On the 70th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we celebrate the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which claimed that nuclear war was a suicide pact. Yet the scientists who argued this would happen faced plenty of criticism, and politicians sought to undermine the theory for gain, not unlike the debate we are having on climate change today...

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible indeed. Yet not only did they lead to the end of World War II, but also may have saved us from global nuclear Armageddon in World War III. It's hard to believe that the nuclear doctrine of deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction, once faced the same level of skepticism as climate change faces today. In fact, MAD science may be soon rejected by those who seek a nuclear weapon advantage.

Believe it or not, the term "Mutual Assured Destruction" is a lot like the "democracy" or the "Big Bang Theory," coined by a critic in a mocking fashion. Aristotle may have created the term democracy, but thought of it as akin to mob rule, and something to be avoided. Scientist Sir Fred Hoyle who came up with term "The Big Bang Theory" hoped to make its proponents sound silly, as he himself believed that the universe emerged over many years. Donald Brennan, a MAD opponent, came up with the term, ironically to discredit the theory. But like the Big Bang Theory and democracy, it caught on.

Scientists who studied the early nuclear blasts found them to be far more lethal than expected, leading to many accidental exposures unintended. They began to realize that even if one side destroyed the other, everyone would die from the radioactive fallout, particles blocking the sky to produce a nuclear winter akin to a holocaust. Those approaching the problem from a political science, economic, game theoretic or futurist approach saw the costs of nuclear war far exceed any (non-radioactive) benefits.

But their findings were met with skepticism, as the nuclear buildup continued. They could even be seen as dare you tell us we can't win a nuclear war?! They could be seen as giving the enemy an advantage; if we only built 20,000 nuclear weapons, our opponents could build 40,000 and overwhelm us. It was a doctrine of peace, even surrender, for critics.

Yet Defense Secretary Bob McNamara began to see the logic. America's nuclear buildup began to taper off in sheer numbers, and the Soviets did pass us. Unfortunately for the USSR, they failed to learn the lessons that building weapons that could destroy the world several times over were not only ineffective, but costly. By the time saner heads reached the top of Soviet politics and their military, it was too late for them.

Even America had to grapple with crippling budget deficits and recessions for weapons never to be used, which would have killed us if they were ever fired. But Americans and Russians nevertheless survived the Cold War, though both sides seem intent on repeating the mistakes of the past with ballistic missile defenses designed to stop a superpower, instead of an accidental or rogue state launch, or a new generation of fewer, more destructive weapons.

Scientists concerned about our energy policies and consumption habits have sounded a similar alarm about the effect of both on the environment. The response has been to pooh-pooh their results or criticize them as anti-capitalist, not wanting to win the race for benefits from the global economy.

The only question is whether we'll learn from history, as Americans just barely did in the 1960s, or suffer the fate of the Soviet Union, which ignored the science until it was bankrupt and powerless to use its weapons.

by: John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at [email protected].


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