Michael KreponThe Ironies of Living with the Bomb

I was in New Delhi when I first felt the lump in my chest. At that moment, in 2007, the slow, progressive decline in my health could no longer be wished away – not when I had a tumor the size of an orange growing through my sternum. I learned subsequently that my cancer was at Stage 4 and that there were other tumors. (Oncologists are notoriously chary with information that isn’t helpful to recovery.) This past weekend I learned that my wife’s friend has the same adversary – Large B-Cell Lymphoma — in the same place.

During chemotherapy, I was editing Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. The subtitle was in place before the chemo but took on greater meaning during my illness and recovery. As a young congressional staffer, I helped my boss to delete funding for binary nerve gas munitions that the Army’s Chemical Corps then wanted to produce. Thirty years later, I joined the legions of those whose lives have been extended by chemical warfare.

Aggression can be turned against the aggressor, in medicine as in international relations. Every action begets counter-actions; timelines and results vary. Large B-Cell Lymphoma is a very aggressive adversary. It’s like a heavyweight boxer who throws haymakers while leaving his body wide open to counter-punches. The chemo cocktail designed for this particular cancer is a fierce counter-puncher.

The ironies of my experiences with chemical warfare pale in comparison to the ironies associated with the Bomb – a weapon so powerful that its owners shy away from its use. Threatening use to deter threats is another matter. Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan resort to nuclear threats more than other states, but rational leaders do not wish to cross the nuclear threshold, even in extremis. And if deterrence fails, which it often does, nuclear weapons are more dangerous than helpful. What could be more ironic than spending large sums for weapons that if used on battlefields can result in ruin? Still, we live with the Bomb because we are attached to our ironies, our adversaries, and our fears.

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Note to readers: While under the influence of chemo, I wrote a small book of axioms, Life Lessons: Dealing with Chemo & Serious Illness. It might be helpful for someone you know going through this ordeal.


  1. mark (History)


    I spent 30 professional years concerned with nuclear energy technology and its proliferation. Until I joined the think-tank universe more recently I never had anything to do with nuclear weapons and their delivery systems (as opposed to nuclear weapons-grade material). I now am at the table in expert discussions about the theology of deterrence. At the polite level there is a unified field of discourse. Everyone knows how the theories work and what they say. But they don’t all believe in the same theories. So some of these people have to be very wrong. That is not a comforting thought.

    • krepon (History)


      The seminal works of western deterrence theory were virtually silent about accidents, inadvertent use and non-state actors. Without the rational actor model,the theoretical constructs of deterrence theory would lack coherence.

      Deterrence fails repeatedly, but it has yet to fail by means of a mushroom cloud. If and when it does, theory goes out the window.


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I believe Herman Kahn was fond of telling the generals he had as much experience fighting a nuclear war as they had (none). In the absence of nuclear wars whose causes and outcomes can be analyzed empirically, almost any hypothesis about nuclear deterrence is not directly contradicted by evidence. The only way to distinguish the plausibility of various hypotheses is through theory – not necessarily rational choice theory – but some kind of theory.

      If we someday see a nuclear war, the only hypothesis clearly rejected by such future evidence would be a hypothesis that nuclear weapons always deter nuclear war. Most other hypotheses that admit of some possibility of nuclear war would still be viable. If we only saw one nuclear war, we would still have many unknowns to theorize about and disagree about.

  2. Anjaan (History)

    Quote from this article ” rational leaders do not wish to cross the nuclear threshold, even in extremis” unquote.

    – the question that immediately comes to my mind is, what was so extreme when the US used nukes on the unarmed civilians in two Japanese cities, the second one after two days … ??!! … the US actions did not stop there, the US used Agent Orange against Vietnam in the 70s again … it is quite clear, the white men do not practice what they preach, and preach only when it suites them …

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I believe the statement ”rational leaders do not wish to cross the nuclear threshold, even in extremis” is intended as a statement about what rational leaders would or should do. If true, the statement is just as applicable to evil leaders as to good leaders, so long as they are rational. Morality (or skin color) has nothing to do with it.

      I wish the statement were both true and provable, but I fear it is not easily proven. This lack of proof allows Russians, Pakistanis, or anyone else to threaten a limited nuclear war under the hypothesis that this will somehow “de-escalate” and/or deter some unwanted conventional conflict, rather than lead to a full-scale nuclear war. In my view, this limited nuclear war hypothesis is much too risky for practical use by rational leaders.

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Cancer is an awkward subject for most people. Many people would prefer to die quickly than to die of cancer. For some fast-acting cancers, death happens quickly. For your type of cancer, death was certain if untreated. Treatment provides 60% survival odds, but the odds are reduced if the cancer has reached stage 4.

    Some famous nuclear physicists also had cancer. Werner Heisenberg, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer all died of cancer. Leo Szilard treated his own cancer with radiation in excess of what 1960s doctors recommended. A few years later he died of a heart attack, apparently cured. An irony, radiation can both cause and cure cancer.

    Now to the bomb. It is well-known that nuclear war would cause much death and suffering, but perhaps it would help to make it more vivid. Some would die immediately, but others would linger on and suffer before dying. Many would die of radiation poisoning; those who survived the radiation would have higher odds of cancer. In a regional India-Pakistan nuclear war, 1-2 billion additional people worldwide would die of starvation from global cooling. In a global superpower war, billions more would starve from nuclear winter.

    Is it better to die from radiation poisoning, from cancer, or from starvation? All three ways of death entail suffering.

  4. Jim V (History)

    I consider it inevitable a nuclear weapon will be used somewhere in the world, the question is when. Too many bombs currently exist with many nations seeking nuclear capability status. There is bound to be a point where an irrational leader converges with access to a weapon, or a once rational leader with access to a weapon becomes irrational.