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Dismissing Doomsday
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Reviewed by Gerard DeGroot

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

By John Mueller

OxfordUniversity Press, 2009, 320 pp.

Every year, I teach a course on the atom bomb. At the end of each semester, I ask my students to tell me at what point the world came closest to nuclear Armageddon. The answers are usually predictable: the Cuban missile crisis, the Yom Kippur War, the Indo-Pakistani conflict. One year, however, I got a very different response.

It came from a student who was sitting in the far corner. Usually taciturn, he now looked ready to explode. “Thomas,” I asked, “do you have something to offer?” He hesitated, then spat, “NEVER! There’s never been a nuclear crisis. Nuclear weapons are stupid, and no nation would ever be stupid enough to use them.”

At the time, I dismissed the outburst as heartfelt but wrong. Someone had clearly not been doing his homework. Now, however, after reading John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession, I am not so sure. Mueller, professor of political science at OhioStateUniversity, has provided lucidity and logic to my student’s tirade. As Mueller argues, nuclear weapons are indeed stupid, and because they are, the risk of their use is tiny. Mueller’s argument seems at first recklessly glib, but by the end of the book, I found myself swayed by his devastating logic. This is one of those annoyingly convincing books that undermine one’s sacred truths. I am supposed to be an expert on this subject, but right now, I am questioning a lot of what I know. I may have to rethink my bomb course.

Mueller’s thesis, as his title suggests, is that we are held captive by a paralyzing obsession when it comes to all things nuclear. That obsession corrodes common sense, causing us to lose our sense of proportion. Take, for instance, the present crisis in North Korea. The fact that atomic weapons and ballistic missiles are being tested reduces otherwise sensible people in Washington to trembling panic. As Mueller indicates, the White House has, at various times in the recent past, seriously considered going to war to stop the North Korean project. Yet, such a war, experts predict, would result in a catastrophic loss of human life.

Would such a sacrifice be justified in order to prevent one nation from joining the nuclear club? Mueller shouts a resounding “no.” So far, he argues, the North Koreans have tested devices of pathetically low yield. As for their missiles, they have only managed to demonstrate a capacity to hit the Pacific Ocean. These meager results have been achieved amid insolvency and mass starvation. It is clearly beyond the capacity of the North Koreans to develop their nuclear capability to a point where they could genuinely threaten any other nation. As the sometimes mischievous Mueller indicates, given the crippling cost of a nuclear program, there might even be ironic logic in allowing North Korea to go ahead because that seems the best way to bankrupt the vile regime of Kim Jong Il.

Mueller dismisses as bogus the risk of North Korea transferring weapons, material, or technology to other countries. The safeguards against such an eventuality, he believes, are simply too strong. In any case, he argues, given the depths to which North Korea’s reputation has sunk, it seems unlikely that any state would risk universal opprobrium by making a Faustian deal with such a pariah. That seems, however, a bit like whistling in the dark, given that Syria has already made such a deal and Iran has also apparently cooperated with North Korea on missile development. Mueller takes solace in the assumption that provenance would be easy to trace, and guilt—not to mention punishment—would thus be shared.

Bang for the Buck

Suppose instead that Kim had invested his money in conventional weapons and traditional methods of delivery. The huge sums spent on his atomic project to date would have bought a lot of bombs and a fair number of bombers to drop them. Bombers, we need to remind ourselves, remain the most dependable method of delivering a payload. Failing that, the money could have been invested in heavy artillery because Seoul and other major cities in South Korea are easily within range. Had Kim taken either of these routes, he would have made his country a much greater threat to regional stability than it is now. One suspects that hardly anyone would have protested.

The bomb, in other words, is too often seen as an absolute weapon, when it is nothing of the sort. The term “absolute weapon” originated with Bernard Brodie’s book by that title and has been treated as gospel ever since.[1]

In impressively methodical fashion, Mueller dismantles the myths of an omnipotent leviathan. The imaginary monster, he feels, was brought into being by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who could not resist indulging in apocalyptic imagery after witnessing the first atomic test on July 16, 1945. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds,” he mused, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita. Making a dent in the New Mexico desert or even leveling a few square miles of Hiroshima is not, Mueller insists, the same as destroying a world. By pretending that it is, we misjudge the threat the bomb poses.

A sense of proportion is essential. Mueller rightly points out that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was no worse than the firebombing of Tokyo. The difference lay only in efficiency: one bomb achieved what elsewhere took thousands. We are constantly bombarded with grisly photographs of Hiroshima as proof of the bomb’s awesome power, but photographs of Tokyo, although rarely displayed, show virtually identical destruction. In other words, nuclear weapons are not uniquely terrible. The bomb is unique in delivering potentially lethal radiation, but that too, Mueller argues, has been exaggerated. The horror lies in war, not in the specific methods of waging it.

