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:
May 25, 2016
Eric Draitser
Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Does Venezuela’s Crisis Prove Socialism Doesn’t Work?
Dan Arel
The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party
Marc Estrin
Cocky-Doody Politics and World Affairs
Sam Husseini
Layers of Islamophobia: Do Liberals Care That Hillary Returned “Muslim Money”?
Susan Babbitt
Invisible in Life, Invisible in Death: How Information Becomes Useless
Mel Gurtov
Hillary’s Cowgirl Diplomacy?
Kathy Kelly
Hammering for Peace
Dick Reavis
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
Wahid Azal
Behind the Politics of a Current Brouhaha in Iran: an Ex-President Ayatollah’s Daughter and the Baha’is
Jesse Jackson
Obama Must Recommit to Eliminating Nuclear Arms
Colin Todhunter
From the Green Revolution to GMOs: Living in the Shadow of Global Agribusiness
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum
Dave Lindorff
72-Year-Old Fringe Left Candidate Wins Presidency in Austrian Run-Off Election
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail