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The Nuclear-Free Nightmare

Visiting Hiroshima last week, President Obama expressed the wish [1] that in the future no community would ever have to suffer the horrors inflicted on that city in 1945, and moreover, that the bombing should never be forgotten. Those sentiments were obvious and unexceptionable. Much more debatable, though, was his restatement of his desire to see a world free of nuclear weapons. If expressed as a general platitude, that is fine, but if it represents any kind of serious strategy or policy goal, it is dangerous to the point of insanity. Hard though this may be to hear, we desperately need our nukes.

The year 1945 marked the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace and security in Europe, which with brief interruptions has continued until the present day. That glorious new age did not happen because of a sudden moral improvement, or the rise of the European unification movement, or any ideological tilt. It happened because both superpowers knew that if either broke the security balance within Europe, the result would be a catastrophic nuclear war that would have annihilated Europe, and deeply damaged the homelands of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That balance of terror removed the vast advantage that the Soviets had from their enormous superiority in land forces. That seventy years of peace is founded on the existence of large numbers of nuclear arms.

If we try to rewrite the history of Europe without assuming the existence of those weapons, it is scarcely possible to imagine such an enduring peace, except on the basis of the permanent total mobilization of all European powers, as well as the nations of the Anglosphere. Such mass mobilization seems bizarre to anyone brought up in our own nuclear world, but the idea was a reality from the Napoleonic Wars onwards. The normal calculation was that for every million people in a nation’s population, you could sustain two divisions. Only a society spoiled by the security of Mutual Assured Destruction could have forgotten such brutal mathematics.

A future world without nuclear weapons would have to return to mass mobilization and universal conscription in order to counterbalance the advantages of great continental states unafraid to venture “boots on the ground” in their many millions—China obviously, but also Russia, Pakistan, and India, among others. Fortunately, the modern U.S. would have the blessing of all the women who would happily agree to be drafted to serve alongside the millions of soldiers and sailors the nation would need to keep in uniform to maintain its security. How does a 12 million strong standing U.S. army sound?

Not, of course, that all future wars would necessarily be slogging matches between infantry, or trench warfare. Even without actually using nuclear weapons, we can see clearly how the world would have developed after 1945 without that overwhelming deterrent. By the end of the Second World War, the U.S. and Britain had perfected the art of destroying cities by air raids involving thousands of aircraft, using firebombs and napalm. Even in those early years, they were inflicting death-tolls running into the tens or hundreds of thousands. Those technologies would presumably be much more advanced today, so that any non-nuclear war could be incredibly destructive, and would claim many millions of lives.

During the height of the Cold War, the British also toyed with the idea of quite impressive non-nuclear deterrents. By the early 1950s, the cutting edge of their military thinking was Operation Cauldron [2], which sought deterrents based on biological warfare. The most promising components in this witches’ brew included brucellosis, tularaemia, and also pneumatic and bubonic plague. We know about these efforts today because of the truly chilling 1952 incident in which the trawler Carella inadvertently wandered into British test waters and was exposed to some of these hellish agents. Rather than quarantining the sailors, or even notifying them of the dangers they faced, the military began a covert surveillance to track their health and see whether they might spread infections when they reached British ports. The Carella scandal has shed light on the larger world of Cauldron.

That was 1952. Presumably the range of catastrophic biological agents available to even small powers today is vastly greater, and even more lethal.

So exactly what part of the nuclear-free world are we pining for? The constant mobilization and militarization of all major societies? The investment in massed bomber fleets to charbroil the cities of any potential enemies? Or the total dependence on biological deterrence, with the President’s finger constantly on the bubonic trigger? Dare I say that none of this actually sounds attractive? The main difference between that hypothetical world and the nuclear-armed world we know is that those alternative weapons would have stood a far greater chance of actually being used.


