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In Defence of War

Nigel Biggar
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation

Jacques E. C. Hymans
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2012

Flawed Logics: Strategic Nuclear Arms Control from Truman to Obama

James H. Lebovic
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Eric Schlosser
Published by Penguin Press in 2014

Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons

Ward Wilson
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013

Scott Waalkes is Professor of Political Science at Malone University.


Whatever happened to nuclear weapons? Once a regular feature of popular culture and news coverage, they seem to have disappeared. News junkies born before the mid-1970s will easily recall controversies surrounding the novel On the Beach, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film Dr. Strangelove, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the neutron bomb, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force controversy in Europe, The Day After made-for-television movie, Sting’s song “The Russians,” the Hollywood film War Games, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Reykjavik Summit. Nuclear weapons issues were interwoven with Cold War anxieties. Whenever tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States ratcheted up, public attention swung toward the prospects of a nuclear Armageddon. And then, suddenly, the Cold War ended. Public attention to nuclear weapons dropped precipitously.1 As a result, younger scholars may be forgiven for never thinking much about nuclear weapons. And older scholars may also be forgiven for forgetting. Although nuclear weapons may seem passé, they have never gone away. They continue to provoke scholarly reflection, even if the public has turned away.

In this still-nuclear age, historians, political scientists, journalists, and theologians remind us that these weapons are a problem worth studying. Their books, under review here, not only teach us about the realities of nuclear weapons systems; they also show us that Christian scholars must continue to wrestle with the practical, ethical, and theological issues they raise. For those committed to Christian just war principles, these works can show how justice demands that we remain engaged in careful moral discernment. For those committed to Christian pacifism, these works show how the root fear of insecurity drives leaders to build such massively destructive weapons. Both groups of Christians see that these extreme weapons fall short of producing true security. In this time of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom, then, Christians of all persuasions must learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). With their commitment to wise discernment and peaceful intentions, Christian scholars are well poised to learn from recent conversations about nuclear weapons.

Myths about Nuclear Weapons and “Practical” Responses

Ward Wilson’s short book, Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, certainly delivers what its title promises. He seeks to educate readers about the practical realities of nuclear weapons, rejecting five “myths,” which he defines both as stories that shape our identity and as misperceptions of the reality of nuclear weapons (18). Although unclear in the book, Wilson’s purpose became clearer in a New York Times op-ed essay, where he called for nuclear powers to “pursue the gradual abolition of nuclear weapons.”2 By challenging readers to question their views of nuclear weapons, Wilson opens a space to imagine a world without them.

Wilson, currently a senior fellow at the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project and a respected contributor to security studies journals, devotes five concise chapters to refuting each of the five myths by appealing to the “facts” and practical realities of nuclear weapons. Five Myths is a perfect introduction for readers looking for a single short book on the meaning of nuclear weapons. However, its simple rhetorical construction offers a bracing clarity that also risks oversimplification.

The risk of oversimplification is clear in Wilson’s critique of the first myth, the creation story of the atomic legend. Anyone who remembers the 1995 controversy over the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibition will likely find this section of the book controversial. Wilson challenges the traditional story that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked Japan into surrendering to the United States in World War Two. This founding myth of the Nuclear Age contends that it was the massive destructive power of the atomic bombings that stunned the Japanese government and forced its surrender. But if this story is incorrect, then nuclear weapons are less powerful than we think. In an effort to reject the traditional story, Wilson makes a simple case that historians will likely find too simple and lacking in nuance but general readers will benefit from reading.3 While historians remind us that the complex contingencies of history do not always fit the simplicities of academic debate, most readers could stand to have their assumptions challenged.4 If the destruction of Hiroshima was not decisive in causing the Japanese surrender, as Wilson argues, whereas the Soviet invasion was, then perhaps we should question “the ‘aura’ of enormous power that surrounds the weapons and makes them so important in international relations” (52). This questioning can help us imagine that nuclear weapons are less fearsome and less like mysterious magic than we thought.

However, to most laypeople, nuclear weapons remain like mysterious magic. It is a staple of nuclear weapons discourse to say that they have the power to destroy the world many times over. But in his provocative critique of Myth Number Two—the belief that thermonuclear hydrogen bombs were a quantum leap in destructive power—Wilson qualifies this view of massive destruction (and its utility). To do so, he makes an astute distinction between yield and destructive power. It is true that hydrogen bombs yield explosions that are measured in the millions of tons of dynamite or TNT, rather than in the thousands. “In terms of yield,” writes Wilson, “a one-megaton bomb is 66.7 times bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which might lead you to expect that it would be 66.7 times as destructive” (56). However, when you study the impact of such a weapon on an aerial map, increased explosive power does not cover a similarly wider area of destruction. “The radius of the innermost circle of a one-megaton bomb isn’t 66.7 times greater than the radius of the innermost circle of the Hiroshima bomb; it’s 5.5 times greater” (56). Nuclear weapons may be less destructive and less useful than we thought.

