When China began building a nuclear capacity, President John F. Kennedy seriously considered bombing Chinese nuclear facilities. He was heard to declare that “A Chinese nuclear test is likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s,” and his director of the Central Intelligence Agency soberly prophesied that, with that event, nuclear war would become almost inevitable.3
Declamations like Kennedy’s continue to this day.4 Elected officials and foreign policy experts have repeatedly warned that if Iran or North Korea were to get a nuclear weapon, there would be a proliferation cascade, resulting in an increased risk of nuclear war or, in the words of Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “the beginning of the end of our civilization.”5 North Korea has now had the weapons for well over a decade, but there is little sign of the warned‐about cascade: thus far, no country in the region has altered its commitment to remain a nuclear‐weapons‐free state.
Despite decades of such fears, the consequences of the nuclear‐weapons proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign. As it turned out, the United States did not attack or otherwise punish China for developing nuclear weapons, and a nuclear‐armed China did not become more aggressive: in fact, the existence of its arsenal has proved to be of little historical consequence. In retrospect, “historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s” stemmed not from China’s nuclear weapons, but from Kennedy’s tragically misguided decision to begin sending American troops in substantial numbers to Vietnam — largely to confront the Chinese threat that he believed lurked there.6
In general, regimes that have acquired the weapons have used them to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats. They have quietly kept the weapons in storage (or even denied their existence) and haven’t even found much benefit in rattling them from time to time.
Ego‐stoking was on full display in France when it exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1960. President Charles de Gaulle was jubilant: “Hoorah for France!” he proclaimed, “since this morning she is stronger and prouder.”7
There are conceivable situations under which nuclear weapons could serve a deterrent function: perhaps if Iran had possessed them in 1980 or Kuwait had possessed them in 1990, Iraq would not have invaded those countries. However, under the conditions in which we have actually lived, it is questionable whether nuclear weapons have ever been deterrents.8 In particular, it is far from clear that nuclear weapons are what kept the Cold War from becoming a hot war. Indeed, the Soviet Union seems never to have seriously considered any sort of direct military aggression against the United States or Europe. As the respected scholar Robert Jervis notes, “the Soviet archives have yet to reveal any serious plans for unprovoked aggression against Western Europe, not to mention a first strike against the United States.” And, after researching those archives, historian Vojtech Mastny concludes that “all Warsaw Pact scenarios presumed a war started by NATO” and the “strategy of nuclear deterrence [was] irrelevant to deterring a major war that the enemy did not wish to launch in the first place.” As Andrian Danilevich, a top Soviet war planner, put it in a 1992 interview, “We never had a single thought of a first strike against the U.S. The doctrine was always very clear: we will always respond, but never initiate.”9 It could be argued, of course, that this perspective stemmed from American nuclear deterrence policy. However, those who would so contend need to demonstrate that the Soviets had any desire to risk provoking anything like the catastrophe they had just endured in World War II, in which an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died. Moreover, they were under the spell of a theory that said they would inevitably come to rule the world merely by inspiring, encouraging, and aiding like‐minded revolutionaries abroad.
Some have suggested that nuclear proliferation has had little consequence because the only countries to possess nuclear weapons have had rational leaders, and that circumstances would be far different when dictators get the bomb.10 But nuclear weapons have proliferated to large, important countries run by unchallenged monsters who, at the time they acquired the bombs, were certifiably deranged. For example, Joseph Stalin had been plotting to transform nature by planting lots of trees and was given to wandering around the Kremlin mumbling that he could no longer trust anyone, not even himself. And Mao Zedong had launched an addled campaign to remake his society that instead created a famine that killed tens of millions of people.11 Yet neither country used its nuclear weapons for anything other than to seek prestige and to deter real or imagined threats, and China has so far built far fewer of the weapons than it could afford to.
Moreover, nuclear proliferation has proceeded at a remarkably slow pace and the nuclear club has remained a small one, confounding the somber prophesies of generations of alarmists: even the supposedly optimistic forecasts about nuclear dispersion have proved to be too pessimistic.12 It was in 1960, for example, that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy insisted there might be 10, 15, or even 20 countries with a nuclear capacity by 1964.13 However, although dozens of technologically capable countries have considered obtaining nuclear arsenals, very few have done so. A key reason for this is that the possession of such expensive armaments generally conveys little advantage to the possessor. They are difficult to obtain and of dubious military utility. The effort of becoming a nuclear‐weapon state requires a spectacular investment of time, money, and scientific talent, and it has been particularly difficult for administratively dysfunctional countries.14 And an enthusiastic effort to enter the nuclear‐weapons club may well rile neighbors.15
Nor have the weapons proved to be crucial even as status symbols. Pakistan and Russia probably garner more attention than they would if they did not have nuclear weapons. But how much more status would Japan have if it possessed nuclear weapons? Would anybody pay more attention to Britain or France if their arsenals held 5,000 nuclear weapons, or would anybody pay less attention to those countries if they had none? Did China need nuclear weapons to impress the world with its economic growth? Or with its Olympics?
Proliferation alarmists may occasionally grant that countries principally obtain a nuclear arsenal to counter real or perceived threats, but argue that the newly nuclear country will then use its nuclear weapons to dominate its area. That was the language President George W. Bush used in building the case for war with Iraq, while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) contended that a nuclear‐armed Saddam Hussein “would hold his neighbors and us hostage.” Later, Bush maintained that a nuclear Iran would become “the predominant state in the Middle East,” lording it over its neighbors.16
Exactly how that domination is to be carried out is never made clear. One scenario might involve an atomic country rattling the occasional rocket, after which other countries in the area, suitably intimidated, would bow to its demands. However, Saddam presided over a deeply resentful population and an unreliable army — fearing overthrow, he was wary about issuing his army bullets and would not allow it to come within 30 miles of Baghdad with heavy equipment.17 It is far from clear what he could have done with a tiny number of bombs against his neighbors and their massively armed well‐wishers. He was fully containable and deterrable.18 Most likely, any threatened states would make common cause with each other and with other concerned countries against the threatening neighbor — rather in the way they coalesced into an alliance of convenience to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.19 Indeed, an extensive study of the historical record by scholars Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann concludes that nuclear coercion doesn’t work primarily because “threats to launch nuclear attacks for offensive purposes fundamentally lack credibility.”20