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January 1, 2005
Book Review: Rethinking the Utility of Nuclear Weapons

Latest ACA Resources

Reviewed by Douglas B. Shaw

Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons
By Ward Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 208 pp.

The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics
By Paul Bracken
Times Books, 2012, 320 pp.

How are nuclear weapons useful today? The answer to that question has practical as well as theoretical importance. For example, it has played a major role in the Obama administration’s current effort to determine the appropriate size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, however, is not well understood; new knowledge and a new generation of experts are needed to meet this challenge. Ward Wilson and Paul Bracken help this cause with their new books, which probe some of the issues surrounding nuclear weapons from widely divergent perspectives.

In Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Wilson critically analyzes what he characterizes as myths that lead to traditionally overblown assessments of the usefulness of those weapons. His book suggests that nuclear weapons do not win or prevent wars and that there are viable security alternatives to maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

The first piece of received wisdom that Wilson disputes is that “nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” Building on his earlier research and that of others,[1] Wilson questions the role of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in precipitating the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Arguing, for example, that the atomic bombings were not of a shockingly different scale than the conventional bombings of other Japanese cities in 1945, he offers an alternative explanation in Japanese dismay over the Soviet declaration of war. He suggests that Japan and the United States, for different reasons, might have found the story of the atomic bomb’s decisive role to be a convenient post hoc rationalization for the surrender. Wilson’s arguments about Japanese actions in the final days of the war undermine the case that nuclear weapons are useful for shocking an enemy into surrender.

The issue of whether nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents sufficiently to cause their surrender is important, but also problematic. Any answer must account for the case of Japanese surrender in World War II, but counterfactual analysis does not offer the certainty necessary to change the way policymakers refer to and rely on this emotionally charged historical case. Wilson’s answer is not newly definitive, but he performs an important service by asking this difficult question in a public way.

The second argument in Wilson’s crosshairs is that the increase in explosive yield made possible through the development of fusion weapons, which he calls the “H-bomb quantum leap,” made nuclear weapons more useful. In observing that “the destructiveness of nuclear weapons today is not all that much greater than that of the bombs used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he raises doubt about the value of explosive yield as a useful measure of the wider effectiveness of nuclear weapons and alludes to the strategic learning that led to a reduction in the average yield of U.S. nuclear weapons. This second finding, however, is indistinct from and does little to further support the first: that nuclear explosions—fission or fusion—do not win wars.

The third item on Wilson’s list of myths is that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis.” Wilson effectively rebuts this argument by citing several cases in which an adversary’s nuclear weapons did not deter provocative action completely. For example, he observes that the prospect of nuclear attack failed to deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, although it moderated his response.

Next, Wilson argues against the notion that “nuclear weapons keep us safe,” specifically, that they contributed decisively to what historian John Lewis Gaddis termed “the long peace” among the great powers following World War II. Wilson critiques Gaddis’ explanation that nuclear weapons kept the peace as “proof by absence” and offers five alternative explanations for the span of more than 40 years without war between the nuclear superpowers.

His alternative explanations weaken the case that nuclear weapons were necessary to explain the long peace, but do not respond to the possibility that nuclear weapons might help explain the absence of war between the superpowers, avoiding a decisive confrontation with Gaddis’ argument. Since si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you wish peace, prepare for war”) has been received wisdom for millennia, another argument would be needed to overturn reliance on preparation for nuclear war to preserve peace among nuclear-armed states.

Wilson’s final target is the argument that “there is no alternative” to relying on nuclear weapons for security because they cannot be disinvented. He responds that obsolete technologies are not disinvented; they simply slide “into oblivion.” He misses an opportunity to invoke Vladimir Lenin’s incisive question, “Kto, kovo?” (“Who can do what to whom?”). If nuclear weapons do not win wars, they are useless as an ultimate guarantee of state security. If nuclear weapons do not reliably deter aggression in a crisis, they are dangerous to those who rely on them because the false sense of security they provide could embolden governments to take actions that risk triggering a crisis. If nuclear weapons do not keep the peace among great powers, they are useless for the great majority of humanity. Yet so far, nuclear weapons show almost no signs of sliding into oblivion. For example, the vocal advocacy of nuclear disarmament by former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is based on the incompatibility of nuclear weapons with long-term security, even as it treats nuclear disarmament as “the mountaintop,” a goal toward which the path is unclear at this time. People and institutions sufficiently powerful to maintain nuclear weapons persist in believing these weapons are useful. How might they be convinced they are wrong?

