Bill Quick continues an interesting discussion that I missed over the Christmas break. Rosemary Esmay argued that, by way of deterrent, we should announce a list of cities in the Islamic world we would obliterate in the event of another 9/11 attack. Aside from any moral issues, the plan is unworkable and, indeed, rather bizarre, as the several commenters on the post explain nicely. Briefly, the random targeting of, say, Riyadh for an attack on Los Angeles makes little sense if the attackers are sponsored by Iran or Pakistan. Indeed, the policy might actually encourage attacks on the US in the “two birds with one stone” tradition. Still, what about the broader question: Is there a situation where the US should consider nuclear attacks in retaliation for a terrorist attack?

The proposal provoked a lengthy essay from Donald Sensing in which objects to the proposal on moral and strategic grounds and, more interestingly, seems to argue that the use of nuclear weapons, period, is now off the table.

For anyone who thinks that a nuclear attack by the US, even in response to one against us by terrorists, could possibly be sane, much less proper, I tell you bluntly: you aren’t thinking at all and I am profoundly grateful you aren’t setting national defense policy.

Do you think that nuking any Arab city would make al Qaeda stop attacking us with every destructive means at their disposal? How many millions of innocents are you prepared to immolate before you try something else? Except then there will be nothing else to try.

NO ONE anywhere in the world would take our side on this. No one would rationalize the destruction of a third-world city and its people as their getting just desserts. There is no act we could take that would isolate us more, enrage the entire world at us more, make more uncountable new enemies, and convince billions of ordinary people around the world, not just Muslims, that America must be destroyed.


I can’t begin to list the nations that would sever diplomatic relations with us and expel our diplomatic staff, even the UK. All the intelligence relationships with the UK and other European nations – the most valuable we have – painstakingly built up since World War I would be aborted instantly. Same with Asia-Pacific countries. China would begin militarizing faster than ever. Russia would re-target American cities because its people would demand it.


Not only is MAD today a “strategy” of failure, it would be the means of our self destruction.

Bill Quick responds with an argument literally as old as the nuclear debate itself:

Nuclear weapons are weapons. They are no more moral or immoral than any other weapons. There is no morality bugaboo about nuclear fission or fusion that does not apply equally to other weapons of mass destruction – which includes the US Military as a whole, a superb weapon of mass destruction no matter what individual weapons it chooses to deploy.


I don’t subscribe to the morality of religion. I subscribe to the morality of liberty. And included in that morality is an absolute right to self defense, using whatever weapons are best suited to guarantee my liberty and my life, and the survival of my nation. To reject out of hand – as Donald Sensing does – any use of nukes in defense of this nation against Islamist attacks of any kind is itself an immoral act, since it encourages religious madmen in their belief that they can successfully wage war against the US. And that false belief only leads in one inevitable direction: the utter destruction of the entire Islamic world.

I don’t want that. Which is why I take nothing off the table in advance. And why I would not wish to give Islamists the idea that if they can successfully ignite a nuclear fire in New York, they can expect a three month buildup before an attack of some kind on one Islamist country, and a blockade against an Asian country not one of the Islamists gives a damn about.

While I reject Rosemary’s plan out of hand, I believe Bill is essentially right here.

Nuclear weapons are simply a fact of the last sixty years. They can’t be uninvented. As Don well knows, the idea behind nuclear deterrence is that having your enemy believe that he might suffer absolute destruction if he dares to attack you will prevent such an attack. If our enemies don’t believe we’ll retaliate with nuclear weapons even in the event that they launch a nuclear strike on us, then we decrease our own security immeasurably. Indeed, renouncing the use of nuclear weapons under all circumstances–and really meaning it–puts us in a worse position than we’d be in if we simply abolished our arsenal. At least then we’d be able to reallocate the resources we spend safeguarding and maintaining the stockpile to other means of defense.

Don’s argument that al Qaeda and similar groups are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation against state capitols is almost certainly correct, one of many reasons why I reject Rosemary’s plan out of hand. Still, the fear that states that aid these terrorists might be targeted in the event of another attack on US soil might well augment our other policies to dissuade such sponsorship.

