The Offensive Power of Nuclear Weapons

The notion of offensive power in international relations is an intriguing one. When comparing two nations, one must consider all possible elements of power, including air, sea, land, and nuclear forces. It can seem easy to make a blanket assumption in this regard by saying that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. However, when one makes a dedicated analysis of what the elements of power truly entail, the end result is far more nuanced than it first appeared.

Perhaps the most defining aspect of power in the modern world is nuclear capability. Throughout the long decades of the Cold War, the spectre of nuclear weapons loomed over nations of the world. The idea prevailed that they might be used, leading to the end of the world as we know it. Although nuclear weapons were never used by either the Soviet Union or by the United States, there were several moments in the span of the Cold War when it was seriously considered.

A recently declassified case study performed by the Institute for Defense Analyses ( in 1967 presented a targeted consideration of nuclear weapons use in the Vietnam War. At that point in the War, American generals were frequently being harassed and embarrassed by Communist guerrillas in the countryside. The American military, designed, trained, and equipped for fighting a ground war in Europe against the Soviet Union, proved to be an ineffective counterinsurgency force. At one point, an American general is said to have advocated for the use of the US’s nuclear arsenal against the Viet Cong in the jungle.

It is in response to this suggestion that Freeman Dyson (, a world-renknowned British-American physicst and nuclear researcher, decided to write the case study in question. The report, titled Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, (, systematically analyzed the tactical and strategic value of utilizing nuclear weapons in the context of the Vietnam War. In particular, Dyson focused on low-yield nuclear weapons. These comparatively low-impact weapons were not those that would bring about the end of the world by destroying cities, but would have a devastating impact on a much smaller scale.

The report determines after detailed analysis that there would be no tactical or strategic benefit to the United States utilizing nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The main difficulty that the American military was having lay in the fact that the enemy could not be located. A group of Viet Cong could attack out of the night, lay waste to an American patrol, then retreat into the jungle and never be located. Thus, utilizing a nuclear weapon to destroy such a force would be ineffective. Unlike the unimaginably devastating weapons such as Castle Bravo ( or Tsar Bomba (, tactical nuclear weapons need to be more precise in their use. As such, America would find no tactical or strategic benefit in using these weapons against the Viet Cong, to say nothing of the ethics or morality of such use.

While this might seem intuitive to the casual observer, the implications of this finding for the offensive power of nations is quite dramatic. In 1967, the United States of America was at its peak nuclear capability, with 31,255 nuclear warheads stockpiled ( A nuclear force this large would prove more than capable of bringing down the Soviet Union, as well as every other developed country on the planet. From this perspective, it could be said that the power of the United States to destroy the world was absolute.

However, the consideration of nuclear weapons usage in Southeast Asia offers a telling counterpoint to that argument. Though the United States supposedly had the power to destroy the world, it was incapable of using that power to defeat the Viet Cong. In the Vietnam War, America’s nuclear power did not matter in the slightest. This then poses the question of how valuable nuclear weapons are and how they tie into a country’s offensive power capabilities. If nuclear capability is a component of offensive power, then it should have been a factor in the United States’s war against Vietnam. The indicated report proved that that was not the case.

What power, then, do nuclear weapons offer? Can their use, or their threat of use, be an effective element of offensive power? Or are they a final defensive weapon that ensures the survival of any state who possesses them, as the cost of attacking them would be too great? Is there even any difference between the power of a nuclear armed state, like Great Britain, and a state that shuns them, like Germany? What does offensive power even mean if the most powerful weapons in history cannot be counted as part of a nation’s strength?


4 thoughts on “The Offensive Power of Nuclear Weapons

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say that nuclear weapons cannot serve as a deterrent in defensive war. In fact, I would say that it depends entirely on the type of war that is being discussed.

      Nuclear weapons serve as the perfect deterrent to a Total War, such as a World War 3 between the Soviet Union and the United States. The reason for this, in my opinion, is because the end state of Total War is the complete destruction of the other nation. Thus, if one nation with nuclear capability is faced with the prospect of total annihilation by conventional forces, it will inevitably turn to its nuclear arsenal either to win the battle or to spite the enemy. In essence, once existence is no longer assured, states will use whatever means to ensure that the enemy is destroyed as well, regardless of the moral implications of using the weapons, and regardless of the destruction that will be left behind for those who survive the war.

      Total War is not the only form of warfare, however. In fact, it is a relatively recent invention. In the days of Napoleon, and earlier, the predominant form of warfare was Limited War. In Limited War, nations fight for a specific purpose with specific end states, such as control of a particular province. Victory or defeat in Limited War does not result in the complete destruction of the states; losses are sustainable, though not desirable. The Silesian War, mentioned in class, is a perfect example of this, wherein a complete Prussian victory did not result in the destruction of Austria-Hungary ( The Falklands War is another example, though slightly more complex. Argentina’s government did collapse in the aftermath of the war, but this was not one of Britain’s war aims (

      In Limited War, there is no apparent benefit to the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic. The survival of the nation is not at stake, and therefore using these weapons would only escalate the conflict and turn the Limited War into a Total War. There is not even a defensive benefit to nuclear weapons in Limited War because all rational parties understand that to use them when survival is not at stake is inherently useless, because it will only invite an escalation of the war.

      Thus, I would say that nuclear weapons can serve as a deterrent to Total War, and that they do so. However, this is perhaps their only value. In a consideration of Offensive Power between superpowers, nations will still prepare conventional forces in case of a non-nuclear, Limited War. In the case of a Limited War between any combination of nuclear or non-nuclear states, no rational nation will utilize a nuclear weapon as the costs are too high, both in terms of moral implications and the risk of escalation.

      The bottom line is that nuclear weapons effectively negate Total War between nuclear nations, but have no effect on the conduct or outcome of a Limited War regardless of the nuclear capability of the participants.


  1. Interesting questions posed here. It seems as if they are more of a last resort weapon in case of the war turning completely badly on a nation with nuclear capabilities as an extreme last measure, but not as a trump card in any battle considering how dangerous they are and how many consequences they hold. It seems that they are more so used to deter other nuclear powers as opposed to smaller states since smaller states or just states with no nuclear power in general would often seem nonsensical to use a nuclear warhead against.


  2. Allistar (spelling?), you bring up some really good points in your comment and ask great questions in your post. Questioning if nukes are offensive or only defensive is a very important question to ask. You talked about the Viet Cong, a group that challenged the U.S. with the new style of warfare, guerrilla warfare. Nukes were not even a question to raise in this situation, just because it did not seem plausible to use nuclear power against a small guerrilla force. Now a days, guerrilla warfare is most of the warfare being conducted. Therefore, I think nuclear power is only relevant on a state vs. state matter. Nuclear power is like sending a message of your capabilities to the rest of the world, so it is offensive in a way. I still think it is much more for defensive use. This answer is not certain, just because you ask such a great question on offensive and defensive power correlating to nukes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s