Home / Robert Farley / Where is the Nuclear Taboo?

Where is the Nuclear Taboo?


Apparently wide swaths of the US public approve of the use of nuclear weapons in non-retaliatory circumstances.

Randomly selected groups of survey respondents were told that the nuclear and conventional attacks would either be equally effective or that the nuclear attack had a greater chance of success. Everything else was held constant. When both options are equally effective, only a relatively small proportion of respondents prefers nuclear weapons, presumably to “send a message.” Yet, when nuclear weapons are portrayed as having a 90% success rate while conventional weapons hit the target with only 70% of the time, a (small) majority of Americans prefers nuclear weapons to conventional ones. This effect is even greater when the discrepancy in success rates widens further. Moreover, among the people that still prefer conventional weapons, most say that they do so not out of moral aversion but because they are concerned that first usage sets a dangerous precedent.

There’s obviously an elite-popular divide, because virtually no one in either party in DC has talked seriously about the use of nuclear weapons in a preventive war against Iran. Such was not the case fifty years ago, when preventive nuclear war was seen as a good options by some policymakers, but that simply illustrates how taboos develop over time. I’ve also never seen any evidence that anyone ever seriously discussed using tactical nuclear weapons in 1991, even against Iraqi military forces or suspected missile sites/chemical warfare facilities. Bush was fairly cagey about whether the United States would respond to an Iraqi chemical attack with nukes, but nobody ever seems to have proposed “let’s blow up this Iraqi tank column with a 30kt bomb.” Recall that the US military expected significant casualties (~10000) in the course of destroying the Iraqi Army, so nukes could genuinely have been expected to reduce direct military costs. The elite level taboo, presumably, is why no one thought in these terms. The reason for the divide is unclear; we don’t normally think of the US foreign policy elite as being more pacifistic than the population as a whole, but perhaps the answer lies in exposure to transnational norms.

I’d certainly like to see comparative data from the other nuclear states. My way out guess would be that you’d find similar or higher levels of support for non-retaliatory use of nukes in Russia (Russia still publicly talks about using nuclear weapons while at a disadvantage at conventional levels of escalation), relatively high support in Pakistan, China, India, and maybe Israel, and very low support in Britain and France. But that’s just guesswork.

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  • Honestly, I’d like to throw one of these assholes against a wall and then brutally beath them with a blunt object to “send them a message” about how I don’t think they think right and I think that they might be thinking about being a threat to me in the future, and so since they can’t prove otherwise, just in case….

    No— I’d have to murder everyone in the state they live in for the above “reasons” to get a comparable point across, wouldn’t I? That might be going a little bit too far, huh?

    • OOPS. Forgot to change the handle back. Wiley(witch) of Salem (Oregon) here. The picture gives me away— which ruined the parody, anyway—

      sometimes I really miss Ritalyn.

  • FMguru

    Seems more of a result of the fading of the Cold War era of Mutual Assured Destruction from the public mind. Foreign policy elites are either came up from the Cold War era or were trained by people who sweated through the 60s and the 70s, and the nuclear taboo still resonates with them. The greater populace hasn’t worried about nuclear annihilation since 1991, so it’s no surprise that they’re more “nuclear weapons, fuck yeah!”

    Once the current generation of foreign policy elites fades into retirement, I bet we’ll see a slackening of the elite taboo against using/threatening to use nukes.

    • Ian

      I grew up drawing circles on maps when I was a kid (100kt, 200kt) curious as to whether or not a Soviet strike on Ottawa would get me too. Irrelevant in the long run, but I wanted to know whether it would be fast or slow for me. Slow, as it turned out.

      Admittedly I was a weird kid, but how do people forget the Cold War? I’ll forgive the young, but surely we could have told them how much depended on the personal conscience of Stanislav Petrov. Wouldn’t it have made a good campfire story, or are ghost stories less fun when the monster under the bed is real?

  • firefall

    I think the fading of the taboo is a combination of constant exposure to the idea through movies & video games, plus (incredibly) a greatly fading awareness of what radiation fallout actually is and how ugly it is – I was astonished to find a virtually complete ignorance of this among younger friends of mine, most regard it as no big deal and something medical science can easily cope with.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if the increasing number of people who didn’t spend any time growing up during the Cold War may have an effect on the numbers as well.

    • DocAmazing

      a greatly fading awareness of what radiation fallout actually is and how ugly it is

      The happy talk surrounding the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster did not help.

      • ajay

        You’d have thought that all the coverage of the thousands of deaths due to fallout from Fukushima would have had some effect.

        Oh, wait.

    • S Physicist

      I’ve also never seen any evidence that anyone ever seriously discussed using tactical nuclear weapons in 1991

      a combination of constant exposure to the idea through movies & video games

      I was just about to say, well over a decade ago I played a flight combat simulator called F/A-18 Hornet set during Gulf War 1…the last mission of the tour of duty always included the possibility of dropping a tactical nuke on the target (there was more than one possible mission, but I only remember that one of them included the Supergun). Neither a contemporaneous nor an elite discussion, but…

      Also note: we keep teaching kids that the A-Bomb ended WW2. Not too surprising that they start thinking, “Hey, maybe this could end other wars too.”

  • chimneyswift

    Yes. People prefer to forget horrific things.

  • Tariq

    I would have liked to see retrospective questions about conventional vs. nuclear strikes against a what was believed to be a nuclear weapons facility, but was later found to be something innocuous.

    The one that really shocked me was the nuclear response to an attack on a cruise ship. Makes me wonder if the public would have approved of nuking Tora Bora.

    • Holden Pattern

      Makes me wonder if the public would have approved of nuking Tora Bora.

      Yes. SATSQ.

  • sleepyirv

    Has public thought really changed? Curtis LeMay certainly had supporters in his day. I don’t think any Presidential candidate will be comfortable suggesting the use of nuclear weapons anytime soon.

    Considering how many issues are on the public’s mind, pushing “nuclear weapons are too dangerous” might be too difficult currently even though the president has expressed an internet in a nuke-free world.

    • Tariq

      the president has expressed an internet

      • firefall

        Well someone had to express it :)

        • Rhino

          Doesnt popular mythology say that was Al Gore?

  • News Nag

    I doubt the real military decisionmakers believed the U.S. would suffer anywhere near any 10,000 casualties that were said to be expected in 1991. That being said, Americans have gotten used to doing things the easy way: Driving everywhere, take-out food en masse, buying zero down zero interest, letting others sacrifice for our empire, er freedom, etc. What could appear easier to ignorant deluded Americans than one missile and one bomb doing our work “over there”?

    • Murc

      I doubt the real military decisionmakers believed the U.S. would suffer anywhere near any 10,000 casualties that were said to be expected in 1991.

      You are dead wrong about this.

      It’s hard to picture these days, when we all have this image of the American armed forces being able to basically roll over any other conventional force in the world with great ease, but at the time our superiority was not clear-cut. Iraq had one of the largest conventional militaries in the world (I believe it was something like fifth largest), a conventional military that was equipped with modern arms and was filled with tenacious veterans who had just got done fighting a vicious ten-year war with Iran.

      Moreover, the specter of ‘nam was still haunting the military establishment, when a bunch of guys in a jungle with AKs, not nearly so well equipped or organized as the Iraqis, killed tens of thousands of American soldiers.

      Yes. They expected four-digit casualties. There were ‘real military decisionmakers’, as you say, who thought that estimate was conservative. There were actually those who thought the Bush Administration was deliberately lowballing it so the public wouldn’t get skittish about the whole thing. There’s a reason we dithered so long in Desert Shield mode, assembling an immense coalition and reserves.

      It turned out we were wrong. That we could roll over the Iraqi army like it was a speedbump. This exceeded even the most optimistic analysts projections WILDLY and contributed greatly to the modern perception of U.S armed forces, which is that we can basically crush any country in the world with minimal effort.

      • wengler

        A great demonstration for American arms even as the Soviet Union went up for sale for bargain basement prices.

        Many a war millionaire was made.

