Michael KreponCheap Rhetorical Tricks

The cheapest debating trick in the nuclear weapons/arms control business is the well-crafted rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are asked not to seek answers, but to advance preferred outcomes. Hardy perennials include, “Can’t we do better than…?” The best rhetorical questions frame a public policy argument advantageously, untie purse string, help gain approval for a treaty or executive agreement, and place opponents on the defensive. As an added bonus, rhetorical questions require detailed rebuttals, but not detailed back-up or justification. As governance in the United States continues to give way to greater polarization and political posturing, the stock price of rhetorical questions will continue to rise.

One technique for dealing with rhetorical questions is to pre-empt them. In his 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, “Assuring Strategic Stability in an Era of Détente,” Paul Nitze led with, “Is nuclear war unthinkable? Would it mean the end of Civilization as we know it?” He then offered pointed rebuttals. Pre-emption is a great debating counter to rhetorical questions.

The most memorable rhetorical question relating to the Bomb may well be President Ronald Reagan’s humdinger, used to introduce the Strategic Defense Initiative: “Would it not be better to save lives rather than avenge them?” Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, employed this variation: “Is a strategy that amounts to a suicidal response sufficiently credible to deter all Soviet attacks?” Reagan and Weinberger were borrowing from President Richard M. Nixon’s 1970 State of the World message, in which he asked:

Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans?

The pursuit of missile defenses will always be accompanied by rhetorical questions. No one remembers Weinberger’s or Nixon’s formulation. When it comes to rhetorical questions, less is more and pithy is better. Here are a few more, courtesy of my shoeboxes:

“What is the sense of developing a weapon that can destroy a city twice over?” — Henry Kissinger, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy


“If they must be small, why not none at all? If they must be used, why not use large ones?” – Bernard Brodie on low-yield nuclear weapons, in Strategy and the Missile Age

Do any others come to mind?


  1. David E. Hoffman (History)

    Here’s two:

    “How much is enough?” — Alain C. Enthoven

    “And one of the questions which we have to ask ourselves as a country is what in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it, politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?” — Henry Kissinger, July 3, 1974

  2. MK (History)

    Thanks, David.
    Definitely top ten material.

  3. John Hallam (History)

    How many times do I need to make the rubble bounce?

  4. John Hallam (History)

    It seems to me that some at least of these questions are neither ‘cheap’ nor ‘rhetorical’, but all too frighteningly real.

    If I were to look for ”cheap’ ‘rhetorical’ questions it would be amongst the utterly toxic tea – part and neo-tea-party rhetoric about how Obama is ‘unilaterally disarming’ the US when what he is undertaking are all – too modest steps, undercut by his collosal expenditure on the US weapons complex, toward an outcome that is essential for human survival and is mandated by US treaty obligations and global public (and government) opinion.

    John Hallam

  5. Hank (History)

    A particularly silly one is this:
    Nuclear Zero? Why Not Nuclear Infinity? – Matthew Kroenig

    Kroenig takes a “middle ground” by saying that serious adults can start discussing when the extreme “infinity” and “zero” options are eliminated. Just great.

    • John Hallam (History)

      Kroenigs other recent contributions do reveal him as coming from the extreme right – hand – side of the argument.

      But where, oh where, is a side that is NOT the extreme right hand side?

      And just where does mere human survival rate in all of this nonsense?

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    A new £21.7m facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston is to be built as a further part of the UK’s contribution to the nuclear weapons information project with France.

    According to the parliamentary sources, the overall investment in Project Teutates will amount to £48.7m.

    The deal to share resources, in order to cut cost of military projects, between the UK and France was signed in 2010 by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Both countries committed to invest into new centres dedicated to experiments on warhead materials and parts.

    The facilities will use extremely high power X-rays to test materials at high temperature and pressure, mimicking conditions during nuclear explosions. The data gathered should help to assess performance and safety of warheads and might be used in development of new warhead types

    —What would either the UK or France do with “new warhead types?” Not as a doubtful rhetorcial question, but as a literal one.


  7. Steve Weintz (History)

    “Are you not entertained?”

    There is something ghoulishly fascinating about Armageddon and its intricate toys…

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    —-I have an incfredible urge to send in a team of commandos to evacuate zoo animals from any Syrian zoos, to protect them from what happpens next.

    Word that Russian forces had pulled out of Syria first came in an interview with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister, published in the newspaper al-Hayat on Friday. Russian newspapers and agencies reported Wednesday that they had confirmed the evacuation with unnamed personnel in Russia’s military and Foreign Ministry.

    “We have neither servicemen nor civilians in Syria anymore,” the newspaper Vedomosti reported, quoting an unnamed Defense Ministry employee. “Or Russian military instructors assigned to units of the Syrian regular army, for that matter.”


  9. Tom Nichols (History)

    Well, it’s a piece of rhetoric that I like, but it definitely fits your bill:

    Reagan in London: “Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms?”