Back in the 1950s it was called "brinkmanship." In a 1955 Life interview, then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles described brinkmanship as "the ability to get to the verge [of war] without getting into the war." He called it the "necessary art" and boasted of his artistry in crises with Korea, Formosa, and Indochina. In those cases and others, Dulles had heightened tensions with the Soviet Union to a frightening pitch, with confidence that the Soviets would capitulate in the face of our overwhelming nuclear superiority.
Other U.S. leaders have rarely spoken of "going to the brink" with such obvious pride. But brinkmanship has been practiced with disturbing regularity since the dawn of the nuclear era. In addition to the three incidents cited by Dulles, there were trips to the brink over Iran in 1950 and during the Berlin and Cuba crises under President John Kennedy. Nuclear threats, veiled and otherwise, were made at several crucial points during the U.S. war in Vietnam, and there have been several brushes with nuclear war in the Middle East.
Starting this December the United States may be going to the brink of war again as a result of the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. Since the end of World War II, Europe has been an armed camp, with the two hostile military blocs faced off head to head. The landscape of Europe has become littered with nuclear weapons, with as many as 15,000 U.S., British, French, and Soviet nuclear weapons deployed on its soil. Now the United States is planning to put 572 of the most deadly and accurate weapons ever devised at the Soviet Union's very doorstep. These weapons could become the spark that finally ignites the European tinderbox.