Mutually Assured Destruction

Mutually Assured Destruction

Mutually Assured Destruction theory (MAD) was a very important idea in the history of international relations, particularly with regards to discussions of state security, international security, as it related to nuclear weapons, and particularly from the 1960s until the 1980s. In this article, we shall define and discuss mutually assured destruction theory in international relations. We will trade the history of the theory, how mutually assured destruction was viewed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, arguments of those who supported MAD, and also criticisms of the theory. We will then end the article with a discussion on how mutually assured destruction is viewed today in contemporary international relations theory.

What is Mutually Assured Destruction?

In international relations, mutually assured destruction theory is the idea that if two more states in the international system have nuclear weapons capabilities, then this will be enough to deter any one state from carrying out a nuclear attack. The reason is that if the first state were to launch a nuclear strike, the second state (and any other states who have nuclear weapons) could retaliate, which in turn would lead to additional attacks by the first state. This would result in mutually assured destruction of the states involved. Because of this, the theory suggests that no state would be willing to initiate a nuclear strike for fear of the consequences that that initial strike would bring.

History of Mutually Assured Destruction

The topic of mutually assured destruction was highly discussed in the middle to later years of the 20th century. Coming out of World War II, two major superpowers existed: the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only did these states rival one another in terms of military power, but they also had conflicting political ideologies, with the US focused on ideas of capitalism, as well as civil and political-based rights systems, whereas the Soviet Union emphasized socialist and communist systems, along with socio-economic based rights. Throughout the late 1940s, the 1950s, and onwards, these two states were engaged in a war of ideologies, which then turned into a series of proxy wars throughout the globe. All this time, the two sides provided billions of dollars of military weaponry, as well as money, for their political and ideological allies.

What made the situation far more of a concern was the role of nuclear weapons. The United States was the only state i the history of the world to use nuclear weapons in combat, carrying out two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. From 1945, until 1949, the United States was the only power in the world with nuclear capabilities. However, all of this changed in 1949, when the Soviet Union was able to develop their own nuclear weapons.

However, the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction as a United States Foreign Policy did not arise until the 1960s. More specifically, it was a speech given by Robert McNamara, who was the United States Secretary of Defense to President John F. Kennedy. It was in 1962 that McNamara, in a speech to the American Bar Foundation, outlined his position on mutual assured destruction, and in particular, through a buildup of nuclear weapons (de Castella, 2012). McNamara’s position was that in the event that the Soviet Union would set a nuclear strike against the United States, the US in turn could unleash a large nuclear counterstrike, one so large that it would lead to an “assured destruction” of the USSR (de Castella, 2012). And because of this counter threat the US posed, the Soviet Union would not begin a nuclear war.

Again, for many in the US leadership in the early 1960s, mutually assured destruction was to be used only in the case of an attack. However, It is important to note that there were other approaches to dealing with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and 1950s that actually included the possibility of using nuclear weapons; some were willing to consider this possibility.

Scholars of nuclear weapons and the Cold War point out that in the late 1940s, and more-so in the 1960s, there was a belief among many that a nuclear war wold not break out because each side had nuclear weapons. This is where we saw the arguments of mutually assured destruction initiate from. Two countries, knowing the power of one another, would not risk an all-out nuclear war that would be sure to decimate each country, if not the entire world. At least, that was the belief.

However, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 increased the concern about the possibility of a nuclear war between the USSR and the United States.

AR 7552-B 18 October 1962 Meeting with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. L-R: Vladimir Semenov, Dep. Minister of Foreign Affairs, USSR; Anatoly Dobrynin, Ambassador of the USSR; Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs; President Kennedy. White House, Oval Office. Please credit "Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Library" for the image.

AR 7552-B 18 October 1962
Meeting with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs.
L-R: Vladimir Semenov, Dep. Minister of Foreign Affairs, USSR; Anatoly Dobrynin, Ambassador of the USSR; Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs; President Kennedy. White House, Oval Office. “Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Library”.

But with the nuclear crisis avoided, tensions continued between the two states. While there was the years “detente in the 1970s, tension rose again in the 1980s. By this point the Soviet Union had many more warheads, and it was commonly said that there were enough nuclear arms on Earth to wipe the planet out several times” (de Castella, 2012). In addition, “In 1983 there were a number of Russian false alarms. The Soviet Union’s early warning system mistakenly picked up a US missile coming into USSR airspace. In the same year, Nato’s military planning operation Able Archer led some Russian commanders to conclude that a Nato nuclear launch was imminent” (de Castella, 2012).

The question that drove much of US and Soviet foreign policy primarily revolved around on what effects we would see with two superpowers each having nuclear weapons? This was the reality that both sides were dealing with.

Thus, it is necessary to look at the arguments for and against nuclear weapons and the belief in mutually assured destruction.

Arguments for Mutually Assured Destruction as a Nuclear Deterrent

Staving off of any potential nuclear war: Advocates of Mutually Assured Destruction continue to reference the lack of nuclear war between the US and the USSR as proof that the theory works. For them, it was quite possible that both countries could have fought one another on a number of occasions. But they didn’t, with the reason being that both sides knew the consequences of a nuclear conflict. If one was to begin a launch, the other had the nuclear power to strike back forcefully, this could devastate that first country. But if they could survive the retaliatory strike, then they could set off many of their own nuclear weapons, which could in turn cause significant harm to the other state. Thus, to those advocates of this theory, it was specifically because each side had nuclear weapons that conflict was averted.

The reduced need for additional nuclear weapons: One of the other beliefs held by proponents of Mutually Assured Destruction theory argued that MAD would also lead to a reduction in the necessity to develop many nuclear weapons. As Rowen (2004) explains, “MAD was based on the observation that, since only a few nuclear weapons delivered on a city could produce vast damage, why buy more than the number needed to assure that result?” (4). And for those that felt this way, they also saw an increase in nuclear buildup “at best a waste―and at worst destabilizing―to make qualitative improvements, such as installing multiple, independent, reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that would enable a single missile to destroy many enemy silos. Increased missile accuracy was deplored. Also deplorable from this perspective was to try to defend against oncoming missiles” (but what is important to note is that the Soviet Union leaders felt differently than did the leaders in the US government) (Rowen, 2004: 4).

So, with increased nuclear weapons, another country would not dare risk provoking an attack, or receiving a retaliatory response. This was what many believed, and thus supported nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

It was for this reason that the Mutually Assured Destruction led to what was referred to as an “arms race” between the United States and the Soviet Union? The reason? Some felt that if one of the two superpowers had a clear arms advantage over the others, then the likelihood of a nuclear war breaking out would increase. Therefore, in an attempt to check that possibility, the other side would increase their nuclear arms (Rowen, 2004).

Criticisms of Mutually Assured Destruction

Critics have levied a series of challenges to arguments made by proponents of mutually assured destruction as a viable reason for nuclear war to not break out. Below are the points critics of MAD theory as an effective deterrent have made:

The issue of where a nuclear strike would occur: While those who argue that nuclear weapons are a deterrent to war suggest that if one state launched a strike on another state, that state in turn would respond with its own nuclear attack. However, where this idea becomes complicated is if the first state does not launch at the second (nuclear state), but rather, carries out a nuclear attack against an ally, or a non-aligned state. Would that state be willing to actually use their own nuclear weapons to defend an ally, or another state? There might be some issues salient enough for the government to be responded with in such fashion. But they might not feel it as necessary to defend other areas with the use of nuclear weapons. 

The threat to use nuclear weapons for a vulnerable ally: Another related problem with regards to accessibility to nuclear weapons and the threat of their use is with regards to how a superpower might act in attempts to stave off an attack on an area that is unable to defend itself. For example, as Rowen (2004) writes, “A widely held belief from 1949 on was that nuclear war could not happen, especially as both sides acquired large and protected forces. However, there were several arguments why it could, nevertheless, occur. One was the temptation to threaten use of nuclear weapons in support of a vulnerable position, most prominently ours in Western Europe. How could it be rational to adopt a strategy that if carried out would have resulted in vast devastation―including to its purported beneficiary, Europe?The idea was that Soviet leaders would recognize the dangers of invading Europe, perhaps less for concern of a carefully decided American nuclear response than that an unplanned event, perhaps in the fog of war, could somehow lead to nuclear weapons being launched.” (2-3).

