Seventy years ago first Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, were obliterated. Three generations later the grand-strategic consequences of those events can be discerned with reasonable clarity. They are by no means uniformly bad.
The claim that the destruction of two large cities and the killing of over two hundred thousand humans was justified in order to prevent an even greater carnage on both sides, resulting from the putative U.S. invasion of Japan in late 1945, is historically disputable and morally unsustainable. The horror itself—including the unexpected effects of radiation and fallout—has had a salutary impact on the great and minor powers alike in the ensuing decades, however. It is arguable that its deterrent effect has spared the world a major war costing millions of lives.
In most bipolar confrontations known to history—from Assyria versus Egypt, Persia vs. Greece, Athens vs. Sparta, and Rome vs. Carthage onwards—coexistence (peaceful or otherwise) was not an option. In a classic bipolar model, America and the USSR likely would have gone to an all-out war some time 10-15 years after 1945, a war probably no less destructive than the one preceding it. The constraints against first use of nuclear weapons, and the related fear of escalation leading to their inadvertent application, introduced an element of caution and moderation on both sides—the “nuclear taboo.” A complex system of informal checks and balances within the political, military and bureaucratic apparata operated in different ways on different sides of the Iron Curtain, but its effects were broadly similar. It was in evidence in the U.S. for the first time in the critical Korean winter of 1950-51, when President Harry Truman overruled General Douglas MacArthur. President Eisenhower did say in 1955 that nuclear weapons could be used “just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else,” but during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis he admitted that, with the bomb, “you cross a completely different line.” That line was in Central Europe and in the homeland then, and it had remained there until the fall of the Wall. Restraint was notably present on both sides during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: ideological differences and divergent strategic interests were transcended by mutually compatible rational calculations. Neither side seriously considered the possibility of preemptive attacks thereafter, Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fleeting “madman” threats to Hanoi notwithstanding.
The “Long Peace” of the Cold War era was primarily due to the two superpowers’ balance of nuclear arsenals. By the late 1950’s they had both accepted that nuclear weapons were useless as war-fighting devices. Henceforth their purpose was deterrence. This has not changed with the end of the Cold War: deterrence remains the primary reason for having nukes, or aspiring to their possession. “Deterrence” means threatening violence in order to coerce an adversary to act—or to refrain from acting—in accordance with the wishes of the threatening party. The key is to convince the adversary that the costs (or risks) of a certain course of action will greatly exceed any likely benefits. Deterrence entails more than a simple cost-benefit analysis, however. It also entails fear and apprehension in the struggle for survival and security, psychological concepts which are at the core of the decisionmaking process in the Hobbesian international system. It relies on the adversary’s state of mind, prompted by a credible threat, to stop him from pursuing a course of action. The cost-benefit calculus and the effects of fear are inseparable.
For deterrence to work it is essential for the deterring party (1) to have the ability to deliver threatened retaliatory action, i.e. to have the nuclear weapons; and (2) to be perceived as ready and willing to carry it out, i.e. to use the bomb under certain more or less clearly stated circumstances. The key assumption of the deterring party is that the adversary is a rational actor, capable of making an informed decision on the basis of readily available information, which notably proved to be the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kenneth Waltz convincingly argues that even Hitler would have been deterred in 1939 had Britain of France possessed nuclear weapons, or else that his generals would have refused to perform potentially suicidal missions. He concludes that states are always more rational than individuals because there is always some dispersion of power, even in the seemingly monolithic totalitarian ones.
The problem is that the criteria of perceived “costs” and “benefits” and the threshold of “fear” and “apprehension” are not to be taken for granted in all actors and under all circumstances. In 1962, for all their ideological and geopolitical differences, the leaders in Washington and Moscow could (and did) assume that they belonged to the same civilizational matrix. This resulted in their ability to play the “game” in accordance with the implicit rules of rationality, which avoided misunderstandings and thus in the end helped avoid the nuclear disaster.
It has been argued that a millenarian power—like the theocratic twelve-Shi’ite Iran, or the surreal Oriental despotism of North Korea—is unlikely to act within those rules, or may be likely to violate them because of the idiosyncratic character of the regime. This argument, in our view, is without merit. The most haughtily xenophobic regime known to man, Japan’s pre-Meiji shogunate, succumbed before the spectacle of Cdr. Perry’s black ships in Tokyo Bay in the 1850’s. Adolf Hitler never used Germany’s substantial poison gas stockpile, not even in the fiery Götterdämmerung of 1945. At its core, the “rationality” of cost-benefit plus fear and uncertainty transcends cultures, regimes, and belief systems.
