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Nuclear Hardware and Power: The War of Perceptions*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Trudy Govier*
Interdiscipinary Studies, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4


Nations possessing nuclear weapons have seen them as useful for many purposes. These include classic nuclear deterrence (preventing a nuclear attack), extended nuclear deterrence (preventing a conventional attack on the nuclear nation or allied countries), the fighting of a nuclear war ‘if deterrence fails,’ and a ‘diplomatic’ use in which the weapons are seen as implements of coercive political power. Concerning all these uses profound ethical questions arise. It is the last use which will be the focus of attention in this paper.

I have chosen this subject partly because I believe that it has received insufficient attention from those reflecting on nuclear policies from an ethical point of view. Discussions tend to focus on the use, threat to use, or intention to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or threat of nuclear attack. The retention of nuclear weapons for such a purpose is far easier to rationalize than is the development of such weapons for extended deterrence, nuclear ‘diplomacy,’ or the actual waging of a nuclear war. Historically, nuclear weapons have been held by nuclear states for all these purposes. In fact, there are natural relations between the functions. When a power possesses nuclear weapons, the ultimate token of military power in the modern world, it is natural that it will seek to use them for purposes less restricted than the sole one of deterring nuclear war. Hence there is a natural development from classic deterrence to extended deterrence and the coercive use of nuclear weapons in the pursuit of national interest. There is also a natural connection between classic deterrence and the development and deployment of nuclear weapons for the purpose of fighting and ‘prevailing’ in a nuclear war. An opposing state is to be prevented from attacking by the belief that an attack would be followed by retaliation. That requires that a nuclear state indicate the will and capacity to retaliate-that is, to use these weapons in a real war if necessary.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1987

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This paper was first presented at a conference on ‘Ethical Issues in Nuclear Deterrence,’ held in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia in June, 1985. I am grateful to the late Steve Patten for helping to organize the conference. I have benefitted from comments by Jeff McMahon, David Hitchcock, and Jim Keeley.


1 Weinberger, Caspar W.A Rational Approach to Nuclear Deterrence,’ in Sterba, James P. ed., The Ethics of War and Nuclear Deterrence (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 1985), 120Google Scholar

2 The Harvard Nuclear Study Group, Living with Nuclear Weapons (New York: Bantam Books 1983), 152

3 Gray, Colin as quoted in Morgan, Patrick Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications 1977), 130Google Scholar

4 Huntingdom, S. as quoted in Morgan, P. Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, 130Google Scholar

5 Martin, Laurence Strategic Thought in the Nuclear Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Universtiy Press 1979), 1–30Google Scholar

6 Talbott, Strobe Deadly Gambits (New York: Knopf 1984), 5–10Google Scholar

7 See, for example, Scoville, Herbert Jr. MX: Prescription for Disaster (Cambridge,MA: MIT Press 1981)Google Scholar. Scoville refers to the ‘dismal outlook for designing a survivable ICBM system in the absence of long-term constraints on Soviet force levels’ (196) and recommends moving the strategic deterrent to sea.

8 The threat is implicit in deployments and institutions; thus, considering its morality we are to appraise policies, not individuals making threats. I owe my appreciation of this point to Russell Hardin.

9 This begins with the Manhattan project as a response to a possible German project, moves to the Russian atomic project as a response to German and American ones, and proceeds to American and Soviet thinking about the H-bomb, interballistic missiles, satellites, civil defense, cruise missiles, ‘Star Wars,’ and virtually everything else.

10 Though the action-reaction model does not completely explain the arms competition, it plays a key role in its public rationalization and thus contributes to the public support necessary to maintain the competition. Other causes include technological momentum, vested interests of technical and scientific personnel, and corporate and bureaucratic interests.

11 The unpredictability of nuclear war, the lack of content in any concept of winning a global nuclear war, and the fact that the publicly expressed rationale for nuclear weapons is almost always that of deterrence rather than war-fighting are only some of the problems this line of justification will face.

