A contribution to an exchange on Nuclear Abolition: The Road from Armageddon to Transformation
It is a pleasure to thank David Krieger for his brilliant and timely essay, for hitting nuclear weapons right on the head, and for adroitly managing both suitable emotion and needed intellectual rigor. And it is with a sense of appreciation and hope that I urge all readers of this marvelous compilation to disseminate the original essay and the comments as widely as possible. Everything—literally everything—is at stake!
Rather than iterate my enthusiastic concurrence, I will first take this opportunity to register an observation: One problem with achieving denuclearization is manifested, paradoxically, by the fact that all of the comments so far have been positive and supportive! No one has yet disagreed, and in a sense, this is unfortunate, because it reflects the reality that we anti-nuclear activists have been preaching to the choir. Somehow, we need to get outside the silo of those who already agree with us, and motivate the great majority of Americans for whom the nuclear issue barely registers, if at all. I wish I knew how to do this, how to evoke the sense of anxiety mixed with can-do desperation that characterized the antinuclear movement during the Reagan years.
Those of us committed to nuclear zero would be well advised to confront the widespread but fallacious argument that we need these weapons in the interest of deterrence.1
The fact that the Cold War never went hot might have been due to deterrence, or to the fact that the US and USSR had nothing worth warring about. And, of course, correlation is different from causation. In ancient China, it was widely believed that solar eclipses were caused by a dragon swallowing the sun, so people responded to sudden darkening by making as much noise as possible: banging pots and gongs, yelling loudly—and guess what? It worked! Every time. If, for some reason, the villagers had refrained from all that noise-making and the eclipse resolved anyhow, the worst outcome would have been a loss of confidence in the role of dragons. But if nuclear deterrence had failed, I likely wouldn’t be around to write this, or you to read it, so neither of us would be congratulating ourselves on the efficacy of deterrence.
In some cases, it only takes one failure for an entire scaffolding, previously thought to be safe, to come crashing down. The Concorde Supersonic Transport entered service in 1976 and flew flawlessly throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, it was lauded as not only the fastest but the safest passenger plane of all, having a zero accident and fatality rate. Then, in 1990, one of them crashed on a runway in Paris, killing all 109 people on board and ultimately grounding the entire fleet, which was subsequently abandoned. Its safety record instantly jumped from the safest to the most dangerous (because only a handful of the planes were ever built and flown). Failure of the Chinese dragon myth wouldn’t have been catastrophic; failure of the Concorde was, but “only” for the passengers (and the plane’s investors); failure of deterrence—just once—would be catastrophic for hundreds of thousands, more likely millions and perhaps billions, not to mention the rest of the innocent natural world. Such considerations should mitigate the celebratory confidence as to the reliability of deterrence, and the fact that it has always worked…thus far.
Moreover, you cannot prove a counterfactual: why something has not happened. Maybe there was no US-Soviet nuclear war because of the Howdy Doody show, or the invention of air conditioning. To be sure, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—when, by most accounts, we were closest to nuclear Armageddon—is sometimes cited as an example of successful deterrence. But, in fact, this crisis was caused by nuclear weapons, specifically the Soviet attempt to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. And according to many historians, the major reason Khrushchev backed down was that the Soviets were greatly inferior to the US in conventional military forces in the Caribbean. In any event, it is not unlikely that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved short of nuclear war not because of nuclear deterrence, but despite it. It may seem a truism that, absent nuclear weapons, there wouldn’t have been any crisis, but that is precisely the point: Khrushchev’s move to install nukes in Cuba in 1962 was a direct consequence of the Soviet perception that such weaponry was needed. Why? To deter the US, which had deployed intermediate-range Thor missiles in the UK in 1959, and Jupiter missiles in Turkey in 1961. And why had the US done that? To deter the Soviet Union. (An initially unpublicized part of the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis was for these Soviet and US missiles—i.e., mutual provocations—to be removed. In that limited sense, deterrence was successful: as a prod toward giving up on one aspect of itself.)
But haven’t nuclear weapons and their deterrent threats enabled nuclear armed countries to get their way in the world? Hardly. The US wasn’t able to bend North Vietnam to its will, or the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Our atomic arsenal didn’t benefit us in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or against ISIS, nor did the Soviets gain similarly in Afghanistan, or in keeping control of its East European satellites, or even in maintaining its territorial integrity. France’s nukes didn’t help them keep Algeria. And when it comes to protecting them from attack by non-nuclear aggressors, forget it. In 1951, China’s non-nuclear status didn’t inhibit Mao from sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers against a nuclear-armed US in Korea, nor was non-nuclear Argentina inhibited from invading nuclear Britain’s Falkland Islands in 1982. There are many other examples, to which the following must be added: nukes didn’t deter terrorist attacks against the US on 9/11, or subsequently against the UK or France, attacks that in the future are far more likely to be conducted with nuclear weapons than deterred by them.
In short, deterrence is a sham, a shibboleth evoked by those seeking to justify the unjustifiable. Will the positive future envisaged by David Krieger ever come to pass? Maybe. Or maybe not. But in any event, we might want to internalize the ancient Jewish wisdom that “It is not for you to finish the task; but neither is it for you to refrain from it.”
1. The following is based on the author's “Deterrence and Its Discontents,” Skeptic (March 2018), https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/nuclear-deterrence-discontents/.
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