Was There Any Chance that the Bomb Wouldn’t be Used?

As we begin the semester discussing nuclear weapons, we are first tasked with understanding how they work. In The Physics of a Nuclear Explosion, Tsipis explains that atoms like Uranium are less tightly bound around the nucleus and have more kinetic energy, so they can be fissioned by a colliding neutron, which sets off a chain reaction. The result is a fireball of superhot matter and energy, which, once cooled, becomes a shockwave of heat and pressure, and soon reaches the breakaway point. Tsipis highlights that the small size of a nucleus obscures the enormous power of its effects. I’d like to focus our discussion on these effects.

Both Tsipis (in chapter 4) and Sartori discuss the fatal effects of nuclear weapons, including nuclear radiation, airblast overpressure and dynamic pressure, and fallout from ground-level explosions. When discussing the effect of ozone layer depletion, Tsipis writes, “[it] places an upper limit to the number of weapons that can be used in a nuclear war before the ecosystem of the earth collapses” (93) – that the world could not survive sustained nuclear war. How do you think policymakers weigh this concern in times of war? How would it “rank” among more tangible wartime goals like defeating the enemy and/or demonstrating power?

Lastly, we see in Sartori’s writing greater attention to the problems that surface immediately after a nuclear explosion. He mentions that the care of burn victims would be “one of the most taxing medical problems” (33) and that “supplies of food, water, and medicine might not be adequate” (58). Most of the articles/videos this week have implied that a nuclear attack is inevitable, and if that is the case, should policymakers shift some of their resources from preventing a nuclear attack to developing better response measures if one occurs? Does your answer depend on how you judge the inevitability of a nuclear war?

I would like to frame that question with a poignant quote from Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: “Once a workable bomb was built, was there really any chance that it wouldn’t be used?” (53). — Melissa

9 thoughts on “Was There Any Chance that the Bomb Wouldn’t be Used?

  1. Tsipis’ chapter is terrifying and should be so. The idea of sustained nuclear exchange should strike fear into the hearts of every day citizens, should keep defense ministers and secretaries up at night. Society would collapse alongside the environment as the bombs rained down upon civilians. Humanity would cease to exist. This worst case Armageddon must be in the minds of policymakers as they interact with nuclear states and potential nuclear states both in a time of peace and a time of war. That being said, I think the question in regards to the weight of consideration or concern the decision to engage in a nuclear exchange in a time of war would receive is a frighteningly fair one. In the fog of war it has been, and will most likely still be, difficult to see beyond the immediate objectives, namely victory. If the leaders of any nuclear state become too preoccupied with conquest, glory, and victory at all costs the results could be the end of the world as we know it. In times of war I think policy makers have thus far given nuclear action its proper weight as we have not yet experienced an exchange but I am fearful that level heads may not prevail in the future.

    I believe a complex system of safeguards could and does slow down hell bent leaders, but should the desire for what a nuclear state’s leader see as ultimate victory overwhelm reason and such safeguards the globe would suffer tremendously.

    Kennedy O’Dell ’18

  2. World leaders are hyper-aware of the potential global devastation of large-scale nuclear weapons exchanges, especially after the deep cultural penetration of nuclear hysteria during the Cold War. For that reason, I think that nation-state actors — even potentially unstable ones like Iran — are not the ones we have to fear when it comes to nuclear weapons. We would require a radical shift in the global situation (like an already-devastating WWIII) before nukes became any kind of an option for the powerful countries who possess the majority of them (and also benefit from the global status quo), unless provoked by some kind of nuclear attack from a minor nuclear power. The minor nuclear powers know this, and would not directly use nukes against another nuclear state. Barring Kennedy’s Dr. Strangelove situation above with a highly irrational nation-state actor, I think this leaves us with smaller scale nuclear events as our primary concern, and non-state actors behind the wheel.

    If a terrorist organization gets a nuke, they know that the US won’t have a concrete place to retaliate against, and so it makes more sense for them to use it. This has been a huge fear in America since 9/11, so it does make a good deal of sense to devote some resources to figuring out how to respond to isolated nuclear strikes. However, prevention, in this case, is still much more important than response. If a suitcase nuke goes off in NYC, thousands or even millions of people are going to die. It is better for us to prevent that by making sure that the technology does not develop in parts of the world known to host terrorists than it is to watch that happen but be really good at dealing with the aftermath.

  3. This is a fascinating question and touches upon the policy implications that we briefly discussed during our first lecture: Given a limited government capacity to deal with future threats to national security, how much of our resources to we devote to prevention, and how much to plan responses/recovery?

