A Nuclear Reductio ad Absurdum

A government that is exposed to atomic threats in peacetime readily regards them as “blackmail” whereas the threatening power is likely to call them “deterrence.” Hans Spear in World Politics, April 1957. This quote opens Richard Betts’ 1987 book, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. While much has changed in the intervening years, most of the author’s fundamental conclusions are far too relevant today. Here are some of the choicest excerpts:

Lest anyone think that nuclear bluffs only occur during Republican administrations, consider President Carter’s behavior (pages 129-130 of Betts’ book):

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 the Carter administration solidified and accelerated a U.S. military commitment … to defend the Persian Gulf region. … At the beginning of February [1980] a year-old Defense Department study mentioning the need to “threaten or make use of tactical nuclear weapons” against a Soviet move into Iran was resurrected and leaked. The next day, the assistant secretary of defense for public information, William Dyess … [stated on NBC television], “The Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore they have to take this into consideration in their calculus.” [emphasis added]

While there is a lot more of value in Betts’ book, the remainder of this blog focuses on several incidents that expose the fundamental illogic of nuclear deterrence: On the one hand, society ignores the nuclear threat because “No one in his right mind would start a nuclear war.” Yet, a nation’s nuclear weapons lose all value if its leader admits that he is in his right mind and would never use them. The need to appear – and therefore to behave – irrationally in order for deterrence to work was expressed in a 1995 US STRATCOM report, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence:”

Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.

The first example of this conundrum that I will cite from Bett’s book occurs on pages 84-85, which treat the 1958-59 Belin Crisis:

The Soviet note to Washington on November 27 [1958] also warned, “only madmen can go to the length of unleashing another world war over the preservation of privileges of occupiers in West Berlin.” … Washington was to be unyielding [on West Berlin, so] Eisenhower’s task was to convince Khrushchev that he was dealing with a leader ultimately willing to undertake what the Soviet note had said “only madmen” could contemplate.

Pages 93-94 deal with the 1961 Berlin Crisis:

As Khrushchev said near the height of the crisis, the Western powers’ contention that they would fight to preserve freedom in the city “is a fairy tale. There are 2,200,000 people living in West Berlin. But if a war is unleashed, hundreds of millions might perish. What sensible person would find such arguments of the imperialists convincing?” … Kennedy had come to office as a critic of massive retaliation, but also promising in his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden” for the defense of liberty. … Thus against his will he came to feel compelled, in effect, to show that he might not be a “sensible person,” in Khrushchev’s terms, when it came to nuclear war.

On page 103, Betts summarizes the paradox of nuclear deterrence very succinctly:

During the summer [of 1961] Kennedy gave an interview to the New York Post …  in which he said that only fools believed in victory in a nuclear war. Then … however, he said that he feared Khrushchev might see reluctance to face nuclear war as evidence of U.S. timidity; therefore, it might be necessary someday to demonstrate American preparedness to go as far as nuclear war.

The last example from Bett’s book (page 112) relates to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and now depicts the Soviets – not the United States – as tripped up by its own earlier admission that only a madman would risk nuclear war. Sixteen months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, The New York Times reported a Soviet warning against a second American invasion attempt:

One cannot now attack Cuba and expect the aggressor will be free from punishment. If this attack is made, this will be the beginning of the unleashing of war.

In mathematics, there is a well known method of proof called reductio ad absurdum – that’s Latin for a reduction to the absurd. If a line of logic leads to an absurd conclusion, then it must have been based on a false premise. Today, we have a nuclear reductio ad absurdum: Since 1945, we have spent trillions of dollars and applied the brightest minds in our society to enhance our national security. Yet, in that time, we have been transformed from a nation inviolate to one that can be totally destroyed in less than an hour. It is high time that we re-examine the premises that have led us here and root out any false ones. My most recent course handout lists eleven societal beliefs that I encourage you to examine, and decide for yourself whether or not they are valid. Undertaking that exercise is extremely important because, so long as some of those beliefs persist, significant arms reductions are unlikely to occur and, if the false ones can be rooted out, many actions required to reduce the nuclear threat will follow naturally.



