How did we forget about mutually assured destruction?

Mushroom cloud from nuclear testing

Fifty years ago this week the idea of mutually assured nuclear destruction was outlined in a major speech. But how did this frightening concept of the Cold War fade from people's psyches?

Today the notion of all-out nuclear war is rarely discussed. There are concerns about Iran and North Korea's nuclear programmes and fears that terrorists might get hold of a nuclear bomb.

But the fear of a war in which the aim is to wipe out the entire population of an enemy has startlingly diminished.

In 1962, the concept of mutually assured destruction started to play a major part in the defence policy of the US. President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, set out in a speech to the American Bar Foundation a theory of flexible nuclear response.

In essence it meant stockpiling a huge nuclear arsenal. In the event of a Soviet attack the US would have enough nuclear firepower to survive a first wave of nuclear strikes and strike back. The response would be so massive that the enemy would suffer "assured destruction".

Thus the true philosophy of nuclear deterrence was established. If the other side knew that initiating a nuclear strike would also inevitably lead to their own destruction, they would be irrational to press the button.

Arms race between Soviet Union/Russia and the US since 1962

warheads (000s)

*The US line only includes warheads in the Department of Defense stockpile, which was declassified in May 2010. Several thousand additional retired but intact warheads are awaiting dismantling, probably 3,500-4,500 as of August 2010.

Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

October 1962

October 1962 Cuban missile crisis - US blockades Cuba after photos show Soviet missile bases being built there.

May 1972

May 1972 Salt 1 (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) is signed by Nixon and Brezhnev

March 1983

March 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) is proposed by Reagan, threatening to alter the Cold War balance of power

December 1987

December 1987 Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

December 1991

December 1991 the Soviet Union formally breaks up, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

In the past, wars had been fought by defeating your opponent on the battlefield by superior use of force. But MAD was a radical departure that trumped the conventional view of war.

The age of MAD heralded a new fear, with citizens knowing that they could be annihilated within a matter of minutes at the touch of a button several thousands of miles away.

"The central thing was the public had no control," says Dr Christopher Laucht, a lecturer in British history at Leeds University. "You were at the mercy of political decision makers. Apart from the fear that one side would do something stupid, there was also the fear of technology and the question of 'what if an accident happened'."

The arms race

Mask with mushroom cloud reflected in eyepieces, Thinkstock photo
  • US dropped first atom bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki
  • Estimated death toll between 150,000 and 250,000
  • It took the USSR until 1949 to explode their own test bomb
  • Resulting arms race peaked in 1986 with global nuclear warheads numbering more than 69,000
  • Arms race ended in 1991 with fall of the USSR

Eight months after McNamara's speech the notion of MAD was almost put to the test by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the end both superpowers gave ground and the problem was averted but mankind had never come so close to doomsday.

Following a period of Cold War detente in the 1970s, tension rose again in the 1980s. By this point the Soviet Union had many more warheads, and it was commonly said that there were enough nuclear arms on Earth to wipe the planet out several times.

The fear of impending attack became a part of everyday conversation. Children speculated in the playground about the first signs of a nuclear attack - hair and fingernails falling out - and whether one could survive a nuclear winter.

In 1983 there were a number of Russian false alarms. The Soviet Union's early warning system mistakenly picked up a US missile coming into USSR airspace. In the same year, Nato's military planning operation Able Archer led some Russian commanders to conclude that a Nato nuclear launch was imminent.

A string of films and TV series in the 1980s - from WarGames, Threads, and When the Wind Blows - reflected these fears.

On the set of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb On the set of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Sometimes the black humour emanated from unlikely places. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan famously said in a radio soundcheck: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Cuba protest in 1962 Protesters in Khrushchev and Kennedy masks in 1962

The authorities tried to offer reassurance. In the UK a famous public information campaign Protect and Survive gave people advice on how to build a nuclear shelter. It was later satirised by When the Wind Blows, which portrayed an elderly couple building their shelter and perishing in the nuclear aftermath.

Two decades after the Cold War ended, there are still more than 17,000 nuclear warheads around the world, the majority still pointing back and forth between the US and Russia. But MAD as a public fear has disappeared.

"In the Cold War there was a small risk of utter nuclear catastrophe," says Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University.

Today the risk is not so much armageddon but a "slippery slope" of proliferation, he says. North Korea is thought to have around 10 warheads, Rogers notes, while Iran is thought to be close to a nuclear bomb.

Some have speculated Saudi Arabia could follow if Iran succeeds and it's been suggested that Israel already has more than 100 warheads.

The deterrent effect?

In the National Review, Clifford D May writes: "During the Cold War, the United States adopted a strategic doctrine called MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. The logic behind it was both perverse and compelling: So long as we were vulnerable to missile attack by the Soviets, and so long as the Soviets were vulnerable to missile attack by us, neither side would benefit by attacking first - on the contrary, a devastating retaliation would be assured. Assuming that both we and the Soviets were rational, the result would be a stand-off, stability, and peaceful coexistence.

"Veterans of the Cold War, still influential in the foreign-policy establishment and the Obama administration, believe that if this kind of deterrence worked then, it can work now.

"Missile-defence advocates - I list myself among them - counter that MAD is an idea whose time has come and gone."

The most serious stand-off today is not the US and Russia but the prospect of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which "tens of millions would die", Rogers suggests. And the danger in any of these regional disputes is that the US and Russia get sucked in and what began as a war between two neighbours goes global.

"The fear of nuclear war has diminished partly because the risk has receded significantly with the end of the Cold War," says Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. "But another factor might be simple changes in risk fashion - it becoming more popular recently to worry about global warming, for example."

More immediate worries are terrorist attack, pandemic disease, and economic meltdown.

Robert Harris in his recent novel The Fear Index examined the modern anxiety that fuses the threat of powerful technology with unbridled financial markets.

The main character, who runs a hedge fund, remarks: "Fear is driving the world as never before... The rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalisation, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the internet."

These are modern fears that John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, leading the superpowers at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would struggle to comprehend.

But the end of the Cold War hasn't removed the nuclear warheads. Relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated in recent years. China, whose nuclear programme is little understood in the West, is doubling its military spending. India and Pakistan remains a potential flashpoint. So why don't people fear nuclear war as they used to?

For many analysts the world is now a less stable place than it was during the Cold War. And all the major geopolitical confrontations still revolve around nuclear weapons, says Dr Nick Ritchie, lecturer in international security at the University of York.

"At least several hundred American and Russian nuclear missiles remain on 'hard alert' capable of being launched within minutes. Even if that isn't necessarily the policy or intent, the systems and practices remain in place."

The ghost of MAD remains even if people would rather not think about it.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    if both sides seek martydom: what then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    @5. Feral Bankers Stole My Cash
    "Governments always like to use made-up threats, to scare the electorate."

    Agreed and well said.
    But as "6. NewDelee" explains, I would qualify that with "Western gov.s".

    No concrete walls to knock down here, Only walls in the mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    MAD worked during the Cold War because two 'fairly' sensible and almost democratic nations were involved in the posturing.

    Things have changed now, however, and with Iran possessing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver it no country is safe. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Ahmadinejad presses the red button on his desk... followed then by Israel, Russia, United States et al.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Six weeks from now- we will be talking about the unfolding crisis in Iran as the west fights the second war in the middle east on behalf of the Israelis and whether that will go Nuclear. I would imagine in the not too distant future - Israel will become the second country to use Nuclear weapons in a conflict.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    How did I lose my fear? Quite simply...I learnt love the Bomb instead!..

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The greatest nuclear threat at present comes from irresponsible commercial use of nuclear power generation. A serious incedent would render a huge proportion of a small nation like the UK uninhabitable. Nuclear power is still far too expensive and unsafe. However there is also a risk of an extremist ideological government (Iran, USA, China?) using a single nuclear strike to force an issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The fact that suicide bombers often make provision for their dependents after their death indicates that they do not function in a totally irrational fashion. They expect their families (and nations) to live on.