Allied with the belief in the massive destructive power of nuclear weapons is the belief that they would be decisive in a war. But Wilson clarified the rejection of this latter belief in a New York Times op-ed essay in characteristically punchy prose: “Mass destruction doesn’t win wars; killing soldiers does. No war has ever been won simply by killing civilians.”5 Nuclear weapons, for Wilson, are not an effective tool of statecraft, because they are better at indiscriminate destruction than at targeting military objectives. As Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s essay in this volume illustrates, state leaders cannot claim effectively that nuclear weapons help them achieve valid objectives in a just way. They may then forfeit a claim to authority.

Given their massively disproportionate destructive power, nuclear weapons seem useless for pursuing political objectives. This has been clear at least since 1946, when strategist Bernard Brodie famously described how they had changed military strategy. As he put it, “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. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”6 Most military strategists concur with Brodie that nuclear weapons serve no useful military purpose. They are too indiscriminate in their destructive effects to obtain military or political objectives usefully. As Wilson puts it, “Imagine arming a bank guard with dynamite and a lighter and you get a good idea of nuclear weapons’ utility: powerful, but too clumsy to use.”7 This uselessness helps explain why no country has intentionally detonated atomic or nuclear weapons in any conflict since 1945.

If they are not useful for pursuing leaders’ objectives, then, what accounts for the continued possession of these weapons and avid pursuit of them by countries like North Korea and Iran? Wilson astutely points out that they have become part of the “currency of power” for states in the international system (109–111). Along these lines, Georgetown University political scientist Matthew Kroenig recently argued that having more nuclear weapons than other countries confers leverage in conflicts.8 Like many political science theorists, many political leaders also continue to believe that nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence or bargaining in a crisis, even if they have no use in actual armed conflict.

Furthermore, they can still create deterrence between nuclear-armed adversaries. Wilson disagrees and devotes a chapter to rebutting Myth Three—“nuclear deterrence works in a crisis”—and a chapter to rebutting Myth Four—that nuclear weapons explain the absence of war between the superpowers after 1945. These chapters will provoke the many historians, political scientists, and strategists who believe that nuclear deterrence was so robust that it helped make the Cold War into a Long Peace.9 The central test case is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where the threat of nuclear escalation appeared to moderate the behavior of both President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Instead of launching airstrikes to eliminate missile installations or invading Cuba, as Kennedy’s military advisers counseled, Kennedy decided to impose a “naval quarantine” on Soviet shipping into Cuba. In his least convincing rhetorical flourish, Wilson, however, contends that deterrence failed in this case. He argues that Kennedy “saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway” (74). This is a gross exaggeration that fails to do justice to the anguished deliberations that led to the blockade or to understand how it was perceived as a moderate alternative to both inaction and more aggressive measures. The blockade decision, for most historians, was hardly “gunning through the intersection.” It was a careful attempt to avoid provoking a nuclear-armed adversary while also confronting the problem. In short, Wilson’s critique of deterrence and the Long Peace hypothesis is the least persuasive part of the book.

The last myth about nuclear weapons that Wilson criticizes is that we are stuck with the technology. As generations of debaters have pointed out, we cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. However, as Wilson points out, “Technology doesn’t go away because it’s disinvented. It goes away because other technology replaces it. Or it simply falls out of use because it was bad technology” (105). The real question, he contends, is whether nuclear weapons are useful (107). Wilson argues against the fatalistic belief that there is no alternative to keeping nuclear weapons, and he argues that they are not useful in war. If they are not useful, however, why do countries keep them? Why cling to useless technology? For some reason, nuclear weapons states continue to cling to their weapons. Are they overlooking the facts that Wilson sees?

This points to a major weakness in Wilson’s rhetorical framing, which relies on a false dualism between false beliefs and facts, between wishful thinking and practical realities. He rightly contends that nuclear weapons “are not a supernatural force but merely an ordinary, everyday problem” (124). As he puts it, “Nuclear weapons are not a nature-of-humans problem; they are a practical problem” (15). On his view, we do not need to change humans in order to pursue a “sweeping reevaluation of nuclear deterrence and the study of nuclear weapons” (122). We need only look at the facts. Like-minded pragmatists need only understand the practical realities of nuclear weapons to start solving their practical problems. Wilson’s focus on practice is a refreshing, though ultimately unconvincing, perspective.

