Nuclear Deterrence from 1945-1960 (-today?): A Realist Perspective

This was a take-home essay I wrote for PSCI 151 – International Security, taught by Dr. Avery Goldstein at Penn in the 2011 spring semester.

It discusses the themes of nuclear peace, deterrence, second strike capability, etc.  As someone passionate about US/Iranian relations, I can say that I am quite comfortable with the arguments for nuclear peace.  That’s not to say that Iran should be allowed to have nuclear weapons (or be technologically capable of producing them), but from a theoretical perspective, Iran’s regime is rational enough in the context of nuclear security.  All it takes, in my opinion, is for the regime to be intimately interested in its own survival.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one… Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” said J. Robert Oppenheimer upon witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.  Since that day, national leaders have had to reinvent the way they think about international security.  Considering the massive power of destruction harnessed by nuclear weapons, many are tempted to argue that for the first time in history, man has the power to destroy his own species.  However, the havoc brought about by nuclear weapons is not as nearly as paramount as the speed and method (i.e. circumventing militaries) with which it can be accomplished (Schelling, 2008; 19-20).  In the new and nuclear context of international relations spanning from 1945-1960, countries with a fleet of nuclear options enjoyed what is termed a stable deterrent balance, while all countries, whether or not they possessed nuclear weapons, were victim to the challenge of an arms race.

First, to provide some definitions: deterrence maintains the status quo by persuading the enemy without using direct force.  Balance implies that both countries are more or less equally deterred, and stable suggests that the balance holds true even in a crisis.  To understand the opportunity presented by nuclear weapons and the stable deterrent balance that accompanies it, we must first lay some foundation as to the realities of the international realm.  Simply put, anarchy reigns at the international level.  Without any supranational organization that can (1) make decisions on behalf of the international community, (2) resolve international disputes, and (3) enforce its decisions, countries can only truly rely on themselves.  This manifestation of anarchy, also known as the self-help imperative, compromises the ability of any state to (1) behave morally towards other states, (2) obey the international organizations that do exist, and (3) follow international law.  Granted, there are political gains to be made (e.g. clout, respect, etc.) by acting in the three aforementioned ways, but anarchy means that there’s no real consequence for states that don’t.  Conversely, when states do behave morally, obediently, and/or law-abiding, it is when the circumstances (i.e. the states’ preexisting interests) align with that course of action in the first place.  Generally speaking, no state will behave morally when said behavior is in direct contradiction with national interests.

Now, let us consider how the self-help imperative is effected by the advent of nuclear weapons.  Thomas C. Schelling provides a useful metaphor through a “modified game of chess,” (2008; 100-106).  Instead of the typical win/lose/stalemate possibilities for either player after a game (read: country after a war), when both players possess nuclear weapons, they both are at risk of a fourth outcome: disaster.  With nuclear weapons in play, when entire cities can be obliterated in a matter of seconds, both countries will be irreparably worse after a nuclear war.  As explained above, no rational state will behave in a way that harms its national interests (in this case, vitality).  To understand the broad point, consider that the only time weapons of this caliber have been used in a war was against Japan when only the United States had the bomb.  Once other countries entered the nuclear age, each deterred the others from using them (read: causing ‘disaster’ for both).  So as far as the relations of nuclear countries are concerned, looking out for the well being of one’s enemy (not attacking them with nuclear weapons) is in one’s own best interest.  To understand the more nuanced point, one must acknowledge a key but missing variable from Schelling’s chess metaphor: uncertainty.  In the realm of international anarchy, uncertainty abounds.  A signal, message, or maneuver that is considered harmless by one country (i.e. purely defensive) can be interpreted as dangerous and even threatening by another.  Uncertainty is danger.  For example, during the Berlin Crisis of 1958-59, the United States and Soviet Russia were not physically closer to war, (that is, troops were not mobilized and missiles were not aimed at each other) but the reality of inherent uncertainty kept both sides in check and prevented either from escalating the situation.  Essentially, uncertainty increases risk, and when uncertainty is high (i.e. during a crisis) countries become less willing to act to escalate the risk involved for fear that the accompanying uncertainty will result in the use of nuclear bombs (Schelling 2008; 93-96).  Thus, even in conflicts between nuclear and non-nuclear countries, the one with the bomb is still deterred from using its ultimate capability due to the international uncertainty that will result in the immediate aftermath: “any use of nuclears (sic) is going to change the pattern of expectations about the war.  It is going to rip a tradition of inhibition on their use,” (Schelling 2008; 114).  To again relate back to the self-help imperative, all nuclear countries are made better off by maintaining the taboo associated with the use of nuclear weapons, as are the non-nuclear countries.

