Deterrence was never a well-loved concept in the United States.
Nuclear weapons have a peculiar relationship to thinking. Their (fortunately) abstract nature since August 1945 and their lack of “visibility” since the end of atmospheric tests make them special in this respect. As the late Michael Quinlan stated, “We have no empirical data beyond 1945 about how events may run if nuclear weapons are used.”2 Unlike tanks or aircraft, the impact of nuclear weapons on international security is mainly about ideas. To a large extent, nuclear military power is a thinking experiment, and nuclear war a war of thoughts.
This was understood early on in the nuclear age. The large body of sophisticated concepts that was produced over the decades is largely due to the fact that nuclear strategy is cosa mentale. And with such powerful weapons, it was critical to do the analytical work properly. The first objective was to grasp the discontinuity brought to the history of warfare by weapons that stretched firepower to previously unforeseen limits. If there was a revolution, it could not be mastered until it was understood. The ability to destroy not only armies or even nations but the whole of humanity3 was a dramatic departure from war as it was known before. For many, it was a traumatic experience, with profound moral consequences. In 1945, U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson went as far as mentioning “a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe.”4 The statement sounds like a moral judgment, as if some forbidden
1 Austin Long, Deterrence—From Cold War to Long War: Lessons from Six Decades of RAND Research, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, MG-636-OSD/AF, 2008.
2 Michael Quinlan, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 13.
3 This became true in 1952 with the detonation of a hydrogen bomb on the atoll of Eniwetok; its yield was measured not in kilotons of dynamite but in megatons, and it was a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
4 See Max Hastings, Nemesis, London: HarperCollins, 2007, p. 495.