Share | Contact Us | NPEC Email Alerts |
Mission NPEC Staff and Leadership Events Testimonials Books


Follow @NuclearPolicy to be the first in on NPEC's latest research

More of NPEC’s Work
A chronological listing by resource:

Articles | Occasional Papers & Monographs | Interviews | Official Docs & Letters | Op-Eds & Blogs | Press Releases | Presentations | Audio & Video | Testimony & Transcripts | Translations | Wargame Reports
HOME > BOOKS > Should We Let the Bomb Spread?      

Should We Let the Bomb Spread?
Published on: Jul 2016

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, security experts worried about the spread of nuclear weapons.  Now, after decades of academic analysis, some argue that nuclear weapons in more hands may be better.  During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested the United States might be better off if Japan and South Korea got the bomb.  All this raises the question: Should we let the bomb spread?

The authors in this volume present a variety of views.  Some favor letting America's allies get nuclear weapons; others say preventing proliferation is more dangerous than allowing it.  Still others argue that nonproliferation is more essential to U.S. security than ever before.

Want to get deeper into the debate?  This book is the way in.

For hard copies of the Amazon version click here and for digital copies of the SSI version click here.

Published by:

The Strategic Studies Institute Publications Office, United States Army War College

Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
Edited by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski - 2016

(Download the compete edition) 

Also available from the Strategic Studies Institute

Table of Contents

Introduction: Is Nuclear Proliferation Still a Problem?
      Henry Sokolski

Chapter 1: Getting Past Nonproliferation
      Harvey M. Sapolsky

Chapter 2: Why U.S. Policymakers Who Love the Bomb Don’t Think “More is Better” 
      W. Seth Carus

Chapter 3: At All Costs: The Destructive Consequences of Antiproliferation Policy
      John Mueller

Chapter 4: Should We Let it All Go?
      Victor Gilinsky

Chapter 5: The Next Nuclear War
      Matthew Kroenig and Rebecca Davis Gibbons

Chapter 6: After Armageddon: The Potential Political Consequences of Third Use
      Matthew Fuhrmann



Is Nuclear Proliferation Still a Problem?

Henry Sokolski

In 1966, Leonard Beaton, a journalist and strategic scholar, published a short book that asked must the bomb spread.1 Mr. Beaton’s query reflected the profound alarm with which proliferation was viewed shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today that alarm is all but absent: Now, not only is proliferation increasingly viewed as a given (more of a fact than a problem), but some security experts actually see advantages in nuclear weapons spreading or, at least, little harm.

Cultivation of this latter view took time—nearly a half century—and considerable scholarship. In 1981, Kenneth Waltz popularized French and American finite deterrence thinking of the late 1950s by asking whether or not nuclear weapons in more hands might be better. His answer was yes. As nuclear weapons spread, he argued, adversaries would view war as being self-defeating and peace would become more certain.2

Although this view gained a certain following, some pushed back, emphasizing the real limits of nuclear safety and security. Drawing on official documents, Scott Sagan in the early 1990s detailed many nuclear accidents and near calls the U.S. military had had with its nuclear arsenal. He and others also focused on the risks of illicit and unauthorized use and the chance that one side or another might misread the warning signals of a possible nuclear attack and respond when they should not.3

After the events of September 11, 2001, the question of whether terrorists might go nuclear—a worry studied in the early 1970s— regained urgency.This concern, though, immediately raised yet another issue: Was nuclear deterrence, which the world’s superpowers had relied upon so much during the Cold War, relevant any longer for dealing with nuclear-armed rogue states and terrorists?5 Once joined with enthusiasm for going to zero nuclear weapons, this question gave rise to the notion that nuclear weapons were only marginally useful to deter the most likely forms of nuclear and nonnuclear aggression (thus, highlighting how dubious the possession or acquisition of nuclear weapons might be). More radical nuclear abolitionists went even further. For them, the bomb either didn’t deter or hardly deterred at all.6 With this later perspective, it was but a small step to conclude that nuclear proliferation was neither good nor bad, but inconsequential.

But is it? Certainly, since 1966, the bomb has spread. Besides the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China; Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all acquired nuclear weapons. In addition, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Iraq, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Iran all tried given it gave their programs up. So far, so good. But more proliferation in the Far and Middle East is possible (e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan).

Meanwhile, support for nuclear use is on the rise. Russia and Pakistan now favor the first use of nuclear weapons either to deter or to deescalate future conventional conflicts. This has prompted India and China to review their nuclear use policies. What might happen if any of these states fired their weapons in anger and some military advantage was thereby secured? At least one respected military thinker argues that this would likely unleash a torrent of nuclear proliferation and far worse.7

For all of these reasons, nuclear deterrence no longer enjoys the almost religious support it once did. But perhaps that loss of faith is misplaced. After all, America’s key allies—e.g., Japan and South Korea—still believe U.S. nuclear guarantees are critical to their survival. If they believe this and the United States is unwilling to provide Tokyo or Seoul with the nuclear assurance they desire, would it then not make sense for them to acquire nuclear forces of their own? This question is the basis of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ruminations about the inevitability and possible value of Japan and South Korea going nuclear.8

With more nuclear-armed states, and even one or two states more willing to use them, though, how likely is it that nuclear deterrence and no first-use will prevail? Is the sum of all fears—a nuclear apocalypse of the sort Mr. Beaton once wrote about—again in prospect? Getting the answers to these questions or, at least, raising them is this volume’s purpose. In it, six experts offer a variety of perspectives sure to catalyze further debate.



1 Leonard Beaton, Must the Bomb Spread? (London: Penguin Books, 1966).

2  Cf. Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” Adelphi Paper, No. 171, (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981); Pierre-Marie Gallois, Stratégie del’ Age Nucléaire (Paris: Francois-Xavier de Guibert, 1960); Commander P. H. Backus, “Finite Deterrence, Controlled Retaliation,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 85, No. 3, (March, 1959): 23-29; and David Alan Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy 1945-1960,” International Security 7, No. 4, (Spring 1983): 3-71.

3 See Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Idem, “The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” International Security, Vol. 18, No. 4, (Spring 1994): 66-107.

4  Cf. Mason Willrich and Theodore B. Taylor, Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards: A Report to the Energy Policy Project of the Ford Foundation (New York: Ballinger, 1974); and Brian Jenkins, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation: P-5541, November 1975); Idem., Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008); and Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2005).

5 See e.g., William J. Perry, “Preparing for the Next Attack,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001; and “Text of Bush’s Speech at West Point,” The New York Times, June 1, 2002, available at

6 See e.g., Ward Wilson, “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence,” The Nonproliferation Review, 15, No. 3, (November 2008): 421-439; and James E. Doyle, “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?” Adelphi Paper 55, No.1, (February 1, 2013): 7-34.

7 Andrew W. Marshall, Foreword to Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, by Henry Sokolski (Arlington: The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 2015), xi-xii.

8 Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016, available at; and Anderson Cooper, “Townhall in Milwaukee with Donald TrumpTranscript,” CNN, March 29, 2016, available at



The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1600 Wilson Blvd. | Suite 640 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |