President Nixon believed that irrationality played an important role in nuclear deterrence: “If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold will increase and the unpredictable president will win another hand.”  As with the first two parts in this series (see links below), this thinking overlooks what happens if both sides succumb to such thinking.
A friend of mine who worked on these issues in the State Department thinks I am crazy to worry about a Russian-American confrontation escalating to war because, in his words, “The Russians are too cautious. They know the horror of war in a way that we do not.” He may be right, but I hate to bet the lives of my children and grandchildren on the Russians being more rational than we – especially as a new generation comes to power there, for whom the devastation of World War II is but a distant memory.
Footnote : Richard Nixon, The Real War, Warner Books, New York, 1980, pp. 254-256.
How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.