Michael KreponTom Schelling, Mini-Nukes and the Nuclear Taboo

Quote of the week:

“The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger. What a stunning achievement – or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune.” — Thomas Schelling, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 8, 2005

Tom Schelling won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” Schelling’s seminal works on deterrence and arms control are required reading for card-carrying wonks. His Nobel acceptance speech deserves renewed readership during these times of growing interest in counterforce capabilities and “tactical” nuclear weapons. Excerpts can be found below.

“In 1960 the British novelist C. P. Snow said on the front page of the New York Times that unless the nuclear powers drastically reduced their nuclear armaments thermonuclear warfare within the decade was a ‘mathematical certainty.’ Nobody appeared to think Snow’s statement extravagant.

“We now have that mathematical certainty compounded more than four times, and no nuclear war. Can we make it through another half dozen decades?

“There has never been any doubt about the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons or their potential for terror. A large part of the credit for their not having been used must be due to the ‘taboo’ that Secretary of State Dulles perceived to have attached itself to these weapons as early as 1953, a taboo that the Secretary deplored.

“The weapons remain under a curse, a now much heavier curse than the one that bothered Dulles in the early 1950s. These weapons are unique, and a large part of their uniqueness derives from their being perceived as unique. We call most of the others ‘conventional,’ and that word has two distinct senses. One is ‘ordinary, familiar, traditional,’ a word that can be applied to food, clothing, or housing. The more interesting sense of ‘conventional’ is something that arises as if by compact, by agreement, by convention. It is simply an established convention that nuclear weapons are different.

“True, their fantastic scale of destruction dwarfs the conventional weapons. But as early as the end of the Eisenhower administration nuclear weapons could be made smaller in explosive yield than the largest conventional explosives. There were military planners to whom ‘little’ nuclear weapons appeared untainted by the taboo that they thought ought properly to attach only to weapons of a size associated with Hiroshima, or Bikini. But by then nuclear weapons had become a breed apart; size was no excuse from the curse.

“This attitude, or convention, or tradition, that took root and grew over these past five decades, is an asset to be treasured… Preserving this tradition, and if possible helping to extend it to other countries that may yet acquire nuclear weapons, is as important as extending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…

“It is worth a pause here to consider just what might be the literal meaning of ‘no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon.’ Specifically, why couldn’t a nuclear bomb no larger than the largest blockbuster of World War II be considered conventional, or a nuclear depth charge of modest explosive power for use against submarines far at sea, or nuclear land mines to halt advancing tanks or to cause landslides in mountain passes? What could be so awful about using three ‘small’ atomic bombs to save the besieged French at Dien Bien Phu as was discussed at the time? What [could be] so wrong about using nuclear coastal artillery against a communist Chinese invasion flotilla in the Gulf of Taiwan?

“There are two answers that this question has received, one mainly instinctive, the other somewhat analytical, but both resting on a belief, or a feeling – a feeling somewhat beyond reach by analysis – that nuclear weapons were simply different, and generically different. The more intuitive response can probably best be formulated, ‘If you have to ask that question you wouldn’t understand the answer.’ The generic character of everything nuclear was simply – as logicians might call it – a primitive, an axiom; and analysis was as unnecessary as it was futile.

“The other, more analytical, response took its argument from legal reasoning, diplomacy, bargaining theory, and theory of training and discipline, including self discipline. This argument emphasized bright lines, slippery slopes, well-defined boundaries, and the stuff of which traditions and implicit conventions are made (the analogy to ‘one little drink’ for a recovering alcoholic was sometimes heard). But both lines of argument arrived at the same conclusion: nuclear weapons, once introduced into combat, could not, or probably would not, be contained, confined, limited…

“The aversion to nuclear weapons – one might even say the abhorrence of them – can grow in strength and become locked into military doctrine even without being fully appreciated, or even acknowledged… It reminds us that the inhibitions on ‘first use’ may be powerful without declarations, even powerful while one party refuses to recognize its own participation for what it is…

“I have devoted this much attention to where we are and how we got here with the status of nuclear weapons in the belief that the development of that status is as important as the development of nuclear arsenals has been. The nonproliferation effort, concerned with the development, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons, has been more successful than most authorities can claim to have anticipated; the accumulating weight of tradition against nuclear use I consider no less impressive and no less valuable. We depend on nonproliferation efforts to restrain the production and deployment of weapons by more and more countries; we may depend even more on universally shared inhibitions on nuclear use. Preserving those inhibitions and extending them, if we know how, to cultures and national interests that may not currently share those inhibitions will be a crucial part of our nuclear policy…

“The taboo that Ike appeared to denigrate, or pretended to denigrate, but that awed President Johnson a decade later, has become a powerful tradition of nearly universal recognition.

