The Cold Comfort of Mutually Assured Destruction

June 16, 2021
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: The Revolution that Failed” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Brendan Rittenhouse Green, The Revolution that Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)


Beating up on the theory of the nuclear revolution has become a popular enterprise these days. Decades after the end of the Cold War, scholars have begun to cast doubt on the things that I learned in graduate school about nuclear weapons, especially the notion that the condition of mutually assured destruction (MAD) should promote stability among the great powers. As a former student of Charles Glaser, this, on the one hand, comes as somewhat of a shock. On the other hand, it speaks to doubts that I have long harbored about the theory of the nuclear revolution. If the theory is so powerful, then why can it not explain the Cold War arms race? Why did leaders in the United States, NATO, and the Soviet Union not take comfort in MAD? Surely there must be more going on here than simply the suboptimal behavior of dunderheaded policymakers?

Brendan Rittenhouse Green has provided a very compelling answer to these questions in his creative new book, The Revolution that Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War. Not only is this volume a balm for my distress, it also makes two important contributions to our understanding of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. At the outset, Green provides a compelling strategic logic to explain why the United States and the Soviet Union pursued competitive nuclear weapons policies, including in the arena of arms control. Competition made good strategic sense because policymakers had doubts about the survivability of nuclear arsenals; the political and territorial status quo did not always seem clear or obvious; and strategists on both sides could never know for certain that their adversary believed in MAD. Put another way, both the balance of interests and the balance of power are hard to measure. Complicating matters further, a country that showed that it did not believe in MAD might gain bargaining advantages in a crisis.



According to Green’s intricate argument, under these conditions we should expect states to compete, and to try to do so efficiently. They should select competitive strategies that reflect their strengths and weaknesses, or, as he puts it, “constitutional fitness.” To that end, American policymakers could count on advantages in production and direction. These advantages translated into a preference for qualitative arms races. To illustrate the causal mechanisms of his argument, Green assembles an impressive amount of archival evidence from the 1970s. In careful detail, he takes the reader through the changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the strategies that American policymakers pursued for arms control during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations.

If Green is right, and I think he is, his work calls into question the alleged benefits that should arise when nuclear-armed powers live under the condition of mutually assured destruction. International politics, his book posits, is not particularly stable in these circumstances. Theorists of the nuclear revolution discount the uncertainty about the survivability of nuclear arsenals that can arise with improvements in military technology. They also discount the ambiguity surrounding the political and territorial status quo. As a result, we should expect competition and crises, rather than the stable world predicted by the theory of the nuclear revolution. Green does a good job of explaining the wide-ranging implications of his argument for both international relations theory and national security policy. For example, optimists about nuclear proliferation need to exercise greater caution about the spread of nuclear weapons if they engender competition rather than peace.

This is a book that the field of security studies will need to grapple with, since it overturns much of what scholars believe about nuclear deterrence. All of us who share an interest in nuclear weapons policy should read it. As one might expect from work that undercuts the conventional wisdom about this era, Green’s book will probably spark further conversation about the Cold War and nuclear deterrence in general.

After finishing this masterly work, I am left with three main thoughts. First, it seems like American policymakers got more right than wrong about the Cold War nuclear arms competition. Second, I wonder now if victory was in fact possible in a nuclear war. Finally, can Green’s theory explain competition and arms control before and after the groovy 1970s?

Policymakers Largely Got It Right: Deterrence During the Cold War Was Not Easy

One fact that clearly emerges from Green’s book is that policymakers seemed to correctly understand the dynamics of Cold War nuclear deterrence. This observation contradicts the consensus in the scholarly literature, which holds that the nuclear revolution made the arms race unnecessary (and not really all that dangerous). According to this view, which is still widely held today, the condition of MAD should have stabilized international politics, since the requirements of nuclear deterrence were easily met and nearly impossible to overturn. Because nuclear arsenals remained secure, the cost of war was too high to risk competition. The intense nuclear competition, therefore, was not caused by strategic circumstances, but rather by domestic pathologies, which prevented policymakers in both Washington and Moscow from learning to live with and love the bomb. Policymakers simply missed the boat when it came to how and why nuclear deterrence worked.

As Green’s theory would expect, however, American policymakers correctly believed that they inhabited a far more competitive world. In their view, too much uncertainty surrounded the requirements of nuclear deterrence, including the survivability of nuclear forces. They could also not know with enough certainty if the Soviets agreed about the virtues of MAD. The costs of war would be very high if they were wrong.

To illustrate, I recall watching former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld debate proponents of the nuclear revolution about the nature of deterrence at a meeting of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Rumsfeld argued that nuclear deterrence was difficult and not guaranteed, not even in MAD, if such a thing existed. Even though this forum took place over two decades ago, I remember how Rumsfeld swayed many members of the audience to his position — especially the non-specialists — by turning to his opponents and asking: “And what if you are wrong about the power of MAD?”

Perhaps the views of the defense policy luminary Paul Nitze serve as a good snapshot of the Cold War consensus among policymakers about nuclear weapons. Nitze stands out as a unique player in the defense politics of the time, due to his four decades of experience in government under both Republican and Democratic administrations. After negotiating with him, the Soviets dubbed him the “Silver Fox,” and his biographer, Strobe Talbott, referred to Nitze as the “grey eminence of nuclear diplomacy.”

Throughout his career, Nitze dismissed the deterrent value of MAD. The threat of mutually assured destruction, he felt, lacked the credibility to deter a Soviet attack on NATO or the United States, a concern that was widely shared within the U.S. government and by its European allies. As he explained:

To go after cities, if deterrence should fail, to my mind would be suicidal. It wasn’t just a question of damage-limiting; I believed—and still do—that a counterforce doctrine and posture of sufficient scope would persuade the Soviet Union that it could not count on achieving a military victory in a nuclear exchange. This would assure effective deterrence.

Similarly, Nitze concluded that only superior nuclear forces would ensure international stability. The nuclear balance, in his view, influenced Soviet global ambitions. He warned,

I believe that only by maintaining this superiority of strategic and nonstrategic military forces can the United States have the optimum opportunity to use its military power short of war to support its foreign policy or be in a position to win a military victory, at the lowest level of conflict adequate to do the job, if war should, nevertheless, occur.

Prudent policymakers had to hedge and could not rely on MAD to promote peace. As Nitze reflected toward the end of the Cold War, “Although some argued that nuclear weapons would radically change the nature of warfare, responsible officials did not hold this view.”

And the Silver Fox was not alone. A wide swath of analysts and government officials largely shared his pessimism about MAD. The RAND Corporation, which grew up alongside its main sponsor, the U.S. Air Force, wrestled for decades with the question of how to implement credibly a policy of extended deterrence to NATO under a delicate nuclear balance of terror. Similarly, from the Office of Net Assessment the highly influential Defense Department strategist Andrew Marshall commissioned and conducted studies to investigate how the United States could most effectively compete with the Soviet Union. Marshall developed and promoted his “competitive strategies approach” in large part because he did not believe in nuclear stalemate.

As the Cold War progressed, U.S. policymakers became increasingly enamored with ambitious and exotic nuclear deterrence strategies. The Kennedy administration replaced its predecessor’s concept of “massive retaliation” with the notional strategy of “flexible response,” which called for the United States to develop the capacity to prevail in a limited nuclear war. If deterrence failed in Europe and the Soviet Union launched a blitzkrieg against NATO, the United States needed more options than doing nothing or throwing the nuclear kitchen sink at Moscow in response. Whatever the good intentions, these schemes seemed more like risky bets than concrete strategies, and top policymakers never expressed much confidence in them. And when the Carter administration pushed its “countervailing strategy” in the late 1970s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff complained, in Janne Nolan’s words, that the United States “still did not have the forces to execute these even more elaborate civilian fantasies.”

In addition to the development of increasingly ambitious strategies, one additional pattern of interest emerged in U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons policy: a cycle of optimism and pessimism about the state of the nuclear competition. Sometimes American officials believed that the United States had the lead both in terms of numbers and technology. At other times, the sky was falling. Consider the debate over the vulnerability of the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, which Green describes in rich detail in his book. The Nixon administration entered into the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I ) interim agreement with the knowledge that U.S. advantages in multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology would give it a leg up against Soviet ICBMs. This optimism gave way to the concern in the mid-1970s that the Soviets had gotten the better end of SALT I, deploying its own MIRVs on its heavier, land-based ICBMs. A similar vacillation occurred with respect to the balance of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. Early in the Carter administration, U.S. officials concluded that the new Soviet SS-20 missile did not pose a threat, since NATO possessed other theater nuclear forces to counter it. But U.S. allies, West Germany in particular, convinced America that the SS-20 demanded an urgent American counter.

What caused these oscillations between pessimism and optimism about the nuclear balance? American officials did not express confidence in MAD, as predicted by the theory of the nuclear revolution. Instead, these mood swings confirm Green’s theory about a delicate nuclear competition.

However, other factors than the ones identified in The Revolution that Failed might have contributed to these shifting estimates. The perception of U.S. NATO allies of the credibility of the American deterrent, for example, seems to have also played an important role in shaping American policy. U.S. officials displayed great sensitivity to the concerns of Washington’s allies. They still do. Consider the following counterfactuals: Would U.S. nuclear weapons policy have looked the same if the United States had not attempted to extend deterrence to Europe? Would it have looked the same if Washington had tried to extend deterrence with conventional forces, instead of relying primarily on nuclear weapons? My hunch is that nuclear competition would have still taken place — contrary to the dictates of the theory of the nuclear revolution — but that the arms race would have developed with significantly less intensity.

Was Victory Possible?

