Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

by Ward Wilson

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An explosive rethinking of the power and purpose of nuclear weapons—and a call for radical action

Nuclear weapons have always been a serious but seemingly insoluble problem: while they’re obviously dangerous, they are also, apparently, necessary. This groundbreaking study shows why five central arguments promoting nuclear weapons are, in essence, myths. It is a myth:

• that nuclear weapons necessarily shock and awe opponents, including Japan at the end of World War II
• that nuclear deterrence is reliable in a crisis
• that destruction wins wars
• that the bomb has kept the peace for sixty-five years
• and that we can’t put the nuclear genie back in the bottle

Drawing on new information and the latest historical research, Wilson poses a fundamental challenge to the myths on which nuclear weapons policy is currently built. Using pragmatic arguments and an unemotional, clear-eyed insistence on the truth, he arrives at a surprising conclusion: nuclear weapons are enormously dangerous, but don’t appear to be terribly useful. In that case, he asks, why would we want to keep them?

This book will be widely read and discussed by everyone who cares about war, peace, foreign policy, and security in the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547858173
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 01/15/2013
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

WARD WILSON is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He has spoken before governments, the United Nations, and at think tanks and universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Georgetown, and the Naval War College.

WARD WILSON is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He has spoken before governments and at think tanks and universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Georgetown, the Naval War College, and the United Nations.

Read an Excerpt


For nearly seventy years, we have lived in fear—even in abject terror—of nuclear weapons. These fears have changed shape and intensity depending on the world situation, but they have never disappeared. At one time, we were so worried about “mutual assured destruction” that schoolchildren practiced hiding under their desks, and homeowners built bomb shelters. Today, though we may not be somewhat less concerned about the prospects of wiping out the human race, we still fear nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and, especially, regimes that seem to be racing to get nuclear weapons, like Iran’s.
   Nuclear weapons seem to loom over us. We worry that we won’t be able to control these dangerous weapons in a crisis. The thought of using nuclear weapons is so unpalatable that for decades we called it “unthinkable.” The weapons are the source of deep anxiety and concern. Yet we can’t get rid of them because they are—apparently—necessary.
   At one level, we know our fears are based on fantasies. But at another level, we can’t quite drive those fantasies from out minds. Consider Dr. Strangelove, a darkly comic movie from the early 1960s about a paranoid U.S. Air Force commander who, muttering strange conspiracy theories, sends his bombers to attack Russia without authorization. Despite several frantic and bleakly funny efforts to recall the bombers, the movie ends with one mushroom cloud after another rising on the screen. Dr. Strangelove still works as a film even today because the actions of the air force general are believable; we can easily imagine someone being driven mad by the responsibility of planning for nuclear war.
   In one sense, our concerns are justified. The possibility that nuclear weapons will get used is a clear and present danger. War has been a stubborn and consistent part of human experience for thousands of years. War may be instinctual; it may not. But it is certainly rooted in the deepest parts of human character. These sorts of deep-seated urges can overwhelm common sense. The chances that a large war will one day come and that nuclear weapons will be used if they’re available are still disconcertingly high.
   Our fears about nuclear weapons have had enormous influence over U.S. foreign policy and the foreign policies of many other nations. During the Cold War, those fears drove us to engage in an astonishingly expensive arms race; they caused panic during the Cuban missile crisis; they hovered over the proxy wars the United States fought with the Soviet Union. But even though the Cold War has ended, nuclear weapons have not released their hold on our imaginations. They played a leading role in the Bush administration’s justification for invading Iraq in 2003; they led Israel to bomb an Iraqi reactor and a Syrian weapons facility; and they may yet lead to violence in Iran.
   But what if our thinking about nuclear weapons is flat-out wrong? What if the assumptions that undergirded the Cold War arms race, that nearly led to war over the Cuban missile crisis, and that have generated repeated violence in the Middle East are wrong? What if our military planning and budgeting is based on faulty logic? What if, during the seven decades that have elapsed since atomic weapons were used in anger for the first and only time, we have made our choices based on beliefs that have little foundation in reality and that have been repeatedly contradicted?
   Recently there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes toward nuclear weapons. In 2007, prominent figures of the Cold War—led by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn—proclaimed publicly that they supported the goal of “a world free of nuclear weapons,” and the announcement was a turning point in the U.S. debate about nuclear security. That 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed “had a transformational effect, fundamentally reconfiguring the positions within the debate on US nuclear policy for the first time in more than half a century.” President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review continued the shift.

