreclosed the possibility of using the bomb but he felt that irresponsible nuclear stewardship was “immoral.”67

His policy recommendations in the early days of the nuclear era fell short of explicitly advocating non-use, but he also never tried to establish the conditions under which reliance on nuclear force would be acceptable. These subtle policy distinctions, rooted in a rational appreciation of materialist and reputational considerations, helped guide the United States down a path of non-use and construct the tradition as we can now perceive it.


An examination of nuclear policy decisions made by early post-war policymakers suggests that decades of nuclear peace have not been the product of sheer good fortune. The case of Paul Nitze in particular demonstrates that even decidedly hawkish presidential advisors had nuanced and complex worldviews. By establishing the uniqueness of nuclear weapons in both military and civilian terms, the Truman administration not only provided credence to the view of nuclear weapons as radically discontinuous innovations, but also rejected decisively the idea that military planners should control them.

In addition, the debate over the creation of the hydrogen bomb, while ending in a decision to develop fusion technologies, left an enduring legacy of careful deliberation and a strong tendency to consider the new arsenal as useful only for purposes of deterrence and not for actual deployment. Finally, linked to the hydrogen bomb decision and to this day commonly viewed as needlessly bellicose, NSC-68 supported a policy inclination not to use nuclear weapons, even in adverse strategic circumstances, and it helped delegitimize the idea of preventive nuclear war.

For policy-makers like Paul Nitze, it was possible to threaten nuclear retaliation and at the same time to erect a very high barrier to the use of nuclear weapons. Over time this complex position helped establish a tradition of non-use. Traditions can be overturned, of course, but once recognized, they raise the threshold for contrary decisions. In short, they constructed a routinized normative framework aimed at constraining, informing and guiding behavior. Future policy-makers are not entirely bound, but they are influenced. The weight of history lies heavily on their shoulders.

With regard to the possible use of nuclear weapons, we continue to live on unstable ground. A long-standing tradition of non-use that is arguably less constraining than a universal and unquestioned social taboo. The Obama administration has recently given voice to the difference in its attempt to advance the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.68 The commitment not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers but to threaten to use them against those possessing such weapons is consistent with a long policy line. In short, the reasoning behind contemporary efforts to deal with threats from states like Iran and North Korea is not so different from that guiding US policy during the Cold War. 69

As it stands today, the tradition of nonuse of nuclear weapons remains unbroken, even as it is rendered more fragile by unique new challenges linked to the phenomenon of state-less terrorism. International codification in the form of a binding treaty or voluntary charter, however, may not be the best strategy for ensuring its extension or its longevity. As Thomas Schelling explains, writing down the tradition of non-use would transform it into “lawyers’ business,” with technical arguments ensuing over proper language and governing structures.70 Attempting to nail down and solidify the norm-guided behavior of rational actors in this case could actually strip the tradition of some of its weight.

I have argued that hawkish US policy-makers like Paul Nitze played a key role in developing a tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons. This is not to belittle the importance of doves like George Kennan, who energetically opposed the development of nuclear technologies, especially the hydrogen bomb in 1949.71 Like others who helped shape the social context within which nuclear questions would later be answered, Kennan believed that reliance on nuclear weapons would make it “difficult if not impossible to do anything else [but use them] when the time [came] to make a decision.”72 A preemptive declaratory policy of no-first-use was therefore Kennan’s own answer to the nuclear dilemma.73 Nitze disagreed with that solution, and it is precisely this disagreement combined with his acquiescence in unspoken decisions not to use nuclear weapons that carried the day. For this reason, Nitze’s story helps us understand the nuanced and complicated forces underpinning US nuclear strategy in the early Cold War era and gradually constituting an important tradition. The Figure below depicts The Figure below depicts my hypothesized causal chain.



