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How to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons: Part I

We are not trapped.

Words: Ward Wilson
Pictures: Edge2Edge Media

Surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Americans do not like nuclear weapons and would get rid of them if they could. Yet, policymakers are reluctant to take any action toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Why? The reason is simple: The myth surrounding nuclear weapons deters any practical action in eliminating them.

The key then is to change how we perceive the issue.

We are not trapped in the iron grip of an inescapable fate and neither are we forced by reality to take tiny, cautious steps with hardly any hope of ever getting anywhere. Instead, we are held captive by an imaginary Matrix-like world of false ideas that surrounds nuclear weapons, and somehow make us feel comfortable and safe. But this inaction is also debilitating and dangerous. Only by taking the red pill — by tearing a hole in the fantasy and adopting a radically more realist view — can we achieve what we want and are called to do, which is to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all.


The thinking that undergirds nuclear weapons policy is not like chemistry. Chemistry is a discipline that advances by experiment, a factual process that builds knowledge in small increments. Tens of thousands of scientists conduct discreet experiments that can then be double-checked by their colleagues. When knowledge can be measured, tested, and confirmed, we call it “objective” knowledge or truth. We know our chemical ideas adhere closely to reality because almost every one of those ideas has been carefully checked and replicated.

Nuclear weapons thinking is very different. Unlike chemistry, it is anchored by very little objective data. It is more like the thinking done by the Scholastics, medieval scholars who are most famous for trying to construct rational justifications for religious belief. Their arguments began with assumptions and then used logic to draw conclusions from those assumptions. In their heyday, the Scholastics were the pinnacle of rigorous and disciplined thinking. But eventually they were supplanted, because their thinking so often seemed to be divorced from facts. Scholasticism came to be derisively described as, “arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.”

Nuclear weapons thinking is like Scholastic thinking because of a striking but often passed over feature of its intellectual landscape: It is based on hardly any facts. It is a discipline that is more like the study of the origin of life or, say, ancient cosmology, than chemistry. Because facts are scarce, the starting point for almost all thinking about nuclear weapons is a series of assumptions. This lack of facts is not altogether surprising — nuclear weapons have only been used twice, both times by the United States in a single week, against two cities in the same country, during World War II. Nuclear weapons have never been used again, even by the United States.

Because there are so few facts in the field, thinking about nuclear weapons is constructed almost entirely out of assumptions that are then extrapolated using modeling, game theory, and logic. The entire structure is logical, but the footings are untested.

Nuclear weapons have been tested thousands of times though. But you may fire a weapon as much as you want on the testing range without gaining much insight into its impact on the battlefield. The importance of real-world experience is illustrated by the history of machine guns. Machine guns were invented in the 1860s and used in various conflicts (mostly colonial ones) for the next fifty years. But despite this experience, strategists on both sides of World War I still had not grasped how machine guns would be used against massed men. Generals on both sides sent soldiers charging over open ground against machine guns, only to have them mowed down in rows. And even so it took three years, thousands of pointless charges, and millions of casualties to figure it out. Human beings, apparently, require a good deal of experience with a new piece of military technology — a new weapon — to understand its implications.

Weapons are implements that enhance our ability to make violence. They are a subset of the larger category of tools. Human beings discover whether tools are useful or not when they use them repeatedly in varying circumstances. Imagine using a new medical device in one operation and then trying to gauge its potential based on that one use. Would you trust a safety device that had been used just once?

Some strategists argue that information about the utility of nuclear weapons can be gleaned from crises in which nuclear threats were made, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps it can be. But since none of the threats issued during the Cold War were explicit (no leader ever said, “Do this and we’ll nuke you”) and since no clear, first-person account exists of leaders explaining honestly what went through their minds while they were experiencing the danger of nuclear war, these data points are (possibly) helpful, but indistinct. Even including nuclear crises, however, the dataset still consists of perhaps only fifteen or twenty events depending on how you count. This is a very small collection of experience to build serious doctrines from.


Because there are so few facts in the field, thinking about nuclear weapons is constructed almost entirely out of assumptions that are then extrapolated using modeling, game theory, and logic. The entire structure is logical, but the footings are untested.

Structures built almost entirely of abstract thinking are especially risky for two reasons. The first is the possibility of large errors. When there are few facts, it’s possible to be not just wrong, but radically wrong. Cosmology stands as a warning. Ancient astronomers had to rely on a small dataset — essentially seven pieces of data: The paths across the sky of the sun, moon, and the five planets visible to the naked eye. They constructed what is known today as the Ptolemaic model of the universe. The Ptolemaic model put the earth at the center of the universe, with the sun, moon and planets revolving around it — and was the accepted wisdom for 1,500 years. The model was emotionally satisfying, but incorrect. Small datasets, therefore, make large errors possible.

The second reason to be wary of current nuclear weapons thinking is that human beings can be influenced by their environment. The assumptions that were made about nuclear weapons — which have remained largely unchanged down to the present day — originated during the Cold War, a time of enormous anxiety, fear, and paranoia. When the assumptions that will serve as the foundation of your system of thought are formulated during a time of fear, you risk making errors of judgment. The problem is that no one does their best thinking when they’re afraid. Because of the fear and paranoia during the Cold War, there is every reason to wonder if nuclear weapons assumptions were distorted by the strong emotions of the time.

