Thomas C. Schelling, Economist and 2005 Nobel Prize Winner

Commencement Address, May 27, 2007

In preparing for this occasion I read the six rules for giving advice to graduating seniors. Rule number one: “Don’t.”

So I’ll do what the President of the United States or the vice president would do if he were giving a Commencement address. And for all I know, one or both of them is doing that right now at some military academy or university. I’m going to talk about the policy issue that is most on my mind. And I’m going to try to call your attention to the most important event since World War II that didn’t happen.

In a couple of weeks and a couple of months, it will be 62 years since the first atomic bomb was ever used, on the city of Hiroshima. And three days later, the 62nd anniversary of the second atomic bomb used, on the city of Nagasaki. To my generation, finishing the 20th century without any further use of nuclear weapons is plain unbelievable.

In 1960, the year that there were full page ads in my newspaper for fallout shelters to be built in your front or back yard or your basement, the distinguished British author C.P. Snow was quoted on the front page of the New York Times as saying, “Unless the nuclear powers disarm drastically, intercontinental thermonuclear war within the decade is a mathematical certainty.”

Well, we’ve had that mathematical certainty compounded almost five times over five decades, and it didn’t happen. One of the questions is—was this just good luck, was it good policy, was it inadvertent?

Actually, you know, there have been at least five wars since World War II in which one side had nuclear weapons. I’m not counting today’s war in Iraq or the recent war in the Gulf.

The first time nuclear weapons might have been used was during the Korean War, which began in 1950. The prime minister of England flew to Washington with the announced purpose of urging President Truman not to let nuclear weapons be used again on Asian people. We completed that war without the use of nuclear weapons.

It’s interesting. Truman was succeeded by President Eisenhower, whose Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, is quoted in the minutes of a National Security Council meeting three weeks after the inauguration of President Eisenhower. Secretary Dulles is quoted as saying, “There is a widespread taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. We must break down this false distinction.” And President Eisenhower himself was induced to say on numerous occasions, “Whenever you can use these things for military purposes on military targets, I don’t see why you shouldn’t use them the way you’d use a bullet or anything else.”

And, at a NATO council meeting in Athens during the 1950s, it was announced that the United States now considers nuclear weapons to have become conventional. And conventional at that time was the code word for meaning just like machine guns, bows and arrows, napalm, or anything else.

Very great contrast. The Kennedy administration and the succeeding Lyndon B. Johnson administration both were very antinuclear in their approach even to the arming of the NATO countries of western Europe. In 1964 at a press conference, President Johnson was asked whether nuclear weapons would be available for use in the then-growing engagement in Vietnam. And what the President said was—they asked him, have nuclear weapons now become conventional as President Eisenhower considered—and President Johnson said, “Make no mistake, there is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon.”

For 19 peril-filled years, no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order.

They were not used in Vietnam. The next occasion when they might have been used was during what was called the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Egyptian and Syrian armies surprised Israel by attacking. For awhile it wasn’t altogether clear that Israel would survive as a nation. There were two entire Egyptian armies on the Israeli side of the Suez Canal. Perfect nuclear targets. No civilians within tens of miles. And Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, never authorized any use of nuclear weapons against those two armies that were so threateningly close.  

I was in her presence about six months later and wanted to consult her about her decision not to use nuclear weapons, but I was reminded again that Israeli officials never talk about nuclear weapons. So I was left to conjecture that Golda Meir reflected: ‘one of these days, or one of these years, or one of these decades, one or more of our hostile neighbors will acquire nuclear weapons and we don’t want to be the ones that broke down the taboo against their use.’

The next war involving a nuclear power was the British war against Argentina. It wasn’t so much of a big war that most of you never heard about it probably, but Argentina decided to retake the Falkland Islands and the British Navy was sent to defend. And there was quite a bloody battle at sea. And again, naval vessels make beautiful targets for nuclear weapons, especially when they’re out on the ocean and no civilian populations nearby. But Margaret Thatcher apparently never for a moment considered breaking the taboo against nuclear weapons.

