A public domain video

President Eisenhower talks about nuclear war on his sixty-fourth news conference on March 23, 1955.

This is a transcript of the clip

….we were talking about atomic weapons in connection with police action as distinct from a major war, and within that context you said you did not think that normally we would use the atomic weapons, because, you thought, you could not conceive of atomic weapons as a police weapon, and there was some further remark there that it was so destructive.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, Mr. Harsch, the difference here, I think, is perfectly simple. A police action is not war; a police action is restoring order.

Now, you don’t send in bombs to restore order when a riot occurs. You get police people to restore order. Occasionally there may be a life lost if someone is too tough about it.

But when you get into actual war, you have resorted to force for reaching a decision in a particular area; that is what I call War.

And whether the war is big or not, if you have the kind of a weapon that can be limited to military use, then I know of no reason why a large explosion shouldn’t be used as freely as a small explosion. That is all I was saying last week.

But that is different from trying to restore order. Incidentally, if you want to follow some of these things off into the realm of great philosophical conjecture, suppose you won a war by the indiscriminate use of atomic weapons; what would you have left? Now, what would you do for your police action, for your occupation and restoration of order, and all of the things needed to be done in a great area of the earth?

I repeat, the concept of atomic war is too horrible for man to endure and to practice, and he must find some way out of it. That is all I think about this thing.

Q. Mr. Harsch: Sir, I am a little stupid about this thing.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I am glad you didn’t say I was! [Laughter]

Q. Mr. Harsch: It would seem to me there is big war at one end, just a local police action in which one person might be killed at the other; and, in between, what the military people would say was limited war. The Korean War, in a sense, was a limited
war.

THE PRESIDENT. It became one, anyway. Q. Mr. Harsch: It became one.

If we got into an issue with the Chinese, say, over Matsu and Quemoy, that we wanted to keep limited, do you conceive of using this specific kind of atomic weapon in that situation or not?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, Mr. Harsch, I must confess I cannot answer that question in advance.

The only thing I know about war are two things: the most changeable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature.

And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, and in the way it is carried out.

So that for a man to predict, particularly if he has the responsibility for making the decision, to predict what he is going to use, how he is going to do it, would I think exhibit his ignorance of war; that is what I believe.

So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may someday face a President.
We are trying to establish conditions where he doesn’t.

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