Getting at the Truth
Any book with the word ‘truth’ in its subtitle is bound to attract a certain
amount of scepticism if not downright ridicule. The idea that there is a
single, knowable ‘truth’ about anything is rightly to be questioned. Even
if such a concept exists in any objective sense, perhaps we are each bound
by our own set of circumstances to see only our own truth and to claim
anything beyond that as a delusion.
And yet, the reality is that none of us would be able to go about our
daily lives without some concept of truth as a reference point. Being able
to distinguish truth from lies, facts from opinions, evidence from hearsay
is part of what makes us human. We all need to be able to establish for
ourselves what is true and what is not.
Every witness in a court of law promises to tell ‘the truth, the whole
truth and nothing but the truth’ before giving their testimony. That is a
very exacting bar to meet, but if you are caught lying in court, you will go
to prison for it. This book attempts to tell the truth, the whole truth and
nothing but the truth – as best we are able to ascertain it – about nuclear
weapons. It is a tall order, and not without its challenges.
The nuclear secret
For a start, we are faced immediately with the difficulty that what we are
talking about is, at its core, a secret. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were US
citizens found guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, given the
death sentence, and executed by electric chair in 1953. Today, vastly more
information about the design and construction of nuclear weapons than was
available to the Rosenbergs is freely available on the internet and accessible
to anyone in the world. Yet the nuclear weapons states (NWSs) remain highly
secretive about key aspects of their nuclear weapons programmes.
This is not just because these are horrifically dangerous weapons that
governments don’t want falling into the ‘wrong hands’. It is also because,
as we shall see, the whole doctrine of nuclear deterrence depends upon
convincing a potential opponent that a government with nuclear weapons is
deadly serious about this business. Deterrence is all about presentation and
perceptions rather than about the reality that may lie beneath these.
It is precisely because these are such horrifically dangerous weapons and
because governments are deadly serious about them that there also needs to
be much more public discussion about nuclear weapons than there is. We
need to know why we have these weapons, under what conditions would
they ever be used, what would be the impact of their use, how safe are they
in the meantime, are they really necessary, can we afford them, are there
better alternatives? These are right and proper questions which ought to be
discussed openly and publicly in any country relying on such weapons. And
in order to discuss these questions, we need to know a certain amount about
the subject matter.
The approach of this book
This book attempts to dig out the truth about nuclear weapons by examining
the arguments for nuclear weapons and putting those to the test. Do these
arguments hold up under scrutiny? What assumptions are being made and
are these justified? What are the facts as best we know them and where are
they coming from? What is the logic of the argument and is it valid and
This book looks at 20 key arguments that are regularly used to present
the case in favour of nuclear weapons. In each case, the argument in favour
is explained, along with the assumptions and logic behind it. The arguments
are then unpicked and examined in more detail, revealing in most cases
cracks in the logic, gaps in the evidence and inherent contradictions in what
is being asserted. This analysis then forms the basis for summarising the
argument against nuclear weapons in each case. The arguments in favour
of nuclear weapons are given a fair and sympathetic hearing. But this is
not a book aiming to present a ‘balanced’ view, in which each side of the
argument is given equal weight and neither turns out to be more ‘right’ than
the other. This is a book about the truth of the matter and trying to seek out
and determine what that is.
It will become obvious to the reader, if it is not already, that this book
comes down clearly opposed to nuclear weapons. Whether this is justified
on the basis of the arguments and the evidence presented is up to the reader
to judge. What most people hear, however, are the pro-nuclear weapons
arguments. These are presented to us every day by politicians of major
political parties, the vast majority of journalists and broadcasters, academics,
think tank experts, admirals and generals, business leaders, trade unionists,
teachers and parents. It is hard to imagine another issue of such importance
that is presented in such a one-sided, unbalanced way. This book is one
small attempt to redress that balance.
Who this book is for
This book is intended for the general reader who may know little about the
subject beyond what they hear on the news. It is also for those who have
followed this issue closely over the years, but may now wish to refresh
their memories in order to more confidently join in the current discussions.
While covering in some detail the 20 arguments for and against nuclear
weapons, this book does not need to be read from cover to cover. Some
may want to dip into chapters that are particularly relevant to them or to
the discussion at hand. Others may want to review the different arguments
for and against nuclear weapons by looking at the beginnings and/or
endings of each chapter.
The aim of the book is to get beyond the soundbites, headlines and slogans
that tend to dominate the debate about nuclear weapons. The issues are
complex and nuanced. They require more thought and attention than they
are normally given. But for people who have neither the time nor the patience
to read through a full-length book, there are plenty of short-cuts at hand.
Structure of the book
This book is divided into seven parts. Before looking at the arguments in
favour of nuclear weapons, the four chapters in part one summarise what
it is we are talking about. What are nuclear weapons (Chapter 1)? What is
the fundamental difference between a nuclear weapon and any other kind
of weapon (Chapter 2)? What is meant by ‘deterrence’ (Chapter 3)? And
what does nuclear deterrence mean when other countries also have nuclear
weapons (Chapter 4)? Following on from this introductory section, the
arguments in favour of nuclear weapons are grouped into five parts (and
then there is a concluding part at the end).
Part two looks at the arguments that centre around the claim that we
need nuclear weapons for our security. Did nuclear weapons end wwii
(Chapter 5)? Have they ‘kept the peace’ since 1945 (Chapter 6)? Are nuclear
weapons protecting us here and now (Chapter 7)? And are they needed to
protect us from future risks (Chapter 8)?
Part three looks at the arguments which focus on the nuclear weapons
states themselves and their ‘place in the world’. Do nuclear weapons
guarantee a seat at the ‘top table’ of world affairs (Chapter 9)? What does
it mean to be a ‘responsible nuclear weapons state’ (Chapter 10)? Does the
US (or the UK) need nuclear weapons to fulfil their obligations to the rest of
NATO (Chapter 11)?
Part four looks at the arguments relating to nuclear weapons in terms
of some more basic practicalities. Are they legal (Chapter 12)? Are they
safe, even if never used (Chapter 13)? Are they affordable and what are the
opportunity costs of maintaining nuclear arsenals today (Chapter 14)?
Part five then addresses the arguments that claim the states which have
nuclear weapons are doing all they can to disarm. How committed are they
to ‘multilateral’ disarmament (Chapter 15)? Have they already disarmed as
much as they can (Chapter 16)? And even if we got rid of nuclear weapons,
would it have any effect on other countries acquiring them (Chapter 17)?
And finally, in part six, we address the set of arguments that say you can’t
‘disinvent’ the bomb, so we need to learn to live with it, however awful that
may be (Chapter 18). This includes the moral arguments (Chapter 19) and
the claim that opposing nuclear weapons is not living in the ‘real world’
In brief, the main arguments for and against nuclear weapons and the
chapters in which they are covered are as follows:
The main arguments made for and against nuclear weapons:
Chapters 1 and 2
for The awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons is
what makes them effective as a deterrent.
against They are Weapons of Mass Destruction with
unacceptable humanitarian consequences.
Chapters 3 and 4
for They are a deterrent and will never be used as a weapon.
Having them prevents others using them.
against A deterrent is a weapon that will sooner or later be used
as a weapon.
for Nuclear weapons forced Japan to surrender and ended
WWII, saving lives as a result.
against The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was
unnecessary and unjustified.
for Nuclear weapons have kept the peace since 1945 and
against There is no hard evidence that they have ever ‘worked’ as
for Nuclear weapons are essential to national security in the
against Nuclear weapons serve no military purpose and do not
defend us from 21st century threats.
for Nuclear weapons are an insurance policy against future
against Nuclear weapons will be increasingly vulnerable and only
make the world less safe.
for Nuclear weapon gives the nwss a seat at the top table and
status in the world.
against The major powers do not need nuclear weapons to be key
players in the world and would be more respected if they
gave them up.
for Being a ‘responsible’ nws means making sure that nuclear
weapons cannot get into the ‘wrong hands’ or be used
except as the ultimate ‘deterrent’.
against There is no such thing as a ‘responsible’ nws. Possessing
these weapons is the height of irresponsibility.
for We have a duty to share the nuclear burden and to protect
other countries in NATO.
against US nuclear weapons do not protect NATO countries either.
NATO nuclear policy makes the world less safe.
for The NWSs can maintain nuclear arsenals without reneging
on international commitments.
against Nuclear weapons are illegal under international law and
maintaining them indefinitely violates npt obligations.
for Nuclear weapons are kept safe and out of harm’s way
with little risk.
against There is a large and increasing risk of accident,
miscalculation or unauthorised use.
for The costs are affordable and justified, and do not
adversely affect other government spending.
against The costs are huge and take funds away from other muchneeded
for The NWSs are committed to a multilateral approach to
against The NWSs continue to block multilateral disarmament
because they are not really serious about it.
for The NWSs have already disarmed to the barest minimum
needed for deterrence.
against The NWSs have removed obsolete weapons but continue
to upgrade their nuclear capabilities.
for There’s no point in the NWSs disarming further because it
will have no effect on other states.
against If any one of the NWSs took a lead it could break the
deadlock on disarmament and speed up the process
for Nuclear weapons are here to stay and they cannot be
against Eliminating nuclear weapons is doable and there is no
need to hold onto things that are no longer needed.
for Nuclear weapons prevent war, which is a greater evil, so
they are morally justified.
against Nuclear weapons are morally indefensible.
for Nuclear weapons are part of the real world and those
who think otherwise are living in cloud cuckoo land.
against The real world is one in which the majority of countries
oppose nuclear weapons. No country can be secure unless
all are secure.
Each chapter investigates these issues in detail and at the end of each
chapter is a summary of the conclusions reached. At the end of the book is a
summary of all the chapters (Chapter 21). For anyone looking for even more
information, there is a detailed bibliography of relevant books and other
materials, including websites with vast amounts of relevant information.
These can be accessed through the dedicated website for this book: