Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 3  /  

Why Did the US Adopt the Strategy of Massive Retaliation?

Why Did the US Adopt the Strategy of Massive Retaliation? Why Did the US Adopt the Strategy of Massive Retaliation?
To cite this article: Machairas, Dimitrios, “Why Did the US Adopt the Strategy of Massive Retaliation?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 3, Summer 2013, pages 18-21.

With the Korean War being irreversibly, as it turned out, bogged down in a stalemate, Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of the United States in January 1953, amidst a general public atmosphere anticipating a change in the country’s deteriorating international situation, as well as in the policies that had brought it about. A year later, the administration was introducing the ‘massive retaliation’ strategy as the military component of the US’s new foreign and security policy, the ‘New Look’.

An examination of the factors that informed the new strategy reveals a core of military and economic imperatives which, in the eyes of Eisenhower and his advisers, had to be met if the nation’s long-term security was not to be endangered. Along with these two key considerations, a set of individual-, state- and system-level factors – such as the President’s own perceptions and beliefs, a certain pre-existing US strategic thinking, technological developments, international events and structures, like the Korean War and the perceived belligerence of the communist bloc – all combine to give a multicausal picture as an explanation for the adoption of the doctrine.

Massive retaliation was essentially a deterrent strategy based on the threat of a direct, unrestrained nuclear response of massive scale in case of communist aggression, possibly aimed at the very centres of the enemy’s economic life. The rationale behind massive retaliation, as well as the term itself, was first presented by the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in a speech given before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on January 12, 1954. Through an implicit polemic against the Truman Administration’s foreign policy, which was seen as short-sighted, passive and lacking initiative, Dulles introduced a strategy that would not simply consist of ‘emergency action’ against ‘immediate danger’, but one that would also enable the US to deter aggression in the long run, through a capacity and willingness to employ ‘massive retaliatory power….at places and with means of its own choosing’. A potential aggressor should no longer be allowed to ‘prescribe battle conditions that suit him’, since he ‘might be tempted to attack in places where his superiority was decisive’. However, these strategic objectives, according to Dulles, had to be achieved without risking economic exhaustion – a difficult twofold task indeed – so, what was needed was ‘a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost’.[i] As he put it in his article published in Foreign Affairs three months later:

“Under the conditions in which we live, it is not easy to strike a perfect balance between military and non-military efforts and to choose the type of military effort which serves us best. The essential is to recognize that there is an imperative need for a balance which holds military expenditures to a minimum consistent with safety, so that a maximum of liberty may operate as a dynamic force against despotism. That is the goal of our policy.” [ii]

Maximum Deterrent…

With the threat of the Soviet Union’s indisputable superiority in conventional forces looming over Europe like the sword of Damocles, a magic formula had to be found which could provide the most effective and efficient deterrence against communist aggression. Dulles’ massive retaliation speech, although officially a political communication on the part of a civilian statesman, was, according to Bernard Brodie, thoroughly imbued with strategically sound military tenets: the ‘principle of concentration’ of forces as opposed to their dispersal around the world; the idea of acquiring and maintaining the initiative, thus dictating the pace and the scope of the war to the enemy; as well as an ability to use all available means – in terms of weapon types – free of any, perhaps self-imposed, restrictions.[iii]

Eisenhower himself, later in his memoirs, described a set of five fundamental considerations that contributed to the shaping of the new security establishment in the beginning of his tenure as President. Three of them are of particular importance here, in virtue of their purely military nature: the first was the premise that the US would never initiate a major war, and the consequent inference that a capacity to retaliate decisively – and not necessarily in kind – was crucial after the absorption of the enemy’s first strike. The second was the primarily deterrent character that the country’s military forces should have in light of the potentially cataclysmic nature of a modern (i.e. nuclear) global war. The third was the need for a modernisation of the armed forces that would correspond to these new realities, so that the US would finally stop recklessly ‘beginning each war with the weapons of the last’.[iv] These ‘logical guidelines’, as Eisenhower called them, which lent to the formation of the new strategy, apparently called for an equally logical solution to the complicated equation constituted by all the aforementioned military considerations, missions and objectives put forward by the President and his Secretary of State.

The ‘new’ weapons provided a relatively easy solution to this difficult task. Thus, ‘the placing of greater emphasis than formerly on the deterrent and destructive power of improved nuclear weapons, better means of delivery, and effective air-defense units’ became the central element of the administration’s new national security policy.[v] It is worth noting that in the early 50’s, the Soviet Union was generally believed not possessing yet a stock of nuclear weapons of a size that would enable it to attack on a massive scale, especially against the US.[vi] This assumption of the country’s decisive nuclear superiority at the dawn of the Cold War can certainly be considered as a contributing factor to the adoption of massive retaliation, reinforcing the rationale that a threat of an all-out nuclear war would credibly deter aggression from the East.

