From Chapter 8 – Nuclear Confusion

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As with climate, there’s a great deal of genuine confusion about the danger of nuclear weapons—in addition to deliberate attempts to maintain and increase this confusion.

When people are challenged on the issue of nuclear weapons, common responses include:

“Don’t we need them to keep us safe?”

“They’re dangerous, I get that. But they’re just a deterrent, so they’ll never be used.”

“We’ve been living with nuclear weapons since 1945, so why start worrying about them now?”

Understanding the concept of deterrence[1]

It’s crucial to understand that a nuclear weapon is not “a deterrent” in and of itself. A government possessing nuclear weapons hopes that these weapons will act as a deterrent and say they will never actually be used as weapons. But deterrence is actually a psychological term, not a military term. It’s about trying to create a sense of fear that is intended to convince someone that they don’t actually want to do something they might otherwise choose to do.[2]

As a strategy for controlling someone else’s behavior, deterrence relies on threatening them with some form of punishment if they do something you don’t want them to do. Leaving aside whether coercion through fear is morally palatable, “successful” deterrence means the punishment never has to be carried out because the mere threat of it is sufficient to control the behavior. “Failed” deterrence is when the threat has to be carried out in order to control the behavior in question.

Deterrence in everyday life  

Even if deterrence seems to work, it’s not particularly consistent. As any parent knows, it’s not easy to keep a child from doing what they want to do. Sometimes threatening punishment seems to work, if the child remembers prior punishments vividly, if the parent can carry out the threat then and there, if the child knows they can’t get away with the undesirable behavior. If the threat doesn’t work, parents may find themselves inflicting punishments to “teach a lesson” for the next time. But deterrence has clearly failed by that point. (And nobody is happy.)

In the field of criminal justice, deterrence is a well-known but highly controversial concept. Although the primary function of arrest and detention is to punish criminal behavior, it is secondarily aimed at deterring further criminal behavior.

Does it work? The threat of legal action isn’t very effective at preventing crime, unless people expect to be caught.[3] Even those with recent experience of incarceration are not deterred by the threat of going back inside; recidivism is commonplace (43.3% in the US, 53% in the UK).[4]

 Furthermore, the severity of the consequence doesn’t seem to matter much.  Even the threat of death apparently does little to deter murderers. Almost without exception, countries that still have capital punishment have higher murder rates, higher rates of crime generally, and higher prison populations than those countries that have abolished it – the exact opposite if what the theory of deterrence would suggest.[5]

These correlations, it should be pointed out, do not prove that the death penalty increases the likelihood of murder. However, they certainly do not provide strong evidence to support the theory of deterrence.

Military forms of deterrence

Deterrence in warfare is nothing new. Standing armies, armaments, and fortifications are meant to warn off any potential invader with the threat of inflicting serious damage should they attempt it.

In 1914, a massive network of military alliances was considered by many to be a sufficient deterrent to prevent a major war in Europe. If any one country were so foolish as to attack another one, that would automatically drag the whole of Europe into a suicidal war that nobody wanted. When that deterrent failed, Europe was then locked into a devastating war which took many millions of lives.

Another failed deterrent: following the devastation of WWI, the French began construction of the most advanced set of fortifications ever known. The Maginot Line consisted of 22 underground fortresses, tank traps, tunnels, rail links and 500 smaller buildings constructed along the 280 mile border with Germany. One quarter of France’s entire army was stationed along this line. In May 1940, Hitler’s invasion simply went around it.[6]

Whether you’re trying to control a child, prevent a crime, or defend a homeland, deterrence is an inconsistent strategy. Even if it may appear to work in some cases, deterrence is never guaranteed to work in all cases. In fact, if history is anything to go by, deterrence is guaranteed not to work at some point or other.

Nuclear deterrence

The theory of nuclear deterrence depends upon it working not just most of the time but all the time – and for all time. There is no margin for error if the consequence of failure is an all-out nuclear war that destroys the whole of human civilization.

The logic of nuclear deterrence gets more and more convoluted the deeper you look. It is assumed, for instance, that the leaders of Russia, in contemplating an attack on the US, would be sufficiently sane and rational as to weigh up the consequences of a possible retaliatory nuclear strike from the US and decide on that basis to refrain from attacking. On the other hand, it is assumed that those same leaders would base their sane and rational decision on the likelihood of their counterparts in the US acting so insanely and irrationally as to be willing to launch nuclear weapons against Russia that would almost certainly bring about their own total self-destruction.

Furthermore, the theory demands that “we” must be willing to use our nuclear weapons “if necessary.” We must convince our opponent of that willingness sufficiently that they believe we really will actually use our nuclear weapons if they dare to attack us. On the other hand, if we are willing “if necessary” to use our nuclear weapons against another country which also has nuclear weapons, then at some level we are not “deterred” by them having nuclear weapons. That other country is likewise not deterred by the fact that we have nuclear weapons if it is to be believed that they also would use their nuclear weapons “if necessary” against us.

Ultimately, nuclear deterrence rests on the assumption that no ordinary, sane person would choose to bring death and destruction down upon family and friends and loved ones, and would therefore choose some alternative route other than to invite nuclear retaliation.

The problem with this line of thinking is that nuclear deterrence does not operate at the level of ordinary, sane people who care about their loved ones. It operates at the level of generals and politicians who make their decisions according to quite different criteria. In WWI, it was generals and politicians who sent millions to their certain death in the trenches. In WWII, it was generals and politicians who authorized the saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities and the dropping of atom bombs.

