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 (https://www.ida.org/) 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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, (http://web.archive.org/web/20031231163610/http://www.nautilus.org/vietnamFOIA/report/dyson67.pdf), 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo) or Tsar Bomba (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 (http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=59004). 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?