Nuclear Irrationality

I was recently thinking about my college studies of nuclear warfare. At the time it seemed like a relevant topic, and I took two courses on it. Like everything, the more you look into it the more complex it gets. The depth of the thinking in nuclear warfare planning was both impressive and appalling.

One of the more interesting cases was driven by the fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In retrospect we know there was never a danger of that, but at the time it was a real concern. The western strategists feared that in a conventional war, the Soviet tanks would rapidly rout the smaller European armies. The use of nuclear weapons, or at least their potential use, was an obvious way to counter this threat.

However, most of the nuclear weapons were in the U.S. It was clear that no U.S. president would launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union in order to forestall an invasion of Europe. The U.S. promised to support Europe, but if the war actually started, a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. could only end in a nuclear counter-attack on the U.S. That would never happen. England and France had a few nuclear weapons, but would their leaders really launch them, knowing that they would face certain death in the overwhelming nuclear counter-attack? A bold and calculating leader of the Soviet Union might be willing to risk that nobody would take the nuclear option, and be willing to gamble that they would win a conventional war (again, this was the fear of the U.S. and Europe, the Soviet Union knew perfectly well that they could not win such a war). How could the U.S. and Europe use nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent to a conventional invasion?

The answer was, as I said, both impressive and appalling. NATO distributed low-yield nuclear weapons throughout Europe (they even had nuclear landmines). In the event of an invasion, complete control over the weapons was handed over to local commanders. The decision to use nuclear weapons would not be in the hands of an elected leader far from the war zone. It would be in the hands of a local colonel facing the immediate loss of his command. The Soviet Union might gamble (so the thinking went) on the reactions of a few political leaders they could study closely. They would never gamble on the reactions of several hundred local military commanders. Although the weapons were relatively low-yield, the expectation was that once a war went nuclear, the only thing that would stop it from escalating would be a quick complete cessation of hostilities.

This is a nice example of achieving your goal by explicitly giving up your ability to act rationally.


  1. fche said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 5:09 am

    Ian, exactly which party or parties in this scenario were giving up the ability to act rationally? (I see a clever and successful strategy – quite rational overall.)

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    The overall strategy was entirely rational. But it would never be the rational choice to be the first to use a nuclear weapon against the Soviet Union in a conventional war, because it would lead to unbelievable megadeaths (to use the terminology of the era). So the only way to make the threat of the use of nuclear weapons credible was to explicitly eliminate the ability to make a rational choice.

  3. fche said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    “But it would never be the rational choice to be the first to use a nuclear weapon against the Soviet Union in a conventional war”

    Maybe, but it’s entirely rational to *threaten* it. This is no weirder than the normal rendering of the mutual-assured-destruction game.

    Actually, this threatening-to-go-crazy ploy reminds me of something I read a few years ago about the USA’s former (?) posture as to WMD attacks. The idea was (is?) that the US maintains that it may go crazy and fling every weapon in the arsenal at some WMD attacker: that it is explicitly unbound by any sort of “proportionality” constraint that naive people advocate.

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Right, it’s rational to threaten it, but you need more than that: you need to have the Soviet Union believe that you would actually carry out your threat. That is the point of this strategy. For example, the U.S. always threatened that it would use nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union invaded Europe, but the threat was not credible because nobody believed that it would actually do so.

  5. fche said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    “the threat was not credible because nobody believed that it would actually do so.”

    If really nobody believed it, the threat would not have worked though, right? Did you guys cover soviet historical documents to assess this?

    Still, a college course on this sounds fascinating. When / where did you study this? (If in a civilian collage, and close to the cold war timeframe, I wonder how reliable/complete the information might have been.)

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    Sorry, I’m phrasing this badly. What I’m describing is the thinking of the western nuclear strategists. They believed that the threat (of the U.S. using nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union in defense of Europe) was not credible, because they did not believe that the Soviet Union believed that the threat would be carried out. The western strategists themselves did not believe that the threat would be carried out. Therefore, they did not believe that the Soviet Union would believe that it would be carried out.

    I don’t know of any evidence one way or another as to what the Soviet Union actually believed. It doesn’t really matter for my point, which was entirely based on Western thinking leading to their plan to deliberately lose control over the situation.

    This was indeed a civilian college during the Cold War. The information on western strategy was pretty solid. The U.S. kept few secrets; even highly technical information about missile systems was generally available. This was partly because the U.S. has a hard time keeping secrets in general, and partly because the theory of nuclear deterrence largely relies on ensuring that the enemy has reasonably accurate information about your intentions and capabilities. The U.S. kept the details of how missiles and nuclear bombs were built as secret as they could. However, they did not keep the capabilities of those missiles secret, and they proved their capabilities with tests which they knew the Soviets could observe. They also did not keep their strategy secret, as a key point of their strategy was to ensure that the Soviet Union understood when the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, because that would deter the Soviet Union from taking those actions.

    The Soviet Union by and large did the same thing, although the Soviets did a better job of appearing to have a larger nuclear capability than they actually did. When there was significant nuclear disarmament during the first Bush administration, U.S. experts were surprised to see that many of the missile silos they thought of as representing a serious second strike capability in fact held rusted out missiles which could never have launched.

  7. stevenb said,

    October 15, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    “the Soviets did a better job of appearing to have a larger nuclear capability than they actually did.”

    Ha, maskirovka! That is something the Soviets always excelled at. Other nice examples can be found in the battle for Kursk in WW2 and in the Cuba crisis. If it would not have been for the Soviet’s knack for maskirovka, the balance of power might have been completely different…

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