Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, and some of the most expensive, weapons in existence. Consequently, there are many misconceptions about them.
Conventional wisdom holds that atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the World War II. However, generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and Hap Arnold as well as Admiral William Leahy held the opposite opinion, and Eisenhower wrote that Japan was actively seeking to surrender at the time when bombs were dropped. In fact, Japan was seeking peace since the Battle of Midway, and it was not until the USSR declared the war, invading Manchuria and the Sahalin islands, that the Emperor was finally able to convince the military hunta to accept US terms – 68 cities have already been over 50% destroyed by conventional weapons, and in Tokyo alone, 120.000 people were killed by conventional bombs, to no (military) effect; worst-hit city, Toyama, was 99,5% destroyed. Aerial photos of all of these cities are completely indistinguishable from those of Hiroshima. Of 70 cities destroyed by US bombers, Hiroshima is second in terms of number of people killed, but only 17th in terms of percentage of the city that was destroyed. There was no major meeting called after the Hiroshima was destroyed, and Japanese leaders registered no shock after it; but they were extremely rattled after the Soviets declared the war on August 8th. Reason was that Japanese have planned to either throw everything at Americans when they landed to inflict heavy losses, or to negotiate peace settlement through Moscow, both of which would have allowed them relatively good negotiating position – in particular, they wanted to preserve the position of the Emperor, on whose removal United States insisted (in the end, United States accepted that position is to remain). With Soviet invasion, both of these options went out of the window – had Japan not surrendered, Hokkaido would have been invaded by both USSR and US-led Western coalition; a situation in which Japan could not prevail or even force anything other than an unconditional surrender. Unlike atomic bombs, entry of USSR into the war radically and fundamentally altered strategic situation, which is supported by preserved diaries, letters and transcripts. And since Japan depended on imports so much, it is possible that it would have surrendered without either atomic bombs, conventional bombing campaign, Soviet invasion of Korea or Allied invasion of mainland taking place (more here). But many Japanese leaders maintained that they surrendered because of atomic bombs since it sounded better to say that “we surrendered because Americans had superweapon” than “we lost the war fair and square” – atomic bombs were a literal excuse sent from the sky. West supported the fallacy for its own reasons, including political interests in denying the USSR’s role in defeating the Japan, as well as justifying extreme expenses of maintaining strategic bombing fleet, despite the same having been proven useless.
No war was ever won by killing civillians. Vercingetorix, when surrounded by Caesar’s troops, choose to sacrifice civillian populace rather than surrender. – he sent civillians out, but when Romans refused to let them through, he did not allow them to return and they starved on a no-man’s land. Roman Republic fought on against Hanibal despite immense casualties it had to endure in terms of both lives lost and coutryside ravaged. Gengis Khan, during his campaign against central Asian empire Khwarazm in 1220, made a practice of destroying cities and slaughtering their inhabitants, yet cities were still offering resistance three years after the war’s start. During Ottoman wars lasting from 14th to 17th century, Croatia lost over half of its populace – killed, enslaved, displaced – yet it fought on (in fact, demographic losses in some areas exceeded 80% during the Great Turkish War alone). During the Thirty Year War, 20% of civillians in Germany lost their lives, but the war went on. In the fall of 1864, Union army captured and burnt to the ground the Confederation city of Atlanta (twlfth largest in the country) and in April 1865, Confederacy capital of Richmond was captured. South only surrendered after Lee was unable to link up with Jonhston due to being surrounded by the Union army. In the 1865-1870 Paraguay war, 58% of civillians in Paraguay were killed in the five years.
