American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

by Alex Roland

The Nuclear Revolution

While conventional military technology seems to have experienced rapid but nonetheless continuous evolution since World War II, nuclear weapons have been different. They introduced a discontinuous increase in destructiveness: a single weapon could now deliver the destructive power of a whole wing of airplanes carrying conventional arms. When thermonuclear warheads were mounted on ballistic missiles, they were unstoppable. They revolutionized warfare.

The revolution was not, however, immediately apparent, even though some analysts such as Bernard Brodie and Walter Millis argued that such a revolutionary transformation had occurred. Instead it seemed that nuclear weapons would represent just one more step in the escalating destructiveness of modern war. Two of the first three weapons produced were actually used in warfare, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower considered using them again during the Korean War. The "Ban the Bomb" movement of the 1950s was motivated in part by the assumption that atomic weapons would surely be used again, sooner or later. History offered no example of a weapon foregone because it was too destructive.44

The prospects changed as new technologies increased the threat from nuclear weapons.

  • The Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb in 1949, several years earlier than Western experts had predicted. Both the Soviet Union and the United States detonated their first thermonuclear weapons within a year of each other in 1952-1953.

  • The hydrogen bomb not only made single weapons more destructive, they also made massive destructive power affordable, at least to the super powers. Neither state could have otherwise afforded to amass the nuclear arsenals they did, with a combined explosive force equivalent to more than five billion tons of TNT.45

  • Finally, the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile ensured that these weapons could be placed on any target in the enemy's territory without interference.

Nuclear weapons thus became the first weapon in human history that the holders dared not use.

The bizarre logic of nuclear deterrence was driven by technology. Nuclear weapons were useful only if they were not used. To deter an enemy, a nation had to reveal at least some secrets, such as the power, accuracy, and reliability of its weapons. War was prevented not because one side or the other felt it would lose, but because neither side could be sure that it would win; uncertainty produced stability. Security, in the end, came not from superiority but from mutual vulnerability. Peace exacted the psychological stress of living on a "balance of terror."

For all the fears and dangers of this extraordinary situation, the logic worked. Two superpowers, with conflicting goals and philosophies, came within military reach of each other and chose not to fight.

Twice during the Cold War they seemed to come to the brink of open military conflict. First in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and again during the 1973 Arab Israeli War, the United States and the Soviet Union placed their military forces on heightened alert and contemplated a conventional clash of arms which might quickly escalate into strategic nuclear exchange.

In both cases, however, they escaped the autonomous logic that had dragged the European nations into World War I.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated throughout much of the Cold War to ensure that their political and diplomatic differences would not pull them into the war that neither wanted.

Furthermore, the superpowers imposed constraints on their client states, those who ran the proxy wars with which the Cold War conducted its fighting. The Soviet Union allowed the United States to bomb North Vietnam, including the harbor at Haiphong with Soviet ships in port. The United States resisted direct intervention in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Both sides tempered the passions in the Middle East that might have otherwise forced them to intervene on behalf of their clients. Nuclear war shaped and limited conventional war throughout the second half of the 20th century. The superpowers and the coalitions they led did not want any conflict to in a way that would draw them into confrontation. However brutal and gruesome war remained in the late twentieth century, its was surely less deadly than Quincy Wright and his colleagues had any reason to expect when A Study of War appeared in 1942.

At the end of the twentieth century, nuclear war seems less likely than at any time since the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon in 1949. Likewise conventional war between major industrialized states appears similarly improbable, both because of the continuing salutary effect of the nuclear umbrella and the expense and destructiveness of modern conventional weapons. The military technology itself drives this happy turn of events. But also at work is the simple lesson from the Cold War that international conflict can be resolved by means other than war.

Continue to next section, "Technological Determinism," and Conclusion


44. Opponents of nuclear weapons might have taken some heart form the world's experience with chemical weapons. Gas warfare on a large scale had been introduced in World War I, but generally eschewed in World War II. The threat lingered, but the reality was in fact encouraging.

45. Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1993 , 15th ed. (Washington: World Priorities, 1993), p. 11.

Alex Roland, professor of history at Duke University since 1987, has held the departmental chair for the past year. He has been a visiting professor of military history at the U. S. Army War College and a resident fellow in the history of science and technology at MIT. His publications include Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society (1991).

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC