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Mutual Assured Destruction

When the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States, the Cold War had entered a new phase. The cold war became a conflict more dangerous and unmanageable than anything Americans had faced before.

In the old cold war Americans had enjoyed superior nuclear force, an unchallenged economy, strong alliances, and a trusted Imperial President to direct his incredible power against the

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Soviets. In the new cold war, however, Russian forces achieved nuclear equality. Each side could destroy the other many times.

This fact was officially accepted in a military doctrine known as Mutual Assured Destruction, a.k.a. MAD. Mutual Assured Destruction began to emerge at the end of the Kennedy administration. MAD reflects the idea that one's population could best be protected by leaving it vulnerable so long as the other side faced comparable vulnerabilities. In short: Whoever shoots first, dies second.

From MAD to SDI
MAD acctually acknowledged more than just nuclear parity. Both sides admitted their vulnerability and prepared early thinking on a concept that later became known as "Star Wars." As early as 1961 former secretary of defense Robert McNamara said: "If we could create an umbrella we would need it, no matter what it costs."

In subsequent years, protecting strategic forces rather than the population appeared to be the morally wrong choice. When MAD lost its domestic credibility, the Reagan administration promised to work toward Mutual Assured Security (MAS) instead of relying on MAD.

Sources : John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security (Oxford University Press, 1982).