Imagine North Korea starts, once again, testing long-range missiles that could reach the United States. Should we drop a nuclear weapon on them, killing a million innocent civilians?
You might expect most people would answer this question with a firm, resounding “No!”
Such an action would be morally despicable, of course. It would lead to many, many deaths. Security experts say it would do very little to advance US interests, and it’d destabilize the whole world, increasing the chance of other nuclear exchanges, with catastrophic consequences.
But it turns out these reasons wouldn’t faze a good number of Americans. A survey by YouGov and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published Monday, finds a third of Americans would be in favor of a nuclear strike even if it killed a million people.
In the survey of 3,000 Americans, respondents read imaginary news stories in which they were told policymakers were contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea. Different groups of participants got different scenarios: Some were asked to consider attacks with conventional weapons, and some with nuclear weapons. Some were told the preemptive attack had a 90 percent chance of success, some a 50 percent chance of success, and some a 10 percent chance of success. And some were told the strike would have about 5,000 civilian casualties, while another group was told the nuclear strike would have a million civilian casualties.
It turns out people didn’t care about the human toll of the proposals. Respondents were approximately as likely to support an attack that killed a million civilians as an attack that killed 5,000. They were as likely to support a nuclear attack as an attack with conventional weapons. “The US public exhibits only limited aversion to nuclear weapons use and a shocking willingness to support the killing of enemy civilians,” the paper concludes, noting past research backs this up too.
Thankfully, decisions about whether to use nuclear weapons against other countries aren’t made via popular polling. But public attitudes still matter. If politicians don’t expect voters to care about the difference between 5,000 and 1 million civilian casualties overseas, we probably can’t expect that they’ll care either.
Furthermore, the survey authors conclude, the results suggest the public knows almost nothing about the strategic implications of nuclear weapons, with most public education efforts having ended with the Cold War. Perhaps that was a mistake. As long as we’re a nuclear-armed society, we can’t afford to be one where people enthusiastically support nuclear weapons use while knowing almost nothing about them.
Most polls about war are exceptionally vague
When you survey Americans about their support of military action in other countries, their answers are all over the map. They’re sensitive to details of phrasing — for example, only 24 percent of Americans support military action against Iran in the most recent surveys, but in past surveys, 62 percent have favored “preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, even if this option means the use of military force.”
“Existing polls on North Korea,” the YouGov/Bulletin of Atomic Scientists paper notes, “are all over the map, with some finding strong support for attacking North Korea and others revealing very little support.” Why? Differences in phrasing — like asking whether someone “prefers” or “approves” of an attack make an enormous difference. Many survey questions are extraordinarily vague, effectively asking people to consider whether military action would be good without providing any detail about what type of action, its odds of success, or the plausible consequences.
“Public polling questions rarely include estimates of fatalities or other consequences of military action,” the paper notes, “so one does not know if respondents who support the use of force do so because they underestimate the expected fatalities involved, support the attack regardless of the fatalities, or have simply not thought about potential fatalities at all.”
And in surveys, Americans consistently misunderstand our own military capabilities and the capabilities of other countries. For example, experts do not think the US has good odds of shooting down a missile fired by North Korea at America. However, Seventy-four percent of the public is confident we could shoot down three missiles at once before any hit their target.
All of these shortcomings make surveying the public about their support for wars (or lack thereof) a difficult endeavor, and these results usually aren’t all that meaningful.
Scenarios for a war with North Korea
The YouGov/Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report tried to do things differently. It presented specific scenarios and included details like the odds of success and the predicted casualties. The authors — Alida Haworth, Scott Sagan, and Benjamin Valentino — were interested in whether people’s policy opinions are responsive to such details.
The answer is the details do matter to Americans, quite a lot, but even in the most extreme situations put forward, many people still support a massive attack on the civilians of North Korea.
Americans care a great deal about the expected success of the strike — and sensibly so. Support for an attack fell off dramatically if the attack was said to have a 50 percent chance of succeeding instead of a 90 percent chance.
(How does one define “success” when we are discussing the nuclear obliteration of all life forms?)
Phrasing mattered a lot too. For each scenario, they asked respondents if they “preferred” a war and if they would “approve” if the president and the military went ahead with that course of action. Every time, “approve” was much higher than “prefer” — for example, while only 33 percent prefer a nuclear strike with low civilian casualties, 50 percent would “approve” if one occurred.
The report speculates this is an instance of the well-known “rally ’round the flag” effect” where Americans, regardless of whether they’d have chosen to go to war, will support one once it starts. (The authors note this bump in public opinion can be short-lived.)
You’d expect people would be less enthusiastic about a strike when the expected casualties are 1 million civilians, rather than 5,000. But in the population as a whole, support for an attack on North Korea basically remains steady regardless of the number of expected casualties.
And in one specific subpopulation — Americans who support the death penalty — the increase in casualties actually increased support for the war.
“When the number of expected North Korean fatalities increased from 15,000 [5,000 civilians and 10,000 military] to 1.1 million, preference for using nuclear weapons among respondents who favor the death penalty increased from 38 percent to 49 percent (although this is not a statistically significant change),” the report says. “One respondent who supported the death penalty and the US nuclear strike in this scenario explained, ‘It’s our best chance of eliminating the North Koreans.’ ”
Another participant explained their answer by writing “to end North Korea.”
Which suggests it’s not just voters are indifferent to casualties, some actually want to annihilate entire “enemy” civilian populations and are more supportive of a war if it seems likely to achieve this end.