In the twenty years since the end of the Cold War, new scholarship has been quietly revolutionizing the thinking about nuclear weapons. A careful review of the facts shows that the usefulness of nuclear weapons has been overblown. Inflated claims were made (and kept inflated by Cold War fears) that cannot be substantiated by the history. Much of the thinking of proponents about nuclear weapons is built on myth, misperception, exaggeration, and error. This book lays out those myths, examines the facts, and measures how far the positions of proponents have strayed from reality.
 Most opponents of nuclear weapons use horror and moral outrage to make their case. They argue that humanity has to fundamentally change its nature. But neither emotional anguish nor revolutionary change is necessary in order to imagine solutions to the problem of nuclear weapons. Pragmatic arguments that banish myths and errors with facts from the historical record are sufficient. We do not have to surrender our values, our morals, or our way of living in order to deal sensibly with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are an anomaly, and we can therefore take practical steps to handle them without having to change everything.

A Four-Part Story

Knowledge comes from experience. Our ideas about nuclear weapons have grown out of our experiences with them, limited though those experiences may be. Four key experiences led people to think they understood nuclear weapons; four events coalesced into common knowledge.
   This book will reexamine the story of nuclear weapons through its four parts. Call them the shock, the leap, the crisis, and the peace. Each of these four experiences led to the formation of an idea, and each of those four ideas became a foundation stone in the current conventional wisdom. Yet each of these four experiences was misunderstood and misinterpreted. Each of the four foundational ideas they led to are wrong. These errors have become enshrined in myths and have hardened into an orthodoxy that today is as brittle as old bone.
   The first part—the shock—covers early decisions to pursue nuclear weapons, and its most important event is the first (and only) use of nuclear weapons in war. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and subsequent surrender of Japan was an event that led to a crucial conclusion: nuclear weapons have a unique ability to shock and coerce an opponent.
   The second phase, the leap phase, roughly coincides with the 1950s. It covers the growth of both the Soviet and U.S. arsenals and includes a series of technological advances such as the development of hydrogen bombs and the introduction of long-range missiles to carry them. Although there had been doubts about the effectiveness of bombing cities in World War II, by the mid-1950s, there were none. The H-bomb represented, it was believed, a revolution, a quantum leap in the destructiveness, and therefore the decisiveness, of nuclear weapons.
   The third part, the crisis, overlaps the others, running from the middle 1950s into the 1970s. But its high point is the early 1960s. Nuclear arsenals grew to extraordinary sizes in this phase, and Cold War tensions spiraled higher and higher as well. The key events, however, were a remarkable string of confrontations between the United States and Soviet Union, any one of which could have led to war. In the event, none of them did. This fact—the avoidance of war despite numerous crises—led people to draw a series of conclusions about nuclear weapons: nuclear deterrence was a strong force; it was robust and reliable; and nuclear weapons—paradoxically—were actually beneficial in a crisis.
   The fourth and final part of the story carries us from the 1970s through five decades to the present day. It is a period of relative quiet during which arsenals diminished; for the most part, peace prevailed between nuclear-armed states; and the belief that nuclear arsenals actually promote peace (or maybe even guarantee it) steadily gained adherents. This period also saw the end of the Cold War and a steady de-emphasizing of nuclear weapons. Looking back, people began to say more and more often that nuclear weapons were necessary because they generated and maintained the long peace that stretched from the end of World War II to the present.
   Each of these four experiences had a profound impact on ideas about nuclear weapons. Each phase represents an important shift in thinking, and each contributed in different ways to shaping the ideas that make up the orthodoxy that exists today.
