The Case Against Bomb Shelters
The nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War will surely go down as one of the most tense and unnerving episodes in modern history. Both nations possessed massive nuclear weapons stockpiles, with each weapon containing the capacity to unleash devastating destruction on their perceived threats. One false calculation by either party could have led to unfathomable outcomes for humanity as a whole.
Mutually Assured Destruction
As a game theorist, I suspect one could write volumes on the various strategic aspects involved during the Cold War. One popular example which arose from the theoretical ruminations of policy makers and strategists alike was the concept of mutually-assured destruction (MAD). This simply states that we should have some confidence that nuclear powers will never risk launching an attack against one another. The retaliatory response from the other side would be just as devastating.
In essence, launching a nuclear weapon against one’s enemy would lead to one’s own demise. Hence, a peaceful “equilibrium” will be sustained. Sure enough, this equilibrium seems to have worked. Despite a few close calls, the United States and the Soviet Union never found themselves in a nuclear exchange.
Some have gone so far as to speculate that because of MAD, the spread of nuclear weapons actually makes the world an overall safer place. Therefore, the threat of nuclear retaliation lessens the incentives that countries have of engaging in traditional warfare as well. As prominent political science professor Kenneth Waltz (2015) states, “Nuclear weapons lessen the intensity as well as the frequency of war among their possessors. For fear of escalation, nuclear states do not want to fight long or hard over important interests—indeed, they do not want to fight at all.” In fact, he states, “I have found many reasons for believing that with more nuclear states the world will have a promising future.”
Risks of Defensive Measures
Others remain skeptical of such “nuclear optimist” views. It matters not if the chance of miscalculation from any of the nuclear-capable countries is exceedingly small. As Waltz suggests, eventually an outcome with a small probability will just happen to occur. For example, consider if the probability that such a weapon is erroneously launched at an enemy in any given year is even in the ballpark of 0.005%. We would then would expect nuclear catastrophe roughly within the next 200 years, or so “nuclear pessimists” claim.
For these reasons, many people during the Cold War felt the need to protect themselves against such an eventuality. One approach that was common beginning in the 1960s was the construction of bomb shelters. These are places where one could hide in the event of a nuclear attack in order to increase the their chances of survival. By the early 1960s, the U.S. Congress allocated $169 million for public and private bomb shelters. It was a simple, intuitive solution designed to prevent a potential catastrophe. Or was it?
According to a 1966 document produced by the House Committee on Armed Services, it is apparent that some policy makers thought that bomb shelters could actually decrease the overall security of American citizens. The basis of this argument seems to have been the following: Further “damage-limiting programs,” such as the $169 million in bomb shelter spending, could potentially disrupt the peaceful MAD equilibrium. Limiting the effectiveness of a Soviet response to an initial US attack would put the Soviet Union at a higher risk of an initial attack from the US. This might then encourage them to undertake more aggressive actions in the present moment.
To put it differently, suppose you and your enemy both have baseball bats. But then you each hesitate to whack one another for fear of them whacking you back. Hence, nobody gets whacked at the end of the day. But suppose now your enemy is contemplating suiting themselves up in plate armor like a medieval knight. Once they acquire that armor, they would have less fear of your retaliatory attack. Thus, it makes an initial attack from them more likely.
But Can We Prevent It?
It may then be in your best interest to somehow prevent them from obtaining such armor, possibly by means of a preemptive attack. It is exactly this sort of escalation many policymakers feared could be the result of US citizens building bomb shelters. From the document, we read a statement from then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara:
“In other words, if we were to try to assure survival of a very high percent of our population, and if the Soviets were to choose to frustrate this attempt because they viewed it as a threat to their assured destruction capability, the extra cost to them would appear to be substantially less than the extra cost to us.”
“The entire problem of the extent and kind of efforts we should make to limit damage is dominated by the great uncertainties about Soviet responses to those efforts. How far we should go in hedging against these uncertainties is one of the most difficult judgments which have to be made.”
Game Theory and Economics
We often hear it said in the context of sports that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Could it be that in the case of nuclear deterrence, the best defense is…less defense? It’s an intriguing idea. If you are interested, you can learn more about these ideas and game theory in general in my ECON 4301 and ECON 6305 courses. Look forward to seeing you there!
Dr. Eric Hoffman
Associate & Pickens Professor of Economics