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Vol. LXIII, No. 11
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
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Perception vs: Reality: Wilson Says Nuclear Weapons Are Misunderstood

Ellen Gilbert

Are nuclear weapons “the ultimate insurance?”

Independent scholar and Associate Director of the Princeton Coalition for Peace Ward Wilson is sure that they aren’t. Speaking at a lunchtime seminar at the Princeton Program on Science and Global Security last week, he pointed out that they’ve only been used once, and that their “interpretation” is up for grabs.

In previous publications, including the Doreen and Jim McElvany $10,000 prize-winner for the “most outstanding essay on nonproliferation” last year, Mr. Wilson has argued against the commonly-held perception that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski ended World War II in the Pacific. Among his arguments is strong evidence that points to Russia’s entry into the war as the real tipping point.

At last week’s discussion, Mr. Wilson described current discussions of nuclear weapons as lacking in “scope,” despite the fact that they are “getting a lot of attention.” He cited the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) essay signed two years ago by George P. Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William J. Perry that called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. The powerful response to this original piece encouraged the authors to add another WSJ posting a year ago reiterating their contention that “deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.”

Mr. Wilson furthered his own case against the usefulness of nuclear weapons by pointing to the many wars that have been carried on in the last 50 years, despite the presence of nuclear arms in the countries involved. “Nuclear weapons did not make war unthinkable; they didn’t provide diplomatic leverage; they didn’t prevent invasions, and they didn’t ensure victory,” he observed. What they do best, he has acknowledged in his previous work, is destroy cities, and destroying cities has not, with the exception of Carthage, won wars. That wars will continue seems a given, he observed last week, noting the Victorians’ certainty that war was a thing of the past, in ironic contrast to the carnage that followed.

The Program on Science and Global Security, a research group at Princeton University since 1975, became a unit of the Woodrow Wilson School in July 2001. The program seeks to “provide the technical basis for policy initiatives in nuclear arms control, disarmament, nonproliferation, and biosecurity policy options.” Its faculty and research staff include Frank von Hippel, Harold A. Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Laura Kahn, Zia Mian, and graduate student Scott Kemp. Retired Institute for Advanced Studies Physics Professor Freeman Dyson, and Coalition for Peace Action Director Rev. Robert Moore were among the audience members at last week’s seminar, where Mr. Wilson’s particular focus had to do with “enforcing a world free of nuclear weapons,” in which countries would monitor each other for “cheaters.” A rogue country’s possession of a single, or even “a handful” of nuclear weapons would be largely ineffectual, he pointed out, and even having 100 wouldn’t do the trick, since that number would be clearly apparent to others, and according to the conclusions of a 1949 military study on the destructive capabilities of approximately 100 nuclear weapons, a full-scale conventional war would still be necessary to win a war. “Cheaters would face an insoluble problem,” Mr. Wilson concluded.

In the discussion that followed, audience members considered the difference between “coercion” and “deterrence.” Mr. Kemp said that while he largely agreed with “much” in Mr. Wilson’s scenarios, he wondered about the assumption that a “cheater” is necessarily an aggressor, asking about a potential instance of a country using nuclear weapons to defend itself from conventional weapons. Mr. Moore worried about nuclear weapons in the hands of “irrational actors,” and analogies were made between nuclear and biological weapons, which have been banned, but with no assurances that someone somewhere isn’t stashing away a supply. Saying that “they’ve been doing it for 50 years and seem comfortable with it,” Mr. Dyson observed that Israel has been a “most likely” cheater in developing nuclear weapons. “But they’re not out to conquer the world,” he added. “They just want to survive.”

Despite its grim subject the discussion ended on a fairly positive note when Mr. Wilson asked participants to describe, on a scale of one to seven, their belief that a nuclear weapons-free world is possible, with seven indicating that it is absolutely possible, and one that it is not. The number five won by a wide majority, with two people optimistically going with seven, and nobody choosing one.

Mr. Wilson’s blog is at

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