      • Charrua

        I was always puzzled by this. Irak was a Third World country, had just failed to win a long, costly war against another Third World country and had never done especially well fighting the Israelis. ¿What in that story suggested an army capable of competing against the USA in a terrain especially suited to American air superiority?
        Sure, it had a large stockpile of second rate weapons and a lot of poorly motivated conscript soldiers, but that hadn’t been that successful against the Iranians, right?.

        • Murc

          I’m going to assume you mean ‘had never done especially well fighting the Iranians.’ I think we’d have caught the Iraq/Israel war if it had happened.

          It puzzled me for a long time as well. I’m comparatively young; I was ten when the Gulf War hit. So basically my entire ‘I am aware of stuff like this’ life has been one of massive American military superiority being a fact people take for granted.

          But at the time it was not. This is hard for a lot of people, younger people especially, to wrap their heads around, but NOBODY knew just how overwhelming our conventional forces had become, nor did they know just how wonderfully they’d preform in an environment that is exactly suited to them.

          Iraq’s army was not poorly equipped, and we knew that because they were loaded with weapons we had sold them. Our own army had within the past twenty years completely failed to subjugate another third-world country that was poorly equipped, and had taken massive casualties while trying to do so. Our forces had been denuded of skilled veterans, whereas Iraq’s was filled with guys who lived through fighting Iranians in the marshes for ten years. And while success against Iran is relative, they did fight the Iranians to a stalemate. They were also on their home turf.

          Nobody seriously thought we would LOSE, that was never ever in doubt, but it was generally considered they would kill or wound a LOT of Americans. (Remember, casualty doesn’t mean ‘fatality.’ Someone who is wounded and has to be medevaced to a hospital ship, essentially becoming hors d’combat, is a casualty.)

          Basically its not at all puzzling if you consider the known facts at the time and the culture those facts were occurring in. Now, yes, as it turns out, people were wrong. VERY wrong. But they were wrong for the right reasons, as it were.

        • John F

          The Iraqis killed huge numbers of Iranians
          and the Israelis suffered some 11,000 casualties in the Yom Kippur War and 5000 or so in the Six Day War

          The US Military sustained 337 casualties in invading Panama (23 dead 32 wounded)
          Iraq’s military was at least 40 times as large as Panama’s.

      • Ian

        It’s hard to overstate what George Bush I pulled off. From 1991 to 2003 the US military looked basically omnipotent. It made it seem as though he’d brought troops from 31 countries along for the ride only as a courtesy, though it certainly did lend the war an air of legitimacy. America was surrounded by friends and allies, and many of its former enemies were piling over the Berlin wall to emulate the American way of life and government. That talk of a new world order, a pax Americana, and the end of history wasn’t entirely irrational.

        The 2003 Iraq war cost America both that illusion of omnipotence and that status as legitimate (or at least tolerated) leader of the free world. It’s breathtaking how much was lost, and how quickly.

  • wengler

    I don’t think the general public at large has very little appreciation for the destructiveness of nuclear weapons. They haven’t been used in warfare in 66 years. There is a line of thought that Russia’s nukes don’t even work after years of neglect and all the other countries are only sporting a couple dozen. So when asked, there is a very nationalistic response driven by ignorance and stupidity.

  • Tom M

    I did not go read the PDF but this seems to be one of those surveys that is like the bar games we used to play. If the question design limits the response in such a way as to choose one of two, the respondents choose. This was not a design to measure attitudes towards nukes, per se.
    The taboo, if there ever was one, isn’t displayed as a baseline in the survey, you present it as an opinion. Would not this have been a better comparison if the survey first established the existence of a taboo? Or preference if that is the point.

  • joejoejoe

    I think US foreign policy elites know that using nukes would unfurl a a lot of crazy that would hurt the world economy, which is their #1 concern. If using nukes didn’t rip the fabric of the global economy to shreds then we’d be lighting birthday cakes with them. Joe and Jane Average already had their economy torn to shreds so nuking Uzbekibekibekistan isn’t really going to bother them.

    Foreign policy elites are like good pool players. They don’t hit the holy hell out of the cue ball if they don’t have to because the other balls go flying all over the table and you have no idea how to play your next shot. You stay elite by always making your next shot a good one. Joe and Jane Average are drinking beer, putting quarters in the slot, having fun, so why not nuke the cue ball and see what happens?

