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, for almost 30 years, 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 with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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