Mutual Assured Destruction: Then and Now

Published October 10, 2023
nuclear bomb explosion

The Hungarian polymath John von Neumann developed the doctrine, although some attribute it or its acronym to others.

Neumann is thought by many to have been the smartest person of the 20th Century. Yes, smarter than Albert Einstein, with whom he was a colleague at Princeton’s Center for Advanced Studies.

Neumann made seminal contributions in math, applied math, theoretical physics, physics, economics, and computer science. He was an early contributor to meteorology and to climate change, was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, and helped to develop game theory.

The wide scope of his contributions boggles the mind. He also had a photographic memory. For fun at parties, he would recite pages of the phone book. On demand, he could recall just about any passage from any popular book.

It was with game theory that Neumann devised the doctrine we call Mutual Assured Destruction. Assuming they are rational, if both parties in a “game” knew the other party could destroy them, neither party would attempt to destroy the other.

Possibly, a mutually-destructive nuclear war might happen due to a mechanical or a human error; and, there were some close calls. But, efforts were made to prevent errors, such as installing a “hot line” from the White House to the Kremlin.

Famously, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. But, cooler heads prevailed, or something like that. What actually happened is this: when Castro asked Kruschev to fire the nuclear bomb-tipped missiles in Cuba, Kruschev concluded Castro was crazy and that the missiles had to be removed from that island.

Kruschev thought communism would eventually overcome capitalism. When he said, “We will bury you,” he didn’t mean with bombs. He meant with washing machines, refrigerators, decent housing, and good schools and health clinics. Why would somebody believing in communism risk losing a war, when victory was inevitable with peace?

Same thing on our side. Believing in capitalism, why would we risk war, when victory was inevitable with peace?

The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction worked during the Cold War, just as Neumann supposed it world, because both sides were rational. But, can we be so confident today?

Is Vladimir Putin anything but a leader of organized crime? Does he actually believe that the corrupt Russian system is going to bury us with washing machines? When he attacked Ukraine, his soldiers were stealing washing machines.

And what about the Iranians and their theistic state? Are they rational, or do they believe they will usher in the 12th imam by instigating the Battle of Armageddon?

Xi, on the other hand, does appear to believe that his brand of communism will overcome democracy. He believes, as Hitler and the Japanese believed during WWII, that democratic nations are decadent. We are corrupted by materialism and succumb to self-destructive pursuits. We’re fat, lazy and perverted, and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs.

If I’m right about Xi, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction would say we can work with China, addressing the inevitable conflicts and tensions that arise on a case by case basis, as long as both of us are clear about where the line is that must not be crossed.

But Russia and Iran, I don’t think we can be so confident. These may be very dangerous times.