History and America’s Atomic Future: Four Questions on Nuclear Statecraft


Looking back on the soon-to-be 70 year history of America’s experience with nuclear weapons, what did the United States do right? What did it do wrong? And what can it do better in the future? As a historian who has spent a great deal of time studying America’s nuclear statecraft, I am often asked these questions.

And as is often the case, I’m afraid I will disappoint. In reality, good historians traffic in uncertainty, context, and the non-generalizable. This is, understandably, a deeply disappointing and unsatisfying answer for policymakers and many social scientists. Why study the past if we can’t learn direct lessons that can be applied to current, vexing policy situations? This frustration is especially acute on military issues, and the grave matter of war and peace. Mistakes in this realm have the most terrible human consequences, and we are eager to have all the knowledge and wisdom possible to avoid disaster.

Perhaps even more frustrating is that historians traffic in ironies. War and military competition are rife with dilemmas and puzzles. Modern conflict, as we’ve witnessed in the past century, is horrific. Last year’s anniversary of the start of the First World War was a reminder of how senseless, cruel, and wasteful war can be. Furthermore, it reveals how international political tensions and crises can spiral out of control in ways no one can predict or prevent.

Of course, we all understand that war can be a necessary evil. And in a terrible irony, war and military competition have played a large role in the extraordinary economic, political, social, and technological progress the West has achieved in the past few centuries. There is hardly a political practice, a beloved technology, or improved norm — from the rise of finance capitalism and greater wealth, to the navigation and transportation revolution, to modern medicine, to representative democracy and efficient bureaucracy, to civil rights for African-Americans and women — that cannot be traced to, if not war, then military and international political competition. This helps explain why historians are a humble, crusty, ironic type of scholar. We hate war. But we understand that what the distinguished scholar William McNeil called “the pursuit of power” created a remarkable, lasting legacy.

The ironies and uncertainties with regards to nuclear weapons are, if anything, far greater. Thermonuclear weapons are especially monstrous, potentially civilization-ending weapons, whose use would not only be immoral and senseless, but increasingly unthinkable. Yet we intuit that it is the very destructiveness of the weapons that has prevented the recurrence of great power war since 1945. Great power land wars had been the scourge of Eurasia for thirty-one years before the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of millions on the battlefield and tens of millions more through disease and political upheaval. Seventy years ago, most responsible people expected a third world war to follow the first and second, with consequences far worse than the first. Thankfully, that war never came, and to misuse a title from a famous essay, it has led many people to proclaim, “Thank God for the atom bomb.”

Did nuclear weapons prevent World War Three, and do these weapons have the intended effect of stabilizing world politics by making great power war unthinkable? This potent notion is the foundation of what we’ve come to call deterrence, and our whole way of thinking about nuclear weapons is centered upon the concept. Much of United States national security strategy has been driven for well over a half century by the idea that an attack upon the United States or its allies might elicit a nuclear response, even if our adversary did not use nuclear weapons first. We’ve come to take this posture so for granted that we’ve long since forgotten how novel it is, or how unusual, such a strategy is in the context of American history.

Think about it for a moment — from its founding until 1950, the United States entered no permanent alliances, was almost completely demobilized during peacetime, pursued strategies that allowed it to be hit first and mobilize slowly and massively to win wars of attrition. This strategy allowed for powerful civilian control over the military and strong legislative oversight over the executive branch in matters of war and peace, while remaining relatively isolated from world affairs. The nuclear revolution, and the strategies the United States adopted to deal with it, demanded permanent alliances, forward military deployments, and an often pre-emptive military strategy that left enormous discretion in the hands of battlefield commanders, permanently shifting the power to make war away from Congress to the president.

Again, this strategy is premised on the idea that deterrence — the promise of awful retribution if we are attacked — kept the United States relatively safe and the world relatively stable for decades. Most importantly, it is widely believed that it prevented thermonuclear war. But do we know this to be true? How can we be sure that thermonuclear weapons, and the deterrence that flowed from them, maintained peace and stability?

The problem is that we are trying to understand something that, thank God, never happened, and we hope will never happen — a thermonuclear war. We have an almost impossible time understanding the causes of things that did happen — as many unresolved arguments over what caused the First World War demonstrate. Trying to understand why something did not happen — why we did not have a thermonuclear war — is a methodological nightmare; a situation that eludes a definitive answer from even our most powerful and sophisticated social science methods.

