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Why Worry?

Gabriel Schoenfeld

In the years since the first nuclear bomb was tested in 1945, the world’s major powers have acquired vast arsenals of the devastating weapons. Minor powers have been working feverishly to follow suit. Some unstable and menacing ones, like Pakistan and North Korea, have been successful. Among those seeking to join the club, Iran is leading the pack. More than a half-century since the birth of the atomic age, nuclear weapons remain the polestar around which geopolitics revolve.

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
By John Mueller
Oxford, 319 pages, $27.95

Is all the worry about them misplaced? John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, certainly thinks so. In “Atomic Obsession,” he argues that nuclear weapons are far less important both as threats and as deterrents than almost anyone assumes. The weapons have always been nearly superfluous, he says; they remain so today.

In World War II, Mr. Mueller claims, it was not the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that prompted Tokyo to capitulate; it was the Soviet declaration of war on Japan. In the Cold War, it was not the nuclear “balance of terror” that kept the peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; it was each country’s broad mutual interest in avoiding war. In the post-Cold War era, with the superpower rivalry gone, the weapons remain “useless.” They are dangerous in only an inadvertent way: Efforts to check their spread have led to policies “that have been unwise, wasteful, and destructivesometimes even more destructive than the bombs themselves.”

Mr. Mueller’s analysis is not a mere academic exercise. He is attempting to answer a question that is especially pressing at the moment: what to do about the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea. His counsel, in both cases, is laissez-faire. If these countries want the bomb so badly, we should “let them have it.”

North Korea’s only interest in nuclear weapons, Mr. Mueller explains, is “to stoke its nationalist ego” and, by North Korean logic, “to deter an attack.” To deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear status, we need “a calmthat is to say, non-hystericalpolicy discussion,” one that recognizes that even if North Korea refuses to give up its small arsenal, like earlier entrants into the nuclear club it is likely “to find the weapons to be useless.”

The menace of Iran is also one of our own “extravagant imaginings,” Mr. Mueller says. Among other things, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, “has forcefully proclaimed that ‘We do not need these weapons.’ “ But even if Mr. Khamenei turns out to be lying and Iran does develop an arsenal, the Islamic republic, according to Mr. Mueller, will discover “that the bombs are essentially useless and a very considerable waste of money and effort.”

Mr. Mueller’s thesis rests on an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, he repeatedly asserts the uselessness of nuclear weapons. He notes that they have not been used since 1945, even though all the nuclear powers have been in plenty of wars. He also asserts that possessing such weapons invites far more trouble than they are worth. For the big powers, it is the expense. For the little ones, it is the expense along with the ire of their neighbors, which can lead to sanctions, conflict and invasion.

On the other hand, as Mr. Mueller readily concedes, many countries want nuclear weapons. Indeed, many countriesdemocracies and tyrannies alikehave already made enormous expenditures and taken considerable risks to acquire them. So Mr. Mueller must claim the existence of an “atomic obsession.” World leaders somehow cannot see, as he does, that nuclear weapons have no value. But have so many leaders really been deluded on this point over the past 65 years? Or is Mr. Muellersomeone responsible for running only a college classroom, not a countrythe one suffering from a delusion?

The argument of Mr. Mueller’s book reaches self-parody when he argues that “massive exaggerations of the physical effects of nuclear weapons have been very much the rule” throughout the nuclear age. The public is therefore ill-informed, he says, left to believe that a nuclear war would extinguish civilization and primed to worry about the nuclear danger far more than is warranted.

Setting us straight on this score, Mr. Mueller explains that the effects of a nuclear blast are not as bad as we imagine. A suitcase-size nuclear bomb that is detonated “in the middle of Central Park would not be able to destroy any buildings on the park’s periphery.” No doubt that is good news (if true) for those New Yorkers with a view of the park, but it somehow fails to bring much comfort. Mr. Mueller also offers a thinly sourced disquisition on the health effects of radioactive fallout. Exposure to low doses of radiation, he says, might actually be “beneficial by activating natural coping mechanisms in the body.” Again, it is hard to feel comforted by such a claim.

At a moment when the spread of nuclear weapons is bringing us palpably closer to the day when they might again be used in anger, “Atomic Obsession” deserves serious attention, not for the light it casts on its subject but for the powerful way it illuminates the impulse, in the face of danger, to bury one’s head in the sand.

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