The latest events in Ukraine have demonstrated the ugly but effective operation of Mutual Assured Destruction — the frightening and incredibly costly state of affairs in this world that arrived in 1949. That was when the Soviet Union exploded its own nuclear bomb, just four years after the US exploded the first three in history, two of them dropped on undefended Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women, and children.
MAD is the apt acronym for the situation that obtains when two rival nations have enough nuclear weapons to reasonably threaten unacceptable nuclear devastation in retaliation for an initial nuclear strike on the other.
There is, after all, a reason why no nuclear bomb has been exploded in a war during the 77 years since the second US operational nuclear bomb, the plutonium-based “Fat Boy,” was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
It’s true we’ve come awfully close to nuclear weapons being used. The first instances were early in the nuclear age in 1948, when President Truman used his US monopoly on the bomb to threatened to get his way both in a dispute over the USSR getting a share of the oil fields in Iran along with the other war-time allies, and in Berlin to get the Soviet blockade of highway access to that city lifted. In both those cases, the Soviet Union backed down. Things changed, though, in the Korean War in 1950 when North Korean and Chinese troops were pressing US forces hard, and in 1954 in Vietnam when the US came close to using atom bombs to rescue surrounded French troops trapped by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, as well as in Vietnam again in 1968 when two US Marine regiments were trapped by Vietnamese forces at Khe San. By the time these situations came up, the Soviets had their own bomb and planes and rockets to deliver them, and each time, US plans to use nukes were dropped because of fears the Soviets would respond with the use of nuclear weapons.
There were other close calls too, including in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, when only the refusal of some individual, stopped a nuclear war. In the Cuba case, it was a Soviet sub commander who refused to provide the third vote to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo at a US ship trying to hit it with depth charges. There were a number of similar situations in the US and USSR where some junior officers would hold off on reporting a suspected missile attack or a false launch order. Each time the reason for the delay in launching a war was a fear of the resulting holocaust. Always, since 1949 after the Soviets got their own atom bomb and the US lost its atomic monopoly, good sense has luckily prevailed and the crisis of the moment has been resolved peacefully.
Note that during all this time, US troops have not exchanged deadly fire with Soviet or Russian troops, nor, since China developed its own nuclear bomb and the missiles to deliver them, with Chinese troops. This is because war strategists in all three nations understand that any conventional conflict will end up going nuclear as soon as one of them starts to lose on the battlefield.
Back in the early Cold War days of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, this notion of the unusability of nuclear weapons was not well understood or accepted. Leaders, especially in the US, like Presidents Truman, Eisenhower Kennedy, and Johnson, hoped that the US could obtain a technological and/or numerical superiority in nuclear weapons (just as, later, Ronald Reagan hoped to develop an impenetrable defensive shield against Soviet nuclear counterattack). The fantasy was always that the US could get the ability to launch a nuclear war without fear of Soviet retaliation. This made crises in that period much more frightening, though fortunately such superiority by one side has never been achieved.
I remember during and following the Cuban missile crisis, when I was just 13, accompanying my father and the rest of the family to the property of an enterprising oil and septic tank retailer. He was marketing adapted tanks on which he had welded entry pipes equipped with built-in ladders and breather pipes powered by a stationary bicycle, which he was selling as bomb shelters. My dad, an engineer, climbed into one of these tanks (which were selling like hotcakes) and climbed back out shaking his head. I remember vividly him telling my mom that just thinking of being “trapped in there with three kids for a few months,” was so horrifying that he decided we needed to work to ban nuclear weapons, not try to survive them.
Obviously we as people (if not the strategists and foreign policy people and the arms merchants who bribe them) have come to accept that nuclear war is not an option, and that the US is also therefore not going to get itself into a war with another nuclear power.
That is why President Biden, while dutifully excoriating Russia and “thug” Vladimir Putin for his military threats on the border of Ukraine, and despite his endless warnings about an “imminent invasion” by the Russian Army of that country, and his threats of devastating sanctions” if such an invasion was launched, was also quick to make it clear that “no US troops” would be sent to defend Ukraine from Russia. There was no “strategic ambiguity” from the White House on that point.
It is why there has been no panic among the Russian, US or even Ukrainian public about the possibility of the Ukraine crisis leading to nuclear war. Nor are there public fears of the Ukraine crisis growing into a wider war between US and NATO conventional forces and Russian forces, either.
We can thank MAD for this, just as we can thank MAD for the fact that the US will not be going to the defense of Taiwan should China decide to use its military someday to conquer that thus far independent island.
Knowing this, one would think that the major nuclear nations, realizing that their nuclear weapons are useless, would all get together and agree to eliminate them and ban them as the UN has already done in an agreement that went into force Jan. 22, 2021. Instead, that ban, signed by nearly every member nation in the United Nations, has not been signed by any of the nine nuclear nations.
Perhaps the joke is on us. Perhaps the nuclear states aren’t signing onto a ban on nukes for good reason. In the case of a small country like North Korea, perhaps it’s the realization that having a few nuclear bombs of your own provides protection against being attacked by a much bigger nation. Certainly, it appears that the US has avoided war with that country because it has nukes which it could launch against South Korea and the tens of thousands of US troops based there, or against US ally Japan if it were attacked. And as for the major powers, perhaps they realize that without the threat of nuclear weapons, they might find themselves fighting major wars with each other, freed from the fear of total nuclear obliteration, or of the destruction of the planet.
If that is what’s happening, maybe we need another option. Nuclear competition is outrageously expensive (the US is currently embarked on a $1.5-trillion “modernization and upgrading” project for its entire nuclear arsenal). And arming and paying for a modern conventional military is even more expensive, costing the US, for example, depending on how one is counting, between $800 billion and $1.3 trillion per year!
Couldn’t we all just each build a giant doomsday bomb that would destroy life on the planet, or at least civilization — something that each nation could threaten to detonate if it were attacked and found itself being beaten by some enemy state? (The kind of weapon envisioned in Dr. Strangelove.) That would have the same deterrent effect of eight Trident missile subs and 400 Minuteman III nuclear missiles and a huge strategic bomber force at a fraction of the cost. We still wouldn’t have wars between major nuclear nations but we’d have more money to spend on things people actually need.
It still would seem incredibly stupid, I admit. Far better for all of us humans on this little planet spinning through space could learn to get along, help each other, and use our resources and tax money to make the world a better place to live in. But in the meantime, until we can evolve to be at least as socially intelligent as the Bonobo apes, let’s be thankful for MAD, which while crazy, seems so far to be working.