Nuclear Deterrence Theory

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Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, after second bomb to hit was dropped, Aug. 9, 1945.

Nuclear Weapon, usually in the form of bombs or warheads, have long been recognized as a catastrophic force of mass destruction. As an ultra-impactful mean to alter the outcome of wars, captured by the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the technology/information on building Nuclear Weapons had become an essential matter of interest for numerous countries(e.g., the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China) ever since the end of WWII. Such interest(which eventually led to a series of campaign of Nuclear Proliferation among countries) not only attributes to the formidability of Nuclear power, but more importantly the potential stability and order that could have been provided to the globe after wartime[1], as proposed by American Economist Thomas Schelling’s "Nuclear Deterrence Theory"—the idea that multiple countries simultaneously possessing the ruinous nuke force would actually deter the use of Nuclear Weapons among Nuclear-owned countries, backed up by an explicit mismatch between, intuitively, “a conceivable defense system” and “the speed with which nuclear weapons can be deployed”, according to Schelling[2].

As for now, “Nuclear Deterrence Theory” is adopted by most countries that have acquired the capability of building nuke weapons(i.e., Nine nations have developed the intelligence to create and possess nuclear power), and hence the ethical issues associated with these weapons become increasingly critical and relevant to mankind’s interest.

History of Nuclear Adoption

United States

The history of U.S. nuclear adoption began on July 12, 1939(months into WWII), when Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, major contributors to Nuclear technology, visited physicist Albert Einstein on New York's Long Island regarding their nuclear research. That night they explained to him about the possibility of atomic bombs as their research developed, and the concern over the potential that German Fascism may have acquired the same idea about building nuclear weapons, after noticing German nuclear physicist Siegfried Flügge published two influential articles regarding the exploitation of nuclear energy. [3]

Szilard and Wigner knew that Einstein held personal relationship with the Belgian Royal Family, whose country was now exposed to the risk of invasion for having the best source of uranium ore needed for nuclear reaction, and hence was the most suitable person to send the warnings. Einstein accepted the request and subsequently signed a letter wrote by Wigner regarding the issue, which was then sent to Belgium. At Wigner's suggestion, they also prepared a letter for the State Department explaining what they were doing and why, and to see if it had any objections.[4]

This, however, did not raise any attention from the U.S. government and left the problem of getting government support for Szilard’s uranium research unsolved. He was then suggested to meet with economist Alexander Sachs, who had access to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later the two met, and Sachs told Szilard that he had already spoken to the President about uranium, and that the prospects for building an atomic bomb were actually "remote", according to physicists Enrico Fermi and George B. Pegram’s evaluation. He told Szilard that he would deliver his letter regardless, but suggested that it come from someone more prestigious. For Szilard, Einstein was again the obvious choice for being the influential figure. Eventually, Roosevelt received the letter once again signed by Einstein, and it was not until this time when nuclear capability was thoroughly discussed on the governmental level.

The letter[5] addressed to Roosevelt on August 2 warned that:

"In the course of the last four months it has been made probable – through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America – that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future... this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. "

It also specifically warned about Germany's potential nuclear threat:

"I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated."

Roosevelt decided that the letter should be dealt with immediate actions. From establishing the Advisory Committee on Uranium in 1939, the beginning of the US government's effort to develop an atomic bomb(although it did not vigorously pursue the development of a weapon), to the command of United States Army Corps of Engineers's Manhattan District in June 1942, which directed an all-out bomb development program, known as the Manhattan Project, U.S. eventually produced the first atomic bomb in 1945 within 6 years of profounding the technology. [6]

Soviet Union

As one of the only two superpowers at the time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics(USSR) had been paying close attention towards the successful advances of the nuclear weapon made by the U.S. since 1939. Quickly realizing the threats to national security posed by the newly advances of an atomic bomb, Joseph Stalin and the USSR started spending years of effort penetrating the technology. And such realization did not merely come from how the Germans were halted outside Moscow and the potential they were also acquiring the technology, but equally-importantly how the Americans could overcome Hitler on their own, followed by which a potential to Hegemony for their military predominance based on their nuclear advances. [7]

In September 1942, Stalin authorized a specialist laboratory to work on nuclear weapons, and this was later known as the start of the Soviet atomic program. In addition to the support of a highly accomplished group of physicists led by Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov(known as the father of the Soviet atom bomb), the program was also backed up by a so high-functioning spying network that, accordingly, "(the Soviets) had a complete picture of the progress of the American atomic project, and even knew the locations of the main research center", while crucial technical assistance was also generously provided by American nuclear physicists sympathetic to the USSR. Thanks to them the blueprints for the American atomic bomb were already on the Soviet's desk two weeks after it was created in 1945.[8]


In 1949, Chinese Communist Party(CCP) leader Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China after years of civil conflict. Soon after, in accordance with the national strategy, Mao traveled to Moscow to see Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, with whom he signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance.

