Citation: Koch, L. L., & Wells, M. (2021). Still taboo? Citizens’ attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons. Journal of Global Security Studies, 6(3), ogaa024. https://doi.org/10.1093/jogss/ogaa024
For a representative sample of the American public:
- Vivid information about the consequences of a nuclear attack reduced Americans’ support for the use of nuclear weapons on both moral and self-interested grounds.
- The explicit risk of nuclear retaliation decreased the likelihood of support for a nuclear strike.
- Respondents were more likely to support a nuclear attack if it was the president’s decision instead of their own.
- The “nuclear taboo” is fragile because, without vivid information about the consequences of a nuclear attack, “substantial numbers—sometimes, a majority—of Americans appear willing to conduct such an attack.”
Key Insight for Informing Practice
In order to change Americans’ attitudes on nuclear weapons, organizations working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons can employ vivid and specific descriptions about the consequences of a nuclear attack.
Ever since they were first dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 77 years ago with unfathomable yet well-known consequences, nuclear weapons have never been used again. While their nonuse globally is widely attributed to nuclear deterrence, scholar Nina Tannenwald coined the term “nuclear taboo” to indicate that this nonuse may instead be attributed to the belief that using nuclear weapons is wrong.
But is this taboo robust? Studies have shown that the norm is weaker than previously thought. One explanation might be found in the way in which people think about the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. In this research, Lisa Langdon Koch and Matthew Wells argue that without vivid information on the real-world consequences of a nuclear attack, the public is not able to imagine the real-world implications when a leader decides to conduct a nuclear strike. In other words, this lack of information weakens the nuclear nonuse norm. The authors ask: What are the attitudes of Americans on the use of nuclear weapons? Can information about real-world consequences moderate attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons? Specifically, this study explores the nuclear nonuse tradition along two distinct mechanisms: (1) the nuclear taboo and (2) the risk of retaliation. The former (the “nuclear taboo”) is grounded in moral concerns about the harm caused by nuclear weapons. The latter (the “risk of retaliation”) is grounded in material self-interest based on the possibility of retaliation—a foundation of nuclear deterrence ideology.
Examining these two possible mechanisms, the authors conducted two survey experiments with a representative sample of Americans, investigating their attitudes toward nuclear weapons. One contained information about human and material harms resulting from conventional and nuclear attacks, and one contained information about the likelihood of nuclear retaliation. The surveys were conducted in 2018, when Americans’ awareness of nuclear dangers was heightened due to the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal), as well as the exchange of verbal threats and counterthreats between then President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Several notable findings emerged. Information about the consequences of a nuclear strike indeed moderated attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons. Vivid information about different effects of nuclear and conventional weapons used to attack a city or population decreased the likelihood of support. The explicit risk of retaliation also decreased the likelihood of support for a nuclear strike. In both survey experiments, the nonuse tradition was strengthened through exposure to vivid information. Respondents in both survey experiments also were more likely to support a nuclear attack if it were the president’s decision instead of their own, which could be explained by the public rallying behind the president during a national crisis. Respondents exposed to vivid information about the consequences, however, were less likely to support the president’s decision. Another finding showed that vivid information about harms to humans led respondents to feel more sympathy for civilian victims, resulting in a reduced likelihood of them being held responsible for their government’s actions. The results also showed that the sympathy for victims based on vivid information might have also been prompted by the respondents’ self-interest in that they considered the harms to themselves and their homelands if such a nuclear strike occurred. In other words, the nonuse norm can be strengthened through the provision of vivid information via moral and self-interest mechanisms.
The authors also examined the attitudes of different demographic subgroups. Moral mechanisms varied most notably along partisan lines, with Republicans being more likely to support the president’s decisions and more likely to assign blame to civilians in the country attacked by a nuclear weapon. Among respondents with military experience, conventional strikes were met with higher approval and nuclear strikes with less.
In sum, vivid information about the consequences of a nuclear attack reduced Americans’ support for the use of nuclear weapons on both moral and self-interested grounds. The results suggest, however, that “the nuclear taboo, if it exists, is fragile.” It is fragile, because this study shows that vivid information about the consequences of a nuclear attack makes the American public less supportive of their use—but that without such information “substantial numbers—sometimes, a majority—of Americans appear willing to conduct such an attack.” If the decision is up to the president and not the respondents, they are more likely to support a nuclear attack. The authors conclude that there is not so much a taboo but a nonuse tradition.
Nuclear weapons are the pinnacle of a militarized security paradigm. For many, including our own organization, those weapons represent an existential threat to all life on earth. Organizations working on advocacy efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons can build on the results of this study in their communication efforts. In communication on nuclear weapons, the adage “people need hope” has prevented organizations from using vivid and specific descriptions about the consequences of nuclear attacks. The idea is that such messaging causes anxiety and is not effective, instead resulting in audiences shutting down. If the goal is to change Americans’ attitudes on nuclear weapons, the results of this study suggest that it is exactly this kind of vivid information that makes Americans less likely to support nuclear weapons.
Some organizations—like Nobel Peace Laureates International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War(IPPNW) and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—have already made powerful use of this other approach. In making their case for the abolition of nuclear weapons, they vividly describe the catastrophic harm of blast and burn effects, radiation effects, and environmental effects. A very compelling and exact description is that of what a medical response to a nuclear attack would look like. IPPNW concludes: “Doctors Can’t Help.” The specificity of the information presented supports a major rationale for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), namely that of stigmatizing nuclear weapons to make progress toward their elimination.
Using vivid descriptions is important at a time when “tactical nuclear warheads” are part of policy conversations, especially as we are seeing now with heightened international tensions due to the war in Ukraine. When those weapons are described as usable, without clarity of the consequences, they become weapons to which the nonuse norms do not apply. Therefore, there is an important distinction between describing the destructive consequences of a nuclear attack in unfathomable but abstract terms and instead providing vivid, embodied descriptions of these destructive consequences—even in the case of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security recently developed a simulation that points to 34.1 million immediate casualties resulting from a series of nuclear exchanges between the U.S. and Russia. That in and of itself should be a reason for great concern and one of the primary reasons for us to pursue any pathways that de-escalate the current situation. But is it too abstract? Do we need more vivid information? Do we need to be specific about the impact on actual bodies, articulated in terms of burning human flesh and suffocation, the overwhelmed emergency response systems, the disruption of the electric grid and communication systems, and so much more? This study suggests that to change attitudes about nuclear weapons, we do.
A further important finding is that of the public being more supportive of the president launching a nuclear attack instead of themselves. The reality of U.S. nuclear policy is such that the decision to launch a nuclear weapon is not a democratic one. Whereas the entire political system functions via checks and balances—with all their imperfections—the power to launch nuclear weapons is held solely by the president. It is a reality that Elaine Scarry calls a “thermonuclear monarchy,” where one person is “empowered to not just carry out a war, but to carry out acts of genocide without getting anyone else’s okay about it.” Coupled with doubts about what drives leaders like former President Trump or Russian President Putin, we should be worried. This study is a strong reminder of just how volatile the entire concept of nuclear security is. The stakes for humanity are too high to leave the actual decision to launch nuclear weapons to the president alone. Knowing that the public’s support or rejection of the use of nuclear weapons can be swayed by nuances in how the consequences of an attack are described is not comforting either. Efforts to stigmatize nuclear weapons by strengthening people’s unwillingness to be morally responsible for such destruction provides an opening for more advocacy to strengthen the nuclear taboo.
The findings of this study can also impact the nuclear policy space, primarily through the work of policy advocates. A robust tradition of nuclear nonuse is the bare minimum to advance efforts toward the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. While the public is completely shut out of the decision-making process about when nuclear weapons are launched, policy changes addressing the president’s “sole authority” and principles of “no first use” can create an opening to question the rationale underlying the existence of nuclear weapons. [PH]
- The more Americans know about the specific harm of nuclear weapons, the less they think they should be used. How do we translate this insight into policy change?
MacDonald, E. (2022, March 16). What is the nuclear taboo and is Putin about to break it? All Things Nuclear. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://allthingsnuclear.org/emacdonald/what-is-the-nuclear-taboo-and-is-putin-about-to-break-it/
Scarry, E. (2019, May 10). Thermonuclear monarchy and a sleeping citizenry. Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.wagingpeace.org/thermonuclear-monarchy-and-a-sleeping-citizenry/
Tannenwald, N. (2022, March 10). ‘Limited’ tactical nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. Scientific American. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/limited-tactical-nuclear-weapons-would-be-catastrophic/
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. (2014). The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (p. 28). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://hinwcampaignkit.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/hinwcampaignkit.pdf
Global Zero: https://www.globalzero.org
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW): https://www.ippnw.org/
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN): https://www.icanw.org
NoFirstUse Global: https://nofirstuse.global
Key Words: nuclear weapons, nuclear taboo, nuclear nonuse tradition, public opinion
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