At the dawn of what came to be dubbed our "nuclear era," strategist Bernard Brodie, in a book dramatically titled The Absolute Weapon, laid out two facts about the new bomb: "It exists" and "its destructive power is fantastically great." Brodie certainly got his facts right. But his implication -- that the bomb would prove to be fantastically important -- has scarcely been borne out over the ensuing decades.
In fact, the bomb's impact on substantive historical developments has been minimal: Things would likely have turned out much the same if it had never been developed. The only real effect of nuclear weapons is humanity's unhealthy obsession with them, a preoccupation that has inspired some seriously bad policy decisions. With a declarative certainty he never would have used in discussing physics, Albert Einstein once proclaimed that nuclear weapons "have changed everything except our way of thinking." But instead it seems that the weapons actually changed little except our way of thinking -- as well as of declaiming, gesticulating, deploying military forces, and spending lots of money.
Nuclear weapons are, of course, routinely given credit for preventing or deterring a major war, especially during the Cold War. However, it is increasingly clear that the Soviet Union never had the slightest interest in engaging in any kind of conflict that would remotely resemble World War II, whether nuclear or not. Its agenda mainly stressed revolution, class rebellion, and civil war, conflict areas in which nuclear weapons are irrelevant.
Nor have possessors of the weapons ever really been able to find much military use for them in actual armed conflicts. They were of no help to the United States in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq; to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; to France in Algeria; to Britain in the Falklands; to Israel in Lebanon and Gaza; or to China in dealing with its once-impudent neighbor Vietnam.
In fact, a major reason so few technologically capable countries have actually sought to build the weapons, contrary to decades of hand-wringing prognostication, is that most have found them, on examination, to be a substantial and even ridiculous misdirection of funds, effort, and scientific talent.
But though they may have failed to alter substantive history, nuclear weapons have had a great impact on our collective subconscious. As historian Spencer Weart notes, "You say 'nuclear bomb' and everybody immediately thinks of the end of the world." In service of that perspective, Earth has been routinely depopulated by nuclear bombs on film and videotape, twice in 1959 alone.