    Pacifism or morality has very little to do with it IMHO.

    • JRoth

      As a very bad pool player, this analogy appeals greatly to me.

  • I wou;d say that public support for nuclear strikes would be highest in the U.S.A because of all of the “We should just nuke Afghanistan” crowd. To which I reply “You know, that will raise marijuana costs.” and all I have to do is mention sume supply-demand bullshit. I would say Israel might have a higher supply of said people. The settelers are total rednexks and Israelis maintain a very negative view of the Arab world and are somehow convinced that Irans out to get them which is implausible because a nuclear strike on Israel would do horrible things to Palestinains too.

  • JMG

    Until such polling has a question or questions asking the respondent to consider the possibility of the risk of retaliatory nuclear attack on THEM, it is not a sufficient guide to public opinion on this issue. The whole point of Israel’s obsession with Iran getting the bomb, to cite a case in point, is that it would take one to make such a small country pretty much uninhabitable, and this is known to one and all.
    Ask Americans “should we kill people we don’t like at no risk to us?” they’ll say yes. Indicate there’s risk involved, not so many will say yes.

  • Downpuppy

    I suspect that the reason we don’t have survey data from other countries is that the most frequent response would be “You’re insane!”, and a termination of the interview.

    • Ed Marshall

      Not in India or Pakistan. Your average Indian or Pakistani doesn’t understand what nuclear weapons do outside of being a Genie that can destroy their enemies with the push of a button. Public opinion in the sub-continent is terrifying.

      • Anonymous

        India is the only country with an official no first use nuclear policy.

        I’m not sure what is funnier: your utter lack of knowledge of this fact or your talking about India (democratic, sane, also the worlds biggest victim of Islamic jihad) and Pakistan (insane, worlds biggest supporter and enabler of islamic jihad) in the same breath.

        That makes India’s official policy all the more remarkable.

        • also the worlds biggest victim of Islamic jihad

          Not Afghanistan or Pakistan?

        • Ed Marshall

          Do you want to rethink that statement, do some qualifications, reformulate that entire thought, etc.. ?

          That or you could admit that you didn’t have the slightest idea what you were talking about. Honesty is cool to.

        • ajay

          India is the only country with an official no first use nuclear policy.

          No: China (since 1972) and North Korea (since 2008) too.

          • Ed Marshall

            “No first use” policy is simply garbage anyway. It’s meaningless, and choosing to employ one rhetorically is simply a matter of taste. For a number of theoretical reasons, declaring “no first use” may in fact be an indicator that your doctrine is in fact *more* first use heavy.

  • Anderson

    Well, if you make the only difference between the two attacks a matter of “90% effective” vs. “70% effective,” then yeah, people with no clue are going to pick the bigger number, whatever it means. (And I can’t see that it means much of anything here.)

    • Christopher

      It means the absolute probability of the attack succeeding in destroying an Al Qaeda base which we know is in the process of manufacturing a nuclear weapon.

      In other words, yes, people will heavily approve of a nuclear strike to prevent Al Qaeda from getting weapons if a conventional strike is most likely to fail and, one assumes, either lead to the nuclear strike anyway or leave Al Qaeda with a nuclear device.

  • DrDick

    Having grown up in the 50s and 60s, during the height of the Cold War, a couple of things strike me. Then we were constantly bombarded with messages about the horrors of a possible nuclear war (all used to justify why we need more and bigger nukes, of course). We were encouraged to build bomb shelters, did duck and cover drills in school (even then I wondered how that desk would save me), treated to movies about nuclear monsters, among many other messages. You simply do not hear any of that now. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat has not been use of nuclear weapons in convention war, but a nuclear armed terrorist attack. That evokes a completely different set of images. The twin towers instead of Dresden or London in the Blitz. I would also point out that while the academic policy professionals may be united against tactical nukes, the same is not true for politicians and non-academic policy professionals. There are far too many on the right who have routinely called for their use (John McCain and “Bomb, bomb Iran” for instance).

