Debunking myths about the necessity of nuclear weapons
By Ward Wilson
Based on his recently published book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Ward Wilson carefully presents and deconstructs the most common arguments in favor of maintaining nuclear weapons in this latest ILPI Nuclear Weapons Project policy paper. Wilson’s analysis demonstrates how many widely held assumptions about the necessity of nuclear weapons do not withstand critical scrutiny, citing evidence from the Cuban missile crisis, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the absence of a major nuclear conflict during the Cold War. Ultimately, Wilson concludes that the justifications nuclear-armed states offer for maintaining these weapons do not hold up to closer examination, and that imagining a world without nuclear weapons is the only viable alternative.
Policy Paper No 4/2014
Most people try not to think about nuclear weapons. They are uncomfortably aware that nuclear weapons must be immoral, but their governments have told them that nuclear weapons are necessary. Why worry over something you can’t do anything about? So they put the subject out of their minds.
Now there is no reason, however, to feel ambivalent about nuclear weapons. Recent scholarly research has shown that nuclear weapons are not necessary. Many common Cold War beliefs about nuclear weapons turn out to be founded on fear and exaggeration, rather than fact. With the end of the Cold War, there has been a reevaluation of the facts underlying many of the key events and assumptions connected with nuclear weapons. The results are in some ways unsurprising. You would expect people who lived in fear of nuclear war to make mistakes: people rarely do their best thinking when they’re afraid. The Cuban missile crisis, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the invention of the H-bomb, and other events that government officials took as proof that nuclear weapons were necessary, are now seen as ambiguous evidence at best. Given how dangerous nuclear weapons are, if no clear case can be made that they are necessary, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about getting rid of them.
The Cuban missile crisis
The Cuban missile crisis has long been taken as definitive proof that nuclear deterrence works. The Soviets secretly put missiles into Cuba, the Americans found out about it, there was a crisis and risk of nuclear war, and then the Soviet Union took them out. What could be more straightforward than that? For decades experts have pointed to the Cuban missile crisis as proof of the effectiveness and reliability of nuclear deterrence. But even a cursory reevaluation of the evidence shows that this conclusion is more an exercise in wishful thinking than careful analysis.
The chief problem with the Cold War view of the Cuban missile crisis is that it fails to account for President Kennedy’s decision. Kennedy knew that if he blockaded Cuba he ran the risk of nuclear war. During the week of secret meetings in which administration officials planned the US response, they mentioned the danger of nuclear war 60 times. They were fully aware of how risky their actions were. And the actual course of events showed how right they were: the crisis came within a hair’s breadth of catastrophe more than once.
If nuclear deterrence means that a leader sees the risk of nuclear war and pulls back, how is it possible to account for President Kennedy’s actions? He knew there was a strong danger of nuclear war. And yet he went ahead with blockading the island. This pattern of disregarding the danger of nuclear war is repeated in numerous crises throughout the Cold War. These clear failures of nuclear deterrence are rarely discussed by proponents of nuclear weapons, however.
Of course, one could argue that because the Cuban missile crisis did not result in nuclear war, that therefore nuclear deterrence must have worked. This redefinition of nuclear deterrence to mean anything that does not result in nuclear war ought to make us suspicious. It’s like claiming that any medicine that doesn’t kill you is clearly working. And deterrence obviously wasn’t the thing that prevented war—at least in the Cuban Missile Crisis it is obviously nothing more than luck.
Consider the U-2 incident. At the height of the crisis, on Saturday October 27, 1962, a U.S. spy plane malfunctioned on a routine air sampling mission over the North Pole and wandered 300 miles into the Soviet Union. The Soviets noticed it on radar, and scrambled MiG fighters to shoot it down. U.S. Air Force controllers responded to the pilot’s radio signals for help by calling in F-102 fighters to find it and escorted back to U.S. airspace. This was, however, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Because of the increased levels of tension, a mid-level officer had decided to replace the conventional air-to-air missiles on all F-102s based in Alaska with nuclear “falcon” air-to-air missiles. The U.S. fighters had only nuclear armaments on board. If they had run into the Soviet fighters, there would likely have been a nuclear explosion over the Soviet Union, and probably a nuclear war.
Those two sets of fighters did not find each other over the Soviet Union. But that was simply luck. It could not be attributed to the smooth functioning of nuclear deterrence. The U.S. and Soviet Union avoided a nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis because they were lucky.
