The Myth of Nuclear Necessity – NYTimes.com
FIVE years ago, four titans of American foreign policy — the former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, the former defense secretary William J. Perry and the former senator Sam Nunn — called for “a world free of nuclear weapons,” giving new momentum to an idea that had moved from the sidelines of pacifist idealism to the center of foreign policy debate.
America’s 76 million baby boomers grew up during the cold war, when a deep fear of nuclear weapons permeated American life, from duck-and-cover school drills to backyard fallout shelters. Then, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s leadership, combined with immense anti-nuclear demonstrations, led to negotiations with the Soviet Union that drastically reduced the size of the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals.
Sadly, the abolition movement seems stalled. Part of the reason is fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of others: President George W. Bush exploited anxieties over nuclear weapons to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq; most Republican presidential candidates last year said they would fight a war with Iran rather than allow it to get the bomb.
There is also a small group of people who still believe fervently in nuclear weapons. President Obama had to buy passage of the New START treaty with Russia, in 2010, with a promise to spend $185 billion to modernize warheads and delivery systems over 10 years — revealing that while support for nuclear weapons may not be broad, it runs deep. That support endures because of five widely held myths.
The first is the myth that nuclear weapons altered the course of World War II. Leaving aside the morality of America’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, new research by the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and other scholars shows that Japan surrendered not because of the atom bomb but because the Soviets renounced neutrality and joined the war. Sixty-six Japanese cities had already been destroyed by conventional weapons — two more did not make the difference. Attributing surrender to the bomb was also convenient for Japan’s leaders, allowing them to blame defeat on a “miracle” weapon.
Second is the myth of “decisive destruction.” Mass destruction doesn’t win wars; killing soldiers does. No war has ever been won simply by killing civilians. The 1941-44 siege of Leningrad didn’t deter Soviet leaders from pressing the fight against Hitler. Nor did the 1945 firebombing of Dresden force Germany to submit. As long as an army has a fighting chance at victory, wars continue. Building ever more destructive weapons simply increases the horror of war, not the certainty of ending it.
Third is the myth of reliable nuclear deterrence. Numerous leaders have taken risks and acted aggressively during nuclear crises. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers knew that blockading Cuba risked nuclear war; they mentioned the possibility 60 times while debating their options. Yet they went ahead. Nuclear proponents might argue that no cold war crisis ever erupted into nuclear war, so deterrence must work. But they’re moving the goal posts.
Originally it was claimed that nuclear weapons would assure success in negotiations, prevent any sort of attack — conventional or nuclear — and allow countries to protect their friends with a nuclear umbrella. When the Russians weren’t intimidated during talks after World War II, the claim about negotiations was dropped. When the Yom Kippur War and the Falkland Islands War showed that fighting against nuclear-armed countries was possible, the prevention of conventional war claim was dropped. The nuclear umbrella claim ought to have been dropped at the same time, but there was too much American foreign policy riding on it for anyone to make this argument. After all, if Britain couldn’t deter an attack on its own far-flung islands, how could deterrence prevent attacks on other countries?
Fourth is the myth of the long peace: the argument that the absence of nuclear war since 1945 means nuclear weapons have “kept the peace.” But we don’t accept proof by absence in any circumstance where there is real risk. We wouldn’t fly an airline that claimed to have invented a device that prevented metal fatigue, proved it by equipping 100 planes with the devices for one year without a single crash, and then suddenly ceased all metal-fatigue inspections and repairs, and decided instead to rely solely on these new devices.
The last and most stubborn myth is that of irreversibility. Whenever idealists say that they want to abolish nuclear weapons, so-called realists shake their heads and say, in tones of patient condescension. “You can’t stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle.”