Several ideas about nuclear weapons germinated in America after World War II, continued to sprout roots during the Cold War, and by now have taken full flower. The public rarely questions them, and neither do many scientists, military leaders, politicians or diplomats.
One: We need these weapons because, should all-out war break out, we’ll need them to overwhelm our enemy and lay waste to its cities. That could win the war for us. Another: Nuclear weapons keep the world stable because they help prevent war in the first place. They have been around for almost 68 years. World War III has failed to ignite in that time. The bombs, it is concluded, have helped keep us safe.
Or maybe that’s all wrong. In his new book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, historian Ward Wilson mines historical case studies – some ancient, some recent – to deflate the assumption that enemy leaders will capitulate if we wipe out a horribly large percentage of their urban populations. Reducing a rival country’s cities to smoking rubble on a massive scale, he writes, actually boosts its morale and determination to prevail.
Wilson’s favorite proof is the behavior of Japan at the end of World War II. Americans generally think the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki spurred Japan to hastily end its fight. Using first-hand accounts of Japanese leaders’ meetings after the bombings and comments in their diaries and memoirs, Wilson concludes the A-bombs weren’t at all decisive. The Japanese had been tolerating the destruction of their cities for months, including the decimation of Tokyo by Allied firebombing. (Wilson argues persuasively that it was the abrupt entry of the Soviet Union into the battle against Japan, which occurred at the same time as Hiroshima, that caused Japanese political and military leaders to lose hope.)
As for the mission of nuclear bombs to be peacekeepers rather than tools of war, Wilson all but dismisses deterrence theory as a straw man that’s never been proven to frighten a crow. Such theories, he maintains, amount to wishful thinking that is “doubtful from the word go.”
What about familiar deterrence success stories, such as President John F. Kennedy’s willingness to bring the world to war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — a strategy of keeping the peace by acting tough? Wilson sees that event, and many others during the Cold War and afterward, as actually a failure of deterrence. Kennedy, he writes, “saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.” We’ve avoided wars mostly out of luck, in spite of ourselves.
Wilson, 56, attended American University and is a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. This is his first book, and it’s gained attention rapidly inside nuclear policy circles. The author says he wants to write another one, focusing solely on the weaknesses of deterrence theory, in the year ahead.
NAPF spoke to Wilson about his belief that accepting old, unchallenged nuclear lessons will surely lead to eventual disaster. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
KAZEL: You’ve written that after college in 1981 you were hired as a fellow at the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, and the director, David Hackett — who’d been Bobby Kennedy’s best friend — persuaded you that you had the power to change the world. How did he do that?
WILSON: He was Kennedy’s friend so he had great authority in my eyes. He took me for a walk by the Martin Luther King Public Library. I can remember children playing all around. He said, [affects a Boston accent], “Wahd, Wahd, what do you care about?” I said, “Nuclear weapons.” He never said, “I want you to do this, or I want you to do that.” Somehow, wordlessly, in the way he framed it, it seemed so clear to me that he expected that I had to do something about this problem – that I was interested in it, and therefore I had the capacity tochange it. I was young and credulous, so I believed him.
KAZEL: After that you had a conversation with the scientist Freeman Dyson, who gave you a “fundamental insight” into whether nuclear weapons actually are useful or not. What happened there?
WISLON: I got to know Dyson because I went to a conference on nuclear weapons that encouraged me to do more. Helen Caldicott spoke and [nuclear freeze advocate] Randall Forsberg spoke. Dyson spoke.…[Later Dyson] gave me, to look at, a book review that he was writing. In it he talked about the  Falklands War. He said that Great Britain could have nuked Buenos Aires. But even had they done that, they still would have had to send conventional forces to reconquer the Falkland Islands. It hit me really hard that blowing up cities doesn’t occupy territory. It doesn’t put soldiers on the ground who can enforce boundaries, or inspect people walking by, or check papers.
