In July of 1945, U.S. president Harry Truman wrote in his diary, “It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.” Terrible and useful. For sixty years, people have focused on the terrible aspects of nuclear weapons. They have made films about nuclear war, detailed the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and imagined the end of life on earth. In those sixty years, on the other hand, people have rarely talked seriously about the usefulness of nuclear weapons. Do they really win wars? Are they effective threats? Fear—engendered by real and imagined cold war dangers—constrained real inquiry. Absorbed by images of destruction, most people didn’t ask practical questions. But it turns out that the area that we’ve explored the most—the terribleness of nuclear weapons—is not the key to understanding them. The key is investigating whether or not they are really useful.
I am not urging the familiar argument that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to be useful; I am suggesting that even if one could use them with impunity, nuclear weapons would still have little practical value. Sixty years of experience, recent reevaluations of the track record of nuclear weapons, and reinterpretations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on new research make it possible to argue that there are very few situations in which nuclear weapons are useful. It might, in fact, be possible to demonstrate that nuclear weapons are functionally the equivalent of biological and chemical weapons: powerful and dangerous weapons, but with very few real applications. And therefore it might also be possible to make the case that—as with chemical and biological weapons—there are practical, prudential reasons for banning nuclear weapons.
To date, two related strategies have been used to oppose the use of nuclear weapons: the horror strategy and the risk strategy. The former relies on moral feelings and tries to persuade people that using nuclear weapons is too immoral to contemplate. The latter relies on calculations of the possibility that a small war could become an all-out nuclear war and tries to persuade people that the danger is too great.
Those who use the horror strategy often make Hiroshima and Nagasaki the centerpiece of their case. They try to drive home the immorality of using nuclear weapons by forcing their listeners to experience vicariously the horror of these cities. Doctors increased the emotional impact of this approach in the 1980s by talking unflinchingly and in detail about the medical consequences of nuclear attacks.
The risk strategy has been more widely embraced than the horror strategy. Vividly given a story line by Nevil Shute in On the Beach (a novel later made into a movie in which a nuclear war e...
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