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’

(Chapter 20).

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.

Chapter 5

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.

Chapter 6

for Nuclear weapons have kept the peace since 1945 and

prevented WWIII.

against There is no hard evidence that they have ever ‘worked’ as

a deterrent.

Chapter 7

for Nuclear weapons are essential to national security in the

21st century.

against Nuclear weapons serve no military purpose and do not

defend us from 21st century threats.

Chapter 8

for Nuclear weapons are an insurance policy against future

unknown risks.

against Nuclear weapons will be increasingly vulnerable and only

make the world less safe.

Chapter 9

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.

Chapter 10

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.

Chapter 11

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.

Chapter 12

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.

Chapter 13

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.

Chapter 14

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

government programmes.

Chapter 15

for The NWSs are committed to a multilateral approach to

nuclear disarmament.

against The NWSs continue to block multilateral disarmament

because they are not really serious about it.

Chapter 16

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.

Chapter 17

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

towards elimination.

Chapter 18

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.

Chapter 19

for Nuclear weapons prevent war, which is a greater evil, so

they are morally justified.

against Nuclear weapons are morally indefensible.

Chapter 20

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: