Facing Nuclear and Conventional Reality

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear deterrence formed the foundation of U.S. national security policy. The United States relied upon its nuclear arsenal to deter a strike not only upon its own territory, but upon allies in Europe and Asia as well. While the robustness of deterrence and the health of the U.S. arsenal were the subject of debate, a broad consensus among decision makers and the general public supported America’s reliance upon nuclear weapons.

Since the end of the Cold War, a number of arms control advocates, politicians, and military officers have argued that the United States should substantially reduce its reliance upon nuclear weapons. Taking that argument to an extreme, a loosely knit group of retired military officers, scientists, and defense intellectuals maintains that the elimination of nuclear weapons should be an explicit goal of the United States. The abolitionists contend that the only plausible use of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack and that getting rid of nuclear weapons would eliminate this rationale. Although those holding more moderate views find this argument impractical, they too are ambivalent about nuclear deterrence, claiming that the risk of accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons outweighs any conceivable benefit. Some abolitionists and many military officers maintain that conventional precision-guided munitions (PGMs) offer an effective alternative to nuclear weapons.

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