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Deterred From Logic on Nukes

In the latest issue of Newsweek, Jonathan Tepperman has a very confused piece arguing that nuclear disarmament is a bad idea because “[t]he bomb may actually make us safer.” Taking a stand against Washington’s allegedly overwhelming “nuclear phobia,” he writes, “Knowing the truth about nukes would have a profound impact on government policy.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that they know “the truth” about nuclear weapons, but I’m quite certain that Tepperman hasn’t found it.

The thrust of the article is that nuclear-armed states won’t fight each other because “all states are rational on some basic level” and because the “iron logic of deterrence and mutual assured destruction is so compelling.” In other words, they won’t wage even a conventional war out of fear that it’ll go nuclear and destroy them in the process. This, of course, assumes that states are monolithic actors and that rationality precludes catastrophe, both of which are silly propositions, as Tepperman himself inadvertently shows when he cites the Cuban missile crisis as evidence for his thesis. During the crisis, he writes, “Both sides stepped back from the brink when they recognized that a war would have meant curtains for everyone.”

The first problem with this argument is that the Cuban missile crisis wouldn’t have happened at all if nuclear weapons hadn’t existed. So, unless Tepperman wants to argue that the crisis posed no danger whatsoever (a very high bar to clear), nuclear weapons clearly did not serve us well in that instance. Second, while both sides may have behaved rationally in pulling back from the brink, the point is that neither wanted to approach the brink in the first place. The lesson of the crisis is that human beings, acting in what they perceive to be a rational manner, can produce outcomes that are wildly out of step with their self-interest. After all, Khrushchev was perfectly sane when he ordered missiles placed in Cuba, but his actions had unintended consequences. And if rationality can produce unintended outcomes, then Tepperman is wrong in suggesting that MAD is foolproof: The Cuban missile crisis could have ended very differently.

That certainly seems to be the case when you consider all the near-misses that occurred during those 13 days. Contra Tepperman’s assumptions, the Cuban missile crisis showed that, even when they try to behave rationally, states are not always in control of their own behavior. For example, as the crisis neared its climax, Air Force officers in California launched an ICBM over the Pacific in a pre-scheduled test--not the sort of thing one (rationally) wants to do during a nuclear stand-off and certainly not something President Kennedy approved. What’s more, the following day, a Soviet officer in Cuba shot down an American reconnaissance flight in direct contradiction of Khrushchev’s orders, further escalating the conflict. Worst of all, during the crisis the Soviets had dozens of tactical nuclear weapons on the island--i.e., nukes meant for battlefield use--and for a time their field commanders had pre-delegated authority to use them in the event of a U.S. attack. (For more on this, see here.) In fact, Castro had told Khrushchev that, if the Americans attacked, he should use the nuclear weapons even though he recognized that Cuba would likely be destroyed in retaliation. This contradicts Tepperman’s assertion that “even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and therefore not worth the effort.”

There are a lot of other problems with Tepperman’s piece, but he makes perhaps the most damning arguments against its thesis himself. Toward the end of the article, having spent more than 2,000 words explaining how nukes protect us, Tepperman adds that a key problem with the “dreamy ideal” of disarmament is that it distracts us from the more important problem: “making the world we actually live in--the nuclear world--safer.” Given that his point was that nukes made us safe, it was a little jarring to read that it needs to be made safer, because that suggests there is some danger now.

Indeed, Tepperman goes on to note that, to be truly safe, we need to make sure that every nuclear-armed country has a secure retaliatory capability, presumably so that in a crisis it doesn’t feel the need to attack first because of its perceived disadvantage. Alas, this problem of perceived insecurity remained unresolved throughout the Cold War despite the thousands of weapons the United States and the Soviet Union each had—neither side ever felt truly safe and often feared a first strike. What’s more, Tepperman’s caveat suggests there might be a dangerous instability between states, like India and Pakistan, that have only small arsenals but that Tepperman had earlier assured the reader were less likely to fight each other if they had nukes. (And what are we going to do, give North Korea a secure retaliatory capability?) Finally, after arguing that there’s little risk of nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, he then acknowledges that we ought to continue helping Russia and Pakistan to safeguard their arsenals and to secure “loose nukes.” (Wait, loose nukes?!) This, Tepperman assures us will help prevent the danger of an “accidental launch.” (Accidental launch?!)

The implication here is that nuclear weapons can pose significant dangers--including in their current disposition. Which, of course, is the precisely point made by President Obama and others advocating disarmament.