The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence

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Did nuclear deterrence “keep us safe” for sixty years during the Cold War? Does it, in other words, work? For those who already have nuclear weapons, does nuclear deterrence justify their keeping them?

Nuclear deterrence is based on the assumption that in moments of extreme national crisis attacks against cities (or the threat of attacks against cities) will matter. Much of our thinking about this question, however, ignores the available evidence and recent reinterpretations of important cases.

New Jersey-based independent scholar Ward Wilson, winner of the 2008 Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge, will offer a critique of nuclear deterrence and a detailed discussion of the historical evidence that contradicts the concept.

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8 thoughts on “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence

  1. Pingback: Mike Gravel: Israel Threatens Nuclear War « Dandelion Salad

  2. I have yet to see this program but I lived through the Cold War and was of age for military service. However I was not conscripted. As an aging social scientist and historian, mutual deterrence did work and in many respects the world was a safer place during those years. It says a great deal for the steady decline of academic studies that this question can be abstracted from the dynamics of the great ideological struggle of the 20th century. It cannot be told in isolation. As a resident of a country which benefited from the US nuclear umbrella, I for one will be forever grateful to successive administrations for guaranteeing peace. The fact that the world is much more dangerous these days has little to do with the policy of MAD and a great deal to do with the clash of civilizations, which if I may say so, Americans are very slow to recognize.

    I saw 9/11 live on TV and seriously thought it wasn’t anything more than a promo for a forthcoming program, and that is until I turned up the volume and then went to satellite TV. No one wants to see nuclear weapons used again, except wild-eyed fanatics of a religious persuasion and it grieves me that some of these people call themselves Christians.

    I don’t really agree with a great deal that I read on your newsletter but I would defend to the death your right to publish any views that you choose. That is supposed to be a principle of democracy and one that we in the West hold dear. To those who want to engage in dialogue with the Islamic extremists, I can only offer the observation that the only thing they want to discuss are the terms of our surrender. My biggest fear for your country is that a terrorist group will use dirty nuclear weapons that would leave your cities uninhabitable and render the chances of retaliation somewhat remote.

    Not being an American citizen does not prevent me from being critical of the activities of the US government at times and that includes the Iraq adventure. Your country is being asked to shoulder an unfair burden by its nominal allies in the West. An incoming administration should demand a greater contribution for the public good. I do not believe America is perfect, far from it, but I am old enough and realistic enough to know that without the US, I would not have survived World War II or the Cold War.

  3. Firstly, no Dandelion I didn’t watch it all… don’t need to…
    Jonolan hit the nail on the head…

    People aren’t nice and aren’t good, not when they’re subsumed as part of “the masses.” Threats are the only sure way to stem the tide of misbehavior when one is dealing at the level of nations. It’s a sad lesson that history has taught us.

    The exact same principal applies to the gun control kooks… if you outlaw guns, then only outlaws will have guns…

  4. Yes I did. i just happen to disagree with its conclusions. I believe that East & West would have gone to war – catastrophic war – if it hadn’t been made prohibitively costly due to nuclear weapons. We settled for dirty, nasty proxy wars across the 3rd-World instead.

    People aren’t nice and aren’t good, not when they’re subsumed as part of “the masses.” Threats are the only sure way to stem the tide of misbehavior when one is dealing at the level of nations. It’s a sad lesson that history has taught us.

  5. I would say that the “threat of mutually assured destruction” is the primary thing that kept the Cold War cold instead of escalating into a globally cataclysmic war. The fact that we and the Commies would destroy each other in a fight is just about the only thing that kept the world alive for those 60 years.

    Things have changed though. The nuclear powers could at this point seriously downgrade their nuclear arsenals. Each only needs a few “city killers” to provide the currently advisable levels of deterrence since the emerging nuclear threats are nations that are smaller and that can be broken much easier than either the US or the USSR could be.

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