Mao soon faced fierce opposition from the West for the unexpected alliance, particularly the government of United States, which threatened the country with usage of nuclear strikes. And the conflict soon even escalated after North Korea war took place in June 1950, as Washington intervened on the South Korea's behalf while Beijing fought for the North's side. As the U.S. government seriously mulled a nuclear strike, President Harry S. Truman reportedly deployed 10 nuclear-armed B-29 bombers to the fleet in pacific. [9]

Despite the fact that no nuclear weapons were ever used against China, U.S. government at the time continued to send similar nuclear hostility after Mao promised support to the Vietnamese in French Indochina. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also pondered using the bomb to defend Taiwan against the Chinese aggression when nationalist opposition leader Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island in 1949. [10]

In January 1955, Mao gave the green light to the Chinese atomic bomb development, largely in response to the American nuclear threat. "We need the atom bomb," as affirmed by Mao, "we need it if we don't want to be intimidated as a nation." [11]

In 1957, the Soviet Union committed to provide China with a sample of an atomic bomb as well as supporting data, allowing Beijing to construct a nuclear weapon on its own. From 1955 to 1959, Hundreds of Chinese and Soviet nuclear scientists and engineers worked and studied together in both the USSR and China's nuclear energy industries, allowing for a deep exchange of research techniques and nuclear technology. However, following the rise of mutual political rivalry and concomitant skepticism, the Soviet Union prohibited this interchange and stopped assisting China's nuclear development in 1959.[12]

Due to the the Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese atomic bomb project was mostly left self-developed, but they managed to overcome the task with the help of Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, who let out the information on the detailed designs of the “Fat Man” plutonium implosion bomb to the Chinese Communist Party. Eventually, after the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France, China became the fifth country to possess nuclear weapons in 1964. China was also the first country to declare a “no first use” policy: “The Chinese Government hereby solemnly declares that China will never at any time and under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.”

Definition of Nuclear Deterrence Theory

Intuitively, Nuclear Deterrence Theory entails threatening an potential nuclear intruder with nuclear retaliation to discourage them from assaulting. And this occurs to be a morally rational response in a nuclear-armed world for the general public. But Scott Sagan, a political science professor at Stanford, had a rather different view:

"An apparent contradiction lies at the center of our understandings about nuclear weapons and deterrence. On the one hand, it is widely believed that nuclear weapons were an important factor in maintaining the "long peace" between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The two superpowers avoided war despite a deep geopolitical rivalry, repeated crises, and a prolonged arms race. On the other hand, it is also widely believed that the continuing spread of nuclear weapons will greatly increase the risks of nuclear war. New nuclear powers, with similar characteristics of rivalry, are considered unlikely to maintain stable deterrence." [13]

And such ethical dilemma between retaliating to protect one's country and completely avoiding the catastrophic power to protect the mankind remains controversial up to this day. But it is undeniable that the theory has been holding a perfect record in terms of preventing the usage of nuclear weapon since 1949, when the Soviet Union became the world's second nuclear power. Yet, people often think of the potential of one country's ruthless usage of nuclear weapons, followed by which the worst imaginable outcome of nuke forces around the world take turns bombing the planet.

