Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons is a fundamental retelling of the story of nuclear weapons. It argues that when you look more closely at the facts it is remarkable how much of the familiar landscape begins to change. We were misled in the first instance, developed a wildly exaggerated sense of nuclear weapons’ power, and then spent forty years too frightened by the Cold War to re-examine our initial assessments. By the time the Cold War had ended, those initial reactions had become well worn concepts and hardened beliefs. It’s only in the last twenty years that some scholars have begun to rethink those original ideas.
Myth No. 1: The most important misperception came about because we were actively misled. Japan’s leaders insisted that they surrendered because of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though it was clear that they surrendered because the Soviets renounced their neutrality and joined the war. They told us (and perhaps more importantly their own people) they surrendered because of the Bomb because it made the perfect explanation for having lost the war. Which would you rather say: “We made mistakes, we misjudged, millions died for nothing” or “The enemy made this amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have predicted, and that’s why we lost”? Over the last twenty years more and more historians have gone back over the facts and concluded (correctly) that Japan didn’t surrender because of the Bomb.
But this conclusion is sixty years too late. People around the world, but Americans in particular, leapt on the conclusion that, as U.S. Secretary of War Stimson asserted, nuclear weapons had unique psychological powers. Everyone agrees on the facts of the physical destructiveness of nuclear weapons. It was their psychological power--the dominating position that they were said to occupy in people’s minds--that got so exaggerated.
Myth No. 2: The four other myths about nuclear weapons grew out of the first one. Because hydrogen bombs were supposedly “thousands of times bigger” than the original uranium bombs, it was assumed that any nuclear attack with hydrogen bombs would be decisive. But destruction--even vast general destruction--doesn’t win wars. Killing enemy soldiers wins wars. This accounts for the fact that no war has ever been won by killing civilians.
Myth No. 3: Because nuclear weapons had such powerful psychological effects, it was assumed that nuclear deterrence could never fail. But nuclear deterrence failed to restrain leaders from aggression in any number of nuclear crises. President Kennedy, for example, knew that if he blockaded Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that there was a pretty strong risk of nuclear war. And subsequent careful research by historians shows that we came within a hairsbreadth of real fighting with nuclear weapons. Yet despite the risks, Kennedy chose to go ahead. If nuclear deterrence means that leaders see the risk of nuclear war and draw back from aggression, how do we account for Kennedy’s decision?None of the failures of nuclear deterrence led to nuclear war, but that was the result of luck or happenstance, not because nuclear deterrence works perfectly. We have come to think of nuclear deterrence as almost magical, despite the fact that ‘ordinary’ deterrence often fails, even when consequences are severe (e.g. your example of hands being chopped off/death penalty).
Myth No. 4: Once people believed in the awe inspiring nature of nuclear weapons, it was easy to “notice” the impact of that awe inspiring power on events. People noticed that the United States and Russia hadn’t fought a war since 1945 and they presumed that nuclear weapons must have kept the peace. Of course, proof by absence is the sort of evidence we never accept in any circumstances where real risk is involved. What medical institution would take the argument that “I gave them the elixir and they didn’t get cancer--see, it works!” as proof? On the basis of this paltry proof of the ability of nuclear weapons to keep the peace, we continue to risk the lives of millions.
Myth No. 5: Finally, people have come to believe that nuclear weapons are absolutely necessary. They are so much in the grip of their ideas about nuclear weapons that they cannot even imagine a world without them. They say things like, “Well, you can’t disinvent nuclear weapons” which is absolutely true. It’s also absolutely irrelevant. No technology is ever disinvented. Weapons go out of existence because they’re not very good weapons or better weapons come along. In the case of nuclear weapons, it seems pretty likely that nuclear weapons aren’t very good weapons, since no one has found a situation where their use seemed called for in the last sixty-eight years. The whole trend in weapons is toward smaller, more accurate, precision weapons and away from blundering, clumsy weapons like nuclear weapons.
It is difficult to re-imagine familiar ideas that have become hardened into verities. But by hewing close to the facts, it’s remarkable what can happen if you set aside what “everybody knows” and re-examine (presumably) immutable ideas.