The actual use of nuclear weapons would cause wholesale slaughter on an unimaginable scale, but there is no evidence that this fact would necessarily “deter” generals and politicians from embarking on such a course should they decide the circumstances “justified” it.

Indeed, they have been ready to launch nuclear war on several occasions and it is luck, more than “deterrence,” that has kept us from having a nuclear war up to now.[7] General MacArthur wanted to drop atom bombs on China during the Korean War. President Nixon was considering the use of nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Thatcher apparently threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Falklands War.[8] Plans were readied for the use of nuclear weapons during the first Gulf War. And President Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea in order to stop North Korea from firing its nuclear weapons.

Faulty logic: “They’ll never be used”

In any case, warheads intended for use as “deterrents” are not somehow distinct from warheads intended for use as a weapons. In the words of the late Sir Michael Quinlan, one of the architects of nuclear deterrence theory:

We cannot say that nuclear weapons are for deterrence and never for use, however remote we judge the latter possibility to be. Weapons deter by the possibility of their use and by no other route.[9]

Sir Michael Quinlan

Despite their claims that the nuclear threat is credible, immediate, and realistic, we don’t know whether any President or Prime Minister really would “press the button” if another potential opponent called their bluff and launched an attack. Saying that they would does not by itself make the threat credible.

It all comes down to psychology, and there are countless unknowns. That is what makes the whole theory of deterrence so dangerously fanciful.

Deterrence vs. defense

Traditionally, “deterrence” means attempting to prevent an attack by making a credible threat to retaliate after the attack has already happened. If the threat fails, conventional weapons can be converted to “defense” purposes. For example, during the 1930s, Britain’s air and sea power were strengthened in the hope of deterring Hitler from invading. When that didn’t work as a deterrent, those military resources were used to actually defend Britain from the impending invasion. In other words, the planes and ships were converted from deterrence to defense.

But nuclear weapons don’t work the same way. If Britain had launched nuclear missiles at Hitler’s ships crossing the English Channel, or at planes bombing London, it would have been suicidal.

The only way to defend against incoming nuclear missiles is to intercept them with anti-ballistic missiles (which cannot be guaranteed to work 100% of the time). But nuclear weapons themselves cannot provide defense in the traditional sense – even against incoming nuclear weapons.

If nuclear deterrence “fails,” all you can do is launch nuclear weapons at the other side – or not. In neither case is anyone being “defended” from attack by having nuclear weapons. This is an important distinction. Nuclear weapons are useless for defense in a traditional sense.

The logic of deterrence: these weapons must be used

We know that deterrence in everyday life is not effective 100% of the time, and it only works if the intention to follow through with the threat is credible, immediate, and realistic. These same principles apply to nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear weapons cannot be said to act as a deterrent unless there is a credible, immediate, and realistic intention to use them. Thus it is a contradiction in terms to say that nuclear weapons will never be used “because they are only a deterrent.”

Nuclear weapons are designed and deployed as weapons of mass destruction. To function as a credible deterrent, these weapons must be used sooner or later as intended, otherwise the threat is no longer believable.

Immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union had every reason to believe that the United States might use these weapons again. So for a time, the threat was credible and these weapons might well have acted as a deterrent.

But no country possessing nuclear weapons has ever detonated one in war in nearly 80 years. So the belief that the US or any other nuclear-armed nation will actually use a nuclear weapon is very much weaker than it was in the late 1940s. Every passing year that a nuclear weapon is not used makes the concept of nuclear deterrence inevitably less credible. There is therefore an ever-increasing pressure on those who believe in nuclear deterrence to <prove= that the threat is a real one by using a nuclear weapon in war.

The theory of deterrence increases the risk that these weapons will be used, if only to prove that the threat is a credible one.

[1] This section, revised and updated, taken directly from Wallis, T (2017), Disarming the Nuclear Argument, Luath Press, Chapter 3, pp.41ff.

[2] According to the US Department of Defense, deterrence is “the prevention from action by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” See deterrence (US DoD Definition). (n.d.).

[3] See Nagin, D. S. (2013). Deterrence in the Twenty-First century. Crime and Justice42(1), 199–263., also

National Institute of Justice. (2016, June 5). Five things about Deterrence

[4] Average re-offending rate in UK after 5 years, 2000-2005, see pg 35 ff in Ministry of Justice. (2012). 2012 Compendium of re-offending statistics and analysis. In Ministry of Justice

[5] Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.). Murder Rate of Death Penalty States Compared to Non-Death Penalty States.

[6] As did Genghis Khan when confronted by the Great Wall of China that was supposedly built to keep him out. “Great wall” he is reputed to have said as he marched his army around it.

[7] See quote from General Lee Butler, former supreme commander of US nuclear forces, who claims it was only “a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention” that has saved us so far from a nuclear holocaust. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, & Butler, L. (2014, December 6). US General (Ret) Lee Butler speaks for a ban on nuclear weapons #goodbyenukes [Video]. YouTube.

[8] Henley, J. (2005, November 21). Thatcher “threatened to nuke Argentina.” The Guardian

[9] Quinlan, M. (2005). Thinking about nuclear weapons (2nd ed.). Royal United Services Institute For Defense Studies.