Mutually assured destruction (MAD) (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of security through nuclear weaponry.

Since each state has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other even if attacked first, any state beginning a nuclear war will cause the destruction of both itself and its opponent. This will deter it from so doing.

Also see: balance of terror, deterrence

Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham, The Dictionary of World Politics (Hemel Hempstead, 1990)

Under MAD, each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side. Either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate, irreversible escalation of hostilities resulting in both combatants’ mutual, total, and assured destruction. The doctrine requires that neither side construct shelters on a massive scale.[3] If one side constructed a similar system of shelters, it would violate the MAD doctrine and destabilize the situation, because it would have less to fear from a second strike.[4][5] The same principle is invoked against missile defense.

The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side would launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with surviving forces (a second strike), resulting in unacceptable losses for both parties. The payoff of the MAD doctrine was and still is expected to be a tense but stable global peace.

The primary application of this doctrine started during the Cold War (1940s to 1991), in which MAD was seen as helping to prevent any direct full-scale conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union while they engaged in smaller proxy wars around the world. It was also responsible for the arms race, as both nations struggled to keep nuclear parity, or at least retain second-strike capability. Although the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the MAD doctrine continues to be applied.

Proponents of MAD as part of the US and USSR strategic doctrine believed that nuclear war could best be prevented if neither side could expect to survive a full-scale nuclear exchange as a functioning state. Since the credibility of the threat is critical to such assurance, each side had to invest substantial capital in their nuclear arsenals even if they were not intended for use. In addition, neither side could be expected or allowed to adequately defend itself against the other’s nuclear missiles.[citation needed] This led both to the hardening and diversification of nuclear delivery systems (such as nuclear missile silos, ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear bombers kept at fail-safe points) and to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

This MAD scenario is often referred to as nuclear deterrence. The term “deterrence” is now used in this context;[6] originally, its use was limited to legal terminology.[7]



The concept of MAD had been discussed in the literature for nearly a century before the invention of nuclear weapons. One of the earliest references comes from the English author Wilkie Collins, writing at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870: “I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace.”[8] The concept was also described in 1863 by Jules Verne in his novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, though it was not published until 1994. The book is set in 1960 and describes “the engines of war”, which have become so efficient that war is inconceivable and all countries are at a perpetual stalemate.[9][non-primary source needed]

MAD has been invoked by more than one weapons inventor. For example, Richard Jordan Gatling patented his namesake Gatling gun in 1862 with the partial intention of illustrating the futility of war.[10] Likewise, after his 1867 invention of dynamite, Alfred Nobel stated that “the day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”[11] In 1937, Nikola Tesla published The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media,[12] a treatise concerning charged particle beam weapons.[13] Tesla described his device as a “superweapon that would put an end to all war.”

The March 1940 Frisch–Peierls memorandum, the earliest technical exposition of a practical nuclear weapon, anticipated deterrence as the principal means of combating an enemy with nuclear weapons.[14]

Early Cold War

Atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima, Japan, 6 August 1945 (left) and over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945 (right).

In August 1945, the United States became the first nuclear power after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. At the time, both sides lacked the means to effectively use nuclear devices against each other. However, with the development of aircraft like the American Convair B-36 and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95, both sides were gaining a greater ability to deliver nuclear weapons into the interior of the opposing country. The official policy of the United States became one of “massive retaliation”, as coined by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, which called for massive attack against the Soviet Union if they were to invade Europe, regardless of whether it was a conventional or a nuclear attack.[citation needed]

By the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, both the United States and the Soviet Union had developed the capability of launching a nuclear-tipped missile from a submerged submarine, which completed the “third leg” of the nuclear triad weapons strategy necessary to fully implement the MAD doctrine. Having a three-branched nuclear capability eliminated the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack; this, in turn, ensured the credible threat of a devastating retaliatory strike against the aggressor, increasing a nation’s nuclear deterrence.[15][16][17]

Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko argue that Nikita Khrushchev (Soviet leader 1953 to 1964) decided that policies that facilitated nuclear war were too dangerous to the Soviet Union. His approach did not greatly change his foreign policy or military doctrine but is apparent in his determination to choose options that minimized the risk of war.[18]

Strategic Air Command

Boeing B-47B Stratojet Rocket-Assisted Take Off (RATO) on April 15, 1954
Image of B-52D during refueling
B-52D Stratofortress being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker, 1965

Beginning in 1955, the United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept one-third of its bombers on alert, with crews ready to take off within fifteen minutes and fly to designated targets inside the Soviet Union and destroy them with nuclear bombs in the event of a Soviet first-strike attack on the United States. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy increased funding for this program and raised the commitment to 50 percent of SAC aircraft.[citation needed]

During periods of increased tension in the early 1960s, SAC kept part of its B-52 fleet airborne at all times, to allow an extremely fast retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack on the United States. This program continued until 1969. Between 1954 and 1992, bomber wings had approximately one-third of their assigned aircraft on quick reaction ground alert and were able to take off within a few minutes.[citation needed] SAC also maintained the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP, pronounced “kneecap”), also known as “Looking Glass”, which consisted of several EC-135s, one of which was airborne at all times from 1961 through 1990.[citation needed] During the Cuban Missile Crisis the bombers were dispersed to several different airfields, and also were sometimes airborne. For example, some were sent to Wright Patterson, which normally did not have B-52s.[citation needed]

During the height of the tensions between the US and the USSR in the 1960s, two popular films were made dealing with what could go terribly wrong with the policy of keeping nuclear-bomb-carrying airplanes at the ready: Dr. Strangelove (1964)[19] and Fail Safe (1964).[

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