What is interesting to note is that before the Mutually Assured Destruction position the United States government held in the 1960s, they were very open to being the first to carry out a nuclear strike. This seems counter to the idea that some were holding onto that nuclear war could not happen during this time (in Rowen, 2004).

The willingness of leaders to use nuclear weapons: One of the other more often cited arguments by proponents of nuclear weapons has been the idea that government and military leaders–understanding the grave nature of nuclear attacks–would never want to use them, knowing that a counter-attack would lead to mutually assured destruction of at least two countries, if not the world as a whole. However, there are a few counterpositions to this claim. For one, while this might prevent a leader from wanting to use nuclear weapons, it in no way reduces their belief that another leader would also be unwilling to use nuclear weapons. In addition, there are many examples to suggest that leaders during the Cold War (for example) were considering the use of the nuclear weapons. For example, “

A leading scholar of the taboo, Nina Tannenwald, argues that it had become institutionalized within the U.S. government by the begin- ning of the 1960s and was reoected in the policies of the Kennedy administra- tion. Tannenwald argues that President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara found the idea of using nuclear weapons largely “unthinkable.”” However, in late unclassified documents, McNamara spoke about nuclear weapons as an option if China carried out an addition invasion of India (in Lieber & Press, 2006). In addition, there were called to improve nuclear capabilities in 1961 in case of a US first strike against the Soviet Union (Lieber & Press, 2006).

And even if there is a “taboo” against using nuclear weapons, this might not be the case in high stake issues (Lieber & Press, 2006), leading further concern that mutually assured destruction is really a successful enough deterrent to nuclear war.

The number of individuals who could theoretically launch a nuclear weapon. In popular culture, there is the belief that there are two specific keys that can launch nuclear weapons, and that only two individuals have such keys, and that they must be activated simultaneously in order for a weapon to go off. The idea is that only the very top figures of a government have the ability to launch nuclear weapons, and even more assuring, is that notion that it would take more than one person to do so. The safeguards against an emotionally charged nuclear attack have been avoided. The problem with this that we know of at least one case in which these safeguards were not in place.

Take the issue of the Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. While one might think that the only individuals who had the authorization to launch a nuclear weapon were United States President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. However, what we know is “that the Russian general in charge of the missiles sent to Cuba in 1962 had the authority―and apparently the means–to launch them” (Rowen, 2004). So, while it is true that the United States and the Soviet Union tried to streamline just how a weapon could be launched, the idea that others lower than the top positions could not launch an attack are inaccurate.

In fact, a new book by “According to a review of the memoir My Journey at the Nuclear Brink by former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry on The New York Review of Books, a Soviet submarine stopped at the blockade was armed with nuclear torpedoes and had decided to use them” (Bender, 2016). The commanders of the submarine were given the approval to launch a nuclear strike against the United States. However, it was only because of the top commander, Vasili Arkhipov ordered against this that the nuclear strike did not occur” (Bender, 2016). But had he not made that decision, it is certainly possible that a nuclear war could have been begun. 

Reduced Nuclear Capacity: Some scholars have suggested that more important than devoting most of a state’s resources to nuclear weapons, a state could build up its conventional military. Those who advocate this position have referred to it as “a “finite deterrent.” One only needs to maintain enough nuclear weapons to destroy a large fraction of the opponent’s population. A key assumption underlying this school of thought is that nuclear weapons are only effective at deterring one’s adversary from making a direct attack on one’s homeland. Nuclear weapon’s are not capable of deterring attacks against one’s allies in other areas of the world” (Hardin & Mearsheimer, 1985: 420). But while this minimizes the reliance on the size of a military’s overall nuclear weapons, it still does not rule out using nuclear weapons against a population. This leads to an additional critique of mutual assured destruction, which is related to how to justly go about conflict.

Just War Theory: One additional and highly important factor as to why mutually assured destruction is a bad foreign policy has to do with the moral implications of a nuclear war. An initial nuclear strike, followed by a nuclear retaliatory strike (or strikes) would cost the lives of those living in the the countries being attacked. And for this reason, “Just war theorists are invariably disturbed by the policy of mutually assured destruction since it is predicated on the threat to kill massive number of innocent civilians” (418-419).

