Mutually Assured Destruction

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Mutually Assured Destruction is a military theory of nuclear deterrence: neither side will attack the other with their nuclear weapons because both sides are guaranteed to be totally destroyed in the conflict. No one will go to all-out nuclear war because no side can win and no side can survive. To many, mutually assured destruction helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot; to others, it is the most ludicrous theory humanity ever put into full-scale practice.

The name and acronym of MAD come from physicist and polymath John von Neumann and is believed to actually be a joke around mad / M.A.D. Origins of the Cold War.

How Did MAD Start?

The theory was developed during the Cold War, when the US, USSR, and respective allies held nuclear weapons of such number and strength that they were capable of destroying the other side completely and threatened to do so if attacked. Consequently, the siting of missile bases by both Soviet and western powers was a great source of friction as locals, who often weren’t American or Russian, faced being destroyed along with their benefactors. By developed, we mean the appearance of Soviet nuclear weapons suddenly transformed the situation, and strategists often found themselves confronted with little choice but to make more bombs or follow the pipedream of removing all nuclear bombs. The only possible option was chosen, and both sides in the Cold War built more destructive bombs and more evolved ways of delivering them, including being able to initiate counter bombing runs almost immediately and submarines lurking around the globe.

Based on Fear and Cynicism

Proponents argued that the fear of MAD was the best way to secure peace. One alternative was attempting a limited nuclear exchange from which one side might hope to survive with an advantage, and both sides of the debate, including those pros and anti-MAD, worried that might actually tempt some leaders to act.

MAD was preferred because, if successful (i.e. no one fired out of fear, not that everyone destroyed everyone else), it did stop the massive death toll. Another alternative was to develop such an effective first strike capability that your enemy couldn’t destroy you when they fired back, and at times in the Cold War MAD proponents feared this ability had been achieved. As you can see from this summary, Mutually Assured Destruction is based on fear and cynicism, and is one of the most brutally and horribly pragmatic ideas ever put into practice: at one point, the world really did stand opposed to each other with the power to wipe both sides out in a day, and amazingly this probably did stop a greater war from taking place, as insane as it sounds now.

The End of MAD

For long periods of the Cold, War MAD entailed a relative lack of missile defenses so as to guarantee mutual destruction, and anti-ballistic missile systems were closely examined by the other side to see if they changed the situation. Things changed when Ronald Reagan became president of the USA. He decided the US should attempt to build a missile defense system which would prevent the US being wiped out in a MAD war. Whether or not this ‘Star Wars’ system would ever work is questioned, and even allies of the US thought it was dangerous and would destabilise the peace brought by MAD, but the US was able to invest in the technology while the USSR, with an ailing infrastructure, could not keep up, and this is cited as one reason why Gorbachev decided to end the Cold War.

With the ending of that particular global tension, the specter of MAD faded from active policy to background threat. However, the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent remains a controversial issue, for instance being raised in Britain when Jeremy Corbyn was elected head of a leading political party: he said he would never use the weapons if Prime Minister, making MAD or even lesser threats impossible. He came in for a huge amount of criticism for this but survived a later attempt to oust him from the leadership of the opposition.​

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "Mutually Assured Destruction." ThoughtCo, Dec. 28, 2017, Wilde, Robert. (2017, December 28). Mutually Assured Destruction. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Mutually Assured Destruction." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2018).