    Countries like Iran should be left in no doubt that they will be wiped off the face of the Earth if they or their proxies attack us. SAD, Singular Assured Destruction: it won't be mutual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    9 Minutes ago
    17.Russia was not a 'made-up' threat. Oh yes it was. From thousands of wartime tanks bolstering their numbers ..."

    Oh, but it wasn't! What Russia has (has always had, and still has) are huge numbers of people, and a willingness to sacrifice many of them for the greater good (as they perceive it). You only have to look at the Nazi's Russian offensive to see that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    This might not be USSR v. USA - there are many places these days where this could happen.

    Two boys:

    The clever one studies physics and grows up to design nuclear weapons.

    The stupid loudmouth one grows up, goes into politics and DECIDES WHETHER OR NOT TO USE such weapons.

    Scary? Personally, I'm terrified.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    FEAR is a tool used by GOVERNMENTS to CONTROL people.

    People have greater access to information and thie lessens the power of governments and the control they have over the people who vote them in!

    Long may it continue!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    MAD tends to bring stability (barring mistakes), as nobody can win.
    What's arguably more dangerous is to attempt to justify a 'limited' use of nukes. Some elements within the US are guilty here, with their nuclear bunker-buster programme which they tell us is necessary to hit deep underground targets. If one was actually used, who knows what that would escalate into.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    RE No 15 MrJimMorrison

    An asteroid hit is highly likely, and over deep time, a certainty. Small asteroids hit our atmosphere every day. Larger ones hit the surface once a month or so. There's a near miss every day and one big enough to cause nuclear type damage will hit eventually.

    Alien invasion is unlikely, but not at all impossible.

    Most of your other statements are equally ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "Eight months after McNamara's speech the notion of MAD was almost put to the test by the Cuban Missile Crisis."

    In fact the notion of MAD /was/ put to the test by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and averted the war that that would almost certainly have broken out otherwise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.


    A lot can happen in 1000yrs - just look at the last 1000yrs!
    I've amended your chart to show my views on each event:

    Climate change - guaranteed
    Pandemic - guaranteed
    Supervolcano - unlikely
    Economic meltdown - guaranteed
    Asteroid hit - unlikely
    Global population growth - guaranteed
    Resource depletion - guaranteed
    Alien invasion - unlikely
    Nuclear exchange - probable

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    It was a dangerous philosophy that meant only a mad man would push the button. Given that those in charge of the button are politicians that gives me no confidence. However it does raise the interesting point that as wars are no longer winnable through superior force and no one wants to go nuclear, you may as well solve international disputes over a high stakes game of cards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    nuckear war is rarely discussed and thus no longer feared as it was, the problem being that M.A.D was a brilliant and moronic idea at the time, using the "what if?" clause of the human psyche to prevent a disaster world over, but nukes are no longer an everyday topic so, out of sight out of mind

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    i think it was "gorby" who saved us. a very patient, calculating russian from the ukrane. he waited his turn, became leader and had the guts to be the first to put down the gun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Very good article and very true. I am in my late 40s and I indeed remember a time - particular through my teens - when the threat of nuclear war was all consuming and for some obsessive. People became pre-occupied about building fall out shelters and how to survive a 'nuclear winter'. Terrorism and global warming now occupy our minds - perhaps we should not be so blasé about MAD!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.


    Climate change CERTAIN, it's here now.
    Economic meltdown CERTAIN, it's here now.
    Global population growth ALMOST INEVITABLE, a major nuclear was is about the only thing that will prevent it.
    Resource depletion ALMOST INEVITABLE.
    Nuclear war ... a few bombs let off by terrorists or rogue states, likely. Major war, neither likely nor improbable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I agree a sane person would never use a Nuke but unfortunately not all leaders are sane. Would Hitler have used one if he had them at the end of WWII? I think he would have and even if it meant the destruction of Germany as he felt They had let him down. The problem is the genie is out of the bottle and the cork has swollen and will not go back in. The fear may have receded but the threat has not


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