The Human Face of Nuclear Deterrence


In 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tried to kick NATO out of Berlin, and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation loomed. Khrushchev warned U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who steadfastly refused to give in to the Soviet demands, that “only a madman” would risk nuclear war over the divided German capital. Eisenhower simultaneously maintained that it wouldn’t come to that, but also that it might: “The actual decision to go to all-out war will not come,” he declared confidently, “but if it does, we must have the crust to follow through.”

The American president probably did not know what Khrushchev had said about his first nuclear weapons briefing a few years earlier: “I couldn’t sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that, I was able to sleep again.” But lest anyone think this actually meant we could never possibly use these weapons, Khrushchev added, “all the same, we must be prepared.”

Eisenhower would have understood these dueling sentiments, for he, too, was playing the tricky balancing game of insisting that he was quite willing to use nuclear weapons while simultaneously insisting that he’d never have to. As he and Khrushchev knew, preventing Armageddon in the thermonuclear age required finding one’s inner madman, all the while keeping the madman’s worst impulses at bay.



This psychological high-wire act is the essence of nuclear deterrence — the incredibly counterintuitive yet somehow eminently sensible idea that preparing for war is the best way to prevent war. Deterrence is a necessarily abstract and slippery concept. Strategists today often talk about “reestablishing deterrence” or “restoring deterrence” against various adversaries, prompting some observers to wonder whether the notion has become essentially meaningless. But a look at the early history of the Cold War reveals a more human aspect of deterrence: the psychological and emotional demands it places on those charged with establishing and maintaining it.

This essay revisits the uncertain, fearful early years of the nuclear age, drawing on my War on the Rocks podcast series “A Most Terrible Weapon.” As the podcast has illustrated, the people in charge of the massive and growing atomic arsenals had to engage in a strange cognitive game to normalize nuclear weapons’ existence in their minds. Even as they worked to make the weapons more frightening and the promise of their use more credible, they had to constantly reassure themselves that this terrifying power would never be used — precisely because it existed in the first place. It was a time of uncertainty and moral consternation, overshadowed by a looming sense of crisis. Faced with no good options, Cold War leaders chose to stake humanity’s survival on the confounding, or perhaps comforting, notion that a nuclear war would never be fought — if only both sides would remain unshakably committed to fighting one.

Seventy-five years since the atomic era began, any sense of crisis is largely gone. Nuclear deterrence seems to have prevailed, but its “tortured logic” is no less frustrating to leaders who must still promise war and peace at the same time. The dawn of the nuclear age presented an impossible question: Must we prepare for an unthinkable nuclear war in order to preserve a fragile nuclear peace? Today, though we may not be as acutely aware of it, the same question hangs, still unanswered, over all of humanity.

The Complex Statecraft of Nuclear Deterrence

Harry S. Truman was the only person in history ever to order a nuclear attack, and he hated the thought of having to do it again. During an early discussion about postwar military options, an aide reminded him, “Mr. President, you have an atomic bomb up your sleeve.” The president’s despondent response: “Yes, but I am not sure it can ever be used.”

Yet it was Truman who sent nuclear-armed bombers back over the Pacific to show U.S. resolve in Korea, Truman who green-lit critical expansions of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and Truman who described Robert Oppenheimer as a “cry-baby” when the physicist who had helmed the Manhattan Project lamented that he had blood on his hands. Perhaps most consequentially, it was Truman who decided that the United States would be the first to develop the hydrogen bomb. A panel of scientists advised against it, warning that the destructive power of the so-called Superbomb could make it essentially a genocidal weapon. But the Soviets had just tested their first atomic bomb, and a plan to put nuclear weapons under international control had failed. Truman gave in to the logic of what had already become an arms race. “What the hell are we waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s get on with it.” Once it was clear the Cold War was here to stay, Truman buried any hesitations he may have had and focused on making the United States a nuclear superpower.

Still, separating public duty from personal emotions was difficult. After making the call on the hydrogen bomb, Truman tried to rationalize his decision, but his words revealed how conflicted he himself was. “We’re going to use this for peace and never use it for war,” he said. “I’ve always said this and you’ll see. It will be like poison gas, never used again.” As it happens, he’s been right so far (about hydrogen bombs, not poison gas). But one wonders whether he believed the weapons would never be used because of the sheer terror they entailed — or in spite of it.

The doublethink of deterrence became even starker under Eisenhower. The former supreme allied commander of Europe arrived in office shortly after the United States and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear bombs. Nuclear conflict, previously seen as just a messier version of World War II, was now synonymous with the end of the world. That’s why many found it counterintuitive and even appalling when Eisenhower, who had seen the horrors of war on the European continent, adopted a policy of “massive retaliation.” The idea was to threaten a significant nuclear response to any Soviet provocations, both to save money on conventional forces in Europe and to make the thought of war so terrifying that it could never happen: threatening war to prevent war.

