In his classic The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1989), Lawrence Freedman, the dean of British military historians and strategists, concluded: ‘The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.’ Despite his nakedness, this emperor continues to strut about, receiving deference he doesn’t deserve, while endangering the entire world. Nuclear deterrence is an idea that became a potentially lethal ideology, one that remains influential despite having been increasingly discredited.
After the United States’ nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, war changed. Until then, the overriding purpose of military forces had ostensibly been to win wars. But according to the influential US strategist Bernard Brodie writing in 1978: ‘From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.’ Thus, nuclear deterrence was born, a seemingly rational arrangement by which peace and stability were to arise by the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD, appropriately enough). Winston Churchill described it in 1955 with characteristic vigour: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.’ Importantly, deterrence became not only a purported strategy, but the very grounds on which governments justified nuclear weapons themselves. Every government that now possesses nuclear weapons claims that they deter attacks by their threat of catastrophic retaliation.