JOHN LEWIS GADDIS
WHAT, then, was the effect of nuclear weapons on Cold War statecraft? Will the Cold War be remembered as the point at which the prospect of war among great powers shifted from the realm of rationality to that of absurdity? If such a shift occurred, did the nuclear revolution bring it about, or would it have happened in any event? What do the answers to these questions suggest about the role of nuclear weapons specifically -- as well as the use of force generally -- in the post-Cold War world?
One of these questions is easy to answer: it is clear enough now that during the Cold War the likelihood of a hot war involving the world's most powerful states did diminish to the point of being ludicrous. So when John Mueller published Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War in 1989, the thesis suggested in his subtitle was relatively uncontroversial. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union have, if anything, reinforced it. 1
Mueller's explanation of how war became obsolete, however, was and remains controversial. Few other historians or theorists of international relations have accepted his argument that nuclear weapons had little or nothing to do with this outcome -- that the global aversion to great-power war would have evolved even if such devices had never been invented.
As Ernest May points out in his introduction, there is no way to prove or disprove Mueller's 'irrelevancy' thesis. We cannot rerun the experiment, assuming away nuclear weapons to see what happens. History is not like chemistry. But we can try to specify more clearly the effects this breakthrough in the technology of destruction had upon the human propensity, when angered, to destroy.
That there was such an effect is undeniable. For after having been demonstrated against human targets at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were produced and deployed provocatively around the world -- yet, not one of them was ever again used. Even if someone should someday violate that taboo, it would be hard to find a comparable example of so great a gap between the expected and actual utility of weaponry. Mueller's thesis challenges us to specify, more clearly than scholars of this subject have done in the past, just what brought it about.