The problem with nuclear deterrence is that it has to function perfectly. This is a very high standard for any military or political doctrine. Any failure of nuclear deterrence could lead to a catastrophic nuclear war. The humanitarian consequences of even the use of one nuclear weapon are usually judged to be unacceptable. Obviously, the humanitarian consequences of a full-fledged nuclear war would be unthinkable. For nuclear deterrence to be an acceptable doctrine, therefore, it must function perfectly all the time. One could say that for nuclear deterrence “failure is not an option.”
But the evidence from the Cold War, evaluated objectively, demonstrates that this very high bar of perfection is unattainable. Nuclear deterrence is not safe and reliable. It is risky and filled with the danger of miscalculation, accident, and madness. It is much more like Russian roulette than a reliable procedure that can safely be depended on. Government officials convinced themselves that nuclear deterrence was safe and reliable because at the height of the Cold War they could not imagine getting rid of nuclear weapons. Like most of us, they could not bring themselves to admit how great the risks were that they were running.
Another striking example of the failure of nuclear deterrence occurred in the Middle East War of 1973. Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israeli formations in the occupied territories despite the fact that both Egypt’s and Syria’s leaders must have known that Israel had nuclear weapons. The Israeli nuclear program had been widely discussed and had even been reported in The New York Times. If nuclear deterrence protects against attack, how can we explain the fact that two nations decided to ignore nuclear deterrence and make war on Israeli forces?
Proponents of nuclear weapons often respond to this example and to the example of the Falklands war in 1982 (when Argentina attacked British territory in the South Atlantic), by saying that these are not really failures of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence, they say, is only really effective at defending the central interests of the state. If the Egyptians and Syrians were planning to attack Israel proper, rather than the occupied territories, they argue, then nuclear deterrence would have worked. If the Argentines had contemplated attacking London, rather than some far-flung islands in the South Atlantic, they say, then nuclear deterrence would have worked.
This ex post facto drawing in of the effective area of nuclear deterrence ought to raise doubts. Shouldn’t we be suspicious of a doctrine that has to be constantly redefined to account for apparent failures? And the effective area of nuclear deterrence has been redrawn many times. Early assessments argued that nuclear deterrence made success in diplomatic negotiations inevitable. That has proved not to be the case. Ask the residents of Eastern Europe, who spent 50 years under Soviet domination, if they think the US monopoly on nuclear weapons made its diplomatic demands irresistible at the end of World War II. Early assessments suggested that the danger of nuclear war made war itself impossible. The scores of wars since have shown that that was a gross misjudgment. Early assessments said that nations that possessed nuclear weapons could not lose a war. The debacles in Vietnam for the United States and in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union proved that notion wrong. The constant redefining of nuclear weapons’ capabilities ought to raise doubts.
But assume for the moment that the explanation of proponents — that nuclear deterrence only prevents attacks against the “core interests” of a state — is right. Assume that nuclear deterrence only really prevents nuclear war or an attack on the heartland of a state. This argument fundamentally undermines the notion of extended deterrence. If nuclear weapons cannot prevent attacks against distant islands, then how can nuclear deterrence prevent attacks against distant allies? If nuclear deterrence cannot restrain actual war fighting with Israeli forces in 1973, how can it prevent actual war fighting with allies?
The circumstances were ideal for nuclear deterrence in the Middle East War. Israel is a tiny country. A breakthrough on the Golan Heights could allow enemy forces to overrun the capital within hours. Any attack on Israeli forces that could lead to a breakthrough, therefore, poses an existential threat to the nation of Israel. If nuclear deterrence is only supposed to work in times of existential threat, how could it have failed here? And if nuclear deterrence could fail here, why would we imagine it would be reliable in other circumstances?
Much of the international order depends on extended nuclear deterrence. The United States system of alliances — NATO, the treaty with Japan, the treaty with South Korea, ANZUS, and others — are built on the belief that nuclear deterrence can be extended over allies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent assertion that as long as there are nuclear weapons, NATO will be a nuclear alliance underscores the point. But if the international order is built around a doctrine that is both unreliable and dangerous, then it is a system built on that has—as one of its inherent characteristics—the constant risk of nuclear war. In the long run playing Russian roulette inevitably leads to catastrophe.
Proponents of nuclear weapons have one trump card always at their disposal: the assertion that nuclear weapons forced Japan to surrender at the end of World War II. They are weapons with unique psychological characteristics, they argue, that can coerce and deter where other weapons fail. And that has been the general consensus for the last 60 years. However, new research by historians in recently opened archives in Japan, Russia, and the United States undermines this traditional view. This new research clearly shows that Japan surrendered not because of atomic bombings, but because the Soviet Union entered the war.