The usual proof that the square root of 2 is an irrational number proceeds via a reductio ad absurdum. First it is assumed that the square root of 2 is rational, in which case it can be expressed as a ratio of two integers m/n where m and n have no common factors. Then it is shown that both m and n are divisible by 2, contradicting the assumption that they had no common factors. See the linked article for details.

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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2 Responses to A Nuclear Reductio ad Absurdum

  1. Brian Mitchell says:

    The truth about why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuclear bombed in 1945. As well as a political statement to scare the the Soviets and the reat of the world, they were so obviously experiments to see the effects; as two different types of nuclear bombs, uranium and plutonium, were developed and used. The US has the world’s biggest arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Destiny in the hands of God’s chosen people?

    “We have already lost Germany… If Japan bows out [surrenders B.M.], we will not have a live population on which to test the bomb … our entire postwar program depends on terrifying the world with the atomic bomb. … But if they surrender, we won’t have anything.”
    (US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, May 1945 at the San Francisco conference initiating the United Nations.)
    “But if they surrender, we won’t have anything. … Then you have to keep them in the war until the bomb is ready,”
    (US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.)
    “Keep Japan in the war another three months, and we can use the bomb on their cities; we will end this war with the naked fear of all the peoples of the world, who will then bow to our will. … We have to scare the hell out of em in order to browbeat the American people into paying heavy taxes to support the Cold War.
    (US Senator Vandenberg.)
    “the decision to use the atomic weapon against Japan was taken at the beginning of July, 1945. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6 and the offer of peace made by Japan on July 22 was not accepted till August 10.”
    (British Prime Minister Attlee, Dec 5 1946.)
    “The date for the Soviet attack [August 15 1945. BM.] made it all the more imperative for the United States to drop the bomb in the beginning of August, before the Soviets entered the war. The race between Soviet entry into the war and the atomic bomb now reached its climax. … Justifying Hiroshima and Nagasaki by making a historically unsustainable argument that the atomic bombs ended the war is no longer tenable.”
    (Japanese born US history professor Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.)
    “Once Russia is in the war against Japan, then Mongolia, Manchuria, and Korea will slip into Russia’s orbit, to be followed in due course by China and eventually Japan.”
    (US Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew.)
    “In March 1944 I experienced a disagreeable shock. In a casual conversation, General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, said, “You realise, of course, that the real purpose of making the bomb is to subdue our chief enemy, the Russians!” Until then I thought that our work was to prevent a Nazi victory.”
    (Professor Joseph Rotblatt, The Times July 17 1985.)
    “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusions on my part, but that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was carried out on that basis. I didn’t go along with attitude of the whole country that Russia was our gallant ally.”
    (US General Leslie Groves, director of the 1945 Manhattan atom bomb testing project, 1954.)
    “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. … The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
    (US General Curtis LeMay.)
    “In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden. The damage is far greater than photographs can show. … Of thousands of others, nearer the centre of the explosion, there was no trace. They vanished. The theory in Hiroshima is that the atomic heat was so great that they burned instantly to ashes, except that there were no ashes. … Could anything justify the extermination of civilians on such a scale?”
    (Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. [Note: Wilfred Burchett was the first European journalist to enter Hiroshima after the atom bombing of the city. His press permit was then withdrawn, Japanese film of the consequences of the bombing were confiscated, and after reporting other events the Australian government wanted kept secret, his passport was then taken away.])
    “No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin.”
    (New York Times front page headline after the bomb was dropped.)
    “…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, … During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude… …the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
    (US General, later President Dwight Eisenhower, when told by US Secretary for War Henry Stimson that nuclear weapons were to be used on Japan.)
    “Even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that … Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
    (United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946.)
    “it wasn’t necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war but our possession and demonstration of the bomb would make the Russians more manageable in Europe.”
    (US Secretary of State James Byrnes.)
    “We now had something in our hands which would redress the balance with the Russians.”
    (Winston Churchill.)
    “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population.”
    (US Strategic Bombing Survey.)
    “It was strange to us that Hiroshima had never been bombed, despite the fact that B-29 bombers flew over the city every day. Only after the war did I come to know that Hiroshima, according to American archives, had been kept untouched in order to preserve it as a target for the use of nuclear weapons.
    (US Brigadier General Carter Clarke, 1959.)
    “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan.”
    (US Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, in a ‘secret’ report to journalists, November 15 1941.)
    “The question was how we should manoeuvre them [the Japanese. BM.] into the position of firing the first shot … .”
    (US Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in his diary, November 25 1941.)
    “On July 20, 1945, under instructions from Washington, I went to the Potsdam Conference and reported there to Secretary Stimson on what I had learned from Tokyo. They desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and the constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people.”
    (US head of the OSS (now CIA) Allen Dulles.)
    “The assertion that the new American bombs brought the Japanese war to an end is a myth. As we know, weeks before the appearance of the atom bombs, the Emperor Hirohito had already asked Stalin to mediate; thus openly admitting defeat. In reality Japan had been brought down by the interruption of her sea communications by Anglo-American sea power and the danger of a Soviet thrust across Manchuria cutting off the Japanese armies in Asia from home.”
    (The Times Aug 16 1945.)
    “yet weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13 1945, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to ‘the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.’ Truman had been informed … of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan had objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.”
    (David Swanson, in his book War Is A Lie.)
    “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. … My own feeling is that being the first to use it [the nuclear bomb. BM.] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the Barbarism of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
    (US Admiral William Leahy.)
    “The United States has not accepted a treaty rule that prohibits the use of nuclear weapons per se, and thus nuclear weapons are lawful weapons for the United States.”
    (US Pentagon’s Law of War Manual, 2015. John Pilger in Counterpunch.)
    “I am absolutely confident, in the right conditions, we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.”
    (British Defence Secretary and MP Geoff Hoon, the Guardian, March 27 2002.)
    “There was no division in the British public mind about the use of the atomic bomb, they were for its use.”
    (British Labour Prime Minister Attlee to US Secretary of State James Forrestal, 1948. [Which was a complete lie as there was already a massive peace movement developing.])

  2. Brian: Thank you for those comments. However, some of the quotes are incorrect and some are taken out of context. I’ve learned the hard way that one must be careful in accepting statements even if they come from seemingly reputable sources, but especially when they come from a source that stands to benefit from what he or she claims. I checked some of these quotes out with my friend and colleague, Prof. Barton Bernstein, whom I have found to be extremely reliable and cautious in his statements. In a conversation that was followed by some research, I learned (with apologies to Prof. Bernstein for any errors in my understanding):

    Stettinius never said what he is quoted as saying. The same goes for Dulles and Vandenberg. The existence of the Manhattan Project was very secret prior to Hiroshima, so there’s no way Vandenberg would have known about it.

    The Groves quote is accurate. See for example, page 559 of Volume IV of the Oppenheimer hearings: https://www.osti.gov/includes/opennet/includes/Oppenheimer hearings/Vol IV Oppenheimer.pdf

    However, Groves said this in 1954, in the midst of the Cold War, so it may be an overstatement since it makes Groves look prescient. There is evidence that Groves thought somewhat along these lines even during the war, but it is telling that nowhere in this testimony does Groves mention Germany or Japan as intended targets, which they clearly were in 1945 (though not in 1954).

    The Byrnes quote was stated, second hand, by Leo Szilard and possibly others. However, as hearsay, its accuracy is open to question.

    The Stimson quote has given some, and may give the average reader, the impression that the Roosevelt administration was trying to maneuver Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor. If one reads the entire diary entry, it becomes clearer that no such conspiracy was underway. Rather, war seemed inevitable and Stimson and FDR preferred that Japan fire the first shot, rather than we. It also was expected that their attack would come in Malaya or the Dutch East Indies. It was almost inconceivable that the Japanese fleet could attack Pearl Harbor. But, if memory serves me (and it might not), they developed at-sea refueling procedures of which we were unaware and took a perilous northern route to avoid detection.

    Regarding the Dulles quote about Potsdam, he was not talking to the top Japanese. While some Japanese were trying to surrender if they could keep the Emperor, others were dead set against it as can be seen from the unsuccessful coup attempt during the night of 15-16 August, known as the Kyujo Incident. This was an attempt by militarists to prevent the Emperor’s surrender speech from being broadcast.

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