Warning Shot

Wilson’s critique of the component assumptions underlying belief in the utility of nuclear weapons is interesting and sometimes compelling. He asks important questions, but his book is more of a warning shot than a broadside against the utility of nuclear weapons. He questions deterrence in surprising terms aimed at its assumptions, but does not attack those assumptions sufficiently to collapse them. Instead of identifying specific arguments to which he objects, Wilson attributes generalized statements to “proponents,” “common interpretations,” “people,” and “general perception.”

He refers to “realism” as if it were a monolithic approach with a singular and uncritical affection for nuclear deterrence. In international relations scholarship, realism is a diverse and nuanced research tradition that illuminates important topics, including how nuclear deterrence may contribute to strategic stability and the prevention of war. The insights realism offers may be impermanent or wrong, but one cannot overturn or build upon them without addressing their specifics. Wilson does not do that, perhaps because he felt that such an undertaking would have been beyond the scope of his book. Whatever the reason for the omission, this undertaking represents an important direction for future research that his book suggests.

Next steps to build on Wilson’s work include a systematic review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy to determine the assumptions decision-makers actually hold, the conditions under which they hold these assumptions, and the roles these assumptions play in nuclear weapons policy. Such research could limit the impact of Wilson’s five myths or reveal 50 more.

Wilson insightfully observes, “[T]he two key questions for nuclear weapons are: When are nuclear weapons the right tool for the job? And how likely are these circumstances to arise?” To these, I would add two more: How many nuclear weapons does the United States need to respond to the answers to the first two questions? How sure can the public be that policymakers know? These questions describe a research agenda that could dramatically improve on the rationale that nuclear weapons provide unique capabilities to respond to an uncertain future. Wilson contributes significantly to the discourse on global security by raising the questions in a way that should prompt debate beyond the world of arms control policymakers and academics.

Modernizing Nuclear Thinking

In the introduction to The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, Bracken defines his undertaking as “assess[ing], with clear eyes, the new geopolitical dynamics wrought by the bomb’s emergence in what I call the second nuclear age.”

Bracken argues that although the global context of U.S. nuclear weapons policy has changed dramatically since the Cold War, the intellectual basis for this policy has stagnated and eroded. He argues that the legacy of strategic concepts and terms left over from the Cold War fails to comprehend contemporary challenges related to nuclear weapons policy and that wholesale failure to transmit knowledge about nuclear weapons to a new generation underscores this problem.

He makes a strong case for greater analytical focus on and rigor in the development of a framework of strategic concepts to address the full range of dangerous nuclear weapons issues: “More facts will be collected—about Iran’s centrifuges, Pakistan’s plutonium, and China’s missiles—but there will be little comprehension of what these facts mean. What is needed is a framework that offers more perspective and that uses strategic concepts to cut the job down to size. Yet such a framework is hard to devise. It is premature, yet at the same time overdue.”

Bracken observes that policymakers need more facts to inform a sound understanding of contemporary nuclear dangers but nonetheless must act on the basis of an incomplete understanding while waiting for patterns to be discernible among emerging facts in the 21st century.

Bracken cites a number of important changes in the context for nuclear weapons policy. He describes a world in which the number and arrangement of relevant players have changed, bipolar bloc discipline has disappeared, and several world regions now threaten nuclear escalation with their own weapons. He notes that states that have recently acquired nuclear weapons may have more-vulnerable nuclear forces or smaller conventional forces than the United States and the Soviet Union had and may have less time than those two countries did to learn how to maintain stability. An additional complicating factor, he says, is that terrorism can act as an accelerant to crises. Thus, strategic complexity has increased sharply.

These are sound observations, but Bracken’s analysis is clouded by his central characterization of a second nuclear age, as he allows that this second nuclear age is neither second nor an age. He defines it as “post-Cold War” in strategic character but overlapping with the Cold War in time.

He also focuses on the effects of nuclear weapons. According to Bracken, these weapons can kill a million people in a day; induce restraint in a crisis; level the potential consequences of conflict; reduce the cost of defense in terms of dollars, troops, and social strain; confer asymmetric advantage; and facilitate communication and bargaining. His analysis is a helpful exercise in understanding the utility of nuclear weapons, but it is incomplete in that he lumps physical effects together with political effects that are mediated through perception and political processes. He assigns tremendous political influence to nuclear weapons without specifying how nuclear weapons exert this influence. For example, he asserts that, without nuclear weapons, “no one would have taken [France] seriously,” a statement that is both factually wrong and argumentative.

Bracken’s summary of the significant political effects he attributes to nuclear weapons raises more questions than it answers. These questions could have significant policy implications, including the possibility that achieving these political effects in the 21st century may not require nuclear weapons.

Bracken’s book is provocative. Inflammatory word choices abound; for example, he dismisses the risk of accidental nuclear war as “nonsense.” He makes politically loaded assertions, including statements that two U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, “now devote far more attention to environmental problems than to nuclear war” and that “the United States did everything it could to foster global antinuclear policies after the Cold War.”