Much of the evidence presented in this paper comes from primary sources. Full references are provided in a thesis on file in the Government Department, Cornell University. Most government documents from the early days of the Cold War have now been declassified and are available for public viewing. There are many more documents available than I have been able to include in this study, but I do draw my narrative and conclusions from a reasonable sampling. of official histories available in the Library of Congress, including memoirs of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Harry Truman, Henry Stimson, James Forrestal, David Lilienthal, and Dean Acheson, as well as the papers of Robert Oppenheimer and Senator McMahon. Through the auspices of curator Daun Van Ee, I was also able to examine some of the official war plans of the United States from the late 1940s. Moreover, I relied on the Foreign Relations of the United States databases for declassified State Department documents from the time. During my research trips, I focused above all on State Department records and the official papers of Paul Nitze, which are housed in the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division. These papers consist of letters to officials and family members, personal copies of State Department memoranda, and meeting notes. Mostly declassified in 1989, the papers remain under the supervision of Paul Nitze’s family, which granted my formal request for access.

  1. John Lewis Gaddis, et al, Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21.
  2. This is the continuity school understanding of weapons technology. For example, the introduction of rocks, sticks, bows and arrows, or firearms into the realm of warfare all represented advances in technology that since their arrival have become acceptable as tools of war. See Catherine Girrier, The No-First-Use Issue in American Nuclear Weapons Policy 1945 – 1957 (Geneva: Institut Universitaire De Hautes Études Internationales, 1985), 4.
  3. This relatively short time-frame may appear to be an unfair test of the theory of a nuclear taboo, since social taboos take time to develop. Nonetheless, if evidence for the emergence of a tradition of non-use can be found in this period, then the tradition may be presented as a more plausible explanation for the non-use of nuclear weapons than a taboo, especially since nuclear weapons were considered for use throughout the early years of the Cold War.
  4. Although the actions of other nations like the Soviet Union could have also dramatically altered the history that we are studying, and are equally important in addressing the question of global nuclear peace, this is fundamentally a study of US policy decisions regarding the use of nuclear weapons, and only seeks to understand the establishment of an American tradition of non-use.
  5. Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (New York: Henry Holt, 2009), 287.
  6. Thomas Schelling, “An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima” Nobel Prize lecture, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden, December 8, 2005.
  7. Steven Kull, Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1988), 10; David Callahan, Dangerous Capabilities (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1990), 7.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Although the actions of other could have also dramatically altered the context of decision and are equally important in addressing the question of global nuclear peace, this study intentionally focuses only on the establishment of an American tradition of non-use.
  10. Paul Nitze, “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves,” The New York Times, October 28, 1999, Opinion section.
  11. Thompson, Hawk and Dove, 23.
  12. Ibid, 7.
  13. Nitze was sent by President Reagan to negotiate for the United States at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. During a closed-door session with Soviet negotiators, he dramatically and unexpectedly supported a proposition to completely eliminate long-range ballistic missiles on both sides of the iron curtain. With fewer than five minutes left in the meeting to discuss the proposition, little came of it. Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 120, folder 6, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  14. Letter from Paul Nitze to his mother, Late November, 1945, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 165, folder 5, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Document reprinted in the appendix.
  15. Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost, 38.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Letter from Paul Nitze to his mother, October 18, 1945, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 165, folder 5, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  18. Thompson, Hawk and Dove, 66.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Paul Nitze, “Atoms, Strategy, and Policy” Foreign Affairs 34, no. 2 (1956): 187.
  21. Ibid, 196.
  22. Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 120, folder 12, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  23. Gaddis, et al. Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb, 16.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Sean Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 99. McCullough, Truman, 395.
  26. McCullough, Truman, 554.
  27. Ibid, 442.
  28. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use, 49.
  29. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use, 44.
  30. McCullough, Truman, 472.
  31. David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 649.
  32. 28 Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 267.
  33. Samuel R. Williamson and Steven L. Rearden, The Origins of US Nuclear Strategy, 1945 – 1953 (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 115.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Thompson, Hawk and Dove, 99.
  36. McCullough, Truman, 757.