By the late 1960s, Soviet nuclear forces began to approach parity with the American arsenal. Proponents of the nuclear revolution mark this as the moment when the superpowers began to live in a state of mutually assured destruction. Both countries possessed seemingly secure second-strike forces of such size that, no matter how well they executed a first strike, neither would escape a devastating retaliatory blow. Neither country could limit damage to itself in any appreciable way, no matter what combination of offensive or defensive counterforce capabilities it threw at the problem. For proponents of the theory of the nuclear revolution, this condition would provide the foundation for an uneasy peace, if only the superpowers would embrace it.

Green convincingly demonstrates that the superpowers were buying none of it. Each made efforts to escape MAD, with the United States ultimately getting the better of the Soviets in the counterforce competition. The Revolution that Failed is quite good at illustrating the U.S. technological improvements that were made during the 1970s, which gave Washington the ability to significantly limit damage to itself in a nuclear exchange. Taken together with advances in communication, surveillance, and precision, America fielded an impressive array of counterforce capabilities. These would permit the United States to exploit vulnerabilities in Soviet nuclear-armed bombers and submarines. And the improved accuracy of U.S. forces would offset Soviet advantages in land-based ICBMs.

Did these U.S. capabilities mean, to paraphrase the title of a famous article from the 1980s, that victory was possible? I think that the answer is more political than technical. On the technical side, Green and others have provided persuasive evidence that the United States could have limited significant damage to itself in a nuclear exchange. Given these improvements in counterforce capabilities, the United States likely could have avoided assured destruction without resorting to the absurd civilian defense schemes that were promoted by people like T.K. Jones.

Nonetheless, being on the receiving end of any kind of Soviet retaliatory strike seems unpleasant, to put it mildly. Cold War studies of limited nuclear attacks on the United States or the Soviet Union still paint a fairly destructive picture, with tens of millions of casualties on each side. And if anything, these studies probably downplayed the effects of mass fires. Moreover, the jury is still out on how many nuclear weapons detonations would cause a nuclear winter.

The Revolution that Failed has persuaded me — albeit in an uneasy way — that the United States might have escaped Armageddon in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. However, I do not think the country would have emerged unscathed. The United States would have been better off than proponents of the theory of the nuclear revolution have claimed, but there would have still been plenty of pain to go around. Put another way, Washington might have broken out of MAD only to find itself still in the condition of mutually assured retaliation. A better place, to be sure, but still not free of grave danger.

There are three implications that flow from this observation. First, the bargaining advantages that the United States gained by escaping MAD might not have been very large because the costs of war remained extremely high. As my old mentor Roger Molander used to say, “The threat of one nuclear weapon detonating over Washington, D.C. during working hours is probably enough of a deterrent to focus the mind.” Second, since America likely lives in a condition of mutually assured retaliation with many of its adversaries today — Russia included — Washington probably still does not possess much of a bargaining advantage in crises, even though it possesses superior nuclear forces. Finally, crisis instability poses more of a danger in a world of mutually assured retaliation. Under MAD, striking preemptively in a crisis is futile, since neither side can limit damage to itself. Striking first in conditions of mutually assured retaliation, however, might to a certain extent pay off, depending on the vulnerabilities of an adversary’s arsenal, something an opponent will also realize. If these three observations hold, then the nuclear future might prove as, or potentially more, competitive than the nuclear past that Green describes in The Revolution that Failed.

Applying the Theory Before and After the 1970s

Future work should explore whether Green’s theory can shed light on the Cold War competition before and after the 1970s. My informed hunch tells me that there is much that Green’s argument can explain about the periods of history that preceded and followed that decade. For example, the Reagan administration seemed far more ruthless in its pursuit of American qualitative superiority when it began negotiations with the Soviets on the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START) than the Nixon and Ford administrations did during the SALT process. Washington’s desire to reach an agreement that reduced Moscow’s superiority in land-based ICBMs matches the expectation of Green’s theory.

By contrast, there are two earlier Cold War episodes that I have trouble reconciling with the book’s argument. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara eschewed intense competition as his tenure progressed over the course of the 1960s, such that the United States almost seemed to be taking a hiatus from the arms race and to be looking to embrace MAD instead. At the other end of the spectrum, the Gaither Report of 1957 stoked hysteria about the nuclear balance by suggesting that the United States lacked the ability to compete in the long run with the Soviet Union. This handwringing seems misplaced, given that we now know that the United States had serious advantages in nuclear weapons capabilities going into the 1960s.

Perhaps that is the beauty of Green’s argument. The Cold War nuclear balance was delicate both before and after the 1970s. For this reason, it is not especially surprising that policymakers rode an emotional rollercoaster. Such a finding is important for today’s policymakers, who have recently rediscovered — with too much enthusiasm — great-power competition. The Revolution that Failed should remind us that when it comes to nuclear weapons, such competitions are difficult and dangerous.



Jasen Castillo is an associate professor and the Evelyn and Ed F. Kruse ’49 Faculty Fellow in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, as well as the co-director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Stephanie Serrano)