Why Have Nuclear Weapons Not Been Used in Conflict Since 1945?
Why have nuclear weapons not been used in conflict since 1945? Nuclear weapons have only ever been used once in human history, and that was during World War II when The United States deployed missiles on Japanese territory, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. At the time of bombing in 1945 only the USA had developed nuclear weapons, whilst today the pool of states consisting of nuclear weapons is still extremely small, with only nine states laying claim to nuclear technology and weaponry. This nuclear proliferation is explained by Darryl Howlett who explains this as the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons.
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For Howlett states are nuclear driven because of the ‘strategic, political and prestige benefits’ attached to nuclear weapons. In the modern world the mass media are often critical about nuclear weapons and the threats they pose for society, but this begs the question; why have nuclear weapons not been used in conflict since 1945? To answer this question the issues of taboo and deterrence and the arrival of virtual nuclear arsenals must be called into question, as well as theoretical ideas such as rationality from proliferation optimists and proliferation pessimists.
I will also look at whether we currently live in a non-proliferation regime, and look at the alternatives for peace and nuclear non-usage. The first area of nuclear non-usage I will look at will be the arguments brought forward by proliferation pessimists and optimists. Kennitz Waltz, a proliferation optimist argues on one hand we cannot stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It’s inevitable because states seek power through nuclear weapons; even smaller, less powerful states align themselves with nuclear wielding states for protection and security.
But on the other hand, Waltz argues states are rational actors, and believes nuclear weapons will be used responsibly, which is why nuclear weapons have not been used. For Waltz, more states who have nuclear weapons, the better. Waltz writes, “A blatant offensive is madness. Nuclear weapons and states that acquire them will reduce the chances of war and lower the intensity of war. ” For Waltz this provides deterrence from the threat of nuclear weapons. If this is the case, it would explain why nuclear weapons were used in the first place; there simply was no deterrence against the United States in Japan.
Arguing against the optimists, Proliferation pessimists have another answer for the non-usage of nuclear weapons. Scott D. Sagen, proliferation pessimist has contradictory views of the state, believing states could be irrational, especially when militaristic figures take over decision making. Sagen argues all military have “organisational behaviour” where by military figures are more likely to resort to nuclear warfare, and for a few who dare to venture, there is always an issue with miscalculation.
Sagen argues the only reason nuclear weapons haven’t been used is because there hasn’t been a war worth using them in. For Sagen disarmament is a means of ending the possibility of a nuclear threat. Furthermore, my next point explores the idea and theory surrounding the concept of taboo as a reason why nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. Taboo is a concept coined by Nina Tanenwald, and it means the ‘tradition of non-use’, in this case nuclear weapons have become stigmatised.
For Tanenwald deterrence alone doesn’t explain why nuclear weapons haven’t been used; Deterrence works though in Tanenwald’s view, but only when working side by side with taboo. With nuclear weapons there are moral, ethical and political costs attached, with Tanenwald stating that a ““moral norm” proscribing the use of nuclear weapons developed during the decades after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks” when talking about the moral issues of nuclear weapons. World opinion is also the biggest political constraint, with many people feeling politically and ethically united against the usage of nuclear attacks.
In addition the norms and values of a society wielding nuclear weapons also matters, with South Africa an example of nuclear disarmament because of social and ethical efforts made by their people. Possibly the biggest example of taboo was during the nineteen year Vietnam War. Nina Tanenwald argues that nuclear were not used, which is obviously true, but using nuclear artillery was heavily discussed by United States forces. Three American presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, all in power during the Vietnam War chose not to use nuclear force.
Tanenwald believes it is the moral, ethical and political factors, the taboo effect which proves non-use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore the concept of taboo and deterrence working together comes from theorist Henry Kissinger who was the Secretary of State under the Richard Nixon administration during the Vietnam War and played a huge roll in United States foreign policy. In his book ‘Diplomacy’, Kissinger writes, “Never have the military gap between the superpower and non-nuclear state been greater. Never was it best likely to be invoked.  Tanenwald would suggest Taboo was working in the concept of Deterrence with Kissinger’s words, possibly signalling the importance of taboo as a reason for nuclear non-use since 1945. The third argument for the absence of nuclear weapons since 1945 is through the concept of deterrence. Deterrence is the measures taken by a state or an alliance of multiple states to prevent hostile action by another, in this case through nuclear weapons. Colin Gray is one theorist who believes because of deterrence nuclear weapons are not used because they are not rational.
According to Gray, taboo holds no truth, so argues against the ideas of Nina Tanenwald fiercely, with Gray going on to say that “it’s too clever” to retaliate from a nuclear missile, so states are deterred from doing so in the first place. Gray and deterrence supporters are worried that if people begin believing in the truth of taboo, states might feel obliged to disarm nuclear artillery, which could prove even more fatal as it will disrupt the balance of power, especially between larger nations.
With less nuclear capable states, there is a fear amongst deterrence supporters one state could use nuclear weapons to enhance their position as an international actor, and cause more war in doing so. In this case, weapons are used as the ultimate form of deterrence, one which maintains the balance of power and eliminates the threat of nuclear strikes. The next area of discussion is the arrival of virtual nuclear arsenals (VNA’s). According to Michael Mazaar virtual nuclear arsenals are where you store and reconstruct nuclear weapons.
