In a speech on January 12, 1954, John Foster Dulles, the then-Secretary of State under US President Dwight Eisenhower, introduced the term “massive retaliation” and eponymous doctrine, which targeted the Soviet Union and marked a new step in the Cold War.
The goal of this policy was to threaten the Soviet Union with imminent danger and deter it from an initial attack; therefore, all preparatory actions taken by the US were widely publicized. Dulles claimed the US would initiate a military provocation "at places and with means of our own choosing," meaning the US appropriated the right to resort to a nuclear response.
In 1953, the newly elected Eisenhower accused the previous administration of Harry Truman of remaining passive and pursuing a defensive policy against the Soviet Union. The liberation doctrine proclaimed by Eisenhower and Dulles made the struggle against “world communism” -- that is, the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet Bloc -- the country’s main foreign policy priority. The public proclamation of Washington’s intentions to free the socialist countries from the “communist disease” pushed America’s foreign policy toward more aggression.
The “New Look” doctrine, devised to substantiate the liberation policy and approved by Eisenhower on October 30, 1953, envisaged a “massive war” against the Soviet Union and other socialist states. The plan differed from previous ones in that it heavily relied, for the first time, on the use of nuclear weapons. It was opaquely dubbed the “massive retaliation” doctrine.
Dulles, the founder of the doctrine, explained during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on January 12, 1954, that the modern world is full of threats, and that the US has to be ready to meet them military, from the Arctic to Asia.
Such bellicose statements made by Eisenhower’s administration evoked serious concern in many countries, even the closest US allies. Regardless of the fact that “massive retaliation” was accepted as NATO’s working doctrine, it still made Western Europe anxious about its plausible place in the future plans of Washington. Such clear aggressiveness rose suspicions about US force which, if given a chance, might eradicate the entire human race.
Aside from aggravating the already strained relationship with the Soviet Bloc, “massive retaliation” had other negative effects, as it was inflexible and could not be adjusted to reflect shifts in foreign policies. Moreover, had the “massive retaliation” policy been obeyed completely, it could have been used against the Soviet Union many times in response to its minor military actions.
These facts, added to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, made the next American President, John F. Kennedy, revoke the policy of massive retaliation, replacing it instead with a policy of flexible response. It was not the end of the Cold War, but a necessary step taken to stop the world from plunging into nuclear war. Though the two superpowers still had a lot of stumbling blocks in their relations, they never got as far as open confrontation and a full-scale war.