James Cameron. The Double Game: The Demise of America's First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 248 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-045992-5.
Reviewed by Rusty Allison (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The Cold War ended twenty-seven years ago, but the scars of nuclear brinksmanship are tattooed across the fabric of the American plains and etched in the minds of the American psyche. Despite the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States still retains an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons—an arsenal that has parity with Russia—capable of annihilating cities and civilizations. The massive arsenal of today in many ways stems from the fall of America’s first ballistic missile defense (BMD) system that refocused attention away from survival of a nuclear attack toward strategic arms limitations and acceptance of mutually assured destruction (MAD). In essence, it was BMD that transferred an ill-fated feeling of security for the American population to a geopolitical bargaining chip to arrest the rise of Soviet nuclear weapons capability. America’s first missile defense system may serve as a Cold War relic, but it should inform policymakers of the domestic and foreign tensions and implications as they seek to develop a coherent, executable nuclear strategy.
James Cameron’s research takes us on an exhilarating geopolitical roller coaster, and brilliantly makes a cross-cutting examination of US nuclear policy formulation spanning three presidential administrations between 1961 and 1972. His diagnosis of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon White Houses brings to the forefront contradictions between public and private dialogue, as well as the competition among national security and domestic priorities (p. 162). His thorough analysis encapsulates the topsy-turvy nature of US policy from its early beginnings of the perceived “missile gap” rhetoric all the way through flexible response, the rise and fall of a BMD, and ultimately giving in to strategic arms limitations and MAD. This well-written and easy-to-follow book is a must-read for policymakers and for professors and students at universities that have courses on public policy and security studies. The Double Game will also be enjoyed by historians and political scientists alike.
The key theme of the book resides in Cameron’s argument that “policymakers struggled to balance the demands of presenting a front of strategic coherence with the incoherent reality behind the scenes, provided an overarching dynamic through which the first US missile defense program met its demise and the United States government officially accepted the logic of mutually assured destruction” (p. 7). Cameron’s theory is strengthened by the acquisition of tapes from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Oval Offices. His ability to contrast the often contradictory internal dialogue between the three presidents and their closest advisors with the messages sent to Congress and the American public is extraordinarily illuminating. It was this double game, the struggle to balance foreign and domestic demands with the contradictory private dialogue within each White House, that earned the book’s fitting title.
The book is organized chronologically and its chapters align each presidential administration to its position on US nuclear policy. With this design, Cameron seamlessly makes room to superimpose domestic congressional opinion and “public mood.” The Double Game is consistent in its approach to highlight the intricacies and complexities of the interplay among domestic politics, geopolitics, and presidential strategic thought. Channeling Robert Jervis’s terminology of “reality makers” and “reality takers,” Cameron shows how each president became dependent on the mood of the American public, the “reality takers,” to determine nuclear policy (p. 163).
The book’s path succinctly charts Cameron’s chronologic methodology. In 1961 Kennedy, against his own beliefs, advocated for nuclear superiority in order to gain public support and a reputation of being tough on the Soviet Union. In 1963, needing to show consistency, resolve, and control, Johnson stayed on that same rhetorical path despite his desire to invest in domestic reform. He later became embattled in Vietnam and faced tremendous domestic pressure to limit military expenditures. Inheriting congressional and public collapse, yet being categorically opposed to parity, it was Nixon, ironically, who conceded to aborting the Safeguard BMD system in favor of strategic arms limitations in 1972 in Moscow.
One major area where this book could have been strengthened is its coverage of foundational nuclear policy from 1945 to 1960. It is important for any strategist, historian, political scientist, student of policy, or policymaker to understand the fundamental principles that created the circumstances of 1961 and beyond. Without any discussion of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki detonations, Soviet nuclear weapons capability, and the launch of Sputnik, the reader could misunderstand the context of a lasting superpower competition and deterrence capability. Also, this foundation would serve readers well by helping them to understand the moral dilemma of ultimately, and reluctantly, committing to MAD. To fully understand the double game in which policymakers will engage, it is critical to attempt to understand the mind-set of the earliest nuclear policymakers.
This book is equally balanced between an analysis of nuclear weapons buildup, BMD, and strategic calculation in relation to domestic and bureaucratic politics. Its relevance is clear today as a revisionist Russia physically reasserts itself in eastern Europe, China’s influence gains momentum, and North Korea and Iran strive for nuclear weapon latency. This book is timely and important for policymakers, political scientists, historians, and analysts of policy. The public debate is now surrounded by peer competition and budgetary constraints in a war-weary nation in the wake of seventeen years in Afghanistan and fifteen years in Iraq and Syria. As we shift attention to China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, now is the time to read this book.
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Rusty Allison. Review of Cameron, James, The Double Game: The Demise of America's First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation.
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