In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nuclear Weapons

  • Introduction

Military History Nuclear Weapons
J.R. McKay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0076


Since the end of the World War II, nuclear weapons have fascinated humanity, providing a sense of security for many while also inspiring great fear. The first and only uses of nuclear weapons to date, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, were harbingers of a new and seemingly dangerous era. Although the influence of nuclear weapons on international politics is difficult to dispute, given the extremely limited actual use of these weapons, one could argue that their effect relied on perceptions or imagination of their power than on a body of experience associated with their actual use. Scholars could reasonably claim to have as much experience as the military in the field of nuclear warfare. The academic efforts examining the effects of nuclear weapons in international relations contributed to the development of specific fields of study that emerged in the Cold War, such as strategic studies, as well as direct contributions to policymaking in that era. There are many interrelated subtopics associated with nuclear weapons to consider. These include the development and use of nuclear weapons, their effects and related developments in terms of delivery mechanisms, concepts, major theorists, nuclear strategy, proliferation and efforts to counter it, the evolution of the arsenals held by various states, and the potential for and implication of nonstate actors developing nuclear capabilities. This article is limited to the two categories of nuclear weapons: those employing a fission reaction (atomic bombs, colloquially known as the A-bomb) and those employing a fission reaction in concert with a fusion reaction (thermonuclear weapons or hydrogen bombs, colloquially known as the H-bomb). Both of these are distinct from radiological devices that use a small explosion to spread nuclear material, and the latter is not discussed.


The works contained herein describe the influential ideas, models, heuristic devices, and observations made by scholars and practitioners about the employment of nuclear weapons, their effect on international politics, or both. The earliest work of this nature, and perhaps the most perceptive, was the “absolute weapon,” which noted the effect that nuclear weapons had simply by existing (Brodie, et al. 1946). Some works focus on the influential scholars (Baylis and Garnett 1991), whereas others examine the role of specific scholars within the “think tanks” that developed in the early Cold War (Kaplan 1983). Other works focus on the issues of reconciling nuclear war with the needs of international politics (Kahn 2007, Kissinger 1984). The considerations and influences on the development of a series of national strategies were explored eloquently (Freedman 2003). Other parts of the literature include examinations of why nuclear weapons, for all their importance, have been used so seldomly (Paul 2009, Tannenwald 2005), and discussions of concepts such as the “Ladder of Escalation,” a model for how a nuclear exchange might have occurred (Kahn 1965). The latter, however, is best understood as a model, as the evidence that appeared after the Cold War sustained the argument that the Soviet view differed significantly. The concept of deterrence, however, is sufficiently important to merit its own section.

  • Baylis, John, and John Garnett, eds. Makers of Nuclear Strategy. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

    This anthology provides excellent summaries of some of the leading nuclear thinkers from the Cold War, such as Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling, Anthony Buzzard, Patrick Blackett, André Beaufre, and Vasilii Sokolovskii. Its editors admit that there are some equally significant thinkers not covered; however, the names on the list cannot be overlooked.

  • Brodie, Bernard, Frederick Sherwood Dunn, Arnold Wolfers, et al., eds. The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946.

    One of the earliest works considering the impact of nuclear weapons on international politics. Of particular note are the two papers written by Brodie, which are lucid and prophetic in terms of the likelihood of proliferation and a military role.

  • Freedman, Lawrence. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. 3d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230379435

    An excellent treatment of the evolution of the considerations by the major nuclear powers on the use of nuclear weapons in war and in politics from World War II to the period of détente. First edition published in 1981.

  • Freedman, Lawrence. “Disarmament and Other Nuclear Norms.” Washington Quarterly 36.2 (2013): 93–108.

    DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2013.791085

    A succinct review of several norms that have evolved over time about nuclear weapons. Such norms include their nonuse and nonproliferation as well as disarmament efforts, including the idea of the relevance of Global Zero.

  • Kahn, Herman. On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios. New York: Praeger, 1965.

    Describes the “Ladder of Escalation,” a series of steps by which two nuclear-armed powers might move from a state of crisis all the way to Armageddon. The concept explains how a nuclear-armed state such as the United States might behave against a peer competitor such as the Soviet Union under crisis conditions.

  • Kahn, Herman. On Thermonuclear War. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007.

    This reprint of the 1960 original includes an introduction by Evan Jones. This controversial book is a compilation of lectures delivered by the author. Criticized as an amoral primer for nuclear warfare, it is more of a counterfactual justification of a deterrent policy through counterforce and city avoidance.

  • Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

    An engaging and succinct view of the contributions of academics to the development of American concepts of nuclear offense and defense from the 1940s through the early 1980s.

  • Kissinger, Henry. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.

    This reprint of the 1957 work contains three essays transformed into a single work. Offers a way of thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in international relations, as well as a solution to the dilemma between risking annihilation and risking slow absorption by the Soviet Union.

  • Paul, T. V. The Tradition of Non-use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Represents an effort to unlock the puzzle of why nuclear-armed states have been so reluctant to use nuclear weapons. Argues that states view these weapons as distinct from conventional weapons and fear the loss of international political acceptance following their use. These two factors lead to self-deterrence.

  • Tannenwald, Nina. “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo.” International Security 29.4 (2005): 5–49.

    DOI: 10.1162/0162288054299428

    Explores how a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons developed over time due to their distinct nature, the rise of antinuclear movements, international organizations’ arms control and disarmament policies, public pressure, and the lack of use by the superpowers during the Cold War.

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