The Nuclear Taboo

It’s fitting, on the first anniversary of my column, to go back to the first issue I wrote about: the awarding of the 2005 Nobel prize in economics to game theorist Thomas Schelling. In particular, I want to highlight Schelling’s acceptance speech of Dec. 8, 2005. The speech, which is also the lead article in the September 2006 American Economic Review, is titled, "An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima."

The speech, in both its topic and method, is vintage Schelling. Most modern economists write about things the vast majority of people would not care about even if they stripped away the mathematical formulas and understood the message. Not Schelling. Most of his topics are ones that many people care about, and this speech addresses one that is meaningful to virtually all of us: the importance of avoiding the use of nuclear weapons. And in his analytic reasoning, Schelling takes into account the fact that we are human – specifically, that we act on tacit knowledge that we might not even be able to express, but that we all (well, most of us) have.

Schelling begins:

"The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger."

This is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. It would be one thing for this accomplishment to have happened in a world whose governments were headed by people of the caliber of Pope John Paul II. It’s astounding for it to have happened in this world.

Think about the kinds of people who have been heads of governments with nuclear weapons. They, like heads of governments generally, were not, to put it mildly, the most moral people. Free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, in his 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom, which warned of the dangers of creeping totalitarianism in Britain, the United States, and other countries, devoted a whole chapter to explaining why relatively immoral people tend to be the heads of powerful governments. The chapter was titled, "Why the Worst Get on Top." Hayek explained that in order to be successful, the head of a powerful government must be unscrupulous. The more we learn about heads of powerful governments, the clearer it becomes that some of the most successful, at least at holding on to and using power, have been among the most unscrupulous. One need only think of Woodrow Wilson throwing his political competitor Eugene V. Debs in prison and refusing to release him even after World War I had ended, Franklin Roosevelt threatening to pack the Supreme Court in order to get his way, or J. Edgar Hoover wiretapping Martin Luther King in order to intimidate him. And those are all people in a government that has had less power over its people than most other governments in the world. Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung murdered millions of their own people – and yet did not dare use nuclear weapons.

Why not use nuclear weapons? One obvious reason is that they have been afraid that if they do so, the government whose country they use them against will retaliate. But what’s striking is that governments with nuclear weapons have decided not to use them even when the victims would have been countries whose governments had no nuclear weapons. And this happened, argues Schelling, because a taboo against nuclear weapons gradually grew and took hold.

One of the people Schelling quotes who noticed – and hated – this taboo was President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. On Oct. 7, 1953, Dulles stated, "Somehow or other we must manage to remove the taboo from the use of these weapons." Dulles and Adm. Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that one reason for the United States to use nuclear weapons to help defend the French government at Dien Bien Phu was precisely to break the taboo, to make the use of atomic bombs internationally acceptable.

This taboo is very strong. Schelling points out various times at which governments with nuclear weapons must have been tempted to use them: Truman against Chinese troops in Korea (remember that Truman had had some practice), Nixon in Vietnam, the Israeli government in the 1973 war with Egypt, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands. In all cases, the weapons, had they been used, would have been used against a non-possessor of such weapons.

Toward the end of his speech, Schelling turns his attention to the threat that Iran’s government or terrorist groups will get nuclear weapons. And his reasoning again is vintage Schelling:

"What else can Iran accomplish, except possibly the destruction of its own system, with a few nuclear warheads? Nuclear weapons should be too precious to give away or to sell, to [sic] precious to waste killing people when they could, held in reserve, make the United States, or Russian, or any other nation, hesitant to consider military action. What nuclear weapons have been used for, effectively, successfully, for sixty years has not been on the battlefield or on population targets: they have been used for influence.

"What about terrorists? Any organization that gets enough fissile material to make a bomb will require many highly qualified scientists, technologists, machinists, working in seclusion away from families and occupations for months with nothing much to talk about except what their A-bomb might be good for, for whom….

"They will conclude – I hope they will conclude – over weeks of arguing, that the most effective use of the bomb, from a terrorist perspective, will be for influence. Possessing a workable nuclear weapon, if they can demonstrate possession – and I expect they will be able to without actually detonating it – will give them something of the status of a nation. Threatening to use it against military targets, and keeping it intact if the threat is successful, may appeal to them more than expending it in a purely destructive act. Even terrorists may consider destroying large numbers of people as less satisfying than keeping a major nation at bay."

Schelling ends with a warning to the U.S. government and, without naming him, to President Bush:

"The most critical question about nuclear weapons for the United States Government [notice his use of "G" in "Government" – this is what people, especially those who’ve worked in the U.S. government, do when they write about the specific government and its head] is whether the widespread taboo against nuclear weapons and its inhibition on their use is in our favor or against us. If it is in the American interest, as I believe obvious, advertising a continued dependence on nuclear weapons, i.e., a U.S. readiness to use them, a U.S. need for new nuclear capabilities (and new nuclear tests) – let alone ever using them against an enemy – has to be weighed against the corrosive effect on a nearly universal attitude that has been cultivated through universal abstinence of sixty years."

In other words, the taboo has worked for 60 years. Don’t mess with it.

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