President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration in the mid-1950s warned that if the United States were attacked first it would unleash massive retaliation. Thus, the MAD doctrine was born in the 1950s but did not reach fruition until the 1960s, when the Soviets achieved rough nuclear parity with the United States. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was then perhaps the first person to fully articulate MAD. Through the years, technological advances were constantly molding the doctrine. The U.S. deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in the early 1960s, for example, ensured a second-strike capability, thus further deterring the likelihood of a first strike.
The doctrine propagated the notion that each side had equal nuclear firepower and that if an attack occurred, retaliation would be equal to or greater than the initial attack. It followed that neither nation would launch a first strike because its adversary could guarantee an immediate, automatic, and overwhelming response consisting of a launch on warning, also known as a fail deadly. The final result would be the destruction of both sides. The end reasoning of MAD was that it contributed to a relatively stable peace.
The MAD doctrine survived into the 1970s and ironically contributed to the nuclear arms race. Each side tried to outwit and outproduce the other, as the example of the introduction of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) demonstrates. MIRVs came on-line in the early 1970s and upped the ante of nuclear deterrence by placing multiple warheads on a single missile. The justification for this and other technological enhancements was that the more missiles produced, the less chance there would be of an intentional nuclear attack.
The MAD doctrine became essentially obsolete on 25 July 1980 when President Jimmy Carter adopted the so-called countervailing strategy by reorienting U.S. policy to win a nuclear war. This was to be achieved by attacking and destroying the Soviet leadership and its military installations. It was assumed that such an attack would precipitate a Soviet surrender, thereby preventing the total destruction of the United States and the Soviet Union. This policy was taken even further by President Ronald Reagan, who proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983. This was a system that would purportedly form a protective umbrella over the United States by destroying incoming nuclear missiles before they reached their targets. SDI has yet to be implemented, however, and many of its critics argue that there is no current technology available to make it a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent.
Dewi I. Ball
Lebow, Richard N., and Janice G. Stein. We All Lost the Cold War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.; Partos, Gabriel. The World That Came in from the Cold: Perspectives from East and West on the Cold War. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, BBC World Service, 1993.