    One factor relevant to this debate that has not yet been discussed on this thread relates to the various forms of nuclear attack. Considering the various possible manifestations of nuclear attack or exchange also influences the projected likelihood of said attack or exchange, thereby shaping policy conclusions regarding this issue. Specifically, Sartori notes that “analysts generally consider two types of scenarios for large-scale nuclear exchanges:” the counterforce exchange and the all out exchange (37). Though these two classifications of nuclear exchange may be oversimplifications of the possible scenarios a modern government would have to consider – (especially since the assigned piece from Sartori was published in 1983) – they help us consider Melissa’s questions in more detail. Do our policy decisions depend on how we judge the inevitability/likelihood of nuclear war? I would argue yes. But I would also argue that all-out nuclear exchange would be an extreme and highly unlikely possibility for our future – the term “mutually assured destruction” should come to mind. The possibility of strategic counterforce exchanges seems much greater and more realistic, and its effect on civilian populations would be significantly less, though high levels of radiation would be an inevitable threat to society. It appears that planning responses to and recovery from counterforce exchanges should take a higher precedence than planning responses to recovery from all-out exchanges because we are more likely to encounter that scenario. Clearly, however, the possible scenarios and levels of threat are infinite, as are possible approaches to the issue.

  4. I think to answer the question of whether governments should place their finite resources into better response measures to a nuclear strike rather than preventing a nuclear attack, it’s more important to assess risk than inevitability. It matters less to the average individual whether nuclear war will happen at some point than if it will happen soon; one might subscribe to the theory that nuclear war is inevitable, but not feel any sense of alarm unless there is an immediate, tangible risk. The recommended reading in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists alludes to regional wars in Northeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East as situations where a nuclear attack could take place. This is of course in addition to the threat of a terrorist organization or rogue state launching an attack on the developed world. That being said, it seems a bit odd for the current doomsday clock have us at 3 minutes to midnight when it was a much better 12 minutes in 1963, soon after what was arguably the most dangerous year on record with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The argument used by those scientists is that the nuclear stockpile is larger and more potent than ever before. However, I would argue that while the devastation might be greater, the risk of a nuclear strike today is probably lower than at any point in the 1950s-1980s.

    It is for this reason that we see governments in high risk periods, like the 50s and 60s, producing civil defence videos and teaching children to hide under desks in the case of nuclear attack. The risk in that time was high enough to put resources into preparing for a seemingly likely attack. Given the lower likelihood and unforeseeable nature of an attack today, it would be hard to imagine exactly how to boost a post-nuclear response by preparing food or medicines. Furthermore, noting that a nuclear attack tends to cause such absolute devastation, it seems more worthwhile to attempt to prevent one than provide palliative care to those who would remain afterwards. If, for instance, tensions with Russia rose to the level of the early 60s, it might be wise to build fallout shelters and store food in basements. At the current time, however, it seems unaligned with the risk.

  5. In an attempt to answer your first question, I thought long about what I would do if I happened to be in the position of making decisions in such a time when I realized, even as concerned about the ecosystem of our planet as I am, such a concern would literally be one of the last things on my mind. If I’ve already made the decision to start (or retaliate) detonation of massive nuclear weapons, I would be more concerned with how millions of my country’s citizens, and even the civilians of enemy countries would be directly affected (by the overpressure, dynamic pressure, firestorms, etc.).

    That, I think, brings to attention your next point/question about the inevitability of a nuclear attack. First, I think regardless of inevitability, if there is a possibility, there should be a response plan. But I am in agreement with Nathan in thinking that more of the focus should be on prevention rather than response preparation. Second, I don’t think there was much implication in the readings/videos of the inevitability of a nuclear attack (but perhaps that’s just related to my opinion of not equating the presence of response preparation to the eventual inevitability of a nuclear attack), but regardless, I do not think such an attack is “inevitable.” Such an attack, to paraphrase Nathan, is not in the interest of any country. Most people support war so long as they are not the ones in danger. The citizens or government of any country would not support a civilian population-targeted nuclear retaliation.

    However, in addition to a direct attack by a non-state actor, I think non-state actors could be used as proxies by enemy nations of the United States. With current U.S. intelligence collection capabilities and the relatively weak centralized capabilities of many designated foreign terrorist organizations, it’s unlikely that these organizations would build their own nuclear weapons. If anything, the most likely situation is one in which an enemy nation would sell a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization that would detonate it in the U.S. Even if the U.S. were to find out the source of the nuke, we would have no international legal justification for retaliating directly to the source country, and would risk starting a massively destructive international nuclear war (which is different from continuing a massively destructive international nuclear war by justifiably retaliating).

