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Review: "Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age"

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Francis Gavin's famous book, "Nuclear Statecraft."

Francis Gavin's famous book, "Nuclear Statecraft."


In Francis Gavin’s work, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, the author provides a well-written and articulated account of the global policies surrounding nuclear-statecraft during the twentieth-century. In detailing the intricacies of nuclear-diplomacy during the tumultuous era of the Cold War, Gavin argues that a historical analysis of this period is important for modern-day policymakers to undertake, as it allows for “an understanding of the complex and…contradictory ways nuclear weapons have influenced international politics in the past” (Gavin, 2). Through an analysis of the past, Gavin posits that a deeper understanding of prior interactions with the Soviet Union (and various nation-states) can “provide useful guidance to decision makers facing hard choices in the future;” particularly, in regard to nuclear weaponry and international relations (Gavin, 2). As Gavin states, “historical lessons are both interesting and important in and of themselves, and they are crucial to making better policy in the nuclear arena today” (Gavin, 2).

Gavin's Main Points

Gavin’s work serves as a direct challenge to scholarly accounts that “focus on the weapons and strategies” of the Cold War and which ignore the “underlying politics” of nuclear policymaking (Gavin, 24). Using the interpretations of political scientists, theorists, and strategists as a basis for further inquiry, Gavin sets out to systematically debunk many of the “mythologized” accounts of nuclear policy by “reconstructing the history of events and policies” in a manner that rejects the “deterministic” and simplistic theories of the past that have been presented by social scientists (Gavin, 19). Gavin accomplishes this through an exploration of interpretations surrounding American nuclear strategies, as he provides commentary on the concepts of “flexible” and “controlled” response, and highlights the fallacies of scholarship concerning the consequences of nuclear proliferation and the effects of nuclear parity. In each of these cases, Gavin asserts that the static nature of these theories do not fully account for the intricate and complex nature of nuclear statecraft during the Cold War. As a result, Gavin is dismayed by the attempts of modern scholars to dismiss the valuable lessons that can be learned from the Cold War, as he argues that scholars, theorists, and alarmists tend to overstress the unique and precarious nature of nuclear proliferation in the modern-day; relegating prior experiences to an inferior and unwanted position.

Yet, as Gavin argues, only through an accurate depiction and understanding of past nuclear policies will policymakers be able to effectively interact and meet the challenge of “rogue states” (such as North Korea and Iran) as well as the threat of nuclear-terrorism in the modern-era. Not only do prior interactions share common ground with the challenges faced in the nuclear arena today, but Gavin’s interpretation demonstrates that modern concerns are not entirely distinct or unique. As he states, “alarmism is not a strategy: nuclear threats are not new or more dangerous than those of the past, and ignoring the continuities and lessons from the past is foolish” (Gavin, 156).

Personal Thoughts and Comments

Gavin’s argument is both informative and compelling with its main points. While his book his truly aimed at a more scholarly audience, non-academics can equally appreciate this work due to its engaging content matter. Gavin supports his argument with multiple primary source materials, including: government documents (archival materials, Presidential papers, and National Security files), oral history files (such as interviews with military commanders), testimonies, memoirs, minutes and transcripts of government meetings, as well as letters and correspondences between high-ranking government officials. In conjunction with the wide array of secondary sources that he incorporates, Gavin’s account is both well-researched and supported by the evidence he presents.

I was highly impressed with the organization of Gavin’s work, as each of his chapters serve to push his main arguments forward in both a logical and convincing manner. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book, however, lies with Gavin’s analysis of the historiographical trends and viewpoints that surround the issue of nuclear weapons. By introducing his audience to a diverse set of interpretations surrounding nuclear policies, Gavin provides his readers with a rich and thorough understanding of the scholarship that exists within this field. This was extremely helpful (and important) for me, as my understanding of nuclear policies (in the past and present) was very limited before reading this piece.

While my thoughts on this book were overwhelmingly positive, there are also a few negative aspects that should be addressed as well. For starters, I was a bit disappointed with the short-length of this book, and the fact that Gavin often avoids engaging in lengthier discussions of particular topics. This, in turn, made it difficult to understand some of the policies and viewpoints that he references, as Gavin’s work lacks a significant amount detail in particular sections. Although it is clear that Gavin is addressing a more scholarly audience with this piece (that is familiar with the intricacies of nuclear statecraft), more background information would have benefitted this work significantly. I was also disappointed with the lack of pictures and charts as well. Due to the tremendous amount of names and figures that Gavin refers to in this book, I believe that the author missed a great opportunity to provide illustrations for his audience.

Even with these small shortcomings though, Gavin offers a superb account of nuclear statecraft that will remain a key component of modern-scholarship for many years to come. Overall, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a diplomatic and political history of the United States during the late twentieth-century. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

General Questions

In regard to questions that I have for this book, I found myself drawn to issues surrounding the future use of nuclear weapons. For starters, is the goal of “global zero” a realistic endeavor in world politics? Will nuclear-armed states ever agree to fully disarm their weapons in the future? If “global zero” is reached someday, will the absence of nuclear weapons encourage world peace? Or will the absence of these weapons encourage greater hostility and warfare across the globe? Do nuclear weapons deter violence and the threat of armed-invasions in the world? I believe these latter questions are particularly relevant if one considers the high-degree of interstate warfare that existed prior to World War Two (before the advent of nuclear technology). If nuclear weapons are eliminated, will warfare on a global scale become a real possibility again?

Given the fact that this book was written in 2012, I am also curious as to whether or not Gavin’s viewpoints have changed over the last five years. With the rise of ISIS and its brutal methods of terrorism over the last few years, should the spread of nuclear terrorism be relegated or downplayed, as Gavin seemingly suggests? Also, I am not entirely convinced that rogue-states (such as North Korea and Iran) can be trusted to follow historical trends of the past, as Gavin eludes to in his analysis. Is it logical to assume that Iran and North Korea will refrain from giving terrorists access to nuclear weaponry in the future, given their antagonistic and often-violent histories? I believe this is particularly true for Iran, which has maintained strong relationships with international terrorists in the past (such as the Mujahedeen and Taliban). As such, I believe that state-sponsored nuclear terrorism is a real possibility for the Iranians and should not be ignored. Consequently, should the United Nations take more direct-action to prevent rogue states from acquiring the ability to generate nuclear weapons? If so, what methods could be employed to effectively deter nuclear development? Finally, does the international community have a right to dictate which countries should be allowed to acquire nuclear technology for themselves?

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Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion

1.) What was Gavin's thesis? What are some of the main arguments that he makes in this work? Is his argument persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) What type of primary source material does Gavin rely on in this book? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?

3.) Does Gavin organize his work in a logical and convincing manner?

4.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? How could the author improve the contents of this work?

5.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and the general public, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?

6.) What did you like most about this book? Would you recommend this book to a friend?

7.) What sort of scholarship is Gavin building on (or challenging) with this work?

8.) Did you learn anything after reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by Gavin?

Works Cited

  • Gavin, Francis. Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

© 2017 Larry Slawson

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