It suddenly became clear to me, at some intuitive level, that the weapons were limited in the way that they were useful. Yeah, you can blow stuff up, but that doesn’t necessarily get you what you want. After all, the United States and Great Britain blew up Hamburg [in World War II] and they destroyed Dresden, and they bombed Berlin. But that didn’t force Germany to its knees.
KAZEL: You also read Herman Kahn, and you felt he was incorrect in saying that nuclear weapons were so new and unprecedented that we can’t make predictions about them. You now say it’s possible to go back to previous wars, even back to the Siege of Carthage [in 152 BC], and conclude that attacking cities doesn’t help to win a war. Why do you think we can look at history that old and think it’s still relevant?
WILSON: I read this passage from Herman Kahn, and he said, we have so little experience with nuclear weapons – which is true – therefore, everything we think must be theoretical. He [was] essentially making a case for game theory and this logic-based scenario work that was done in the 1950s and ’60s. I said to myself, that can’t be right. War is not fundamentally technological. War is fundamentally a human activity.
The tools we use to wage war may be different. We ourselves are still the same, largely. I believe human nature changes only very slowly over thousands of years. So if it’s true human beings react to the destruction of a city relatively the same across history, and I can’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t, it should be possible to look at Carthage. It ought to be possible to study the sacking and burning of Liège [in 1468] by Charles the Bold. It ought to be possible to look at the destruction of Magdeburg in 1631 by [Johann Tserclaes count von] Tilly, when he burned the city and 30,000 people died…
That ought to give you real experiential information. We can imagine what a nuclear war would be like, but essentially it’s all speculation. It’s theory. Maybe it’s right, but maybe it’s wrong. Fundamentally, I’m a pragmatist. I believe in facts. So, this insight [is] that even though the weapons are new, the soldier, the combatants are essentially the same.
That is why I was not surprised to discover that Hiroshima had not forced the Japanese to surrender at the end of World War II: because I had spent seven years studying history where cities had been truly destroyed. In no case did it ever cause a war to be won.
KAZEL: Is it your conclusion, after conferring with military people, that our military is still focused on destroying enemy cities if a nuclear war ever happens?
WILSON: Well, I’ll tell you what I know. At least as late as the Clinton administration, I had a chance to sit down with Lee Butler [retired Air Force general and commander of Strategic Air Command] in his kitchen. He told me what it was like every month…to have someone rush into the room unexpectedly. You don’t have any warning. Some guy runs in and says, “Sir, you’re needed in the War Room.” You go downstairs, and there’s an incoming attack. It’s an exercise – you know it’s an exercise. But even so, all the circumstances are as they would be.
Then you have this conversation with whomever is playing the President at the White House. You go through your checklist. And you have four options, MAO 1 through 4. Major attack options 1 through 4: 1 is leadership, 2 is leadership plus military, 3 is leadership plus military plus economy, and 4 is leadership plus military plus economy plus civilian population. He said to me that every practice scenario was designed in such a way that you had to recommend MAO 4 – the one in which you target civilians.
Has the targeting changed since the Clinton administration? I don’t know. I’ve had some conversations with [military] people who very strongly assert that the U.S. doesn’t target civilian populations because that would be “illegal” and that they have lawyers who check the target list for “legality.”
KAZEL: Under what law?
WILSON: I don’t know whether it’s a military handbook of conduct or international humanitarian law. I don’t know. But at least as late as the Clinton administration, the [war plan] absolutely called for targeting civilians.
KAZEL: About three weeks ago, you made a presentation at the Pentagon for the Air Force nuclear staff. Did they discuss if the Air Force still has targeting plans against cities?
WILSON: No, they were very careful. We had very serious conversations. We didn’t agree. But they took what I had to say very seriously and listened closely, and I listened to them.
KAZEL: What didn’t they agree about?
WILSON: Well, at the end, a guy said, “Well, maybe nuclear weapons are the outmoded weapons of the past, but shouldn’t we then be thinking about what weapon we need in order to deter our opponents?” Obviously that’s their mindset; they’ve been assigned that as their job. But the fact that they couldconsider the notion that nuclear weapons are outmoded, are blundering, clumsy weapons of the past – that seemed to me to be remarkable.