And because of this, some have suggested a move to more accurate weapons such as cruise missiles. The issue here is that these could also be turned towards population centers. Another counterargument by MAD supporters is that this approach might make a country vulnerable to an initial nuclear strike (Hardin & Mearsheimer, 1985: 419). There is also a belief that once nuclear weapons exist, being careful with them so that civilians are not hit is not possible (Hardin & Mearsheimer, 1985: 419). For these reasons, there has been a move to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world.

Is Mutually Assured Destruction Relevant Today? 

Part of the reason that mutually assured destruction was so strongly advocated by some proponents of the theory was due to their belief that both the United States as well as the Soviet Union could withstand any first attack by the other sides. And while that might have been the case in the 1960s-1980s, scholars have argued that following the end of the Cold War, the balance of nuclear capabilities has clearly went to the favor of the United States. Writing in 2006, Lieber & Press note that 

“the strategic nuclear balance has shifted profoundly. Part of the shift is attributable to the decline of the Russian arsenal. Compared with the Soviet force in 1990, Russia has 58 percent fewer inter- continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 39 percent fewer bombers, and 80 percent fewer ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).16 Furthermore, serious maintenance and readiness problems plague Russia’s nuclear forces. Most of Russia’s ICBMs have exceeded their service lives, and a series of naval acci- dents—highlighted by the sinking of the attack submarine Kursk in 2000— reoect the severe decay of the oeet.17 Budgetary constraints have also dramati- cally reduced the frequency of Russia’s submarine and mobile ICBM patrols, increasing the vulnerability of what would otherwise be the most survivable element of its arsenal. Since 2000, Russian SSBNs have conducted approxi- mately two patrols per year (with none in 2002), down from sixty in 1990, and apparently Russia often has no mobile missiles on patrol.18 Finally, Russia has had difaculty maintaining satellite observation of U.S. ICBM aelds, and gaps in its radar network would leave it blind to a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) attack from launch areas in the Paciac Ocean” (12).

So, while Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons, their ability to maintain them, as well as their nuclear program is nowhere near what it was during the Cold War period. Couple this with the fact that the United States has continued to improve their military program (through bombers, more precise missiles, etc…) throughout the post-Cold War years, and the imbalance between the two states is quite telling. Given this imbalance, the question that scholars have examined is: in this new post-Cold War period, if the United States was to hypothetically carry out a nuclear strike against a country (such as Russia) (the authors make it clear that they choose Russia as an example only because it is the most difficult case to prove) (Lieber & Press, 2006), could Russia effectively carry out a nuclear counterstrike, thereby showing that mutual assured destruction is still quite possible today? There is a belief that the United States could surprise the USSR with a strike that could halt any sort of counter-attack (Lieber & Press, 2006). 

But this idea itself is still risky. With tensions continuing to be high between countries like India and Pakistan, as well as the The United States and Russia, along with North Korea’s nuclear tests, there are fears that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to the survival of all existence.  And it is why there continues to be a movement to not only stop the proliferation of new nuclear weapons in the international system, but also to get rid of all nuclear weapons. 

Mutually Assured Destruction References

Bender, J. (2016). The moment when the Soviets decided to use nuclear weapons against the US. Business Insider Malaysia. June 24th, 2016. Available Online: 

Brown, J. (2016). A Start Nuclear Warning. New York Review of Books. June 14, 2016. Available Online: 

De Castella, T. (2012). How did we forget about mutually assured destruction? BBC, 15 February 2012. Available Online:

Hardin, R. & Mearsheimer, J. (1985). Introduction. Ethics, Vol. 95, No. 3, pages 411-423. Available Online:

Jervis, R. (2009). The Dustbin of History: Mutual Assured Destruction. Foreign Policy. November 9, 2009. Available Online: 

Lieber, K.A. & Press, D.G. (2006). The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of US Primacy. International Security, Vol. 30, No. 4, pages 7-44.

Rowen, H.S. (2004). Introduction. In Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice. Edited by  Henry D. Sokolski. Strategic Studies Institute. Available Online:


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