This change of interpretation has important implications. Hiroshima is fundamental to beliefs about nuclear weapons. Imagine trying to construct a case for the power and effectiveness of nuclear weapons if it were proven that the twin shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not contributed to Japan’s decision to surrender at all. Yet that is something like the situation that officials in nuclear-armed states face today.
There are four problems with the traditional interpretation of the bombing of Hiroshima: timing, scale, reactions, and, most importantly, strategic significance. Begin with timing. The United States bombed Hiroshima at 8:15 am on the morning of August 6, 1945. Word began reaching Tokyo within half an hour and by the end of the day Hiroshima’s governor had reported that one third of the city’s population had been killed and two thirds of the buildings had been destroyed. So from August 6 onward Japan’s leaders were roughly aware of the outcome of the attack on Hiroshima. On August 7 they received word of Truman’s press release, which announced that the attack had been carried out with an atomic bomb. From the 7th onward they knew the outlines of the results and could be relatively sure it was caused by an atomic bomb.
On Wednesday, August 8 Japan’s Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori asked Premier Suzuki to call a meeting of the Supreme Council, the ruling body of Japan, to discuss the issues that the bombing of Hiroshima raised. Suzuki checked with the military members of the Council and responded that no meeting was necessary at that time. So Japan’s leaders considered meeting to discuss Hiroshima, but decided that it wasn’t important enough to meet. At midnight the night of August 8-9, the Soviet Union declared war and invaded Manchuria, Sakhalin Island, and other territories. Word of the attack reached Tokyo in the early morning hours of the ninth. By 10:30 am that morning, the Supreme Council was meeting to discuss unconditional surrender. Nagasaki was bombed later that morning.
When Americans tell this story the high point of the drama is always August 6, the day when Hiroshima was bombed. In this telling, Japan’s surrender is a story who’s central character is the Bomb. The Bomb is tested in the desert, the parts are transported out to Tinian Island, and then the big day arrives. But from the Japanese perspective August 6 is not the fulcrum of the story. From the Japanese perspective, the turning point is clearly August 10. Japan had been fighting brutal war for 14 years. They had lost battles, ships, and territory. Their cities had been bombed. Their island was blockaded by submarines preventing almost all shipping from getting in or out. Starvation loomed. But it was not until August 10 that they—for the first time—sat down to officially discuss unconditional surrender. So, what caused them to meet? What finally forced them to confront the possibility of unconditional surrender? It can’t have been Nagasaki, which occurred later in the morning, after they had already begun to meet. It probably wasn’t Hiroshima, which had taken place three days earlier. Based on timing alone, it appears that the Soviet declaration of war at midnight on August 8-9 was the driving factor.
Most people would be shocked to imagine that the destruction of a city had no effect on a country’s leaders. But Japan in the summer of 1945 had experienced the most intense campaign of city bombing in the history of the world. In the summer of 1945, the United States Air Force bombed 68 cities in Japan. If you graph the number of people killed immediately in those 68 attacks, you might imagine that Hiroshima would be first in numbers of people killed. The drama and horror associated with the attack might lead you to imagine that it was the worst city attack ever. But it wasn’t. In fact, the conventional attack on Tokyo, on the night of March 9-10, killed more people. If you graph the square miles destroyed in all 68 attacks, Hiroshima ranks sixth. If you graph the percentage of the city destroyed, Hiroshima ranks 17th.
Put yourself in the shoes of Japan’s leaders. In the three weeks prior to Hiroshima, 24 cities were attacked. Of these, eight suffered as much or more damage, in terms of the percentage of the city destroyed, as Hiroshima. The city of Toyama—about the same size as Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1945—was 99.5% destroyed. In hindsight, the attack on Hiroshima stands out as remarkable and unprecedented. At the time, however, it would have been simply one more piece of bad news in an already disastrous summer. The fact that Hiroshima had been destroyed in minutes rather than hours would have been largely irrelevant: the speed of the attack didn’t change the final outcome.
