Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control

  • Published

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control by Michael Krepon. Stanford University Press, 2021, 640 pp.

Michael Krepon’s Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control describes the genesis, Cold War-era institutionalization, and latter-day reversal of arms control as a foreign policy objective. The author, co-founder of Stanford University’s Henry L. Stimson Center, was until his death in 2022 a lifelong campaigner for arms reductions.1 Krepon’s final work seeks to explain why and how statesmen have worked together with their ostensible adversaries to pursue reductions in the number and types of nuclear weapons fielded, often against great political odds. Although the book falls short of being authoritative, it remains a worthwhile introduction to the history of arms control and a fitting tribute to Krepon’s legacy.

Notwithstanding his enthusiastic embrace of nuclear arms reductions, Krepon presents an evenhanded account of arms control’s successes and failures in the three-quarters of a century since the advent of atomic weapons. Indeed, the author readily acknowledges that the norms of nuclear nonproliferation and nonuse have been established as much through the military application of nuclear deterrence as through diplomatic efforts toward arms control and reduction. Krepon argues that in order to succeed, nuclear deterrence requires “effective lines of communication, codes of conduct, tacit understandings, political compacts, and formal treaties to help prevent the battlefield use of nuclear weapons.” He adds, “We call these diplomatic methods of reassurance arms control” (3). It is the history of these diplomatic efforts that the book proceeds to examine.

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace comprises eight sections of 17 chapters total, delineated roughly along the lines of presidential administrations. Following a brief explanation of arms control’s prehistory under the Truman administration, Krepon traces its rise under Eisenhower until Nixon’s successful negotiation of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) I. From there the author frames the period between 1972 and 1979 as one of “capping the arsenals,” in which Nixon, Ford, and Carter worked toward the abortive SALT II agreement. Krepon next discerns a pivot under the Reagan administration which eventually yielded the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, followed by an apogee under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton epitomized by START II. From there, the author frames the post-9/11 period under George W. Bush and Barack Obama as symbolizing the demise of arms control, followed by its denouement under Donald Trump. Krepon concludes the book with a proposed revival, offering a prescription by which the international community might once again reap the benefits of arms control.

A significant defect of Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace lies in its sourcing. Though Krepon frames the book as a diplomatic history of arms control, it draws heavily upon published primary sources such as memoirs, newspaper articles, and Congressional records, and to a more limited extent, upon interviews conducted by the author. In contrast, neither the official documentary historical series Foreign Relations of the United States nor unpublished archival records from any country underpin the author’s arguments to significant extent. The result is that the book offers few genuinely new historical insights into the process of negotiating arms control agreements, particularly in the context of early efforts which, like SALT I and II, have been the subject of substantial historical inquiry. Likewise, this evidentiary base necessarily results in greater focus upon the motivations of US policymakers than upon those of their foreign counterparts, with European actors seemingly devoid of any real agency in Krepon’s telling. Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace is, in this sense, more accurately a history of arms control in America.

A second major flaw of this book lies in the weight accorded to early developments in arms control as a US policy objective. Krepon’s decision to devote only sparing consideration to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report and the failed Baruch Plan is the most glaring example of this shortfall. The implied reasoning is that the Baruch Plan was an effort at placing atomic energy under interactional control, rather than an effort at limiting or reducing sovereign states’ nuclear arsenals per se. To a lesser extent, the decision to rely more heavily upon living statesmen’s first-person accounts than upon archival sources may have skewed the weight accorded to such early efforts. Irrespective of the cause, the author’s decision to gloss over diplomatic precursors to more familiar arms control efforts represents a missed opportunity. The eventual demise of the Baruch Plan, following the Soviet Union’s 1947 veto, offered a foretaste of the challenges which arms control advocates were to face in the coming decades, not least of which was the deep mistrust between East and West. 

Although several chapters on more well-known efforts largely summarize rather than advance the study of arms control, the book’s greater worth lies in its analysis of the slow demise of arms control under the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump. Official records of these more recent efforts remain largely under lock and key, partially vindicating the author’s recourse to interviews and published primary sources in this context. Krepon aptly demonstrates in the book’s concluding chapters that in the post-Cold War era, the combined effects of Russia’s revanchism and the United States’ “unipolar moment” reversed arms control practitioners’ hard-won victories, as political actors in both states approached such treaties as an unwelcome constraint upon their respective responses to the changing security environment. Yet at the same time, the author underemphasizes the role which the rise of new nuclear powers may have played in policymakers’ decisions to withdraw from successive arms control agreements. The United States’ evident difficulties in bringing China to the negotiating table, for example, stand at odds with Krepon’s prescriptions for arms control’s future in a multipolar world.

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace ultimately falls short of the author’s ambition to produce a diplomatic history of arms control. Nonetheless, Krepon has written an engaging and accessible study that is particularly recommended for lay readers. If nothing else, publication of Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace is timely. Following Russia’s February 2023 decision to suspend its adherence to the New START treaty, decades of shared progress toward arms control and reduction are now in jeopardy.2 More to the point, despite its flaws, this book succeeds in underscoring that nuclear nonuse in wartime since 1945 is not a fact of nature, but the product of constant effort by arms control advocates and practitioners of nuclear deterrence alike.

Major J. William Sutcliffe, USAF, PhD


1 Brian Murphy, “Michael Krepon, Campaigner to Limit Nuclear Arms, Dies at 75,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2022/07/19/michael-krepon-nuclear-stimson-dies/.

2 Charles Maynes, “Putin Says Russia Will Stop Participating in Its Last Nuclear Treaty with the U.S.,” NPR, updated February 21, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/02/21/1158463688/putin-tells-russian-parliament-the-west-is-fighting-to-dismember-russia.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."