But of course, wars of conventional means (tanks, soldiers, explosives, etc.) have been fought in the age of nuclear bombs (however, it is important to note that due to uncertainty, none have occurred between two nuclear countries).  The explanation for these proxy wars of conventional means (e.g. Korea) lies with the stability/instability paradox.  Essentially, the motives for stability described above are understood by all: an aggressor country knows that a nuclear opponent won’t risk direct war, so the aggressor is comfortable fighting in proxy locations and with conventional weapons only.  Thus, countries that don’t have nuclear weapons but are considered vested interests in the eyes other countries that do become targets for local theatres of war.  Leaders of countries of this type are challenged with how to prevent their territory from turning into a war zone.  There is no single answer to this challenge, but one strategy often attempted is a buildup of arms so as to defend one’s borders from invasion.

However, it is not only the countries without nuclear weapons that engage in arms buildups; their nuclear counterparts do so as well.  Some may find this puzzling: why does a country with such destructive power need more?  For one, the stability/instability paradox in conjunction with the taboo of the use of nuclear weapons reveals an emphasis on conventional forces (as highlighted by NSC-68, a 1950 government report to President Truman).  But this does not account for the buildup of nuclear forces exhibited by the US and USSR.  To understand nuclear buildups, we must play out the hypothetical situation in which nuclear weapons are actually launched.  The thought process was as follows: the USSR will target our ability to use our nuclear weapons (both the weapons themselves and the bomber planes that carry them) and, inevitably, a certain percentage will be destroyed.  Thus, what truly deters the USSR from making the first strike is the portion of our fleet that survives in good enough shape to strike back (when, naturally, the USSR will be the most prepared to defend itself) to an insufferable degree.  This is typically termed our “second strike capability,” (Smoke; 1992 89-91) and it is proportional to the nuclear arsenal of our opponent.  Nuclear buildups in terms of number of bombs, types of missiles, and launching capabilities are made in an effort to maintain a country’s second strike capability.  So when we perceived the Soviets building up, we built up in response, which spurred their continued buildup, and so on.

Both conventional arms races and nuclear ones present a challenge to national leaders.  It is not enough to only consider the monetary cost of such a buildup; one must also consider the opportunity cost of those funds.  Governments exist to help their citizens, but they only have so much time, attention, and resources.  The more devotion of a country to national security, the less goes towards paving roads, building and securing infrastructure, engaging in social welfare programs, etc.  In what is often termed the guns versus butter tradeoff, increased military power can actually result in reduced national security as citizens grow more and more restless with a government that is providing for bombs, not them.  In fact, it was on this economic and political criticism of NSC-68’s requisite buildup of conventional forces that President Eisenhower promoted his “New Look” strategy, which emphasized nuclear weapons through the ambiguous threat of Massive Retaliation.  President Eisenhower worried that public backlash to NSC-68’s spending levels would result in a relapse to American isolationism, rendering the country comparatively more vulnerable.  Striking the appropriate balance between arms races and domestic welfare is a challenge with newfound meaning in the nuclear age.

In conclusion, nuclear weapons have provided both opportunities and challenges for leaders concerned about their nations’ security.  On the one hand, nuclear weapons during the period of 1945-1960 produced an equitable level of deterrence between the world’s foremost nuclear powers: the US and the USSR – it was in the best interest of both to refrain from destroying each other.  Some countries without such powerful weapons were victim to conventional proxy wars, but the principal of uncertainty deterred even them from being attacked by nuclear weapons.  This stability/instability paradox fueled an arms race of conventional means, while the desire to maintain the stable deterrent balance through second-strike capability fueled an arms race of nuclear means.  As history would show, even when on the brink of war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (which can be considered an attempted buildup in capability by the USSR), the deterrent balance prevented the use of nuclear weapons while the heightened uncertainty kept risk of disaster high and thus increased the incentive to find a quick and peaceful resolution (Welch et al. 1993; 205-206).