[Published in Communalism Combat, Bombay, June 1998]
Nuclear Fears, Nuclear History
by Zia Mian
Atul Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif have two things in common. Both of
them have ordered five nuclear tests, and both of them justified their
orders by claiming that their nuclear weapons are defensive. This
argument was invented by the Americans to justify their nuclear weapons,
after the Soviet Union started to build its own nuclear weapons. It was
such a convenient argument that all the nuclear states started to use it
once they built nuclear weapons. Now every country with nuclear weapons
claims that its weapons are defensive, it is just other countries'
nuclear weapons that are a threat.
How are nuclear weapons a threat? The first answer given is that an
enemy may threaten to use nuclear weapons as way to intimidate or
blackmail and so win a war. As the most destructive weapons ever made,
nuclear weapons should make states that have them invincible. They
should be able to win all their wars. In fact, no one should want to
fight such states because they have nuclear weapons.
The facts of the last fifty years tell another story. Nuclear weapons
states have elected to fight wars on many occasions. They have lost many
of them. Britain fought and lost at Suez, even though they it had
already developed nuclear weapons. The United States suffered
significant defeats during the Korean war and the war ended with a
stalemate. The French lost Algeria, even though they had their nuclear
weapons. China's nuclear weapons did not help against Vietnam. The most
famous examples are of course the defeat of the United States in
Vietnam, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan despite having enormous
numbers of nuclear weapons. In all these cases, a non-nuclear state
fought and won against a nuclear armed state.
Another fact from the last fifty years is that having nuclear weapons
offers no protection against nuclear threats. During the Cold War, both
the US and the Soviet Union made nuclear threats numerous times, with
the United States making around twenty such threats and the Soviet Union
making five or six. Even though both sides had nuclear weapons, this did
not change the fact they were threatened by the other side. If a state
with nuclear weapons is going to make a threat, it will do so regardless
of whether the state being threatened has nuclear weapons of its own.
The only other use for nuclear weapons that has ever been claimed is
that nuclear weapons are supposed to deter attacks by other nuclear
weapons and so prevent war between nuclear armed states. This is what is
usually meant by nuclear deterrence. The normal example of nuclear
deterrence that is used is between the superpowers during the Cold War.
The absence of war between them is widely attributed to both sides
having nuclear weapons. This cannot however be proven. All that can be
said is that the absence of war coincided with both sides having nuclear
weapons. It is not logical to deduce that nuclear weapons prevented a
war that would otherwise have taken place. The absence of war between
the United States and the Soviet Union may simply have been due to
neither side wanting a war. The experience of total war in World War II
was so terrible that this may have been sufficient to prevent a major
war. It is worth remembering over 20 million Soviets were killed in that
The history of the Cold War is in fact the history of the elusive search
for deterrence. As the years passed and became decades, the amount of
destructive power needed to create deterrence kept on increasing. From a
few simply atom bombs, it became hundreds of bombs, then thousands and
then came the hydrogen bomb, with a destructive power a hundred times
greater than an atom bomb. But, even having a few such hydrogen bombs
was not enough. McGeorge Bundy, who was an advisor in the White house
during both the Cuban Missile Crisis, has argued that deterrence works
only if "we assume that each side has very large numbers of
thermonuclear weapons [hydrogen bombs] which could be used against the
opponent, even after the strongest possible pre-emptive attack." It is
this kind of nuclear arsenal that is credited by Bundy, and other
American supporters of deterrence as being responsible for maintaining
the —nuclear peace‚ between the United States and Soviet Union. The urge
to have weapons that could survive a pre-emptive attack is why both
sides developed nuclear submarines and specially hardened silos for
missiles. This effort to create deterrence cost the United States at
least $4 trillion ($,4000,000,000,000) to develop, produce, deploy,
operate, support and control its nuclear forces over the past 50 years.
The Americans were not alone in thinking that large numbers of hydrogen
bombs that could survive a nuclear attack were necessary for deterrence.
All five of the established nuclear weapons state have tried to achieve
this kind of nuclear arsenal. None of them has stopped developing their
arsenals once they built simple nuclear weapons. they have not even
relied on large numbers of such simple weapons. They have gone on to
build weapons tens if not hundreds or thousands of times more
destructive. Even the smallest nuclear arsenal, belonging to Britain,
has 200 thermonuclear weapons with a collective destructive power two
thousand times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
There are, however, some important dissenting voices who say that
deterrence never worked. General George Lee Butler, who until a few
years ago actually commanded all of the United States« strategic nuclear
weapons has said the world —survived the Cuban missile crisis no thanks
to deterrence, but only by the grace of God.‚
If General Butler is right, and even the fear created by "very large
numbers" of hydrogen bombs was not enough to stop two nuclear states
getting ready to go to war then what purpose is served by this fear?
What this fear can do is stop peace. Even though the Cold War is over
and the Soviet Union gone, the nuclear weapons are still there. The US
still has over 10,000 and Russia about as many. The fear now is not the
other state, but the others nuclear weapons. As long as there are
nuclear weapons there cannot be real peace.
History teaches that nuclear fears cannot be calmed with nuclear
weapons. The simple truth is that there has never been a weapon that can
offer a defense against being afraid. The only defense against fear is
courage and courage needs no weapons to make its presence felt.
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