Americans have had a long respite from thinking about nuclear war. The Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union was dismantled and replaced by the Russian Federation and more than a dozen other countries. China at the time was not yet a significant nuclear power. A North Korean bomb was purely a notional threat. The fear of a large war in Europe escalating into a nuclear conflict faded from the public’s mind.
Today, the Chinese nuclear arsenal could destroy most of the United States. The North Koreans have a stockpile of bombs. And the Russian Federation, which inherited the Soviet nuclear arsenal, has launched a major war against Ukraine. As the war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nation’s nuclear forces to go on heightened alert and warned the West that any interference with the invasion would have “consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” Suddenly, the unthinkable seems possible again.
There was a time when citizens of the United States cared about nuclear weapons. The reality of nuclear war was constantly present in their lives; nuclear conflict took on apocalyptic meaning and entered the American consciousness not only through the news and politics, but through popular culture as well. Movie audiences in 1964 laughed while watching Peter Sellers play a president and his sinister adviser in Dr. Strangelove, bumbling their way to nuclear war; a few months later, they were horrified as Henry Fonda’s fictional president ordered the sacrificial immolation of New York City in Fail-Safe. Nuclear war and its terminology—overkill, first strike, fallout—were soon constant themes in every form of entertainment. We not only knew about nuclear war; we expected one.
But during the Cold War there was also thoughtful engagement with the nuclear threat. Academics, politicians, and activists argued on television and in op-ed pages about whether we were safer with more or fewer nuclear weapons. The media presented analyses of complicated issues relating to nuclear weapons. CBS, for example, broadcast an unprecedented five-part documentary series on national defense in 1981. When ABC, in 1983, aired the movie The Day After—about the consequences of a global nuclear war for a small town in Kansas—it did so as much to perform a public service as to achieve a ratings bonanza. Even President Ronald Reagan watched the movie. (In his diary, he noted that The Day After was “very effective” and had left him “greatly depressed.”)
I was among those who cared a lot about nuclear weapons. In the early days of my career, I was a Russian-speaking “Sovietologist” working in think tanks and with government agencies to pry open the black box of the Kremlin’s strategy and intentions. The work could be unsettling. Once, during a discussion of various nuclear scenarios, a colleague observed matter-of-factly, “Yes, in that one, we only lose 40 million.” He meant 40 million people.
The end of the Cold War, however, led to an era of national inattentiveness toward nuclear issues. We forgot about nuclear war and concentrated mostly on keeping nuclear weapons out of the “wrong hands,” which reflected the American preoccupation with rogue states and terrorists after 9/11. This change in emphasis had worrisome side effects. In 2008, a blue-ribbon commission headed by a former secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, sounded the alarm: A new generation of nuclear-weapons personnel in the Air Force and Navy did not understand its own mission. In 2010, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned that American defense institutions were no longer minting nuclear strategists. “We don’t have anybody in our military that does that anymore,” Mullen said.
I saw this firsthand at the Naval War College, a graduate school for mid-level and senior U.S. military officers, where I taught for more than 25 years. Nuclear issues fell out of the curriculum almost immediately after the Cold War ended. I remember an Air Force major coming up to me after class and telling me he’d never heard of “mutual assured destruction”—the concept that underlies nuclear deterrence—until my lecture that day.
Voters no longer cared either. During the Cold War, regardless of what other issues might be raised, every presidential election was shadowed by worry over whose finger would be on “the button.” In 1983, Reagan—hardly a detail-oriented president or master policy wonk—asked for an uninterrupted half hour of television during prime time to discuss his defense budget and his plans for a national missile-defense system, replete with charts and graphs. Millions of Americans watched. But in 2015, when Donald Trump was asked during the Republican Party primary debates about U.S. nuclear forces, he could only say, “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Such an answer would once have been disqualifying for any candidate. This time, millions of Americans shrugged.
It was perhaps inevitable after the Cold War that serious thinking about nuclear weapons would be stashed away, in the words of a NATO nuclear planner some years ago, like “the crazy aunt in the attic.”