Though, it should be noted that the chances of this happening in the case of Nuclear Disarmament are extremely low. Nuclear Disarmament, literally meaning the reduction/withdrawal of the nuclear weapons, is ideally seen as the moral alternative to deterrence since its imaginable worst-case scenario(e.g., less destructive nuclear-free wars) is less disastrous than if deterrence fails and the retaliating country is forced to open fire. [14]

However, scientists have also pointed out several impracticability of nuclear disarmament. Among discussion, one critical problem lies in the verification process, in which remains a lack of expertise regarding nuclear inspection and dismantlement, in addition to a blank of universally-accredited standard for monitoring each country's nuclear development progress.[15] But, in spite of the potential that there could be resolution to the above technical issues in the future, it is still highly doubted whether all countries would follow the courtesy of being fully nuclear-wise speculated due to, among reasons, protection of national sovereignty and the country’s nuclear expertise, as in the case of Brazil resisting International Atomic Energy Agency Protocol. [16]

Some even argue that nuclear disarmament is likely to produce more unfavorable consequences as opposed to conducting deterrence. For example, part of the logistic is based on a potential of rapid build up of nuclear weapons despite disarmament, and this utterly debilitate the approach noting the inequivalence between "getting rid of the bomb" and "getting rid of the technology". The incapability of un-inventing nuclear weapons may have already exposed mankind to a hard-to-escape cycle in which "every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war."[17] Thus, to most, deterrence is seen as both practical and unavoidable.

Ethical Debate of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, majority of whom were civilians, and ever since then there remains an extensive ethical debate on their moral correctness.

One major point of view sees Nuclear power as utterly killing machinery and something to be prohibited. The supporting group is represented by people seeing the issue from ethical and humane standpoints, especially those who could fully comprehend the ominous nature of nuclear weapons from a professional view, notably, the seven U.S. scientists that advised the Truman administration to not deploy the atomic bomb as a weapon against the Japanese in their official evaluation towards the outcome of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing in 1945, known as the Franck Report, it writes: "if the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons"(the report was anyhow neglected by the government and the bomb was dropped). Similarly, when asked about his thought on the idea of developing an atomic bomb, atomic-technology contributor Albert Einstein said: "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb." [18]

But there is no other set of people that have more clarity to nuclear damage than those who actually survived the two bombs. The Nagasaki "Fat Man", which exploded 500 meters above ground level, unleashed a 200-250-meter-wide bolide that buried tens of thousands of homes and families. The pressure wave caused a draft of up to 70 meters per second – double that of a typhoon – which demolished homes within a 2-kilometer radius of the hypocenter. And the underlying part of nuclear damage is that it remains long-term, the survivors are still suffering from cancer and other crippling ailments as a result of the radiation. Some combination of luck or destiny or smarts saved them from death, but not the long-lasting nuclear horrors posed on their mental, physical and economic conditions.

Yoshiro Yamawaki, the first-hand victim to the Nagasaki Bombing dropped 2 Kilometers from where he lived as a child, although noted his dream to live under a nuclear-free world, and the impracticability to his ideal:

"Nuclear weapons should, under no circumstances, be used against humans. However, nuclear powers such as the US and Russia own stockpiles of well over 15,000 nuclear weapons. Not only that, technological advances have given way to a new kind of bomb that can deliver a blast over 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bombing. Weapons of this capacity must be abolished from the earth. However, in our current political climate we struggle to come to a consensus, and have yet to implement a ban on nuclear weapons. This is largely because nuclear powers are boycotting the agreement. I have resigned to the fact that nuclear weapons will not be abolished during the lifetime of us first generation hibakusha survivors. I pray that younger generations will come together to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons."[19]

While for another side, the supporting group views the usage of Nuclear power as justified, with an unconditional surrender and occupation of Japan seen as a necessity to save millions of innocent lives across the world from its fascist persecution at the time, even the lives of the Japanese natives. This narrative is representatively held by the U.S. government, where every American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has refused to apologize for the bombs, which took place 75 years ago. In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton claimed that the United States "owes no apology to Japan" for the atomic bombings, stating that the "atomic bomb had ended the war."

