The Fallacy of Nuclear Deterrence, Chapter 238

Nuclear Test for FPIF

I posted recently about a 1985 article in Political Psychology titled “Toward a Collective Psychopathology of the Nuclear Arms Competition” by John E. Mack, the American psychiatrist and Harvard Medical professor.* Another insight of his runs something like this.

To make “the intention to kill off the bulk of the population” of the enemy in nuclear war morally able, the enemy that’s “created” (or demonized, as we might call it today) by the acceptable, the United States must be ― drum roll, please ― “monstrous to a degree virtually not experienced among the peoples of the human race.” Whether or not deterrence worked in preventing another world war, it’s apparent that many in the Soviet Union perceived the United States as ready and able to launch a first strike as it had in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, as Mack writes

The chief assumption about the nuclear enemy’s evil (which also includes a litany of real and exaggerated crimes), as well as the principal justification for one’s own plans for mass killing, is that the enemy intends to use nuclear weapons against us.

But, this in stark opposition to one of the assumptions on which the principle of nuclear deterrence is founded: that is, our nuclear-armed “enemy” will behave rationally and refrain from launching a first strike because it fears the consequences of our second strike, or retaliation. Thus, writes Mack

It is a final irony that however much the enemy may be seen as demonic, he is also expected, at least in respect to nuclear weapons, to be supremely thoughtful, cautious, and forebearing, and to regard any building or deployment of the other side’s weapons systems as purely defensive, without any implications of harm or hostility toward himself.

In other words, you can’t have it both ways. A nuclear-armed enemy terrifying enough for the United States to contemplate a nuclear attack against is not likely to be morally capable of observing the deterrence contract. And, as mentioned above, many Russians still look at the United States in the same light.

*Yes, the very same John Mack who, a psychiatrist, Harvard Medical school professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer, later in his career investigated and wrote about alien abductions.