Exaggerating the alarm over a nuclear attack

How much should the prospect of a nuclear attack frighten us? In the view of John Meuller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, our worries about nuclear weapons and their use by sovereign states and stateless terrorists border on obsession. Fact is, he points out in "Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda," published by Oxford University Press, nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II. In this controversial book, he argues that efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction have themselves caused widespread suffering and violence.


Beyond doubt, nuclear weapons are the most effective devices ever fabricated for killing vast numbers of people in a short period of time. However, the damage nuclear weapons can inflict has very often been rendered in hyperbolic, even apocalyptic, terms.

The likely impact of a single atomic explosion has often been exaggerated, and then the impact of a single, smaller explosion has often been casually equated (or conflated) with the impact of a series of larger ones. As historian Spencer Weart describes the process, "You say 'nuclear bomb' and everybody immediately thinks of the end of the world."

Exaggeration goes back to the dawn of the atomic age, and much of it has been intentional. As one atomic scientist put it early in the Cold War, "only one tactic is dependable -- the preaching of doom."

Thus, in 1946, A-bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer maintained that three or four men with smuggled atomic bomb units could "blow up New York." Although expanding fires and fallout might increase the effective destructive radius, a groundburst Hiroshima?size device would "blow up" about one percent of the city's area -- terrible, of course, but not the same as destruction 100 times greater.

It has also often been maintained that the mere existence of the weapons means they must necessarily explode -- and usually soon. It was in 1960 that novelist/scientist C.P. Snow proclaimed it a "certainty" that, unless new restrictions were put into place, "within, at the most, ten years, some of those bombs are going off."

Postured exaggeration has become particularly commonplace in the wake of 9/11. Commentators have routinely insisted that terrorists armed with atomic weapons present an "existential" threat to the United States, civilization, world security, the modern state, mankind.

Thus, former Central Intelligence Director George Tenet is confident that if terrorists "manage to set off a mushroom cloud," that would "destroy our economy," but never bothers to explain how the tragic destruction of three square miles somewhere in the United States would lead inexorably to the economic annihilation of the entire country.

Concern about nuclear weapons and about their awesome destructive capacity is certainly justified. But routine exaggerations and the obsessions so inspired have often led to policies that have been unwise, wasteful, and destructive -- sometimes even more destructive than the bombs themselves.

During the Cold War, the United States invested, by one calculation, enough money in the weapons to purchase everything in the country except for the land in order to deter the Soviet Union from committing direct aggression that it had no intention of undertaking in any circumstance. In addition, wars to prevent fully deterrable and containable countries from obtaining nuclear weapons have been fought and devastating economic sanctions have been inflicted -- at a cost of more lives than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 21, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Only a professor of political science at Ohio State University, would be stupid enough to make the statement that "a groundburst Hiroshima?size device would "blow up" about one percent of the city's area". Why don't you ask an ACTUAL SCIENTIST degreed in Nuclear Physics about how much of NYC would be destroyed if an Atomic blast from a Hiroshima size atomic bomb were to go off in the downtown area of NYC. This clown reminds me of all the poly sci professors who sided with Reagan talking about a winnable nuclear war. Another reason this statement is so idiotic is the fact that why would anyone build a bomb today with the exact blast yield of the Hiroshima bomb, your talking technology that’s 65 years old. Why would anyone today do that? Its like saying lets build a radio today that has the same capabilities as my grandfather’s 1943 Philco. This is what happens when social scientists make uninformed remarks about the world of real science, they convince people like Reagan that you actually can win a nuclear war. If he would have just taken the time to go over and talk to the professors at the physics department at Ohio State, they would have gladly told him how idiotic this statement is.

Posted by: kobeb | January 21, 2010 1:22 PM

The destruction of micro-electronics from the EMP (electro magnetic pulse) alone would probably incapacitate NYC and much of its surrounding areas for months if not years.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | January 21, 2010 3:58 PM

Prof. John Meuller says that trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons is causing more harm than would the nuclear weapons themselves.

If translated into practical conclusions, it goes like this: suppose Iran develops a nuclear capability, so what? Suppose there is a nuclear war in the Middle East: big deal, just one percent of something will be blown up.

And why should Israel worry about Iran, so fully deterrable and containable?

In simple terms his advice sounds to me like this: let's sit back and relax, until the nuking starts. And then it probably won't be a big deal anyway.

Posted by: anofech | January 21, 2010 5:24 PM

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