Is the Nuclear Taboo More of a Deterrent Than Deterrence Itself?

Many believe that deterrence — once often known as Mutual Assured Destruction — deserves most or all of the credit for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war. In his new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), about which we’ve been posting, Ron Rosenbuam cites a book published in 2008, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge University Press).*

Author Nina Tannenwald, he writes, who maintains that “the prevailing explanation — which she attributes to the realist school of foreign policy, which tends to see the behavior of nations as the pure product of self-interest — is wrong.”

Besides deterrence

. . . she argues for a second explanation for nuclear non-use, something from the realm of ideas and ideals that nonetheless acquired real-world power: the development of a “nuclear taboo” that evolved from an abstract ethical norm into something more than a norm. . . . Tannenwald finds instance after instance of American leaders thinking that first use of nuclear weapons, as in preventive or preemptive war, was . . . wrong morally and ethically, “inconsistent with American values,” which call for “discrimination and proportionality in use of force.”

Oh, just like we demonstrated in World War II with our attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden . . . (you get the idea). We’ll let Rosenbaum continue.

But she also supports her explanation of nuclear non-use by citing an important study of the period by the nuclear historian and analyst George Quester [who] concluded that “the failure to even threaten [a nuclear attack] has to be explained more by moral absolutes than by the rational calculations of the American government.” It’s a daring argument [that] asks us to believe that abstractions, “values,” fear of moral opprobrium, “stigmatization,” “shaming” — the punishments for breaking taboos — became real-world factors as decisive as warhead throw-weight. It’s also an attractive argument, because it suggests that military and political leaders have a conscience that evolved in the face of a possible world holocaust.

An example of how this phenomenon might manifest itself in even a leader not noted for much in the way of character is provided in this vignette of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev by David Hoffman in his instant classic, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, 2009).

In 1972, the General Staff presented to the leadership [of the Soviet Union] results of a study of a possible nuclear war after a first strike by the United States. They reported . . . 80 million citizens were dead; 85 percent of Soviet industry was in ruins. Brezhnev and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin were visibly terrified by what they heard, according to Adrian Danilevich, a general who took part. Next, three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with dummy warheads were planned. Brezhnev was provided a button in the exercise and he was to push it at the proper moment. Defense Minister Andrei Grechko was standing next to Brezhnev, and Danilevich next to Grechko. “When the time came to push the button,” Danielevich recalled, “Brezhnev was visibly shaken and pale and his hand trembled and he asked Grechko several times for assurances that the action would not have any real world consequences. Brezhnev turned to Grechko and asked, “‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?’”

About world leaders growing a conscience, Rosenbaum writes (emphasis added).

It would be nice to believe. But that certainly did not filter down to the missile crewmen I interviewed, who were mainly concerned . . . with making sure they could carry out the genocidal threat of deterrence. Instead, it was almost taboo . . . to talk about reasons for not committing retaliatory genocide, such as questioning the sanity of whoever gave the order.

Nor is a terrorist group that could conceivably get its hands on nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan’s Taliban or al Qaeda, likely to be susceptible to a nuclear taboo. Islamist extremists confine taboos to sexual mores and dietary laws (halal). In fact, paralleling the missile crewmen, refusal to use whatever weapons fall into their hands is what’s probably really taboo to them. Rosenbaum continues.

There are two further problems with Tannenwald’s taboo analysis. . . . Does the taboo extend down to even the smallest battlefield nuclear-tipped artillery, less powerful than many conventional weapons? [Also, Tannenwald] gives the impression that abstract ethical thinking alone was responsible for something as powerful as this taboo. [She] tends to neglect . . . culture [e.g] Hiroshima and the way it’s been portrayed and visually sacralized, and the power of popular culture.

Besides Life magazine photos showing Hiroshima’s living victims, Rosenbaum cites John Hersey’s New Yorker essay turned into a book Hiroshima.

. . . the power of Hersey’s spare but unsparing prose was the foundation stone, the rock on which the taboo was founded [and he deserves] credit for the geopolitical effect [of his book] on the dormant consciences of the world’s leaders.

Rosenbaum also cites films from On the Beach to Dr. Strangelove to The Day After. He concludes

Cumulatively culture has had a powerful effect in creating the norm and contributing to the taboo. I would even go so far as to say that popular culture more than politics was responsible for the peace movement becoming — in its nuclear freeze phase — a mass phenomenon.

But, he notes that the taboo itself “could undo the taboo.”

If there is no certainty of retaliatory response, because tabooed, a foe would be more likely to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for a first strike regardless of the taboo since they would have reason to believe retaliation was taboo.

In other words, however unexpected a blessing the taboo has turned out to be, it’s foolhardy to rely on so fragile a phenomenon to protect us from a nuclear holocaust.

*In a more recent book, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford University Press, 2009), T.V. Paul also explores the nuclear taboo.