What is “practical”? Wilson argues that the gradual abolition of nuclear weapons reflects practical realities. By contrast, many practicing politicians and citizens continue to believe in the utility of nuclear weapons, which suggests that such weapons are one practical response to the practical problem of national insecurity. Perhaps, then, another fact to consider is that security is a highly prized, yet highly elusive goal in the harsh and dangerous world of international politics. And in this harsh and dangerous world it is a fact that some governments are convinced that nuclear weapons are a useful way to amass power. Until citizens and leaders are assured of security in the harsh competition of international relations, they will turn to the promise of nuclear weapons and other technologies. Another person’s practical look at nuclear weapons, then, might well conclude that they continue to serve some useful purposes for some people—even if they violate Christian standards of just war and peace. Furthermore, other students of the practical realities of nuclear weapons have argued for steps short of total abolition. A hard-headed look at the realities of nuclear weapons has led these others to more moderate positions. Among these are efforts to control nuclear proliferation and to negotiate arms control agreements.

Moderate Responses: Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Arms Control

Despite the Cold War’s end, political scientists, foreign policy analysts, and military strategists continue to study both nuclear proliferation (the spread of nuclear weapons programs to non-nuclear states or non-state actors) and nuclear arms control (the attempt to limit but not abolish nuclear weapons). Two recent works can help Christian scholars discern the state of play in both areas. According to Jacques Hymans (a political scientist at the University of Southern California), we should worry less about proliferation, but, according to James Lebovic (a political scientist at George Washington University), we may need to worry about the “flawed logics” of American leaders in arms control negotiations.

The threat of nuclear proliferation has worried political leaders since the dawn of the Nuclear Age. Immediately after World War Two, for instance, the Truman Administration proposed a plan for the international control of nuclear weapons, the so-called Baruch Plan, in which the United States would eventually give up its weapons while other states refrained from pursuing them (outlined in Lebovic, Flawed Logics, 15–22). Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union, headed by a paranoid and insecure Stalin, rejected this bargain as unfair. Nevertheless, 20 years later, several countries drafted the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by 1968 and brought it into force by 1970. A basic bargain was at the heart of this agreement. Namely, the five existing nuclear weapons states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—agreed not to supply nuclear weapons materials and to “pursue negotiations in good faith” (in the words of Article VI of the NPT) toward getting rid of their nuclear programs. At the same time, the rest of the signatories agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons programs and to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to safeguard their nuclear materials from being diverted into weapons production. Many scholars consider this system to be effective, despite the fact that India, Israel, and Pakistan have never joined it. Furthermore, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. Should we worry about these countries? Should we worry about Iran, which has been wrangling with the IAEA, the United States, and its allies over its allegedly peaceful atomic energy program for years? Anxieties over nuclear programs continue to animate much of US foreign policy and generate news headlines. They played a significant role in the justification of the 2003 Iraq War. They reinforce our worries about terrorist groups accessing nuclear weapons.

But Jacques Hymans’ provocative and multiple-award-winning book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions, might cause us to worry less about proliferation.10 Hymans begins with a visual overview of all seventeen known nuclear weapons programs since 1942, when the United States began the Manhattan Project, including six programs that were abandoned without success (in Libya, South Korea, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Iraq, and Syria). He observes an overall trend of governments taking more time to achieve a successful explosion of a nuclear device. For example, North Korea began its program in 1980 and only achieved a (moderately) successful test in 2009.11 Iran began in 1985 and took “a quarter-century to get about halfway to its goal” (258). What explains this “puzzle of declining nuclear weapons program efficiency” (2)? As he puts it, the book is about “why some states that have decided to go nuclear actually enjoy great success in that endeavor, whereas others run into trouble” (38, emphasis in original).

Hymans argues that the explanation lies not in technology, political will, the NPT, alliances, vulnerability to military threats, or economic resources. Rather, it lies in differences of governmental capacity. Governments that are effective at managing the complexities of large-scale technology, engineering, and science programs have a shot at pulling off the still-difficult technological feat of a nuclear explosion. By contrast, governments who employ scientists who lack “intrinsic motivation to work tirelessly toward the goal at the highest technical standards” (25) will have a difficult time. An essential precondition for success is “a culture of scientific and technical professionalism” (25). Whereas governments with a “legal-rational” culture of authority will tend to do better in cultivating this professionalism, “neo-patrimonial” governments dominated by a strong leader will tend to undermine it. Furthermore, we should not worry about “footloose scientific and technical workers” being recruited to nascent nuclear powers, since the “recruitment, handling, and integration of such émigrés pose very difficult challenges that surpass the management capabilities of most developing states” (237). Neo-patrimonial states, then, will generally struggle at developing nuclear weapons programs.

