Nuclear Weapons: Keeping the peace for 60 years?

One of the arguments for nuclear weapons is that they have ‘kept the peace’ for the last 60 years.

Deterring an event is not the same as stopping it. It is possible to deter crime but all that means is that you hope to decrease the probability of it happening. There may be a deterrence affect of nuclear weapons (something that I shall examine in future posts) but there is always a finite probability that it will happen.

President Kennedy put the chances of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at 30-50%. So let us look at three scenarios: one where the chances of nuclear war over the last 60 years was 30%, was 50% or assume that there are other events that could end in nuclear war and assume 70%.


Probability of nuclear war in the future vs time taking various probabilities of nuclear war in the last 60 years.

Since we are looking at probabilities I will use a dice analogy. Let us say that we throw the dice several times and if you throw a six it means nuclear war. You could throw the dice ten times and not get a six. Do you think that since you have not thrown a six that “nuclear war is not going to happen” or do you think “my luck is going to run out soon”. Saying that since we have had 60 years without nuclear war therefore it won’t happen is rather like saying on the 10th September 2001 that terrorists will not fly planes into skyscrappers because it has not happened before.

It is always better to look at the probability of things not happening for reasons I explain here. The probability of not throwing a six is 5/6 and the probability of not throwing a six is 1-5/6 = 1/6. The probability of not throwing a six in ten throws is (5/6)10 = 0.1615 so the probability of throwing a six is 1- 0.1615 = 0.8385 or 83%. The spreadsheet for the graph above can be fount here.

This is a very simple model. The probability of nuclear war would have several components and will increase considerably during various crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.


In this diagram we have several states – Normal, Crisis and Nuclear War. There are various probabilities of going from one state to the other. For example Pcc is the probability that if you are in a Crisis state you will stay in the Crisis state. Pe is the probability of on escalation from the normal state into the crisis state, PAc is the probability that you accidentally go from the crisis state to nuclear war, Pic is the probability of intentionally going from the crisis state to nuclear war etc.

There are several things that you can do to decrease the risk of nuclear war. For example you can have mechanisms for defusing crises (telephone hotlines etc) so that you decrease Pcc and increase the probability of de-escalation Pd. However there is always a finite probability of nuclear war. For example an accidental nuclear war.

There have been several near misses when it comes to nuclear war. In 1983 Russian satellites reported a number of missile launches by the USA. Stanislav Petrov who was manning the control centre decided that these were false alarms and so did not report this to higher authorities. He has become known as the man who saved the world1.

In 1995 the Norwegians launched a scientific rocket. Although the Russians had been notified the message did not get through to the higher command. The Russians thought it was a nuclear attack and prepared for a counter attack. It is the first time ever that the ‘nuclear suitcase’ of any nuclear state has been activated. Luckily President Yeltsin did not press the button.

We could look at PAc – the possibility of nuclear war during a crisis. There were many incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis which could have lead to nuclear war which is one of the reasons that one of Kennedy’s advisers and former secretary for Defense in the US – Robert MacNamara – is pushing for nuclear disarmament3.

I am going a bit off topic here but MacNamara is not the only cold warrior to now be calling for nuclear disarmament. Henry A. Kissinger (secretary of state, from 1973 to 1977), George P. Shultz (Secretary of State 1982-1989), William J. Perry (Secretary of Defense, 1994 to January 1997), Sam Nunn (Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) are also now calling for nuclear disarmament4. Gerernal Lee Butler who was in charge of all the USA nuclear weapons in 1991 is now strongly advocating nuclear disarmament as the only way to avoid nuclear war5.

I shall look into what affect the ‘deterrence’ affect of nuclear weapons had in future posts. It is not possible to say for certain since we cannot go back and re-run the world without nuclear weapons since 1945. One important question is ‘would the USA and Russia have gone to war since 1945 if there had been no nuclear weapons?’. This question is impossible to answer. However, even though there were people advocating war it is by no means certain that it would have happened. After World War 2 many people where not up to yet another long protracted war.Both sides were possibly more fearful of what their own population would do than the other side.

USSR did withdraw from Austria and offered to withdraw from Germany to create a united, neutral Germany6 which would have acted as a buffer between the West and the USSR. The West rejected the offer.

Nuclear weapons where not the reason that there has been peace between France and the UK since 1815 after centuries of fighting or for the peace between the Britain and Russia after nearly a century of ‘the great game’ in central Asia and the Crimea war.

1 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident, Wikipedia (

2 Norwegian rocket incident, WIkipedia (

3 Apocalypse Soon, Robert MacNamara Foreign Policy, May 5, 2005 (

4 Nuclear Tipping Point (

5 Chaining the Nuclear Beast, Lee Butler (

6 Stalin Notes, Wikipedia (


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