Do Nuclear Weapons Really Deter?

In my Stanford seminar, “Nuclear Weapons, Risk and Hope,” I argue that much of the risk stems from a lack of critical thinking – accepting conventional wisdom on key points of national security even when it is wrong. Much of the hope therefore lies in applying critical thinking to root out fallacious assumptions that form the foundation for our world view. A recent article in the Boston Globe addresses a key assumption that deserves greater attention: Do nuclear weapons act as a deterrent?

We also need to examine what we mean by deterrent. Do we mean deterring a nuclear attack on our homeland (what most people assume it means), or do we mean deterring much less serious acts, such as Russian pressure on other Eastern European nations? A full discussion of my agreements and disagreements with the article would take too much space so, here, I merely present excerpts  for you to ponder and consider, without further comment:

For nearly seven decades, the American public has accepted … [that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki] ended the deadliest conflict in human history. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa – a highly respected historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara – has marshaled compelling evidence that it was the Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forced Japan’s surrender. … in the 1960s, a “revisionist school” of historians suggested that Japan was in fact close to surrendering before Hiroshima – that the bombing was not necessary, and that Truman gave the go-ahead primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union with our new power.

Hasegawa – who was born in Japan and has taught in the United States since 1990, and who reads English, Japanese, and Russian – rejects both the traditional and revisionist positions. According to his close examination of the evidence, Japan was not poised to surrender before Hiroshima, as the revisionists argued, nor was it ready to give in immediately after the atomic bomb, as traditionalists have always seen it. Instead, it took the Soviet declaration of war on Japan, several days after Hiroshima, to bring the capitulation. …

[Hasegawa’s perspective is little known outside academic circles, perhaps because] to look at history in this new light is to entertain what seem like shocking ideas. That the destruction of cities [not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden, none of which is credited with causing surrender] does not sway leaders. … And, strangest of all: That nuclear explosives may not be particularly effective weapons of war. …

Barton Bernstein, a professor of history emeritus at Stanford University, is the unofficial dean of American atomic bomb scholarship and counts himself as both a fan and a critic of Hasegawa. … Yet Bernstein, Hasegawa, and many historians agree on one startling point. The public view that the atomic bomb was the decisive event that ended World War II is not supported by the facts. …

If the atomic bomb alone could not compel the Japanese to submit, then perhaps the nuclear deterrent is not as strong as it seems. … If killing large numbers of civilians does not have a military impact, then what … is the purpose of keeping nuclear weapons? We know they are dangerous. If they turn out not to be strategically effective, then nuclear weapons are not trump cards, but time bombs beneath our feet. …

Growing up, he [Hasegawa] felt anger at the Japanese government for bringing the conflict onto its people. Later, working as a scholar in America, he accepted the position that the atomic bombing was necessary to end the war. Today he views America’s bombings of Japan’s cities – Hiroshima and Tokyo included – as war crimes. Yet, he adds, they are crimes America should not apologize for until Japan comes to terms with war crimes of its own. These are the evolving views of a man who has mustered the courage to look at an ugly period of history without flinching – something that most people, Americans and Japanese alike, have found themselves unable to do.

Martin Hellman

What You Can Do
If you agree that society’s complacency about nuclear weapons is unwarranted, please share this blog post with friends and read the home page of our related web site. At the end, it lists four simple, but effective actions you can take.

Further Reading
The importance of critical thinking in avoiding a nuclear disaster is covered on pages 12-27 of Handout #6 from my Stanford seminar.

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:
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3 Responses to Do Nuclear Weapons Really Deter?

  1. Wesley Parish says:

    Of course nuclear weapons are useless as weapons. They’re extremely high-powered explosives – EHE? – and as such they fall into the “diminishing returns” area. They can’t be used very convincingly to stop a small “band of brothers” intent on mayhem – you need boots on the ground for that. They can’t be convincingly used to deter any given state from acquiring nuclear weapons – because the only convincing use of a nuclear weapon is to deter the use of nuclear weapons. So if they are used to intimidate, they serve as an argument for proliferation – read Garthoff’s book on Detente.

  2. In my interview with Professor of History at American University in Washington D.C. and director of the university’s Nuclear Studies Institute, Dr. Peter Kuznick, he also dispels the popular belief that using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the prompt surrender of Japan and the early conclusion of World War II. He explains that atomic bombs neither ended the war nor were necessary to avoid an invasion of Japan. To listen, copy and paste this into your web browser:

  3. Thanks for those comments. Wesley’s reminds me of something I’ve often said: We’re stuck in the mentality that more destructive weapons are more powerful. But which is more powerful: a weapon that can destroy half the world or one that can destroy the whole world? Unfortunately, because of our large nuclear arsenals and the fact that once one is used all may well be employed, nuclear weapons tend to fall into the latter category — especially under the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

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