David Von Drehle, in a long essay in the Washington Post (published the day before the seventy-fifth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States), asks us to resign ourselves to living under the shadow of nuclear weapons. This grim advice is apparently motivated by the belief that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil. Necessary, that is, to maintaining a mythical “nuclear peace.”
Von Drehle’s essay is as allusive, thought-provoking, and engaging as it is fundamentally wrong — both in its larger message, and in its individual arguments. Von Drehle is led astray by a series of assumptions that are standard fare in the nuclear weapons debate.
There are good reasons to conclude that much of the traditional wisdom about nuclear weapons is wrong. Most of these beliefs were formed during the Cold War, a time of high emotion, anxiety, paranoia, and fear. These fevered emotions ought to raise questions about the reliability of those assumptions. After all, no one does their best thinking when they’re afraid. And yet these same attitudes and beliefs still shape US nuclear policy.
CAN’T BE WISHED AWAY
For sixty-five years, experts, government officials, and commentators who favor keeping nuclear weapons have told the American public that the debate about nuclear weapons is a debate between realists (people who think we should keep nuclear weapons) and idealists (anyone who wants a world without them, “global zero”). Nuclear weapons advocates present themselves as stewards of facts and practicality while often claiming they wish the world were otherwise. Regretfully, they tell us, the sustained existence of nuclear weapons is inevitable. They insist those who call for progress on disarmament are emotional pacifists, naive to this harsh reality.
Von Drehle puts it this way: “Yet the Bomb can’t be wished away or hated into nonexistence. It resists philosophy in favor of cold, illusionless facts.” Almost everyone, especially those in the national security field, wants to take the advice of realists, not idealists. By claiming to be realists, nuclear weapons advocates have achieved an enviable record of success in this debate, maintaining the status quo for more than seventy-five years.
But they are not realists. Like Von Drehle, these advocates are credulous believers. They cling to a series of unconvincing ideas that only seem plausible because so many people share them.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS WILL ALWAYS BE WITH US
Nothing better illustrates how fanciful the beliefs of nuclear weapons advocates are than their assertion that nuclear weapons “will never go away.” First, this is an uncompromising, extremist position. There’s no room for discussion or disagreement.
Second, it is remarkably counter-factual. Everything we know about the evolution of technology says that technologies always go away eventually.
Third, as any tech investor will tell you, invention has nothing to do with the ultimate impact or importance of a technology. Technology matters when it is adopted. It only continues to matter as long as enough people continue to use it.
Nuclear weapons advocates, as well as Von Drehle, present technological development as a one-way street. Once something is invented, it’s here to stay. This seems plausible in theory but reveals itself as preposterous once one turns to the facts. Of course nuclear weapons will go away. They are not some special exception that breaks all the rules of human existence. Like every other piece of technology that has ever been invented, one of two things will eventually happen: 1) something better will come along, or 2) people will realize that it wasn’t very useful technology and it will fall out of existence. This is what happens to all technology. There are no exceptions.
EVERYONE WANTS THEM
For many years in the nuclear proliferation debate, nuclear weapons advocates have said that “everyone wants nuclear weapons.” Any state that can build nuclear weapons will build them, unless we take steps to stop them. Von Drehle alludes to this when he says that the United States must remain the world’s policeman, or else. “If the world can’t trust the United States, with its overwhelming nuclear advantage, to stand guard and enforce a degree of peace, other nations will feel obligated, or emboldened, to create their own nuclear umbrellas.”
There is nothing realistic about imagining that human beings are completely rational or that nuclear deterrence can be perfect in perpetuity. That is naive wishful thinking, not adherence to “cold, illusionless facts.”
The claim makes it seem as if there is a crowd of states desperate to build nuclear weapons, which is a peculiar view. Obviously, some states do want nuclear weapons, and there are sometimes small factions within other states that do, too. For example, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Ali Bhutto once famously said that Pakistanis wanted nuclear weapons so badly that they would be willing to “eat grass” in order to get them. But this feeling is hardly as universal as the nuclear weapons advocates claim.
