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Destroying the Village

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Up until the mid-1950s President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that waging all-out war against an enemy threatening to end your national existence was right, natural, and necessary. In the wake of World War Two this was hardly a controversial position, as memories of Munich, Pearl Harbor, and Adolf Hitler had made the notion of just total war unobjectionable to all but a very few Americans. For Eisenhower, however, to defend what America had done during World War II was not simply a matter of abstract justification, but rather one of direct personal responsibility. He had been the American who authorized the total destruction of Nazi Germany: the violent elimination of the Wehrmacht, the fire-bombing of German cities. Perhaps no one in history is more properly associated with the phenomenon of total war than he.

Yet in 1955 and 1956, Eisenhower looked at the megaton thermonuclear weapons that the United States and the Soviet Union were building and threw this belief away. He had begun to realize that a general war waged to preserve the United States would not simply be immensely destructive—as the architect of the obliteration of Germany, he could accept that. Instead, a total thermonuclear war between the two Cold War superpowers would put a permanent end to everything it was being fought to protect. It would destroy America in order to save it. Like the burning down of Vietnamese villages to save them from communism, this was not just lamentable, or even criminal: it was absurd.

The prospect of being responsible for the purposeless, cataclysmic destruction of an all-out thermonuclear war horrified Eisenhower in a modern, existential sense. If World War Three would annihilate everything he believed to be important and worthwhile, then permitting it to happen for such a traditional reason as national security would be ridiculous, not only because by killing all Americans it would fail to preserve American security, but also because such a war would repudiate any claim Eisenhower and his nation might make to be on the side of reason or justice. Whatever moral distinctions there were between the United States and its twentieth-century adversaries would be quite meaningless to any survivors of World War Three: words like"democracy,""security," and"Eisenhower" would mean the same things to anyone left alive after a thermonuclear war that"national socialism" or"Hitler" mean to a survivor of the Holocaust.

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