To support his hypothesis, Hymans provides detailed historical case studies of the nuclear programs in Iraq, China, Yugoslavia, and Argentina. He also touches briefly on programs in Libya, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iraq in a short chapter toward the end of the book. In classic political science fashion, he concludes with five lessons for policymakers and some suggestions for future research. In his advice for policymakers, he points out that we must “distinguish clearly between the political will to ‘go nuclear’ and the technical capacity to do so” (265). With this book’s focus on technical capacity, Hymans encourages policymakers to “tune out the proliferation pessimists” (265). He also concludes that “proliferant states, not the United States or multilateral institutions, are the main protagonists in this story” (267). If Hymans is correct, we should be paying more attention to the professional culture of science and technology inside Iran or North Korea than to Western sanctions or IAEA inspections. It may turn out that the Axis of Evil was really an Axis of Incompetence.

Hymans also concludes that military strikes can frequently fail or backfire. While many analysts look to Israel’s 1981 airstrike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor as a success, Hymans shows how the attack generated strong political will among both leaders and workers that reinvigorated Iraq’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb. He also sensibly points out that “nonproliferation policies need to be sensitive and finely tailored to the specific internal characteristics of states” (273). Extending this logic in recent essay, he argues that we should not worry about a “sneak-out” by Iran.12 Hymans counsels us to relax and let our proliferation worries subside.

In short, he offers a fascinating, well-written guide into the many institutional barriers facing nuclear weapons development programs. Still, there are a few gaps. Hymans only devotes a few references to other important cases of nuclear proliferation—notably in Israel and India. While their stories would likely support his overall theory, it would be interesting to learn more about them, given their importance in contemporary international relations.13 Second, Hymans defines “success” as a successful nuclear test, but that may not be the only measure. For example, North Korea might fail to achieve a high-yield nuclear explosion in testing but may still succeed in launching ballistic missiles with warheads that partially detonate. A partial success for their program would still be a disaster for the world. Third, Hymans omits the terrifying scenario of nuclear materials falling into the hands of non-state actors bent on exploding a so-called “dirty bomb”—a nuclear core that scatters radiological materials after it is detonated with conventional explosives. The focus on national programs overlooks the potential proliferation threats of non-state actors.

More importantly, Hymans’ focus on domestic politics runs the risk of neglecting the complex relationships and dynamic interactions between fearful leaders pursuing national security. To use the language of classic texts in international relations theory, Hymans is engaged in second image or domestic-level theory, but we must also include the third image or international level.14 This level asks why leaders seek nuclear weapons and finds the answer in the problem of insecurity in a literally anarchic system. That is to say, there is no authoritative global ruler to whom leaders can turn for security. There is no global police force to suppress threats, so leaders must take matters into their own hands to deter potential adversaries. In this world, there are always pressures on insecure countries to go nuclear. But Hymans rightly reminds us that it will be difficult for many of them to succeed in their ambitions. He advises us to relax, but this may end up leaving us content with the status quo when it would be wise to remain vigilant.

However, there is still another way between disarmament and acceptance of the status quo, between the total condemnation of all nuclear weapons and the easy embrace of them. During the Cold War, it was called arms control.

For anyone interested in a sophisticated history of US arms control efforts, James Lebovic’s Flawed Logics provides a fine starting point.15 As he describes it, the book is primarily a “critical intellectual history of bilateral nuclear arms negotiations from the Truman through Obama administrations” (ix). Lebovic avoids the quantitative methods, airtight logical typologies, and parsimonious theorizing that dominate much of contemporary international relations scholarship. Instead, he sticks to a qualitative reading of the policy debates over nuclear arms agreements and nuclear strategy within each presidential administration since Harry S. Truman’s. The book is mainly a recounting of classic Cold War negotiations in chronological order: the Baruch Plan under Truman, Atoms for Peace and Open Skies under Eisenhower, the Limited Test Ban under Kennedy, the Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties under Nixon, the SALT II Treaty under Carter, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty under Reagan, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) under George H. W. Bush, the START II Treaty under Clinton, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty under George W. Bush, and the New START Treaty under Obama. For readers looking for concise summaries of these agreements from a US perspective, Lebovic is a helpful guide.

Unlike most treatments of arms control, Flawed Logics avoids getting bogged down in counting numbers of missiles, warheads, bombs, or bombers on each side. This is deliberate, since Lebovic criticizes the excessive focus of US officials and arms control experts on the quantifiable capabilities of Soviet or Russian nuclear forces rather than on a careful analysis of Soviet or Russian intentions. This flawed logic, for Lebovic, meant that, “despite enormous attention to an all-important problem, the best and brightest of multiple generations, convinced of their logic and rectitude, were still able to rely on dubious arguments” (xii). Thus, he says that he wrote the book as “a plea for humility and civility” (xii). Readers will better appreciate the difficulties of managing nuclear weapons negotiations. They will grasp how hard it is for elected and appointed officials to make sense of these complex problems.

