Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Do Nuclear Weapons Really Deter Aggression?

by LAWRENCE . WITTNER

It’s often said that nuclear weapons have protected nations from military attack.

But is there any solid evidence to bolster this contention? Without such evidence, the argument that nuclear weapons prevented something that never occurred is simply a counter-factual abstraction that cannot be proved.

Ronald Reagan — the hardest of military hard-liners — was not at all impressed by airy claims that U.S. nuclear weapons prevented Soviet aggression. Kenneth Adelman, a hawkish official in the Reagan administration, recalled that when he “hammered home the risks of a nuclear-free world” to the president, Reagan retorted that “we couldn’t know that nuclear weapons had kept the peace in Europe for forty years, maybe other things had.” Adelman described another interchange with Reagan that went the same way. When Adelman argued that “eliminating all nuclear weapons was impossible,” as they had kept the peace in Europe, Reagan responded sharply that “it wasn’t clear that nuclear weapons had kept the peace. Maybe other things, like the Marshall Plan and NATO, had kept the peace.” (Kenneth Adelman, The Great Universal Embrace, pp. 69, 318.)

In short, without any solid evidence, we don’t know that nuclear weapons have prevented or will prevent military aggression.

We do know, of course, that since 1945, many nations not in possession of nuclear weapons and not part of the alliance systems of the nuclear powers have not experienced a military attack. Clearly, they survived just fine without nuclear
deterrence.

And we also know that nuclear weapons in U.S. hands did not prevent non-nuclear North Korea from invading South Korea or non-nuclear China from sending its armies to attack U.S. military forces in the ensuing Korean War. Nor did massive U.S. nuclear might prevent the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Also, the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal did nothing to deter the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on U.S. territory.

Similarly, nuclear weapons in Soviet (and later Russian) hands did not prevent U.S. military intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Nor did Soviet nuclear weapons prevent CIA-fomented military action to overthrow the governments of Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, and other nations.

Other nuclear powers have also discovered the irrelevance of their nuclear arsenals. British nuclear weapons did not stop non-nuclear Argentina’s invasion of Britain’s Falkland Islands. Moreover, Israel’s nuclear weapons did not prevent non-nuclear Egypt and non-nuclear Syria from attacking Israel’s armed forces in 1973 or non-nuclear Iraq from launching missile attacks on Israeli cities in 1991. Perhaps most chillingly, in 1999, when both India and Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons, the two nations — long at odds — sent their troops into battle against one another in what became known as the Kargil War.

Of course, the argument is often made that nuclear weapons have deterred a nuclear attack. But, again, as this attack never took place, how can we be sure about the cause of this non-occurrence?

Certainly, U.S. officials don’t appear to find their policy of nuclear deterrence very reassuring. Indeed, if they were as certain that nuclear weapons prevent nuclear attack as they claim to be, why are they so intent upon building “missile defense” systems to block such an attack — despite the fact that, after squandering more than $150 billion on such defense systems, there is no indication that they work? Or, to put it more generally, if the thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons safeguard the United States from a nuclear attack by another nation, why is a defense against such an attack needed?

Another indication that nuclear weapons do not provide security against a nuclear attack is the determination of the U.S. and Israeli governments to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. After all, if nuclear deterrence works, there is no need to worry about Iran (or any other nation) acquiring nuclear weapons.

The fact is that, today, there is no safety from war to be found in nuclear weaponry, any more than there was safety in the past produced by fighter planes, battleships, bombers, poison gas, and other devastating weapons. Instead, by raising the ante in the ages-old game of armed conflict, nuclear weapons have merely increased the possibility that, however a war begins, it will end in mass destruction of terrifying dimensions.

Sensible people and wise government leaders have understood for some time now that a more promising route to national and international security is to work at curbing the practice of war while, at the same time, banning its most dangerous and destructive implements. This alternative route requires patient diplomacy, international treaties, citizen activism, the United Nations, and arms control and disarmament measures. It’s a less dramatic and less demagogic approach than brandishing nuclear weapons on the world scene. But, ultimately, it’s a lot safer.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).

Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Rob Urie
The Twilight of the Leisure Class
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Howard Lisnoff
What was Missing From The Nation’s Interview with Bernie Sanders
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Richard W. Behan
Installing a President by Force: Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Andrew Stewart
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Louisa Willcox
Tribes Make History with Signing of Grizzly Bear Treaty
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Ishmael Reed
Millennialism or Extinctionism?
Frances Madeson
Why It’s Time to Create a Cabinet-Level Dept. of Native Affairs
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
David Yearsley
Bring on the Nibelungen: If Wagner Scored the Debates
September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]