The president is not wrong in a statical sense. At 1945 the two available means of attaining an unconditional surrender from Japan were practically either land invasion or the two bombs. However, a land invasion was estimated to collaterally kill at least 500,000 Japanese civilians, while the two bombs caused around 250,000 deaths of Japanese civilians in combined, thus theoretically saving at least 250,000 Japanese civilians who would have otherwise died due to a land invasion, not to mention the approximate two million Chinese and Koreans saved by the Japanese in-time surrendering. [20]

Ethical Debate of the Atomic Deterrence by North Korea

The 2017–18 North Korea crisis is known to be a period of grievous tension between North Korea and the United States. It started out when North Korea conducted a series of missile and nuclear tests, which exposed the country's unexpectedly-quick nuclear development and ability to launch ballistic missiles, hence posing a threat to the national security of the United States, according to the assessment made by the U.S. intelligence community. [21]

The 2017 Trump administration's initial response to the crisis remains a reflection of the post-war relationship between Pyongyang and the White House, that is, having no formal diplomatic recognition of one another. But the president's understatements was soon replaced by actual hostility, as an escalation to the confidential assessment carried out by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2017, which suggested that North Korea had successfully developed nuclear warheads for missiles within reach of the US mainland, while reportedly North Korea threatened Australia with nuclear strikes twice in the same year, accusing the country of "blindly" collaborating with the U.S. government[22]. Reacting to the report President Trump stated that nuclear threats would be "met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." The incidents ultimately ends with a proclamation of stoppage of nuclear activities from the North Korea's side, after rounds of heated rhetoric from both sides being exchanged, while stoking fears of a possible war throughout the year of 2017. [23] Although it must be noted that there remained suspicion of continued nuclear program in North Korea ever since the conflict has eased.[24]

Neil Narang, a former CISAC visiting assistant professor specializing on South Asian security and general security, tried unpacking Nuclear Deterrence from the North Koreans' point of view. He essentially sees nuclear power as a key for the current administration to preserve its political regime, which has long been detested by the west. “Deterrence is your friend,” he said in explaining the role atomic bombs play in the political tension that North Korea had been involved, saying how it managed to balance out the mismatch of power between parties by diminishing military incompetence. He also argues that denuclearization is mostly a western fantasy, as it neglects the complexity nuclear power manages to provide during political conflicts, as opposed to foreseeable outcomes being produced under a non-nuclear context, resulted from a disparity in national strength.[25]


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  2. Schelling, T. C. (1966), "2", The Diplomacy of Violence, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 1–34
  3. Lanouette, William; Silard, Bela (1992). Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilárd: The Man Behind The Bomb. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 978-0-684-19011-2.
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  5. "Albert Einstein's Letters to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt". E-World. 1997. Retrieved October 9, 2013.
  6. Hewlett, Richard G.; Anderson, Oscar E. (1962). The New World, 1939–1946 (PDF). Physics Today. Vol. 15. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 62. Bibcode:1962PhT....15l..62H. doi:10.1063/1.3057919. ISBN 978-0-520-07186-5. OCLC 637004643.
  7. Vershinin, Alexander. Russia Beyond, "Why did the Soviet Union develop its own atomic bomb?"
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  10. Chansoria, Monika. “The Political History of China’s Nuclear Bomb.” Claws Journal (Winter 2013): 79-96.
  11. Chansoria, Monika. “The Political History of China’s Nuclear Bomb.” Claws Journal (Winter 2013): 79-96.
  12. Reed, Thomas C. (September 2008). "The Chinese nuclear tests, 1964–1996". Physics Today. 61 (9): 47–53. Bibcode:2008PhT....61i..47R. doi:10.1063/1.2982122. ISSN 0031-9228.
  13. S. D. Sagan, "The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons," Int. Security 18, No. 4, 66 (1994).
  15. Wohlstetter, A. (1976). Spreading the bomb without quite breaking the rules. Foreign Policy, 25, 88–94.
  16. Kassenova, T. (2014). Brazil’s nuclear kaleidoscope: An evolving identity. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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  18. Sara Z. Kutchesfahani. "Prominent nuclear scientists did not recommend the atomic bombings of Japan"
  20. ED BARRETT. "Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Justified?"
  21. Intelligence Agencies Say North Korean Missile Could Reach U.S. in a Year Archived January 14, 2018, at the Wayback Machine NYT, July 25, 2017.
  22. "North Korea warns Australia will face disaster if it continues to support US". ABC News. 2017-10-15. Retrieved 2019-02-10.
  23. Sciutto, Jim (August 9, 2017). "Trump promises North Korea 'fire and fury' over nuke threat". CNN. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  24. Brunnstrom, David (29 June 2018). "U.S. intelligence believes North Korea making more nuclear bomb fuel despite talks: NBC". Reuters. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  25. Stanford - Center for International Security and Cooperation. "Why nuclear deterrence can work on North Korea"