Published in The Hindu, 6 August 2020
Seventy-five years ago, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was destroyed by one single atomic bomb. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki. Those two bombs killed over 200,000 people, some of them instantaneously, and others within five months. Another 200,000 people or more who survived the bombings of these two cities, most of them injured, have been called the Hibakusha. Because of the long-lasting effects of radiation exposure as well as the mental trauma they underwent, the plight of these survivors has been difficult. As Akihiro Takahashi, Hibakusha, testified: “I’ve been living on dragging my body full of sickness and from time to time I question myself I wonder if it is worth living in such hardship and pain”. But Takahashi and other Hibakusha have lived on and talked about their experiences in the hope that their plight would never befall anyone else.
While Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been the last two cities to be destroyed by nuclear weapons, we cannot be sure that they will be the last. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have armed themselves with nuclear weapons that have much more destructive power in comparison to those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Damage and vulnerability
Over 126,000 nuclear weapons have been built since the beginning of the atomic age. Over 2000 of them have been used in nuclear tests, above and below the ground, to demonstrate their explosive power, causing grave and long-lasting damage to the environment and public health. But this damage is nothing compared to what might happen if some of the existing weapons are used against civilian populations.
An appreciation of the scale of the damage and the realization that nuclear weapons could be launched at any moment against any target around the world should instill a sense of vulnerability in all of us.
To appreciate why we are vulnerable, we should start by realizing that there is no realistic way to protect against nuclear weapons, whether they are used deliberately, inadvertently, or accidentally. The invention of ballistic missiles at the end of the 1950s, with their great speed of delivery, has made it impossible to intercept nuclear weapons once they are launched. Neither fallout shelters nor ballistic missile defense systems succeeded in negating this vulnerability. Nuclear weapons states are targets of other nuclear weapon states, of course, but non-nuclear weapons states are vulnerable as well.
The problems of deterrence
Nuclear weapon states have reacted to this vulnerability by coming up with a comforting idea: that the use of nuclear weapons is impossible because of deterrence. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that no country would use them, because such use would invite retaliation in kind, and no political leader would be willing to risk the possible death of millions of their citizens. That was the idea of deterrence. Deterrence enthusiasts claim that nuclear weapons do not just protect countries against use of nuclear weapons by others, but even prevent war and promote stability.
These claims do not hold up to evidence. Nuclear threats have not always produced fear and, in turn, fear has not always induced caution. To the contrary, nuclear threats in some cases produce anger, and anger can trigger a drive to escalate, as was the case with Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, the apparent efficacy of deterrence in some cases may have been due to the more credible prospect of retaliation with conventional weapons. Countries with nuclear weapons have in fact gone to war quite often, even with other countries with nuclear weapons, albeit in a limited fashion or through proxies. Countries, however, might not always show such restraint.
Nor should nuclear deterrence be considered stable. Strategic planners routinely use worst-case assumptions about the intentions and capabilities of other countries to argue for the acquisition of greater destructive capabilities, driving endless upgrades of nuclear arsenals, and offering a rationale for new countries to acquire nuclear weapons.
Implicitly, however, all nuclear weapon states have admitted to the possibility that deterrence could fail: they have made plans for using nuclear weapons, in effect, preparing to fight nuclear war. The disjuncture between the ideal of possessing nuclear weapons for deterrence and the practical reality of keeping these weapons primed for use has been eloquently clarified by General Lee Butler, former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command. After years of having the top operational responsibility for all US strategic nuclear forces, he observed: “The goal – the wish, really – might be to prevent nuclear war, but the operational plan had to be to wage war.” It is thus an illusion to think that nuclear war is impossible.
The illusion of control
A related illusion concerns the controllability of nuclear weapons. In the real world, it is not possible for planners to have complete control. However, the desire to believe in the perfect controllability and safety of nuclear weapons creates overconfidence, which is dangerous. Overconfidence, as many scholars studying safety will testify, is more likely to lead to accidents and possibly to the use of nuclear weapons. In several historical instances, what prevented the use of nuclear weapons was not control practices but either their failure or factors outside institutional control. The most famous of these cases is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. There are likely many more cases during which the world came close to nuclear war but because of the secrecy that surrounds nuclear weapons we might never know.
If deterrence has not prevented nuclear war so far, what has? While a comprehensive answer to this question will necessarily involve diverse and contingent factors, one essential element in key episodes is just plain luck. This is, again, best illustrated by the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nearly four decades of scholarship attest to the crucial role of luck. The consequences of bad luck, then or later, could make the COVID-19 pandemic seem benign by comparison.
While humanity has luckily survived seventy five years without experiencing nuclear war, can one expect luck to last indefinitely?
Benoît Pelopidas is the founder of the Nuclear Knowledges program at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris. M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.