Book Review: Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons
Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 196 pages
Nuclear weapons will always be with us, right?
Ward Wilson disagrees. That’s not explicitly one of his five myths, but it might be a corollary of Myth 5, “There is no alternative.”
Wilson has written a gem of a book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. The clarity of its arguments sparkles. The purpose of the book is to encourage people to rethink what they believe about nuclear weapons.
[I should say up front that Wilson is a friend and colleague. He gave one of his first presentations on the Japanese surrender to the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control at my invitation. I have continued to discuss these issues with him, by e-mail and face-to-face. He provided me with an electronic prepublication copy of the book. He is a member of Nuclear Diner.]
Wilson’s objective is to see how those five myths stack up against reality. The myths are
Myth 1: Nuclear Weapons Shock and Awe Opponents
Myth 2: H-Bomb Quantum Leap
Myth 3: Nuclear Deterrence Works in a Crisis
Myth 4: Nuclear Weapons Keep Us Safe
Myth 5: There Is No Alternative
The book makes persuasive arguments against the five myths.
The world inventory of nuclear weapons now stands at around 17,000. That may seem like a lot, but in the twenty-five years since the fall of the Soviet Union, almost three times as many have been taken out of the stockpile. At the moment, however, progress toward more reductions and the coming into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) seems unlikely.
Although nuclear weapons strategy and technology may seem esoteric to the lay public, it is the public who supply the impetus and support to leaders in bringing about nuclear treaties. Public concern for fallout from atmospheric testing led to the first arms control treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, the Limited Test-Ban Treaty. The Ban the Bomb movement of the 1980s responded to hair-trigger intermediate-range missiles aimed from Europe and the Soviet Union at each other and allowed President Reagan and First Secretary Gorbachev to begin that twenty-five-year reduction in nuclear weapons.
Popular support is needed for further reductions, which would include nuclear nations beyond the US and Russia. It is needed as well for passing the CTBT and for making nuclear weapons less desirable to countries like Iran.
But how does that popular support get started? The standard approach toward nuclear issues appeals to fear and morality. Fear and morality have attended nuclear weapons since their beginning. Robert Oppenheimer famously combined them with a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
Many antinuclear organizations still appeal to fear and morality. But the public is no longer moved by that appeal. We don’t have the urgency of radioactive fallout or a nuclear superpower standoff. Economic problems are much more immediate for Europe and America.
Wilson argues that, in contrast, we need to take a pragmatic look at nuclear weapons: are the things we’ve believed of them true? To this end, he examines the historical evidence for the five myths.
Will this pragmatic approach help to spark popular support? Hard to say. The public discussion currently consists of thoroughly predictable arguments from all sides. Familiarity breeds tuning out. The message that things aren’t as they’ve seemed could attract attention and reinforce people’s sense that nuclear weapons aren’t very useful.
The simple concepts that Wilson presents could be easy for people to join together on. But what Wilson presents will be disruptive to the arguments on both sides of the current nuclear weapons arguments. So I expect him to be attacked, sometimes by those who might have been expected to be on his side.
I disagree with a number of Wilson’s points, but not to the point of invalidating his overall thesis. And I think that’s part of what Wilson is trying to provoke: more discussion of these issues. The United States is likely to be decreasing its defense spending; that should include Wilson’s pragmatic discussion of how nuclear weapons serve our defense.
I particularly disagree with some of the points in the chapters on myths number 2 and 4. And I think that deterrence (Myth 3), both nuclear and conventional, is something that needs to be thoroughly rethought in today’s post-Cold-War world.
So I will challenge Wilson: let’s discuss deterrence in a Nuclear Diner forum. It’s a difficult topic and deserves a wide discussion.
The value of the book is that it is written for the nonspecialist. Nuclear weapons policy is too important to be left to the wonks. We need more discussion of why we have these weapons. Wilson:
Now that the Cold War is over, it is time for a conversation that is not overwhelmed by fear and visions of extinction. Let us attempt a pragmatic discussion of nuclear weapons, one characterized by clear-eyed investigation, open minds, and the courage to face uncomfortable truths.
This book starts that conversation.
Republished at The Agonist.