Nuclear War: From MAD to NUTS*

by John Lamperti


When Albert Einstein signed the letter to President Roosevelt which began the atomic bomb project, he and his colleagues did not want to create a usable weapon. They had one supreme motivation: fear of nuclear bombs in the hands of Adolf Hitler. Should Nazi Germany succeed in making an A-bomb, they thought, the same weapon in Allied hands might deter the actual use of such a terrible invention. However, top U.S. leaders had a very different idea. The bomb was in fact built after Germany had been defeated, and it was used against two Japanese cities in August 1945.

Throughout the Cold War years the dilemma continued: what were nuclear weapons for? The U.S. and the USSR, followed by other powers, built arsenals of nuclear explosives which could have destroyed industrial society worldwide and killed hundreds of millions of people. Thousands of "small" weapons were created for use on the battlefield; other thousands with long-range delivery systems were aimed at the hearts of the great powers themselves. The engineering genius and vast resources devoted to creating the bombs and missiles stood in stark contrast to the far shallower thinking about their meaning and use. No sane leaders wanted all-out nuclear war, but some were prepared in a crisis to use the smaller, tactical weapons. Opponents pointed out that escalation to an ultimate disaster would then be highly probable. Fortunately, none of this came to pass. In the end, the deterrence of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)--or perhaps just decency and common sense--prevailed, and the bombs did not again explode on human beings.

With the end of the Cold War there was hope that the nightmare of nuclear holocaust might be permanently eliminated. The danger of all-out U.S./USSR war receded, and the megatons of overkill in the nuclear stockpiles declined. Agreements such as SALT, the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, START, the non-proliferation treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban were welcomed around the world. Perhaps after all the nuclear genie could be brought under control.

Unfortunately, the United States has not led the way toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. To our cost and shame, partisan politics triumphed in 1999 when the Senate rejected the test ban treaty, which had been signed by the United States and 160 other nations. Advocates of "usable" nuclear weapons, in this country and abroad, gained ground, and the belief that deterrence of nuclear attack was the only valid purpose for nuclear arsenals lost influence. In fact, while the world-destroying nuclear cataclysm became less likely, the danger that nuclear weapons would be used somewhere has not gone away and may be increasing. The recent nuclear threats between India and Pakistan brought both countries close to an almost unimaginable disaster.

In this critical moment, the Bush administration has come down entirely on the wrong side. President George W. Bush approves of the rejection of the Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States and 160 other nations. He has taken a historic step backwards by repudiating the long-standing ABM treaty which put an important brake on the nuclear arms race, and is throwing vast sums of money into unworkable and dangerous schemes for missile defense. Worst of all, the Bush administration wants nuclear weapons to be usable. It is pushing for new designs, including a large "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" and "small" bombs that would blur the firebreak between "conventional" and nuclear weapons. (These new weapons were debated in Congress during May and June with mixed results, neither a full green light nor a clear rejection.) The administration also wants to prepare for the faster resumption of nuclear tests, needed only if new kinds of weapons are to be built.

This approach will encourage the spread of nuclear weapons and make the world a far more dangerous place for us all. For fifty years, the world survived the policy of MAD and avoided the disaster of nuclear war. The next fifty years, with the ascendancy of Nuclear Use Theorists, may not be so fortunate. It is essential that the American people and their Congress get the NUTS under control.

PS (from the FCNL): Members of Congress need to continue hearing from constituents that limiting low-yield and "nuclear bunker buster" research is important for American security and U.S. nonproliferation efforts worldwide.

* Kudos to William Hartung for this evocative phrase.

Note: This article appeared in Peacework Magazine, July-August, 2003. Peacework is published by the American Friends Service Committee's New England region (NERO).

(August 2002; modified November 2003)

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