How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

Here are links to each post:

In a nuclear confrontation, we count on “them” being rational enough to be deterred by the consequences, but cannot be deterred ourselves or we “lose.”
A 1995 USSTRATCOM report recommends that we cultivate a national persona that is “irrational and vindictive if [our] vital interests are attacked.
President Nixon believed that, where deterrence was concerned, it was to his advantage to appear “unpredictable, even rash” because “the unpredictable president will win another hand.”
Following his own advice (see Part 3),  President Nixon created a false nuclear alert to scare the Russians, in the belief that it would aid him in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon said, “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob.”
In addition to the risks inherent in President Nixon consciously making irrational nuclear threats (see Parts 3 and 4), he suffered from suicidal ideation in his final months in office, as Watergate brought his political life to an end.
Drug or alcohol abuse is another potential source of irrationality in nuclear deterrence. This problem has affected a number of top nuclear decision makers, including JFK, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin, and Tony Blair.
How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 7
Military officers are trained to fight wars, while the only rational use for nuclear weapons would be to prevent war. Putting nuclear weapons under the command of military officers therefore introduces the risk that logic which applies to conventional weapons will be misapplied to nuclear weapons.


How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

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2 Responses to “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?”

  1. Dot Sulock July 2, 2012 at 10:38 AM #

    How true! I, too, am concerned about these dangers. We need to educate the public, both in high school, college, and colleges for seniors! Right now I am hoping to get PSR members to teach courses in colleges for seniors on nuclear weapons issues. Sadly, the proliferation of nuclear power exacerbates the dangers. Thus emphasis on renewable energy (sufficient and affordable these days) is necessary also, yet pretty much slighted by the nuclear weapons nonproliferation gurus.


  1. How Risky is Nuclear Optimism? » Teaching Nonproliferation - July 2, 2012

    [...] Security, in an article titled “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?”  Read the blog at or read Professor Hellman’s earlier article “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism” [...]

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