Michael KreponDuality

My favorite track on the Drive-By Truckers Southern Rock Opera CD is “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” It’s about “the duality of the Southern thing,” an interwoven tale about George C. Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant. (Non-US readers of ACW who recognize more than one of these names earn extra credit on the next Shoebox pop quiz.) After my talks at Maxwell Air Force Base, I head over to the Alabama State House to look in vain for statues of these three legends. (What’s there not to like about a State House tour?) I did, however, find a bust of Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife and stand-in for Governor when he couldn’t succeed himself. If you ask a docent why Lurleen has a statue while George is on canvas, you may learn a bit more about the duality of the Southern thing. I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

The Bomb exudes duality. What could be more contradictory than an utterly dangerous device that one relies on for security? Maybe that’s why I find fervent views on this subject that are without a trace of irony and paradox so dissatisfying. Some of the best arms control outcomes have sprung from the cleverly laid traps of nuclear strategists, just as well-meaning efforts by arms controllers have periodically backfired.

Nonetheless, most arms controllers and nuclear strategists continue to exude supreme confidence in their proposed remedies. The two worst laws in the land for extremely intelligent, highly driven analysts and advocates are Murphy’s Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences. If Murphy and Unintended ever hook up, trust me, skip the wedding. To hint, let alone acknowledge, the possibility of unintended consequences in pursuit of a cherished goal in this line of work is the functional equivalent of dialing the wrong code into a PAL. To err may be human, but to admit the possibility of error related to the Bomb is downright disabling.

Wonks: If you insist on a linear progression in a field defined by duality, disappointment will become your closest friend. In my view, what matters most in this business are trend lines that become clear over long stretches of time. If you can stay focused on achieving long-term goals and preventing of the most damaging developments along the way, temporary setbacks won’t sidetrack you.

The sure-minded among us leach all traces of duality from their prescriptions. To remedy this unsatisfying state of affairs, I have tried my hand at using irony and paradox as the subtext of my latest opus, Better Safe than Sorry. Some of my favorites are offered below. Please feel free to add to, subtract from, or edit this list.

☛ The pursuit of safety led to an excess of caution, and an excess of caution led to excessive nuclear arsenals and dangers.

☛ Human beings brought Murphy’s Law into our dealings with the Bomb, but they also prevented close calls from resulting in mushroom clouds.

☛ “Hawks” and “Doves” needed each other to gain political advantage and to reduce nuclear dangers.

☛ Dovish administrations have had much less to show for their arms control efforts than hawkish ones.

☛ Ballistic missile defenses prompted more offense, and more offense prompted ballistic missile defenses.

☛ The illogic of deterrence theory has (so far) produced logical decisions, or if you prefer, the logic of deterrence theory has produced illogical results.

☛ The more pressing abolition becomes, the harder it is to accomplish; when prospects for abolition appear brighter, its pursuit becomes less pressing.

☛ We survived the Cold War in spite of ourselves and in spite of the Soviets.


  1. Nick Russell (History)

    A post about the duality of the bomb with no mention of Niels Bohr? For shame!

  2. FSB

    OK, more like irony than duality, but here is another: in trying to protect against a non existent Iranian threat we may produce a real threat in Russia and China.

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    “Dovish administrations have had much less to show for their arms control efforts than hawkish ones”

    According to someone in the audience at yesterdays’ meeting of the Arms Control Association, the last time the Senate ratified an arms control agreement presented by a Democratic president was the (relatively uncontroversial) Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

  4. FSB
  5. John Field (History)

    Erasmus was wrong when he said “The one eyed man is a king in the valley of the blind.” Because he has an eye, he is an exile.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Having grown up under the bomb I learned at an early age that duality = sanity (as beast as can be had). Given the hyper aggression of humanity this duality has been the best check on human behavior we’ve seen yet. Never before did the hawks have such means, never before were the doves so correct in the outcomes of the actions of the hawks.

  7. magoo2 (History)

    Arms Control negotiations are historically strategic initiatives that have duality built into them as the objectives of the various parties are invariably divergent. The negotiating process is, therefore, a product of compromises that are not reflected in the main body of the end product.
    For example the NPT, supposedly the root of disarmament theology. The objectives of the then main nuclear rivals the US and the Soviet Union had their roots in the fear that the ‘Axis Powers’ – Germany, Japan and Italy – had achieved the technological and industrial competencies to produce and field nuclear arsenals. That would have complicated the existing strategic equations to a point of becoming unmanageable.
    The ‘Axis powers’, especially Germany, found it unacceptable to forego the right to create autonomous nuclear capabilities without a guaranteed nuclear umbrella against the Soviets. It was not enough that the US was ready to provide assurances. The Germans insisted on a trip wire that would guarantee that the US would become involved from the word go and be forced to retaliate to any Soviet threat. The minimum acceptable position was the deployment of US nuclear weapons in the ‘front window’ i.e. on German soil. The Soviets would not accept this without being able to deploy their nuclear forces in the WARSAW PACT countries. This impasse was, according to George Bunn, overcome by a secret pact between the US and the Soviets thereby giving them a bilateral arrangement – outside the main body of the Treaty – to violate Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty – to deploy nuclear warheads in ‘non-nuclear weapon states’ of Europe.
    This and a number of other issues were the deceit and duplicity that became the corner stone of negotiating process that created the NPT.
    The factor of duality has been the prime reasons for a number of Arms control agreements never seeing the light of day as the path to compromises is blocked.

  8. Josh (History)


    The Chemical Weapons Convention could be considered a partial exception. It was negotiated and signed by a Republican, and presented for ratification by a Democrat. Getting it to the Senate floor wasn’t a trivial matter, either.

    The only nuclear treaties ratified under a Democrat that I can think of are the Partial Test Ban Treaty and (now that you mention it) the Outer Space Treaty.