  6. I believe that when we talk about nuclear weapons we should consider that nuclear weapons will most likely never gonna be used. Both Sartori and Tsipis’ readings highlight the terrific and devastating effects that a nuclear attack could have in the short term and in the long term. Also, given the likelihood that almost every country today could potentially create nuclear weapons a nuclear attack could also cause a consequential counterattack that could lead to devastating consequences on a global scale.

    The experience of the two atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggests us that another nuclear attack is very unlikely to happen. Nuclear weapons have today, like they were back during the Cold War, extremely successful deterrent effects on nations. While on one hand this could be dangerous because nuclear weapons could become available to criminal political entities and terrorists, it could also discourage countries from attacking each others, given the magnitude of a possible nuclear war.

    The likelihood of a nuclear attack depends a lot on the availability of nuclear weapons around the world and subsequently on how small and “irrational” minorities (like terrorist groups) could come into possession of nuclear weapons. Therefore policymakers should primarily focus on two aspects: 1) reduce the worldwide availability and production of nuclear energy/weapons by encouraging other forms of energy (i.e. renewable) 2) using diplomacy as an instrument in order to discourage potentially dangerous countries from producing nuclear weapons (like in the case of Iran)

  7. If World War III was to begin tomorrow, Americans would not immediately stockpile immense food and water rations, turn on the emergency sirens, and scramble into bomb shelters. While there would be mass panic, history and common sense have shown us that nuclear warfare is not any country’s Plan A. Nuclear attacks are the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency Plan M. Given the devastating carnage of previous nuclear use, particularly in the memorialized large-scale attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rational states have no desire to receive or perpetrate the effects of nuclear war.

    However, in the last decades we have seen increasing ambiguity in naming “the enemy” with the appearance of non-state and terrorist organizations. During the Cold War era, we could ask, “Who is America’s enemy?” The USSR. “Who is their leader?” Mikhail Gorbachev. “With whom are they working?” Proxy nations such as Cuba and China. As more international political extremist groups emerge, and with increasing utilization of online recruiting/organizing/demonstrations, it becomes harder to point a finger. Even the latest case of nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy, the Iran Deal, was only possible because we have a name and face to sit across the table from. We are able to converse and carry on extensive negotiations because there is an official, centralized government (however weak and unstable it may be in regard to its citizens).

    To that end, I agree with Nathan and Richard that prevention is more important that response policy, but I would specify that we must focus not only on prevention of use, but also prevention of proliferation and possession, particularly for non-state actors. While we can hold countries to the standard of international law and diplomacy, we do not have the same countermeasures for terrorist organizations.

  8. The concern for the earth’s ecosystem is one that I think has appeared mostly retrospectively following the use and testing of nuclear weapons. Since nuclear weapons have not been used or tested for decades, we’ve had the time to appreciate their capacity to affect the environment. Despite this level of concern, however, I think that in times of immediate crisis it still would rank low among the other concerns generally associated with nuclear weapons. Policymakers, in the face of imminent danger, would focus their efforts more on prevention and response.

    During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. devoted significant time and effort to coordinating responses to hypothetical nuclear attacks. For example, second-strike capability was a priority. Today, we hear far less about second-strike and far more about disarming nuclear stockpiles. The focus since then has been mostly on prevention. As some of the earlier comments on this post, like Nathan’s and Richard’s, have noted, this is probably rightly so. Efforts to prevent are far more valuable at this point than efforts to respond. As mentioned in the original post, food and supplies might not be ‘adequate’ in times of a nuclear response.

  9. Because the effects of a nuclear detonation are so catastrophic and immediate, government powers should focus their efforts on prevention rather than response. Prevention is not limited only to diplomatic efforts with other countries. Rather, it includes significant efforts in developing technological countermeasures and evacuation plans of major urban cities. Even if we were to put into places effective response measures to nuclear attacks, the immediate effects (the destruction, the nuclear radiation, and the huge amount of deaths) would still take place. is Focusing on prevention affords us a greater chance of minimizing the risk of an all out nuclear war. Moreover, there unfortunately isn’t a clear way in predicting exactly how large the impact of a nuclear exchange will be until it happens. Thus, we can’t necessarily develop effective response measures. Over prepare and we may risk using up resources that could have been allocated for prevention- the risks of under preparing are obvious. Within the context of nuclear exchange, government powers have more influence in prevention, therefore more efforts should be spent here.

    As others have stated above, focusing on prevention could also greatly reduce accessibility for other groups in making nuclear weapons. Implementing policies that more closely monitor the sale and distribution of uranium and other materials directly related to the production of these missiles can be extremely helpful in preventing the possibility of rogue groups attacking major nations.

Leave a Reply