  37. The actual delegates were Paul Nitze and R. Gordon Arneson (State Department), LeBaron (Defense), and Henry D. Smyth and Gordon Dean (AEC). Smyth and Dean were members of the AEC that represented Lilienthal when he was unable to attend meetings. LeBaron was the Secretary of Defense’s chief advisor on atomic energy and Gordon Arneson was the Secretary of State’s atomic energy advisor. See Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost, 90. But Paul Nitze says that the real debates occurred between LeBaron, Lilienthal, and Nitze. See Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 118, folder 12, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  38. Ibid, 90.
  39. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: National Security Affairs; Foreign Economic Policy, 1949 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1976), 610.
  40. Ibid, 611.
  41. Ibid.
  42. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: National Security Affairs; Foreign Economic Policy, 1949 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1976), 599.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid, 91.
  45. McGeorge Bundy, who was not in government at the time of the hydrogen bomb decision, wrote an article for the New York Review of Books on May 13, 1982 called “The Missed Chance to Stop the H-bomb.” The article studied the decision-making process and mentions that Paul Nitze actually proposed that a de facto policy of no-first-use be considered by the administration. Referring to the policy recommendations, Bundy wrote: “…even Paul Nitze, in early 1950, thought that State Department should probably press the case for [this policy]. But this policy, which we would not call ‘no-first-use,’ was never proposed by anyone to Truman, and it vanished later that winter as the military pressed its insistent conviction that usable nuclear superiority was both indisputable and attainable.” I have been unable to find any other evidence that corroborates this claim, but Bundy’s observation in itself is telling of Paul Nitze’s more complex policy ruminations and his less than hawkish character. See Nitze’s copy of McGeorge Bundy article in New York Review of Books, May 13, 1982, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 19, folder 13, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Document reprinted in the appendix.
  46. McCullough, Truman, 762.
  47. Ibid, 763.
  48. McCullough, Truman, 763.
  49. Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co, 2008), 110.
  50. Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost, 96.
  51. US Department of State, “NSC-68” Foreign Relations of the United States: National Security Affairs; Foreign Economic Policy, 1950 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1976).
  52. Ibid, 137.
  53. Gentile, “Planning for Preventive War,” Joint Force Quarterly, 69.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1995), 57.
  56. Ibid, 59.
  57. Ibid, 58.
  58. Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost, 93.
  59. Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 120, folder 12, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  60. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: National Security Affairs; Foreign Economic Policy, 1949 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1976), 402.
  61. Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 118, folder 9, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  62. Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost, 106.
  63. Nina Tannenwald believes that various State Department memoranda pointed to the “special horrifying status” of nuclear weapons in order to recommend non-use of the atomic bomb in Korea. “[The] analysis was clearly recommending that, for normative reasons, the bomb should not be treated as an ordinary weapon and that any decision to use it must meet a more demanding test.” Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 120 – 121.
  64. McCullough, Truman, 821.
  65. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: Korea, 1950 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1976), 1042.
  66. Ibid.
  67. The People’s Republic of China did not test an atomic bomb until 1964.
  68. Nitze Memoir Interviews with Steven Rearden and Ann Smith, 1982-1988, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 118, folder 9, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  69. Ibid. Thomas Schelling emphasizes the difference between threats and intentions. His work on strategic gaming led him to conclude that threats of nuclear use are usually not backed up by the actual intention of use. President Eisenhower’s reconsideration of using nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan in 1958 is a good example of such a discrepancy between threat and intention. In discussion with author, January 18, 2010
  70. Nitze’s copy of the declassified Gaither Report of 1957, 1976, Paul Henry Nitze Papers, box 102, folder 6, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  71. Gaddis and Nitze, NSC-68 and the Soviet Threat Reconsidered, 175.
  72. President Obama announced on April 5, 2010 that the United States would be changing its declaratory policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons. He has promised that in the future the United States would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, with the exception of states threatening to use other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or states not complying with international treaties on non-proliferation. See David Sanger and Peter Baker, “Obama Limits When US Would Use Nuclear Arms,” The New York Times, April 6, 2010, front section.
  73. Recent National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) suggest that the intelligence community sees Iran’s leadership as deterrable, but as always there is room for debate. Anthony Cordesman, “Iran and the US: Key Issues from an American Perspective” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 3, 2008.
  74. Prof. Thomas Schelling (UMD), in discussion with author, January 18, 2010.
  75. Thompson, Hawk and Dove, 106.
  76. Williamson and Rearden, Origins of US Nuclear Strategy, 117.
  77. Thompson, Hawk and Dove, 113.

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