   Let’s consider those four ideas a little more closely. When U.S. officials looked at the prospects for forcing Japan out of the war in the summer of 1945, things appeared pretty bleak. Japan’s military had been beaten again and again. Sixty-six cities had been firebombed, to no apparent effect. A submarine blockade was preventing food, economic resources, and military reinforcements from getting in or out of Japan. Starvation loomed. Japan had so little fuel remaining that their fleet was confined to port. Almost all of its experienced pilots had been killed. Yet despite the desperate situation, Japan fought stubbornly on. Then, after the United States’ use of only two nuclear weapons, Japan suddenly signaled its willingness to surrender. In his radio broadcast announcing the surrender, the emperor specifically mentioned the atomic bomb as the reason for capitulating.
   The obvious conclusion: Nuclear weapons had some remarkable power to coerce an enemy, a power that all those other military means—repeated defeats, economic starvation, even firebombing—could not match. Nuclear weapons, military thinkers and government officials around the world concluded, were unlike any conventional weapon. This weapon could deliver a blow so horrifying that it could coerce surrender when all else could not.
   This is the first and most important idea about nuclear weapons. It is the idea on which all the others are built: Nuclear weapons have a psychological power that enables them to coerce and deter when other weapons cannot.
   The second episode—the sudden leap upward in destructive power of the H-bomb—made certainty even surer. If it had been possible to question whether atomic weapons were decisive, these new weapons removed all doubts. Hydrogen bombs were “thousands of times” bigger than the bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima. They could devastate even the largest city at a single blow. And there was theoretically no limit to the size of a hydrogen bomb—if you could figure out how to deliver it, you could build a bomb that was a million times more powerful. People took to saying that the hydrogen bomb represented a quantum leap in the power of nuclear weapons.
   The third set of events, the part I call the crisis, led to two conclusions. In combination, these two ideas are the most important and dangerous misperceptions there are about nuclear weapons because they have to do with the way we use them. The first conclusion drawn from this period of crisis was that nuclear weapons could be useful in a confrontation. Beginning with the Berlin crisis of 1948, continuing on through the Cuban missile crisis, the Middle East war of 1973, and even to the Gulf War of 1990, nuclear weapons seemed to be effective at persuading opponents to rein in their aggressive actions. When the chips were down, it seemed that the danger of an all-out nuclear war imposed a caution that would not have otherwise existed. Nuclear theorists concluded that it was possible to manipulate the fear of nuclear war to achieve diplomatic and political objectives. It wasn’t necessary to use nuclear weapons—to actually explode them on the battlefield—for them to have an impact. Just the mention of them was enough, apparently, to influence events. The experience of the Cold War crises taught most nuclear theorists that nuclear deterrence was robust and had a powerful effect on events.
   The second lesson that came out of the Cold War was that nuclear weapons seemed to have a calming effect during a crisis. Nuclear weapons didn’t seem to incite recklessness or increase the danger. On the contrary. Nuclear weapons apparently led to greater caution and made resolving the crises easier. Increasingly, nuclear strategists assumed that nuclear weapons created something called crisis stability. All in all, people concluded, nuclear deterrence was a pretty reliable thing, a useful tool for promoting peace.
   The experience of the fourth phase—the long period of peace among the nuclear powers—seemed to amplify the lessons of the third. As the years without a major confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union stretched out, it came to seem as if nuclear weapons not only promoted peace in a crisis but actually contributed to peace overall. In a famous article, historian John Lewis Gaddis argued that the “Long Peace,” the sixty-five years in which no major war was fought either in Europe or between the United States and Russia, was due to the influence of nuclear weapons. And foreign policy experts from nuclear-armed states agreed: nuclear weapons were not only beneficial in a crisis but necessary for peace.


