How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

A new book tackles the myths that have grown up around nuclear weapons.


Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, by Ward Wilson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 187 pages, $22.00.

Baby boomers grew up with nuclear bomb drills, premised on the interesting idea that plywood desks could provide adequate shielding from a radioactive apocalypse. That dubious notion has disappeared, but other assumptions limp on. In Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Ward Wilson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, tackles widespread misunderstandings associated with the world's nuclear arsenals.

Wilson carefully analyzes Japan's surrender in World War II and several supposed instances of nuclear deterrence at work, upending many accepted narratives. When he strays beyond history, however, his arguments become murky. His lapses into the abstract can be forgiven, though, in light of his thought-provoking breakdown of the reasons behind the development and spread of nuclear weapons.

Did Japan surrender in World War II in direct response to the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Wilson suggests it isn't so. He assembles the correspondence of high-ranking officials to indicate that Japan's leaders were far less impressed with atomic warfare than they are portrayed in retrospect. The destruction of a city was by no means unique—Hiroshima's obliteration followed the destruction of 66 prior cities through conventional means. Those other staggering losses had not prompted surrender.

According to Wilson, the Soviet Union played a more decisive role than nuclear weapons in concluding World War II. Japan's leaders had prolonged a doomed war effort in hopes that inflicting staggering losses on the United States might lead to a conditional surrender. If America lost heart, the thinking went, Japan could feasibly keep some of its conquests, or at least spare its leaders from the same fate as the German war criminals already on trial in Nuremberg.

Those hopes were crushed when the Soviet Union, hitherto neutral in the Pacific Theater, declared war against Japan. Japan's entire military was already dedicated to forestalling an American invasion. The prospect of Russians advancing through the empire's unguarded back door meant imminent and unquestioned defeat.

Wilson's chronology lends credence to his theory of Soviet-induced capitulation. Americans bombed Hiroshima on August 6th. Yet it wasn't until August 9, the day after the U.S.S.R. entered the war, that Japan's Supreme Council convened to discuss surrender. These deliberations were already underway by the time word of Nagasaki's destruction reached Tokyo, meaning that the second atomic bomb had not itself prompted talks of surrender.

Wilson provides a coherent explanation for why official declarations from the emperor and his regime nonetheless point to atomic bombs, and not Russians, in forcing their surrender. Japan's rulers had maintained a doomed war effort for months, lied to the public, and led their country through years of disastrous warfare that ruined the economy and left millions dead. An unforeseen weapon of unfathomable destruction provided a convenient rationale for ending the war.

Wilson moves on to question the efficacy of nuclear deterrence in crises. During the Cuban missile crisis, he notes, President John F. Kennedy risked mutual atomic annihilation with the Russians. Even before Kennedy's risky blockade, Soviet missiles could have reached American soil. The president chanced unspeakable destruction over political posturing, not actual military significance. Wilson deftly asks, "If fear of nuclear war prevents leaders from taking steps that might lead to nuclear war, then why wasn't Kennedy deterred?"

He then explains three additional instances in which the world narrowly avoided atomic destruction. In 1962 an American spy plane accidentally strayed 300 miles into Soviet airspace, prompting both countries to send fighter jets in after it; the American jets were armed with air-to-air nuclear missiles, ensuring that if a confrontation had occurred, it would have been an immediately catastrophic one. That same year the United States attempted to force Soviet submarines patrolling Cuba to surface by means of deploying non-lethal depthcharges. One captain, hounded for two days and unable to contact Moscow, considered the possibility that World War III was already in action above. He ordered an officer to prepare his sub's nuclear missile for firing, but cooler heads prevailed before he joined a phantom war.

The same day, Soviet forces shot down an American spy plane over Cuba. Kennedy and his advisors had agreed ahead of time to attack whatever SAM missile site downed an American craft, but the president refrained from ordering a counterstrike and thereby avoided a military escalation. Wilson notes that if detterence is not entirely foolproof, we cannot rely on it.

When departing from these historical analyses, Wilson's arguments grow fuzzy. In disputing the "game changing" nature of H-bombs, he asserts that hydrogen bombs are not as destructive as we suppose. Even though modern nuclear payloads have exponentially greater yields than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima, they do not translate into exponentially greater destruction. This point seems somewhat academic, however, when considered within the context of the some 45,000-bomb arsenal that Russia had pointed at us in 1988, or even the mere 10,000 presently maintained. More than enough for both sides to wipe each other out, with spares left to make the rubble bounce.

In disputing Myth Five, "There is No Alternative," Wilson relies on a series of his own theories and mental exercises to show that abandoning nuclear weapons is possible and desirable. He responds to the argument that "the genie is out of the bottle" with nuclear arms and that we therefore cannot go back, for example, by bringing up penny-farthing bicycles and perambulators. These antiquated bicycles with the giant front wheels and baby carriages with built-in gas masks did not disappear because we had to disenvent them, he says, but fell out of use when we realized the technology lacked utility. So too with nuclear weapons.

This abstract approach is an odd way to address to the issue, given the myriad instances of successful nonproliferation efforts he could have referenced instead. Countries like Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland once assumed that atomic bombs were merely the next development in military technology and that they would certainly acquire them eventually. South Africa was for a brief period a nuclear power, but in 1989 became the only nation in history to voluntarily disassemble its arsenal. There are only eight confirmed nuclear states instead of the 30 there could have been. (Primary credit for that arguably goes to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency.)

These facts illustrate proven strategies for nuclear reduction, and they are evidence that stockpiling weapons of mass destruction is by no means inevitable. Yet Wilson strangely eschews these examples in favor of his own conjecturing, fittingly concluding his book against nuclear weaponry not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Despite these shortcomings, Wilson has produced a quick, digestible, and intelligent read. Even diehard Mutually Assured Destruction theorists will gain a deeper understanding of the history surrounding nuclear weapons, and most readers will begin to doubt the quasi-magical qualities often attributed to atom bombs.