THE NUCLEAR REVOLUTION
AT AN ARMISTICE DAY ceremony on November 11, 1948, during an address as part of the events, General Omar Bradley stated that “ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” What did he mean? He was likely referring to the tremendous, and not completely understood, destructive capacity of the atomic bomb, and what it meant for the moral and ethical dilemmas common to warfare. For leaders who came of age in World War II, where authorizing an air strike meant sending hundreds of planes to drop tens of thousands of bombs, the idea that one plane carrying one bomb could deliver a destructive blow equivalent to literally thousands of conventional bombs was revolutionary.1 Scientists, officers, and strategists—including prominent Manhattan Project leaders like Robert Oppenheimer, professors like Bernard Brodie, and generals like Bradley—believed that nuclear weapons represented a unique era of fighting that required reexamining the very way society conceptualized warfare.
More than sixty years later, nuclear weapons are still the coin of the realm in international power politics. In the United States, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but especially nuclear weapons, has been at the top of the foreign policy agenda for decades (Bush 2006).
Given that nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945, it is curious that successive U.S. administrations have placed such a high premium on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in general and nuclear weapons in particular. The explanation likely lies in the belief that nuclear weapons as an element of national power give states important coercive capabilities. How is it that North Korea, with its tiny economy and backward regime, can make the front page of the New York Times? The knowledge that North Korea has nuclear weapons, and could sell them to terrorists or use them in a war, has elevated North Korea on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities far above where it would otherwise exist. It is both the impact on the coercive power of states and the potential for actual use that makes nuclear weapons so crucial.
Evaluating nuclear weapons through the lens of adoption-capacity theory exposes a slightly different view of the factors that drive state decision making in the nuclear age than that of traditional theories. Most of the prominent literature on the spread of nuclear weapons along with more current discussions
1 Several books have utilized the phrase “the nuclear revolution.” See Benthem van den Bergh
1992; Kintner and Scott 1968; Mandelbaum 1981.