Lebovic focuses narrowly on US policy debates and not on Soviet and Russian intentions. It would strengthen his claims if he could provide evidence from the Russian side of cases where American officials misread Soviet or Russian plans and thus made mistakes. However, that would require a much longer book, facility with Russian language, and access to Russian archives. It is enough to grapple with how US officials and policy experts were thinking. Hawks and doves clashed repeatedly over the wisdom of every major nuclear arms agreement; Lebovic tracks their debates thoroughly.

Indeed, the coverage of debates may be too thorough. Readers may get lost in lengthy chapters full of details of internal policy discussions between supporters and opponents of particular treaties. The chapter on the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter Administrations, for instance, runs nearly 70 pages. It also strays into a discussion of Assured Deterrence strategy, colloquially known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). While Lebovic generally strives to keep technical language to a minimum, non-specialists encountering terms like ICBM, SLBM, MIRV, SIOP and “telemetry encryption” may start looking for a glossary of terms, which, sadly, is not included. The narrative thread gets lost at times.

We also read much less about the views of actual presidents and much more about their advisers. To cite one glaring example, Ronald Reagan’s well-known aversion to nuclear weapons drove his advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative, but Lebovic does not discuss how Reagan’s views shaped his administration’s approaches to nuclear arms negotiations.16 While claiming to provide an intellectual history, then, he does not always look to the sources of key ideas in policy debate. On a similar note, the book would also benefit by relating the changing logics of arms control to changing views of grand strategy. In a classic work, which is omitted from Lebovic’s bibliography, John Lewis Gaddis interpreted the changing strategies of containment as the result of alternating views from presidents and their advisers on the wisdom of cheaper strongpoint deterrence versus expensive conventional military buildups and perimeter defense.17 Cost-cutting leaders who relied on deterrence tended to prioritize nuclear weapons in their strategies, whereas their successors tended to rely less on nuclear weapons. This useful framework for interpreting military strategy would have helped to streamline Lebovic’s narrative.

The many nuclear arms treaties chronicled in Flawed Logics remind us that responsible political leaders in pursuit of security and relative advantage for their own country can still end up promoting a more secure world for all. Presidential arms control efforts were not driven by a desire to end war or to eliminate violence; they were attempts to reduce threats to the United States. But it may be evidence of God’s common grace at work in the world that the selfish pursuits of security contributed to the common good. Efforts to gain advantages and reduce threats, after all, yielded the elimination of some weapons. Arms control efforts alone may not be enough, however. They will always be subject to the vagaries of politics. As tensions have increased between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the United States, for instance, nuclear arms control agreements may fall by the wayside.18 Furthermore, the continued existence of any nuclear weapons continues to be a safety concern. It hardly seems wise to trust only in common grace to stave off human folly. Accidents will happen.

More Dangerous Than We Knew: Nuclear Weapons Accidents and Inadvertent War

A decade after publishing the bestselling exposé book Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser turned his attention to the problem of nuclear weapons accidents. The result is a sprawling, wide-ranging, painstaking, but gripping book entitled Command and Control. Schlosser tries to shock his readers and thus remind them that they must remain vigilant about the dangers of nuclear weapons accidents. In this he succeeds.

The book interweaves Schlosser’s reporting of a little-known 1980 explosion at a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas with a history of US nuclear weapons policies and with descriptions of other mishaps with nuclear warheads and bombs. The Damascus story is stunning and riveting, as Schlosser draws on extensive interviews with participants who experienced the worst nuclear weapons accident on American soil. By contrast, his history of US nuclear policy is less captivating. As with Lebovic, Schlosser would have benefitted from drawing on the work of historians like John Lewis Gaddis to offer a consistent theme for his historical narrative. Schlosser’s history of weapons policies is sprawling and overly detailed, so we miss the context of nuclear strategy and political priorities that drove nuclear weapons programs and plans.