To make this early form of nuclear deterrence work, however, Eisenhower had to show that he meant what he said. So he fought against the idea that nuclear arms belonged in some special, unusable category, indicating through official documents and his own statements that nuclear weapons were no different from conventional ones. “I see no reason,” he maintained, “why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Yet no other president so clearly embodies the contradictions of nuclear deterrence. Even as he promised massive retaliation and showed his willingness to go to the nuclear brink in places like Berlin and Taiwan, Eisenhower was deeply conflicted about nuclear weapons. He realized that prevailing in a thermonuclear conflict would be nothing like the triumphant victory of 1945. “What do you do with the world after you have won victory in such a catastrophic nuclear war?” he wondered. Another time, he concluded darkly that “the only thing worse than losing a global war was winning one.”

It’s impossible to know whether Eisenhower ever would have carried out his nuclear threats. And it’s hard to say whether he perceived any contradiction between his words, actions, and emotions. More likely, he saw massive retaliation as the logical way to prevent war, not something that invited it. Yet Eisenhower wondered about the aggressive nuclear and military posture he himself had contributed to building up. In the same farewell address in which he famously warned about the military-industrial complex, the president who had once said, “If the Russians want war over Berlin, they can have it,” expressed regret for not making the world safer from nuclear terror:

Disarmament with mutual honor and confidence is a continuing imperative. … I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization … I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

As Eisenhower biographer Will Hitchcock told me in Episode 3, “It’s evident that there is a tension in Eisenhower and his grand strategy. On the one hand, he is a man who very much wants to avoid war. And yet, here he is building up this enormous nuclear arsenal, and also talking quite casually with his advisers about using nuclear weapons just as if they were ordinary weapons of war.”

“But of course,” Hitchcock added, “this tension is not Eisenhower’s tension. This is the tension of the Cold War itself.”

After Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy’s administration came in hoping to find more sensible nuclear solutions. Appalled by the all-or-nothing nature of massive retaliation, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his team of “whiz kids” pursued a supposedly more humane approach called flexible response — the idea that instead of going to all-out nuclear war when provoked, we could find tailored, proportionate responses to keep nuclear weapons in check while still taking advantage of their power. Yet as nuclear scholar Frank Gavin has argued, flexible response proved little different from the system it sought to replace. McNamara soon concluded that trying to plan for a controlled nuclear war was impossible. And so the question remained: Was there any form of nuclear deterrence that didn’t risk precisely the sort of civilization-ending cataclysm Kennedy and company were trying to avoid? The absurdity of the arms race, it seems, produced absurd solutions that were the worst option — except, perhaps, for all the others.

On the other side of the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered a similar study in nuclear contradictions. As Russian nuclear expert Pavel Podvig told me in Episode 5, Khrushchev had a much more complex attitude toward nuclear weapons than, say, Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong. “He was literally terrified by the power of nuclear weapons and the possibility of a nuclear war,” Podvig said. “At the same time, Khrushchev was perfectly willing to consider these weapons as a political instrument.” As the crises in Berlin and Cuba showed, Khrushchev, a notoriously insecure man, was willing to use nuclear threats to flex on his enemies. This despite — or perhaps because of — his conviction that nuclear weapons could never be used. Like Eisenhower, Khrushchev skillfully played the balancing act between the two pillars of deterrence: flaunting nuclear weapons while promising they’d never be used. And as with Eisenhower, these two ideas were somehow both complementary and contradictory.

Some of Khrushchev’s colleagues found the balancing act more difficult. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov could not fathom the idea of nuclear war because mutual annihilation undermined the Marxist-Leninist belief that socialism would defeat capitalism in the war to come. So committed was Molotov to the class war that he wrote off the possibility that this war might be nuclear. “How can it be asserted,” he asked, “that civilization could perish in an atomic war? Can we make the peoples believe that in the event of war all must perish? Then why should we build socialism? Why worry about tomorrow? It would be better to supply everyone with coffins now.”

Molotov’s comments are a remarkable illustration of willful blindness, of twisting oneself into knots to avoid confronting the terrifying reality of the nuclear era. Unlike Khrushchev, Molotov simply couldn’t square nuclear weapons with his preexisting worldview. Though that worldview was warped by ideology, in a way Molotov had a more honest perspective on nuclear weapons because he refused to hold two contradictory ideas in his head at once.

The Emotional Weight of Armageddon

Looking back, one wonders what it was like to live in those first years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki — to be a statesman or scientist making nuclear weapons policy for the first time. Was the emotional burden crushing, the worry about getting it wrong constant?

Research by Lynn Eden, a Stanford scholar who has studied the sociology of nuclear war planning, suggests that the horrified reactions of heads of state may be the exception that proves the rule. Most rank-and-file planners who worked on nuclear targeting, Eden told me, had organizational and psychological incentives to “put aside … a sense of horror that they may have had.” She likes to compare these targeteers to Dilbert, the comic strip office worker who embodies the drudgery of bureaucracy. Their jobs required them to downplay the human consequences of their jobs and treat nuclear targeting as an abstract technical problem — just another day at the office planning Armageddon.

