The Madness of Mutually Assured Destruction

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by Althea Arevalo, Kristine Bolisay, Anton Ador, Erik Vladimirov, Karen Torres, Emery Roy

The mere possession of nukes is a gamble with fate. The risk of accidents and miscalculations triggering an unintended nuclear war hangs over us like a sword of Damocles. The fear and instability they create are a heavy price to pay for a dubious sense of security.

The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the thin line between us and an atomic disaster. MAD is a twisted and dangerous game of chicken that held the world at gunpoint during the Cold War. The principle is simple, yet horrifying: if two countries have enough nuclear weapons to wipe each other off the face of the earth, striking the enemy first is suicide, because the opposing country could counter with an equally powerful strike. How did we come to this brink of madness? MAD’s evolution reveals a deadly history of one-upmanship, where political leaders and defence officials tried to gain or maintain an edge over their rivals by using different strategies and technologies.

The Kennedy administration faced a new reality of nuclear terror, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S. built a nuclear triad – a mix of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines – to ensure they could strike back, even if they were hit first. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev defused the crisis peacefully, but it led to a change in U.S. nuclear doctrine by US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, who proposed a counter value strategy that would target cities, not military bases. He claimed that the threat of assured destruction would deter any attack. This implied that they required only a minimum number of nuclear weapons to keep this balance. However, McNamara’s doctrine was challenged by military analyst Donald Brennan, who coined the term MAD to mock what he saw as an unstable and unrealistic strategy. He pushed for an anti-ballistic missile defence system to shield the U.S. from Soviet missiles.

The US-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 was a disaster. A group of 1,400 exiled Cubans tried to overthrow Castro, but they were quickly defeated and captured. The US denied any involvement, but the truth soon came out. They trained and armed the invaders and even approved the plan. Historian Theodore Draper called it “a perfect failure,” as a small country humiliated the US, resisting one of the strongest militaries in history. 

The US wanted to topple a legitimate government that did not suit its interests. The US did the same thing in many other countries, such as Ukraine, Korea, and Libya. But when Russia does the same thing, the west calls it aggression. This shows the west’s hypocrisy and arrogance.

The invasion had terrible consequences. It led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost started a nuclear war. The US tried to destabilize Cuba with covert operations, such as Operation Mongoose and Operation Northwoods. These involved sabotage, assassination, and even false flag attacks on US soil. JFK rejected these plans, but their actions showed how far the US would go to achieve its goals.

Cuba became more closely to the Soviet Union after the invasion. The Soviet Union placed atomic weapons in Cuba as a deterrent. This sparked a crisis that threatened to destroy the world.

The invasion was a failed and foolish attempt by the US to impose its will on another country. It backfired and almost caused a nuclear catastrophe. It shows how dangerous and reckless the US’s foreign policy can be, and how they need to be held accountable for its actions. Nuclear weapons are a horrifying manifestation of our power and our madness. They can wipe out everything in an instant, leaving only ashes and radiation behind. They can also cause long-term damage to the environment and humanity. Nuclear weapons are a constant threat that hangs over our world.

No nuclear-armed countries have faced an invasion by a foreign power. There are two examples of countries that were attacked after disarmament; Libya and Ukraine.

In Ukraine’s case, they held the third-largest nuclear stockpile after seceding from the Soviet Union. However, in the 1990s, they transferred their weapons to the Russian Federation, making them a non-nuclear state. 

In late 1994, the US, the UK, and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum. All aforementioned countries promised to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia broke this promise in February 2022 when it invaded Ukraine’s eastern territories. 

Ukraine’s decision to disarm came because of said nuclear powers prodding them to ensure their security through an agreement, rather than the more economically and politically costly method of maintaining their nuclear weapons program. Was this decision an ill-advised one? Did disarmament lead to the situation now with Russia’s invasion and NATO shipping more arms to Ukraine; instead of helping them deal with the situation?