In 1970, the British heavy rock band, the Groundhogs, issued an album with the seemingly appalling title Thank Christ for the Bomb [3]. Today, we might imagine this as shock for shock’s sake, like later punk numbers, but it was anything but that. The thoughtful lyrics of the title song stated a simple thesis, namely that the twentieth century had witnessed two hugely damaging wars that had killed millions, but that since 1945, the advanced nations at least had avoided any recurrence of such a fate. The reason for that sea change, said the Groundhogs, was quite clear, which is why they exclaimed, “Thank Christ for the bomb.” That argument demands examination, and respect.

If President Obama wants to reduce the number of nuclear weapons among all powers, he should be encouraged. If he wants to see arsenals of at most a few hundred warheads for even the greatest nations, with correspondingly smaller hoards for smaller nations, all well and good. If, though, he seriously contemplates a world without nuclear weapons, then he is utterly and perilously ignorant of modern history.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [4]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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19 Comments To "The Nuclear-Free Nightmare"

#1 Comment By Brett Champion On June 1, 2016 @ 1:07 am

The problem isn’t that *we* have nukes *now*. The problem is that we can’t control who might have them in the future, including future US governments, which might be untrustworthy of having such destructive power at their disposal.

Some state or non-state actor is going to use nukes in the future. The fact that the nuclear balance was partly responsible for 70+ years of great-power peace will be cold comfort to the tens of millions of people who will be killed by a nuclear attack, and to the billions of people whose lives will be seriously impacted by the environmental degradation that such an attack will unleash. Of course, if it ends in a nuclear apocalypse, then no one will be around to care.

#2 Comment By Michael E On June 1, 2016 @ 2:39 am

This is a horribly cynical calculation (the sort of thing Dickens satirized in “Hard Times”), but I have to say that “brucellosis, tularaemia, and also pneumatic and bubonic plague” are probably a lot better than nuclear winter. The effects of a nuclear apocalypse may be completely irreversible as a result of land and water contamination of enormously long half-lives combined with particulate pollution of the atmosphere that could block all sunlight for who-knows-how-long.

Biological warfare, however, releases bacteria and viruses that are devastating to human beings but require human hosts for their survival and propagation. Hence the weakening of bacterial and viral strains over the generations, because it’s actually to the benefit of the bacterium or virus to let its host stay alive for the sake of propagating the bacterium’s or virus’s own genetic material.

Now that’s a cynical response to a cynical article, but it’s reality. The devastating plagues of the Middle Ages didn’t destroy entire human populations, they “only” reduced them in enormous percentages. Nuclear winter, though, is global and of far greater lasting force than any biological catastrophe.

#3 Comment By JJM On June 1, 2016 @ 8:00 am

The nuclear peace is still not even “long”. There were 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI. Before that, 150 years passed between the Thirty Years’ War and Napoleon, and slightly more than that for the French Wars of Religion. Before that were centuries of roiling local conflicts which, while being terribly destructive locally (wars in Northern Italy), did not engulf the wider Continent or World. You might have to go all the way back to the Mongol Hordes (13th C.) or the Migration Period (5th C.) to find such. So, 70 years of relative peace doesn’t strike me as that impressive.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 1, 2016 @ 8:54 am

Good article, even if it overstates the obvious.

#5 Comment By spite On June 1, 2016 @ 9:03 am

Ignoring the whole ethics and morals of this debate, the far deeper issue is that these things can never be removed from mans hands, no more than we can remove the bow and arrow or gunpowder from the world. The Pandoras Box is open, these things will not go away regardless if you like or hate them.

#6 Comment By c matt On June 1, 2016 @ 11:09 am

It seems we simply traded one form of war for another. This peace has not put much of dent in the defense budget. And I am sure the people of the middle east and Latin America might quibble a bit with this “70 years of peace.”

All academic anyway, as the “West” will go out not with a nuclear bang, but with a demographic whimper.