While the idea of nuclear deterrence is intuitively compelling, one can imagine other explanations for the relative peace and stability of world affairs after 1945. The scholar John Mueller once argued nuclear weapons were unneeded to keep the peace, that the world had tired of war after two global conflagrations, that the overwhelming conventional might of the United States was enough to scare any possible rival, and that great power war, like slavery or dueling, was a cultural practice that was increasingly seen as repulsive and not to be pursued. There are other possible explanations for the so-called “Long Peace.” Consider that for centuries, land had been the source of state power. A variety of factors, however — from massively increasing agricultural yields to flattening demographic trends to the development of post-industrial, technologically-driven economies — have made conquest too expensive. In other words, in a world where geographically tiny but economically robust Singapore is the envy of others, who needs great expanses of land? There are lots of other explanations, from norms and taboos to military factors, to explain the absence of great power war since 1945, but the simple fact is, we don’t know. For myself, I suspect nuclear deterrence made an enormous, revolutionary difference, but I can’t prove it.

Why does this point matter? There are two crucial trends shaping the nuclear world, pulling in different directions. The first is the so-called “global zero” movement, or the idea that the world should move towards eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. This aspiration was officially endorsed by none less than President Obama in his 2009 Prague speech, though presidents ranging from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan also shared this goal. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are playing an increasing role in world politics. We all know about the tense negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Less well known is the significant expansion and modernization of the nuclear programs of Russia, China, and Pakistan. The United States is also committed to a multibillion-dollar modernization program.

One strand moves the world towards delegitimizing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. The other strand pulls in the opposite direction, highlighting the importance to states of nuclear weapons for achieving national security and foreign policy objectives. Which is correct? These worldviews, and the policies that flow from them, are enormously consequential, and we need vigorous argument and debate over them. That debate must recognize, however, that the answer to the most important question, the one that matters more than any other policy question that exists — how to avoid a nuclear war — will never been known with certainty. We must be both rigorous and humble as we explore these issues.

And of course, the right approach also turns upon a number of other important questions from our past, questions where answers are as elusive as they are consequential. There are a number of puzzles I wrestle with as a historian of the nuclear age, but I want to focus on four of them. Debating and thinking about them should help shape how we conceive of contemporary and future nuclear dilemmas and choices. They also cut to the fundamental questions surrounding nuclear weapons, deterrence, peace, and stability.

How close did we come to a thermonuclear conflict during the Cold War?

There are at least three ways to look at this. First, through the course of the whole Cold War, did nuclear weapons and the strategies the superpowers employed make great power war and a nuclear exchange more or less likely? Second, how did nuclear weapons, and the risk of nuclear war, affect their behavior during sharp political crises? Did nuclear weapons make it easier or harder to exit crises without a risk of war? And third, how high were the risks of an unintentional nuclear launch or a nuclear accident?

On this question, nuclear weapons clearly had contradictory effects. Writ large, the fear and horrors of thermonuclear war no doubt gave both Soviet and American leaders pause, both during stable times and in crises. That said, one couldn’t read this history without some feeling of terror. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control joins others in highlighting the mistakes, accidents, and near misses that plagued nuclear management. Reading documents on both sides of the Cold War during the 1958 to 1961 Berlin crises, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, or the set of challenges during 1983 and NATO’s Able Archer exercise give one pause.

Perhaps more importantly, the most significant and dangerous crises of the Cold War were generated by the very existence of nuclear weapons. In other words, if one tried the counterfactual of a world without nuclear weapons, the Cuban Missile Crisis makes no sense. Even the crises over West Berlin from 1958 to 1961, if they were, as we now believe, initiated by the Soviet Union to express their anger over the United States moving to arm the West German bundeswehr with nuclear weapons, are nuclear to their core. The crises over the Euromissiles in the late 1970s, the Soviet fear of a NATO nuclear first strike — it is hard to create the counterfactual where these occur in a non-nuclear world. Could it be that in a non-nuclear Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, and NATO and the Warsaw Pact, balance each other perfectly, grudgingly accept each other’s sphere of influence, and avoid major crises? Who knows? But it is a scenario worth thinking about.

Nuclear WeaponsWhat are they good for?

Many argue that nuclear weapons are only good for one thing: deterrence, or preventing states from challenging the global status quo. In theory, this allows nuclear weapons to keep the peace.

The historical record reveals, however, that one man’s deterrence may be another’s compellence. In other words, nuclear-armed states have issued deterrent threats that most likely appeared aggressively coercive to their target. During the dangerous crises between 1958-1961, was Khrushchev trying to compel the Western powers to leave West Berlin or deter the United States from supporting West Germany’s nuclearization? Or both? Did the United States’ threat to use its superior nuclear strength to protect West Berlin, an isolated and conventionally indefensible outpost deep within enemy territory, constitute a reasonable definition of deterrence? The distinction between deterrence, which is stabilizing, and compellence, which is not, was often in the eye of the beholder.