When looking at why these have helped prolong the nuclear non-use, virtual nuclear arsenals are important because they eliminate the threat of miscalculation or an accidental bombing. Secondly by having deconstructed weapons, you can store each individual part separately, which means your weapons are harder to steal as they are stored in unknown locations. Mazaar argues that nuclear weapons haven’t been used because VNA’s act as a deterrent from attack. No one will strike your territory with a nuclear missile it they know at some point down the line there will be a retaliation from a VNA.
This means the advantages of having nuclear missiles is weakened because state and military actors are deterred from using nuclear weapons. Ashley J. Tellis backs up this argument brought forward by Mazaar, stating that because of VNA’s, India and Pakistan, two countries with a war-torn history have been deterred from ‘employing nuclear destruction upon one another and mankind’, because each state uses VNA’s, showing that virtual nuclear arsenals have successfully helped stop the use of nuclear weapons since 1945.
The debate of virtual nuclear arsenals is continued and furthered by theorist John Schell, who looks at how weaponless deterrence limits nuclear action. For Schell no nuclear strikes have occurred because by constructing a nuclear weapon deterrence would persist, and VNA’s could be built to counter nuclear missiles. Schell famously quotes “Missile deters missile, bomber deters bomber, submarine deters submarine… Factory deters factory, blueprint deters blueprint, equation deters equation.  In this sense, weaponless deterrence acts as a good strategic form of defence from nuclear attacks, and further explains why nuclear weapons haven’t been used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many would now argue that we live in times of a nuclear non-proliferation regime, which is the limitation of nuclear activity, brought forward by the ‘Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’ (NPT). As many states oppose nuclear weapons, even states with these weapons are often opposed, the NPT, a treaty with 189 state members acts as a treaty to stop the spread and possible use of nuclear weapons.
The treaty was adopted in 1970 and is considered a three pillar system, focusing on non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology, and every five years the treaty is reviewed. It’s worth noting that five nuclear states (The USA, Russia, France, The United Kingdom and China), who collectively make up the permanent members UN security council are all signed up to this treaty. The argument could be made that because of the current NPT regime nuclear eapons pose little and limited threat, and instead of owning nuclear technology for possible war and destruction, rather the emphasis of war has been slowed down to focus on technological improvements with nuclear technology, which could explain why nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. In conclusion nuclear weapons do pose a serious threat to humanity, but as I’ve outlined because of taboo, and deterrence there are too much political and ethical issues attached. Virtual nuclear arsenals now mean nuclear weapons have a secure hiding place, and the possibility of an unexpected VNA strike is deterring people from using weapons.
Others such as Waltz argue that humans and states as are rational and nuclear weapons will be used responsibly, which is the case with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but others such as Sagen argue that we can’t trust states with nuclear decision making and our future is going to be compromised by the elite few who will one day exterminate the human race. But with each day that passes, do nuclear weapons still scare people? Maybe the only war nuclear weapons will become prominent once more and the real issue and effects of nuclear weapons will only become important if one is used.
The alternatives for peace are already here. No, we cannot eliminate nuclear weapons, but with VNA’s the concept of deterrence and taboo, as well as people becoming more rational and aware of the disaster nuclear weapons potentially bring, the safest option, is to hold on to what we have, which is the reminder in Nagasaki and Hiroshima of the damage and destruction that is caused and keep these weapons as a learning tool for the future. Word count: 2079 BIBLIOGRAPHY Gray, C. S. , (2005) ‘Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare’ (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Howlett, Darryl ‘Nuclear Proliferation’ in John Baylis and Steve Smith, The Globalisation of World Politics (Oxford: OUP, 2001, second edition) Kissinger, H. (1994) “Diplomacy” (New York: Simon & Schuster) Mazarr, Michael J. , (1995) ‘Virtual nuclear arsenals’, Survival 37:3, pp. 7-26 Sagan, S. D. , (1994) ‘The perils of proliferation: organisation, theory, deterrence theory and the spread of nuclear weapons’, International Security 18(4): 66-107 (E-Journal). Schell, J. , (1984) The Abolition (London: Pan Books) Tannenwald, N. (1999) ‘The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-use’ International Organization 53(3): 433-48 Tellis, A. J (2001) India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (Santa Monica: RAND) Waltz, K. N. (1981) ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better’ Adelphi Papers, 171. Available at: http://www. mtholyoke. edu/acad/intrel/waltz1. htm ———————–  Howlett, Darryl ‘Nuclear Proliferation’ in John Baylis and Steve Smith, The Globalisation of World Politics (Oxford: OUP, 2001, second edition)  Waltz, K. N. (1981) ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better’ Adelphi Papers, 171.
Available at: http://www. mtholyoke. edu/acad/intrel/waltz1. htm  Sagan, S. D. , (1994) ‘The perils of proliferation: organisation, theory, deterrence theory and the spread of nuclear weapons’, International Security 18(4): 66-107 (E-Journal).  Tannenwald, N. , (1999) ‘The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-use’ International Organization 53(3): 433-48  Tannenwald, N. , (1999) ‘The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-use’ International Organization  Kissinger, H. 1994) “Diplomacy” (New York: Simon & Schuster)  Gray, C. S. , (2005) ‘Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare’ (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)  Gray, C. S. , (2005) ‘Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare’ (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)  Mazarr, Michael J. , (1995) ‘Virtual nuclear arsenals’, Survival 37:3, pp. 7-26  Mazarr, Michael J. , (1995) ‘Virtual nuclear arsenals’, Survival 37:3, pp. 29-92  Tellis, A. J (2001) India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (Santa Monica: RAND)  Schell, J. , (1984) The Abolition (London: Pan Books)