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Ten Myths About Nuclear Weapons

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Nuclear weapons were needed to defeat Japan in World War II.

It is widely believed, particularly in the United States, that the use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to defeat Japan in World War II.  This is not, however, the opinion of the leading US military figures in the war, including General Dwight Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, General Hap Arnold and Admiral William Leahy.  General Eisenhower, for example, who was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II and later US president, wrote, “I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced [to Secretary of War Stimson] my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.  It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’….”  Not only was the use of nuclear force unnecessary, its destructive force was excessive, resulting in 220,000 deaths by the end of 1945.

Nuclear weapons prevented a war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Many people believe that the nuclear standoff during the Cold War prevented the two superpowers from going to war with each other, for fear of mutually assured destruction.  While it is true that the superpowers did not engage in nuclear warfare during the Cold War, there were many confrontations between them that came uncomfortably close to nuclear war, the most prominent being the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  There were also many deadly conflicts and “proxy” wars carried out by the superpowers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Vietnam War, which took several million Vietnamese lives and the lives of more than 58,000 Americans, is an egregious example.  These wars made the supposed nuclear peace very bloody and deadly.  Lurking in the background was the constant danger of a nuclear exchange. The Cold War was an exceedingly dangerous time with a massive nuclear arms race, and the human race was extremely fortunate to have survived it without suffering a nuclear war.

Nuclear threats have gone away since the end of the Cold War.

In light of the Cold War’s end, many people believed that nuclear threats had gone away.  While the nature of nuclear threats has changed since the end of the Cold War, these threats are far from having disappeared or even significantly diminished.  During the Cold War, the greatest threat was that of a massive nuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Union.  In the aftermath of the Cold War, a variety of new nuclear threats have emerged.  Among these are the following dangers:

  • Increased possibilities of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists who would not hesitate to use them;
  • Nuclear war between India and Pakistan;
  • Policies of the US government to make nuclear weapons smaller and more usable;
  • Use of nuclear weapons by accident, particularly by Russia, which has a substantially weakened early warning system; and
  • Spread of nuclear weapons to other states, which may perceive them to be an “equalizer” against a more powerful state.

The United States needs nuclear weapons for its national security.

There is widespread belief in the United States that nuclear weapons are necessary for the US to defend against aggressor states.  US national security, however, would be far improved if the US took a leadership role in seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons throughout the world.  Nuclear weapons are the only weapons that could actually destroy the United States, and their existence and proliferation threaten US security.  Continued high-alert deployment of nuclear weapons and research on smaller and more usable nuclear weapons by the US, combined with a more aggressive foreign policy, makes many weaker nations feel threatened.  Weaker states may think of nuclear weapons as an equalizer, giving them the ability to effectively neutralize the forces of a threatening nuclear weapons state.  Thus, as in the case of North Korea, the US threat may be instigating nuclear weapons proliferation.  Continued reliance on nuclear weapons by the United States is setting the wrong example for the world, and is further endangering the country rather than protecting it.  The United States has strong conventional military forces and would be far more secure in a world in which no country had nuclear arms.

Nuclear weapons make a country safer.

It is a common belief that nuclear weapons protect a country by deterring potential aggressors from attacking.  By threatening massive nuclear retaliation, the argument goes, nuclear weapons prevent an attacker from starting a war.  To the contrary, nuclear weapons are actually undermining the safety of the countries that possess them by providing a false sense of security.  While nuclear deterrence can provide some psychological sense of security, there are no guarantees that the threat of retaliation will succeed in preventing an attack.  There are many ways in which deterrence could fail, including misunderstandings, faulty communications, irrational leaders, miscalculations and accidents. In addition, the possession of nuclear weapons enhances the risks of terrorism, proliferation and ultimately nuclear annihilation.

No leader would be crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons.