Wars can be only won by destroying armies – Germany in World War I surrendered when its army was defeated, despite no Entente troops having entered German territory since Russian troops entered the Eastern Prussia early in the war (Russian armies in question got kicked out well before the end of the war), and no large-scale strategic bombing having been carried out. In World War II, British feared that Hitler will use chemical weapons against cities, which could have led to worse causalties than in case of nuclear attacks. They did not surrender, and Churchill actually used cities as sponges to soak up German bombardment and thus preserve military installations, siezing an accidental bombardment of London on the night of August 24th to bombard Berlin and possibly cause Luftwaffe to turn their effort towards British cities. Gamble paid off, and RAF was given a respite when being on the verge of defeat. Later on, Germany suffered 570.000 casualties due to Allied bombardment, but German morale remained strong and economic output actually rose until late 1944. Northern Vietnam did not surrender despite many of its major cities being bombed heavily by US Air Force; Southern Vietnam never suffered such bombardment, yet it fell when its army was defeated in the field. Nuclear weapons, conventional strategic bombers and terrorism have two things in common – all are directed primarly towards harming the civillians, and all are ineffective in helping to achieve military or political goals. Terrorist groups were only effective 7% of the time; economic sanctions, 34%. Even then, guerilla groups – which solely or at least primarly attacked military and diplomatic targets – accounted for all of the cases when terrorism was successful way of achieving a goal. Reason for this is that attacking civillians directly, especially on such a massive scale as strategic bombardment (either nuclear or conventional) typically does, is always taken as a sign that the enemy attempts to completely destroy one’s country; as such, it increases resistance rather than lowering it, causing the side at the receiving end to fight to the death. In a Third Punic War, when the Carthagians realized that the Romans intend to destroy their city, they fought to death despite having just surrendered all of their weapons – out of 1 million people in the city, only 55.000 survived to be sold to the slavery.
It is also held that nuclear weapons prevented World War III by preventing United States and the USSR from engaging each other directly in the open warfare. There were however many proxy wars, and a very real danger of a nuclear war (Soviets outright stated that any hostile action against Cuba could result in a nuclear war, and there were 150 Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba during the crisis) failed to prevent the President Kennedy from blockading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis – in other words, nuclear deterrence failed to deter. During the same period, a Soviet submarine almost launched a nuclear torpedo. Similarly, real reason why World War II was not followed by the Worl War III was actually a dissolution of European colonial empires. In 1966, US military considered using tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq. Neither did nuclear deterrence work on the Indian subcontinent, as the 1999 Kargil war shows (India had working nuclear weapons since 1974, Pakistan since 1998). Kargil War in fact was caused by Pakistan getting a nuclear weapon capability – it was certain to loose a conventional war, but nuclear weapons gave it a sense of security as it assumed that India will not attack in retaliation. Assumption was wrong, and India answered with a rapidly escalating force, and even though it did not attack Pakistan itself, it deployed troops along the entire Pakistani border. Order to cross the border never came simply because it was not necessary, and it was tactical and diplomatic calculations (gaining the support of the international community) rather than threat of Pakistani nukes which prevented escalation. Same calculus was made by Pakistan – it hoped to gain support of United States for solving the Kashmir problem, and once it was clear no such support was forthcoming, it was not in Pakistan’s interest to further escalate the war. International community may have been additionally motivated by avoiding the nuclear war, but nuclear weapons did nothing to prevent the war itself. Argentina likewise did not hesistate in attacking Falkland islands despite UK having nuclear weapons, and Arab countries initiated 1973 Yom Kippur War despite Israel having nukes in the inventory since 1967 at least. In 1991, Iraq attacked Israeli cities with conventional missiles, again with no apparent regard for Israeli nukes. In fact, before that war US Secretary of State James Baker threatened Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons if Saddam either used chemical weapons, set oil fields on fire or attacked US allies. Saddam proceeded to launch Scud missiles on Israel and set oil fields on fire.
Period of relative peace following World War II is nothing special. Napoleonic wars and a Thiry Years war were followed by periods of mostly peace in Europe; so was World War I. After World War I there were chemical weapons which could, in terms of lives taken, be just as devastating as nuclear weapons. Yet noone attributes peace following World War I to chemical weapons, and said weapons were never used on a large scale during World War II despite being avaliable – some of uses simply being a mistake.
Nuclear weapons do not help state achieve influence. Germany is the most influental state in the EU despite having no nuclear weapons. North Korea, on the other hand, has no influence – regional or global – despite having nuclear weapons. In a 5-year period following World War II during which United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, it did not translate into a significantly greater diplomatic influence – USSR was not cowed by the atomic bomb, which culminated in a blockade of Berlin. United States were later fought to a draw in Korea by Chinese military, and lost the Vietnam war. USSR itself lost the war in Afghanistan. What nuclear weapons do is make the country feel good about itself, and consequently make it more reckless – basically, nuclear weapons projects are ego-boosting projects, nothing more.