    • JRoth

      I think this is a critical point. Taboos don’t need to be “justified” as such – they’re intended to work at sub-rational levels – but they do need to be reinforced. The Day After reinforced nuclear fear without anyone having to make a cogent, step-by-step argument about why a nuclear exchange would be a problem.

      By now, nukes don’t have any especial horror associated with them (among under-30s), and of course nuking Iran wouldn’t initiate an exchange. Combine that with a lot of irresponsible Iran-related fear-mongering by the right wing (with weak pushback from Dems), and I’m almost surprised that nukes aren’t preferred in the scenario where they’re equally effective.

      • DrDick

        Probably could extend that to most of the under 40s, who would not even have been in their teens when the Soviet Union collapsed.

        • JRoth

          Well, I’m under 40, which is why I drew the line where I did. 35 is probably a safe bound, though.

          Since the collapse of the USSR was so sudden, and because Reagan was scaring the crap out of so many people, I’d argue that people who were teens in the Reagan years were just as Cold War sensitive as their parents had been – it’s not like the Cold War was something we learned about in school, that was merely in some winding down period. The B-1, missiles in Germany, Solidarity, all that stuff was in the air during our worldview/political formations.

  • Sheesh. Young people don’t have a lot of information about the reality of nuclear weapons and the psychology and political gamesmanship behind them. As much as I’d like to forget about the Cold War, I’ll probably remember it in my next life (if I have one). I just tried to find a real mind-blower— a video of a game show (What’s My Line?) in which one of the pilots who dropped one of the bombs apologized for it, a group of victims were present and recognized on the show, and the show was shown without commercial interruption— the advertisers donated the money to a hospital with plastic surgeons who were to reconstruct the faces of many of the victims.

    Since I have my domain up and know how to make pages, I should get to work on “nuclear pages”, because people don’t know what they haven’t been exposed to. The youth can be aroused to curiosity, I think, it’s a property of youth.

    Right now, though, I need to clean the kitchen then finish making the tamales and enchiladas.

    tschuss nay

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  • Christopher

    I think it’s best not to read too much into this.

    The figure cited in the blog post is the response to a question of how America should go about attempting to destroy an Al Qaeda base that is in the process of building a nuclear bomb. According to the article that the respondents read,

    “The smugglers stated there will be enough bomb grade material produced for at least one weapon within two weeks”

    And the percentages are the likelihood that the conventional and nuclear attacks will succeed and destroy the base. In other words, in a high stakes situation where nuclear bombs will prevent Al Qaeda from getting nukes and conventional arms will most likely NOT prevent Al Qaeda from using nukes, 70% of the public would rather use the bombs that actually work.

    I bet we could get the numbers even higher if the choice was between nuclear bombs and building an enormous catapult in New York to hurl rocks at the base from across the sea.

    To me, that’s neither interesting nor surprising, but apparently some people felt that the taboo against nuclear first strikes was so strongly ingrained that it wouldn’t be effected by scenarios where there was imminent danger and conventional weapons were useless, which we could have already known from watching any number of Godzilla movies.

    There’s interesting stuff in this survey, but I’m not sure it’s really that shocking or necessarily relevant to the real world.

    • You want to make a guess at what kind of nuclear blast it would take to destroy a concrete bunker buried deep beneath the surface of the earth and covered with lead? If you dropped the bomb directly into the earth, it would make a crater. Better to use a series of conventionally armed tomahawks, or something like that.

      Or better yet, find out how they get in and out of the structure, seal all the possible entrances and let them sweat it out.

      We’ve ruined a lot of things with conventional weapons and even without using weapons at all . The idea that the possibility of Al Queda building a bomb is so essentially and profoundly threatening that we need to go nuclear is really preposterously stupid, especially given the bullshit intelligence we’ve been given and have manufactured ourselves.

      • ajay

        You want to make a guess at what kind of nuclear blast it would take to destroy a concrete bunker buried deep beneath the surface of the earth and covered with lead?


        • Were you aware that all the yields on nuclear bombs is theoretical?

          • John F

            were you aware that your reply is a complete cop out?

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