Mutual assured destruction

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Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. The term "mutual assured destruction", commonly abbreviated "MAD", was coined by Donald Brennan to argue that holding weapons capable of destroying society was irrational.


  • The world of Mutual Assured Destruction did in its mad way maintain the peace between the superpowers, although it came desperately close to failing in a series of errors, false alarms and miscalculations, most spectacularly in 1962 and in 1983. The world was lucky to have survived. Very lucky.
  • What never happened, despite universal fears that it might, was a full-scale war involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. The leaders of these countries were probably no less belligerent than those who had resorted to war in the past, but their bellicosity lacked optimism: for the first time in history no one could be sure of winning, or even surviving, a great war. Like the barbed wire along the Hungarian border, war itself-—at least major wars fought between major states—had become a health hazard, and therefore an anachronism. The historical currents that produced this outcome are not difficult to discern. They included memories of casualties and costs in World War II, but these alone would not have ruled out future wars: comparable memories of World War I had failed to do so. J. Robert Oppenheimer hinted at a better explanation when he predicted in 1946 that "if there is another major war, atomic weapons will be used." The man who ran the program that built the bomb had the logic right, but the Cold War inverted it: what happened instead was that because nuclear weapons could be used in any new great power war, no such war took place. By the mid-1950s these lethal devices, together with the means of delivering them almost instantly anywhere, had placed all states at risk. As a consequence, one of the principal reasons for engaging in war in the past—the protection of one's own territory—no longer made sense. At the same time competition for territory, another traditional cause of war, was becoming less profitable than it once had been. What good did it do, in an age of total vulnerability, to acquire spheres of influence, fortified defense lines, and strategic choke-points? It says a lot about the diminishing value of such assets that the Soviet Union, even before it broke up, peacefully relinquished so many of them.
  • There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. And this we're trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union. We're not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. Now for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction; if either resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, the other could retaliate and destroy the one who had started it. Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?

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