Michael KreponWhat’s the Objective in a Nuclear War?

Quote of the week:

“You show me a Secretary of Defense who’s planning not to prevail [in a nuclear war] and I’ll show you a Secretary of Defense who ought to be impeached.”
—Caspar Weinberger, New York Times, August 24, 1982

In an influential article, “Atoms, Strategy and Policy,” published in the January 1956 issue of Foreign Affairs, Paul Nitze made the case for thinking “rationally” – as the Kremlin and Soviet military planners presumably did – about the goal of fighting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union:

“…[T]he word ‘win’ is used to suggest a comparison of the postwar position of one of the adversaries with the postwar position of the other adversary. In this sense it is quite possible that in a general nuclear war one side or the other could ‘win’ decisively. Even a small initial imbalance in relative capabilities, other things being equal, could grow rapidly into a decisive imbalance as the war progressed…

“The victor will be in a position to issue orders to the loser and the loser will have to obey them or face complete chaos or extinction. The victor will then go on to organize what remains of the world as best he can.”

This thesis was extremely controversial, but back in the 1950s, it was widely shared by those who believed that winning was the only objective if a nuclear war was unavoidable, imminent, or underway. This view was also reinforced by objective U.S. nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. The subtext of winning was preemption, but this aspect of success was more implied than expressed.

The aim of winning a nuclear was rarely articulated in public, and for good reason. Few Americans had a keen interest in fighting or winning such a war. After the Cuban missile crisis, advocates of nuclear war-winning capabilities were easily caricatured as Dr. Strangelove, Gen. “Buck” Turgidson, and Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper. Pursuing nuclear war-winning capabilities seemed an endless and dangerous task, as the Kremlin wasn’t amenable to this outcome and had the means to foil it by increasing warhead totals and making land-based missiles harder to target. When the canonical question, “How much is enough?” was rephrased to “How much is enough to win – or at least not lose?” the answer turned out to be a five-digit number. To complicate matters further, missile-defense deployments could swell opposing offenses even though BMD was too expensive to deploy nationally, easily penetrated, and faced strong public opposition when sited to defend major metropolitan areas. Missile defenses to protect missile silos didn’t go over too well, either.

The Nixon Administration bowed to these realities, accepting the yardstick of sufficiency instead of victory and agreeing to limit national missile defenses. In the first-ever agreement to constrain strategic offensive arms in 1972, U.S. and Soviet force levels were roughly equivalent, but the constraints were loose enough to invite far more counterforce capabilities. The job of closing loopholes fell to the Ford and Carter Administrations, and were not well received.

When the Reagan Administration arrived, the “Victory is Possible” school was given new life. An essay published in Foreign Policy in 1980 by Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne was titled exactly that. Once again, the need to think and act “rationally” in the event of a nuclear war was advocated. The authors posited an unvarnished objective: “The United States should plan to defeat the Soviet Union and to do so at a cost that would not prohibit U.S. recovery.” This equated, in the authors’ view, with fatalities limited to 100 million Americans.

To achieve nuclear war-winning objectives, the Pentagon needed prompt counterforce capabilities to place targets the Kremlin prized most at risk, as well as effective national defenses against ballistic missiles. Ronald Reagan was deeply drawn to the idea of an astrodome defense, but he and Mikhail Gorbachev had no interest in executing the nuclear war plans their militaries had drawn up. Deep cuts followed when the Soviet Union was in its final throes before dying of internal injuries. Ironically, Paul Nitze, as an official in the Reagan Administration, helped engineer this result. Still, the numbers of deployed warheads, even today, aren’t so low as to be insufficient for the U.S. target set.

The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union provided conditions wherein concepts of victory in nuclear war could again be contemplated. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press declared in their 2006 essay ”The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,”

“[T]he age of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) is nearing an end… the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike. This dramatic shift in the nuclear balance of power stems from a series of improvements in the United States’ nuclear systems, the precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China’s nuclear forces. Unless Washington’s policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China—and the rest of the world—will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come.”

Keir and Daryl were right about U.S. nuclear primacy, and their conclusion was not lost on Moscow and Beijing. When the Kremlin finally had sufficient resources after suffering through its own Great Depression, Moscow acted to recapitalize its strategic forces. And China, with no lack of resources, belatedly began to build out new mobile land-based and submarine-launched missiles capable of carrying MIRVs.

Concerns over strategic stability were not resolved by the generous limitations of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The dilemma to “use or lose” will remain in place until operational warheads are lower in number than targets – a condition that neither Moscow nor Washington seem ready to embrace. Further complications will arise because treaty-permitted nuclear war-fighting capabilities will be supplemented by conventional counterforce capabilities as well as by advancements – notably including long loiter times – in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Increased accuracies and ISR capabilities are no longer the sole province of major powers; they are trickling down to second-tier nuclear-armed states that are also in the process of rephrasing the question of “How much is enough?” to calculations of relative advantage and disadvantage. These states, as well, are in for a bumpy ride.

The two key elements of strategic reassurance under these circumstances will harken back to those employed during the Cold War to reduce nuclear dangers. The first is finding a modus vivendi between nuclear-armed states on the issues that vex them the most. The second is restraining from deploying missiles defenses that are incapable of successful intercepts against threat profiles, but highly likely to prompt further increases in strategic offenses. A third key remained elusive during the Cold War: avoiding nuclear weapon-related decisions that evoke most clearly a belief system that a nuclear war can be fought and must be won.


  1. Janet M. Simons (History)

    Here is the correct link for the Lieber-Payne article in Foreign Affairs:


    • Michael Krepon (History)

      many thanks–

  2. Marcus (History)

    I was too young to really experience the cold war mentality. I am curious why people thought they were thinking “rationally” with 100 million dead in a winning exchange. That seems like the end of the USA to me, even without the follow on effects of nuclear winter, and that we have no capacity to manage a disaster of that scale.

  3. Leandro (History)

    We better star thinking a gender-neutral version of Duck & Cover to teach in 21st century classrooms…

  4. J_kies (History)

    Given the present conditions of trade and ‘just in time’ deliveries of even basic foodstuffs, the world is highly vulnerable to a weapon exchange caused breakdown in trade and transport. The threshold for mass starvation of billions is likely to be extremely low, perhaps tens to hundreds of NUDETs. – Forget about ‘nuclear winter’; we wont live long enough to see it.

  5. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The most rational way to fight a nuclear war without mass killing is to never detonate a nuclear weapon. Instead of detonations, nations can issue conditional threats that order the evacuation of cities or other areas. If the orders are implemented by both sides, no nuclear weapons need ever be detonated. Mutual evacuations would impose a cost that each side must bear, until a ceasefire or other agreement is worked out.

  6. Derick Schilling (History)

    Nitze is quoted as writing in 1956:

    “The victor will be in a position to issue orders to the loser and the loser will have to obey them of face complete chaos or extinction.”

    Should “obey them of face” be “obey them or face”?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      My error.