Nuclear Temptations

The following is a revised and enlarged version of the Walter E. Edge lecture at Princeton University on November 15, 1983.


There are so many aspects of the nuclear war problem that anyone who talks about it, especially in a relatively short span of time, must choose a particular aspect to deal with. It is all too easy to get tangled up in terminology, technicalities, or the controversies of the moment. I am going to discuss what I consider to be the chief danger or threat of nuclear war. It is what I call “nuclear temptations,” by which I mean nothing more than the temptations to use nuclear weapons. These temptations have taken various forms, some of which are still with us. But temptations in this field, as in life generally, come with inhibitions, and so one will naturally lead to the other as we go along.

But first I wish to ask a potentially embarrassing question: What business do people like ourselves have to discuss the problem at all? We are not nuclear experts or military professionals. Why, then, should we think that we have a right to speak or even to think about it?

The answer to this question was given almost exactly a century and a half ago by Karl von Clausewitz, whose book is still the most profound analysis of the nature of war. One of Clausewitz’s best-known rules of war goes as follows: “Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy.”1 By strategy, Clausewitz meant the grand, the fundamental, lines of a military plan or conception, not the manner in which it was executed.

In the Clausewitzian sense, the grand strategy of nuclear war is also simple, though that does not mean that everything about it is very easy. Its strategic simplicity is what permits us—non-nuclear experts and nonmilitary professionals—to think seriously about the problem of nuclear war. One such simple conception is that of nuclear “deterrence,” and it did not need nuclear experts or military professionals to think of it. In fact, it was first conceived by people very much like ourselves. The full story of how and when the idea of nuclear deterrence was first conceived remains to be told. I am merely going to touch on it to bear out my point about nonexperts and the nuclear war problem.

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Only a month later, President Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago invited a remarkable group of scientists, economists, sociologists, and government officials—forty-six in all—to an “Atomic Energy Control Conference.” It was held two weeks later, between September 19 and September 22. Two of the participants are of the greatest interest to us.

One was Professor Jacob Viner, then Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Viner was, of course, no atomic expert or military professional. But he already knew one thing, as he put it in a talk…

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