North Koreans did, in fact, unwillingly eat grass in order to build their nuclear arsenal. There was famine in North Korea from 1994 to 1998, the years when the country was most actively pursuing nuclear weapons. But relative poverty did not prevent North Korea from acquiring those weapons. The United Nations, in its rankings of world GDP, puts North Korea at 117 in the world. Which means that (minus the eight other states that have nuclear weapons) there are 109 countries with the economic wherewithal to build nuclear weapons. Yet for some reason, despite a supposedly universal and overwhelming desire to build nuclear weapons, Bosnia and Herzegovina, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, and the rest of those states have resisted this irresistible urge.
As a practical matter — a matter of “cold, illusionless fact” — it is now possible to resolve this question of who wants nuclear weapons and who doesn’t. In 2017, when the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was considered at the United Nations, one hundred and twenty-two countries voted in favor of that treaty. Many of them had been members of nuclear-weapons-free zones for over a decade. So, sixty-two percent of the world’s countries have already stated they actually don’t want nuclear weapons. It’s difficult to defend the idea that nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon if people don’t seem to want them.
Von Drehle’s claim also hints at a favorite trope so-called realists use to delegitimize advocates of global zero: unilateral disarmament by the United States. They argue it is unrealistic for the United States to get rid of its nuclear arsenal on its own. It’s a good point. And we know that because it’s also one disarmament advocates make. Disarmament isn’t only about elimination, it’s about changing how these weapons are perceived — building the understanding that they serve no role in national security. If realists looked at the facts, they would know that almost no one argues for unilateral disarmament. Advocates understand that nuclear disarmament is a global endeavor and that the world needs to verifiably come down together.
ALL-OUT WAR IS OBSOLETE
There’s an additional false conclusion at play in Von Drehle’s essay. Recalling his childhood fascination with playing soldiers with his friends, Von Drehle wonders, “Could we have made a game out of the worst catastrophe in history, World War II — an event only 25 years distant at that time — if the Bomb had not rendered another such war obsolete?” But the claim that nuclear weapons have made all-out war “obsolete” is no more than wishful thinking.
Some people claim that the consequences of a nuclear war are so obvious — nuclear explosions are so horrible and nuclear missiles are largely unstoppable — that no rational person would ever start a nuclear war. Which is true. No rational person ever would start a nuclear war. But, under the circumstances, this conclusion is little comfort. Because human beings aren’t rational creatures.
We can be rational. Sometimes we make impressively reasoned decisions. But ask any neuroscientist, any psychologist, or any bartender and they will tell you human beings are creatures driven by impulse and emotion. Our “choices” are often the result of subconscious influences that we neither fully understand nor even remotely control. The most “rational” leader is susceptible to impulsive decision-making — particularly during times of crisis.
The point was made by President Ronald Reagan in his memoir, describing his thoughts on the US nuclear launch process. The US strategy of launch-on-warning only allows the president a few minutes to decide whether to order a nuclear launch on warning of an incoming attack. But what if the warning is false? What if a training tape was confused as a real launch? What if a computer malfunction showed an incoming attack? These false alarms, among others, have happened.
“Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon!” Reagan wrote, “How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?” The responsibility to deliberately consider nuclear use, especially under such constraints, is beyond what we can expect of any human being.
Nuclear deterrence has already failed a number of times. The claim by some nuclear weapons advocates that nuclear deterrence has worked perfectly over the last seventy years simply doesn’t comport with the facts. If deterrence has never failed, then why did Stalin elect to blockade Berlin in 1949 — when the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons? If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did the Chinese join the Korean War — after the US moved nuclear-capable bombers to Guam and “leaked” word of the move? If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did Syria and Egypt attack Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories in what became the Middle East War of 1973? Everyone knew Israel had nuclear weapons; it had been reported in The New York Times. If nuclear deterrence has never failed, how did a non-nuclear-armed power (Argentina) attack and take territory belonging to a nuclear-armed power (the United Kingdom) during the Falkland Island War? And so on. Nuclear deterrence has already failed, but in those cases, as in others, we were lucky. Something else prevented nuclear war.
