Atoms and Ambiguity

September 2023
By Stephen J. Cimbala

The release of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, about the physicist who created the first atomic bomb, takes viewers back to the origins of the first nuclear age and to the moral and political conundrums faced by politicians, scientists, and military planners ever since.

Image labeled ‘0.053 Sec’ of the first nuclear test, codenamed ‘Trinity’, conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratory at Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)The two-sided character of atomic and nuclear weapons, in terms of their impacts on strategy and history, were not immediately clear to government officials in the latter 1940s and early 1950s. Some felt that the atomic bomb and, later, thermonuclear weapons should be used just as any other explosive device for military purposes. As arsenals grew and the implications of massive nuclear use became clearer, the concept of employing nuclear weapons primarily or exclusively for deterrence as a means of war prevention took hold. Nuclear deterrence could be made reliable and stable if states possessed a secure second-strike capability, guaranteed to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage against the forces and society of the attacker.

If fired in anger, nuclear weapons would cause unprecedented and morally repugnant levels of destruction to military and civilian targets. On the other hand, nuclear or large-scale conventional war could be avoided if deterrence was effective. To make deterrence effective, however, a state had to make clear its willingness to inflict unprecedented and unacceptable damage in retaliation once having been attacked. This moral and strategic ambivalence with respect to nuclear weapons continued throughout the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union deployed many thousands of nuclear weapons of various ranges and yields, but these weapons were used for deterrence of nuclear or large-scale conventional warfare and for coercive diplomacy and bargaining over various political matters.

The two Cold War nuclear superpowers came closest to an actual nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, yet this dispute also was resolved without crossing the line from nuclear threat to actual use. Dangerous as they were, nuclear weapons helped to stabilize the Cold War by avoiding egregious military missteps that would have created not only a nuclear war, but also a large-scale conventional war in Europe or Asia with casualties in the hundreds of thousands and the potential to go nuclear.

During the Korean War, some U.S. political leaders and military professionals called for the use of atomic weapons against North Korea and, if necessary, China in order to reverse adverse conditions on the battlefield. The United States did not take this step for a number of reasons, including the fact that its intervention in this conflict was a limited war for limited political objectives. The use of atomic bombs in Korea could have led to vertical and horizontal escalation on the part of China and the Soviet Union, prolonging the war and making it more costly in terms of military and civilian lives lost. By 1949, the Soviet Union also had tested successfully its own atomic bomb.

The demise of the Soviet Union left post-Cold War Russia with an abundance of nuclear weapons, and these weapons have served to keep Russia in the military superpower class along with the United States. Yet, Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine beginning in February 2022 illustrates the two-sided nature of nuclear armaments. On one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened repeatedly to use nuclear weapons if the vital interests of Russia, as he defines them, are threatened. On the other hand, Russia recognizes that the first use of nuclear weapons in wartime since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be a world-changing event, not just a tactical maneuver.

Even if Russian first use of nuclear weapons took place on the territory of Ukraine and avoided any targets on the territory of a NATO member state, the alliance immediately would be engaged in a competition in risk-taking that would have no obvious endpoint. In other words, the actual use of nuclear weapons would devalue their prior utility as deterrents and open the door to a potential World War III in Europe with globally catastrophic consequences.

Going forward, the question is how long states can play the game of nuclear political coercion but remain short of actual nuclear war. In part, this depends on the rate at which nuclear weapons spread and to whom. States dissatisfied with the existing international order or new members of the nuclear club with grievances against neighbors are obvious candidates for nuclear mischief. In addition, states ruled by impetuous, unrestrained dictators, such as North Korea, or governments caught up in a conflict spiral with inadequate skills in crisis management, as in the case of the great powers immediately prior to World War I, could unbottle the genie. Even experienced nuclear powers, thus far restrained, could fall prey to seductive sirens of controlled or limited nuclear war, entertaining nuclear first use as a means to “escalate to deescalate” an ongoing conventional war.

If J. Robert Oppenheimer were still alive, what would he say about his legacy? Perhaps, “I left you with a Faustian bargain, and it’s worked so far. Deal with it.”

The good news is that, since Oppenheimer passed from the scene, the world has witnessed less nuclear proliferation than pessimists feared.

The bad news is that this is no guarantee for the future. The two-sided nature of nuclear danger is not unlike that posed by the maturing of artificial intelligence: will we work smarter or outsmart ourselves?

Stephen J. Cimbala is distinguished professor of political science at Penn State Brandywine.