Ward WilsonWhat’s striking about nuclear deterrence is not that occasionally people raise doubts about its efficacy, but rather that anyone believes in it at all. The evidentiary basis for nuclear deterrence is so thin as to be almost nonexistent.

After sixty-five years of peace living under nuclear deterrence we tend to treat it as a certain, almost palpable thing. It is as if it were so real that it was an object you could pick up and handle in three dimensions. But the fact is that there is very little proof that nuclear deterrence even exists, much less works. If nuclear deterrence were on trial for murder, you’d never convict. There’s just not enough evidence.

Lack of battlefield testing

Consider: The most important actual test case for nuclear weapons is their use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This weapon, that we are resting so much of our safety and security on, has only been field tested once. This is sobering when you consider that the military establishments had known about machine guns and used them in colonial wars for almost fifty years before World War I, and yet in practice they were almost entirely ignorant of the impact they would have on the battlefield. It took three years and countless battles in which young men were sent across open ground in the face of machine guns before the British, French and Germans began to understand that massed charges would incur enormous costs. It often takes a great deal of experience with a new weapon before its characteristics and impact on war are fully understood. The fact that we have so little real experience with nuclear weapons should be a cause for humility. We don’t really know that much about them.


Historians, over the last twenty years, have begun to doubt the traditional interpretation of Hiroshima. I am not talking about Gal Alperovitz’s effort to show that it was not necessary to drop the bomb – that is separate conversation largely about whether the United States is a good country or not. That is a moral conversation about the United States. What I am talking about is a practical question about nuclear weapons. I’m talking about the question of whether or not the Bomb worked – whether it did in fact coerce Japan into surrendering. Self-centered discussions about whether the United States is morally good or not do not affect the question of whether nuclear weapons coerce.

Truman’s threat to bring a “rain of ruin” down on Japan if they did not surrender was the first real test of the special psychological “shock value” of nuclear weapons which Stimson claimed so much for after the war. Hiroshima is a major support for nuclear deterrence.

Yet recent research throws the traditional interpretation into serious doubt. The evidence points toward the Soviet declaration of war as the decisive event. The bombing of one more city (we bombed 68 cities that summer) doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact. Of course, afterward Japan’s leaders used the atomic as a convenient reason to explain why they had lost the war, but that only proves that they were embarrassed about leading their country into a disastrous war.

If Japan’s leaders essentially ignored the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where does that leave evidentiary proof of the “special shock” value of nuclear weapons? -The unique ability to coerce and deter?

City attacks

Of course, one reason we believe nuclear deterrence works is common sense: we are all afraid of the notion of having cities attacked with nuclear weapons. If we’re afraid of cities being blown sky high, then nuclear deterrence must work. There is troubling evidence from history, however. First, this is not the first time people have made extravagant claims for the power of city attacks. In the years between World War I and World War II there was a wave of excited commentators who talked about how bombing cities would either make war impossible or shorten any war to a matter of days. Chief among these was the Italian General, Giulio Douhet,whose basic thesis has been summed up in this way:

1) Aircraft are instruments of offence of incomparable potentialities, against which no effective defence can be foreseen.
2) Civilian morale will be shattered by bombardment of centres of population.
3) The primary objectives of aerial attack should not be the military installations, but industries and centres of population remote from the contact of the surface armies. . . .

Douhet was certain of the crippling effects of civilian attacks on any nation. Of such attacks he vividly wrote:

And if on the second day another ten, twenty or fifty cities were bombed, who could keep all those lost, panic-stricken people from fleeing to the open countryside to escape this terror from the air?

A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country subjected to this kind of merciless pounding from the air. The time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war–this before their army and navy had time to mobilise at all!

American Air Force General William Mitchell agreed, saying, “It is unnecessary that these cities be destroyed, in the sense that every house be leveled to the ground. It will be sufficient to have the civilian population driven out so that they cannot carry on their usual vocation. A few gas bombs will do that.”

It should stand as a warning to us that these predictions proved wildly wrong. Of course, it may be that the destruction and death simply wasn’t enough and that nuclear weapons will wreck so much havoc that they must surely be decisive. But we ought to be made at least a little cautious by this remarkable failure. It could, after all, also be the case that leaders simply don’ t care much about civilian deaths in war.

