The fallacy of nuclear deterrence, chapter 238

A prominent psychiatrist and author unearthed yet another flaw in the principle of nuclear deterrence.

I posted recently about a 1985 article in Political Psychology titled “Toward a Collective Psychopathology of the Nuclear Arms Competition” by John E. Mack, the American psychiatrist and Harvard Medical professor.* Another insight of his runs something like this.

To make “the intention to kill off the bulk of the population” of the enemy in nuclear war morally able, the enemy that’s “created” (or demonized, as we might call it today) by the acceptable, the United States must be ― drum roll, please ― “monstrous to a degree virtually not experienced among the peoples of the human race.” Whether or not deterrence worked in preventing another world war, it’s apparent that many in the Soviet Union perceived the United States as ready and able to launch a first strike as it had in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, as Mack writes

The chief assumption about the nuclear enemy’s evil (which also includes a litany of real and exaggerated crimes), as well as the principal justification for one’s own plans for mass killing, is that the enemy intends to use nuclear weapons against us.

But, this in stark opposition to one of the assumptions on which the principle of nuclear deterrence is founded: that is, our nuclear-armed “enemy” will behave rationally and refrain from launching a first strike because it fears the consequences of our second strike, or retaliation. Thus, writes Mack

It is a final irony that however much the enemy may be seen as demonic, he is also expected, at least in respect to nuclear weapons, to be supremely thoughtful, cautious, and forebearing, and to regard any building or deployment of the other side’s weapons systems as purely defensive, without any implications of harm or hostility toward himself.

In other words, you can’t have it both ways. A nuclear-armed enemy terrifying enough for the United States to contemplate a nuclear attack against is not likely to be morally capable of observing the deterrence contract. And, as mentioned above, many Russians still look at the United States in the same light.

*Yes, the very same John Mack who, a psychiatrist, Harvard Medical school professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer, later in his career investigated and wrote about alien abductions.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

3 replies »

  1. The irony in the next to last paragraph is rich indeed. How, for the duration of the cold war both sides managed not to destroy civilization is astounding, since I’m old enough to remember Cuba in October ’62.

  2. “A nuclear-armed enemy terrifying enough for the United States to contemplate a nuclear attack against is not likely to be morally capable of observing the deterrence contract.”

    It is not necessarily a moral calculation. That is your fallacy.

    The oligarchy in power in the former Soviet Union knew that their power, lifestyle, and indeed their lives depended on commanding the lives and work of a large number of people in the Soviet Union who were not part of the Communist Party oligarchy. Therefore the threat of destroying the base on which these things depended was viewed selfishly by them as a threat to their position. Apparently it was a convincing argument that had little to do with moral calculation.

    If a criminal breaks into my house then flees when I display a large gun with which I am planning to shoot him his calculation to retreat and leave me alone is not a moral calculation. It is a calculation based purely on self preservation.

    Whatever one may, or should think about the Cold War, your comments above are less than useful in a rational appraisal of the actions of the U.S.



  3. to Scholars
    Herr Wellen: As I am sure Herr Mack will attest, psychology plays an important role in foreign policy. Henry Kissinger, the great American statesman, warrior and adviser to kings and presidents, a freedom loving man who was not adverse to getting his hands dirty by slaughtering a few peasants here and there, was an important contributor to our nation’s Policy of Nuclear Incineration. Dr Kissinger, acting under the leadership of President Nixon, a man of peace and brotherhood in his own right, was the architect of Deterrence Through Uncertainty, a doctrine which infuses a sense of dread in our enemies as they do not know how we will respond on the brink of nuclear warfare.This daring precept psychologically derailed our adversaries thought process and rendered them strategically impotent.
    As our country celebrates this Sacred Season let us REJOICE that the Prince Of Peace was born and our proud nation rests secure knowing that we can obliterate the enemies of democracy with the push of a single button. Wishing you a Happy New Year and much success in your practice of proper mental hygiene.