a bird flying with a nuke in its feet and an olive branch in its mouth

Giving Away the Bomb

The logic of nuclear weapons is that no one wants to start a war if you’ve got one. So why not give them to everyone?
December 7, 2020, 1:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Unthinkable Ideas issue, which explores revolutionary ideas that could alter our world completely.

“Peace is our profession,” General John E. Hyten told a crowd at the Mitchell Institute over breakfast in 2017. Hyten was then the commander of United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM)—a division of the American military in charge of its nuclear arsenal—and as surprising as it may sound, he was repeating its motto.

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“Can I imagine a world without nuclear weapons?” Hyten went on to ask. “I can easily imagine a world without nuclear weapons because I know what it looks like. Because we had a world without nuclear weapons for most of our existence. And all you have to do to know what a world without nuclear weapons looks like is go back to the period before August of 1945. Just go back and think about what the history books say.”

Hyten explained to the Mitchell Institute crowd, a group of retired Air Force officers turned think tank wonks, that the six years prior to the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki were some of the bloodiest in world history. “World War II killed somewhere between 60 and 80 million people,” he said. “Take our experience in Vietnam. A horrible experience in Vietnam where we lost 58,000 of America’s greatest heroes, 58,000 of our greatest gifts, our sons and daughters, in our experience over the, over a decade-long experience in Vietnam. Less than two days of World War II.”

In Hyten’s eyes, that smaller body count was a gift from an unpredictable source: nuclear weapons. “That’s what nuclear weapons have done for the world,” he said. “It does not eliminate conflict. Conflict will exist as long as humans exist. But what it has done is it has kept major power conflict off the world stages. It’s kept that huge death and destruction from happening when you have major power conflicts that get out of control. It’s kept world wars from happening. That’s the primary reason why we have to have nuclear weapons.”

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If what Hyten says is true, why not take it to its furthest conclusion: What if every country in the world had a nuclear bomb? It’s a question so farcical on its face that the mind rejects it, but it’s also an important one that exposes the cruel logic of nuclear weapons for the absurdity that it is. 

More weapons don’t mean more peace. Nuclear weapons are a promise and eventually, either by accident or in anger, someone will launch one. The mass proliferation of these weapons is a way to ensure we see a nuclear detonation in our lifetime—not a path to peace, but a political tool meant to keep the world in line through fear and intimidation. The only good thing about this unthinkable idea is that it makes us face the cold reality of nuclear weapons, and the uncomfortably high odds that they’ll kill us all one day.

The idea of mass proliferation has a long and storied history, and to understand it, you need to understand how the U.S. military views nuclear weapons. For 75 years, it’s been telling the world that nukes make the world a safer place.

This is certainly a take, but it’s not especially convincing to experts who study nuclear weapons. “If you actually believe that, then why would nuclear weapons provide security for the United States but not all other countries?” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “What [STRATCOM] really means is ‘Well, we want nuclear weapons but we don’t want anyone else to have them.’”

“We are unwilling to do the hard work of using diplomacy to avoid war. So we have made this Faustian bargain with the bomb that it will keep us safe for some unknown period of time before it murders us all.”

Following STRATCOM logic, more nuclear bombs would mean more peace. If that’s the case, then why not just give every nation nuclear bombs?

“It’s such an important question because the objections to giving every country nuclear weapons illustrate the long-term danger of relying on nuclear deterrence for our security,” Lewis says. “I actually think that people who say more nuclear weapons would reduce war are probably right. But there’s a problem.”

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To understand the problem, we have to understand deterrence. America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure operates on a triad. It has intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched nukes, and strategic bombers ready to drop a city-ender. The point of these weapons is to deter anyone from fucking with the United States. They are an implicit promise: attack us or launch a nuclear strike and we will end you.

“Nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of U.S. national security,” David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told the House Armed Services Committee in 2019. “Our nuclear deterrent underwrites all U.S. military operations and diplomacy across the globe. It is the backstop and foundation of our national defense.” But Trachtenberg added a key detail: “A strong nuclear deterrent also contributes to U.S. non-proliferation goals by limiting the incentive for allies to have their own nuclear weapons.”

