Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Nuclear Weapons Don't Matter

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Nuclear Weapons Don't Matter

Article excerpt

The unleashed power of the atom," Albert Einstein wrote in 1946, "has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Winston Churchill noted in 1955, however, that nuclear deterrence might produce stability instead and predicted that "safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation." Einstein's view became the touchstone of the modern peace movement. Churchill's view evolved into mainstream Western nuclear strategy and doctrine. Both argued that the nuclear revolution had fundamentally transformed international politics. Both were wrong.

Since the 1940s, nuclear weapons have greatly affected defense budgets, political and military posturing, and academic theory. Beyond that, however, their practical significance has been vastly exaggerated by both critics and supporters. Nuclear weapons were not necessary to deter a third world war. They have proved useless militarily; in fact, their primary use has been to stoke the national ego or to posture against real or imagined threats. Few states have or want them, and they seem to be out of reach for terrorists. Their impact on international affairs has been minor compared with the sums and words expended on them.

The costs resulting from the nuclear weapons obsession have been huge. To hold its own in a snarling contest with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States spent $5-$10 trillion maintaining a vast nuclear arsenal- resources that could have been used more productively on almost anything else. To head off the imagined dangers that would result from nuclear proliferation, Washington and its allies have imposed devastating economic sanctions on countries such as Iraq and North Korea, and even launched a war of aggression- sorry, "preemption"-that killed more people than did the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The time has long since come to acknowledge that the thinkers of the early nuclear age were mistaken in believing that the world had been made anew. In retrospect, they overestimated the importance of the nuclear revolution and the delicacy of the balance of terror. This spurred generations of officials to worry more about nuclear matters than they should have and to distort foreign and security policies in unfortunate ways. Today's policymakers don't have to repeat the same mistakes, and everybody would be better off if they didn't.


Over the decades, the atomic obsession has taken various forms, focusing on an endless array of worst-case scenarios: bolts from the blue, accidental wars, lost arms races, proliferation spirals, nuclear terrorism. The common feature among all these disasters is that none of them has ever materialized. Either we are the luckiest people in history or the risks have been overstated.

The cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg received a Pulitzer Prize for a 1947 cartoon showing a huge atomic bomb teetering on a cliff between "world control" and "world destruction." In 1950, the historian John Lewis Gaddis has noted, no U.S. official could imagine "that there would be no World War" or that the superpowers, "soon to have tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons pointed at one another, would agree tacitly never to use any of them." And in 1951, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell put the matter simply:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are:-

1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.

2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.

3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.

The novelist and scientist C. P. Snow proclaimed it a "certainty" in 1960 that several nuclear weapons would go off within ten years, and the strategist Herman Kahn declared it "most unlikely" that the world could live with an uncontrolled arms race for decades. …

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