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by Alex Roland

Technological Determinism

To argue that technology may be responsible for the melioration of war is to flirt with technological determinism. Quincy Wright faced the same quandary in the 1930s. He escaped into studied ambiguity, claiming that technology was the defining characteristic of modern war. This position aligned him with Leo Marx's suggestions that technology is the distinguishing feature of modernity. But Wright did not claim that technology caused modern war. Causality he associated with politics, economics, culture, and religion.

We can only guess if he would have agreed with the thesis of this paper that the technology of nuclear weapons has caused the dramatic decline in casualties from war experienced since 1945. In a "Commentary on War since 1945," published in the second edition of A Study of War in 1965, Wright discussed the constraints on war imposed by nuclear weapons. But he did not know if the "suicidal" consequences of nuclear war would be proof against the use of the weapons by accident, miscalculation, or preemptive first strike. He did not yet recognize the steep decline in casualties that was under way.

Thirty years after that essay, the trend is more pronounced, the results more striking. The great powers have enjoyed what John Lewis Gaddis has called "the long peace" and what others have called "the nuclear peace."46

The latter term captures the thesis of this paper. While Wright sought to understand the causes of war, this paper seeks to explain the causes of peace. The main cause in the late twentieth century has been technology.

Because this thesis verges on technological determinism, it calls for a brief examination of that concept and its applicability in this case. Technological determinism is at least as old as Karl Marx.47 In the second half of the twentieth century, however, it spawned an extensive scholarly literature that has moved beyond Marxian materialism. Usually it assumes one of two forms, both of which apply to nuclear weaponry.48

  • One image is of a technology that changes by its own internal logic and dynamic. Langdon Winner has called it "autonomous technology," which he equates with "technics out of control."49 Thomas Hughes describes a related concept as "technological momentum," meaning that technologies, especially large, technological systems, develop a velocity and trajectory that become increasingly difficult to alter.50 Other scholars have noted that these trajectories can be path-dependent, meaning that certain kinds are practically irreversible beyond a certain point.

All of these concepts can be seen at work in the nuclear arms race. No single individual, group, or nation wanted nuclear weapons and their delivery systems to take on just the form they did. Nor did the superpowers want to develop, maintain, and constantly upgrade thousands of warheads and hundreds of delivery vehicles. But something in the nature of the technology left them no choice, or so they believed. Human agency appeared powerless before the imperative of the expanding weaponry. This kind of determinism motivated the escalation from atomic to thermonuclear weapons, from bombers to missiles, and from single warheads to multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

  • A second image of technological determinism is related to the first but invokes a slightly different dynamic. It argues that society is forced to adjust to technology. Instead of making technology serve human purposes, people accommodate to their machines. The sentiment was captured in the motto of the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition: "Science discovers, Technology makes, Man conforms."51

In the Cold War, this phenomenon took the form of the military industrial complex. The research and development necessary to create the instruments of the Cold War demanded an infrastructure that would shape the rest of society.

Paul Kennedy captured this phenomenon concisely in the introduction to his history of British sea power:
An outpouring of funds for armaments will divert capital from 'productive' to 'unproductive' investment; will reduce the monies available for commercial research and development; will drain increasing numbers of engineers, physicists, mathematicians and other scientists from export industries into defence related fields; and may, indeed, create whole sectors of industry which rely solely upon Pentagon funds and have opted out of those commercial markets now increasingly dominated by the Japanese, the West Germans and others. Furthermore, large scale arms spending will only increase the federal deficits. . . and thus further erode the American economic base.52

This is the determinism that breeds new mandarins and Pentagon capitalism.

Technological determinism as a late twentieth century phenomenon has spawned a reactionary literature. Some scholars, such a Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford, have called for resistance to autonomous technology, for the restoration of human agency.53 For them, machines should adapt to people, not the other way around. Still more scholars have asserted that technology is not autonomous or deterministic at all. They insist that all technology is socially constructed, driven by social, economic, and political forces that are human in origin and thus by definition subject to human control.

