Despite almost 70 years of nuclear nonuse, years in which the threat of a global thermonuclear conflagration has decreased enormously, the rhetoric of fear surrounding nuclear proliferation and nuclear use continues. The United States has taken the lead in fostering those worries and has pursued bold—and at times aggressive—policies, from global arms control to permanent alliances to threats of coercion and even preventive war, to meet such declared danger. That increasing response, however, seems out of proportion with what would seem to be the decreasing threats. How do we explain the puzzle?
Often, scholars have offered suggestions, focusing on what might be thought of as subrational explanations—such as bureaucratic or organizational politics, ideology, or the sway of parochial domestic considerations—to describe something that is otherwise a mystery: why so much attention, treasure, and blood to a situation that, at least on the surface, seems to warrant it far less than in the past, where the very medicine at times appears worse than the cure? One might argue that those very costly policies are what prevented nuclear tragedy,and such arguments could be right: it is hard to prove or disprove such a counterfactual. Still, the gap between the threat and the remedy seems large, especially given how aggressive U.S. counterproliferation policies have been in recent years.
To answer why the world—the United States in particular—has been alarmist, we need to understand how nuclear weapons influence international politics, both now and in the past. For example, why has there never been a thermonuclear war? That question is obviously extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to answer. We have enough difficulty making sense of things that have actually occurred. After all, despite the labors of countless scholars from around the world, assessing millions of pages of documents, no one agrees on what caused the First World War. The same can be said about the origins, course, and consequences of any number of other geopolitical events. Notwithstanding the confident claims of countless theorists, we don’t really know why we have never had a thermonuclear war. We are understandably eager to have an explanation for the most important nonevent in human history, if only to see if there are lessons that can be applied today to keep the streak going as long as possible. It is a daunting task, far more challenging than we acknowledge, and many of the research questions that we do focus on are merely proxies for that larger concern. In the end, many of our debates surrounding nuclear weapons—such as why states do or do not build the bomb, how they behave when they get it, or how and when deterrence works—are animated by our beliefs and desire to better understand why there has never been, and we hope will never be, a thermonuclear war.
This chapter moves beyond many of the deductive and theoretical assessments of those questions to find a better historical foundation for our analysis.1 Instead of telling how history suggests the United States should think about Iran or North Korea’s nuclear program, nuclear terrorism, or the fear of nuclear tipping points and proliferation cascades, this chapter suggests three larger points. Wrestling with the history of the nuclear question can, we hope, contribute in a meaningful way to how we understand the consequences of the thermonuclear revolution and can perhaps even lead to more effective policies.
The first point pertains to method: all historical work involves an intense dialogue between the empirical and the conceptual. The evidence that historians find informs our theories of the world and vice versa, back and forth in an interactive fashion.2 All good historians know that point, but many outside the guild, including important policymakers and international relations experts, have a different viewof how we operate. Historians are often thought of as either storytellers or collectors of “data.” Policymakers see Michael Beschloss or Doris Kearns Goodwin on television, read Robert Caro’s magisterial biographies of Lyndon Johnson—or on the nuclear question, Richard Rhodes—and think of the historian as a sort of bard who weaves tales. There is also the image of the less famous, academic historian, who is working away in a dusty archive and collecting reams upon reams of documents that might be fed into the models and regressions of social scientists. Although outsiders cannot help but be impressed by the beautiful prose and the carefully crafted narratives, or by the stacks upon stacks of documents, there is little sense that important, serious arguments are being made or that there is an explicit conceptual framework or theory for understanding the world.3
Why does correcting those caricatures—even while acknowledging that there is some truth to them—matter? The answer touches on the second point: any historian working in the nuclear policy area immediately confronts an enormous, and in many ways intimidating, conceptual hegemon: the strategic studies literature on nuclear weapons and its influence on world politics. A powerful corpus of ideas, based largely on deductive reasoning, began to emerge almost as soon as the first atomic bomb was dropped. At that time, Bernard Brodie declared: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”4
For almost 70 years, strategists trained in the natural sciences, mathematics, economics, and—most prominently—political science have been working to develop theories surrounding nuclear dynamics and statecraft. Several generations of that work have shaped the conventional wisdom, established the issues open for debate, and provided us with the framework with which to investigate those questions.5 Although there is some reason to question whether the strategists were as influential with policymakers as is often claimed,6 that body of work is extraordinary from an intellectual history perspective, both in its sophistication and its influence on public discussion. It is a literature, however, almost bereft of a historical sensibility and of the skepticism, comfort with uncertainty, and humility the study of the past brings with it. I have had more than one prominent scholar in the field tell me that we know all we need to know about how nuclear deterrence works and, by extension, about why we have never had a thermonuclear war. The power and certainty of that theoretical literature act as their own deterrent to rigorous and creative thinking about why and how states have made decisions about nuclear weapons over the decades.That point leads to a third issue: the question of policy relevance. Policymakers would benefit from a greater understanding of this nuclear history, just as scholars should be willing to engage the concerns and interests of decisionmakers. Unfortunately, as a discipline, aca demic history has long been wary of power, believing it corrupts those scholars who try to court it and allows those in power to misuse the past for less than noble purposes. The standard position of even the most policy‐empathetic historian when asked for his or her view on what the past tells us about a contemporary issue is “it’s complicated,” which, in the end, is not a very helpful answer. When people talk about “policy‐relevant work,” they typically mean scholarship that provides accurate forecasts about the future and, if not theories, at least generalizable rules of thumb that are parsimonious. All of those demands cut deeply against the instinct and practice of the historian, who emphasizes historical context, unintended consequences, and the complex interaction of multiple forces. That poor fit, one would think, would provide powerful incentives for the historian to stay as far away from policy as possible.
Avoiding policy relevance in nuclear history, however, isn’t the right answer. Elsewhere, I’ve laid out what I think historians can contribute to policymaking: there is a whole set of insights and, perhaps more important, a sensibility that comes from studying the past, both of which are bound to improve decisionmaking.7 The potential contributions that can be made by historical work stack up quite nicely when compared with the efforts of other disciplines, such as economics and political science. Any effort to come to terms with why we have not had a thermonuclear war is bound to be of great and understandable interest to people in positions of great responsibility, whether a historian wants his or her work used in that way or not. Scholars mining archives around the world to understand how nuclear states made decisions about nuclear weapons and how the thermonuclear revolution affects statecraft, as well as national and international security, are bound to intrigue, if not help, decisionmakers. Such knowledge can usefully supplement, if not at times replace, the dominating, deductive views of the strategy world.