Debating Nuclear Deterrence
I was pleased to find that my book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, had been reviewed in Survival (‘The Four Straw Men of the Apocalypse’, Survival, December 2013–January 2014, pp. 179–90). I have a high regard for the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The review itself, however, disappointed. Penned by a French advocate for nuclear weapons, Bruno Tertrais, the review is an entertaining read but does not seriously attempt to engage the arguments of the book.
The reviewer makes much of his assertion that the book fights ‘straw men’. However, the five myths that the book challenges are not straw men. Rather, they are arguments typically used to justify the possession of nuclear weapons: 1) nuclear bombing forced Japan to surrender; 2) hydrogen bombs represent a quantum leap in destructive power and therefore decisiveness; 3) nuclear deterrence is safer and more stable than it initially seemed and actually creates stability in a crisis; 4) nuclear weapons have helped to keep the peace for 60 years; 5) nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. The strength of a critic’s case can sometimes be judged by the fairness with which he states his opponent’s position.
The reviewer’s grasp of the Hiroshima scholarship seems uncertain. He cites Sadao Asada, a well-known and respected Japanese historian who argues for the traditional interpretation of events. But he says Asada’s argument is based on ‘the most up-to-date historical material’ (p. 182). The cited article, however, is 16 years old, and came out before the trove of new information in Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 book Racing the Enemy, Herbert Bix’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan in 2000, or even Richard Frank’s Downfall in 1999.
The review leaves important arguments from the book unreported. The central argument of the longest chapter, for example, is that the real reason to doubt that bombing Hiroshima forced Japan’s leaders to surrender is that the attack did not matter to them. Leaders deal with national interests. They decide what to do based on strategic importance. By the time of the Hiroshima bombing, nearly 80% of Japan’s cities and towns had already been bombed and, on average, 50% destroyed. Only nine cities larger than 100,000 people remained un-bombed after the second week of August 1945. Kyoto had been struck off the list by US Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and three were located on Hokkaido, out of reach of US bombers. So only five major cities remained that could have been bombed. It is hard to make a case that, by that stage of the war, bombing cities was a way of applying meaningful strategic pressure to Japan. There was little left to destroy.
Furthermore, the contention that the bombing of Hiroshima ‘shocked’ Japan’s leaders is doubtful for two reasons. Firstly, there is little documentary evidence of shock (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army General Torashiro Kawabe writes in his diary that the news of Hiroshima gave him a ‘serious jolt’, but, he continues, ‘we must be tenacious and fight on’1). Secondly, Hiroshima was not outside the parameters of the 66 other city attacks carried out that summer (according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey). In terms of the number of people immediately killed, it ranked second behind the conventional attack on Tokyo; in terms of square miles destroyed it was sixth; and in terms of percentage of the city destroyed it was seventeenth. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that when Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo suggested calling a meeting of the Supreme Council (effectively the ruling body of Japan at that point) to discuss Hiroshima, the other members of the council declined.
When the Soviet Union broke its neutrality and declared war, on the other hand, it fundamentally changed the strategic circumstances of the war. Adding another great power to a war will do that. This is the central reason to doubt the traditional story of Japan’s surrender. How could Japan have surrendered over something that was not strategically important (Hiroshima), while at the same time ignoring an event that was of the greatest strategic importance (Russia’s entry into the war)?
The reviewer, intentionally or unintentionally, repeatedly misleads the reader. The clearest example is where he says, ‘Incidentally, “nuclear bombs are not so terrible” is a strange argument to hear from an author who believes that we should eliminate them in large part because they are so, well, terrible’ (pp. 181–2). This sentence misleads in four ways. Firstly, most readers would conclude from the way the sentence is punctuated that the phrase ‘nuclear bombs are not so terrible’ is taken from the book. (Every other phrase similarly set apart by quote marks is a direct quotation from the book or another scholarly source.) But ‘nuclear bombs are not so terrible’ is not a quotation from the book; rather, it is the reviewer’s own characterisation of the book’s argument. Perhaps in this case misleading readers was not the reviewer’s intention. Serious scholars, however, usually avoid putting their own characterisations of another’s work in quotes, and if they do, they are careful to make clear to readers that they are not quoting. Secondly, ‘nuclear weapons are not so terrible’ is a view antithetical to repeated statements in the book (see, for example, the statement on pp. 64–5 that any war in which many nuclear weapons were used would be ‘a catastrophe’.) Thirdly, the book explicitly does not call for the elimination of nuclear weapons (see, for example, p. 122: ‘I am not certain what can or should be done with nuclear weapons. But I am certain that there must be a sweeping reevaluation of nuclear deterrence and the study of nuclear weapons in general.’) Fourthly, I do not believe that the most important argument against nuclear weapons (or in support of their elimination) is that they are ‘terrible’. The book argues that nuclear weapons are dangerous and not very useful – not that they are immoral or especially horrifying.
Elsewhere in his piece, the reviewer asserts that, in a discussion of the strategic environment following the Second World War, the book is guilty of ‘conflating the development of “tactical” nuclear weapons ... with the reduction of the average yield of strategic ones’ (p. 184). Yet nowhere does the book conflate the two. The average yield of a strategic weapon in the US arsenal is estimated to have been roughly one megaton in the 1960s, and is estimated to be about 175 kilotons today. Similar reductions have occurred in the size of the strategic warheads in the Russian arsenal. The reviewer either assumes the book is in error because he does not know these elementary facts, or is purposely misleading the reader. Many similar examples could be cited.
The reviewer is a critic of the views presented in Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, as are others. Views that challenge accepted ideas are rarely welcomed with open arms. Confident critics, however, are certain that their position is strong enough to win on the facts. They do not find it necessary to mislead the reader. One might suspect that the reviewer does not engage fairly with the arguments in the book because he fears to do so. Nuclear weapons are both central to the security of many states and enormously dangerous tools of war. Survival’s readers expect discussions about subjects that matter carried on at the highest level. In the case of this review, sound scholarship and serious debate are lacking.
Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons argues that there are fact-based, pragmatic reasons for doubting that nuclear weapons are necessary. The Cold War was a time of enormous fear, and no one does his best thinking when he is afraid. But the Cold War is over. It is time for a more measured evaluation of these weapons. A careful, factual review of the evidence will show that nuclear weapons are more dangerous than useful, and that there are prudent reasons to reduce our reliance on them.
1 See Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), p. 200.
I thank Ward Wilson for having taken the time to respond to my review essay. His response is unsurprisingly critical. So far, so good: most authors and readers enjoy a thorough and fair intellectual debate. Unfortunately, his response does not meet that standard. Not only does he fail to discuss my main points, but his letter is also unnecessarily acrimonious.
Wilson’s response is off to a bad start: when one begins with arguing ad hominem, it is never a good sign. Why would my French nationality matter? My intuition is that Wilson seeks to discredit the reviewer ab initio by conjuring up the cliché of France as a country of faded glory that desperately clings to its nuclear weapons as a way to compensate for the loss of its empire. As a citizen of that country, perhaps I would be unable to take a dispassionate view and conduct a rigorous analysis of nuclear matters. And my job is not to ‘advocate’ nuclear weapons or anything else. I am of the view that nuclear deterrence is valuable. But I believe that it should be treated as an anomaly, a useful but hopefully temporary evil. Could it be that Wilson (whose nationality and occupation are irrelevant to me) is so troubled by my exposure of the analytical flaws of his book that he defensively goes personal?
He claims several times that I perhaps intentionally ‘mislead’ the reader. But surely my acknowledgement that he is right when discussing his fifth and final myth (‘nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented’) should have been taken by him as a sign of my willingness to engage in an honest intellectual fight. And if I had ‘feared’ to ‘engage fairly with the arguments in the book’, would I have written a 12-page review essay for a major international journal?
Finally, I will not dignify the allegation that ‘sound scholarship [is] lacking’ with a reply. Readers will judge for themselves.
Let us examine the (few) substantial points made by the author in his response.
Wilson challenges my discussion of Japan’s surrender. He claims that my ‘grasp of the Hiroshima scholarship seems uncertain’. The pedantic tone is unnecessary: I do not doubt that he has spent more time than I have on studying the events of August 1945. My point was to make readers aware that his conclusion – that the bombings were irrelevant to Japan’s surrender, and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war was the key to it – is, to say the least, hotly debated in the scholarly literature.