An example of this argumentation, and the curious circularity that it can produce, is Donald MacKenzie's history of ballistic missile guidance, Inventing Accuracy .54

  • In the 1960s U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, announced a counter-value strategy for the use of the American nuclear arsenal. The United States, he said, would answer a Soviet nuclear attack with a nuclear retaliation targeted at the Soviet society in general. For this purpose, existing guidance systems would suffice; they could deliver nuclear weapons within a mile or two of the aiming point. The cities, industries, and infrastructure that were the heart of the Soviet society were unprotected and large enough to be vulnerable to the guidance systems then possessed by American nuclear delivery systems.

  • But in spite of this announced policy, the U.S. military services, especially the Navy and the Air Force, proceeded with development of ever more accurate ballistic missile guidance. This development alarmed Soviet observers. They inferred that the United States was moving beyond its avowed policy and attempting to develop weapons that could hit with pin point accuracy. The only use for such weapons, in their view, was a preemptive attack on the Soviet nuclear arsenal itself. The United States, it seemed, was developing a first strike capability.

  • To meet this threat, the Soviets refined and expanded their own arsenal in the 1970s and 1980s. Their build up in turn fueled the perception among American conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviets were hoping to jump through a "window of vulnerability" to attack the United States.

  • President Ronald Reagan responded with the largest peacetime military build up in United States history, climaxing with the Strategic Defense Initiative.

    And so it went. Perceptions about weapons drove the arms race and the arms race drove politics. The same events can be seen as both deterministic and socially constructed. Improved guidance may be construed as a consequence of inter-service rivalry between the Navy and the Air Force, abetted by the commercial ambitions of their contractors. Alternatively, the services may be seen as driven by an imperative to field superior technology. The military industrial complex may be the infrastructure dictated by the demands of modern weapons, or it may be the agent of individuals and institutions using the arms race to achieve political and economic goals.

    Attempts to arrest this seemingly autonomous escalation, to restore human agency to weapons development, have not been limited to scholarly treatises. Such concerns bred legions of agents during the Cold War, citizens of the world who took it upon themselves to reverse the deterministic drift of this technology. The only SANE course, in their view, was to eliminate these weapons.55

    The strength and urgency of these protests ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of the Cold War, achieving peaks of visibility and support in the "Ban the Bomb" movement of the 1950s, the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the green movement of the 1980s. Through it all the Union of Concerned Scientists published the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and its annual doomsday clock on the cover, measuring the moments till Armageddon. More temperately, but just as seriously, other scholars gathered regularly at the international Pugwash conferences to look for ways out of the nuclear dilemma. No technology has ever attracted the worldwide alarm and opposition that has been directed at nuclear weapons, with the possible exception of the collective industrial developments that ravaged the world's environment in the twentieth century.

    The end of the Cold War has drained some of the passion and the volume from the anti-nuclear movement. It has not, however, silenced it. Some observers think the danger has only grown with the fracturing of government control over the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. Others believe that the world is even more unstable in its present form than it was in the bi-polar Cold War. Some view with alarm the apparently undiminished pursuit of nuclear capability by rogue states such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya. And many believe that as long as the weapons exist, no matter whose hands they are in, the risk of nuclear war persists.

    I close by arguing just the opposite:

It is my contention that nuclear weapons, the apotheosis of the war/technology nexus in the late 20th century, the crux of what Walter Millis called the "hypertrophy of war," have in fact been a boon to humanity.

It is my belief that historians will look back centuries from now and see the late twentieth century as a watershed in the history of warfare.

I have outlined this argument elsewhere and I will not repeat it all here.56 I will simply note that a remarkable development has occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. If the destructiveness of war is measured in human casualties, and if those casualties are plotted through modern history, then World War II stands out clearly as a turning point of historic proportions.

  • Since 1945, casualties from war have been declining precipitously, after a steady and alarming rise beginning with the Industrial Revolution.57 (Also see tables above) Though our newspapers and other media bombard us constantly with reports of war and rumors of war around the world, the fact is that people are dying from war at a greatly diminished rate. The rate is now comparable to that of the first half of the nineteenth century. And there is no sign that the downward trend is abating.