#7 Comment By LMIDF On June 1, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

@Michael E

There’s a dirty little secret. For nuclear winter to occur, it basically requires a mass nuclear war with every combatant ignoring their own nuclear doctrine to maximize the casualties received by their nuclear armed foe. In a nuclear war if people were to follow their stated doctrine, much of the warheads are going to be directed at disabling the enemy’s nuclear arsenal and the apparatuses that control them. Accounting for the number of warheads required to ensure the destruction of a given target, on the order of 2-3 per missile silo, perhaps 1-2 per nuclear bomber airbase, and 1-2 for other command and control nodes, you really don’t have many warheads left over to target every city and to throw a bunch of material into the air to cause a nuclear winter. Engaging in such a strategy of nuclear civilian slaughter does nothing to diminish the retaliatory barrage that will surely be coming your way.

#8 Comment By todd On June 1, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

I recommend reading the story of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov.


While the elimination of all nuclear weapons is not practical, fewer in fewer hands is better.

#9 Comment By cka2nd On June 1, 2016 @ 6:37 pm

Thank goodness the Soviets got the bomb!

Thank you, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Morton Sobell and Klaus Fuchs, and anyone else who made sure that no one country maintained a monopoly on the bomb!

#10 Comment By cka2nd On June 1, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

JJM says: “The nuclear peace is still not even “long”. There were 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI.

To be fair, and limiting ourselves to wars on the European continent, you had two Danish Prussian Wars, the Crimean War, the Wars of Italian Independence and Unification, the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Hungarian Revolution of War of Independence of 1848, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune and the various wars of national liberation against the Ottoman Empire and among the resulting Balkan states. The only periods of general peace among the great powers in Europe itself were in the 30 or so years after the fall of Napoleon and the 40-plus years after German unification. If not for the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, Europe might have avoided the bloodshed of dismemberment of Yugoslavia (Thank you Germany, the U.S., NATO and, playing a minor though visible supporting role, the thrice-damned Habsburgs of all people) and Ukraine (ditto, minus the Habsburgs, as far as I know) and the festering wounds in the Caucasus.

#11 Comment By cka2nd On June 1, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

c matt says: “And I am sure the people of the middle east and Latin America might quibble a bit with this ’70 years of peace.'”

Not to mention the people of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Indochina and the Korean peninsula, much of it in reaction to or caused by or taken advantage of by various imperialist powers. This still doesn’t completely wipe out the author’s point, though.

#12 Comment By KS On June 2, 2016 @ 2:34 am

As other commenters have pointed out, there was hardly peace, the conflicts were just fought in proxy all over the world, and no one asked the people in those parts of the world whether they wanted to be a part of the great game. Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam, South America, all over Africa etc etc the list is very long.

Some pretty selfish and self-serving thinking here by the writer. Transfer our conflict to another place, ravage someone else’s land, and pretend it needn’t be taken into consideration, hey we were at peace (sic)

The peace and security of Europe itself btw was after Europe had neutered itself in two self-inflicted gigantic wars which might have contributed to the squeamishness about conflict, at least in their own backyard.

#13 Comment By Observer On June 2, 2016 @ 3:08 am


There’s a dirty little secret. For nuclear winter to occur, it basically requires a mass nuclear war with every combatant ignoring their own nuclear doctrine to maximize the casualties received by their nuclear armed foe.

Only the U.S. and Russia have enough warheads to do counterforce targeting.

The other nuclear powers have to target cities to maximize enemy casualties. De Gaulle said that he wanted to be able to kill 60 million Russians.

#14 Comment By LMIDF On June 2, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

And they didn’t have enough warheads to send enough ejecta into the stratosphere to fulfill the prerequisite conditions in the calculations for a nuclear winter.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 2, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

The implication is that only those nations which don’t have nuclear weapons are those suffering war and invasion, surely a backhanded argument for nuclear proliferation.