But the end of the Cold War did not resolve the most crucial question that has plagued nuclear strategists since 1945: What do nuclear weapons actually do for those who have them? The American security analyst Bernard Brodie declared in the mid-1950s that nuclear weapons represented the “end of strategy,” because no political goal could justify unleashing their apocalyptically destructive power. In the 1980s, the political scientist and nuclear-deterrence scholar Robert Jervis amplified the point, noting that “a rational strategy for the employment of nuclear weapons is a contradiction in terms.”
American leaders, however, didn’t have the luxury of declaring nuclear war to be insanity and then ignoring the subject. The dawn of the Cold War and the birth of the Bomb occurred almost exactly at the same time. The Soviet Union, once our ally, was now our foe, and soon its nuclear arsenal was pointed at us, just as ours was pointed right back. Someone had to think about what might come next.
When contemplating the outbreak of nuclear war, the British strategist Michael Howard always asked: What would such a war be about? Why would it happen at all?
History supplies an answer, and reminds us that the perils of the past remain with us today. The American nuclear arsenal was constructed as the United States dealt with a series of postwar crises. From the Berlin blockade to a hot war in Korea, Communist dangers seemed to be spreading unchecked across the planet. By 1950, the Communist bloc extended from the Gulf of Finland to the South China Sea. With America and its allies outnumbered and outgunned, nuclear weapons and the threat of their use seemed to be the only Western recourse.
Nuclear planning in this period was shaped by the inescapable dictates of geography. The Soviet Union straddled two continents and spanned 11 time zones. The United States was relatively safe in its North American fortress from anything but an outright Soviet nuclear attack. But how could Washington protect NATO in Europe and its other allies scattered around the world? With Germany a divided nation and Berlin a divided city, any future conflict in Europe would always favor the Soviets and their tanks, which could roll across the plains almost at will.
This set up the basic structure of some future World War III in a way that every American of that period could understand: No matter how or where East and West might come into significant military conflict, the Soviets were certain to move the confrontation to Europe. A crisis might begin somewhere else—maybe the Caribbean, maybe the Middle East—but war itself would move to Germany and then spiral into a global catastrophe. American strategists tried to think through the possibility of “limited” nuclear wars in various regions, but as Schlesinger later admitted to Congress, none of the scenarios stayed limited for long. Everything came back to escalation in Europe.
This was not an idle fear. In 1965, for example, when the United States began bombing North Vietnam, the Soviet General Staff proposed a “military demonstration” of an unspecified nature aimed at Berlin and West Germany. “We do not fear approaching the risk of war,” the Soviet defense minister told Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders. The leadership declined the defense minister’s advice, and the episode was kept secret for decades. But the Kremlin and its high command continued to plan for defeating NATO quickly and decisively in Germany, no matter where a crisis might begin. They knew it was their best option, and so did we.
Once war moved to Central Europe, events would cascade with a brutal inevitability. The only way the United States could stop such an attack would be to resort to the immediate use of small, short-range nuclear arms on the battlefield. As Soviet forces advanced, we would strike them—on NATO’s own territory—with these “tactical” weapons. The Soviets would respond in kind. We would then hit more targets throughout Eastern Europe with larger and longer-range weapons, hoping to bring the Soviets to a halt. Again, the Soviets would respond. With so many nuclear weapons in play, and with chaos and panic enveloping national leaders, one side or the other might fear a larger attack and give in to the temptation to launch a preemptive strike against strategic nuclear weapons in the American or Soviet heartland. All-out nuclear war would follow. Millions would die immediately. Millions more would perish later.
The U.S. and NATO not only expected this nuclear escalation but threatened to be the ones to initiate it. There was a terrifying but elegant logic to this policy. In effect, the West told the Kremlin that the use of nuclear weapons would occur not because some unhinged U.S. president might wish it, but because Soviet successes on the battlefield would make it an inescapable choice.
By the 1960s, the march of technology had allowed both East and West to develop a “triad” of bombers, submarine-launched missiles, and land-based intercontinental missiles. Arsenals on both sides soon numbered in the tens of thousands. At these levels, even the most aggressive Cold War hawks knew that, in a full exchange, mutual obliteration was inevitable. Detailed and exacting war plans would collapse in days—or even hours—into what the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn called “spasm” or “insensate” war, with much of the Northern Hemisphere reduced to a sea of glass and ash.
