HKS Authors

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Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus


Who caused the Cold War? In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy downplayed the role of human agency in shaping events, writing that “a king is history’s slave,” and ever since Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War, historians have recognized how the international system constrains choices in a bipolar world. But just because world-historical forces made some type of cold war highly likely does not mean that one was inevitable. Nor does it mean that individual decision-makers bear no responsibility for the depth or nature of the conflict that did occur. Indeed, some choices that U.S. presidents made during the Cold War had huge impacts on history. Had President Dwight Eisenhower accepted the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use tactical nuclear weapons against China during the 1954 crisis over the Taiwan Strait, there would have been no 70-year nuclear taboo. And had President John F. Kennedy, whose measured handling of the Cuban missile crisis averted nuclear war in 1962, been replaced by the more impulsive Lyndon Johnson that year instead of the next, then the episode might have turned out disastrously (as the Vietnam War did).


Nye, Jr., Joseph S. "All in the Family The Dulleses, the Bundys, and the End of the Establishment." Review of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer, and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms, by Kai Bird, Foreign Affairs, 93.4, July/August 2014: 176-181.