What Has Prevented Nuclear War?

News Abroad

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

One of the great questions of the modern world is:  Why has nuclear war not occurred since 1945? 

The conventional answer is that, thanks to fear of mutual destruction, nuclear weapons have "deterred" nuclear war.  And yet, this answer fails to account for some important developments.  Since 1945, nuclear powers have not waged nuclear war against non-nuclear powers.  Furthermore, if nuclear weapons prevent nuclear war, it is hard to understand why nuclear powers have signed disarmament agreements or have worried (and still worry) about nuclear proliferation.

An alternative explanation for nuclear restraint is that public opposition to nuclear war has caused government officials to step back from the brink.  After all, peace groups have agitated vigorously against nuclear war and opinion polls over the years have shown that the public has viewed nuclear war with revulsion—two factors that government leaders have viewed with alarm.  In addition, there is substantial evidence that underscores the decisive role of public pressure.

In 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman had launched the atomic bombing of Japan without apparent moral qualms or influence by the public (which knew nothing of the government's atomic bomb program).  This use of nuclear weapons, Truman declared jubilantly, was "the greatest thing in history."  Consequently, five years later, when the Korean War erupted, there could well have been a repeat performance in that bloody conflict.  Certainly, there seemed good military reasons for the use of nuclear weapons.  On two occasions, U.S. troops were close to military defeat at the hands of non-nuclear powers.  Also, there was no prospect of a nuclear counterattack by the Soviet Union, which was not participating directly in the war, had only recently developed an atomic bomb, and lacked an effective delivery system for it.

But, thanks to burgeoning antinuclear sentiment, employing the atomic bomb in the war had become politically difficult.  U.S. intelligence reported that, in Britain, there existed "widespread popular alarm concerning the possible use of the A-bomb."  From the State Department's specialist on the Far East came a warning that use of the Bomb would cause a "revulsion of feeling" to "spread throughout Asia. . . .  Our efforts to win the Asiatics to our side would be cancelled and our influence in non-Communist nations of Asia would deteriorate to an almost non-existent quantity."  Paul Nitze, the chair of the State Department's policy planning staff, argued that, in military terms, the Bomb probably would be effective.  But using it would "arouse the peoples of Asia against us."  Ultimately, then, political considerations overwhelmed military considerations, and Truman chose to reject calls by U.S. military commanders, such as General Douglas MacArthur, to win the war with nuclear weapons.

The Eisenhower administration, too, began with a breezy sense of the opportunities afforded by U.S. nuclear weapons, promising "massive retaliation" against any outbreak of Communist aggression.  But it soon came up against the limits set by popular loathing for nuclear war.  According to the record of a 1956 National Security Council (NSC) meeting, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other administration officials called for greater flexibility in the employment of nuclear weapons, the President responded:  "The use of nuclear weapons would raise serious political problems in view of the current state of world opinion."  The following May, countering ambitious proposals by Lewis Strauss (chair of the Atomic Energy Commission) and the Defense Department for nuclear war-fighting, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told another NSC meeting, according to the minutes, that "world opinion was not yet ready to accept the general use of nuclear weapons. . . .  If we resort to such a use of nuclear weapons we will, in the eyes of the world, be cast as a ruthless military power."  Dulles predicted, hopefully, "that all this would change at some point in the future, but the time had not yet come."  Although the Secretary of Defense renewed his pleas for use of nuclear weapons, Dulles remained adamant that the United States must not "get out of step with world opinion."

The Kennedy administration also found its options limited by the public's distaste for nuclear war.  A late 1960 Defense Department report to the President-elect, recalled one of its drafters, argued that "the political mood of the country" weighed heavily against developing a U.S. "`win' capability" for a future nuclear war.  This fear of the public response also tempered administration policy during the Cuban missile crisis, when Kennedy—as Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled—worried about "an adverse public reaction," including "demonstrations, peace groups marching in the streets, perhaps a divisive public debate."  In addition, even in conflicts with non-nuclear powers, U.S. policymakers felt it necessary to rule out nuclear war thanks to the stigma attached to it by the public.  A nuclear power, Rusk explained years later, "would wear the mark of Cain for generations to come if it ever attacked a non-nuclear country with nuclear weapons."

The Vietnam War provided a particularly attractive opportunity for the U.S. government's use of its nuclear might.  Here, once more, U.S. military forces were engaged in a war with a non-nuclear nation—and, furthermore, were losing that war.  And yet, as Rusk recalled, the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations deliberately "lost the war rather than 'win' it with nuclear weapons."  McGeorge Bundy, who served as the national security advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, maintained that the U.S. government's decision to avoid using nuclear weapons in the Vietnam conflict did not result from fear of nuclear retaliation by the Soviet and Chinese governments, but from the terrible public reaction that a U.S. nuclear attack would provoke in other nations.  Even more significant, Bundy maintained, was the prospect of public upheaval in the United States, for "no President could hope for understanding and support from his own countrymen if he used the bomb."  Looking back on the war, Richard Nixon complained bitterly that, had he used nuclear weapons in Vietnam, "the resulting domestic and international uproar would have damaged our foreign policy on all fronts."

