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How to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons: Part III

Doubting our faith in deterrence.

Words: Ward Wilson
Pictures: CTBTO/Ronald Reagan Library

Some advocates for nuclear weapons openly admit that nuclear weapons have little military value. No one really wants to use them, they say reassuringly. But nuclear weapons are still worth keeping, they say, because they make deterrence possible. Nuclear deterrence is what keeps us safe, what prevents nuclear war; it buttresses our alliances worldwide; it is the ultimate guarantee of our national survival, are just some of the things we hear from advocates of nuclear weapons. And since it seems that deterrence has worked for seventy-five years, nuclear weapons are working they say.

But even though Americans ought to be reassured, they don’t seem to be. Hardly anyone talks about the risk of nuclear war — either experts or ordinary folks. But apparently a lot of people secretly don’t have much faith in the capacity of nuclear deterrence to prevent nuclear war. A recent survey of millennials in the United States by the International Red Cross asked respondents if they believed that a nuclear weapon would be detonated some time in the next ten years. Now, ten years is not really a very long time — most school loans take 15 years to pay off. But 58% said they believed a mushroom cloud would be rising somewhere in the world within ten years. Someone, somewhere was going to use a nuclear weapon. When asked if they thought an all-out war like World War II would occur within their lifetime, the same percentage said yes. In other words, despite the reassurances of experts and officials, approximately 41 million Americans are convinced that a nuclear weapon will be used in the next ten years. And the number would probably be more if the Red Cross had polled all US age groups — not just millennials.

Despite the fact that ordinary Americans don’t talk about their doubts about deterrence, the numbers show that their doubts are real and widespread. Americans are divided about nuclear deterrence. One group — acknowledged experts and government officials — say there is little to worry about. Another group — a much larger group of ordinary folks — appears to believe that nuclear war is looming just over the horizon.

So who is right? What are the real risks of relying on nuclear deterrence?


Experts believe they know enough about nuclear deterrence to be certain it will work. They point out that nuclear weapons have been tested more than two thousand times in deserts and on distant islands. With the information gained from these tests, they say, they know enough to safely manage nuclear deterrence.

But this claim is not reassuring. It shows a troublingly unrealistic understanding of nuclear deterrence.

Deterrence is a type of threat, and threats are psychological. In order for them to work, something has to happen inside the mind of your adversary. The thing about “inside the mind,” though is that it is a dark and mysterious place — a place we don’t know very much about. Truth, remember, isn’t objective unless you can measure it, test it, and other people can reproduce the results. You can’t get a ruler inside someone’s head to measure what’s happening in there.

It’s not that nuclear deterrence never works. But if the result of deterrence failure is potentially three hundred million dead, then is a process that works “much of the time” really safe enough?

While it is true that nuclear-armed states have tested nuclear weapons more than two thousand times, this doesn’t provide much insight into nuclear deterrence. The tests give the illusion of scientific certainty. They make the physics of nuclear explosions plain. But the physics is largely beside the point. The important question is not “what does the explosion do on the ground?” The important question is, “what does the explosion do inside the minds of leaders?” When I blow up your city, does that make you surrender? When I threaten to blow up your cities, does that make you back down?

We have good evidence about what nuclear weapons do to buildings and cars and factories and human bone and sinew. We don’t have good evidence about what they do inside leaders’ heads. After all, there is no machine that can measure all the components of responding to a nuclear threat — fear, threat evaluation, emotions, doctrines, theories, assessments of seriousness, instincts of self-preservation, intuitions, and so on. And even if one day such a machine were invented (imagine some sort of helmet-thing with wires and thousands of sensors), no leader has ever been monitored by such a machine (or is ever likely to allow himself or herself to be monitored by one) during a crisis.

So, we have no direct, objective evidence about how or how well or even whether nuclear deterrence works. And we probably will never have such direct evidence.


The past provides clear evidence of the tenuousness of nuclear deterrence. Proponents of nuclear weapons often point out that there has never been a nuclear war and conclude that nuclear deterrence has never failed. But wars are caused by a collection of factors. It’s perfectly possible for one factor — deterrence — to fail, but for war to ultimately be avoided because of other factors like circumstance, quick-thinking, luck, and so on.

