Long awaited by many of us in the arms control and disarmament communities, historian Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January. It doesn’t fail to deliver. What at first seems like a short book soon becomes a distillate of years of the author’s thinking, to which the expansive footnotes and lengthy bibliography also attest.
Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. For years unaffiliated, though, with either academy or a foundation, his writing style can be characterized as plain speaking and congenial, accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, strategists, and historians.
Sixty-eight years after the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, arms control moves in fits and starts and total disarmament is considered unrealistic — unattainable to its advocates, inadvisable to most. Meanwhile, those members of the public who aren’t too frightened by existential issues or too distracted to face them view global warming as more urgent than nuclear weapons. Others operate under the illusion that the end of the Cold War has diminished the nuclear threat to the point where we can live with it.
Besides, the primal logic of deterrence — discouraging an attack by your ability to respond — makes perfect sense to many. But, nuclear weapons may not lend themselves to deterrence as well as conventional thinking holds. In fact, the idea that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis” is one of Wilson’s myths — as is even the proposition that they keep us safe.
Actually, deterrence is the second pillar of faith in nuclear weapons. The first was erected when their detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II supposedly forced Japan to surrender. It’s also the first myth that Wilson attempts to debunk: “Nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” For one cannot stand without the other. As he wrote in a 2008 article (The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence) for Nonproliferation Review that helped put him on the map as a nuclear-weapons historian: “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.”
Turns out, as Wilson writes in Five Myths, “Japan’s leaders consistently displayed a lack of interest in the [conventional] bombing that was wrecking their cities.” To them, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island upon which the war hinged. With Russia also planning to invade Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s islands, Japan realized it could not fight a war against both Russia and the United States-led Western powers. Wilson then turns the question around.
Proponents of nuclear weapons who claim that Japan was forced to surrender because of the bombing of Hiroshima face a difficult question: Why would Japan’s leaders have been motivated to act by an event that was not strategically decisive?
The main piece of evidence that Wilson uses to build his case against the efficacy of nuclear weapons is the Cuban missile crisis, about which you’ve no doubt already seen much revisionist history in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary last year. Wilson, though, instead of concentrating on why our nukes didn’t deter Russia, focuses on why Russia’s nuclear threat didn’t deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba and demanding that nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. “So why did,” Wilson asks, “nuclear deterrence fail? And why did Kennedy take steps that seem to meet [a] definition of reckless lunacy?” (Author’s emphasis.)
In still more picturesque language, he rephrases the question directly.
In the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known, one leader saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.
In other words, fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t keep President Kennedy from putting the pedal to the metal. Wilson again:
One way that proponents of nuclear weapons explain Kennedy’s willingness to risk nuclear war is by arguing that U.S. nuclear superiority made the risk of nuclear war negligible.…But most of the senior participants and Kennedy himself said, either directly or indirectly, that nuclear superiority had had little to do with decisions made during the crisis.…by the late 1950s both sides had the ability to inflict significant damage in the event of a war, even after absorbing a nuclear strike.
Another approach that helped lend Wilson credibility early in his career was to forbear attacking nuclear weapons from the point of view of morality and, instead, hold them accountable on the basis of their actual usefulness as weapons.
The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no way to concretely verify the claims that are made about their importance. There is really only one data point — Hiroshima — determining their cash basis. The danger is that we have overinflated their value by misinterpreting that one event.
Confident that he’d win, it’s as if Wilson agreed to cede the home-court advantage to the arrayed forces of national defense: “Body count aside, will nuclear weapons win wars?” (My words, not his.) More to the point, will bombing cities, known as area bombing in World War II, prove decisive in winning wars? Wilson writes:
People often talk about nuclear weapons’ ability to create destruction as if it were an accepted fact that destruction and military effectiveness are the same thing. But.…destruction does not win wars.
Among the instances he cites besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the siege of Stalingrad during which the Wehrmacht destroyed the city with bombing and artillery. Soviet soldiers clung to the ruins and eventually outlasted the German assault. Wilson concludes:
Destroying cities and killing civilians is large beside the point in terms of military strategy.
Each of the five myths transitions to the next. Wilson pulls this off exceptional gracefulness when, at the end of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, he addresses the subject of the nuclear genie — the idea that nuclear know-how and technology can’t be un-developed, as it were, and stuffed back into the bottle. Connecting the circle, he writes that obsolescence will obtain when it’s shown that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as useful in winning wars.