And then to my complete amazement, it turned out that the Soviet Union had absorbed the taboo.

The Soviet Union went through a demoralizing defeat in Afghanistan. A war so demoralizing to the armed forces, and to the population, that I’m sure it contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. And they did not use nuclear weapons. There were some who said, well, there were no important targets in Afghanistan for nuclear weapons. But the Soviets lost large number of airplanes that had to fly very, very low to find their targets. And as a result they were vulnerable to hand-held, heat-seeking rockets that had been provided to the other side by the United States. They lost large numbers of aircraft and pilots. But if they’d been willing to carpet bomb with small nuclear weapons, they could have flown at 30,000 feet and been untouched by anything antiaircraft.

Well, now we’re going to have a couple more nuclear powers. India and Pakistan we already have. North Korea has already demonstrated that it has a nuclear capability. And I predict that Iran will not be satisfied before it has nuclear weapons.

And the question is going to be, will North Korea and will Iran feel this abhorrence of nuclear weapons that has apparently been mostly worldwide for the last half century?. Or if they don’t feel it, will they at least recognize that most of the world feels it and will be shocked, stunned, and in a vengeful mood if either North Korea or Iran is the first to use nuclear weapons?

Now I have a policy issue in mind. The policy issue is, does the United States government—specifically the Bush administration, but whatever administration succeeds it—consider this taboo, the one that so impressed Secretary Dulles, who deplored it, or the one that apparently so impressed Lyndon Johnson that he referred to these 19 years of non-use as if it was an asset to be treasured? I think it isn’t clear whether or not the current administration in Washington considers the taboo on nuclear weapons to be altogether in the U.S. interest or instead shares a little of Secretary Dulles’s notion that it’s an obstruction to using the highest quality weapons we have whenever we might see a military use for them.

The Senate, five years ago, declined to ratify the so-called comprehensive test-ban treaty. It declined to ratify it partially because the President didn’t submit it for ratification because he knew the Senate would not ratify it. This was nominally about nuclear testing, but symbolically it was going to be a kind of plebiscite among 193 nations as to whether nuclear weapons remained under a curse. I think it’s evidently in the U.S. interest that we do whatever we can to strengthen, not undermine, that taboo.

I think there’s a feeling in Washington that, the U.S. is so rich in nuclear weapons, what a shame it would be if we couldn’t use them when we might need to. And I think we are so rich in people, and structures, and institutions, that it would be a shame to do anything that weakened the abhorrence of nuclear weapons and the inhibitions on their use.  

There’s discussion now of needing to design and develop some new nuclear warheads. I think the Congress is unlikely to provide the funds for that. I would think that if the U.S. wanted to design some new nuclear warheads and could do it silently and secretly it might not be too bad, but they can’t do it silently and secretly. They have to get the Congress to appropriate the funds and that can’t be done secretly. But I think one possible way for the United States to strengthen the taboo, by demonstrating that it appreciates the taboo, would be at least to postpone for a decade or two any interest in new nuclear warheads that we clearly won’t need in the next coming decades.

But let me just pose this as a policy issue. Is it in the interest of the United States to do everything it can to preserve for another 62 years the widespread taboo against the use of nuclear weapons? I don’t think there’s any question but what the answer is yes, it is in the United States’ interest. And I think that this is going to continue to be a question for the United States government. We’re not out of the woods. The first 62 years were undoubtedly the hardest, but the next 62 years will not be easy.

On the other hand I tend to think that the preoccupation we’re going to have in international affairs for most of this coming century will probably not be the nuclear weapons issue, it will be global warming. And if you want to give me another honorary degree next year I’ll be happy to come back and talk about global warming.

Thank you.

Thomas C. Schelling, an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, uses game theory, economics, statistics, and international relations theory to study conflict, cooperation, and strategy, particularly in the areas of nuclear deterrents and arms control. He is the author of the influential book The Strategy of Conflict (1960) and the subject of a recent biography, The Strategist: The Life and Times of Thomas Schelling (2006) by Robert Dodge.


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