In short, Mutually Assured Destruction is a product of (rather busy) US imagination – USSR never bought into it for duration of the Cold War, believeing the nuclear war to be perfectly survivable. Nuclear weapons were similarly useless for coercion – two bombs dropped on Japan were actually aimed at frightening the USSR, but they failed to secure United States an advantageous position in negotiations that followed, or to prevent the spread of the Soviet influence in Asia. Extermination threat by itself is not very credible, with only one war of extermination in the last 3.000 years of warfare. That was was Third Punic War, in which Romans exterminated Carthageans. Before that, Romans lost 5% of their population during Hannibal Barca’s campaign – France lost 4,2% during entire World War I. Campaign itself lasted 14 years, and two states had a total of 42 years of fighting in the last 100 years before it.
Problem with nuclear (and all other advanced weapons) is that potential enemies will attempt to negate the – real or perceived – disadvantage. This leads to proliferations of nuclear weapons through the world, and while conventional wisdom holds that no leader will be crazy enough to use such weapons, both nuclear and equivalent weapons have been used before. It is true that majority of these cases were against states that had no equivalent weapons, but main danger of nuclear weapons is not a nuclear war involving nation-states (Russia, China, India), empires (European Union) or alliances (NATO), but rather nuclear weapons falling into hands of non-state actors. Such actors cannot be deterred by a threat from nuclear weapons since they have no territory to retaliate against, but they can still use nuclear weapons for their own purposes. It is not hard to see when a naton wants to acquire a nuclear weapon. All nuclear weapons – including hydrogen bombs – require enriched plutonium or uranium, and testing a weapon gives away telltale acoustic, radioactive and seismic signals (in fact, even a detonation of a conventional torpedo onboard Kursk submarine was detected by seismographs). But once a country is in possession of nuclear weapons, any upheaval gives opportunity for non-state actors to acquire the same – either an actual warhead, or materials required for producing a dirty bomb.
But even states are increasingly seeing nuclear weapons as an addition to the conventional arsenal rather than strictly as a deterrent. United States have stated willingness to use nuclear weapon in the case of Chinese attack against Taiwan, North Korean attack against the South Korea, or attack on Israel by any Arab state. Hypocrisy of established nuclear powers seeking to prevent new nuclear powers from forming while holding onto their own stockpiles of nuclear weapons as “essential for national security” is obvious. Most dangerous nuclear weapons in existence are actually “conventional” depleted uranium weapons used by some of military powers.
Nuclear weapons are also inherently immoral. Even if a nuclear warhead is used against a military formation in the open terrain and causes no immediate civilian casualties, radioactive fallout will have major negative consequences on the ecosystem in the area, and consequently on the civillian populace living near the point of impact. This is not to say that an all-out nuclear war will cause the end of the humanity. While smaller particles can be carried for tens of thousands of kilometers (basically enough for a round trip around the Earth), their concentration will remain fairly low, and only in the area immediately around the blast will they seriously endanger health. In fact, disaster of Chernobyl produced far more radioactive fallout than any nuclear weapon detonation, yet Europe is still habitable (initial radiation blast did kill all the trees within several kilometers, but now there are people living in the area, area has been reforrested and animals are thriving – mostly because of the relative lack of humans in the area). Human body is also capable of recovering from radiation damage, and radiation expected to be recieved inside the typical fallout shelter is very low. Main dangers of nuclear weapons are air pressure and heat wave – a 1 megaton weapon would kill people inside 50 psi shelters over an area of 2,7 square miles, or inside basements affording 5 psi protection inside the area of 58 square miles. Majority of deaths caused by a nuclear war will be a result of starvation as food shipments cease, and it is this effect that poses the greatest danger. Medical shipments will also cease, and with malnutritioned populace, entire world will be vulnerable to an epidemic similar to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed up to 5 per cent of world’s populace.
Worse, only reason why someone would use nuclear weapons is for explicit purpose of killing civillians. Relationship between utility and size is a bell-shaped curve, similar to relationship between utility and price. Majority of targets in the war that justify usage of bombs or missiles will be the size of a building. But nuclear weapons don’t destroy a building, or several buildings; they destroy entire city, or a major portion of it if it is a larger one. While weapons could, theoretically, be used against large military formations, they create problems for both sides – namely, fallout, which makes waging any kind of war in vicinity of ground zero problematic. Even then, tanks can easily survive nuclear attack if they are not in the direct blast zone, since they are heavy, low and with thick armor which stops radiation.