I also agree with Don’s broader point that the use of nuclear weapons by the US would have severe diplomatic and economic consequences, although I don’t believe they’d be quite as catastrophic as he suggests. We’re by far the most powerful military, economic, and cultural force on the planet; it would hardly be to the advantage of many countries to end their relationship with us. Further, the idea that Russia and China would become more likely to attack us is improbable. They didn’t do so during the height of the Cold War, presumably out of self-interest. Those same interests would continue to prevail. Indeed, in the case of a nuclear strike by a state actor, our use of nuclear weapons in the modern era would seem a wonderful deterrent: The “What would they do?” issue would move from the realm of probably to near certainly.

That said, the use of nuclear weapons by the US would certainly squander an enormous amount of good will and soft power. A decision to use them shouldn’t be made lightly. The option should not, however, be dismissed out of hand.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James, thanks for the link. Part of deterrence is unpredictability before the event. I have never said that the president (this one or a successor) should ever declare that America’s nuclear sword is permanently sheathed. I am perfectly content for those who war or would war against us to believe it is not.

    What I am saying is that while we may as policy declaration leave the possibiluty open, as policy fact we can never use it, except perhaps against a peer nuclear power such as Russia or China.

    I can see I have more writing to do about this topic, though.

  2. Kathy K says:

    The reason I’ve gone with the Neocons on foreign policy is that I see their policy as being the best bet to keep the US government from having to make that decision.
    You cannot fight warrior cultures by being ‘nice’. The Neocons get that. The rest don’t.

  3. Noel says:

    Use of nukes cannot and must not be ruled out. I think Truman made the right decision in both Japan & Korea, even in light of recent developments. In certain circumstances (God forbid), we would be compelled to use them. Kathy K. gets it right.

  4. I think that some sort of deterrence is very important in today’s world. It would appear, for example, that Gadaffi has recently been deterred.

    Whether that deterrence requires the use of nuclear weapons is a different issue. The point of deterrence is to keep rogue regimes from assisting terrorists, or even to coerce them into helping destroy the terrorists.

    A suitable deterrent in that case is an unmistakable determination to regime change for every rogue regime that might have been responsible for an anonymous attack.

    At that point, the use of nukes or not becomes a question of need and effectiveness. For example, nuclear weapons used to suddenly cripple North Korea’s retaliatory capability might be very effective and moral. Nuclear weapons taking out, for example an Iranian city or two would be immoral, both because it would be ineffective and because killing large numbers of innocents must be a last resort, not a first resort.

    This leads to the question of why we are not increasing our ability to occupy countries and replace regimes. If we are faced with a nuclear attack by terrorists, the population of the United States is going to demand very rapid action. They will demand both retaliation and prevention, and we are not currently in a position to do the latter. Hence I suspect that our population may demand that we indeed nuke civilians, even more strongly than they supported our mass killing of civilians in World War II.

    Frankly, I do not think there is a strategy that will prevent mass casualty attacks in the United States. However, we should be able to prevent nuclear attacks if we are quick and strong enough. I can only hope that our failure to attack North Korea when it kicked out the inspectors was based on intelligence showing that it would be futile, rather than some other motive. Certainly one significant chunk of plutonium was easily targetted for a while, and we didn’t do so. Perhaps it was because the North Koreans could inflict as much damage on our allies as several nukes would inflict on any of our enemies! Nuclear weapons are devastating, but a conventional or chemical attack on Seoul would kill far more people than a single nuclear weapon of the size we stock.

    In the longer term, we face the specter of bioterrorism. Unfortunately, it requires neither hard to acquire material nor a readily found infrastructure. While not as suddenly catastrophic as a nuclear attack on DC or NYC, ther overall deadliness of a contagious biological weapon puts all other weapon systems to shame.

    And I have no idea how to prevent such attacks!

  5. I agree with Bill *and* Dan (and James): we should never say we won’t use nukes. But we should think long and hard before ever doing so. The circumstances under which it would be in our best interest are very narrow.

    Rosemary’s idea is not practical, though it would make a satisfying premise for a Hollywood movie.

  6. > But we should think long and hard before ever
    > doing so. The circumstances under which it
    > would be in our best interest are very narrow.

    All these scenarios have been “war-gamed” out already by various people at military colleges, etc., including the economic and political fallout. It would be VERY interesting to get a hold of one of these, although I assume they are top secret.