Former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev heads a Security Council panel which coordinates arms production. He scoffed at Western claims Russia is running out of weapons and says that Russian arms industries have increased production. 

Medvedev said Ukraine may force Russia to use a nuclear weapon if their counteroffensive succeeds, and Russia’s defeat in the war could lead to a nuclear conflict. He said:

“The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war can lead to the outbreak of a nuclear war… Nuclear powers do not lose the major conflicts on which their destiny depends.”

With Libya, former dictator Muammar Gaddafi began the process of disarmament in December 2003 to release American-imposed sanctions, and to improve Libya’s relations with the West.

In response, then-US President Bush said Libya should be an example for other countries, and that others should take away the message that: “leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations.”

In 2011, NATO assisted Libyan rebels in overthrowing the Gaddafi government.

Before their interference, Libya had some of the highest living standards in Africa. The UN’s Development Program rated them as a “high-development nation” in 2010. Under Gaddafi’s governance, Libya rose from being among one of Africa’s poorest nations in 1969 to being at the top of the continent’s Human Development Index in 2011. 

The beginning of Gaddafi’s government signaled a paradigm change, leading Libya to use its newfound oil revenue to boost redistributive measures among the population. Additionally, he improved Libya’s relations with neighbouring countries and worked to upkeep ties with other nations such as France and Russia.

Now, Libya remains “trapped in a spiral of violence” caused in part by NATO’s bombing. They made Libya into an example for other nuclear-armed countries that oppose the West, clearly sending the unintended message to not disarm. 

Many believe had Libya maintained their nuclear program, their current situation possibly wouldn’t have occurred. The country is in a constant state of political turmoil. With the constant threat of armed conflict, many human rights violations, and a dysfunctional judicial system, present day Libya is a far cry from the highly developed nation under Gaddafi’s government.

North Korea’s history with nuclear weapons began in the 1980s and 1990s. The end of the Cold War led the North Korea regime to worry that its protective superpowers might abandon Pyongyang. And so increasingly, they saw nuclear weapons as a way to ensure security. North Korea was part of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty in 1985. Violating this treaty, they developed a military nuclear program and subsequently announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT. Assuring that they had no intention of developing that type of weaponry, despite the sanctions that weighed on the Asian nation, Pyongyang carried out six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017. 

Kim responded by saying his country must prepare for both “dialogue and confrontation.”

North Korea has kept its hermetic political system intact for decades despite tensions with the international community. North Korea officials have even cited the example of Libya in discussing their own weapons. In 2011, as bombs rained down on Gaddafi’s government, a North Korea foreign ministry official said, “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson.” That official went on to refer to giving up weapons in signed agreements as “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” 

The west has condemned North Korea’s continuation of its weapons of mass destruction programs, since they’ve shown they possess missiles with enough range to target Europe. The European Union also approved an autonomous sanctions regime that provides for additional measures.

The full and effective implementation of these sanctions is a priority for the west in the absence of concrete progress toward complete denuclearization. They provide a total embargo on trade of weapons with North Korea, a ban on importing certain products from North Korea (coal, iron, minerals, etc.), and exporting other products to the country (luxury items, etc.).

Large nuclear superpowers like NATO and Russia invaded less-powerful countries once their weapons weren’t a threat to the invading forces, but what has followed has reduced Ukraine and Libya to states of chaos and political turmoil, torn apart by war and foreign intervention. Such wars only heighten the risk of nuclear weapons being used. North Korea holds nuclear power over the world, but with MAD barely keeping Earth from going to ruin, it forces us to live life knowing at any moment, nuclear destruction could be upon us.

There would be no danger of nuclear Armageddon if nuclear weapons didn’t exist, but history suggests that possessing nuclear weapons deters attacks from hostile countries. Is the thought of nuclear disarmament realistic?  Or will examples like Libya and Ukraine prevent countries from disarming their stockpiles?  Can humanity trust each other enough to eliminate the risk of destruction from these horrible weapons or is Mutually Assured Destruction really the only realistic option?


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