And so it went in the following decades.  Even the remarkably hawkish officials of the Reagan administration came up sharply against political realities.  Entering office talking glibly of fighting and winning nuclear wars, they soon confronted a worldwide antinuclear uprising, undergirded by public opinion.  In April 1982, shortly after a Nuclear Freeze resolution began wending its way through Congress, the President began declaring publicly:  "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."  He added, on that first occasion:  "To those who protest against nuclear war, I'm with you."  Cynics might argue that Reagan's rejection of nuclear war was no more than rhetoric.  Nevertheless, rhetoric repeated often enough inhibits a policy reversal.  And, in fact, although the Reagan administration sponsored wars in numerous places, it does not appear to have factored nuclear weapons into its battle plans.  Kenneth Adelman, who directed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for most of the Reagan years, claimed that he "never heard anyone broach the topic of using nuclear weapons.  Ever.  In any setting, in any way."

Thus, evidence certainly exists that public pressure has prevented nuclear war.  Where is the evidence that nuclear weapons have done so?

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More Comments:

Gregory Dehler - 7/19/2009

This article certainly has broardened my view of the subject. However, I am curious to know how the pressure of public opinion affected the Soviet leadership.

Billy E Karlinsey - 7/10/2009

The following comment is from a friend of mine that I sent the article to, and he was closer then I to what was going on.
This is an interesting . Makes sense from the lofty shores of the Hundon River in mid NY State. I just wonder how DETERRENCE had escaped his awareness. While I haven't read the book, I do not question that public opinion has influenced nuclear nonuse. Yet I can't help but wonder if the author ever considered the possibility that perhaps a great deal of the "public sentiment" was genertaed by well financed campaigns to spread fear & disinformation. Just a thought which probably pouldn't fit into his academic background, inclination, or minimal exposure to other ideas.

Perhaps the political and military powers during potential any given crisis' may have also played in the role of such dcision?????

Cheers, d

I have read books on our nuclear submarine has played a big part in deterrence and how we when to a lot of trouble to show the soviets our capabilities to retaliate, but not have enough to do a preeminent strike, it was a fine balance both sides were keeping.

Kevin Martin - 7/7/2009

Prof. Wittner is right on in his analysis and citations, but it is chilling that the immorality of incinerating tens of thousands of fellow human beings was apparently not a direct factor on the decision-making processes of the administrations he cites (in the sense of their own humanity).

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/7/2009

You could be absolutely right. That's the problem with counterfactuals.

Still, let's explore a non-nuclear postwar Berlin and Europe a little further.

The fundamental division of postwar Europe, including the joint occupation of Berlin, had emerged before August of 1945. To me the key questions in a conventional weapon counnterfactual are the following:

1)would the Soviets have attempted to expand hegemony farther west in the absence of a credible conventional weapon deterent?

2)In the absence of nuclear weapons, would the US have been willing to retain larger conventional forces in Europe to resist that expansion?

3) In the absence of nuclear weapons, how would the Soviet entry into the war against Japan and the US invasion of Japan affected the situation?

In a conventional weapon world, some US troops would have stayed in Europe because of the occupation of Germany. Because of that I see the real possibility of a military clash between the US and the Soviets. This would have been particularly likely if Stalin had limited his entry into the Pacific War to shoring up his boundaries while expanding the Soviet zone of occupation in Europe.

Such a clash might not have been over Berlin in 1948. Much depends on how the invasion of Japan would have gone. To that extent, my suggestion in my original comment was flawed. But I think it likely that it would have come and could have expanded into a conventional WWIII.

Or not.

Rick Wayman - 7/7/2009

Those crises might not have even happened had nuclear weapons not been in the picture.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/6/2009

The argument here implies that public pressure and deterrence are mutually exclusive. They are not.

Public/international abhorrence of nuclear weapons is a factor that keeps nuclear weapons from being used by large states against smaller ones. For the US to have used nuclear weapons in Vietnam, or for the Soviets to have used them in Afghanistan would have meant they would have risked being made pariahs.

It also would have made winning the peace even harder in both countries.

However, the threat of nuclear weapons did keep the US and the Soviets from fighting directly. I simply leave you to imagine what would have happened in a conventional weapons world if the Soviets had placed large scale forces in Cuba.

Or imagine the Berlin Airlift crisis if there had only been conventional weapons available.