Have Nuclear Weapons Kept the Peace?

Miliatry.com published a piece this week about the Pentagon leaders who recently went to Congress to defend spending $1 trillion to overhaul the nuclear triad. Among the quotes mentioned, one by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley stood out:

“I just want to be clear, I don’t have a part of the triad, but I can tell you that in my view … that nuclear triad has kept the peace since nuclear weapons were introduced and has sustained the test of time,” Milley said. “That is not unimportant and the system is deteriorating, Congressman, and it needs to be revamped. It needs to be overhauled.”

Yet, since 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, America has been involved in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and the second Gulf War. Meanwhile, we’ve had a military presence in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Iran, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Yemen, Kosovo, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, and others.

So, it’s not entirely clear what Milley means when he says the “nuclear triad has kept the peace.”

Perhaps he means more specifically that we haven’t had a direct war against Russia since 1945, but that’s not a particularly meaningful argument, given that we hadn’t gone to war with Russia before 1945 either. One could argue that conflict with Russia escalated as a result of nuclear weapons. According to The Atomic Bomb Website,

“On August 29th, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. This event ends America’s monopoly of atomic weaponry and launches the Cold War.”

In fact, a large number of the wars and conflicts mentioned above pitted the U.S against the Soviet Union, making it hard to argue that nuclear weapons really kept the peace between the two countries, even if they didn’t declare all-out war.

Perhaps what Milley meant was that the U.S. hasn’t been directly attacked since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. However, we hadn’t really been attacked prior to that either. It’s not clear that nuclear weapons have offered any more deterrence than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provide. After all, Canada and Mexico also haven’t been attacked. Plus, while no country has launched strikes that targeted U.S. soil, we have been attacked by terrorists.

Maybe Milley just meant that there haven’t been nuclear strikes against us because we could retaliate with equally strong force. That may be true. However, if it is, then perhaps the money would be better spent toward research and public education.

Just a small fraction of that $1 trillion could be used to help us better understand the impact of nuclear winter. Current weather models already predict that even a small nuclear war could cause worldwide temperatures to plummet, killing as many as 1 billion people globally. That includes people within the fighting countries.

Perhaps if countries involved understood how devastating a nuclear war would be for their own citizens, they’d prefer reducing rather than upgrading their nuclear arsenals.

4 replies
  1. Adam Scholl
    Adam Scholl says:

    The case for nuclear optimism isn’t that MAD prevents all wars — it’s that it prevents full-scale war between great powers, which was a near-constant feature of the international system (and among the foremost causes of human suffering) until 1945, at which point it completely stopped.

    Clearly the number of nuclear weapons that exist is beyond what’s needed to ensure MAD, and that’s silly and dangerous. But MAD is essential — you don’t defeat Moloch by asking him nicely to go away, you defeat him by developing powerful incentive-aligners.

  2. Sean Michael
    Sean Michael says:

    Truly I don’t know what to think, this is far outside my hairsbreadth of reasoning and I cannot in any way claim competency for anything I type here. What I give is only a single opinion. There does seem to exist a discrepancy between the belief in needed firepower superiority and the economic, moral, environmental, and practical strains on people and society. “Peace through Strength” as Reagan put it, was the policy of the time, and now time has passed. Does the practical nature of it still apply here and now? I don’t know, I would like to think that it should change. However it would be difficult to convince the policy makers that it should change. As the image these weapons bring with them feelings of both protection and destruction.

  3. russ
    russ says:

    The question is not whether nuclear weapons keep the peace. When has there ever been peace on this planet since humans have been one it. The question is have they keep the world from another major world war. Clearly this has been the case. Local wars like Korea, Iraq, Vietnam have occurred but among the major powers since WW2, there has been no wars waged between them. That will always be the case as long as there is enough nukes so that each side fears the other. We may not need thousands of them but as long as we have 500-1000 of them, that is enough to keep the overall peace with wars being limited mainly to internal, civil wars or wars between one major power and a minor power. Compare WW1 and WW2 with all the wars since 1945 there is no comparison.

  4. Ian Coleman
    Ian Coleman says:

    You’d have to be pretty blind to the facts of human nature to fail to understand that nuclear deterrence works. Will Iran ever directly attack Israel? Or course not. Will North Korea ever be invaded? Not a chance.

    Nuclear weapons were made practical in 1945, seven years before I was born. As a result my life here in Canada has been utterly free of any threat of having to go to war. The only Canadians who have had to go to war in my lifetime have been volunteers in the Canadian military. To the rest of us, war is just something we watch for fun in movies.

    My father was born in 1919, and the year he turned 20, Canada entered World War II. If nuclear weapons had existed in 1939, Hitler’s aggression in Europe would have been militarily impossible, and World War II would have been averted. This is just fact.

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