Part I: A Critical Examination of “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence”

Several years ago, Ward Wilson presented in this journal a wide-ranging challenge to what every generation of national security scholars and practitioners since the end of World War II has been taught about nuclear weapons. He asserted that nuclear deterrence amounts to far less than its proponents have claimed and provocatively suggested that nuclear deterrence is a myth. Relying upon both empirical and theoretical objections to nuclear deterrence, he concluded that its failures were clear-cut and indisputable, whereas its successes were speculative. Yet in spite of a flourishing trade in scholarly articles, think tank reports, blog posts, and opinion pieces concerning nuclear deterrence, nobody—including nuclear weapons scholars—has ventured more than a limited critique of Wilson’s essay. There are, however, serious shortcomings in Wilson’s arguments—deficiencies that make his essay an unpersuasive brief against nuclear deterrence. Wilson’s thesis could be correct. His arguments, however, are unlikely to persuade any skeptical members of Congress, upon whom future progress in arms control depends, to reconsider the value they attach to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.