The Heart of Deterrence

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 19th, 2012

Deterrence theory is one of those ideas that seems pretty easy at first glance but gets more deeply muddled on closer inspection. I have a bomb, you have a bomb, thus we won’t bomb each other, right? If only it were so easy.

Panels from How to Live with Atom, a cartoon printed by the Washington Post in 1947, trying to illustrate “what the atomic scientists have been telling us.”

The historian Spencer Weart has a great passage on what he calls the “insoluble paradox in deterrence theory” in his book, Nuclear Fear, which doesn’t seem to have been included in its recent reissue, The Rise of Nuclear FearIt’s one of my favorite little bits of the book, though:

From the 1950s on the sharpest analysts left ambiguities, internal contradictions, and blind leaps of logic in their writings. Most writers changed their position from one year to the next and sometimes, it seemed, from one page to the next.

An example of the muddle was the failure of most writers to define clearly even the key term “deterrence.” Sometimes it meant, as the French translated the term, “dissuasion.” That meant arranging things so that enemies would deduce, like chess players, that they should not launch an attack because it was clear they would not win the game. Other times deterrence meant what the Russian translation frankly called “terrorization,” which did not address the intellect at all. Of course, military logic on the one hand or an appeal to raw fear on the other might well require different strategies and even different hardware. But most thinkers mixed the two approaches, evading refutation in one mode of thought by shifting indiscriminately to the other.

Ever since I read that, I was taken with the idea that the French and the Russians translated this supposedly simple English word — “deterrence” — quite differently. For the French, it is dissuasion nucléaire, a high-minded, philosophe-style expression of modern rationality. For the Russians, they often used ustrasheniye (устрашение), a word which invokes terror and horror and dread.1

Where Weart sees a muddle of expression, though, I see an ambivalence of concept. Deterrence fully understood requires both of these meanings. Is about rational actors, game theory, and logical persuasion — but the method of persuasion is threatening to burn everybody alive. It’s about nations being rationally terrified of each other’s capabilities.

This fundamental ambivalence of concept shoots through all of our cultural depictions of deterrence, as well. It’s not a surprise that most of the defense intellectuals depicted in books and films are simultaneously both of these things. Dr. Strangelove is of course the canonical, genre-defining case: coldly rational, but also completely psychotic.

There are lots of idealized representations of deterrence. Often it is talked about it as if it were a “standoff” situation, with two pistoleros holding guns to one another’s heads. Visually these make sense: we’re talking about two superpowers, each ideally with a second-strike capability, so that if one attacks the other, the other has time to counter-attack. Ergo, nobody will attack — out of self-interest.

But when we transpose the metaphor to reality, things get complicated. There’s not just two people with guns. Each “person” is really an entire nation. The decision-making capabilities are not located in one brain or one set of sensory organs, but distributed over thousands of miles and thousands of human beings, each looking at the situation through quite different lenses (literally and figuratively). The guns may not themselves be evenly matched — one side may have the ability to strike faster, or deadlier, than the other. One side may be convinced they can “ride out” an attack better than the other. One side may have higher or lower confidence in their own capabilities, or the capabilities of the opposite. And so on.

Self-interest itself may not be evenly distributed. Was the U.S. President, or the Soviet Premier, personally threatened by nuclear war at all times in the Cold War? Do the people with their hands on the button have a personal stake in it? Do they have a bunker under a mountain to hide in, with their families? What is really being threatened in such a situation is an entire nation, but not necessarily the individual who has their hand on “the button.” In financial terms this potentially runs the risk of being a “moral hazard” — the equivalent gambling with someone else’s money. Of course, these people have loved ones, too, and not everyone can fit under that mountain.

“Gently…” — still of the ICBM launch switch from the 1983 ficitional film, The Day After. Via this site.

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Owen Chamberlain once proposed an improvement to deterrence based largely on reducing the possibility of a moral hazard, though he didn’t put it in these terms. He wrote to the president of the Federation of American Scientists in the mid-1980s with the following suggestion:2

The idea I want to have looked over is this:

The 200 most important political and military persons in each superpower should be required to provide one family member who could act as a hostage by living inside the other superpower. Thus, every powerful politician or general would have one family member.

I claim this might be arranged easily, is really quite inexpensive, and I believe it has the potential of putting the world in a different frame of mind. It might make nuclear war seem out-of-the-question to all.