The centrality of nuclear weapons in the newly introduced strategic doctrine seems perfectly consistent with a previously unseen appreciation of the full range of advantages that accompanied them. Under the Truman administration, nuclear weapons had yet to be integrated into a security strategy in a clear way that would translate possession of them into concrete political gains, because of the limited availability of weapons for much of the administration’s tenure, and also the appeal of Kennan’s view that nuclear weapons are distinctly different from conventional ones in terms of the practicalities and consequences of their use.[vii]

But by 1953, this had changed. Nuclear weapons could now be produced faster and in larger quantities, and their variety had increased revealing a broader range of possible uses.[viii] Also, the traditional distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, as well as that between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons was gradually fading away. Dulles considered the development of nuclear weapons more or less analogous to the introduction of gunpowder, that is, just another innovation in military weapons technology in the everlasting rise of their destructive power.[ix] In a similar fashion, Eisenhower argued that “where these things are used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else’.[x] But the most succinct statement about the newly acquired importance of nuclear weapons was maybe given by Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“atomic forces are now our primary force….nuclear weapons, fission and fusion, will be used in the next major war. Availability of fissile material, the economy of its use, the magnitude of its destructive effects, and the flexibility of its use makes it the primary munition of war. Victory will come to the side that makes the best use of it.”[xi]

According to Freedman there was a direct connection between this new perception of America’s nuclear capabilities and the essential role they were given in the context of the new strategy: now complementing each other, strategic and tactical weapons would form an all-round solution to countering the communist threat, with the former deterring aggression with their devastating power, and the latter working as force multiplier on the battlefield – exactly where the West’s inferiority in conventional terms had to be compensated for.[xii]

In addition to all the above, somewhat theoretical, military considerations, there was also a tangible historical experience that helped shape the massive retaliation concept, and that was the Korean War, which claimed 33,000 American lives without any significant military or political objectives being achieved. It demonstrated that the US could be easily dragged into limited, yet highly expensive proxy wars in the periphery and drained of its military and economic resources. The lesson to be derived from Korea was, thus, ‘no more Koreas’, no more small, local wars of questionable strategic importance being fought by primary reliance on conventional ground forces.[xiii] Brodie has gone as far as to argue that the whole massive retaliation speech made some sense only as a condemnation of the inefficiency and inadequacy of the Korean War in terms of strategy and means, implying that the military rationale behind it was rapidly becoming obsolete and inappropriate in light of Soviet Union’s recently enhanced nuclear capabilities after the development of its own hydrogen bomb.[xiv] In any case, the outcome of the war seemed to be reinforcing the desirability of an ‘all-out’ approach to war fighting, which was exactly the underlying assumption of the massive retaliation doctrine.[xv]

This concern with the concept of all-out war was, in fact, a highly entrenched theme in traditional US strategic thinking, stemming primarily from past experience, and perhaps collective psyche. In the immediate post-WW2 era, it revolved around the hypothesis that future war, just like the previous ones, would start as an overt, surprise attack against the US or its allies and evolve into a total global war, so a proper defence strategy would involve, initially, a swift retaliatory strike of maximum strategic destructive power, while the country’s industrial and economic capacity would win the war in the long run; a rationale that was never really challenged.[xvi] In fact, much of the literature on the subject seems to agree that massive retaliation was, in this respect, essentially nothing novel.[xvii] To the extent that this is the case – the unprecedented importance of nuclear weapons notwithstanding – the aforementioned traditionalism of the American military/strategic philosophy can be added as a typical state/group-level explanatory factor in the analysis of the origins of massive retaliation.

…At a bearable cost

Eisenhower’s ‘New Look’ involved a deep preoccupation with the state’s economics, with characteristically conservative concerns over budgetary deficits, taxes and inflation. The economy was to be restructured in a way that would allow it to endure what was foreseen as a long struggle against communism. Balancing the budget meant reducing, among others, military expenditures, and consequently a general, yet cautious, demobilisation. Official reports were presenting bleak pictures of the economy: by 1953, the federal debt had multiplied more than five times since just before WWII, reaching $267.5 billion, and would continue to rise by 10 billion each year if the previous administration’s spending rates were to be maintained, even with taxes set as high as wartime taxes; at the same time, the military budget accounted for almost 70 percent of federal expenditures, that is, more than 50 billion dollars per year.[xviii]

The changes that the new administration was ideologically committed to make started taking place almost immediately. In the fiscal year 1954 budget, submitted in May 1953, the requested defence expenditures dropped to $36 billion, considerably lower than the previous years’ or even the $41 billion that the Truman administration had initially requested for the same year; for the 1955 fiscal year, this figure would be further reduced to $31 billion.[xix] At the same time, Army manpower shrank significantly from 1.5 million in December 1953 to 1 million in June 1955, while the Air Force manpower and budget actually increased, in accordance with the reorganisation of force structures and goals taking place.[xx]