    This is why I laugh when I see headlines like “Nixon considered taking over Saudi oilfields during embargo”. Whether he did or didn’t, there is a war plan for that that existed then and now for this scenario. There are war plans for every conceivable (and non conceivable) event – that is part of the job of military strategests (interestingly, the Pacific War with Japan was war gamed out years before Pearl Harbor).

    Whether these scenarios are ever used by the politicians in charge when they occur is another question.

  7. Joe Schmoe says:

    My take on this is that if a nuclear weapon is detonated in an American city, we should immediately demand that Pakistan and North Korea surrender their nuclear arsenals. We should also issue ultimatums to all nations engaged in the development of nuclear weapons, such as Iran. We’d order them to immediately case development, turn over all facilities, scientists, and raw materials to the United States, and to cooperate fully with on-site inspection, forever.

    If one or more of the regimes fail to comply with the ultimatum, they are to be nuked.

    There is one possibile difficulty: we might not have time to implement such a policy. We’re going to have to allow them some sort of interval, say one week, to collect and ship the weapons; and it may be possible that one of the regimes, knowing that its fate is sealed, will use that interval to nuke us again, so perhaps this option isn’t workable. It’s worth considering, though.

    In any event, this approach would significantly decrease our risk of being the victims of a future nuclear attack. It would also satisfy the American people’s desire for swift, decisive action — and let’s face it, if an American city is nuked, the pressure on our elected officials to respond in kind (and “respond in kind” is most definately NOT limited to a city-for-city, tit-for-tat response; if San Fransciso is nuked, I can easily invision the destruction of Tehran, Pyonyang, Islamabad, and Damascus as a response.)

    The question now becomes, what if someone refused to comply with the ultimatum? What if North Korea, for example, refused to surrender its weapons? (In real life, it is unlikely that anyone would be that stupid — instead, the North Koreans would probably promise full and complete cooperation and then begin employing the deception and delay tactics from Sadaam’s playbook.)

    But let’s suppose that the North Koreans simply refuse to comply. Are we morally justified in nuking them? Sadly, I think the answer is yes.

    It has nothing to do with proportionate response, deterrence doctrine, or the making of a statement, however. The fact is that we cannot allow unstable regimes to have nuclear weapons. If they will not surrender them, we must destroy them. Invasion isn’t workable against a nuclear power; it would simply lead to the further use of nuclear weapons. For instance, if we go charging accross the Korean DMZ, the North Koreans will likely attempt to retailate against Seoul, Tokyo, perhaps Bejing, and the United States if possible.

    If we can’t disarm the North Koreans, we’ll simply have to kill them. This is a terrible course of action, but what choice do we have?

    I liken this to shooting the rabid wolf at the door. It hasn’t bitten us yet, but we cannot let it roam around the backyard forever. If we don’t have a tranquilizer dart gun on hand, we’ll have to use the .30-06. It’s unfortunate, but again, we’ve got to get rid of the wolf. This has nothing to do with revenge or deterrence; it’s simply about removing a threat.

  8. Joe Schmoe says:

    Note that the above only applies when the weapon which was detonated here came from a nuclear rogue nation, such as North Korea or Pakistan.

    If terrorists were to purchase a black-market nuclear weapon from, say, Russia, this would present us with a much more difficult problem. We obviously cannot nuke Russia; Russia is not a rogue nation, and nuking it would be suicidal in any case.

    But we’d need to hit back somehow. Public opinion would demand it. In that case, I’d suggest gearing up for total war and invading and occupying most of the Middle East.

  9. Anonymous says:

    We MUST annihilate Russia as well as the rest of the world in the event of a nuclear attack, even if it’s suicidal. That is the whole premise behind MAD. If we don’t steel our resolve now, then Russia, China, or any other major player might use expendable countries like North Korea or even Al Qaeda to engage in a proxy war with us. Who needs soft power if by preserving it we lose New York, Boston, and/or Chicago? This is not playground politics; we don’t need “friends” that badly. The ONLY way to prevent a nuclear attack on American interests is to let the world know that by looking out for our skin it will save its own.

    What amazes me is how so many of you can seriously rationalize losing up to a million fellow citizens in a single nuclear attack. Issue more ultimatums? Please, stupidity has never sounded so craven…