January 12

This Day in History

Cold War

Jan 12, 1954:

Dulles announces policy of "massive retaliation"

In a speech at a Council on Foreign Relations dinner in his honor, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announces that the United States will protect its allies through the "deterrent of massive retaliatory power." The policy announcement was further evidence of the Eisenhower administration's decision to rely heavily on the nation's nuclear arsenal as the primary means of defense against communist aggression.

Dulles began his speech by examining communist strategy that, he concluded, had as its goal the "bankruptcy" of the United States through overextension of its military power. Both strategically and economically, the secretary explained, it was unwise to "permanently commit U.S. land forces to Asia," to "support permanently other countries," or to "become permanently committed to military expenditures so vast that they lead to 'practical bankruptcy.'" Instead, he believed a new policy of "getting maximum protection at a bearable cost" should be developed. Although Dulles did not directly refer to nuclear weapons, it was clear that the new policy he was describing would depend upon the "massive retaliatory power" of such weapons to respond to future communist acts of war.

The speech was a reflection of two of the main tenets of foreign policy under Eisenhower and Dulles. First was the belief, particularly on the part of Dulles, that America's foreign policy toward the communist threat had been timidly reactive during the preceding Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman. Dulles consistently reiterated the need for a more proactive and vigorous approach to rolling back the communist sphere of influence. Second was President Eisenhower's belief that military and foreign assistance spending had to be controlled. Eisenhower was a fiscal conservative and believed that the U.S. economy and society could not long take the strain of overwhelming defense budgets. A stronger reliance on nuclear weapons as the backbone of America's defense answered both concerns--atomic weapons were far more effective in terms of threatening potential adversaries, and they were also, in the long run, much less expensive than the costs associated with a large standing army.

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