The argument that although Japan’s military leaders were not shocked by Hiroshima, but Japan’s Emperor was, does not hold up. The only evidence that Emperor Showa (formerly called Emperor Hirohito) was “deeply affected” by the bombing is that he repeatedly asked for more information about it. This is hardly conclusive evidence of an emotional reaction. And it fails to address the question: why would a man who had seen the horrors of city bombing first hand (he toured the ruins of Tokyo nine days after the fire bombing while many burned bodies still lay in the streets) have been moved by a second hand account of a distant city attack (Hiroshima)? And why would it have taken Emperor Showa five months to begin caring about city attacks?
Most of the attacks against Japan’s cities that summer were carried out by 500 U.S. bombers, on average. Flying from the Mariana Islands, each bomber could carry 16,000 to 12,000 pounds of bombs, depending on the distance to the target. This means that many of the attacks using conventional bombs delivered something like 4 to 5 kt of bombs to their targets. The Hiroshima bombing delivered the equivalent of 16 kt of destructive power. Given the fact that a single bomb wastes much of its explosive power at the center rather than being evenly distributed, the rough equivalence of the conventional bombings with the nuclear ones is not completely surprising. The scale of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not outside the parameters of conventional attacks that had been going on all summer long.
The reactions of Japan’s leaders in their diaries and meeting notes to Hiroshima betray their lack of concern. Kawabe Toroshiro, for instance, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, wrote in his diary on August 8, two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that when he learned it had been an atomic bombing it gave him a “severe jolt.” But, he opined, we must be tenacious and fight on. Contrast that with his reaction to the Soviet invasion later that night. On the morning of August 9, Kawabe rushed to army headquarters where an emergency meeting of the Army’s leaders was taking place. In that meeting Kawabe suggested that they declare martial law, seize the Emperor, and impose a military dictatorship on Japan. It is worth noting that no such emergency meeting of the Army’s leaders was held on the morning that Hiroshima was bombed. And no such drastic measures — setting up a military dictatorship — were suggested on the morning that Hiroshima was bombed. And whereas the Supreme Council met as soon as the news of the Soviet invasion arrived in Tokyo, the suggestion by Foreign Minister Togo on Wednesday that the Supreme Council meet to discuss Hiroshima was turned aside.
If you examine the contemporaneous diary entries and meeting minutes of the days between the bombing of Hiroshima and the Soviet declaration of war, you find that Japan’s leaders were concerned by the bombing of Hiroshima. It was an unwelcome development. But it did not touch off a crisis. The Soviet invasion, on the other hand, clearly put the capital into a state of emergency.
The most telling objection to the traditional story of Hiroshima forcing Japan’s surrender, however, is the strategic importance objection. Hiroshima simply didn’t matter that much, when compared to the entry of another great power into the war. One of the facts that is rarely mentioned when historians repeat Truman’s famous threat to bring a “rain of ruin” down on Japan’s cities if they did not surrender, is that there were very few cities left to bomb. There were only 15 cities larger than 30,000 people that had not already had some significant bombing. Most of Japan’s cities had already been 50% or more destroyed. Of the 15 remaining un-bombed cities, some were on Hokkaido, too far north for American bombers to reach. Taking this fact into account, and the subtraction of Kyoto from the list by Stimson, there were only 9 cities that could potentially have been bombed. Truman’s threat sounds intimidating but the truth is there was little left to bomb.
The destruction of a city could not compare to the entry into the war of a great power with more than 2 million new soldiers and powerful armored forces. The soldiers dug in on Japan’s beaches illustrate this point. After Hiroshima they could still fight. They were ready to fight. There was one fewer city behind them, but they had been losing cities all summer long, at the rate of one every other day on average. But Japan’s soldiers were unready to meet a Soviet invasion. Whereas they were dug in on the east coast of Japan, a Soviet invasion would come from the west. They had been anticipating an invasion in two to three months, but a Soviet invasion could come in as little as 10 to 14 days. The Soviet entry into the war changed the strategic balance decisively, while Hiroshima did not.
Arguing that Japan’s leaders surrendered because they were shocked by Hiroshima, is to argue that they did not know their business.
Japan’s leaders said as much in June. In a meeting of the Supreme Council to discuss long-term prospects for the war, they said that entry into the war by the Soviet Union would “determine the fate of the Empire.” Kawabe Toroshiro said, “the maintenance of peaceful relations with the Soviet Union was essential for continuing the war.” Arguing that Japan’s leaders surrendered because they were shocked by Hiroshima, is to argue that they did not know their business. It is to argue that they were swayed by emotion rather than the strategic realities.