I think that the whole trend in warfare [emerging today] is away from pointless destruction, which is essentially what nuclear weapons do best, and toward drones and targeted, small [missiles]. Obviously, drone missiles create a whole series of very serious problems in terms of accountability. Even smaller missiles like that have terrible consequences for civilians. However, killing a leader of Al-Qaeda with a Hellfire missile and killing 13 other people who are innocent is considerably different from using a nuclear weapon to kill a leader of Al-Qaeda and killing 130,000 people who are innocent.
I think the whole trend in warfare is away from “big” weapons, like nuclear weapons, and toward [accuracy]. What terrifies you [as a leader] is the thought that you may die, you may lose control of your regime, not that somebody else you don’t know will die.
KAZEL: But even by that reasoning, does that necessarily lead to nuclear disarmament? One could argue that tactical nuclear weapons — anything from artillery shells to antisubmarine nuclear torpedoes — could be developed instead of nuclear arms for use against cities. But that still isn’t nuclear abolition.
WILSON: Right. But these arguments I’m making by themselves might not be sufficient. Organizations like the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and others have been making powerful moral arguments against nuclear weapons for 20, 30, 40 years. That nuclear weapons are so clearly immoral and not very useful makes a powerful combination. By themselves, either argument might or might not be sufficient. In combination, you have an irresistible argument, it seems to me.
KAZEL: Do you think that the use of any nuclear weapon is immoral?
WILSON: If you use a nuclear weapon to destroy an asteroid coming towards the world, well, that’s fine. That’s moral. Using a nuclear weapon in almost any setting, anywhere on the globe, probably you’ll kill innocent civilians…By and large, nuclear weapons are so clumsy, so messy, that they almost inevitably kill innocents.
KAZEL: Why did you decide for your book to veer almost completely away from the moral arguments against nuclear arms and stress the practical, military arguments?
WILSON: I knew that there have already been so many well-argued, strong moral arguments made over the last 60 years that I can’t do any better than that. This is an area where I thought something new could be said.
KAZEL: Should antinuclear groups be making more of an effort to emphasize strategic, military arguments, instead of what you call arguments based on “moral outrage”?
WILSON: Antinuclear groups should do what works. You have to imagine, I’ve been sitting in a room for 30 years thinking about nuclear weapons. I don’t know what motivates people or how to organize a political [movement].
You know, one of the crucial ingredients to getting the [1997 international landmine ban treaty] was that, at some point, military guys stepped forward and said, “In some circumstances landmines can help, but they’re fundamentally not that useful in a war.” When you combine that with the clear moral cost, and humanitarian impact, it became clear what needed to be done.
KAZEL: Some analysts argue that emerging nuclear nations view the weapons as a sign of national power and prestige – but that they don’t actually expect to use the weapons. How do we persuade nations such as Iran not to want a nuclear weapon?
WILSON: The problem is we’ve over-inflated their value. It seemed like a good idea when we were using that over-inflated value to create deterrence, to deter others. The difficulty is now others take that over-inflated value, and they think, “Oh, nuclear weapons are magic. They can keep my country safe no matter what I do, and I can behave in any way that I want to behind this shield. And I need to eat grass in order to be able to get them.”
The first step in doing something about nuclear weapons is to devalue them, to show they’re not magic, to get people to rethink deterrence. If you go through almost any document about deterrence, and cross it out and put “voodoo” in its place, the document will read essentially the same.
Another thing about the utility question is a two-part evaluation: the usefulness and the danger. They’re dangerous and they’re not useful in hardly any circumstances, and we just need to do something as fast as we possibly can. If you wait a hundred years, you will ensure that someone is going to use nuclear weapons. Either there will be a fight over resources because of global warming, or there will be so many nations with nuclear weapons that someone will sell a nuclear weapon out the backdoor to a terrorist.
KAZEL: You recommend that “extraordinary efforts” should be taken to prevent more nations from getting nuclear weapons. Would you support military action against Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons?