As we move further away in time from the horror of August 1945, the taboo against nuclear use that gained prominence during the Cold War is eroding. Nuclear-armed leaders increasingly believe a nuclear war can not only be fought, but it can be “won,” as if that means something. Plans for so-called “low-yield” options for “limited” nuclear war rely on the absurd and absolutist belief that all crises can be managed and escalation can be controlled in every circumstance. Nuclear-armed states are engaging in more aggressive behavior in various flashpoints around the world, even fighting limited conflicts, that — for now — remain below the nuclear threshold. In 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea, NATO intercepted Russian aircraft near allied airspace over 400 times, four times more than the previous year. In 2019, NATO jets intercepted Russian aircraft nearly 300 times. Most were routine but some were deemed “unsafe” by officials. In South Asia, the Balakot incident between India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed) in February 2019 wasn’t close to going nuclear, but growing aggression and a false sense of control could heighten the danger of escalation for future crises. It only takes one mistake for a conflict to spin out of control, possibly all the way to the use of nuclear weapons.
States are also exploring new battlefields, such as cyber and space. Von Drehle smartly calls for “a new generation of arms-control negotiations” to tackle the risks posed by these new frontiers, saying, “we can’t afford to let war in a new dimension drag the world back to the nuclear brink.” Such talks are a good idea, especially with technology outpacing policy, but we’re already too close to the nuclear brink. The fact that there is a nuclear brink at all is where the risk lies. There are only so many times we can run up to the edge before we fall.
It’s clear nuclear deterrence has failed in the past, and will inevitably fail in the future. The argument is as compelling as human nature and as clear as the logic of three short sentences. First, all human beings are fallible and everyone makes mistakes, from the lowest soldier to the commander-in-chief. Second, human beings are involved in every aspect of nuclear deterrence, from issuing threats, to interpreting and evaluating them, to deciding how to respond. Third, 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 by its very nature flawed — and will fail.
The logic is inescapable and unforgiving: one day, our luck will run out.
The notion that nuclear weapons have made all-out wars like World War II “obsolete” is not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. There is nothing realistic about imagining that human beings are completely rational or that nuclear deterrence can be perfect in perpetuity. That is naive wishful thinking, not adherence to “cold, illusionless facts.”
STEPPING OUT OF THE SHADOW
If the failure of nuclear deterrence is inevitable — and it is — then it is a counsel of despair to say that we should continue to live under its shadow. It is simply waiting to die.
Von Drehle, along with those who believe as he does, cast themselves as hard-nosed realists, asking us to resign ourselves to lives of quiet desperation, crouching before the shadow of a horrifying God-bomb. But these priests of deterrence offer no realism, only faith. A faith that asks us to ignore human nature — impulsive, emotional, prone to mistake and miscalculation. To overlook human ingenuity and the utterly reliable cycle of technological innovation and obsolescence. To forget human history, which shows that, one way or another, in war we will reach for the weapons that we have.
Above all, this faith asks us to dismiss the expansive capacity of human resolve. The same resolve that eradicated small pox, toppled fascism, rebuilt Europe, ended apartheid, and put footprints on the moon.
In short, it asks for our surrender — and offers only despair.
What advocates of global zero offer instead is the antidote to that: not hope alone, but actionable hope, grounded in realism, borne out by the facts, limited only by the scale of human ambition. There is nothing magical or inevitable about nuclear weapons. We built them and we can pull them apart.
There are challenges involved in eliminating nuclear weapons, as there are challenges associated with any goal worth achieving. But that cannot justify Von Drehle’s fatalism. We are not in the grip of a remorseless, inescapable technology, lacking any agency in our future. Human destiny rests squarely in the hands of human beings.
For 75 years, we have lived beneath the nuclear shadow. This day and every day, we can choose to step into the light.
Jessica Sleight is the Program Director at Global Zero, the international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, where she provides research and analysis on issues relating to nuclear risk reduction and disarmament and helps coordinate Global Zero policy initiatives.
Ward Wilson is an award-winning writer focused on challenging fundamental ideas about nuclear weapons, the author of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, and Executive Director of RealistRevolt. He is at work on a book of realist arguments for eliminating nuclear weapons.
Derek Johnson is the executive director of Global Zero, the international movement for a world without nuclear weapons. He is a nuclear security expert and lawyer with a background in international law.