What if, faced with nuclear war, we surrendered?

The only true way to win a nuclear war is not to fight it.

Surrendering to a nuclear adversary doesn’t necessarily mean laying down our arms. (Photo: WP Clip Art / Public Domain)

Surrendering to a nuclear adversary doesn’t necessarily mean laying down our arms. (Photo: WP Clip Art / Public Domain)

Most people are aware that, in the event nuclear deterrence fails, the ensuing nuclear war, whether controlled or all-out, will result in a level of death and devastation to both sides that lends new meaning to the term Pyrrhic victory. But, what if, threatened by an imminent nuclear attack, a nation such as the United States, surrenders instead?

In his 1986 book, Nuclear War: the Moral Dimension, James Child writes:

One of the most disarmingly simple responses to the catastrophic character of nuclear war and the logical puzzle of the Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons is simply, “Why not surrender?” … Surrender could be defined as eschewing violent resistance (or, at least, nuclear resistance) and putting our fate in the hands of an armed adversary who appears willing to use nuclear weapons.

That’s probably more unthinkable to most Americans than a nuclear holocaust. Child writes:

To forswear resistance and put ourselves into the hands of a nuclear-armed and aggressive adversary is something very like selling ourselves into slavery.


It may well be that we not only have a right but a moral duty to resist coercion and aggression the end of which is logically equivalent to slavery. … It is enough that we have a right to resist, and that we surely do.

Nevertheless, the option bears exploring. In fact an opponent threatening a nuclear attack can be resisted in ways other than nuclear retaliation. Few, including Child, are aware of this. In fact, I have yet to come across what I’m about to propose. (Though someone entering a different combination of search terms might have better luck; neither have I searched Google Books.) I’m speaking of an old-fashioned resistance movement. Of course, that usually refers to a phenomenon that emerges when a state is in the process of being, or has been, conquered.

I submit that the most effective way to reduce casualties and destruction (to both sides, for those who care about that) when faced with nuclear attack is to have prepared for refusing to retaliate with a nuclear strike of your own beforehand. In other words — bear with me: this scenario is vastly oversimplified — hide caches of weapons all over the country and train militias to resist an invasion. Then, in a jiu-jitsu move, surrender. The temptation to go overboard and say that you even have them where you want them is tempered by the knowledge that resistance would, no doubt, be a decades-long affair. But, many millions would still be alive and, except for devastation from airstrikes by the invader against the militia, our homeland mostly intact..

Furthermore, those airstrikes aren’t likely to escalate to nuclear attacks, because our country is now their country. With all of America’s wealth, the enemy will not inflict mortal wounds on its prize possession. Especially because, the enemy would be required to reconstruct the damaged areas of what is now its territory and deal with the fallout, not just in radiation but international relations. Thus, surrendering on the cusp of nuclear attack not only keeps the United States safe from a nuclear attack in the present as well as in the future.

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

1 reply »

  1. I think what you are missing is that we are now and have for half a century been living under the threat of nuclear war. There is no surrendering, because if another nation decides to fire nuclear weapons at us, we won’t know until they are in the air. The only way to avoid nuclear war is either “mutually assured destruction” or complete elimination of nuclear weapons.