Michael KreponJustice and the Bomb

Quotes of the week:

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.”
— Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

“There is no justice. The rich win; the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims – and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions; and we doubt the law… If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice.”
— Closing argument of the Paul Newman character in “The Verdict” (1982), Sidney Lumet, Director, David Mamet, screenplay

Appeals to justice resonate powerfully, as is evident in “The Verdict,” a must-see movie about a bedraggled, alcoholic lawyer arguing a life-redeeming case with the deck stacked against him. There’s a simple reason why most movies have happy endings: “We the People” want to believe that when the “System” is rigged by the wealthy and well connected, it’s still possible to win, at least some of the time.

These victories are sweeter when the powerful overreach. Crazed gubernatorial politics in Alabama resulted in the nomination of a pedophile for a secure Republican Senate seat and, lo and behold, the Democratic candidate, who has marched for justice in civil rights campaigns and courtrooms, wins. No lobbying group is currently overreaching more than the National Rifle Association, which opposes meaningful background checks and protects the “right” to bear semi-automatic arms – the weapon of choice for mentally ill kids who shoot up schools.

The times they are a-changing. Feel the Churn. It’s already reflected in the numbers of those who have opted to retire from Congress, most of whom have stood in doorways and blocked halls on nuclear arms and gun control issues. Verdicts await.

A belief in justice is part and parcel of a belief in democracy. Lose faith in one and you lose faith in the other. Those who have refused to be cynical and refused to give up — a long and distinguished line that includes Frederick Douglass, the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King and his fellow marchers, up to today’s #MeToo movement, with many way stations in between — have fueled successes in creating a more perfect Union, one that tries to live up to the founding documents of the United States of America.

Can the pursuit of justice that has led to successes in civil rights, human rights, and equal rights — starting with and employing the basic right to vote — also fuel successes in the hard, long struggle to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons, and to prevent mushroom clouds?

Sounds strange, doesn’t it — or at least a stretch. But in actuality, debates over justice and the Bomb have long been embedded in debates over nuclear deterrence. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t just rest its case for the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence on strategic grounds; it also makes an explicit moral case for doing so, i.e., the lives saved by making large-scale conventional wars between nuclear-armed states obsolete.

Leave aside, for now, the other reasons why major powers have decided not to fight a third World War. The key assumption behind this argument is that nuclear deterrence “works,” and will continue to prevent large-scale loss of life in the future. Every treaty governing nuclear arms, every confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measure, every initiative to reduce the salience and size of existing nuclear arsenals is fueled by the exact opposite assumption – that nuclear deterrence is more error-prone and fragile than we think. The basic assumption that nuclear deterrence will fail – that it cannot succeed forever – is at its core an argument about justice. There’s no justice in mushroom clouds. Not even small ones that are likely to lead to bigger ones.

If and when the nuclear use threshold is crossed, the most compelling need in the following few minutes would be to control escalation. If proponents of nuclear deterrence cannot address the issue of escalation control – and they have not even begun to explain their thinking on this topic, since to do so would invite derision – then there is no way that the battlefield use of nuclear weapons can be justified under the precepts governing a just war. There is no justice in the blast, fire, radiation and other nuclear weapon effects. There are only victims.

Defenders of nuclear deterrence need to prove they are right every time. Opponents of the excessive requirements undergirding nuclear deterrence only have to be proven right one time – with the survivors mourning the consequences. Given these odds, which side offers the most prudential choices? It’s the side that loses more often than it wins. Fear of the Bomb has resulted in many unwise choices because those who place their faith in “strengthening” nuclear deterrence have yet to be proven demonstrably and disastrously wrong.


  1. Steven Hayden (History)

    Kim Jong Un named the “fusion “device the H bomb of Justice….for a reason. Honest sinners request mercy not justice not death.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The arguments, pro and con, about whether nuclear deterrence “works” to prevent major conventional war at an acceptable risk are essentially cost-benefit arguments, not moral arguments about justice. The alleged “benefit” of nuclear deterrence is a reduced risk of major conventional war that might kill, say 60 million people (World War II). The “cost” of nuclear deterrence is increased risk of nuclear war that might kill, say 600 million people (or 6 billion people, if we add in nuclear winter).

    The cost-benefit argument can justify nuclear deterrence, only if the reduced probability of major conventional war X its consequence of 60 million deaths every 50 years or so exceeds the increased risk of nuclear war X the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war (600 million to 6 billion deaths). If a major nuclear war would be fought, on average, only once in 500 years (or once in 5,000 years), then all the alleged benefits of nuclear deterrence are canceled by the catastrophic cost.

    Not even 73 years of nuclear “peace” is adequate to justify a super-optimistic belief that the probability of nuclear war is less than 2% per century. Hence, nuclear deterrence is not justified on cost-benefit grounds.