The reality that nuclear war meant complete devastation for both sides led to the concept of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, a term coined by American war planners. MAD was at first not so much a policy as a simple fact. In the early 1970s, the United States proposed that both sides turn the fact into a defined policy: The superpowers would recognize that they had enough weapons and it was time to set limits. The Soviets, with some reservations, agreed. The race to oblivion was put on pause.
Today, MAD remains at the core of strategic deterrence. The United States and Russia have taken some weapons off their quick triggers, but many remain ready to launch in a matter of minutes. By treaty, Washington and Moscow have limited themselves to 1,550 warheads apiece. The basic idea is that these numbers deny either side the ability to take out the other’s arsenal in a first strike, while still preserving the ability to destroy at least 150 urban centers in each country. This, in the world of nuclear weapons, is progress.
The fall of the Soviet Union changed many things, but in nuclear matters it changed almost nothing. The missiles and their warheads remained where they were. They continue to wait in silent service. The crews in silos, submarines, and bombers now consist of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who built the first nuclear weapons and created the plans for their use. And yet for years we have conducted international politics as if we have somehow solved the problem of nuclear war.
Nuclear weapons are a crutch we have leaned on to avoid thinking about the true needs and costs of defense. With hardly any debate, over a period of 30 years we doubled the number of nations under NATO’s nuclear guarantee. We have talked about drawing down forces in places such as South Korea and shied away from expensive decisions about increasing our naval power in the Pacific—all because we think that nuclear weapons will remedy imbalances in conventional weapons and that the mere existence of nuclear weapons will somehow stabilize these unstable situations. Worrying about whether this broad reliance on nuclear deterrence risks escalation and nuclear war seems outdated to many. Memories of the Cold War, a young scholar once said to me, are a form of “baggage” that inhibits the making of bold policy.
This brings us, of course, to Ukraine. The war there could put four nuclear-armed powers—Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—onto the same battlefield, and yet arguments over the U.S. and NATO response to the Russian invasion have sometimes taken place in a nuclear void. President Joe Biden has rallied a global coalition against Moscow while remaining determined to avoid a direct military conflict with Russia. He wisely declined to raise U.S. nuclear readiness to match Putin’s nuclear alert. But he has had to steer this careful path while buffeted by demands from people who seem unmoved (or untouched) by memories of the Cold War. Calls for a more aggressive confrontation with Russia, including demands for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, backed by American power, have been advanced by a range of prominent figures. Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger even introduced a congressional resolution authorizing Biden to use American military force against Russia.
These demands ignore the reality, as the Harvard professor Graham Allison wrote earlier this year, that in the event of a hot war between nuclear superpowers, “the escalation ladder from there to the ultimate global catastrophe of nuclear war can be surprisingly short.” Allison’s warning is especially relevant today, when Russia and NATO have effectively switched places: Russia is now the inferior conventional power, and is threatening a first use of nuclear weapons if faced with a regime-threatening defeat on the battlefield.
Our collective amnesia—our nuclear Great Forgetting—undermines American national security. American political leaders have a responsibility to educate the public about how, and how much, the United States relies on nuclear weapons for its security. If we mean to reduce U.S. conventional forces and go back to relying on nuclear weapons as a battlefield equalizer, then the public should know it and think about it. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal exists solely to deter the use of enemy nuclear weapons, then it is time to say so and spell out the consequences.
Every presidential administration since 1994 has released a “nuclear posture review” that supposedly answers the question of why, exactly, America has a nuclear arsenal. Is it to fight nuclear wars or to deter a nuclear attack? And every administration has fudged the response by saying, essentially, it’s a little of both. This is not a serious answer. And it avoids the deeper question: If we do not in fact wish to use nuclear weapons, then what must we do to ensure that our conventional capabilities match our international commitments?
We have accepted evasions from our leaders because we take strategic nuclear deterrence for granted—as something that exists around us almost independently, like gravity or the weather. But deterrence relies on human psychology and on the agency and decisions of actual people, who must continually manage it.
Decades of denial have left Americans ill-prepared to think about the many choices that keep the nuclear peace. Effective deterrence, even in a post–Cold War world, requires the capacity to face the reality of nuclear war squarely. And it means understanding once again what it would feel like to hear the sirens—and to wonder whether they are only a drill.
This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “We Have No Nuclear Strategy.”