Published in Communalism Combat, Bombay

Atul Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif have two things in common. Both of them have ordered five nuclear tests, and both of them justified their orders by claiming that their nuclear weapons are defensive. This argument was invented by the Americans to justify their nuclear weapons, after the Soviet Union started to build its own nuclear weapons. It was such a convenient argument that all the nuclear states started to use it once they built nuclear weapons. Now every country with nuclear weapons claims that its weapons are defensive, it is just other countries’ nuclear weapons that are a threat.

How are nuclear weapons a threat? The first answer given is that an enemy may threaten to use nuclear weapons as way to intimidate or blackmail and so win a war. As the most destructive weapons ever made, nuclear weapons should make states that have them invincible. They should be able to win all their wars. In fact, no one should want to fight such states because they have nuclear weapons.

The facts of the last fifty years tell another story. Nuclear weapons states have elected to fight wars on many occasions. They have lost many of them. Britain fought and lost at Suez, even though they it had already developed nuclear weapons. The United States suffered significant defeats during the Korean war and the war ended with a stalemate. The French lost Algeria, even though they had their nuclear weapons. China’s nuclear weapons did not help against Vietnam. The most famous examples are of course the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan despite having enormous numbers of nuclear weapons. In all these cases, a non-nuclear state fought and won against a nuclear armed state.

Another fact from the last fifty years is that having nuclear weapons offers no protection against nuclear threats. During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union made nuclear threats numerous times, with the United States making around twenty such threats and the Soviet Union making five or six. Even though both sides had nuclear weapons, this did not change the fact they were threatened by the other side. If a state with nuclear weapons is going to make a threat, it will do so regardless of whether the state being threatened has nuclear weapons of its own.

The only other use for nuclear weapons that has ever been claimed is that nuclear weapons are supposed to deter attacks by other nuclear weapons and so prevent war between nuclear armed states. This is what is usually meant by nuclear deterrence. The normal example of nuclear deterrence that is used is between the superpowers during the Cold War. The absence of war between them is widely attributed to both sides having nuclear weapons. This cannot however be proven. All that can be said is that the absence of war coincided with both sides having nuclear weapons. It is not logical to deduce that nuclear weapons prevented a war that would otherwise have taken place. The absence of war between the United States and the Soviet Union may simply have been due to neither side wanting a war. The experience of total war in World War II was so terrible that this may have been sufficient to prevent a major war. It is worth remembering over 20 million Soviets were killed in that war.

The history of the Cold War is in fact the history of the elusive search for deterrence. As the years passed and became decades, the amount of destructive power needed to create deterrence kept on increasing. From a few simply atom bombs, it became hundreds of bombs, then thousands and then came the hydrogen bomb, with a destructive power a hundred times greater than an atom bomb. But, even having a few such hydrogen bombs was not enough. McGeorge Bundy, who was an advisor in the White house during both the Cuban Missile Crisis, has argued that deterrence works only if “we assume that each side has very large numbers of thermonuclear weapons [hydrogen bombs] which could be used against the opponent, even after the strongest possible pre-emptive attack.” It is this kind of nuclear arsenal that is credited by Bundy, and other American supporters of deterrence as being responsible for maintaining the Ñnuclear peaceâ between the United States and Soviet Union. The urge to have weapons that could survive a pre-emptive attack is why both sides developed nuclear submarines and specially hardened silos for missiles. This effort to create deterrence cost the United States at least $4 trillion ($,4000,000,000,000) to develop, produce, deploy, operate, support and control its nuclear forces over the past 50 years.

The Americans were not alone in thinking that large numbers of hydrogen bombs that could survive a nuclear attack were necessary for deterrence.

All five of the established nuclear weapons state have tried to achieve this kind of nuclear arsenal. None of them has stopped developing their arsenals once they built simple nuclear weapons. they have not even relied on large numbers of such simple weapons. They have gone on to build weapons tens if not hundreds or thousands of times more destructive. Even the smallest nuclear arsenal, belonging to Britain, has 200 thermonuclear weapons with a collective destructive power two thousand times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

There are, however, some important dissenting voices who say that deterrence never worked. General George Lee Butler, who until a few years ago actually commanded all of the United States strategic nuclear weapons has said the world survived the Cuban missile crisis no thanks to deterrence, but only by the grace of God. If General Butler is right, and even the fear created by “very large numbers” of hydrogen bombs was not enough to stop two nuclear states getting ready to go to war then what purpose is served by this fear? What this fear can do is stop peace. Even though the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union gone, the nuclear weapons are still there. The US still has over 10,000 and Russia about as many. The fear now is not the other state, but the others nuclear weapons. As long as there are nuclear weapons there cannot be real peace.

History teaches that nuclear fears cannot be calmed with nuclear weapons. The simple truth is that there has never been a weapon that can offer a defense against being afraid. The only defense against fear is courage and courage needs no weapons to make its presence felt.