Granted, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of around 20 kilotons, while weapons today are often measured in megatons. That would suggest that it is facile to compare atomic weapons with conventional bombs. Mueller answers that rebuttal rather cleverly. There are indeed thermonuclear weapons capable of immense destruction, but they remain in the stockpiles of powers unlikely ever to use them, at least not as a first strike. The weapons causing the most fuss in the world at the moment, namely those possessed by Pakistan or being developed by Iran or North Korea, are similar in size to the Hiroshima bomb or even smaller.

The danger posed by these weapons, Mueller argues, is minuscule. He bases his argument on classical deterrence—a dwarf nuclear power such as Iran will forever be prevented from using its weapons by the knowledge that, if it did so, the nuclear giants would deliver vengeance a thousand times greater. Granted, nuclear retaliation might not be certain, but the risks are too great to allow the leader to gamble. The basic principle that once kept the United States and U.S.S.R. from destroying each other still stands: no leader, no matter how unstable he might seem, would ever take action that might result in the utter destruction of his country.

Some readers might find cold comfort in the shield of deterrence. While reading this book, I occasionally felt uneasy about Mueller’s clinical logic, given that some world leaders are far from logical. That said, an argument could be made that nuclear weapons have forced leaders, even notoriously unstable ones, to act rationally. Some critics might argue that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran cannot be trusted to act rationally, but it is equally possible that the bomb will impose sanity on him. A case in point, Mueller argues, is China, a country once rather contemptuous of human life. In the 1960s and 1970s, China was in every sense a “rogue nation.” Yet, it never came close to using its nuclear weapons, despite Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s febrile boasts that he was prepared to allow one-half of his population to die in defense of communism.

Sowing Fear

Rather predictably, the Mueller train of logic moves relentlessly to the conclusion that Iran and North Korea should be allowed to pursue their nuclear projects. He sees the two nations as akin to spoiled children who will probably find that the toy they covet is not quite so attractive if it is granted without need of a tantrum. Clearly, the value of these weapons for Ahmadinejad and Kim lies not in their potential for devastation but in the abhorrence they inspire in the rest of the world. Once the weapons cease to sow fear, they lose their value as a tool of political extortion. Mueller also argues that the best way to insure that proper safeguards are applied to Iranian or North Korean weapons is to treat those nations like responsible members of the nuclear club. Although Mueller does not advocate simply abandoning all efforts to persuade Iran and North Korea to abstain, he insists that persuasion must remain in the realm of responsible dialogue. Threats of military action, he insists, will only encourage greater stubbornness. If a nation is labeled a rogue, it tends to behave in that manner.

The word “if” does not, however, juxtapose comfortably with kiloton power. As Robert McNamara once argued, “[A] strategic planner…must prepare for the worst plausible case and not be content to hope and prepare for the most probable.”[2] That explains why it was considered necessary for the United States to spend $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons between 1940 and 1996.[3]  The same logic suggests that the best way to keep Iran from using an atomic bomb is to prevent it from ever making one. Thus, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has maintained that Iran must be prevented from getting the bomb “at all costs.” What does that mean? Would prevention be worth another war in the Middle East, one that would probably be even more destructive than the current conflict in Iraq? Mueller, an expert at keeping things in perspective, rightly points out that the danger of going to war with Iran and further inflaming Islamic opinion is far greater than the danger that could ever be posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Mueller also does not grant much credence to what he calls the “cascadologists,” namely those so-called security experts who maintain that an Iranian or North Korean bomb would trigger relentless proliferation. As he points out, cascadologists have been crying wolf ever since the Soviets first exploded a nuclear weapon in 1949. If warnings uttered decades ago had proven correct, there would be about 40 nuclear powers today. Instead, most nations have proven remarkably reluctant to join the nuclear club, and some have even suspended their membership by getting rid of their weapons. This reluctance can be explained by the fact that the weapons have no military utility and are ferociously expensive. Even Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi eventually came to the conclusion that nuclear weapons are “crazy.”

Mueller rejects entirely the notion that the bomb is a tool of coercion, useful in frightening adversaries into doing what is wanted. As he points out, the fact that the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons did not prevent Argentina from invading the Falklands. Israel’s possession of atomic bombs did not frighten off the Egyptians on Yom Kippur in 1973; Israel would have been better off buying tanks. “The United States,” he adds, “possesses a tidy array of thousands of nuclear weapons and for years has had difficulty dominating downtown Baghdad—or even keeping the lights on there.”