The number of cases that contradict the happy thought that deterrence has never failed is quite long. If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did Josef Stalin come to blockade Berlin in 1948 when the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons? Shouldn’t the risk of nuclear war have deterred Stalin from doing something that arguably was one trigger-happy soldier’s mistake away from disaster?

If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did Mao come to send Chinese soldiers into Korea during the Korean war? The United States had shifted nuclear-capable bombers to Guam and “leaked” word of the redeployment. It was exactly the same move that US officials believed had “worked” to end the Berlin Crisis. How could Mao have risked going to war with the United States — fighting and killing US soldiers — with nuclear weapons standing by?

If nuclear deterrence has never failed, what were Hafez al Assad and Anwar Sadat thinking when they launched the Middle East War of 1973? Everyone knew the Israelis had nuclear weapons — it had been reported in the New York Times. How could not one, but two leaders have failed to be deterred by the possibility of nuclear war?

As a society we have put our faith in nuclear deterrence. But it is a troubled, anguished faith.

If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did a non-nuclear-armed state like Argentina attack a nuclear-armed state like the United Kingdom? The Falkland Islands war was short and decisive. But it might not have been. If British naval forces had suffered catastrophic losses (and they came unnervingly close to doing so), couldn’t frustration and a desire for revenge have prompted the British to use their “ultimate” weapon? Why wasn’t Argentina’s junta deterred by that risk?

Nuclear deterrence, therefore, does not have a great historical record. It has unmistakably failed multiple times in the past.

It’s not that nuclear deterrence never works. There is little question that it works much of the time. But if the result of deterrence failure is potentially three hundred million dead, then is a process that works “much of the time” really safe enough?


If you stop and think about it, it actually makes sense that ordinary citizens would be concerned about nuclear deterrence failing. Seeing the flaws in the system and how likely nuclear deterrence is to fail is a fairly straightforward exercise. All that is required is a common-sense knowledge of human nature and a little logic. A few moments of honest reflection show that relying on nuclear deterrence will, in the long run, end in catastrophe.

Consider: Nuclear deterrence is not a machine that runs quietly on its own in a corner. Human beings are involved in the process at every step. Human beings issue the threats. Human beings will probably be gathered together into council to evaluate the threat. And ultimately a human being will decide whether or how to respond. We are integral to all phases of the process. But human beings are, unfortunately, flawed. No human being has yet lived a perfect life and it is unlikely that any ever will. Each person, from the lowest soldier to the highest leader, is fallible. It is part of our makeup. So if human beings are prone to folly (and we are) and if human beings are involved in nuclear deterrence (and we are) then nuclear deterrence is inherently flawed. It will fail.

It is not a question of if, but merely a question of when.

Nuclear deterrence has already failed in the past and if we continue to rely on it, it will inevitably fail in the future. Eventually, our luck will run out, war will come, fighting will escalate, and full-on nuclear destruction will follow. If we rely on nuclear deterrence over the long run, the eventual outcome is certain: a catastrophe beyond our ability to imagine.

It turns out we are not safe. And it’s obvious: we’re flawed, we play a role in the process, so the whole thing is shaky. Look behind the curtain and nuclear deterrence is a flim-flam. And — at some level — we knew all along. Nothing so devastating and deadly could ever be the fount of salvation. The monstrous weapon that is supposed to shield us from harm is actually the harbinger of our doom. As a society we have put our faith in nuclear deterrence. But it is a troubled, anguished faith. Because somewhere there is a whisper that repeats and repeats, “It cannot last.”

The third step in eliminating nuclear weapons is to acknowledge the reality that while nuclear deterrence certainly works — maybe even much of the time — it will end in catastrophe.

Ward Wilson is the executive director of RealistRevolt

This is the third of four articles examining the state of the assumptions at the root of nuclear weapons thinking. The first is here while the second is here.

Ward Wilson

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