Of course, after the war the Emperor and most of Japan’s top leadership claimed that the bomb was a key factor in their decision to surrender. However, put yourself in the shoes of Japan’s leaders. Which would you rather say? “We fought badly, we made bad decisions, the Army and the Navy were locked in inter-service rivalry, and we made strategic mistakes”? Or “the enemy made an unexpected scientific breakthrough, and that’s why we lost the war”? The bomb made the perfect explanation for having lost the war.
One of the often-overlooked facts about nuclear weapons is that we really have very little experience with them. Governments have exploded lots of tests in deserts and on islands and in the great plains of Asia. But there has been only one real field test in war: we only have Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help us gauge the impact using nuclear weapons has on leaders in war. What if the lesson that governments learned from this one vital field test was exactly backward? What if they learned that nuclear weapons can really influence leaders a lot, and the actual lesson should have been that nuclear weapons are as easily ignored as other weapons? Here is the one real piece of information about nuclear weapons, and the governments of nuclear-armed states have apparently completely misinterpreted it. How do we evaluate nuclear weapons now?
65 years of peace
A great deal is made of the fact that there has been no war between the United States and Russia for all the time that there have been nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, people therefore conclude, have a remarkable capacity to keep the peace. In fact, some people attribute the stability of the world order to the beneficial effects of nuclear weapons.
Clearly, this is more wishful thinking. A cursory examination of the historical record shows that there have been many periods of peace. Brazil and Argentina, for example, have not fought each other for 72 years. But that does not justify wide-ranging conclusions about nuclear weapons. (In fact, no Latin American country has fought with another Latin American country since 1942. But this remarkable period of peace has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.) Europe knew substantial peace from 1815 to 1848, a period of 33 years. But, again, this had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The fact is that there are just periods of peace in history. Drawing conclusions from one instance of peace is imprudent.
Nuclear weapons pose enormous dangers. The risks of relying on them are almost incalculable. Therefore, before we agree to rely on them for peace we should demand incontrovertible proof that they really do provide peace. But no such incontrovertible proof has yet been found.
The argument that nuclear weapons create peace depends on proof by absence. Proof by absence is one of the most difficult and demanding kinds of proof to provide. Logical proof is easy by comparison. You make assumptions, work according to prescribed rules, and either the proof is true or it is not. Inductive proof is easy as well. You simply accumulate enough cases to prove your point. Proof by absence is particularly difficult because it can only be true if there are no other possible causes for the end result. I assert that Mary ate the last cookie. What I say is true if and only if Mary was the only person to have been in the kitchen when the last cookie disappeared. If anyone else was in the kitchen or could have been in the kitchen, the proof fails. Or if a squirrel could have gotten in and eaten the cookie. Or if ants could have carried it away piece by piece. And so on. Because each event in life has so many things that might have caused it, proof by absence is very demanding. It is, generally, the proof of last resort, used only when no better forms of evidence are available.
And proof by absence is particularly subject to abuse. It’s hard to prove exactly what caused something not to happen, so unscrupulous people sometimes use proof by absence to “prove” peculiar things. Consider the (imaginary) example of the virgins in the volcano. One year the volcano erupts. People are appalled. The next year a religious leader tells them that to keep the volcano god happy they have to throw a virgin into the volcano. They do it, the volcano doesn’t erupt that year and the religious leader triumphantly points to the “proof” that throwing a virgin in “controlled” the volcano. Now they throw a virgin into the volcano every year, and every year that the volcano doesn’t erupt, they nod their heads and say the absence of eruption proves that sacrificing virgins works.
Proof by absence is the sort of proof that we do not accept where serious consequences were at stake. Take medicine, for example. Imagine that someone claimed to have discovered a new drug, which prevents a rare form of cancer. To “prove” this claim the discoverer carefully documented administering the drug to 100 people and followed their health. After five years, none of them had developed this rare form of cancer. The absence of cancer in the patients is real. But would any accredited medical organization take this as proof that the drug prevents cancer?
Similarly, think of airline safety. Imagine that a woman comes up with a device that she claims prevents metal fatigue, a condition that can cause aging aircraft to break apart. The device works, she says, by a previously unknown property of sonic waves. Because she has a friend at the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, ten of the devices are put on ten planes for a year. At the end of the year, none of the planes has crashed because of metal fatigue. The woman goes on TV and claims success. The absence of plane crashes proves her device prevents metal fatigue, she says. If an airline announced that it was going to stop its current metal fatigue maintenance and testing and instead rely only on these devices, would you fly that airline?
