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Excerpt from Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons
Chapter 5

Myth: There is no alternative

The final myth I want to address didn’t grow out of experiences but rather was extrapolated from the other four myths. Once people believed that nuclear weapons had a unique ability to shock opponents, were certain to be decisive in war, created a special kind of deterrence that worked powerfully and reliably, and kept the peace, they went on to draw other conclusions. They concluded that nuclear weapons could not be gotten rid of because they couldn’t be disinvented, that the importance of nuclear weapons was proved by their acknowledged role in international relations, and that even if there might be problems with the historical events that elevated nuclear weapons to their current position, now that their aura of invincibility had been established, they could never be done away with. None of these arguments make sense in light of the collapse of the other four myths. Let’s examine each one in turn.

The genie
The best and strongest argument for keeping nuclear weapons is what I call the genie argument. The genie shows up all the time in the discussion about a world free of nuclear weapons. Proponents listen to liberals complain and then say, “Yes, they’re dangerous. But I don’t know how you can ever get rid of them.” Then with a sad, knowing shake of the head: “You just can’t disinvent nuclear technology.” Or more colorfully, recalling the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, “You can’t stuff the nuclear genie back into the bottle!”
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The thing that makes this argument so compelling is that it is absolutely true. You can’t disinvent technology. With the rare exception of certain arcane techniques now lost because they were known to only a few (like the carefully guarded secret for tinting Medieval stained glass a particularly spectacular shade of red), technologies never die. So the argument that nuclear weapons can never be disinvented is absolutely true. It also happens to be absolutely irrelevant.

No technology is ever disinvented. Technology doesn’t go away because it’s disinvented. It goes away because other technology replaces it. Or it simply falls out of use because it was bad technology. For example, think about early bicycles with one giant wheel in the front and one small wheel in the back. Called penny-farthings in some parts of the world, these contraptions were difficult to ride and dangerous to fall off of. Yet no one nodded knowingly and warned, “You’ll never be able to stuff the penny-farthing genie back into the bottle!” When better bicycles came along, with two tires the same size, the penny-farthing simply fell out of use.

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Or consider this piece of remarkable technology. The perambulator shown here was built with a gas mask filter attached so that junior could breath comfortably while you took a stroll during a chemical weapons attack. This technology did not have to be disinvented. For some reason it never really caught on.

Finally, take a look at the amazing flying platform developed by the United States military. The Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee was developed in 1953 and six prototypes were made. The craft was remarkably stable, although it could not fly very high. I call it the “Here-I-am-I’m-totally-vulnerable-without-protection-or-anywhere-to-hide-Death-Platform.” The Pawnee was never put into full-scale production. In order for technology to lose its appeal, it is never necessary to “disinvent” it.

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I suspect that this argument about technology comes from a myth. The role that technology plays here sounds very much like the way evil spirits function in the story of Pandora’s box. Once an idea for new technology has been developed, once it’s “out of the box,” then—like the evil spirits in the story—it can never be controlled or limited. Pandora opened the box, the evil demons escaped, and sadness and evil could never be cleansed from the world. But technological inventions are not evil spirits. They are ideas for implements that are either good or bad. If the technology works, if it is useful, then we keep it around. When it stops being useful, it slides into oblivion without the even the slightest push from us.

The genie argument is no more than a clever debater’s trick. It uses a true but irrelevant statement to distract us from the real issue. The real question is whether nuclear weapons are useful—not whether they are like evil spirits in some age-old myth. If nuclear weapons are useful, then we have to keep them. It’s as simple as that. If they provide real security that cannot be had any other way, and if the security they provide is not outweighed by the danger they create, then we must accustom ourselves to having them around. But if they are not very useful, if they are simply large, dangerous, clumsy explosions that spread poison downwind and have very few real uses, then we need to undertake an entirely new discussion.

Even though it’s irrelevant, the genie argument is still important. It matters because it is psychologically suggestive. It tells us something about the way that proponents of nuclear weapons see the world. In their eyes, nuclear weapons are magic. Nuclear weapons are like a genie that can grant your every wish. Bring your nuclear weapon out, wave it around, and people will do whatever you say. Nuclear weapons are extra-ordinary, it is claimed, they have power that goes far beyond conventional weapons. They are, Stimson said, psychological weapons with a unique ability to shock and awe. It is not just the physical capabilities of nuclear weapons that matter, say their proponents. What makes them special is their remarkable aura. But if you stop and think about it, all this talk of a special aura and a unique ability to shake the human psyche sound a lot more like a description of voodoo and incantation than a weapons system. Proponents appear to really mean it when they talk about a magic genie.

But nuclear weapons are not magic. They are tools, and like any other tool we control them. We decide when to use them or not. It seems peculiar to have to say it, but the weapons themselves lack volition. We don’t have to fear that they will go off by themselves, we only have to fear that we will go off half-cocked. Genies, famously, have their own thoughts and intentions and often willfully misinterpret their owner’s wishes. Nuclear weapons can’t act that way. They can’t act at all.

Like any tool, the usefulness of nuclear weapons depends on the circumstances of their use. Tools are situational. The question you ask yourself when approaching a task is not “do I have the biggest tool possible?” but “do I have the right tool for the job?” The two key questions for nuclear weapons are, “When are nuclear weapons the right tool for the job?” and “how likely are these circumstances to arise?” These are the sorts of questions that would be asked in a pragmatic investigation, rather than one based on mythology.

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Excerpt from FIVE MYTHS ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS by Ward Wilson. Copyright © 2013 by Ward Wilson. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons is now available in paperback.