Together with an equally relentless torrent of insights about regional instability and other contemporary dangers, this barrage of needless provocations seems designed to shock readers. The goal apparently is to stimulate policy innovation: “Arms control is in desperate need of fresh ideas…. Without new energy and new edginess, arms control’s downward spiral into irrelevance will continue. Arms control is too important to allow this to happen.”

The edgy tone makes Bracken’s book challenging and accessible to readers on both sides of the political spectrum. He challenges the arms control community by stating that, “[w]ithout greater intellectual content behind it, no amount of public marketing by interest groups or social network tweeting is going to sell [arms control] to a disengaged public or a deeply skeptical Congress.”

One topic Bracken raises is as familiar to disarmament activists as it is to war planners: “how catastrophes in the second nuclear age can be exploited to create a much more restricted global nuclear order, or even one that abolishes the bomb altogether.” Many nuclear experts have lamented that something significant will have to change before nuclear weapons receive wider political attention, but that something significant may be catastrophic. Bracken unflinchingly suggests that policymakers should plan for the sort of shocks that can be expected in the second nuclear age.

He challenges supposed orthodoxy by suggesting that some instances of proliferation may be worse than others. This view does not seem to give sufficient weight to the prospects of a proliferation cascade, erosion of already-weak institutional constraints, or other systemic effects. Yet, Bracken’s imaginative lens on proliferation dangers—imagining the day after a bad outcome before it happens—may help develop policy options to manage the dangers he identifies as well as those he does not address.

According to Bracken, “[A] wider conversation is needed,” and “[t]his isn’t something that can be done by a government agency.” He recalls how a prior generation of scholars and other experts “broke the government’s monopoly on the conversation about nuclear weapons [and] broadened it to allow a much wider national debate.” Although he spends a good deal of time on topics such as operational concerns and how militaries can execute only the operations they practice, he remains explicitly open to a wider discussion. He recalls “how the moral concerns over nuclear weapons drove one of the most remarkable technological transformations in military history” from large, city-busting nuclear weapons to smaller-yield, more-accurate weapons designed for counterforce attacks against an opponent’s nuclear forces. According to Bracken, the inclusion of diverse expert views of widely differing perspectives in the U.S. debate over nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War “lowered the risk of nuclear war.”

Points of Agreement

The two books make opposing arguments with surprisingly little contradiction. Bracken’s most shocking insight is that “the superpowers didn’t understand their own forces.” He reinforces this point in saying that “[n]o one fully understood [the U.S. nuclear force], how it would work, or how it could provoke dangerous responses in the enemy’s systems” during the Cold War.

Wilson is similarly shocking. He questions the proposition that nuclear explosives are weapons in the sense of tools suited to achieving military or political objectives. Put another way, he is not sure U.S. nuclear policymakers fully understand what nuclear weapons are and what they do. Both authors encourage prompt, inclusive, and vigorous efforts to better understand nuclear weapons and their role in world politics. In neatly summing up the differences between himself and a group that includes Bracken, Wilson emphasizes that “[w]hat is striking about the debate described above, however, is the extent to which it is not really about nuclear weapons. Both sides, at bottom, are talking about us, about human nature.”

Each author offers a powerfully imaginative perspective on nuclear weapons at a moment when nuclear imagination is in short supply. Bracken sees danger in failing to explore how nuclear weapons can be useful today. Wilson questions whether they ever were useful. Their arguments are most compelling where they overlap, in observing a gap in nuclear knowledge that constrains nuclear weapons policy choices for dealing with an uncertain future. They agree not only that a nuclear knowledge gap exists, but also that it should be treated by more-imaginative and -inclusive dialogue and analysis of nuclear weapons policy issues.

Both authors caricature supposed orthodoxies blinding humanity to catastrophic and changing nuclear dangers. Wilson decries nuclear “myths” left unexamined too long, arguing against a straw-man version of the realist tradition of international relations scholarship. Bracken disputes the capacity of the U.S. government to understand how nuclear weapons can be used to respond to contemporary security challenges, observing that the nuclear weapons policy experts of prior generations “have long since died off,” leaving a culture of “near total indifference” to nuclear issues. If Wilson approaches nuclear issues from the political “left” and Bracken approaches theses issues from the political “right,” they arrive in a common wilderness of analytical insufficiency with regard to nuclear weapons policy. They agree that governments and wider society need to build capacity to think critically and creatively about nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

Douglas B. Shaw is associate dean for planning, research, and external relations at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he also is assistant professor of international affairs.  During the Clinton administration, he served in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Department of Energy. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University.


1. Ward Wilson, “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (November 2008): 421-439. For an example of previous research in this area, see Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, 3rd ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).