What Is Mutually Assured Destruction?

Artist rendering of nuclear war with a helicopter and mushroom cloud.

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Mutually Assured Destruction, or mutually assured deterrence (MAD), is a military theory that was developed to deter the use of nuclear weapons. The theory is based on the fact that nuclear weaponry is so devastating that no government wants to use them. 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, a key member of the Atomic Energy Commission and a man who helped the US develop nuclear devices. A game theorist, von Neumann is credited with developing the equilibrium strategy, and named it as he saw fit.

Growing Realization 

After the end of World War II, the Truman administration was ambiguous on the utility of nuclear weapons, and considered them as weapons of terror rather than part of a conventional military arsenal. At first the US air force military wanted to continue to use nuclear weapons to counter additional threats from communist China. But although the two world wars were filled with technological advances that were used without restraint, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons came to be both unused and unusable.

Originally, it was felt that deterrence depended on an imbalance of terror in the West's favor. The Eisenhower administration applied that policy during his time in office—the stockpile of 1,000 weapons in 1953 increased to 18,000 by 1961. U.S. war plans featured nuclear overkill—that is, the US would be able to launch an excessive planned nuclear attack far more than the Soviets could achieve at the time. In addition, Eisenhower and the National Security Council agreed in March 1959 that preemption—the launching of an unprovoked attack—was a nuclear option.  

Developing a MAD Strategy

In the 1960s, however, the realistic Soviet threat exemplified by the Cuban missile crisis drove President Kennedy and then Johnson to develop a "flexible response" to replace the pre-planned overkill. By 1964, it became clear that a disarming first strike was increasingly infeasible, and by 1967 a "city avoidance" doctrine was replaced by a MAD strategy.

The MAD strategy was developed during the Cold War, when the U.S., 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.

The appearance of Soviet nuclear weapons suddenly transformed the situation, and strategists found themselves confronted with little choice but to make more bombs or follow the pipe dream 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 placing submarines 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. Both sides of the debate, including the pros and the anti-MAD, worried it might actually tempt some leaders to act. MAD was preferred because if successful, 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. At times during the Cold War, MAD proponents feared this ability had been achieved.

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. Amazingly, this probably did stop a greater war from taking place.

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. 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 U.S. He decided the U.S. should attempt to build a missile defense system which would prevent the country from being wiped out in a MAD war.

Whether or not the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars") system would ever work was than and is now questioned, and even allies of the U.S. thought it was dangerous and would destabilize the peace brought by MAD. However, the U.S. was able to invest in the technology while the USSR, with an ailing infrastructure, could not keep up. 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, the topic was raised in Britain when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as head of a leading political party. He said he would never use the weapons as Prime Minister, making MAD or even lesser threats impossible. He received a huge amount of criticism for this but survived a later attempt from the leadership of the opposition to oust him.​

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