Do we fear nuclear weapons too much or too little? Too little, I argued in a recent post inspired by an exchange I had with counter-culture icon Stewart Brand, who suggested that the risks of nuclear war--and even the effects of nuclear detonations--have been exaggerated.

I mentioned that political scientist John Mueller advanced a similar view in his 2009 book Atomic Obsession, which argued that our excessive horror of nuclear weapons has led us, paradoxically, to build more of them. Mueller, I wrote, “downplays the actual effects of nuclear weapons, estimating that a Hiroshima-size bomb would ‘blow up’ about one percent of New York City, ‘terrible, of course, but not the same as destruction 100 times greater.’"

I compared Brand and Mueller to General “Buck” Turgidson, who in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove assures the U.S. President that the U.S. can win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed,” Turgidson says. “But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.”

In support of my view, I cited nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology. According to his website NUKEMAP, which calculates the effects of nuclear weapons, a Hiroshima-size (15 kiloton) device detonated above Manhattan today would kill 263,000 people and injure 512,000. A 2.42-megaton warhead, like those the Soviet Union mounted on missiles in the early 1960s, would kill 2,400,000 New Yorkers.

Contrary to claims that the risks of nuclear war have been overstated, Wellerstein asserts on his blog Nuclear Secrecy that the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was “even more dangerous than most people realized at the time, and more dangerous than most people know now.” He estimates the Soviets could have “easily killed tens of millions in the United States and in Europe” [italics in original].

I admire John Mueller’s iconoclastic thinking about security issues. He has argued brilliantly, for example, that U.S. fears of terrorism since 9/11 have been excessive, leading to destructive policies. (See his forthcoming book Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, co-written with Mark Stewart, and my 2013 post “Violent U.S. Response to 9/11 Attacks Hurt More than Helped.”) After I emailed my column to Mueller, he defended his view of nuclear weapons. I decided to publish our exchange this week, which marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mueller: I'm still trying to figure out how I "downplayed" the effects of nuclear weapons. If Oppenheimer (who specifically advocated lying about nuclear weapons and dangers) says a ground-burst Hiroshima bomb would "blow up" 100 percent of New York and I say, correctly, that, however terrible, it would blow up one percent, shouldn't the conclusion be that he up-played it?

Actually, his sort of exaggeration was counterproductive to the cause he (and you) advocate. People heard what he and others said and concluded, "Wow, if they're that powerful we better be sure to have a LOT of them, and particularly a lot more than anybody else!" However, the arms race likely would have happened anyway, even without the supportive fulminations of the atomic scientists.

I also don't quite see the relevance of Wellerstein’s blog post on the Cuban missile crisis. He says, correctly, that there were a lot of nukes around at the time. However, there were a lot of nukes around before that--and since, as you point out. If he were to say that they were going to be used, he'd have an argument; the notion that that many existed is not one.

Let's see... If I note, demonstrating my command of long division and the comprehensiveness of Wikipedia, that 263,000 is three percent of the population of New York City, am I stating a fact? Or am I downplaying?

Horgan: I disagree not with your facts but with your rhetorical strategy. If your goal, like mine, is a world free of nuclear weapons, I think it's a mistake to focus on how the destructive potential of nuclear weapons has often been overblown. Wellerstein's post on the Cuban missile crisis makes it clear that the Russians had many more nuclear weapons than U.S. officials believed at that time.

Mueller: I don't "focus" on the exaggeration but simply point out that it exists. People already know that nuclear weapons are terrible. Why is it necessary to lie by suggesting that a bomb that, in some circumstances, might be able to kill 263,000 would kill 8 million?

The reason stocks of nuclear weapons have gone down is not that people have come, finally, to appreciate that they can kill lots of people, but that they have effectively grasped the point that the weapons aren't really all that necessary from a military point of view under present circumstances and cost a lot to maintain (as you point out). So why spend a lot of money on useless, stupid weapons?

I don't think that argument will get you to zero, however. The Wall Street Journal has a recent piece that laments: “None of the presidential candidates is talking about it, but one of the most important issues in the 2016 election should be the precarious decline of America’s nuclear forces.” There always be people who insist that we need, as during the Cold War, to have at least some nukes to deter threats that don't exist.

To argue that they are unbelievably horrible encourages the notion that one is only safe if one has bunch of the silly things. The same thing happened with hysteria over chemical weapons during the 1920s and 30s.

As for Wellerstein’s article, what difference does it make if the U.S. underestimated the nukes on Cuba if Kennedy and Khrushchev were determined not to get into a war no matter how many were there? If Wellerstein thinks that is NOT true, it should be part of his argument. Check out Max Frankel's 2004 book High Noon in the Cold War. Very depressing fare if you're an alarmist. I don't think it sold very well.

Here is a snappy line from my upcoming book Chasing Ghosts: “The grand mistake of the cold war was to infer desperate intent from apparent capacity. For the war on terrorism, it is to infer desperate capacity from apparent intent.”

Horgan: We have very different reads of Wellerstein's piece on the Cuban missile crisis. To me, he shows (and this was also an important theme of the great 2003 documentary The Fog of War) how close rational men came to making an extremely irrational decision, which could have destroyed civilization as we know it. Wellerstein also brings up the point that people in Cuba could have decided to strike without authorization from Khrushchev.

Here's what really worries me about your position, as I understand it. You seem to believe that leaders of nuclear states are far too reasonable to ever actually use nuclear weapons. This belief is of course fundamental to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which leads to calls for MORE nuclear weapons, as in that Wall Street Journal piece you mention. My view is that we have avoided nuclear war more through luck than through rationality, and sooner or later our luck will run out. That's why we need to figure out a way to ban all nukes once and for all.

Mueller: I don't see in Wellerstein's piece where he says rational men came close to "making an extremely irrational decision." He does note that there were a whole lot of nuclear weapons around (as before, after, and now) and that the Cuban weapons could physically have been set off in Cuba. He deems it "believable" that Khrushchev backed down out of fear of nuclear war, which is precisely the argument that would animate Wall Street Journal columnists into clamoring for more and more of the things. 

Actually, Khrushchev repeatedly said (including in the middle of the Cuba crisis) that he was fully deterred from a major war by an overwhelming desire to avoid repeating the kind of (non-nuclear) cataclysm he had twice experienced in his lifetime. A nuclear war would be worse, of course, but only in the sense that a jump from a 50 story building is more terrible than one from a five story building. Nuclear weapons are most likely to go away if leaders come to realize that they are costly, useless militarily, and unnecessary for deterrence. To a degree that is why nuclear arsenals have declined since 1989 (France, for example, has cut its force by two-thirds). It is not that leaders have needed to be reminded yet again that nuclear weapons are extremely destructive. For a couple of hundred years now, no president of the United States has committed suicide by self-flagellation. Was that luck?

Further Reading:

Are We Too Afraid of Nuclear Weapons?

Violent U.S. Response to 9/11 Attacks Hurt More Than Helped.

We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable.

Leader of Venerable Scientific Watchdog Group Renews Focus on “Nuclear Dangers.”

Atomic Reporters Curb “Egregious” Coverage of Nuclear Perils.