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Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo
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International Security 29.4 (2005) 5-49

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Stigmatizing the Bomb

Origins of the the Nuclear Taboo

In 1958 Lt. Gen. James Gavin, a principal promoter in the U.S. military of the development of tactical nuclear weapons, wrote, "Nuclear weapons will become conventional for several reasons, among them cost, effectiveness against enemy weapons, and ease of handling."1 Indeed, during the 1950s numerous U.S. leaders fully expected that a nuclear weapon would become "just another weapon." Secretary of State John Foster Dulles accepted "the ultimate inevitability" that tactical nuclear weapons would gain "conventional" status.2 Adm. Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Dwight Eisenhower, predicted in 1956 that the use of nuclear weapons "would become accepted throughout the world just as soon as people could lay their hands upon them."3

These leaders were articulating a view with a long tradition in the history of weapons and warfare: a weapon once introduced inevitably comes to be widely accepted as legitimate. In reality, however, nuclear weapons have come to be defined as abhorrent and unacceptable weapons of mass destruction, with a taboo on their use. This taboo is associated with a widespread revulsion toward nuclear weapons and broadly held inhibitions on their use. The opprobrium has come to apply to all nuclear weapons, not just to large bombs or to certain types or uses of nuclear weapons. It has developed to the point that uses of nuclear weapons that were once considered plausible by at least some U.S. decisionmakers—for example, tactical battlefield uses in limited wars anddirect threats to deter enemies from conventional attack—have been severely delegitimized and are practically unthinkable policy options. Thomas [End Page 5] Schelling has argued that "the evolution of that status [nuclear taboo] has been as important as the development of nuclear arsenals."4 Evidence suggests that the taboo has helped to constrain resort to the use of nuclear weapons since 1945 both by reinforcing deterrence and by inducing restraint even in cases where deterrence did not operate.5

What gave rise to this taboo? Schelling attributes the taboo to a general sense of revulsion associated with such destructive weapons and the perception that nuclear weapons have come to be viewed as different.6 He does not, however, trace the evolution of this process. Historian John Lewis Gaddis has argued that moral considerations help to explain the nonuse of nuclear weapons by the United States in the first ten years of the Cold War, but he does not specifically connect this sentiment to the development of a taboo.7

Within the field of international relations, there has been little systematic analysis of the nuclear taboo. Traditional realists, of course, would be skeptical of the existence of a taboo, tending to see it as largely indistinguishable from prudential behavior. To the extent that a tradition of nonuse existed, it would reflect the interests of the most powerful (nuclear) states.8 Rationalist approaches, which are often sympathetic to norms, could easily incorporate the existence of a taboo.9 They would emphasize the uniquely destructive nature of nuclear weapons, the impossibility of defense, and therefore the (obvious) rationality of having a social convention on their use.10 [End Page 6]

As I show in this article, although there is some truth to these explanations, they are inadequate. The nuclear taboo was pursued in part against the preferences of the United States, which, for the first part of the nuclear era, opposed creation of a taboo because it would deny the self-proclaimed right of the United States to rely on nuclear weapons for its security. I argue for a broader explanation that emphasizes the role of a global antinuclear weapons movement and nonnuclear states, as well as Cold War power politics, in the development of the taboo.11 The model of norm creation here highlights the role of antinuclear discourse and politics in the creation of the taboo. Although rationalist variables are important, the taboo cannot be explained simply as the straightforward result of rational adaptation to strategic circumstances.