“The next possessors of nuclear weapons may be Iran, North Korea, or possibly some terrorist bodies. Is there any hope that they will have absorbed the nearly universal inhibition against the use of nuclear weapons, or will at least be inhibited by the recognition that the taboo enjoys widespread acclaim?

“Part of the answer will depend on whether the United States recognizes that inhibition, and especially on whether the United States recognizes it as an asset to be cherished, enhanced, and protected or, like John Foster Dulles in Eisenhower’s cabinet, believes ‘somehow or other we must manage to remove the taboo from the use of these weapons…’

“What else can Iran accomplish, except possibly the destruction of its own system, with a few nuclear warheads? Nuclear weapons should be too precious to give away or to sell, too precious to waste killing people when they could, held in reserve, make the United States, or Russia, or any other nation, hesitant to consider military action. What nuclear weapons have been used for, effectively, successfully, for sixty years has not been on the battlefield nor on population targets: they have been used for influence…

“I know of no argument in favor of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999, more powerful than the potential of that treaty to enhance the nearly universal revulsion against nuclear weapons… I never heard that argument made on either side of the debate over the Treaty. When the Treaty is again before the Senate, as I hope it will be, this major potential benefit should not go unrecognized.

“The most critical question about nuclear weapons for the United States Government is whether the widespread taboo against nuclear weapons and its inhibition on their use is in our favor or against us. If it is in the American interest, as I believe obvious, advertising a continued dependence on nuclear weapons, i.e. a U. S. readiness to use them, a U. S. need for new nuclear capabilities (and new nuclear tests) – let alone ever using them against an enemy – has to be weighed against the corrosive effect on a nearly universal attitude that has been cultivated through universal abstinence of sixty years.”

More than a decade has passed since Schelling’s Nobel Lecture, extending the taboo to over seventy years. His comments about Iran now apply to North Korea, as well. Schelling’s way of thinking seems profoundly wise to me. With prudent possession, wisdom and luck, this record of non-battlefield use can continue to be extended. Nothing in the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament is more important than the nuclear “taboo,” and almost nothing could be more catastrophic than its demise.


  1. ghostsofhistory (History)

    It can sometimes take centuries for a civilization to face the conflict it is trying to avoid, an example being the Ottoman Empire.
    There is no mathematical certainly there’ll be a nuclear war within a decade, as C.P. Snow predicted in 1960. But the force leading us to annihilation only has to wait long enough: it has all the time in the world. The evidence around us suggests we are heading for nuclear war, although I can’t be scientific about it. But taboos have a habit of being broken.
    The pattern of history is clear. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict throughout history – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Power is the one thing we will destroy ourselves for, as well as everyone else.
    When core interests are threatened and existential threat looms nations go to war. There can be no compromise on these. As a result every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat. This applies as much today as any other time in history. Deterrence doctrine, made for the 20th century Cold War, is irrelevant in the 21st and will ultimately fail us.
    Unfortunately, leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid this fate – they can’t. If survival is threatened, there is no alternative to war, however destructive.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I wish the nuclear taboo were real, but I doubt that it is. If the taboo were real, no country would plan for nuclear first use, or a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and would hold nuclear weapons only for retaliation against first use by others. Nor would they have any trouble stating all that in clearly enunciated policies and in binding treaties. Since the nuclear-armed nations have not done this and are unwilling to discuss it, there is clearly no strong taboo.

    At best, a weak form of “taboo” may explain why nuclear weapons were not used by the U.S. in Vietnam or Korea, or by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This non-use in third-world countries surprised Schelling. Nevertheless, nuclear first uses were contemplated and nuclear threats issued or implied several times by both the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and by additional nuclear-armed states since then. This suggests the nuclear taboo is rather weak, if it exists at all.

  3. Israel (History)

    The US threatened nuclear first use against India in 1971.
    This motivated India to test Smiling Buddha the first Indian nuclear explosive device.

    “In December 1971, Richard Nixon sent a carrier battle group armed with nuclear weapons and led by the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) into the Bay of Bengal in an attempt to intimidate India.

    The Soviet Union responded by sending a submarine armed with nuclear missiles from Vladivostok to trail the US task force. The Soviet response demonstrated the deterrent value and significance of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile submarines to Indira Gandhi.”

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