Questioning Sacred Truths

Like a marksman at a fairground shooting gallery, Mueller carefully guns down the sacred truths of nuclear orthodoxy. “All radiation is dangerous.” Bang! “Atomic weapons were essential to the stability of the Cold War.” Bang! The ducks keep coming, and Mueller keeps shooting them down. He eventually arrives at essentially the same conclusion many arms control advocates have long advanced, namely that nuclear weapons should be abolished. He comes to that conclusion, however, from a very different direction. In his view, the weapons should go not because they are dangerous, but because they serve no purpose.

Mueller sees nuclear weapons as a massive misjudgment inspired by irrational fear. Worst-case scenario fantasists have exercised an iron grip on international sensibilities, he argues, forcing nations to spend money on weapons that they did not need. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, that same fear has prompted an obsession with nuclear terrorism, a danger Mueller also judges bogus. Addicted to fear, the doomsday merchants have turned to the terrorist because Russia could no longer provide a fix. The last section of his book aims at this new bogey, blowing it away with the same deadly precision. Central to Mueller’s argument is the assertion that terrorists are basically opportunists: they achieve success by keeping attacks simple. The complexity of a nuclear strike—the time, effort, risk, and expense—contradicts that ethic.

In examining the terrorist scenario, Mueller analyzes the process of funding, designing, building, transporting, and detonating a weapon and breaks the process down into 20 clearly identified tasks. As he stresses, the terrorist needs to succeed at each task, while those who wish to stop him require only one success. Even the very generous 50-50 odds that he gives for each stage in the process mean the accumulated likelihood of success is less than one in a million. Examined through that lens, a decision to pursue nuclear weapons seems ludicrous. It makes no sense for a terrorist organization to invest huge sums of money, time, and effort in such a risky enterprise because its purpose can be served much more easily by strapping a few pounds of gelignite to the body of a fanatic and sending him into a crowded train. For these reasons, Mueller is not greatly concerned by reports that al Qaeda has been seeking nuclear material and information for bomb-making.

Lurking ominously in our nuclear consciousness is the specter of Armageddon, a terribly inappropriate word that warps good sense. In popular perception, a nuclear explosion has wrongly come to be equated with the apocalypse. That in turn has demanded preparation for the worst-case scenario. Stripped of our sense of proportion, we cower in an artificial world of absolute danger, imprisoned by our fears. The steps we have taken to protect ourselves from an exaggerated danger are arguably more destructive than the danger itself, as has been potently demonstrated in Iraq.

Mueller’s achievement deserves admiration even by those inclined to resist his central thesis. The book is meticulously researched and punctuated with a dry wit that seems the perfect riposte to the pomposity of security experts who have so far tyrannized debate. Although by no means the last word on nuclear weapons, Mueller deserves praise for having the guts to shout that the atomic emperor has no clothes.

The biggest fault of the book is the way he attacks one obsession with another. He is clearly passionate about his topic, and that passion causes him to overplay his hand. For instance, the contention that radiation is less dangerous than we think is not necessary for his central argument. Likewise, his attempt to bring the destruction of Hiroshima into perspective seems occasionally callous. His insistence that atomic weapons are not as dangerous as they seem could easily be used by those prepared to think the unthinkable, those who have occasionally tried to construct scenarios in which nuclear weapons might conceivably be used. After all, deterrence is strengthened by a belief in Armageddon, even if that belief occasionally warps good sense.

This still very worthy book deserves attention and discussion. Its publication coincides nicely with a renewal of tension in Iran’s relations with the rest of the international community. Despite that inadvertent plug, I doubt the book will do very well, for the simple reason that, as Mueller admits, “ghoulish copy very commonly sells” while serene good sense does not. “Nothing is as boring as a book about how urgent something isn’t,” he says. Boring or not, and it is not, the book should nevertheless be packaged up and sent to Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a simple message: “Please calm down.” While reading Atomic Obsession, I constantly heard President Franklin Roosevelt whispering, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In his preface, Mueller wryly remarks that he wants his book to be a cure for insomnia. He sees no reason to suffer sleepless nights worrying about a danger that does not exist. The book does indeed have a soporific effect, not through dry prose but through devastating logic. Since reading it, I have felt a tiny bit better about the world my children will inherit.

Gerard DeGroot is a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has written 12 books, including The Bomb: A Life (2004).


1. Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946).

2. John Cox, Overkill: Weapons of the Nuclear Age (New York: Crowell, 1977), pp. 96-97.

3.  Stephen I. Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit:The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1998).


Posted: November 5, 2009