Perspectives on nuclear abolition in connection with the Survey on Nuclear Weapons, Part 2

Comment by respondent to the survey: “There have been no more atomic bombings since Nagasaki. Doesn’t that suggest that nuclear deterrence has been effective?”

Ronni Alexander, 52, professor at Kobe University
Deterrence is no more than a myth that led to the arms race and damage caused by radiation

Interviewed by Miho Kuwajima

The nuclear deterrence theory is a myth based on the old notion that “stronger is safer.” It says that if you have the most destructive nuclear weapons no one will attack you because no country will launch an armed attack and knowingly risk its own destruction. At first glance, this is a logical and persuasive theory and one that people are likely to support. But it is full of holes.

In the survey 27% of respondents from overseas said that nuclear deterrence was effective during the Cold War, while 45% of respondents in Japan said so. Most respondents, both in Japan and overseas, said deterrence was no longer effective after the collapse of the Cold War structure.

It has been pointed out that deterrence is not effective against terrorists or in areas where the political situation is unstable because deterrence is based on the premise that nations will behave reasonably.

But nations don’t necessarily behave reasonably and rationally. The example of the Manhattan Project under which the United States developed the atomic bomb during World War II is a good example. The government, military, scientists, and industry worked together and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, whose defeat was already assured. The nation was carried away by misguided logic, which led to a worst-case scenario.

It is not a matter of nuclear weapons becoming dangerous if they get in the hands of terrorists. There is the risk that a misunderstanding or simple error by any nuclear nation could trigger the use of nuclear weapons.

In the mid-1950s under the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. made nuclear deterrence a pillar of its defense strategy. The U.S. and the Soviet Union invested a tremendous amount of money in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and neutron bombs, escalating the development of new nuclear weapons.

The deterrence strategy led to a desire to be stronger than the enemy, and stepped up the global arms race. Rather than exercising self-control in the belief that there would be retaliation if they attacked first, the nuclear nations were emboldened by a feeling of power because they possessed nuclear weapons, which lowered the threshold for armed attack.

The fact that there has not been a nuclear war so far is merely a matter of good luck. In every war the U.S. has been prepared to use nuclear weapons and has used a variety of weapons including chemical weapons and depleted uranium shells.

Nuclear weapons will be used “if necessary” regardless of deterrence. I think global public opinion against nuclear weapons has played a major role in preventing that.

Many of those who said deterrence has been effective cited the fact that there have been no more atomic bombings since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The harm caused by radiation from nuclear testing and the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons is not well known. An American soldier who was exposed to radiation in July 1946 on Bikini atoll suffered swelling of his arms and legs, and eventually one arm and both legs had to be amputated. He died of cancer 37 years later.

When I show a documentary about that to my students, they are shocked and take an interest in the harmful effects of radiation as a result, because they don’t learn about that anywhere else. I, myself, who was educated in the U.S., thought the mushroom cloud looked “cool.”

In order to dispel the insidious myth of deterrence that has spread among nations and individuals, we must seriously address the harm brought about by nuclear weapons, which is still an issue today.

Ronni Alexander
Born in the U.S. in 1956. After graduating from Yale University in 1977, worked at the Hiroshima YMCA for five years. Named professor at Kobe University in 1993 after serving as a research assistant and associate professor in the university’s Faculty of Law. Specializes in international relations and peace research.

(Originally published on July 27, 2008)

For the complete results of our Survey on Nuclear Weapons, please click here.