That’s pretty horrifying.
The report suggests support for the death penalty is a proxy issue for “retributive nature,” which predicts support for war, and torture as well. Retributive nature is a strong predictor of whether the increased casualties from the nuclear strike bothered respondents. “By contrast, preference for the nuclear strike among those who oppose the death penalty fell from 26 percent to 7 percent across the same two scenarios,” the paper notes.
So while the overall statistic shows the same level of support for a strike – whether it killed 15,000 people or 1 million – this is a bit misleading, ins’t it? There’s a contingent of Americans who supports such a strike if casualties are limited but not if casualties are horrifyingly large, as we might expect. And there’s a different contingent of Americans who supports the strike more enthusiastically if it will have massive civilian casualties. Ummm…
Horrific as that is, it’s better to know than later. Our wars have unimaginable humanitarian costs. Understanding what Americans care about, what we’re confused about, and what influences our enthusiasm for war is important if we’re ever going to stop our atrocities overseas.
On June 20, the Guardian ran a curious headline: “Nuclear Weapons: Experts Alarmed by New Pentagon ‘War-Fighting Doctrine.” Last week, a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was briefly available to the public on the Pentagon’s website. Titled “Nuclear Operations,” the report describes nuclear war in such upbeat terms that you will almost look forward to it.
Before it was yanked, the report was captured and is available on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. A Pentagon spokesman told the Guardian the report was deleted because of a decision the publication should be available “for official use only.” Translation: the public got to see the report because somebody in the Pentagon goofed.
According to the Guardian: “Arms control experts say [the report] marks a shift in US military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war.” No, it doesn’t. Although the US has not used nuclear weapons since its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it has come close several times.
General Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander during the Korean War, asked for atomic bombs a mere two weeks into the war. Later, MacArthur asked President Truman for fifty or so atomic bombs to be dropped on the border between North Korea and China to create an impassable cordon unsanitaire.
President Truman wisely said no, but at a November 30, 1950 press conference, Truman had said that the atomic bomb had always been under “active consideration” for use in the war. In July 1950, shortly after North invaded the South, Truman had sent two B-29 bomber groups to the UK and Guam. Once armed with their fissile plutonium cores, which remained in the US until needed, the atomic bombs on board the B-29s could be dropped on the USSR and China. (US tactical nuclear weapons would be stationed in South Korea from 1958 to 1991.)
President John F. Kennedy considered a nuclear first-strike in 1961 when the Soviet Union was threatening to take over West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall kept the crisis from going nuclear.
Probably the only thing that could have made the Vietnam War more of a catastrophe would have been the introduction of nuclear weapons. In 1966, with the war going badly for the US, the Pentagon under President Lyndon Johnson conducted a study to gauge whether to use tactical nuclear weapons. The study concluded nuclear weapons would not turn the tide in favor of the Americans, but might provoke a nuclear response from Russia or China.
President Richard Nixon considered dropping the Bomb on a whopping four occasions: in Vietnam, against the Soviet Union in its border dispute with China, and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Pakistan’s 1971 war with India.
The Guardian notes nuclear doctrine under President George W. Bush “envisaged pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the use of the US nuclear arsenal against all weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear.” This is the only indication the article gives any president before Trump considered using nukes for anything besides deterrence. Bush also implied during a press conference on April 18, 2006 he might use nuclear weapons against Iran. Will Donald Trump?
World-Ending or War-Fighting?
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump asked: why does the US have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them? The question raised fears a President Trump might have an itchy nuclear trigger finger. Pundits had to remind Trump nuclear deterrence means nuclear weapons must never, ever be used.
If we’re only talking about deterrence, the pundits are right. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union held one another’s cities hostage in a balance of nuclear terror. But nuclear weapons can be used not just to deter war, but to fight it. Toward that end, the US develops tactical nuclear weapons. which are short-range and low-yield. In theory, tactical nukes can be used on battlefields in limited wars without ending all life on Earth.
Let’s look at a few tactical nuclear weapons. We’ll start with the colorfully named atomic bazooka the Davy Crockett. (The name may have signified with one of these babies the eponymous frontiersman would have survived the Alamo.) With a range of 2.5 miles, and firing a 76-pound atomic shell, the Davy Crockett remains the smallest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the US. Hundreds of them were deployed in Western Europe in the 1960s ready to destroy invading Soviet tanks.
The same idea, but on a much larger scale, was the “Atomic Annie” field cannon, which could fire a nuclear shell as far away as 20 miles. Like the Davy Crockett, the Atomic Annie suffered the drawback that the nuclear radiation emitted would almost certainly have killed its American crew along with the enemy.
President George W. Bush pushed a scheme (later abandoned) for a new nuclear bunker buster bomb, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. A bunker buster bomb penetrates soil, rock, or concrete to destroy underground or hardened facilities.
President Barack Obama entered office declaring that the US had a “moral responsibility” to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, by his last year as president, the Nobel Peace Prize winner had forgotten that sissy stuff and had unveiled plans to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on nuclear “modernization” focusing on tactical weapons.
Beyond its two sentences about George W. Bush’s nuclear doctrine, a reader of the Guardian story could easily come away with the impression that no president before Trump contemplated using nuclear weapons on the battlefield for war-fighting. A reader who misses those lines could easily come away with the impression fighting limited nuclear wars is just Trump’s latest crazy idea.
It is a crazy idea, but it’s a crazy idea which has been around for decades.