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The Limiting Language of Nuclear Strategists

By refusing to use gender as an analytical tool, the field of nuclear policy has constructed itself to be self-contained.

Words: Cheryl Rofer
Pictures: Artem Gavrysh

It might seem counterintuitive to say that the most significant decisions in nuclear strategy have been in choosing when not to use nuclear weapons. President Harry S. Truman ended the nuclear bombings of Japan and refused General Douglas MacArthur’s request to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War. President John F. Kennedy agreed to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. President George H.W. Bush destroyed most of the US tactical nuclear arsenal to show the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev that the United States would not take advantage as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Those actions receive little attention in discussions of history and strategy. In fact, some have been hidden entirely from public view. Cover stories were advanced in the cases of Truman’s and Kennedy’s decisions to make them seem other than they were. Henry Stimson, who was Secretary of War under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine that gave what became the conventional story of a presidential decision to use the bombs and the consequent Japanese surrender. This story has now been shown to be incorrect; Truman was not the decision-maker on the bombs’ use until he declared that no more were to be used after Nagasaki. 

Cover stories were necessary because those presidents’ actions could be coded as weak or feminine by political opponents, and they might be deemed ineffective or, worse, lose an election. The concept of something being “[c]oded as weak or feminine” makes use of gender to analyze those actions and their context. Carol Cohn’s 1987 article, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” and a later book chapter, “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War” are arguments for, and classic examples of, the use of gender in analyzing nuclear policy.

Although the 1987 article is often referred to, gender is seldom used as an analytical tool in nuclear policy. More generally, analysis of political actions in terms of gender barely exists in political science, and it is often actively discouraged.

The Language of the Gatekeepers

The 1987 article is about the language of nuclear strategists and how it limits what can be discussed. A specialized and gendered vocabulary must be mastered for a person to be considered a contributor to the field. However, the vocabulary itself limits what subjects and concepts can be discussed and how they may be discussed, while the gatekeeping based on vocabulary limits who may discuss these topics at all. The book chapter is more explicitly analytical. 

Few have followed with gendered analysis of nuclear history and strategy, although the gendering of the field is painfully obvious. For one recent example, the annual STRATCOM deterrence symposium was composed mainly of older white men, as illustrated in their tweet from the conference. That tweet, and others from STRATCOM about the conference, showed no awareness of the homogeneity of the participants. Why has gender analysis in nuclear discourse been so neglected? 

Gender is at least as pervasive in human interactions as economics. Why, then, do we not use it as an analytical tool?

Consider economics as an analytical tool. Production methods, types of industries and their financial status, and the basic economic approach of a nation, all influence their nuclear postures. Questions commonly asked about decisions or proposals for action legitimately include whether decision-makers have been influenced by industrial interests or have considered those interests adequately. Trade in equipment is always a topic.

Cohn used gender as an analytical tool. She questioned whether decision-makers are influenced by the sexualized and gendered vocabulary used around nuclear weapons. Those weapons are simultaneously depicted as providing enormous political and warfighting power, but also, via “patting the bomb,” as easily controllable as a household pet. Internalizing these concepts can be expected to influence decisions.

Formally, this is the same sort of question that one might ask about economics, technology, or politics relative to nuclear policy. Does it matter that so many of the folk invited by STRATCOM are older men? Who made that decision? What is the representation within STRATCOM? Who makes nuclear policy and how? The usual counterargument is that few women are in the field. But if practices are exclusionary, this is a self-perpetuating situation.

Gendered assumptions abound. There have been indications that China made the decision to build up its nuclear arsenal because it took the United States’ refusal to admit mutual vulnerability as an indication that the United States was willing to make a first strike. How does gender influence the concept of presidential control? The concepts of vulnerability and control both have gendered connotations. Does performative masculinity influence decisions about the level of force necessary for deterrence? Because President Vladimir Putin seems to value stereotypically masculine characteristics, is it appropriate to meet his actions similarly or to break the pattern?

We see none of these questions discussed in today’s popular media and only seldom in academic or technical literature. A subject area called feminist foreign policy has grown up in recent years, largely in isolation from what is called foreign policy. This is a familiar gendered situation: men are normal, women require an adjective. Cynthia Enloe and others have developed a body of work on women and war, which also is seldom cited outside its specialist community. Applying gendered analysis more broadly, outside this specialist area, can lead to insights beyond what has become commonplace in, for example, deterrence and escalation theories. It is widely acknowledged that these areas need to be rethought from their development in the Cold War to apply to a more multipolar world. Gender analysis can be a tool to do this. 

Gender is at least as pervasive in human interactions as economics. Why, then, do we not use it as an analytical tool? Cohn’s 1993 book chapter addresses this. The chapter begins with an anecdote in which a physicist engaged in a discussion of nuclear war realizes that the group is talking about 30 million deaths with the modifier “only.” He speaks of this to the group and is shamed by the others. Later in the chapter, Cohn speaks of her participation in a war game and is called a wimp, shamed for her team’s refusal to use its nuclear weapons. “My reality, the reasoning that had gone into my strategic and tactical choices, the intelligence, the politics, the morality — all of it just disappeared, completely invalidated.” 

Nobody wants to feel foolish or to be shamed, not writers, not reviewers, not editors. So, when an author uses gender as an analytical tool to understand nuclear policy or to generate new policy, that paper is unlikely to be published. The segregation of academic foreign policy is one expression of this. As Cohn observed in 1987, the field of nuclear policy has constructed itself to be self-contained. Even earlier, in 1983, the author Ursula LeGuin advised women in a commencement address that they must work from their own experience to construct the world. We must construct nuclear and foreign policy, and we must break down the walls, with the help of collaborators from the inside, to integrate human thinking on the issue.

Cheryl Rofer

Cheryl Rofer writes scientific and political commentary. She was a chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for 35 years. She can be found on Twitter here and Bluesky here.

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