The Cold War notion that nuclear war is unwinnable remains correct today. In a massive exchange the radioactive fallout would fatally affect everyone. No nuclear power can ever be certain that its nuclear-armed adversary will not be able to retaliate, and no nuclear power has ever been able to coerce a non-nuclear adversary into submission by threatening to use the bomb. A nuclear power’s second-strike capability will deter everyone, always. Well-protected ICBMs in hard silos, on ever-moving trains and in constantly patrolling submarines, will always prevail over the religious or ideological mantras used for popular consumption. At the top tier, the crisis in Ukraine will not escalate into a direct Russian-American confrontation. At the bottom-feeder level, Kim Jong-un is a grotesque figure but he is not an idiot.
Three decades after Reagan’s “Star Wars” project was unveiled, no existing or technically conceivable antimissile shield is safe enough to make nuclear war imaginable. This is a welcome check on the otherwise uncontrollable global-hegemonistic duopoly in Washington. It can try to continue enforcing its pernicious version of pax Americana for a few more years or even decades, but no nuclear weapons are able to prevent America’s relative loss of global power and prestige which has been going on for over a decade now.
Nuclear weapons are militarily unusable and strategically useless for offensive purposes. They do have a salutary effect on the would-be aggressor, however. At the regional level, Pakistan is an inherently nasty piece of work and an aggressive neighbor; but having been attacked by Pakistan on three occasions in the aftermath of independence from Britain, in the absence of Islamabad’s bomb India could have been tempted to establish subcontinental hegemony once and for all. In the long term, in the interest of regional stability it is arguably better to have a nuclear-dictated balance than an Indian-imposed imbalance, which would have been the likely end-result of a nuclear-free, bipolar game. It is not pleasant to have Pakistan’s jihadist-minded ISI chiefs in charge of a weapon of mass destruction, but it is not the end of the world.
Internationally, the existence of a large enough arsenal to secure second-strike capability is a stabilizing factor. Moscow’s impressive nuclear arsenal is all that stands in the way of unhinged advocates of global violence like John McCain, and an array of only slightly less psychotic hegemonists of both parties, from pushing for an all-out war against Russia. For large and small players in the nuclear weapons game alike, the bomb is a tool of deterrence and not a war-fighting device. This applies even to North Korea, which sees its bomb as a guarantee that the regime is safe from an American regime-change operation with Seoul as the hostage.
If the bomb’s primary purpose is the defense of the state as such, defined by its dominant elite’s aspirations, its value system and cultural dynamics, its value is low. In the 1980’s South Africa’s Afrikaner government developed the bomb as a means of deterring an unlikely all-out attack by the African states to the north. That deterrent was useless to stop the demographic, moral, and ultimately political erosion of the system from within. Somewhat comparably, Britain’s and France’s nuclear arsenals are irrelevant to both countries’ ongoing capitulation before the ongoing immigrant deluge. English and Scottish crews will continue to man Polaris submarines, while their native cities and ports become drizzly replicas of Peshawar and Oran.
America’s homeland is externally unassailable, mostly thanks to geography, partly thanks to her land and sea based ICBMs. That changes nothing in the fact that America is fast becoming a grotesque antithesis of her former self in every cultural and moral respect. Tens of millions of illegals, mostly parasitic, often hostile and criminally minded, have successfully invaded her; and further tens of millions are planning to do so. Against this foe our nuclear deterrent is utterly helpless. Seven decades after Hiroshima America is her own worst enemy.
Seven decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has the lowest percentage of foreign-born immigrants in the developed world (under one percent). America has the highest. It would be tempting to conclude that in the long term Japan has won the war. Perhaps both Europe and America need a rude awakening. 9/11 did not do the trick—the mantra of Islam’s “peace and tolerance” is louder than ever. More salutary medicine is needed. When gods decide to destroy the arrogant transgressor against tradition, faith and reason, they first take his mind away. The Bomb is irrelevant in the equation.