According to its adherents, deterrence keeps the world safer. Who would risk total war with a nuclear power? The problem is that, on a long enough timeline, it’s inevitable that a nuclear weapon is going to detonate, for one reason or another. “The expectation that nuclear deterrence will function perfectly, forever, seems very unrealistic,” Lewis said. “If you believe, at some point, that it will fail, then you have to put on the chart the casualties from that war.”

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More nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries means more fingers on the button. It means more chances for accidents and more nukes in unstable parts of the world. If that makes your blood run cold, rather than giving you a sense of comfort, that’s the point. “It makes the nature of the risk we’re taking extremely clear,” Lewis said. “We are unwilling to do the hard work of using diplomacy to avoid war. So we have made this Faustian bargain with the bomb that it will keep us safe for some unknown period of time before it murders us all. Technology eventually fails. I don’t want to be on Earth for the once in-a-lifetime deterrence failure.”

Nine countries have nuclear weapons: The U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea. According to the Arms Control Association, that’s a combined total of 13,500 warheads, more than 90 percent of which belong to Russia and the U.S. Until recently, the world had made good progress in dismantling these warheads, but recent tensions between the U.S. and Russia have pushed both to develop new types of weapons, while North Korea getting the bomb has made Japan and South Korea reconsider their own access. 

Not all non-nuclear weapon states are equal. Japan, Canada, Germany, and Australia aren’t nuclear powers but they do possess what experts call nuclear latency. If Japan wants nukes, it has the resources and the technology to build them. All it requires is the will; experts have estimated that Japan could have a nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to build one.

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With so many countries close to having a nuke, why not just let them spread? “It’s an appropriate question to ask right now,” said Scott Sagan, senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. “We’re facing a new set of states that are potentially on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran is the most obvious one, but Saudi Arabia if Iran goes forward. And the South Koreans and the Japanese are facing new domestic political pressures about the reliability of the American security guarantee.”

Sagan knows this debate well; he co-wrote the book on it. In The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, first published in 1995, Sagan and co-author Kenneth Waltz, an academic who spent his life studying war and diplomacy, explained the basics of arms control and laid out their cases for and against proliferation. 

Waltz died in 2013, but the debate continues, and his work endures. Very broadly, Sagan was against proliferation and Waltz was for it. Waltz was no fool; he’d thought deeply about the issue. His reasons were complicated, but boiled down to the idea that nuclear weapons are going to spread regardless of what we do, and so it’s best to take some control of the inevitable.

If everyone gets nuclear weapons in the name of world peace, then some would have the weapons forced upon them against their will.

“The gradual spread of nuclear weapons is better than no spread and better than rapid spread,” he wrote in The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better in 1981. “We do not face a set of happy choices. We may prefer that countries have conventional weapons only, do not run arms races, and do not fight. Yet the alternative to nuclear weapons for some countries may be ruinous arms races with high risk of their becoming engaged in debilitating conventional wars.”

“His argument is that nuclear weapons are so horrific in their impact that any state would be deterred from not just using nuclear weapons, but by having any aggressive act because the risk of escalation would be too great,” Sagan said. “A group of us writing in the 1980s called this the crystal ball effect. There was an idea that if Kaiser Wilhelm had a crystal ball in 1918 that showed up the future, he would have been far more cautious. The idea that nuclear weapons automatically induce caution is what deterrence optimists like Waltz think.”

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As Lewis said and many more have noted, though, the possession of nuclear weapons does not always end the wars or skirmishes between those who hold them. Violence and border disputes between India, China, and Pakistan persist to this day, and the Soviet Union and the U.S. almost came to nuclear blows repeatedly during the Cold War.

Worse, more nuclear weapons means more nuclear accidents. Before the U.S. developed the triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers, it kept nuclear-armed bombers in the air above much of the world 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The idea was that, should the Soviet Union attack the U.S., the U.S. would be able to drop a nuclear bomb on a major city at a moment’s notice.

