If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful

Thursday, August 24th, 2023

Nuclear deterrence can be an odd topic to discuss with people outside of the security studies space, Bret Devereaux notes:

As we’ll see, there is a certain inescapable logic to many of the conclusions of deterrence theory, but the conclusions themselves viewed without considering that logic seem absurd (and occasionally are, even with the logic). Nevertheless, outside of those security studies fields at the college level, we generally don’t teach nuclear deterrence theory in school and so while this is actually one of the most studied and theorized concepts in the modern world (note that this doesn’t mean the theory is necessarily correct, but it does mean that a lot of very smart and well informed people have been grappling with these ideas for a while now), in my experience there is a tendency by the general public to assume that they are the first to notice this or that absurd-seeming conclusion. Everyone has an opinion about nuclear weapons, but the gap between having an opinion and having an informed opinion is both massive and rarely spanned.

Or to put it very briefly: Dr. Strangelove is a great movie, but if you only have your deterrence theory from Dr. Strangelove, you are dangerously under-informed (though while we’re here it seems worth noting that the Soviet automated-launch doomsday device of the film mostly actually exists, as a system called Dead Hand in the West and Perimeter in Russia and still in use by Russia. Presumably, since Russian nuclear forces are currently on high alert, Perimeter is active, which should be a chilling thought. I am going to say this several times because it is a fundamental truth about nuclear weapons: if you aren’t at least a bit worried, you aren’t paying attention).

The atomic bomb allowed the US and its allies to maintain parity with the USSR while still demobilizing:

US airbases in Europe put much of the Soviet Union in range of American bombers which could carry nuclear weapons, which served to ‘balance’ the conventional disparity. It’s important to keep in mind also that nuclear weapons emerged in the context where ‘strategic’ urban bombing had been extensively normalized during the Second World War; the idea that the next major war would include the destruction of cities from the air wasn’t quite as shocking to them as it was to us — indeed, it was assumed. Consequently, planners in the US military went about planning how they would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield (and beyond it) should a war with a non-nuclear Soviet Union occur.

In 1946, three years before the USSR successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, Bernard Brodie published The Absolute Weapon, which set out the basic outlines of deterrence theory:

  1. The power of a nuclear bomb is such that any city can be destroyed by less than ten bombs.
  2. No adequate defense against the bomb exists and the possibilities of such are very unlikely.
  3. Nuclear weapons will motivate the development of newer, longer range and harder to stop delivery systems.
  4. Superiority in the air is not going to be enough to stop sufficient nuclear weapons getting through.
  5. Superiority in nuclear arms also cannot guarantee meaningful strategic superiority. It does not matter that you had more bombs if all of your cities are rubble.
  6. Within five to ten years (of 1946), other powers will have nuclear weapons. [Of course this happened in just three years.]

Brodie concludes:

Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.

By 1959, both the USA and the USSR had mounted nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which had effectively infinite range and were effectively impossible to intercept.

In The Delicate Balance of Terror (1958), Wohlstetter argued that deterrence was in fact fragile:

Any development which allowed one party to break the other’s nuclear strike capability (e.g. the ability to deliver your strike so powerfully that the enemy’s retaliation was impossible) would encourage that power to strike in the window of vulnerability.


Like Brodie, Wohlstetter concluded that the only way to avoid being the victim of a nuclear first strike (that having the enemy hit you with their nukes) was being able to credibly deliver a second strike.


This is the logic behind the otherwise preposterously large nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation (inherited from the USSR). In order to sustain your nuclear deterrent, you need more weapons than you would need in the event because you are planning for scenarios in which some large number of weapons are lost in the enemy’s first strike. At the same time, as you overbuild nuclear weapons to counter this, you both look more like you are planning a first strike and your opponent has to estimate that a larger portion of their nuclear arsenal may be destroyed in that (theoretical) first strike, which means they too need more missile[…]

If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful — if only one side has them, well, they are the “absolute” weapon, able to make up for essentially any deficiency in conventional strength — and once useful, they would be used. Humanity has never once developed a useful weapon they would not use in extremis; and war is the land of in extremis.


Because different kinds of systems would have different survivability capabilities, it also led to procurement focused on a nuclear ‘triad’ with nuclear systems split between land-based ICBMs in hardened silos, forward-deployed long-range bombers operating from bases in Europe and nuclear-armed missiles launched from submarines which could lurk off an enemy coast undetected. The idea here is that with a triad it would be impossible for an enemy to assure themselves that they could neutralize all of these systems, which assures the second strike, which assures the destruction, which deters the nuclear war you don’t want to have in the first place.


  1. Jim says:

    By this logic, the U.S.S.R. was effectively unilaterally disarmed for several years, and there was absolutely nothing on this earth to stop the late, great General George S. Patton from marching to Moscow within the week. But, I suppose, in order to have a Cold War, you must first have a communist adversary.

  2. Ben Dova says:

    “and there was absolutely nothing on this earth to stop the late, great General George S. Patton from marching to Moscow within the week…”

    Except for the fact that Patton was assassinated in 1945.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “… there was absolutely nothing on this earth to stop the late, great General George S. Patton from marching to Moscow within the week.”

    Well … nothing apart from the Red Army.

    Years ago, some old Brits who had served in WWII told me that one of the reasons the Brits voted Churchill out of office even before the fighting stopped was that they were afraid he would turn against the USSR as soon as Germany surrendered. Churchill was perceived as loving war, but the people who did the fighting, dying, and suffering had had enough of war.

  4. Chedolf says:

    Except for the fact that Patton was assassinated in 1945.

    Yes, that’s the point. FDR’s pro-Soviet regime had to violently intervene to prevent WW2 from ending as it should have ended.

    “FDR had a man in Moscow who watched the entire Moscow Trials and filed a report that said “yeah basically these trials were fine and they deserved it.”
    - @OGRolandRat

    “Roosevelt fired his ambassador who kept warning him the commies were dedicated to world revolution… curious.”
    - @lplollplolll

  5. Bruce says:

    The US ran out of reserves in either February or May 1945. We weren’t ready for a longer war with anyone big.

  6. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    Running low on reserves? Oh, to have the luxury of such problems…

    The soviets weren’t just running low on reserves, they were running low on the Russian People altogether. By the time the red army got to Berlin, the stragglers of the wehrmacht were fighting siberians from northern asia.

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