At least one of the mistaken ideas that were formed during the story of nuclear weapons was the result of intentional misrepresentation: Japan’s leaders purposely misled America’s leaders about why they surrendered. But not all the mistaken ideas about nuclear weapons have such clear-cut origins. Some of the things that are said about these weapons are inexplicable. At least to me. How these ideas transformed from tentative hypotheses to enduring myths is uncertain. But that they did transform from possibility to certainty to myth is undeniable.
   Consider the Berlin crisis of 1948 and the mysterious way that the facts seemed to shape-shift after the event. The Berlin blockade was the first major crisis of the nuclear era, and in many ways it set the pattern for the crises that came after it. It illustrates how nuclear theorists, historians, and government officials have—in retrospect—consistently transformed what appear to be nuclear-deterrence failures into successes.
   Three years after the end of World War II, in the summer of 1948, tensions were rising between the Soviet Union and its former allies. The United States, Great Britain, and France were forging ahead with rebuilding Germany in ways that the Soviets disagreed with. Frustrations mounted, and when negotiations to resolve the disputes went nowhere, the Soviet Union decided to cut off rail and road access to Berlin. Each of the Allies had been assigned a region of Germany as well as a slice of the capital city to oversee. Berlin, divided into four sectors, lay deep in the Soviet portion—the eastern part—of Germany. On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces refused to allow any highway or train traffic from the western part of Germany into Berlin. Without access to supplies from the western part of Germany, the German civilians in the U.S., British, and French sectors of Berlin would starve. It touched off a crisis. There was talk of war. Eventually, the Western powers figured out a way to supply their three sectors of Berlin by air, and after eleven months, the Soviets relented.
   During the crisis, as part of the pressure that the United States brought to bear on the Soviet Union, President Truman ordered that a number of B-29 bombers—the same type of plane that had been used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki—be sent to Great Britain. News of the redeployment was leaked to the press, and the move was “widely interpreted as a demonstration of resolve.”3 In fact, these bombers could not drop atomic bombs. Only a small number of planes had been specially modified to do so, and those were still in the United States. But at the time, what people saw was the possibility of nuclear war. In any event, the redeployment did not seem to have a significant impact on the crisis. The blockade continued for eleven more months, and there is little reason to believe the redeployment affected the final outcome.
   As one historian summarized the general reaction in Washington, “In the summer of 1948, American statesmen doubted that the B-29 deployment contributed directly to settlement of the Berlin Blockade crisis.” But then a funny thing happened: “as time hazed over the particulars of this episode, they came to believe that atomic arms could be instruments of ‘force without war.’” They came to believe, despite the evidence and despite the earlier conclusion they had drawn, that the nuclear weapons had, in fact, played an important part in resolving the crisis. It’s not exactly clear what people thought the nuclear weapons had done, but as time passed, there seemed to be a growing sense in Washington that having nuclear weapons was vital in a crisis. Within a year, opinions about the usefulness of nuclear weapons for influencing events had flipped. Even though nuclear weapons hadn’t seemed to have much effect at the time, U.S. officials assigned an increasingly important role to them in retrospect. When the Korean War broke out two years later, one historian wrote in 1988, “American statesmen and soldiers brought to the Korean War the conviction that atomic arms, if properly employed, could be extremely valuable tools for conflict management.” 
   What happened here? How could the evidence support one conclusion while the beliefs that eventually emerged took the opposite view? Apparently, where nuclear weapons are involved, beliefs are formed by factors other than evidence alone. And the Berlin crisis is not the only case. Other events led to ideas that didn’t fit well with the facts. Concepts of nuclear weapons often seem to acquire the qualities of myth while the facts go unattended.
   Man is a mythmaker. Recent neuroscience research shows that story is an essential part of how we think and understand. Even where coherent stories do not exist, our brains try to make up plots to fit the facts. Why we make up myths and how we make up myths are questions we have not completely answered. But that we do shape our experience into myths that reinforce our beliefs is beyond question. Despite the scorn with which we sometimes refer to them (“It’s just a myth!”), myths have the power to shape identity.
   Think about the way myths shape national self-images. Patriotic myths have extraordinary longevity and power. For example, U.S. schools have been teaching children for more than two hundred years that the country’s first president could not tell a lie. In the United Kingdom, young children learn about a British king who had a magic sword and believed in equality so strongly that he made his knights sit at a round table.
   Where nuclear weapons are concerned, a series of powerful myths have shaped our thinking, distancing us from the facts and undermining pragmatic policymaking. Indeed, these myths have shaped history—for the worse.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii
Myth 1

Myth 2

Myth 3

Myth 4

Myth 5

Conclusion 99
Acknowledgments 106
Notes 110
Bibliography 129
Index 160

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