12 I have said some things in defence of this view of moral theory in ‘Two Unreceived Views of Reasoning and Argument,’ a chapter in my forthcoming book on the theory of argument, Problems in Argument Analysis and Evaluation (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Foris Publications 1987).

13 The issue of how to count future people in moral reasoning is extremely difficult for moral theory, as work by Derek Parfit and others has shown. Here I presume only that future people count for something; their interests should not be wholly neglected.

14 The problem of universalizability here parallels that which arises for egoistic moral theories and for patriotism. The solution of positing competition as a kind of game where every player sincerely wills that all others equally do their best to ‘win’ is perhaps of some interest for egoism but is too remote from the risks and costs of ‘playing’ in international reality to be of any real significance here.

15 This view, or something close to it, is occasionally expressed. If nuclear weapons really prevent nuclear and conventional war, we should spread them around and get some more of this benefit. Even on such an extremely pro-nuclear theory, however, people would not wish to universalize the pursuit of interests by nuclear means – only the prevention of war by such means.

16 Schell, Jonathan The Fate of the Earth (New York: Knopf 1982), 264Google Scholar. David Luban has also discussed this dynamic in ‘Deterrence and Democracy,’ a paper presented at Simon Fraser University in October, 1984.

17 For an intense discussion of this theme, see Jungk, Robert The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us (New York: Warner Books 1979)Google Scholar.

18 I assume here that many citizens would accept possession and improvement of nuclear weapons solely as means of preventing nuclear and conventional war. Indeed, citizens seem very ready to accept this rationale, which is the one most commonly offered by officials to the public. I do not wish to imply even that this limited rationale is morally acceptable, only that it is widely thought to be so and is less obviously evil than nuclear diplomacy, nuclear blackmail, or the waging of nuclear war.

19 See the summary of the TTAPS study in Sagan, CarlNuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe,’ Foreign Affairs 62, 2 (Winter 1983/4) 257–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sagan reports that ‘A threshold exists at which the climatic catastrophe could be triggered, very roughly around 500-2000 strategic warheads.’ In 1985, the two major powers jointly possessed about 20,000 strategic nuclear weapons and about 60,000 nuclear weapons in total.

20 See, for instance, Fuller, John G. The Day We Bombed Utah (New York: New American Library 1984)Google Scholar for an account of effects of atomic testing on citizens in Utah and Nevada. In The Nuclear Barons (New York: Avon Books 1981), James Spigelman and Peter Pringle offer further information. See especially chapters 4, 12, and 19, and extensive documentation. There is absolutely no reason to think that other nuclear weapons states have been more careful of citizens’ welfare than has the United States.

21 For instance, Admiral Carroll, who was for 2½ years in charge of the all the American nuclear weapons in Europe, told me in private conversation in the spring of 1983 that nuclear weapons could not defend Europe. They would destroy Europe.

22 This is, in effect, admitted by those who complain of the new power of Japan and West Germany, which has its source in economic and cultural factors. See, for example, Murray Sayle's article on American reactions to Japanese cultural resistance to American versions of free enterprise in ‘Japan Victorious; New York Review of Books (March 28, 1985) 33-40. Many countries are concerned about the amazing strength of American pop culture, which seems to have incredible appeal nearly everywhere. While their foreign policy efforts and military efforts may fail, Americans see their culture effortlessly ‘win; as rock music, Coke, and jeans spread around the globe. A recent newspaper report predicts a hamburger stand outside the Ming Tomb.

23 Jervis, RobertDeterrence and Perception,’ International Security 7, 3 (Winter 1983-4), 3–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Herken, Gregg The Winning Weapon (New York: Vintage Books 1982) 48Google Scholar

25 Bundy, McGeorgeThe Myth of Atomic Diplomacy,’ as printed in Harper's (January, 1985), 23–4Google Scholar

26 An excellent analysis of this doctrine may be found in Cohen, MarshallMoral Skepticism and International Relations.’ Pl1ilosophy and Public Affairs 13, 4 (Fall, 1984), 299–346Google Scholar.

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