Calming Our Nuclear Jitters: An Exaggerated Fear of Nuclear Weapons Has Led to Many Wrongheaded Policy Decisions. A More Sober Assessment Is Needed

By Mueller, John | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Calming Our Nuclear Jitters: An Exaggerated Fear of Nuclear Weapons Has Led to Many Wrongheaded Policy Decisions. A More Sober Assessment Is Needed


Mueller, John, Issues in Science and Technology


The fearsome destructive power of nuclear weapons provokes understandable dread, but in crafting public policy we must move beyond this initial reaction to soberly assess the risks and consider appropriate actions. Out of awe over and anxiety about nuclear weapons, the worlds superpowers accumulated enormous arsenals of them for nearly 50 years. But then, in the wake of the Cold War, fears that the bombs would be used vanished almost entirely. At the same time, concerns that terrorists and rogue nations could acquire nuclear weapons have sparked a new surge of fear and speculation.

In the past, excessive fear about nuclear weapons led to many policies that turned out to be wasteful and unnecessary. We should take the time to assess these new risks to avoid an overreaction that will take resources and attention away from other problems. Indeed, a more thoughtful analysis will reveal that the new perceived danger is far less likely than it might at first appear.

Albert Einstein memorably proclaimed that nuclear weapons "have changed everything except our way of thinking." But the weapons actually seem to have changed little except our way of thinking, as well as our ways of declaiming, gesticulating, deploying military forces, and spending lots of money.

To begin with, the bomb's impact on substantive historical developments has turned out to be minimal. Nuclear weapons are, of course, routinely given credit for preventing or deterring a major war during the Cold War era. However, it is increasingly clear that the Soviet Union never had the slightest interest in engaging in any kind of conflict that would remotely resemble World War II, whether nuclear or not. Its agenda emphasized revolution, class rebellion, and civil war, conflict areas in which nuclear weapons are irrelevant. Thus, there was no threat of direct military aggression to deter. Moreover, the possessors of nuclear weapons have never been able to find much military reason to use them, even in principle, in actual armed conflicts.

Although they may have failed to alter substantive history, nuclear weapons have inspired legions of strategists to spend whole careers agonizing over what one analyst has called "nuclear metaphysics," arguing, for example, over how many MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) could dance on the head of an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The result was a colossal expenditure of funds.

Most important for current policy is the fact that contrary to decades of hand-wringing about the inherent appeal of nuclear weapons, most countries have actually found them to be a substantial and even ridiculous misdirection of funds, effort, and scientific talent. This is a major if much-underappreciated reason why nuclear proliferation has been so much slower than predicted over the decades.

In addition, the proliferation that has taken place has been substantially inconsequential. When the quintessential rogue state, Communist China, obtained nuclear weapons in 1964, Central Intelligence Agency Director John McCone sternly proclaimed that nuclear war was "almost inevitable." But far from engaging in the nuclear blackmail expected at the time by almost everyone, China built its weapons quietly and has never made a real nuclear threat.

Despite this experience, proliferation anxiety continues to flourish. For more than a decade, U.S. policymakers obsessed about the possibility that Saddam Hussein's pathetic and technologically dysfunctional regime in Iraq could in time obtain nuclear weapons, even though it took the far more advanced Pakistan 28 years. To prevent this imagined and highly unlikely calamity, damaging and destructive economic sanctions were imposed and then a war was waged, and each venture has probably resulted in more deaths than were suffered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about 67,000 people died immediately and 36,000 more died over the next four months. …

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