Like many people over the summer, my friends and I decided to watch "Oppenheimer" — a three-hour-long biopic about the development of the Manhattan Project. It was impossible not to become absorbed in the Barbenheimer craze where people would argue over whether to see "Oppenheimer" or "Barbie" — often ending with viewers watching both (sometimes on the same day).
With each film ranging from two to three hours, we understood that we would only choose one: A fun and lighthearted film about the seemingly perfect world of Barbie Land or a depressing film about the creation of the atomic bomb (requiring some understanding of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics). With the promise of IMAX, reclined chairs, and being a fan of Cillian Murphy from "Peaky Blinders," I decided against my better judgment to see the depressing biopic.
After spending hours trying to comprehend "Oppenheimer’s" dense plot and scientific jargon, I had just one question in mind: What should the United States have done if Nazi Germany attained atomic weapons before them? If we deferred to President Truman, the development of atomic weapons would determine whether we preserve our freedom or allow the Nazis "to enslave the world." For him, it was a classic case of "either them or us." Few people would argue, however, that the U.S. should be the first to strike its enemies even at the cost of massive civilian casualties. This intuitive understanding of striking first as unjust is why history tends to denounce the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as tragedies rather than successes.
We must address the following question: What should we do if we find ourselves in a standoff against an enemy armed with nuclear weapons? If we believe that striking first is immoral, then we may suggest that our only options are to retaliate or do nothing at all. We understand, however, that neither option is preferable. No matter where we look — whether at the discussions at Perry World House or in Professor Daniel Wodak's "The Social Contract" course — what we want is to stop the initial strike from ever happening. We do not want to find ourselves in a position where we have to decide whether to push the red button back.
Whether you are a student of international relations, political science, or philosophy, nuclear deterrence is an intensely complex problem with many competing theories. As students of an elite research institution, we possess the responsibility to think critically about this issue and help shape public policies. How we think of nuclear deterrence influences the leaders we elect, our understanding of national security, and our relationship with other countries.
I propose a theory by David Gauthier that has convinced most students in my "The Social Contract" class to consider nuclear retaliation as a rational policy. If we can overlook the seemingly irrational response of striking back, we will see that a retaliatory policy itself maximizes the probability of stopping an initial strike. I suggest the following reasoning: A policy guaranteeing that we will retaliate if struck first is rational because that best deters that first strike from ever happening, and the action of striking back necessarily entails that policy.
If our goal, however, is to deter a strike from ever happening, then how could the intention to strike back be a rational policy?
This is where we must redefine rationality as sticking to policies we believe yield the most benefits rather than simply trying to gain as much as we can on a case-by-case basis. We can think of this as committing ourselves to going to the gym every Saturday. The overall benefit of good health from sticking to this routine is greater than doing what we feel like on any one day. We would miss a few hangouts, and our muscles would be sorer many days, but we are concerned with sticking to the policy and not what would benefit us at the time.
In the tragic event that the enemy nukes us, we have already lost everything and have nothing to gain from retaliating. The real deterrent that prevents that initial strike is our disposition to retaliate or our full commitment to carry out our intention every time. If the enemy believes we focus on case-by-case gains, they may be more likely to strike us because we would have nothing to gain from retaliating. When we communicate, however, our commitment to strike back, they will think twice about initiating an attack.
“Why not bluff? Wouldn’t that be preferable to having the intention?”
A student in the course raised these questions, and they reflect the concerns that I had myself. The problem with bluffing lies in the internal vulnerabilities of the administration conveying this lie on such a massive scale. As professor Wodak argues, threats like espionage loom over those who are not fully committed to their word — bluffing would surely not deter the enemy from striking and might even encourage an attack. Under this framework, we would want a leader whose message to the people is the same as their message to their enemies — that they fully intend to strike back.
A famous line in "Oppenheimer" is, “Theory will only take you so far.”
It is obviously much easier to speak in theoretical terms about weapons of mass destruction than to apply this theory to real-world policies. With such important and far-reaching implications, I encourage students to learn more about this problem and to consider the implications of nuclear deterrence policies.
The consequences of the nuclear question extend beyond the IMAX screen and mere theoretical discussions. They permeate our view of politics and the question of what future we want for ourselves and those we love. No matter what side people take in the Barbenheimer debate, we must work together to ensure that fear of nuclear destruction becomes a relic of the past and not a pervasive shadow of our present.
CLEVER EARTH is a College sophomore studying moral and political philosophy from Philadelphia. His email is email@example.com.