At its most powerful, Schlosser’s impressively well-researched volume tells some stunning tales of accidents involving nuclear bombs and warheads from declassified documents. In 1950, the crew of Air Force B-36 bomber on a training mission abandoned the plane after dropping a bomb without a nuclear core off the coast of British Columbia (167–168). That same year, a B-29 bomber carrying an atomic bomb without its core crashed in California and its five thousand pounds of high explosives ignited, killing eighteen people and wounding almost two hundred (168–170). In 1956, a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage building in a base in England with at least three bombs in it; mercifully, their plutonium cores were stored elsewhere (170). In 1958, a B-47 bomber carrying a ten-megaton bomb and its nuclear core was engulfed in flames before takeoff in Sidi Slimane, Morocco: “The fire lasted for two and a half hours. The high explosives in the Mark 36 [bomb] burned but didn’t detonate” (184), and the hydrogen bomb melted into a radioactive slab. Weeks later, a B-47 bomber crew accidentally dropped an atomic bomb (again without a core) on the Gregg family property in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, detonating its high explosives and “digging a crater about fifty feet wide and thirty-five feet deep” (186). In 1961, as a B-52 bomber was breaking apart at an altitude of ten thousand feet, it dropped two fully armed hydrogen bombs over Faro, North Carolina. If the cockpit safety switch had been flipped, one of the bombs would have exploded with a thermonuclear detonation. The highly enriched uranium core in the other bomb disappeared more than seventy feet under swampy ground and was never recovered (246). Also in 1961, a F-100D fighter jet carrying a hydrogen bomb caught fire in Suffolk, England, but firefighters were able to put out the fire before any high explosives detonated (262). A B-52 bomber was abandoned by its crew and crashed near Yuba City, California, on March 13, 1961, with two hydrogen bombs aboard: “The high explosives of both hydrogen bombs shattered on impact and didn’t burn or detonate” (308). In 1964, a B-58 bomber carrying five hydrogen bombs slid off an icy runway at Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana. In the resulting fire, “two [of the bombs] were intact; one was scorched; another was mostly consumed by the fire; and the fifth completely melted into the tarmac” (311). In 1980, a B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs caught on fire on the ground at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, due to a missing nut on a fuel strainer. Had firefighters not been able to climb into the cockpit and turn off the fuel supply to the burning engine, it is possible that one of the bombs would have detonated (384). To have so many accidents without a nuclear explosion seems miraculous.

In the 1980 Damascus incident—the centerpiece of the book—technicians doing routine maintenance accidentally dropped a nine-pound socket toward the bottom of the Titan II missile silo, 70 feet below, where it bounced and punctured the fuel tank. In the resulting fire and explosion, the nuclear warhead “had flown through a fireball, climbed more than thousand feet into the air, and hit the ground without a parachute” (426); it landed in a ditch, undiscovered until the fire was extinguished (424). Another miracle.

Schlosser’s stories make for compelling and troubling reading. They shock us out of any complacency about the safety of nuclear arsenals, reminding us that no technology is perfectly safe. More troubling, the problem is even more difficult than Schlosser’s stories indicate, for two reasons. First, the accounts amassed by Schlosser illustrate the problem of accidental detonations physically harming those nearby. But research on inadvertent nuclear war, as Schlosser himself notes in his Epilogue, reminds us that large-scale accidental war could also occur, triggering a nuclear exchange with a nuclear-armed adversary. He quotes Stanford University political scientist Scott Sagan (a leading scholar on accidental nuclear war) who wrote that “nuclear weapons may well have made deliberate war less likely, but…accidental war more likely (463, emphasis in original).19 At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the likelihood of war was not due to a reckless president intentionally being aggressive, as Ward Wilson asserts. Instead, a routine test of an Atlas long-range missile flying west from Vandenberg Air Force Base across the Pacific Ocean during the crisis could have easily appeared to be a deliberate launch aimed at Soviet Russia. That same day, when a U-2 spy plane on a routine sampling mission strayed into Soviet airspace, US fighter jets scrambled to escort it out, narrowly avoiding a confrontation with Soviet air forces. One need not conjure up silly movies like War Games to imagine the possibility of an accidental war.20 On September 26, 1983, a Soviet radar site

received data that appeared to show several missiles just launched from America’s silo-rich heartland. Protocol dictated that the officer in charge report the blips up the chain of command….But the bunker officer in charge that night, Stanislav Petrov, suspected something was wrong. The number of missiles was too low for a first strike. So Petrov ignored protocol and did nothing. Had he been wrong, his decision would have cost the Soviets precious response time. But he was right. The radar had picked up unusual reflections of late afternoon sunlight off cloud cover.21

Anyone interested in wise discernment would do well to ponder the risky possibilities evident in such near-accidents before blessing the continuing existence of nuclear arsenals. Accidents happen with any technology. But nuclear accidents can trigger accidental global wars and massive destruction.

Second, the safety and security of nuclear weapons sites appears to be getting even more lax. Not long after the book was published, the U.S. Defense Department issued reports that demonstrated “systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise,” including faulty blast doors in missile silos, short staffing, and a shortage of maintenance tools.22 Drawing on several news reports and a 60 Minutes interview with Schlosser, television comedian John Oliver even devoted a hilarious and informative 15-minute monologue of his show Last Week Tonight in July 2014 to a profanity-laden rant about US military failures in handling the nuclear arsenal. Surprisingly, he neglected to tell the story of an 82-year-old nun and two male accomplices who broke into the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory in Tennessee in 2012 in “what nuclear experts call the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex, making their way to the inner sanctum of the site where the United States keeps crucial nuclear bomb parts and fuel.”23 Needless to say, their act of symbolic anti-nuclear protest drew attention to shoddy security at critical nuclear facilities. If an 82-year-old nun could get in, what about determined thugs or terrorists?

Schlosser’s blockbuster book has already helped draw public attention to the significant nuclear safety issues that remain as long as we retain these weapons. Whether we fear an accidental detonation, an accidental war, or a theft of nuclear materials, we can only pray that no public official charged with controlling nuclear weapons will ever say “Oops” (to paraphrase comedian John Oliver). If we love our neighbors, however, we Christian scholars may need to do more than pray for God’s protection from accidents, inadvertent attacks, or thefts. Praying is a fine start, but some scholars may need to work on promoting nuclear safety, to work toward reducing numbers of these weapons, to study the ethics of war and weapons systems, or even to dream about abolishing them altogether. We can do better than be complacent and merely “accept the presence of nuclear weapons in our midst because we have just gotten used to them.24 Complacency is not wise policy.

What Next? Christian Ethics and Prudential Judgments

Where Christian scholars go next will depend on where they stand in two levels of discourse. First, at the level of traditions of ethical reflection and scriptural interpretation, the Christian tradition has long engaged in a debate between pacifist and just war perspectives about the nature of war and violence.

In his book, In Defence of War, Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar makes a stimulating contribution to this debate, worthy of further discussion than space allows here. Composed of a collection of essays, the volume is less systematic than dialogical. That is, Biggar typically engages in dialogues with other authors to advance his own critique. For example, in his lead essay, he vigorously (and sometimes unconvincingly) criticizes pacifist readings of Scripture by the late John Howard Yoder and Duke University New Testament scholar Richard Hays. In later chapters, he seeks to rebut anti-just war arguments by philosopher David Rodin and pro-pacifist arguments by Robert Holmes. Throughout the book, he also quotes extensively from soldiers’ memoirs in an effort to empathize with those on the battlefield. This engagement with the realities of war and the views of others is admirable. Readers interested in wading into important scholarly debates over whether you can love your enemies while killing them (61–91), whether the principle of double effect can or should apply on the battlefield (92–110), whether Britain’s prosecution of the First World War violated proportionality (111–148), or whether the Kosovo and Iraq Wars were justified (214–325), will relish Biggar’s method, which is firmly grounded in the world of contemporary combat—with the large and important exception of his neglecting nuclear weapons. Readers looking for a concise primer on just war theory, however, would be advised to turn elsewhere.25

Significantly, in his effort to focus on historical conflicts such as World War I and on contemporary conflicts such as Kosovo and the Iraq War, Nigel Biggar neglects problems of nuclear weapons entirely (apart from one passing reference to them on page 207). Given the looming reality of these weapons, as demonstrated in this essay, this is a troubling omission. To discuss the just war principle of discrimination—intentionally targeting only civilians—without discussing nuclear weapons, as Biggar does, is problematic at best. It falls prey to current, post-Cold War fashion, which forgets that nuclear weapons exist at all, which in turn allows complacency to trump common sense.26

At the second, more concrete level—the level where we prudentially apply ethical and scriptural principles—reasonable Christians within the same tradition can still differ in how their principles lead to specific judgments about policy and practice. Such differences in judgment and application are even more likely when we apply our principles to complex issues such as nuclear weapons policies. Christians committed to the just war tradition can come to a qualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as a temporary deterrent in a threatening age—as Daniel Allen does in his essay for this volume. By contrast, others committed to the same principles can make the case for abolishing nuclear weapons—as Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has done elsewhere and in this volume.27 One need not embrace pacifism to be concerned about the immoral effects of using and even possessing nuclear weapons. Just war theorists should impel us to interrogate the justice of maintaining nuclear weapons when such weapons violate the traditional just war norms of proportionality and discrimination. Alas, Biggar passes on leading such a discussion here.28

Christians of all stripes are committed to living faithfully in this complex world while witnessing to the truth of a Kingdom that has already come in part, that is present in the world, and that will fully come with the resurrection of the dead and the dawning of a new heaven and a new earth. As part of the mission of Christians, we must continue to discuss important public issues such as nuclear weapons. Our commitments to loving our neighbors and bearing witness to our just, faithful, and loving God require it. Thankfully, we can learn a great deal from scholars who continue to think about nuclear weapons, even when public attention to them has waned.