When one reviews the evidence, there is a disturbing amount of evidence supporting the notion that cities and civilians don’t affect the outcome of war very much. A number of cities were destroyed in World War II as completely as if a nuclear weapon had been used (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo), but none of them compelled surrender. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that city destruction ever wins wars. Killing civilians, even on a massive scale, does not seem to deter wartime leaders. In the Thirty Years War when Imperial forces burned Magdeburg to the ground and killed 30,000, it did not lead to the surrender of the Protestant forces. In fact, Protestant recruitment and support actually rose throughout Europe after the destruction of that city. Civilian losses in the Thirty Years War eventually amounted to something like 20 to 30% of Germany’s population.

Civilians losses seem to almost encourage militant feelings rather than the reverse. Historians note that after word of the destruction of Nagasaki, the members of Japan’s cabinet – who were meeting to discuss surrender when the news came – seemed more militant, more “bullish” than before.

In the Parguayan War of 1864 to 1870, an estimated 60% of Paraguayans lost their lives. But the war only came to an end when the country’s leader was killed. Killing civilians never seems to lead to surrender, even when it goes on on a massive scale. Even though we feel afraid of nuclear attacks against cities in peacetime, the evidence from war tells a different story. It would be wise to study this evidence more closely before leaping to any conclusions about the efficacy of nuclear deterrence.

65 years of peace

Of course, it is often argued – or simply stated as fact – that nuclear weapons have kept the peace for 65 years. This would be a more impressive argument if it weren’t based on such a shaky logical foundation. Saying that since there has been no war therefore nuclear deterrence keeps the peace is a proof by absence. Proof by absence is one of the most demanding forms of proof to successfully prove. The problem is that if there is any other possible cause for the outcome, the proof fails. If I assert that since the glass is empty then Bob must have drunk it, the proof only succeeds if there is no other possible way for the glass to have gotten empty. It can’ t be possible for it to have spilled, for Julie to have drunk it, for the water to have evaporated, and so on.

The problem with the peace of the last sixty-five years is that it could have been the result of any number of factors. Close economic and trading ties between nations, for example. The strength of alliances and international organizations like NATO, the UN or the European Union. It could have been the result of simple exhaustion. The Soviet Union lost something like 27 million people in World War II and 30 to 40 percent of its industrial capacity. It is hardly a surprise that they didn’t want to fight a war during the next twenty or thirty years. And in fact the study of history provides evidence for this explanation: there are quite lengthy periods of peace after both the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. It could have been the result of closer ties as the result of jet travel, easier immigration, and television.There is a theory that major wars only come every 100 years: the Thirty Years War in the 16th century, the Seven Years War in the 17th, the Napoleonic Wars in the 18th, and World Wars I and II in the twentieth. Finally, sometimes in history there are just periods of peace. From 1815 to 1848 Europe knew substantial peace for 33 years. But that peace had nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

People say, “But it makes sense to believe in nuclear deterrence, because if we get rid of nuclear weapons it will just make the world safe for conventional war.” The underlying assumption here is that nuclear weapons prevent conventional war. There was, of course, a good deal of similar thinking before World War II. People said that the threat of aerial attack against cities would prevent war. In the event, all city attacks did was to add about a million additional casualties to the war without affecting the military outcome particularly. It could very well be that nuclear weapons will play a similar role: they won’t deter people from fighting wars but they will add immeasurably to the death and destruction that any war brings with it.

War will come

War has been – despite intermittent periods of peace – a remarkably constant part of human history. The appeal of war seems remarkably robust. I often think of the passage from the Iliad that Robert Kennedy quoted to illustrate the appeal of war.

The wrath of war that makes a man go mad for all his goodness of reason,
That rage that rises within and swirls like smoke in the heart and becomes 
in our madness a thing more sweet than the dripping of honey.

People seem to believe that nuclear weapons ensure that no major wars will ever be fought again. This is a very dangerous way of thinking. If I had to choose between the power of nuclear weapons to transform human nature and prevent major wars (for which there is almost no evidence at all) or the ongoing appeal of war, I would, frankly, put my money on war. As President Kennedy argued, we should base our hopes on a gradual evolution of human institutions rather than a sudden revolution in human nature.

The question is not, “shouldn’t we keep our nuclear weapons in order to preserve the peace?” Humans have shown themselves capable of remarkable folly throughout history and the folly of fighting a war with nuclear weapons is hardly beyond man’s capacity for being unwise. The question should be, if major war comes, do you want it fought with hand grenades and rifles and tanks, or with nuclear weapons?