Nuclear Logic and Illogic

Much effort has gone into understanding and expanding the logic of nuclear deterrence. But, what if nuclear deterrence is illogical? A gem of a book by Columbia University Prof. Robert Jervis, published back in 1984 and entitled “The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy,” raises that question. Here is a key excerpt:

American nuclear strategy … is concerned with how the United States would fight many different kinds of wars, both nuclear and nonnuclear … its advocates argue that the best way to deter wars and aggression is to be prepared to fight if need be: the Russians are unlikely to start or risk a war if the know they will be defeated.

The main theme of this book is that this argument, which makes perfect sense in a nonnuclear world, is profoundly misleading in the current era of abundant weapons of mass destruction. … Because nuclear weapons enable the state that is losing a war to destroy the other side, they have produced a true revolution in strategy. In the past, military advantage allowed a state both to harm the other and to protect itself. Now protection is possible only with the other’s cooperation. … [As a result] the current stress on being able to contain Soviet military thrusts … is misguided.

In today’s world, I would extend Jervis’ argument slightly, to say that our long-term security depends on the cooperation of every existing or would-be nuclear power. If that’s right, do current national security policies increase or decrease our security? and how should they change?

Martin Hellman

How to help
: If you agree that the risks associated with our current nuclear policies need to be better understood, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize the National Academies to undertake a study of those risks. The petition has been signed by a four star admiral who headed the National Security Agency, a former president of Stanford University, and two Nobel Laureates, so you can rest assured that it makes good sense.

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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