The hostages—maybe one can find better word—could be children or grandchildren or perhaps nephews and nieces. We could afford to have excellent schooling for the hostages, for the number involved would be very moderate.

I admit is a gimmick. However, it seems to me to be a gimmick with more than the usual protection for the dollar.

In essence, moral hazard is avoided if everyone has some skin in the game — especially the people who have their fingers on the metaphorical buttons.

It’s a gimmick, as Chamberlain admitted. But it’s a fairly profound one: the idea of “hostages” sounds abhorrent (even he dislikes the word) until you realize that in the “normal” deterrence situation, we — members of the non-button-pusher classes — are already hostagesThat’s the real beauty of Chamberlain’s idea: he’s taking the existing situation, where all of the children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews are already threatened by nuclear war, and proposing to make it explicit and unignorable for those in positions of influence.

On a similar vein, Stephen Schwartz passed on this amazing suggestion that the late Roger Fisher made in the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, again attempting to bring the personal back into the often coldly “rational” logic of nuclear warfare:

 There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.

And that’s truly the heart of the deterrence, isn’t it? That mixture of the the coldly logical and the deeply emotional — the fact that in some essentially way, both of these valences are essential for the concept to work, and yet, they are also both deeply incompatible in some way. For how many people can remain coldly logical if they have to engage the truly personal head-on, as human beings? 

One parting anecdote: J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1953, famously compared the nuclear situation to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” Sometime later, a newsman attempted to replicate the visual metaphor on television, and got himself stung by one of the scorpions in the process. I.I. Rabi wrote to Oppenheimer that the physicist’s many enemies would probably blame that on him, too.

December 2014 update: the Fisher story was featured in a Radiolab episode, “Buttons without Buttons,” that I participated in.

  1. If Wikipedia is any indication, the concepts of “deterrence” and “containment” are much more closely linked in Russian discussions than they are in American discussions. My sense is that in the US, “containment” means a specific policy that included but extends beyond nuclear threats — the nuclear threat is taken as a given, and containment means all of the other stuff you do beyond that. In Russian “containment theory” appears to be used more or less synonymously with “deterrence theory,” which I am somewhat surprised to see. Perhaps someone more versed in the Russian strategic literature can elaborate on whether this is true or not. []
  2. For what it’s worth, I’m the one who dug this letter up from his archives a long time back and selected it to be part of an exhibit at the Bancroft Library related to the celebrations of Oppenheimer’s 2004 Centennial conference. I cannot recall if I or someone else labeled this as “somewhat tongue in cheek” — there were a number of people involved in writing the captions, and also there was a separate person who later transferred all of this to the web. []

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17 Responses to “The Heart of Deterrence”

  1. Pavel Podvig says:

    In Russian, “deterrence” is normally translated as “сдерживание”, not “устрашение” (although, according to Google “устрашение” was more popular until about mid-1960s). I wouldn’t make too much of the deterrence/containment thing – it’s just a lack of a good Russian word. Normally, it’s understood from the context which concept is discussed.

    • Tim says:


      Ray Garthoff has an excellent discussion on the selective use of the relatively benign-sounding сдерживание vs. the terrifying устрашение by the Soviet media and political elites in order to influence popular views of Western policy and intentions in “Deterrence and the Revolution in Soviet Military Doctrine” (1990). This would track (in gross terms) with your ngram results.



    • Thanks, Pavel. The “lack of a good Russian word” is the interesting bit, though.

  2. Mike Lehman says:

    The comment from the Pentagon’s point of view about not wanting to let the nasty business of killing get in the way of making a decision about killing illustrates the fundamental disconnect of relying on the “rational logic” of deterrence. Even when humans believe they are acting rationally, they often aren’t. Then there are the ones that clearly aren’t rational, but somehow ended up with their finger near the button in the vast social structures of the national security state.

    And that leaves aside entirely chance factors such as a moonrise setting off nuclear war through misunderstanding, system errors, or failure to follow protocols.

    My evaluation of deterrence is that it was a fall-back position of justification for every contemplated use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were made to be used. Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the horrors of such use are very difficult to justify if evaluated dispassionately be most people. One has to almost will oneself to ignore the moral dimension of of using them in order to discuss it.

    On the other hand, deterrence — whatever it is — implies that weapons won’t be used, at least if it’s successful. Thanks goodness deterrence works better than the thought put into it by so many as the morally neutral fallback position because they are uncomfortable about just bluntly making an argument of the need to incinerate and irradiate millions.

    On the other hand, don’t get complacent. See my first paragraph.

    “Deterrence” is the universal solvent for those trying to make the case for the “rationality” of a nuclear weapons-dependent foreign policy. Will they be used? Not if deterrence works. And when and if it fails, we’ll understand what a distraction using deterrence to rationalize the present situation is. The Cold War may be over, but Cold War ideas like faith in deterrence as a substitute for confronting honestly the offensive business of justifying the possession and potential use of nuclear weapons still lingers on. This is not because deterrence is successful, but because humans are still unable to face up to the eventually unsustainable reality of always living life 30 minutes from the end of the world.

  3. Iain Coleman says:

    Unlike the US or Soviet cases, the UK decision makers had a very personal stake. The UK plan was that the Prime Minister would remain in London until the last minute – which would almost certainly mean he or she would be among the first casualties of a large-scale nuclear exchange.

    This is why the UK decided against the kind of system that the US installed whereby nuclear weapons could only be launched once an authorisation code had been issued by central command. It was considered likely that the PM and the nominated nuclear deputy minister could be killed before any such command could be issued, and therefore submarine commanders had to be able to launch a counterstrike autonomously.

    I don’t know if this gave UK PMs in general a different perspective than their US or Soviet counterparts. It would be interesting to find out.

    • Thanks, Ian — that’s a wonderful point of comparison.

      • Alex says:

        Not many have discussed it. Alec Douglas-Home (V-Force era, PM 1963-1964, Conservative, ex-Army) has and gave the impression he might have been willing to launch even on the basis of a NATO conventional debacle in Western Europe, but it’s not clear whether he was talking about the UK National strike plan and the Moscow criterion, or about tactical nuclear weapons supporting SACEUR or SACLANT.

        Jim Callaghan (Polaris era, PM 1976-1979, Labour, ex-Navy) has and said he would have had no compunction in retaliating after a nuclear strike on the UK.

        Denis Healey (both V-Force and Polaris eras, PM’s Designated Deputy for Retaliation as Defence Secretary 1964-1970 and Foreign Secretary 1976-1979, Labour, ex-Army) has discussed it in much more detail, and says both that he wouldn’t have done it even had the UK been nuked, and that he gave the order more than once during Transition-to-War exercises, doing so in the interests of a successful system test and credible deterrent posture. Now that’s some moral complexity right there.

        AFAIK nobody else has talked, and I believe Healey is the only retaliation deputy whose name is known publicly. My source here is Peter Hennessy’s *The Prime Minister*.

        UK prime ministers would likely have been asked early on, as the Royal Navy was the prime antisubmarine force for NATO and we planned to use nuclear depth charges at sea. Those weapons were NATO-only, but any NATO use required the Supreme Allied Commander in question to be authorised by the North Atlantic Council, and the British commander in the chain (COMEASTLANT, the double-hatted RN Chief of Naval Staff) had the right of final appeal to national authorities, i.e. the Chief of Defence Staff and the PM.

  4. J B says:

    The fundemental logic of ‘family hostages’ is not that different from how many of the monarchies achieved various alliances with other nations through the use of marriage.

  5. Ben says:

    The hostage idea reminds me of (it may have inspired, or the idea may have occurred more than once) a story by Pamela Zoline called “Instructions for Exiting This Building in Case of Fire,” from 1985. Reading the story it seems naturalistic until one gradually realizes that the protagonists are engaged in a surreptitious network creating a similar hostage situation for deterrence purposes – but then the consequences are brought home in a personal and devastating way. It is really well done, it’s not simply genre fiction. It is not that easy to remember now how the threat of nuclear war loomed behind one’s everyday thoughts, just a few decades ago.

  6. […] Roger Fisher, Quelle: Restricted Data […]

  7. anon says:

    The UK sub commanders were each given a letter from the Prime Minister of the day. That letter was only to be opened when conditions for a potential nuclear launch were at hand (loss of communication, signs of strikes by enemy, etc.). It would be the grim job of each new leader to write what was effectively a last will and testament on whether or not they wanted that blood on their hands and the choice was made long before things got hot while they were still calm. The letters were burned after that leader stepped down and a new letter given. It is reputed that some simply told them to stand down or wait it out, for adding more death and nuclear ash to the world wasn’t going to help matters.

