Obama, Gingrich and Risk

One motivation for applying risk analysis to nuclear deterrence is the tendency for defenders of the status quo to reject all changes as too risky. Since they never mention the risk of deterrence, they make an implicit assumption that our current approach is somehow risk free.

A recent example of this irrational behavior occurred after President Obama’s Prague speech in which he committed America “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Even though Obama cautioned that this was a long-term vision which might not be realized in his lifetime, he was derided as taking an unacceptable risk by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich: “The Obama speech on nuclear disarmament is a dangerous fantasy that runs an enormous risk. … Not since Jimmy Carter have we had an administration this out of touch with reality.”

It should be clear — but apparently is not — that giving fallible human beings the god-like power to destroy civilization is not risk free. This is especially true because maintaining a “credible deterrent” requires having detailed plans for doing the unthinkable, and regularly practicing putting those plans into action so that those involved would act with cold efficiency if called on to do so. Familiarity breeds contempt, and living with the nuclear reality for fifty years has produced an understandable, but dangerous complacency.

To help overcome that tendency, I hope you’ve read “Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons” and will recommend it to others. Renting the classic movies “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe” is another good way to get in touch with the reality. By making it a movie night with friends, you can create an opportunity for them to consider the issue.

To help build public awareness, please consider passing this message along to friends who might be interested, and encouraging them to sign up for these updates by entering their email address in the JOIN US box on our web site.

With thanks for your participation.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University


  • The full text of Obama’s Prague speech is accessible by clicking here.
  • The full text of Gingrich’s critique is accessible by clicking here. You will need to click REPLAY to get the transcript. The above quote occurs at 12:04 in the transcript.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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