WILSON: I wouldn’t support military action against Iran. I think that’s silly. I think it’s absolutely true that every nation that gets nuclear weapons increases the danger, but I don’t think it’s true that the increase in danger means that nation is more powerful.
Imagine three or four people in your neighborhood felt unsafe, and decided to carry a bottle of nitroglycerine around with them wherever they went. These three or four people, if you bump into them on the street and knock them over and the nitroglycerine explodes, you get killed. So they make your neighborhood more dangerous, but are they really safer? If you want to rob them, you get a gun and stand really close to them and say, “Give me the dough.” Their nitroglycerine doesn’t help because you’re standing right next to them.
But then imagine over time, more and more people in the neighborhood say, “Hey, this is a great idea,I’ll get a bottle of nitroglycerine.” Each neighbor that gets a bottle of nitroglycerine makes your neighborhood less safe — but it doesn’t necessarily protect any of them or give them power. It doesn’t help, but it clearly hurts. That’s the way I see nuclear weapons. It’s bad that Iran seems to be building a nuclear weapon, but will that give them the power to dominate the Middle East once they have them? No, I don’t think so.
KAZEL: So, when you say “extraordinary efforts,” would that mean efforts beyond what is being done now?
WILSON: Yeah, you could take some risks – politically. You could be nice to the Iranians. Now, they are an ancient civilization, with a long tradition of scholarship, very strong religious views, and a unique perspective on religion. Ancient culture, sophisticated, subtle. Very much like France – once much more powerful, dominant culturally in the world.
My assessment is Iran wants nuclear weapons so they will be treated with the respect they believe they deserve. There’s a lot you can do [diplomatically], and maybe that gets you in trouble on the Right in the United States.
I really don’t think military action makes much sense. The Iranians close the Straits of Hormuz, and then we have an oil crisis and the world economy crashes. Moral issues aside, it’s just stupid policy.
KAZEL: You recommend in your book a world study of the usefulness of nuclear weapons, and a “full stop” on the development of new nuclear systems. But you don’t recommend nuclear abolition in it. However, in a presentation you made at the UN three weeks ago, you seemed more resolute. You said abolition is not impossible if the worldview of pro-nuclear advocates is questioned. You said abolitionists “clearly have the more convincing case” than proponents of the weapons.
WILSON: Part of the process of talking about this with a lot of people is that you listen and you find out what they think you’ve missed, or not. The reaction that I’m getting, so far at least, is that people don’t feel there is any serious mistake or flaw [in my arguments]. That’s reassuring, and that makes me feel I can push what I intuitively feel a little bit more.
KAZEL: You did feel strongly enough about your evidence in the book to recommend that the U.S. and Russia decrease their nuclear weapons to the low hundreds. You also say it’s very dangerous to have nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.
WILSON: I got in a lot of trouble with the Pentagon for that. I sat at lunch with a squadron commander of one of the missile facilities in Montana. He was talking to me about what it’s like to work in the facility and how you go down underground. I think they have 72 hours on and 72 hours off. They want to have pride in what they do, and they believe that the thing about hair-trigger alert is wrong because they have all these careful rules in place. What they take pride in is making sure you could never have an accident…
I had to explain to him that I think the problem with hair-trigger alert is not that the U.S. mechanism for maintaining its nuclear forces is prone to breakdown, not that they’re doing a bad job. But I thinkleaders need to have time to think [an urgent situation] over and double-check. Kennedy said if he had been forced to decide about the Cuban Missile Crisis on the first day, he’d have launched the air strikes instead of doing the less-militaristic blockade. The air strikes could have led to nuclear war, since we now know they had tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba.
People go off half-cocked. They lose their heads. They get overwhelmed by emotion. They want retribution, and when leaders have the power to launch nuclear weapons without a chance for reflection, then that’s a danger.
Something that causes leaders to be forced to think about it for at least 24 hours, and maybe longer, makes a lot of sense to me. You read history and people make rash decisions. It happens all the time.