Security Studies Program Seminar

Better Safe than Sorry, the Ironies of Living with the Bomb

Michael Krepon
Stimson Center

September 30, 2009

The United States and Soviet Union combined to build 125,000 nuclear weapons during the Cold War. There were thirty crashes involving US aircraft carrying nuclear weapons during the Cold War. We don’t know how many occurred in the Soviet Union and other nations.

Given these facts, how is that we got through the Cold War without a detonation in anger or by accident or mishap?

We give the intelligence community a hard time for failing to predict terrible events that surprise us. But academics and public intellectuals fail too, in this case by failing to explain this outcome. The arms control and deterrence literature does not have good explanation. Those theories don’t allow for chance, miscalculation and accident. The literature on these subjects only appeared the 1980s. George Kennan in some ways predicted the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold war but even he was pessimistic that we could make it through the Cold War without nuclear war.

Another largely unanswered question is how we managed to produce so many nuclear weapons. No one predicted that we would produce so many. A partial exception is Henry Kissinger, who said in a famous article that for deterrence there was safety in numbers.

So there lots of important avenues of investigation left about the arms race in the Cold War.

Here are some its central ironies:
-To be safe militarily and politically United States felt it had to build 125,000 nuclear weapons.
-To be safe from surprise attack, to achieve deterrence, we had to engage in very dangerous practices like having aircraft with hydrogen bombs flying loops over the Artic Circle.
-On what would have been the front lines in Europe, we had hand-held nuclear artillery and storage sites that were poorly guarded.

It’s hard to say what kept us safe despite all this. Some important factors are deterrence, arms control, diplomatic engagement, and strong conventional capability. But these elements were not always exercised wisely and harmoniously. And they are not a sufficient explanation. Another factor is divine intervention or good fortune. It is true that you make your own luck by being wise, but some of our safety seems the outcome of pure dumb luck.

For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when the U.S. Navy was dropping depth charges on Soviet submarines to tell them to come up, and the submarines could not communicate with Moscow, one Soviet submarine crew came close to firing its nuclear-armed torpedoes, which might have triggered a nuclear exchange.

Also during the missile crisis we had a U2 shot down over Cuba, and the Air Force test launched a ballistic missile from California toward the Soviet Union. These incidents could have caused nuclear war.

Can we get through second nuclear age—where we worry about both states and non-state actors, and weakness frightens us more than strength—with a similar result?

We can, but it won’t be easy. Though current leaders in places like North Korea and Iran are worrying, they compare favorably to Stalin and Mao. In dealing with those leaders we chose to play the long game, using deterrence, diplomatic engagement, and arms control to see if over time the character of the leadership might change in a positive way. We did this despite a series of hair raising assessments—NSC 68, the Gaither Committee, Team B—that tended to say that the period of maximum danger was five years in the future. Now we are getting same thing.

These alarming threat assessments were wrong during Cold War and they can turn out the same way now. All the instruments we used to prevent nuclear nightmares back then are still available: deterrence, containment, diplomatic engagement, and strong conventional capability. What used to called arms control has morphed into cooperative threat reduction. That tool box has never included so many instruments, such as help with export controls, inspections, and locking down dangerous materials.

When asked during the dark days of the Cold War how we would ever make it through Paul Nitze said don’t worry about that. Instead, work the problem; focus on the near term and work everyday to reduce nuclear dangers. The same dictum applies today, we shouldn’t be cynical or pessimistic, that never solved anything. Instead we should work the problem.

Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center. His current research focus on nuclear weapons, South Asia and space security. His latest book is Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009).

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2009