They are also very expensive. United States are now spending 50 billion USD annually. Yet everything useful that can be done with nuclear weapons – such as destroying bunkers – can be done with conventional weapons (precision munitions are, despite their low accuracy and unsuitability for close air support, very useful for destroying static targets). This alone serves to counter the next myth – “nuclear domino” myth, which holds that if one country acquires nuclear weapons, its neighbours are sure to follow. While everyone has feared widespread nuclear profileration isnce the dawn of a nuclear age, it took 65 years for number of nuclear-armed countries to build up to ten – nine, actually, since South Africa voluntarily disarmed in the 1990s, as did Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine after the Soviet Union fell apart. No nuclear development chain followed Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1960s.
Nuclear winter is another widespread myth. Assumption was based on a 5 Gt exchange injecting 225 million particles into the troposphere, to be evenly distributed over the north hemisphere over the period of two weeks. But it is impossible for particles to be evenly distributed as air is always in some form of turbulence, especially at higher altitudes. Normal meteorological processes also mean that most of the particles will have been removed from the atmosphere in less than a week, far too short timeframe to initiate a widespread cooling effect; especially since particles themselves will help water accumulation, causing the very rainfalls that will remove them. This effect was first noticed with a black rain that fell within a few hours after the nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. Also, most of the modern nuclear weapons are not huge megaton-range warheads, and will be used against military targets, which are usually located outside cities. This means that city-wide firestorms required by Sagan to cause the nuclear winter will not be present. Ozone layer will not be affected, as it similarly requires multi-megaton weapons to inject NO and NO2 into the upper atmosphere.
And while nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, technology leaves use every day – like penny-farthing bicycles or Hiller VZ-1.
13 thoughts on “Myths about nuclear weapons”
Right… there are calculations made of what it would take for a country to use Nuclear weapons or not and once understood you can engage them in conflicts where it will not be worthwhile to use them in. So they do not provide deterrence against that.
And the likely hood of success in a nuclear first strike being able to wipe out a retaliatory force is a matter of speculative calculation since there is no history of doing so. It would be a gamble. So first strike success is illusory.
And tactical use of battlefield nuclear weapons renders the battle field a ruin for both sides.
But I disagree that they will not be used. If someone like Iran gets them they will use them. There is a certain feel of racial and nationalistic superiority by the Iranians over the Arabs that could in their mind justify its use. They are fueling an arms race over there.
With the noteworthy exception of Japan, it’s interesting to note that for every other nation that has pursued nuclear weapons have probably harmed more of their own citizens than anyone else from:
Massive public expenditures on nuclear weapons and things like ICBMs, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines
Radiation exposure to certain people, particularly in the early days of nuclear testing
Any accidents that may have occurred along the way or fallout from testing
It seems that nuclear weapons have more so than anything produced a dangerous change in thinking about how people deal with problems.
The fundamental issue has always been that military spending of any kind is always going to be a drain on society. There are quite a few nations/empires/states, etc that have “failed” probably because of excessive spending in military.
Nuclear weapons are perhaps just conventional weapons taken to the logical extreme in a sense – very powerful strategic bombing.
Nuclear weapons are strategic bombardment weapons by their very nature. They literally can’t be used for anything else… you might try to wipe out the army with them, but fallout will still pose a hazard to civillian populace hundreds of kilometers away.
“Nuclear weapons are strategic bombardment weapons by their very nature. They literally can’t be used for anything else… you might try to wipe out the army with them, but fallout will still pose a hazard to civillian populace hundreds of kilometers away.”
To be fair, there had been during the Cold War tests by both the US and USSR in an attempt to make bombs useful for peace. Not much came of it though – too much radiation.
The real issue is the radiation. I wonder what will happen though if someone develops a pure fusion bomb someday.
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Excellent article. Tell that to the pro-Trident missile people in the UK.
Ever since the invention of nuclear power, there has NEVER been a total war between MAJOR POWERS. The only exception is Korean War, but then China didnt have nuke then, and for USSR its more like a ‘proxy’ war. Such thing never happened before. Actually, history used to be shaped by total wars among majors powers. No more, Cold War never turned into WW 3. Coincidence? I dont think so.
Since Napoleon’s defeat there wasn’t a war between major powers for 99 years, what makes you think that mere 69 years without a world war are something exceptional?
Despite the post being more than two years old, I feel it should be corrected. There was never 99 years of peace between major powers after the Napoleonic wars. Just thin about the Crimean war, or the 1870 war between France and Prussia, leading to the German Empire…
Maybe, but both these wars were local. They were nothing approaching the global, or even continental, scale of 7 years war, Napoleonic wars or World Wars.
Good for alien deterrence