    HUMAN WAR DEATHS, 1500-1995
    war deaths (millions)
    increase (millions)
    % increase 3133213335-82
    population (millions)500600900150024005600
    increase (millions) 1003006009003200
    % increase 20506760133
    deaths as percent of population0.

    This does not mean that war is disappearing as a social institution. Far from it. But conventional, mechanized, high tech war between great powers, the kind of war that killed on an unprecedented scale in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and conditioned our current apprehensions of war, is indeed disappearing. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which two industrialized states would now risk the ruinous destruction of all out war with each other--not even conventional war, let alone nuclear war.

    What could have caused this dramatic reversal in the trend of modern history? The whole catalogue of modernity might be invoked: rationalism, secularization, democratization, humanism, individualism. A case may be made that the Western, democratic nation state, having become the dominant model for governments around the world, has produced a "democratic peace."58 Perhaps nineteenth century liberalism, which sought to replace conflict with reason and negotiation, has finally taken hold in the late twentieth century. Maybe, as David Hackett Fischer believes, the current distribution of the world's wealth fends off cataclysm.59 But none of these explanations accounts for the timing of the current decline in casualties.

    Quincy Wright concluded in 1965 that the causes of war identified in his study still obtained: perception of threat, ideology, frustration over unsatisfactory conditions, belief in the utility of war or threats of war, and the necessity of violence to achieve higher goals of justice, law, and rights. He embraced, in short, the multiple causality of his previous position, insisting that "no single cause of war can be identified." He did, however, allow that "the most persistent condition of war" was "the inherent difficulty of organizing peace." By implication, he professed little faith in the world government to which he had earlier committed himself. Without embracing technological determinism, he nonetheless allowed, as this paper asserts, that "modern weaponry has made war too dangerous for nuclear powers to use as an instrument of policy."60

    Is fifty years a long enough time to suggest that nuclear peace is anything but a hiatus between wars?

    Was not the peace of Westphalia simply a long interlude between the wars of religion and the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon?

    What may be said to have conditioned that lessening of war other than exhaustion and revulsion?

    What about the Pax Britannica following the Napoleonic wars? Surely that was not driven by technology. Surely it bred a hubris about "modern" civilization that made World War I seem impossible.

    What reason is there to believe that the present peace is any less fleeting and illusory?

In 1965 Wright could identify no fundamental changes in human institutions, politics, psychology, and ideology that would support the optimistic hypothesis advanced in this paper. He could, in short, find nothing to suggest that peace would hold.

But it did hold. It seems likely to hold for the foreseeable future. The most plausible explanation, the one that accords most closely with historical experience, is the bomb.

Mankind has simply found the weapon that it had anticipated and predicted for centuries, a weapon so terrible that it deters war. We have now seen the first major confrontation in world history in which two great powers with profoundly conflicting objectives were within each other's reach and yet forbore a contest of arms. They did it not because they were more enlightened, more rational, more democratic, more humanistic, or more philosophical. They avoided war because they feared each others' weapons.

If that is technological determinism, then may it endure.

©Contents copyright 1997 by Alex Roland.


46. John Gaddis, "The Long Peace," International Security 10 (1986): 99 142.

47. The argument for Marx as a technological determinist appears in Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics out of Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT press, 1978), pp. 77 85.

48. See Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds., Does Technology Drive History: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

49. Winner, Autonomous Technology .

50. Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880 1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

51. Robert W. Rydell, "The Fan Dance of Science: American World's Fairs in the Great Depression," Isis 76 (December 1985): 531.

52. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: The Ashfield Press, 1983), p. xxiii.

53. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society , trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage, [1954] 1964); Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970).

54. Donald McKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

55. SANE was, in fact, the name of one of the many organizations the grew up in the Cold War to oppose nuclear weapons.

56. Alex Roland, "Keep the Bomb," Technology Review (August/September 1995): 67 69.

57. Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures , various editions, 1974 1993. It should be noted that any bias that may exist in these figures operates in the direction of high estimates. Ms. Sivard, for example, includes the "disappearances" in Argentina in the 1970s, a category that Rudolph Rummel would include within "democide," the killing of people by their own government. R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).

58. Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

59. David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

60. Wright, A Study of War , pp. 1514 1519.

AuthorAlex 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).

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