He opposes my contention that the main source I refer to (a seminal 1998 text by Sadao Asada) includes ‘the most up-to-date historical material’. I believe that this is still true, as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 book Racing the Enemy does not use any new Japanese material on the issue of Tokyo’s decision to surrender.1 In any case, Asada’s prudent and balanced conclusion regarding the Japanese decision remains, it seems to me, the most appropriate one.
Wilson invokes Racing the Enemy, as well as Richard Frank’s Downfall, two important books.2 But Downfall does not support Wilson’s thesis. Racing the Enemy is closer, but is also less than convincing on this point. In discussing why Japan surrendered, the book ignores some sources cited by Asada and Frank, and, to repeat, does not use any new Japanese sources.3 It concludes with a curious exercise in which Hasegawa compares two quotes referring to Hiroshima as the main cause of the surrender with three quotes referring to the Soviet declaration as the main cause (one of which is an offhand comment by Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki to his doctor) and seven quotes referring to both as causes.4 The Soviet Union wins by three to two, ergo Hiroshima cannot be the decisive factor. Yes, you read that correctly.
We will not solve this important debate in an exchange of letters. I wish that Wilson had instead addressed my point that, even if he is right, whether the US bombings were the key to Japan’s defeat is largely irrelevant to the value of nuclear deterrence. That is the sort of conversation we need to have.
I also wish that Wilson had discussed my arguments about his second, third and fourth myths. Instead, the rest of his letter is devoted to two minor issues. Furthermore, his complaints on these two points are unwarranted.
Firstly, the author claims that the ‘clearest example’ of my misleading readers is my statement that
He argues that this is misleading because the expression appears between inverted commas, but is not a quote. Like many other printed media, Survival does not differentiate between inverted commas used to place a quotation and those used to express a particular thought. But the fact that there is no page number or reference after this particular sentence implicitly indicated that this was not a quote. (The careful editors of Survival did not see a problem here.)
He laments that such a view is antithetical to other statements in the book, which underline the catastrophic nature of nuclear war. That is correct. But a significant part of Wilson’s argument on the cause of the Japanese surrender is an explanation – complete with graphs and numbers – that the effects of the nuclear bombings were similar, on average, to those of other bombardments of Japanese cities. I believe that my summation of this particular point in the colloquial form of ‘nuclear bombs are not so terrible’ was appropriate.
He frowns on my description of him as someone who ‘believes that we should eliminate’ nuclear weapons. Indeed, the book does not call for such elimination. But Wilson does believe that we should eliminate nuclear weapons. In 2010, he co-signed a report that concluded ‘it is time to set about getting rid of nuclear weapons’.5 In a 2013 article, he wrote: ‘sadly, the abolition movement seems stalled’.6 On this point, his discontent puzzles me.
Wilson emphasises that he does not ‘believe that the most important argument against nuclear weapons ... is that they are “terrible”’. I concede that my expression ‘in large part’ may have been excessive. But since he thinks that they are ‘dangerous’, and that nuclear war would be a ‘catastrophe’ (a point with which I agree), it seems that Wilson wants to have his cake and eat it.
Secondly, the author complains that I mischaracterise a point in the book about the reduction of the yield of nuclear weapons. Since he says that I do so either because I do not ‘know these elementary facts’ or because I am ‘purposely misleading the reader’, and that this is one of ‘many similar examples’, a closer look is warranted.
In his book, Wilson writes that ‘over the past forty years, a curious thing has been happening to the sizes of explosions that bombs are designed to produce: they’ve been getting smaller’ (p. 56). I wrote in my review that by making this statement, he conflated two different historical trends: one was the development of so-called tactical weapons, and the other was the reduction in the yield of strategic weapons due to MIRVing and increases in accuracy. In his response, Wilson claims that ‘nowhere does the book conflate the two’ and refers to the reduction of the yield of ‘strategic’ weapons. But the book does not say that, and the chapter refers to ‘H-bombs’. (Surely, the author knows that a thermonuclear bomb is not necessarily a strategic weapon?) It was entirely legitimate to assume that the author referred to – and conflated – both of these trends.