#16 Comment By tzx4 On June 2, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

Basic human nature and behavior patterns documented by history are my prime reasons for thinking zero nukes is the preferable option.
Humans are emotional beings first, and thinking rational ones second. The intellect serves the emotions.
How long in the future dynamic evolution of nations before an ignorant deluded madman rises to power (and over history such types repeatedly do just that) and pulls the trigger? What happens when nuke possessing nation fragments and collapses? Historically all nations and societies do. Accidents happen as well. In this past 70 years the accidental near misses outnumber the politically confrontational ones. Assembling and maintaining doomsday machines is in itself madness and insanity.
Humanity having nukes is very much like placing some armed and grenades in a crib full of toddlers. Sooner or later someone is going to get hurt.
In my mind, the very existence of the things proves humans are in thrall to their emotions. A genuinely intelligent species would figure out how to build such things, but would never consider actually doing it.
If we as a species want to ensure our survival we would 1. get rid of these damned things, and 2. Assure that we are not irreparably damaging the biosphere.
I hold out next to zero hope.

#17 Comment By RMThoughts On June 2, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

It is true if constant, unending, fear and psychological terror is peace

#18 Comment By Al from da Nort On June 3, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

Prof. Jenkins is correct if he means ‘Major Power War’. The point being that even using conventional weapons these are vastly more destructive of human life and human civilization and smaller powers tend to get pulled in, sometimes from their own opportunism (WWI) or by being objects of opportunity (WWII). OTOH, the many ‘small wars’ cited above were confined to the actual protagonists for lack of overt Major Power participation.

The real danger from Pres. Obama’s facility lounge virtue signaling about nukes is that he is actively destroying the Cold War equilibrium that underlies ‘the long truce’ Prof. Jenkins celebrates:
A. Despite anyone’s wishes the technology cannot be un-invented.
B. The perverse logic of nuke strategy eliminates his ‘zero option’ by giving extraordinary power to any holdout or cheater. And you’d have to be a fool who cared nothing for his own country NOT to hold out a few. Also, a mere handful of nukes eliminates the option to ride out a single first strike in case it really was a mistake.
C. His excellent Libyan adventure (contrast N Korea’s treatment) has conclusively proven to any doubting dictator why they should want a nuke or two.
D. He has actively promoted nuclear proliferation, most specifically via his Iran deal. I.e. If the Sunni states in the ME are not nuking up now, they are too dumb to last. This is not to mention Taiwan, Japan, S Korea maybe even Vietnam vs China or the Norks.

Likely future scenario: DC is up in smoke via a likely decapitation strike. Who did it_? In the bad old days of the Cold War there was no doubt: Bad day to be in Moscow !! Hence the equilibrium.

Now, it could be China to take Taiwan, it could be Russia to take Ukraine, it could be Iran to clear the decks to take the PERSIAN Gulf (or eliminate Israel), it could be the Norks to take the South, it could even be Israel to clear the decks to take down Obama’s new BFF Iran. Thanks Obama !!

#19 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On June 5, 2016 @ 2:50 am

During World War 2 the fierce fighting took place on the territory of the Soviet Union, where each side killed millions of soldiers. The degree of hatred between the Nazis and the Soviet people was the maximum, but the weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological) in the fighting did not apply. When Soviet troops first used missiles with napalm, the German command transferred the request to the Soviet leadership: to use the shells without the napalm, and the Soviet Union ceased to supply missiles with napalm …
25 thousand people were killed after a massive, technological bombing of Dresden in April 1945.
200,000 victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, in the same ’45.
500,000 people were killed in 100 days in Rwanda in 1994. The speed with which the murder committed in Rwanda was five times higher the rate of murders in German concentration camps during the Second World War. The main weapon of destruction – a machete.
As can be seen from this, man’s rage and hatred can destroy worse than it could make an atomic explosion. Not an atom bomb kills people, but the rage of others who think that they are fighting for a just cause. Human thoughts and ideas are the most lethal weapons. Chemical, bacteriological and nuclear weapons now seems dirty and not very effective, so Russia via the United States carried out a drastic reduction of its chemical weapons. That is why Obama is seriously contemplating a world without nuclear weapons, and he is not naive. The most effective weapon may be a pipe in the hands of the Pied Piper. It is a weapon being tested now in a Ukraine …