One former official involved in nuclear war planning told Eden that it became an “emotional burden to read the war plans. You begin to lose sight that you’re talking about the end of civilization. You look at this and think you might actually have to employ one of these [plans] some day and it’s just mind boggling.” The official continued, “I think that when you work long enough on targeting, you … have to stop thinking about what executing one of those options really means. Because I don’t know how you could live with yourself if you did.”

The daily grind left little room for emotional reaction or moral certitude. In their place, people adopted blinders to protect them from reality — not unlike Molotov cocooning himself in the comforting tenets of Leninism to avoid thinking about what nuclear weapons might really mean.

Lawrence Freedman, a renowned nuclear scholar and author of the book Deterrence, told me that deterrence is psychologically discomforting because it relies on inaction rather than action. “You’re asking people to develop these weapons, man the systems,” he said. “And the idea that they can do this as some sort of elaborate charade is always going to be difficult. They’re always going to want — need — to have something to do in the event that the crisis comes.”

Throughout the nuclear age, the fact that our security seems to depend on our willingness to destroy our fellow man has not made anyone happy. This disturbing reality pushed left-wing nuclear freeze activists to seek disarmament, just as it motivated Ronald Reagan to seek a missile shield around the United States. As diplomatic historian Susie Colbourn told me on the podcast, “That you would invest in and construct weapons that are capable of destroying cities, civilians, the entire planet, life as we know it, in the name of providing security — that is, for generations of people, an uncomfortable aspect of deterrence to sit with.”

Josh Rovner wrote in these pages in 2017 that the logic of deterrence “has never been appealing to policymakers, who struggle against the idea that it is morally acceptable to leave their citizens open to annihilation and to hold millions of foreigners hostage.” Even so, he concluded, leaders stick with deterrence because they think it’s the best alternative they have. It seems that’s what Truman, Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and others found out as they struggled against — but eventually learned to live with — the psychological burdens of the nuclear Cold War. As Freedman concluded, “The emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still emperor.”

History and Humility 

The story of the early nuclear age is the story of faceless, menacing arsenals growing bigger and bigger in response to abstract game-theoretical calculations about first and second strikes. But it’s also the story of the struggles — and failings — of individual decision-makers, people building a system that they hated but that they hoped was better than the alternatives. Nuclear deterrence wasn’t a mathematical result of the number and types of warheads. It was a system, developed over years by human beings and their choices. Sometimes this development was intentional, and other times deterrence was baptized by fire as Korea, Taiwan, Berlin, and Cuba offered a few too many opportunities to field-test the concept. But all the while, the people in charge were stumbling around in the dark, haunted by memories of the last war, trying to light the way forward.

Putting ourselves in these leaders’ shoes does not mean absolving them of responsibility. We can identify a number of decision points where a leader could have chosen differently. Truman moved ahead with the hydrogen bomb against expert advice, and Eisenhower chose to bring the country to the nuclear brink multiple times, to say nothing of Khrushchev’s role running a totalitarian dictatorship with a long list of crimes more horrific than playing with nuclear fire. Indeed, we can and should question leaders’ decisions to pursue bigger nuclear arsenals and more destructive war plans, even if they did so to prevent either from ever being used. Many who have held these positions of power now argue that there is a better way.

Yet scholars aren’t certain that leaders deserve blame for the system they created. As Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology told me:

I think the biggest surprise to young people when they learn about this is … that the people who were setting up all this, they’re not evil people, for the most part. Some of them might be a little unstable at times. But they’re just people-people. And they came to the conclusion that the best option was to set up a system that has flaws that are immensely visible and were visible even at the time.

Wellerstein’s view — that studying history forces us to be humble about the choices nuclear policymakers faced — was widely shared among the experts I interviewed. Eden told me in Episode 1 that she has felt some of her moral certainty fade away:

I find the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrifying. Although, I think if I had been a decision-maker then, I no longer feel like I’m certain that I would not have ordered it. Over many years, I’ve become more humble about my own ethical strength. … I didn’t expect to be saying that … I’m just less sure of my moral stance.

Today, politics can seem devoid of humility and complexity. It can be difficult to imagine modern leaders wrestling deeply with moral ambiguity. Nuclear history offers reason to be both more sympathetic to policymakers past and present as well as more critical of them. The people to whom we entrust our safety are only human. But, of course, the people in their charge are human as well — a fact that the imperatives of governance can make it all too easy to forget.

It’s never too late to debate whether the world is a safer place as a result of the decisions to build nuclear weapons, to use them, to build even more, and threaten to use those as well, all supposedly to preserve the peace. But that debate should not preclude — indeed, it should be informed by — an understanding of the people who wrestled with these questions on behalf of all of civilization. Nuclear weapons foisted a terrible, perhaps unsolvable burden onto decision-makers — mere human beings, wrestling with a problem that challenged their very humanity.



Usha Sahay is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former managing editor of War on the Rocks. She is the creator and host of the War on the Rocks podcast series “A Most Terrible Weapon.” Previously, Ms. Sahay was an editor at the Wall Street Journal and HuffPost, and the director of digital outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World.

Image: FDR Library