Nuclear deterrence is not always peace-inducing. Some believe strategic nuclear deterrence allows and even encourages military conflict at lower levels. Furthermore, since the use of nuclear weapons is incredible in almost any circumstance, a reckless leader can take advantage of a more responsible nuclear state to make gains through nuclear threats. And states do not always view deterrence as an unalloyed good. One imagines that China deeply resents a status quo, buttressed by American nuclear deterrence, that prevents it from exercising what it believes is its legitimate claims to Taiwan (claims it likely would have long since exercised in a non-nuclear world). One reason the United States goes to such great lengths to limit nuclear proliferation is that it does not like being deterred by others. As a state with overwhelming conventional military, economic, and soft power advantages, it has shown that it will do whatever it can to prevent its freedom of action from being limited by the nuclear deterrent efforts of others.

Why do states pursue nuclear weapons, and why do so few states possess them?

Our world is far less nuclearized than was predicted fifty years ago. Is this a product of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? Is it because of an emerging norm, or taboo, against the use and even possession of nuclear weapons? Is it because the demands of being an open, politically liberal, capitalistic state conflict with the goal of nuclear weapons? Are nuclear weapons sought only by states desiring prestige, or autocrats seeking to cement their leadership position? Has the relatively stable, peaceful international environment decreased the appeal of nuclear weapons? Or have American nuclear nonproliferation efforts — everything from norms and treaties, to threats of sanctions and preventive military strikes, to sprawling alliances and security agreements around the world — been the key factor in keeping the number of nuclear weapons states in the single digits?

Again, we don’t fully know, and we have lots of opinions that demand consideration. There is one interesting surprise in the historical record, however. The United States has gone to as great of lengths to keep its friends and allies non-nuclear — countries ranging from West Germany to Japan and South Korea and Australia and Sweden and Italy and Taiwan — as it has its adversaries. And it was quite willing to work with its major adversary, the Soviet Union, against its friends, to achieve this end.

How much is enough?

In other words, what are the force and strategy requirements for nuclear deterrence? Are they different than the requirements for (re)assuring allies? And can a state achieve meaningful nuclear superiority, and if so, what are the supposed benefits of achieving such primacy?

This is a complex question, but during the Cold War, there were two leading views within the United States. Many of the academic and think tank analysts — renowned thinkers like Bernard Brodie, Robert Jervis, and Ken Waltz — believed that once a state possessed survivable forces — in other words, enough nuclear weapons that even after an attack upon them, they could inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy — there was really no point building more forces. Strategic stability was achieved, and building a larger or more accurate strategic nuclear force, or spending money on missile defenses, was a waste.

Many American decision-makers did not seem to accept this logic, and the United States continued after mutual vulnerability was achieved (and seemingly enshrined in the 1972 SALT and ABM treaties) to seek faster, more accurate, stealthier nuclear forces. The United States developed and deployed multi-billion dollar programs — the Trident D-5, the Peacekeeper, the B-1 and B-2, cruise missiles and the Pershing II, upgrades to C3-I, missile defense, and massive investments in anti-submarine warfare and sub silencing — in what appeared to be an effort to (re)achieve nuclear superiority. What did American decision-makers think they were getting for this massive investment, for these counterforce systems that arguably undermined strategic stability, and did they get what they sought?

There is, by the way, limited, but quite revealing, evidence that the Soviet side understood that the Americans were trying to acquire meaningful superiority in the 1970s and 1980s, based upon capabilities Russia neither had the technology or economic resources to match, and it worried them. It is an interesting contrast to what appears to be a much different attitude in China today, where despite an increasingly vigorous foreign policy based upon an impressive economic and technological base, its leaders seem relatively sanguine about being on the short end of the nuclear balance with the United States.

Which path is the right one — eliminating nuclear weapons or recognizing their centrality to world politics and American national security policy? There is not a more important, consequential issue facing U.S. policymakers. Answering these four questions I posed would go a long way towards helping us navigate the nuclear choices we have in front of us. Truth be told, we rarely wrestle with these complex questions in a serious enough way, nor do we acknowledge how uncertain the answers to some of these questions may be. Yet we must try, and the first place we should look is to the past, and our contested nuclear history.


Francis J. Gavin is the Frank Stanton Professor of Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT and the author of Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. A version of these comments were presented at Southern Methodist University March 26, 2015.