Kennan: Strategic misconceptions
Princeton Alumni Weekly. November 16, 1981.
America’s refusal to forswear the first use of atomic weapons impedes efforts to halt the nuclear arms race...

George F. Kennan ’25, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, is a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. He received Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Award in 1976 and the Albert Einstein Peace Prize last spring.

Down to this present century, war was regarded, in the accepted concepts of our Western civilization, as something that was fought by armies – over the heads of the civilian population and sometimes to the great inconvenience and discomfort of the civilian society, but not with the direct purpose of bringing injury and suffering to civilians. The principle that war should be waged in a manner calculated to bring minimum, not maximum, harm to civilian society was even embodied, if my memory is correct, in the rules of war worked out at the Hague Conference in 1899. In addition, wars were generally fought for limited aims and were terminated when those aims had been achieved by one part or the other. Military operations did not normally involve the total destruction of the other party’s armed forces, the breaking up of his political system, the unconditional surrender of all his armed forces, or the complete occupation of his territory.

All these latter concepts came into prominence for the first time in World War I; and with them came, also for the first time, the idea of deliberately holding civilian populations hostage to the behavior of their governments – of attempting, that is, to defeat governments by bringing destruction and suffering not just to the members of their armed forces but also to the unarmed civilians who made up the overwhelming majority of their populations. It was the emergence of this concept that inspired not only the zeppelin bombardments of London by the Germans but also the hunger blockade which the Allies endeavored to impose upon Germany in that First World War.

During World War II, in the face of the great development of air power in the ’20s and ’30s, the concept of getting at governments by attacking the civilian infrastructure of their societies was adopted as one of the principal forms of warfare. This found its expression in the extensive bombings of large urban areas and industrial concentrations – bombing that culminated, in the European theater of operations, in the virtual destruction of the great city of Dresden and the killing of tens of thousands of its helpless inhabitants by our own Air Force, only some five days before the end of the war.

The sad fact is that during World War II no government responded with greater enthusiasm than our own to the general idea of area bombing as a means of warfare. When we came into possession in 1945 of a weapon by means of which you could, with a single warhead, destroy an entire city, it seemed natural for us to use it – even at the cost of killing, once again, tens of thousands of helpless people and, in this case, of leaving countless others, women and children included, half-skinned or burned alive and writhing in agony until nature mercifully put an end to their sufferings.

It should not be surprising that in the ensuing postwar years, finding ourselves unable or unwilling, for domestic political reasons, to maintain an adequate conventional armed force, and fancying ourselves to have a long-term monopoly on the nuclear weapon, we took it to our breasts, so to speak, saw in it the possibility of achieving some sort of absolute security, accepted it as the mainstay of our defensive strength, and took the lead in perfecting it and increasing its destructive power. And along with this belief in the virtues of the nuclear weapon as a superior instrument for our defense, there went, again not unnaturally, the conviction that the more of these devices you possessed, and the fewer were possessed by your political rivals, the more secure you were, even if the numbers of them you ended up with were enough to destroy all of Western civilization, ourselves included.

It is these concepts – communicating themselves of course to our greatest political rival, the Soviet Union, in the way that antagonists influence each other – which have brought us to the impasse we find ourselves in today. I first became responsibly involved with this problem in 1949-50 as a senior official in the Department of State. Finding myself obliged to take a position on the question of whether we should go ahead and raise immensely the destructiveness of atomic weapons by developing the hydrogen bomb, I had to ponder the larger question of where this would lead us.

I concluded that to process along this path would inevitably mean to wander amid increasing dangers and dilemmas for ourselves and for everyone else. It occurred to me that at the heart of the misconceptions which were leading us in this direction lay our commitment to the so-called “first use” of nuclear weapons in any major conflict – commitment not in the sense that we were proclaiming our firm intention to be the first to use the weapon in any future military conflict, but rather that we were unwilling to say that we would not be the first to use it, that we reserved to ourselves, in other words, the privilege of making use of it, even if it was not first used against us, if this suited our purposes.

This is still, so far as I know, our position. It is not, incidentally, the position of the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders have repeatedly taken the initiative in urging a wide international agreement outlawing first use of the weapon. Just last September Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko reaffirmed this position in the United Nations by urging passage of an Assembly Resolution declaring such first use of nuclear weapons to be a crime against humanity. It is the U.S., I am sad to say, that has always refused even to consider any obligation of this nature. This refusal in effect to admit that we could live and assure our own security successfully in a climate of non-nuclear weaponry lies not only at the heart of our inability to take a constructive part in the effort to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction from national arsenals, but indeed at the heart of our helpless compulsion to be the leading and driving force in the creation of the vast shadow of danger which has now come to envelop the entire northern world and to threaten the end of civilization as we know it.

Let me make it clear that I am not advocating any unilateral nuclear disarmament. Aside from the fact that public opinion in this country and in Western Europe would not understand it and would be frightened by it, I see no necessity for anything of that sort. It seems to me quite possible that if we were freed from our commitment to the principle of first use, and if we were prepared to show a little imagination and courage in seeking deeps cuts in the Soviet and American strategic arsenals as well as the total denuclearization of Western Europe – if we would do these things – the prospects for eventual control and elimination of nuclear weapons would be not at all unfavorable.

If we could once bring ourselves to recognize that there is no security to be obtained by the further development and deployment of such weapons, that the ones we hold in our own hands are as much as danger to us as any others, and that the risks involved in a serious effort to get rid of them are minor compared to the risks of continuing their development and permitting ourselves to be governed by our fears rather than our hopes – if we could get these things into our heads, half the battle would be won, and we could proceed with some confidence to the remainder of it.

Behind the problem of nuclear weaponry there lies the deeper problem of the feasibility of war itself as a means of settling differences among major industrial powers in the modern age. The two great conventional wars of this century have done great damage to our Western civilization, and I am not sure that it could withstand another one. Yet, difficult and complicated as the problem of war is, it is less urgent than that of nuclear weapons, for was threatens only to damage, while nuclear weapons threaten to destroy. Therefore, we must see to it first that our civilization is not destroyed, and then look to what we can do about preserving it from a third orgy of self-inflicted damage in a single century.


This was originally published in the November 16, 1981 issue of PAW.