In practice, this meant amphetamine-addled fighter pilots circling the globe with world-destroying weapons strapped in the back of their bombers. There were accidents—a lot of them. In 1958, one of these bombers dropped a nuke on rural South Carolina. (Thankfully, it didn’t detonate.) Ten years later, and several accidents down the line, a B-52 carrying nukes crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland. The nuke ruptured, spreading radioactive contamination into the ice. It was the latest in a long series of high-profile disasters and ended the practice of the U.S. flying nukes around the world

Today, those weapons are still ready to go, but they sit in underground bunkers, on airfields, and under the ocean nestled in submarines. And mistakes persist. In 2007, the U.S. Air Force lost track of six live nukes for 36 hours. The nukes had been unwittingly loaded on to a B-52 and it was more than a day before anyone noticed the missiles had gone missing. More countries getting more nukes means more of these spread across the planet, exponentially increasing the amount of nuclear material out there and exponentially increasing the potential of another environmental disaster like what happened in Greenland.

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Mass proliferation would also be an all-or-nothing game. If everyone gets nuclear weapons in the name of world peace, then some would have the weapons forced upon them against their will. “Not every country is going to want nukes,” says Martin Pfeiffer, a doctoral candidate in anthropology studying nuclear culture at the University of New Mexico. He pointed to Iran signaling it wants back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama-era treaty that allows Iran to pursue nuclear reactors with international oversight that ensures it doesn’t develop nuclear weapons; Sweden, which had a nuclear weapons program it abandoned in the 1970s; and South Africa, which had nuclear weapons but chose to give them up. Eighty-four countries in the U.N. have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a legally binding international agreement that bans nukes with the end goal of total elimination of the warheads.

Despite the supposed security they confer, nuclear weapons aren’t popular. And that’s without tackling the logistical concerns of mass proliferation. “Somebody’s gotta make these weapons,” Pfeiffer said. “And it’s gonna be really expensive.” Who would regulate the distribution of nuclear weapons? The United States? The International Atomic Energy Agency? Pfeiffer notes that, in a world where every country has nuclear weapons, then power would belong to those countries with the ability to produce more.

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For Pfeiffer, like Lewis, thinking about a planet full of nukes only exposes the ridiculousness of the current state of the world’s policies around these weapons. In the world of nuclear weapons, the consequences are so horrifying, the numbers so big, and the realities so unthinkable that people who work in the field tend to turn to numbers and jargon to abstract what they’re talking about. 

Hyten telling people about the number of lives nuclear weapons has saved while they eat breakfast is the height of a revelatory linguistic concept called technostrategic discourse. The term was coined by the academic Carol Cohn, the founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts Boston. From 1984 to 1988, Cohn analyzed the language of the military-industrial complex. She wanted, in her own words, to understand how the world’s military leaders could talk so blithely of megadeaths, deterrence, and first-strike capabilities.

One of her conclusions was that the development of a special language allowed men to abstract the horrors of what they were talking about. “I realized that the absence of human beings and communities, and their fate in a nuclear war, is not simply a matter of words and images. Nuclear strategic thinking is not about people, communities, or even nation-states. The subjects, the referrents, are the weapons themselves: numbers of weapons, characteristics of weapons, and hypothetical capacities of weapons,” Cohn wrote in Emasculating America’s Linguistic Deterrent. “Nuclear strategic thinking is a calculus of the relation of one set of weapons to another. As such, it is utterly bankrupt of possibilities for thinking about peace or meaningful security.”

For Cohn, thinking about the unthinkable has given the world’s nuclear priests carte blanche to rationalize mass death in an abstract way devoid of context or consequence. That’s the technostrategic discourse, the poison pill that makes us consider mass proliferation as a move towards peace.

“The forty-odd year development of technostrategic discourse has … been an attempt to develop ways not so much to ‘think about the unthinkable’ (because there is precious little thinking about the weapons, much less humans, going on; instead there is abstracting, quantifying, manipulating, modeling, programming), but to make it more possible to ‘use the unusable,’” she wrote. “The development of nuclear strategic theory, as with any other strategic theory, has had the goal of deriving political power from the manipulation of military assets. That nuclear weapons are not actually usable military assets is a fact that vanishes in the realm of technostrategic discourse.”

Nukes help us avoid the harder path: diplomacy. They’re the easy way out, the lazy promise that any kind of war could end with the total devastation of the planet. It’s hard to have a civil conversation with a rival when that rival has the ability to push a button and end your civilization. Mutual aid, conversation, trade, scientific partnerships, and cultural exchanges; these are the building blocks that will help us create lasting alliances that avoid war and conflict. 

Or, as Pfeiffer put it, “There are ways to security other than violence and power.”

Follow Matthew Gault on Twitter.