People make exaggerated claims for the power of nuclear weapons to preserve the peace. And particularly in the United States and Europe, where there have been no major wars, some people are inclined to accept this explanation. Nuclear deterrence, they say, is safe and reliable. The price for being wrong about nuclear deterrence, however, is catastrophic death and destruction. We dare not rely on nuclear deterrence unless its reliability has been absolutely proved. So far, no such proof has been found.
One of the best reasons for doubting the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons is the fact that so much of the argument in favor of nuclear weapons is based on what can only be described as strange thinking. Some of the most important arguments that proponents use are nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Consider the genie argument. Proponents of nuclear weapons frequently say that although they admit the danger that nuclear weapons pose, nothing can be done because nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. Sometimes they say (more colorfully) that you can’t stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle. This familiar argument has won debates for 50 years. It’s greatest strength is that it is absolutely true. It also happens, however, to be absolutely irrelevant.
Sometimes they say […] that you can’t stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle. This familiar argument has won debates for 50 years. It’s greatest strength is that it is absolutely true. It also happens, however, to be absolutely irrelevant.
No technology is ever dis-invented. Don’t get me wrong; technology goes out of existence all the time. (If you don’t believe me just try to get technical support for any device more than five years old.) Technology goes out of existence; it just doesn’t go out of existence by being dis-invented. It goes out of existence one of two ways: 1) it gets replaced when better technology comes along, or 2) people realize it was stupid technology to begin with and they abandon it.
A good example of this is the penny-farthing. Penny-farthings were the bicycles popular at the end of the 19th century with one small wheel in the back and one giant wheel in the front. They were difficult to get up on, and dangerous to fall off. But no one warned, “you’ll never stuff the penny-farthing genie back in the bottle.” When better bicycles came along, with two wheels the same size, penny-farthings simply fell out of existence. No one had to sit down to dis-invent the technology.
Another example is a special perambulator developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1930s. This pram featured a hermetically sealed compartment for the baby with a glass window so he or she could see the sky above, and a small chimney with a gas mask canister in it. Mom could push the pram along the street with her gas mask on, while junior stared at the sky breathing through his own gas mask filter. This technology did not have to be dis-invented. It was stupid technology. No one wanted to take their child for a walk in the middle of a chemical weapons attack.
Finally, consider the Hiller VZ-1. Invented by the US military in 1953, the Hiller VZ-1 was a small platform that could hold a single soldier. A helicopter blade underneath allowed the platform to rise 15 or even 20 feet up into the air. It was amazing technology. But it never went into full production. Perhaps because some people called it the “Here I am, totally defenseless, entirely exposed, and completely vulnerable Death Platform.”
The question is not whether nuclear weapons can or cannot be disinvented. That was never the issue. The question is whether they’re smart military technology. On the face of it, this seems unlikely, since no one has found a situation in which their use seemed called for in almost seventy years. The genie argument is a strange attempt to justify nuclear weapons. But it is still worth thinking about, I would argue, because it is psychologically suggestive. It seems to reveal something about the mind-set of government officials in nuclear-armed states who defend nuclear weapons. In their minds nuclear weapons are the genie. They are, literally, magic. Rub the lamp, wave your nuclear weapons, and people will do whatever you say.
The question is not whether nuclear weapons can or cannot be disinvented. That was never the issue. The question is whether they’re smart military technology.
Of course, nuclear weapons are not magic. To think so is foolish. But this example gives an idea of some of the strange thinking that lies under the surface of arguments for nuclear weapons. For too long people have been staring in awe at nuclear weapons and failing to think critically about some of the notions that have been put forward about them.
Nuclear weapons are not necessary. Nuclear deterrence is not safe and reliable. Nuclear weapons did not force Japan to surrender when other means couldn’t. Nuclear weapons are not responsible for the general peace and prosperity that the United States and Western Europe have experienced over the last fifty years. The justifications for nuclear weapons that government officials in nuclear-armed states give do not hold up to closer examination. Many of the rationales they offer—like the argument that “you can’t stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle”—are simply not true.
If nuclear weapons are enormously destructive—as they are – and if nuclear deterrence is prone to fail—and the evidence shows that it is – then we cannot continue to rely on nuclear weapons. It may be difficult to imagine a world without nuclear weapons, but the effort is nevertheless worth making. The alternative is to risk full-scale nuclear war. And that is unacceptable.
The arguments in this paper are drawn from the book Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. Full footnotes of sources and references are available in the book. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Law and Policy Institute.