The Importance of Being First

  • Lawrence Freedman
Part of the Studies in International Security book series (SIS)


By the mid-1950s it was already becoming habitual to put the word ‘win’ in quotation marks when using it in connection with nuclear war. Traditional notions of victory and defeat dissolved in the face of the unavoidable level of destruction that even the technical winner would suffer. Every victory would be pyrrhic. Such a view lay behind the efforts of limited war theorists to encourage moderation in waraims. There was little point in fighting for total objectives when this would require an unattainable total victory.


Europe Assure Defend Stake Concession 
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  1. 1.
    Paul Nitze, ‘Atoms, strategy and policy’, Foreign Affairs, XXXIV:2 (January 1956), pp. 190–1. See also Glenn Snyder, Deterrence and Defense, p. 68: ‘The concepts of “winning” and “losing” have to do with the military or power outcome of the war.... They have nothing to do with the intrinsic costs of damage suffered in the war.’Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For example John Foster Dulles: ‘Khruschev does not need to be convinced of our good intentions. He knows we are not aggressors and do not threaten the security of the Soviet Union’, quoted in Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 68. The most careful critique of preventive war as a policy can be found in Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age, pp. 228–91.Google Scholar
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    Charles Murphy, Fortune (July 1953). Though accepting the need for a limited air defence effort, Murphy insists that protection against nuclear attack is ‘unattainable and in any case completely impractical, economically and technically’.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in George E. Lowe, The Age of Deterrence (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1964), pp. 100–1.Google Scholar
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    For example, Lord Tedder in 1947: ‘The most effective defence against air attack is to stop it at source, and in the future it may become the only way; it is certainly the only method of dealing with the rocket. The only decisive air superiority is that established over the enemy country’. Air Power in the War, pp. 44–5.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (London: André Deutsch, 1976), p. 478.Google Scholar
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    The story of the strategic bases study is told in Bruce L. R. Smith, The RAND Corporation: Case Study of a Non–profit Advisory Corporation (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1966).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© The International Institute for Strategic Studies 1983

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  • Lawrence Freedman

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