On the warpath: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for invading Iraq, 2003

The unleashed power of the atom,” Albert Einstein wrote in 1946, “has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Winston Churchill noted in 1955, however, that nuclear deterrence might produce stability instead and predicted that “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” Einstein’s view became the touchstone of the modern peace movement. Churchill’s view evolved into mainstream Western nuclear strategy and doctrine. Both argued that the nuclear revolution had fundamentally transformed international politics. Both were wrong.

Since the 1940s, nuclear weapons have greatly affected defense budgets, political and military posturing, and academic theory. Beyond that, however, their practical significance has been vastly exaggerated by both critics and supporters. Nuclear weapons were not necessary to deter a third world war. They have proved useless militarily; in fact, their primary use has been to stoke the national

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  • JOHN MUELLER is Adjunct Professor of Political Science and Woody Hayes Senior Research Scientist at Ohio State University and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is the author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to Al Qaeda. 
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