Massive Retaliation was a military strategy adopted by the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s. The strategy was chosen for a number of reasons. To begin with, it provided a way for the US to protect its foreign interests.
After the Second World War, the US became committed to protecting its European allies from Soviet aggression. However, the Soviet Union had superiority in conventional forces. Citino declares that in terms of material advantage, the Soviets and its allies had an advantage (26).
The geographic proximity of the Soviet Union to Western Europe made matters even worse. In the event of a war, Soviet reinforcements could be made through road or rail while American reinforcements had to be made through sea passage or airlift from the continental US.
The threat of massive nuclear attacks provided the only feasible strategy that the US could use to protect its European allies. The massive retaliation strategy served to deter Soviet aggression in the United State’s sphere of influence.
The US Administration understood that a nuclear war was likely to result in intolerable devastation (Stegenga 128). The goal of the strategy was therefore deterrence as opposed to military victory (Scoblic 26). An important aspect of massive retaliation was that it allowed for the preemptive use of the United State’s nuclear arsenal.
Policy makers believed that the Soviets would be unwilling to engage the US in a direct military confrontation due to the risk of total destruction. The strategy equipped the US to fight globally against the Soviet Union and its allies. By the end of the Second World War, the US had the best conventional forces (Betts 88).
However, the defeat of US led conventional forces in North Korea by the Soviet backed Chinese forces demonstrated that the protection commitments made by the US exceeded its military capabilities (Siracusa and Coleman 277). The outcomes of the Korean War highlighted the need for a policy that would enable the US to counter the Soviet’s conventional forces.
The massive retaliation strategy made it possible for the US to threaten Soviet forces therefore avoiding wars. Finally, the strategy prevented the US from incurring astronomical military costs. To protect its interests from Soviet aggression, the US would need a massive military force.
Holloway documents that the US would have had to maintain enormous conventional forces to sustain the capability to fight Soviet threats all over the world (131). Policy makers acknowledged that it would have been impossible to pay for the cost of matching the potential enemy military resources at all points.
Such an attempt would have bankrupted the United States (Berhow 8). The massive retaliation policy gave the US the option to respond primarily with nuclear weapons. Barely ten years after its adoption, the massive retaliation strategy was abandoned by the Kennedy administration.
The major reason for this discarding was that the strategy suffered from a lack of credibility. On paper, the strategy threatened to respond to any Soviet aggression through nuclear annihilation. Dobson notes that the policy of massive retaliation focused on mass destruction of enemy civilian populations (27).
The global community did not believe that the US would actually unleash its nuclear arsenal on the Soviets in retaliation to even limited forms of aggression. The United State’s European allies did not favor the strategy since they would be adversely affected if it was implemented.
Berhow reveals that an unrestrained nuclear attack against the Soviet Union would have been followed by a Soviet nuclear counterattack (9). Such a counterattack would inevitably condemn America’s European allies to destruction via Soviet nuclear retaliation. Such an outcome was undesirable to many countries, which felt that the strategy put them at enormous risk.
The US was forced to acknowledge the inability of the strategy to deal with limited challenges. This became evident during the Berlin crisis of 1961 which began with the Soviets demanding that the Western powers abandon the city of Berlin.
The US refused to abandon the city leading to deterioration of relations between the two powers. In August 1961, Soviet and US tanks faced each other at the boundary between East and West Berlin (Dobson 34). A military escalation between the two would have required the implementation of the massive retaliation strategy with catastrophic outcomes.
The US administration realized that it needed a range of non-nuclear options to deal with limited problems. Another reason for the quick discarding of the strategy was the development of Soviet intercontinental nuclear forces.
In spite of the great geographical distance between the US and the Soviet Union, the Soviets had the means to carry out a long-range nuclear attack against the US (Jameson 42). Any nuclear attack on the Soviets would be countered by an attack against the US homeland.
Press states that the Kennedy administration recognized that a nuclear strike against the Soviets would have catastrophic consequences to the US (93). With the introduction of North American vulnerability to nuclear retaliation, the US did not favor a doctrine of massive retaliation.
Owing to the numerous challenges posed by the massive retaliation strategy, the Kennedy administration adopted the Flexible Response strategy. This strategy was able to overcome the weaknesses of massive retaliation and bolster the credibility of US foreign policy.
Berhow, Mark. US Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950-2004. NY: Osprey Publishing, 2012. Print.
Betts, Richard. “The Lost Logic of Deterrence.” Foreign Affairs 92.2 (2013): 87-99. Web.
Citino, Robert. “The War that wasn’t.” Military History 31.5 (2014): 25-31. Web.
Dobson, Alan. US Foreign Policy Since 1945. Boston: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Holloway, David. The Soviet Union and the Arms Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. Print.
Jameson, Robert. “Armageddon’s Shortening Fuse: How Advances in Nuclear Weapons Technology Pushed Strategists to Mutually Assured Destruction, 1945-1962.” Air Power History 60.1 (2013): 40-53. Print.
Press, Daryl. Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats. NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. Print.
Scoblic, Peter. “What Are Nukes Good For?” New Republic 241.6 (2010): 22-27. Web.
Siracusa, Joseph and David Coleman. “Scaling the Nuclear Ladder: Deterrence from Truman to Clinton.” Australian Journal of International Affairs 54.3 (2000): 277-296. Web.
Stegenga, James. “Nuclear Deterrence: Bankrupt Ideology.” Policy Sciences 16.1 (1983): 127-145. Web.