I should have added that the cause he mentions (‘war planners called for smaller and smaller weapons’, p. 56) is far from being an appropriate summary of what was in fact a complex interaction of strategic, technical and sociological causal mechanisms.
I am surprised that Wilson chose to focus on such points instead of attempting to challenge my substantive counterarguments. This is puzzling, as he claims that a serious conversation about nuclear weapons is overdue.
Despite his grumpy tone, unnecessary barbs, dubious assertions and analytical errors, I remain available for a real discussion of his valuable thesis. I hope to then be able to convince him that four-fifths of it (or four out of his five so-called ‘myths’) is badly supported, disingenuous, irrelevant or reliant on straw men.
1 Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005).
2 Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999).
3 I recommend Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and Sadao Asada, ‘Letters to the Editor’, Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, June 2006.
4 Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, pp. 297–8.
5 Ken Berry et al., ‘Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons: Examining the Validity of Nuclear Deterrence’, Monterey Institute of International Studies, May 2010, p. 70, http://cns.miis.edu/opapers/pdfs/delegitimizing_nuclear_weapons_may_2010.pdf.
6 Ward Wilson, ‘The Myth of Nuclear Necessity’, New York Times, 13 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/opinion/the-myth-of-nuclear-necessity.html.
I was very surprised to see Ben Judah implicitly advocate an illiberal approach to migration policy for Russia (‘Russia’s Migration Crisis’, Survival, December 2013–January 2014, pp. 123–31). Whatever problems Russia has, and there are many, closing off the country from its neighbours cannot solve them.
Although most of his article deals with the social impact of Russia’s current, relatively liberal migration policies, Judah’s prescription seems clear: Russia needs to tighten control over its borders and limit, if not eliminate, migration from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Judah’s rhetoric, calling the migrants ‘serf labour’ (p. 124) and noting their propensity to work for wages lower than those of ethnic Russians, actually bears a striking resemblance to rhetoric that one often encounters from European and American anti-immigration advocates.
Judah’s policy advice for Russia stems from a false assumption that migration and modernisation are inherently in conflict. He writes that ‘without modernisation, increased productivity and higher wages, Russia will have no choice but to import ever more workers to fill the gap’ (p. 125). It is worth noting that virtually every industrialised country, particularly the United States, has imported massive quantities of labour over the past few decades. Indeed, America’s open stance towards immigration is routinely, and accurately, lauded as one of the factors that have allowed its economy to thrive.
At one point, Judah appears to recognise this, noting the similarity between Russia’s difficulties with immigration and the historical experiences of the United Kingdom and France. He then shrugs off this parallel by noting (inaccurately) that neither France nor the UK is still dependent on migration. Every developed country, even the US, is entirely dependent on migration for population growth and, given recent changes in birth rates, the developed world will become more, not less, dependent on migrants.
A quick glance at the one developed country that has not allowed mass migration, Japan, provides an instructive case study of what happens when even a hyper-advanced and technologically sophisticated economy faces a persistently shrinking labour force: stagnation, deflation and unending economic misery. Japan has been in the doldrums since the early 1990s not because its government is corrupt or because its industries have refused to modernise. Japan has made more progress than any other country when it comes to automating manufacturing and replacing people with robots. Regardless, there simply have not been enough workers, and Japanese society has obstinately refused to import them. Were Russia to close its borders in the way that Judah suggests, it would meet exactly the same fate.
Despite the overhyped talk about it being an energy superpower, in per-capita economic terms Russia is at a level of development roughly equivalent to that of early-1950s America. During this era, the American workforce was growing naturally at a strong clip and there was sustained strong demand for both skilled and unskilled labour. Given that history, and the similar experience of successful economic modernisers such as Taiwan and South Korea, Russia seems to have two choices: it can find a way to boost the size of its workforce through migration or it can choose not to develop economically. There is no historical example of a country modernising while its population and workforce are shrinking. The economic performance of countries that do have shrinking populations and workforces suggests that modernisation in the context of demographic decline is impossible.
Migration does not magically solve all problems, as Russia’s recent experience very clearly suggests. But liberal migration policy and liberal economic policy are not in tension with one another, as Judah claims; in fact, they are complementary. If Russia wants to become a dynamic economy, it needs to both lower the structural impediments to doing business and maintain a migration policy that provides an adequate supply of labour.