In a realm with few facts, the danger that emotions may distort thinking increases. In a field like chemistry, emotionally-based conjectures or off target ideas are tested and soon disproved when they come in contact with reality. But when your thinking floats high overhead like a balloon, tethered by only the slenderest of evidentiary threads, there are few restraints on extreme theories or exaggerations — little to keep our wildest imaginings in check.

One doesn’t need to go far to see the apparent influence of emotion. Think about one of the central tenets of the “realist” theory handed down to us from the Cold War: The notion that the world is an anarchic place. Because there is no policing agency to enforce laws between nations, it is said that international relations must be thought of as a world of anarchy. This is a peculiar claim. Both modern experience and human history contradict it — and some academics too. First, there is a great deal of evidence from around the world that anarchy is not the norm. To take just one example, jets are able to fly into any airport in the world —  countries with different languages, laws, styles of bureaucracy, cultural attitudes towards risk, etc. — with little risk. This is because there are standardized procedures for handling air traffic that are followed around the world. And there are laws of the sea, laws governing business transactions, and a host of other norms and procedures for almost every kind of international interaction — even agreements to safeguard the selling of nuclear power-related materials. That’s a remarkably orderly way of living for a supposedly anarchic world.

And history does not support the notion that without a police force anarchy reigns. During all of its time as a republic, ancient Rome had no regular, organized police force. Yet it was a city with laws, regulations, norms, and consistently followed patterns of living that expanded in power and influence for 480 years, eventually dominating almost all of the Mediterranean. The notion that unless there is a police force anarchy necessarily follows is simply not the case.

This is not to say that the world is not dangerous. Countries do assail one another. Savage wars are fought. But the notion that our world is chiefly characterized by anarchy is hyperbole, exaggeration, or misapprehension — and is the sort of exaggeration a frightened person or state might make.


The Cold War assumption that has the most impact on the political debate today is not about nuclear weapons, but about people, and is used to characterize the participants in the debate. It was eventually accepted as fact that those who favored nuclear weapons were realists and those who opposed them were idealists. This way of characterizing people apparently arose as a result of the first two attempts to imagine a way out of the nuclear trap.

The first attempt to manage nuclear weapons was a proposal to share the secret of making nuclear weapons with the Russians. It was hoped that doing so would build trust and head off an arms race. The proposal made sense to the scientists who were its strongest proponents. Scientific progress is founded on openly sharing results and those scientists had seen how international scientific conferences led to friendships and trust. But it was clearly a naive proposal. So naive that Stalin — according to declassified documents from Soviet archives — never took it seriously.

Countries do assail one another. Savage wars are fought. But the notion that our world is chiefly characterized by anarchy is hyperbole, exaggeration, or misapprehension — and is the sort of exaggeration a frightened person or state might make.

The second proposal for preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons was to create a world government that could effectively police and prevent wars, and prevent nuclear catastrophe, which was considered a real risk after 1945. The title of a book popular at the time neatly captures the argument: One World or None. But this proposal was as unrealistic as the first because while a representative government requires shared values and compromise, the idea that a state would want to compromise on acquiring nuclear power — considered the most powerful power of all — was considered naive.

The conclusion that people drew from these first two experiences was not, “Well, two ideas have been suggested, but neither one is going to work.” Instead, they concluded (rather hastily) that because the first two proposals for eliminating nuclear weapons appeared to be idealistic, all opposition to nuclear weapons must be idealistic. These first two experiences trying to limit nuclear weapons led to the belief that friends of nuclear weapons were always realists and people attempting to limit those weapons were always idealists. It may or may not be a coincidence that this formulation — realists v. idealists — made it almost impossible for the people who opposed nuclear weapons to win any key debates. After all, when survival is at stake, very few people turn to idealistic plans for managing the danger.


Nuclear weapons thinking — seen from a distance — appears to be a sturdy structure. Its internal consistency is excellent. Give the various struts and girders a thump and they ring true. The whole thing feels secure. But the foundations, and assumptions buttressing it, have been left almost entirely unexamined for seventy years. For example, one of the most harmful assumptions from the Cold War was that all proposals to limit nuclear weapons were idealistic. This assumption convinced proponents of nuclear weapons that they were always right, and removed any incentive to critically reexamine interpretations of events or fundamental Cold War assumptions. Therefore, after spending decades drilling test borings, worming my way through filthy crawl spaces, checking for everything from termites to dry rot, I am convinced that the foundations of nuclear weapons thinking are in very bad shape. No — shockingly bad shape.

The first step in eliminating nuclear weapons is realizing how speculative our ideas about them are, and therefore concluding that caution is necessary in accepting attitudes and assumptions born during the Cold War.  A radical reassessment is necessary. There are too many dangers close at hand to close our eyes and hope someone else will manage the problem.

This is the first of four articles examining the state of the assumptions at the root of nuclear weapons thinking. Three more will follow, each focusing on one of the pilings that the structure rests on. The second essay will examine the belief that nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon. In one way or another, everything in the current belief system comes back to this premise that nuclear weapons are decisive, “must have” weapons. The third essay will look at the notion that nuclear deterrence is a safe and stable way to protect ourselves over the long run. If this assumption proves to be doubtful, nuclear weapons are obviously too dangerous to keep. The fourth and final essay will explore the notion that the technology of nuclear weapons will always be with us because the only way to get rid of unwanted technology is to “disinvent” it. It closes with an outline of how more realistic assumptions might lead to elimination.

Ward Wilson is the executive director of RealistRevolt.

Ward Wilson

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