Should the US Nuke Iran and Syria?

In a recent article, “Will the U.S. Defend Itself?”, economist Walter Williams seems to make a case for nuclear war on Syria and Iran. His case cries out for a response. Here’s mine.

I preface by noting that Williams and I both earned our Ph.D.s in economics at UCLA and that he is one of my colleagues with the Hoover Institution. He is also one of my favorite writers on popular economics topics. He virtually always upholds the principles of economic freedom in his writing and does so crisply, cleanly, and powerfully.

In this recent article, Williams at first seems to be advocating dropping nuclear bombs on Iran and Syria. Later in the article, Williams retreats briefly from this viewpoint, sort of.

Williams writes:

“Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism – without risking the life of a single soldier. . . . I’m not suggesting that we rush to use our nuclear capacity to crush states that support terrorism. I’m sure there are other less drastic military options. What I am suggesting is that I know of no instances where appeasement, such as the current Western modus operandi, has borne fruit.”

If Williams is not suggesting the use of nuclear weapons, then why did he use most of his article to suggest it? And if he thinks “other less drastic military options” might work, why doesn’t he tell us what these options are? A reasonable conclusion is that he might actually want the U.S. government to drop nuclear bombs on people, but doesn’t dare say so until he sees what the reaction is.

What is Williams’s argument for having the U.S. government drop nuclear bombs on people in the Middle East? He doesn’t really give one. Williams doesn’t bother to establish in what way terrorists in Syria or Iran are a threat to Americans. The closest he gets is to say that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was responsible for the 1983 murder of 241 U.S. military members in their barracks in Beirut. That was a horrible act, but it was an action against Americans on Hezbollah’s own soil. If a U.S. terrorist group had attacked and killed 241 Iranian military members that had established barracks in, say, New Jersey, would Williams think that, 23 years later, the Iranian government would be justified in dropping nuclear bombs on people in the United States? I think he wouldn’t. But why not? As long as I have known him, Walter Williams has argued from principle. What principle would he use to say that it’s wrong for the Iranian government to bomb Americans in that hypothetical situation?

If one wants to make a case for dropping nuclear bombs on people in other countries, one has to face up to the Hiroshima problem: was the U.S. government’s nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Williams realizes this and does not hesitate to justify these attacks. The concern about the innocent lives lost, he writes,

“would have fallen on deaf ears during World War II when we [note his use of “we” – to see what’s wrong with that, go to my ‘Who is “We”?’] firebombed cities in Germany and Japan. The loss of lives through saturation bombing far exceeded those lost through the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Williams is right on two out of three facts. He’s right about the relative numbers of deaths from fire-bombing vs. atom bombs. He’s also right that few U.S. military decision makers during World War II worried about the hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese killed by the fire-bombing. He’s wrong, though, about the atom bomb. While it’s true that Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes and President Harry Truman were particularly hard of hearing on the issue of innocent people being killed by the atom bomb, a large swath of senior U.S. military men thought it was horrible. I document this in my article, “Remembering Hiroshima.”

But notice that Williams avoids making his case. To say that an objection would have fallen on deaf ears at some time in the past is not to say that the objection has no merit. Williams would have never made this rhetorical mistake in writing about, say, minimum wage laws. He, as do I, opposes the minimum wage. [For Williams’s case, see his “Minimum Wage, Maximum Folly.” For my case, see “If Only Most Americans Understood.”] Williams argues, correctly, that the minimum wage keeps many unskilled workers out of work. If he were told that such objections fall on deaf Congressional ears, as they seem to lately, he wouldn’t change his position one iota. He has never judged a policy by whether he can persuade others. I think Walter Williams would passionately oppose the minimum wage even if no one listened to him. And kudos to him. Why do his standards for argumentation fall so low when he gets to foreign policy?

And it’s not just Williams’s standards for logical argument that seem low when it comes to foreign policy. One wonders where Williams gets his facts. Consider this quote from his article:

“After the battle of Midway, and the long string of Japanese defeats in the Pacific, including Guam, Okinawa and the Philippines, had today’s Americans been around, they’d be willing to negotiate with Japan for peace, pointing to the additional loss of lives if we continued the war. More than likely they would have made the same argument in 1945, when German defeat was imminent. Of course, had there been a peace agreement with Japan and Germany, all it would have achieved would have been to give them time to recoup their losses and resume their aggression at a later time, possibly equipped with nuclear weapons.”

But the U.S. won the battle of Okinawa in June 1945, when Japan was on its last legs. The Japanese government was already interested in ending the war, and the main sticking point was whether the “unconditional surrender” desired by the U.S. government meant that Japan would have to give up its emperor. Ironically, after Truman steadfastly refused to let the Japanese know that unconditional surrender did not necessarily mean giving up the emperor – a clarification that would have obviated the need for dropping the bomb – Truman let Japan keep its emperor anyway. Williams’s idea that surrendering and keeping the emperor in June or July of 1945 would have allowed the Japanese to “recoup their losses” in any militarily threatening way has no support.

In the previous quote, and in the rest of his article, Williams uses the term “today’s Americans” in a denigrating way. He writes, “Today’s Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II.” That’s true in certain ways, but not in the way that’s most relevant to his argument. As I document in "Remembering Hiroshima," Dwight Eisenhower, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, General Douglas MacArthur, Ambassador Joseph Grew, and former president Herbert Hoover, to name a few, all opposed dropping the bomb. They did so on humanitarian grounds. Even Curtis LeMay, although he had no humanitarian objection, claimed that the atom bomb had not been necessary for winning the war without invading Japan’s main islands.

Finally, with regard to minimum wage laws, why does Williams care about unskilled youths not being able to find jobs? I think it’s because he’s a compassionate man who cares about people trying to make their way in what is often a tough world. It would be nice if he had the same compassion for the millions of innocent people in Iran and Syria who are trying to make their way in countries that have really horrible governments.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at