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.
Because of this anxiety, legions of strategists have spent entire careers agonizing over "nuclear metaphysics," as the late Robert H. Johnson labeled it in his brilliant but neglected book, Improbable Dangers. However, while the metaphysicians were calculating how many MIRVs could dance on the head of an ICBM, few bothered to consider that the threat of military aggression they were attempting to deter essentially didn't exist.
The result was a colossal and absurd waste of funds. During the Cold War alone, it has been calculated, the United States spent enough money on these useless weapons and their increasingly fancy delivery systems to have purchased somewhere between 55 and 100 percent of everything in the country except the land.
We have also endured decades of hysteria over the potential for nuclear proliferation, even though the proliferation that has actually taken place has been both modest and substantially inconsequential. When the quintessential rogue state, communist China, obtained them in 1964, CIA Director John McCone sternly proclaimed that nuclear war was "almost inevitable." But far from engaging in the "nuclear blackmail" expected at the time by almost everyone (except Johnson, then working at the State Department), China built its weapons quietly and has never made a nuclear threat.
Still, the proliferation fixation continues to flourish. For more than a decade, U.S. policy obsessed over the possibility that Saddam Hussein's pathetic and technologically dysfunctional regime in Iraq could in time obtain nuclear weapons (it took the more advanced Pakistan 28 years), which it might then suicidally lob, or threaten to lob, at somebody. To prevent this imagined and highly unlikely calamity, a war has been waged that has probably resulted in more deaths than were suffered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Today, alarm is focused on the even more pathetic regime in North Korea, which has now tested devices that if detonated in the middle of New York's Central Park would be unable to destroy buildings on its periphery. There is even more hysteria about Iran, which has repeatedly insisted that it has no intention of developing the weapons. If that regime changes its mind or is lying, it is likely to find that, except for stoking the national ego for a while, the bombs are substantially valueless, a very considerable waste of money and effort, and "absolute" primarily in their irrelevance.
As for the rest of the world, the nuclear age is clearly on the wane. Although it may not be entirely fair to characterize disarmament as an effort to cure a fever by destroying the thermometer, the analogy is instructive when it is reversed: When a fever subsides, the instrument designed to measure it loses its usefulness and is often soon misplaced. Thus far the former contestants in the Cold War have reduced their nuclear warheads by more than 50,000 to around 18,000. Other countries, like France, have also substantially cut their nuclear arsenals, while China and others have maintained them in far lower numbers than expected.
Total nuclear disarmament hardly seems to be in the offing -- nuclear metaphysicians still have their skill sets in order. But a continued decline seems likely, and experience suggests that formal disarmament agreements are scarcely necessary in all this -- though they may help the signatories obtain Nobel Peace Prizes. With the demise of fears of another major war, many of the fantastically impressive, if useless, arms that struck such deep anxiety into so many for so long are quietly being allowed to rust in peace.