This new approach to state economics was not rooted simply to party politics and ideology, but involved a strong individual element, and that was the President’s personal perceptions and beliefs. Eisenhower was a staunch supporter of free-market principles, and therefore extremely sensitive about the evils of taxation, debt and inflation, which, if left unchecked, could undermine the stability of the American economy, and by implication, the country’s ability to resist external threats.[xxi] The connection between economic health and military power was more than clear in his mind when he stated that if ‘these two are allowed to proceed in disregard for the other, you then create a situation either of doubtful military strength, or of such precarious economic strength that your military position is in constant jeopardy’.[xxii] Germane to these concerns was Eisenhower’s Clausewitzian belief that the means must be subordinated to the ends, which, in the situation faced by the US at the time, meant that the nation’s ideals and long term interests, its very way of life, should not be endangered in a reckless and purposeless pursuit for military security.[xxiii] Eisenhower’s statement during his 1952 presidential campaign that a ‘bankrupt America is more the Soviet goal than an America conquered on the field of battle’ was not just another pre-election big talk, but rather a genuine declaration of his view as to what constitutes the gravest threat to US national interests.[xxiv]

Given these economic concerns problematising the designing of a military doctrine that would not sacrifice prosperity for security, or vice versa, massive retaliation, with its reliance on the perceived deterrent capacity of the asymmetrical nuclear retaliation with which potential aggressors were threatened, seemed to serve all objectives in an effective and frugal way. Promising ‘a bigger bang for a buck’, nuclear weapons would offset the demobilisation and withdrawal of conventional forces, allowing the US government to balance the budget by decreasing defence spending.[xxv] For the military, the adoption of a comprehensive nuclear strategy in which the terms and conditions for the use of nuclear weapons would be much less ambiguous than before meant lower manpower requirements and, hence, a reduced budgetary burden of exactly the most costly element of the armed forces structure.[xxvi] And in declaratory terms, as Samuel F. Wells, Jr. put it, ‘massive retaliation provided the rhetorical clout with which the administration could achieve its most cherished policy objective in national security affairs’.[xxvii]


Faced on one hand with the self-appointed task of saving America from what was believed Soviet leaders were fervently anticipating and skilfully precipitating, namely, overextension and ‘practical bankruptcy’, and on the other, with the duty to protect the nation’s military security against communist aggression across the globe, the Eisenhower administration came up with the massive retaliation strategy as the most efficient solution to the complex problem at hand.

Based on a set of military considerations and premises; consistent with an enduring US strategic philosophy regarding the all-out nature of war; fitting in nicely with the strong personal perceptions and convictions of the President and the Secretary of State, the two main masterminds behind its conception; and empowered by the country’s constantly expanding, yet maybe only recently strategically appreciated nuclear capabilities, massive retaliation was developed to be the most affordable, and at the same time persuasive, possible antidote to Soviet conventional superiority. Essentially it substituted capital – here in the form of nuclear weapons – for manpower, being, in this respect, a doctrine as Western as it could be.


[i] Dulles (1954a), pp. 107-8
[ii] Dulles (1954b), p. 354
[iii] Brodie (1959), p. 248
[iv] Eisenhower (1963), p. 446
[v] Ibid. p. 451
[vi] Buzzard (1956), p. 230
[vii] Gaddis (2005), pp. 145-6
[viii] Ibid. p. 146; Freedman (1982), p.78; Dulles (1954b), p. 358
[ix] Gaddis (2005), p.147
[x] Quote in Freedman (1982), p. 78; Using similar language, the NSC-162/2 paper stated that in a possible conflict with the Soviet Union or China, ‘the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions’. (1953), p. 22
[xi] Kaplan (1991), pp. 183-4
[xii] Freedman (1982), p. 77
[xiii] Kaplan (1991), p. 177; Referring to massive retaliation, Kissinger writes ‘here is the pre-Korea United States military doctrine buttressed by the lesson we have drawn from the Korean conflict, which have come to symbolize the frustrations to be experienced in waging peripheral wars’. (1957), p. 55
[xiv] Brodie (1959), pp. 250-1; Apparently building on Brodie’s argument, Freedman has described the strategy as ‘more retrospective than prospective’. (1981), p. 90
[xv] Hamburg (1974), p. 17
[xvi] Kissinger (1957), pp. 29-31
[xvii] Ibid. p. 31, 55; Brodie (1959), p. 254; Eisenhower administration’s inheriting the two operational elements (the strategic strike force, and the variety of nuclear weapons) and the doctrinal assumption (threat of nuclear retaliation deters) which were the heart of the strategy from its predecessor, Wells (1981), p. 46-7
[xviii] Figures in Dulles (1954b), p. 361-2 and Kaplan (1991), p. 176
[xix] Wells (1981), p. 33, 44
[xx] Eisenhower (1963), p. 452
[xxi] Kaplan (1991), p. 176
[xxii] Quoted in Gaddis (2005), p. 132; On Eisenhower’s strong personal view of the role of economics in grand strategy also in Metz (1993), p. 41, 55
[xxiii] Gaddis (2005), p. 133
[xxiv] Quote in Kaplan (1991), p. 176; On the threat of extravagant expenditures also Craig (1998), p. 44
[xxv] Freedman (1982), p. 78
[xxvi] Ibid. p. 81
[xxvii] Wells (1981), p. 52