Thomas G. Schelling: The Nuclear Taboo

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[Mr. Schelling, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, is a Nobel Laureate for economics for 2005.]

The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.

What a stunning achievement -- or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune. In 1960, the British novelist C.P. Snow said on the front page of the New York Times that unless the nuclear powers drastically reduced their armaments, thermonuclear warfare within the decade was a "mathematical certainty." Nobody appeared to think Snow's statement extravagant.

We now have that "mathematical certainty" compounded more than four times, and no nuclear war. Can we make it through another half dozen decades?

The first time that nuclear weapons might have been used was in 1950. U.S. and South Korean forces had retreated to a perimeter at the southern town of Pusan, and it was not clear that they could either hold out or evacuate. The question of nuclear defense arose, and the British prime minister flew to Washington with the announced purpose of persuading President Truman not to let nuclear weapons be used. The successful landing at Inchon removed the danger, and we cannot know what might have happened if Inchon had failed. Nuclear weapons again went unused upon the disastrous assault by Chinese troops in the north of Korea.

Succeeding Truman, Eisenhower saw NATO facing a hugely superior military adversary and elevated nuclear weapons from last resort to first resort. Shortly after Eisenhower's inauguration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, in the National Security Council, "Somehow or other we must manage to remove the taboo from the use of these weapons." A few weeks later the president approved the statement, "In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions." Six months later the U.S. position was that nuclear weapons "must now be treated as in fact having become conventional."

The Johnson administration shows a striking contrast. In September 1964, Johnson said publicly, "Make no mistake, there is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon. For 19 peril-filled years no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order." I interpret this as Johnson's belief that 19 years without nuclear war was an investment to be treasured.

Nixon did not use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Golda Meir, Israeli prime minister in 1973, did not authorize using nuclear weapons against the Egyptian armies that had successfully crossed the Suez and were perfect targets for nuclear attack, there being no civilians in the vicinity. Margaret Thatcher did not consider nuclear weapons against naval vessels while defending the Falkland Islands against Argentina. And most astonishing, the Soviet Union fought a long, bloody and disastrous war in Afghanistan without recourse to nuclear weapons. Even the Russians were awed, apparently, by Johnson's 19 "peril-filled years," which by then had stretched to four decades....

The next possessors of nuclear weapons may be Iran, North Korea or possibly some terrorist bodies. Is there hope that they will have absorbed the near-universal inhibition against the use of nuclear weapons, or will at least be inhibited by the recognition that the taboo enjoys widespread acclaim? Part of the answer will depend on whether the U.S. recognizes that inhibition as an asset to be cherished, enhanced, and protected, or whether, like Dulles, it believes "somehow or other we must manage to remove the taboo from the use of these weapons."...

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Steve Taylor - 10/25/2005

> And most astonishing, the Soviet Union fought a long, bloody and disastrous war in Afghanistan without recourse to nuclear weapons.

I can't see anything astonishing about that one - the Russians were fighting a well dispersed enemy with no large important targets to hit. I can't see nukes ever being employed against guerilla warfare.