Many people believe that the threat of using nuclear weapons can go on indefinitely as a means of deterring attacks because no leader would be crazy enough to actually use them.  Unfortunately, nuclear weapons have been used, and it is likely that most, if not all, leaders possessing these weapons would, in fact, use them.  US leaders, considered by many to be highly rational, are the only ones who have ever used nuclear weapons in war, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In addition to these two actual US bombings, leaders of other nuclear weapons states have repeatedly come close to using their nuclear arsenals.  Nuclear deterrence is based upon a believable threat of nuclear retaliation, and the threat of nuclear weapons use has been constant during the post World War II period.  US policy currently provides that the US will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations.  Importantly, this leaves out other nuclear weapons states, as well as states not parties to the NPT and states the US determines not to be in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations.  US leaders have regularly refused to take any option off the table in relation to potential conflicts.  Threats of nuclear attack by India and Pakistan provide another example of nuclear brinksmanship that could turn into a nuclear war.  Historically, leaders of nuclear-armed countries have done their best to prove that they would use nuclear weapons.  Assuming that they would not do so would be extremely foolhardy.

Nuclear weapons are a cost-effective method of national defense.

Some have argued that nuclear weapons, with their high yield of explosive power, offer the benefit of an effective defense for minimum investment.  This is one reason behind ongoing research into lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which would be perceived as more usable.  The cost of research, development, testing, deployment and maintenance of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, however, exceeds $7.5 trillion (in 2005 dollars) for the US alone.  The US is planning to spend another $1 trillion over the next three decades modernizing and upgrading every aspect of its nuclear arsenal.  The nine nuclear-armed countries are spending over $100 billion annually on their nuclear arsenals.  With advances in nuclear technology and power, the costs and consequences of a nuclear war would be immeasurable.

Nuclear weapons are well protected and there is little chance that terrorists could get their hands on one. 

Many people believe that nuclear weapons are well protected and that the likelihood of terrorists obtaining these weapons is low.  In the aftermath of the Cold War, however, the ability of the Russians to protect their nuclear forces has declined precipitously.  In addition, a coup in a country with nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, could lead to a government coming to power that would be willing to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists.  In general, the more nuclear weapons there are in the world and the more nuclear weapons proliferate to additional countries, the greater the possibility that nuclear weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists.  The best remedy for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is to drastically reduce their numbers and institute strict international inspections and controls on all nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear materials in all countries, until these weapons and the materials for making them can be eliminated.  The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit had a narrow focus on protecting civilian stores of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which accounts for only a very small percentage of the world’s weapons-grade material.

The United States is working to fulfill its nuclear disarmament obligations.

Most US citizens believe that the United States is working to fulfill its nuclear disarmament obligations.  In fact, the United States has failed for nearly five decades to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament.  The US is currently being sued in US federal court by the Republic of the Marshall Islands for failing to fulfill its nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT.  Rather than negotiating to end the nuclear arms race, the US is planning to upgrade and modernize all aspects of its nuclear arsenal, delivery vehicles and nuclear infrastructure.  The United States has also failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  Further, it has unilaterally withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and thereby abrogated this important treaty.  The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) between the US and Russia, which was signed in April 2010 and entered into force in February 2011, will reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side to 1,550 by the year 2018.  This is not, however, a fulfillment of the US treaty obligations under the NPT.

Nuclear weapons are needed to combat threats from terrorists and “rogue states.”

It has been argued that nuclear weapons are needed to protect against terrorists and “rogue states.”  Yet nuclear weapons, whether used for deterrence or as offensive weaponry, are not effective for this purpose. The threat of nuclear force cannot act as a deterrent against terrorists because they do not have a territory to retaliate against. Thus, terrorists would not be prevented from attacking a country for fear of nuclear retaliation.  Nuclear weapons also cannot be relied on as a deterrent against “rogue states” because their responses to a nuclear threat may be irrational and deterrence relies on rationality.  If the leaders of a rogue state do not use the same calculus regarding their losses from retaliation, deterrence can fail.  As offensive weaponry, nuclear force only promises tremendous destruction to troops, civilians and the environment.  It might work to annihilate a rogue state, but the force entailed in using nuclear weaponry would be indiscriminate, cause unnecessary suffering, and be disproportionate to a prior attack, as well as highly immoral.  It would not be useful against terrorists because strategists could not be certain of locating an appropriate target for retaliation.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). Angela McCracken, the 2003 Ruth Floyd intern in human rights and international law at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, was co-author of an earlier version of this article.

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David Krieger
David Krieger

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author and editor of many books on peace and nuclear weapons abolition, including “Speaking of Peace: Quotations to Inspire Action.”

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