  1. Searching for the term “nuclear weapons” on the Google NGram viewer shows a sharp drop in usage of the term in published books after an all-time high in 1986. This coincides exactly with the breakthrough negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union.
  2. Ward Wilson, “The Myth of Nuclear Necessity,” New York Times, January 14, 2013, A23.
  3. Wilson draws on recent scholarship by University of California at Santa Barbara historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa to make four provocative points: 1) The timing of the Japanese generals’ decision to consider surrender on August 9 is more closely linked to the Soviet declaration of war on Japan the night before than to the Hiroshima bombing on August 6 (27–31). 2) The scale of destruction wrought by the atomic bombs was less horrific than the conventional firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 (31–40). 3) Japanese military leaders did not react with great shock after the Hiroshima bombing but did so after hearing the news of Russia’s invasion of Manchuria (40–42). 4) The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki posed little strategic significance, whereas Soviet occupation of the northern Japanese islands did (42–47). In short, the atomic bombs gave Japanese military leaders an emotionally convenient, face-saving excuse for surrendering.
  4. For balanced coverage of recent debate among historians, see Gareth Cook, “Why Did Japan Surrender?” Boston Globe, August 7, 2011.
  5. Wilson, “Myth of Nuclear Necessity.”
  6. Bernard Brodie, “Implications for Military Policy,” in The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, ed. Bernard Brodie (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946), 76.
  7. Wilson, “Myth of Nuclear Necessity.”
  8. Matthew Kroenig, “Think Again: American Nuclear Disarmament,” Foreign Policy (September/October 2013), 44–49.
  9. John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). It is difficult to separate the effects of having just two major world powers from the effects of nuclear weapons. Benjamin Miller, “Polarity, Nuclear Weapons, and Major War,” Security Studies 3 (Summer 1994): 598-649, argues that bipolarity or having two major powers eases the risks of accidental wars while nuclear weapons make leaders less likely to threaten intentional wars. Furthermore, is also possible that widespread public revulsion against major war, heightened after World War II, has driven leaders to shy away from conflicts. For this thesis, see John Mueller, “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World,” International Security 13 (1988): 55–79.
  10. The book was bestowed with the University of Louisville’s prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Ideas in Improving World Order in 2014, as well as best book awards from the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Political Science Association’s Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics Section in 2013.
  11. Hymans cites technical analyses suggesting that North Korea’s first underground test in 2006 was “an embarrassing technical failure” (251).
  12. Jacques E. C. Hymans, “Don’t Fear a Sneak-Out: Why Iran Can’t Secretly Build the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2014.
  13. Though, in fairness, Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), has already covered the Israeli side; and George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), provides the definitive account on India.
  14. Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959). Also see Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 1979).
  15. As a useful supplement on the history into the Reagan era, consult McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988).
  16. See Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2006); and Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000).
  17. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), similarly argues that presidential strategies tended to alternate between maximalism—as in the Truman, Kennedy-Johnson, Reagan, and George W. Bush eras—and retrenchment—as in the Eisenhower, Nixon-Ford, and Obama eras.
  18. Julian Borger, “US and Russia in Danger of Returning to Era of Nuclear Rivalry,” The Guardian, January 14, 2015.
  19. For the original quotation, see Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 264.
  20. For a thorough review of the problem, see Bradley A. Thayer, “The Risk of Nuclear Inadvertence: A Review Essay,” Security Studies 3 (Spring 1994): 438–493.
  21. Alexander Zaitchik, “Inescapable, Apocalyptic Dread: The Terrifying Nuclear Autumn of 1983,” Salon, September 29, 2013.
  22. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Pentagon Studies Reveal Major Nuclear Problems,” New York Times, November 14, 2014, A16.
  23. William J. Broad, “The Nun Who Broke Into the Nuclear Sanctum,” New York Times, August 10, 2012.
  24. Thomas M. Nichols, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 182, emphasis in original. This book came to my attention too late to be fully reviewed in this essay, but it similarly criticizes complacency about nuclear weapons among national security experts.
  25. Among many others, see David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012); and Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009). Wheaton political science professor Mark Amstutz has compiled an excellent overview of the ethics of nuclear deterrence and general war in his text, International Ethics, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), 70–74, 135–156.
  26. For an account of this complacency inside the US government, see Nichols, No Use, 44–82.
  27. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century: An Ethical Analysis,” in Deterrence: Its Past, Present, and Future, eds. George P. Shultz, James E. Goodby, and Sidney D. Drell (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011); and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “More than Moralism: How Values Matter to Nuclear Security,” Review of Faith and International Affairs 9 (Fall 2011): 37–44.
  28. In fairness, Biggar previously published “Christianity and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” in Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, eds. Sohail H. Hashmi and Steven P. Lee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). One wishes that a version of that essay had been included in the present volume.

Scott Waalkes

Malone University
Scott Waalkes is Student Success Fellow and Professor of International Politics at Malone University.