    • Tom says:

      I’ve always thought that was a rather clever system in some ways, though still very, very far from perfect – the ideal for deterrence is to have the enemy convinced you’ll always retaliate. The ideal for minimising harm to human beings and maximising the chances that human civilisation of some sort will continue, however, is that nobody ever retaliates, even if they do get nuked. The “unknown but fixed prior orders” trick is a way of both retaining reasonable deterrence but, for more morally inclined leaders, of minimising the net harm to human beings in a nuclear exchange and not committing war crimes, whilst also making Cuba-style brinksmanship and face-downs less appealing (no point trying to intimidate someone into not deciding to do something when the decision is already made and now out of their hands) and yet keeping the judgement of human submarine officers in the loop so that it hopefully lowers (but does not zero) the odds of accidental first strike from false positives of incoming attack or some other failure to hang on to the dead man’s handle due to an inadequately programmed computer or something. Of course, Dr Strangelove, Crimson Tide and other nightmarish faildeadly scenarios are still very uncomfortably conceivable.

      The best case scenario is if every single prime minister put an order in the envelope saying “Do nothing if they nuke us. Threatening to fire back was supposed to prevent the destruction of the things you care about, but actually firing back once they’ve already been destroyed achieves nothing but the further and extensive harm of innocents, and the whole species.” The trouble is that it stops working if your opponent ever finds out that that’s what you’re doing; hence, it is instead the private and personal decision of each PM, which is hopefully sufficiently unpredictable that enough uncertainty can be maintained in the mind of any enemy. Of course, that’s assuming the particular PM doesn’t a) make it too publicly clear what they think about nuclear weapons, a difficult proposition given how popular they are for debates and campaign policies, or b) prove easy to psychoanalyse.

  8. Randy says:

    I think a different moral hazard is in play, at least in the US (but I suspect it’s true elsewhere too). The very existence of the discipline of history makes leaders very aware of their place in history. I’ve seen this personally up close in a couple of instances.

    The fear is that if they started a catastrophic war they would be regarded as monsters in the history of the world and they don’t want that.

    • Mike Lehman says:

      I wish historians could make some claim to such powers, but I’m a bit of a skeptic about how often this occurs. Certainly, if one were to look at non-nuclear subjects, I’d argue against the idea we have much power beyond the social embarrassment that accompanies acts of questionable judgment. That whole Iraq thing is just not going to look good on Bush II’s permanent record…

      Generally historians disclaim any power to be predictive. We don’t have any crystal ball to gaze into, because the past is not a very good guide to the random stupidity and incompetence of that accompany the contingencies the human race frequently faces.

      Maybe historians should also disclaim any “preemptive” power, too?

      I could have predicted Iraq was going to be a costly disaster, but that’s not the historian in me, just my human intuition and the small bit of me talking that once had an inclination towards political science, a field well-known for its infatuation with prediction — and plenty of examples of why certain disciplines are not so eager as political scientists to predict things, let alone assume we might be able to preempt them.

  9. Colin says:

    I took a hop over to that link and read the interview with the missileer. His statement that they were the deterrent, based upon their assumption that their Soviet counterparts would do the same, reminded me strongly of the prisoner’s dilemma. In this case, though, cooperation meant total destruction, inverting and hugely magnifying the payoffs.

  10. […] paradoxes at the core of nuclear weapons policies. Deterrence is a tricky-enough strategic issue, a mixture of  military logic and raw fear. Tactical nuclear weapons add complicated wrinkles. Were they merely a means of making deterrence […]

  11. […] Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control is a great read if you are interested in how this problem gets addressed over the course of the Cold War. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August is, in part, a great description of how these issues were wrangled with even in the earliest days of nuclear weapons as political control transferred from Potsdam to Washington and Tinian. If I could add footnotes to radio interviews, I would prominently name-check both of these books — they greatly improved my own understanding of this. As did the work of my friend Dan Volmar, who is writing a dissertation on US command and control systems. And I need to give a massive hat-tip to Stephen Schwartz, who clued me into the Roger Fisher “cut the heart out” that I wrote about a few years back. […]

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