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Mutually Assured Destruction: Nuclear Weapons: Boon or Bane?

“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence - the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible, that war shall mean annihilation and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace” - Wilkie Collins

Why Has Our Modern World Been Free of World Wars?

Have you heard of the Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1991, between the United States and the Soviet Union? Have you ever wondered why it didn't result in another World War, even though other conflicts in Vietnam and Korea acted as proxy wars between the two global superpowers? There was an immense amount of tension and mistrust between the US and the USSR, but it never resulted in an active, “hot” war. But why exactly is that? 

Severe Consequences

After the Second World War, many countries developed nuclear weapons to defend themselves, as well as deter attacks from potential enemies. The theory of Mutually Assured Destruction was formed to explain the development of nuclear weapons. The destructive power to annihilate cities, and potentially entire civilizations, has been theorized to act as a deterrent to engaging in war.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The Doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction states that the impact of nuclear warfare is so devastating that it deters any country from using nuclear weapons. The use of atomic weapons will lead to the destruction of both the attacker and the defender. The retaliation after the first strike would be large enough to wipe out both countries. There will be no winner. This strategic equilibrium was first coined by John Von Neumann, a Hungarian-American mathematician and physicist.

This doctrine follows the “logic of deterrence,” which states that countries raise their opponent’s cost and the damaging consequences of a first strike. Guaranteed global annihilation would greatly outweigh any potential gains. Some theorists believe that this logic prevented the Cold War from becoming a “Hot” war.

The Cold War - Uncertain Times

As the Second World War reached its conclusion, both the United States and the Soviet Union desperately tried to stockpile nuclear warheads. The United States demonstrated the power of these weapons by dropping two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs effectively ended the Second World War, with the Imperial Empire of Japan surrendering. After those events, the devastating impact of the atomic bombs was obvious, as whole cities were wiped out of existence in one strike. The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb four years after the end of the Second World War, leading to an arms race between the US and the USSR that quickly evolved into the Cold War. 

Even though the US initially viewed the use of nuclear weapons as beneficial, the growing threat of the USSR made it switch its policy. Small conflicts during the Cold War kept both countries on their toes. The situation was simple: either both countries continued to build nuclear warheads, or both of them disarmed. With the latter seeming dangerous and unfeasible, the US developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and air bomber fleets in the 1960s. The combination of land, sea, and air-based weapons is called the Nuclear Triad. The triad made sure the US would be able to survive a potential first strike from the USSR and retaliate if attacked. The potentially devastating effects of a second strike acted as a deterrent and solidified the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. It was only after the end of the Soviet Union that these building tensions dissolved into the background.

Hanging By A Thread?

Fast forward to recent times: eight countries have developed even stronger nuclear warheads, which have more than 50 times the destructive power of the bombs used in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has come under a lot of scrutiny. Even though the theory seemed to explain the role of nuclear weapons in preventing a World War, it takes only one misstep to spark an all-out conflict. The doctrine has shaped how countries interact with each other, and it reinforces the need for diplomacy. With all-out nuclear war infeasible because of the catastrophic consequences, alternative methods, such as diplomacy through the United Nations, had to be considered. 

Diplomatic efforts led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevented countries other than the P-5 countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. The P-5 countries are the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom, which all have permanent membership and veto power in the United Nations Security Council. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty consequently caused an uproar because of the bias towards P-5 nations. As a result, there has been much debate regarding the morality behind using nuclear weapons. Many people argue that all countries should disarm all their nuclear warheads. However, no country has any incentive to do so, fearing increased vulnerability to potential attacks. Thus there is a worldwide stalemate, with the US and the Russian Federation as critical players. With volatile stability coming from the inhumane effects of nuclear warfare, will the world’s future always be shrouded in uncertainty?

Think Further

  1. How could P-5 countries with nuclear weapons be convinced to disarm? Suggest some ways.
  2. Do you think nuclear weapons should be available to every country to sustain the doctrine of MAD? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think that nuclear weapons should be disarmed altogether? If yes, could that potentially cause another World War?

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  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nuclear triad”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Mar. 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/nuclear-triad.
  2. Buzan, Barry. “The Logic of Deterrence”. In: An Introduction to Strategic Studies. International Institute for Strategic Studies Conference Papers, 1987. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-18796-6_12.
  3. Kaplan, Edward. “To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. 
  4. Wilde, Robert. “What Is Mutually Assured Destruction?” ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, https://www.thoughtco.com/mutually-assured-destruction-1221190.