11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Love the Bomb?

Some years back I wrote an essay for Time magazine. When I met with the editor, he told me that he wanted "a forehead slapping piece." When I meekly replied that I did not know what this meant, he explained that he wanted the "reader to exclaim 'Wow, why did I not think about that?!'" The editor was much less keen to find out whether the idea could be well supported. All this came to mind when I read an article in a recent issue of Newsweek by a journalist, one Jonathan Tepperman. Time would have loved his essay.

Mr. Tepperman announced that we are all dead wrong: "Nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous." Wait, wait, Mr. Tepperman is just warming up. "The bomb may actually make us safer," he claims. Mr. Tepperman finds that more nuclear-armed states are not dangerous and, in effect, are "agents of peace."

The Newsweek journalist modestly refers to this revelation as "the truth" and claims that his conclusion is based on a "growing and compelling body of research." Given that I have been trying to keep up with the field ever since I wrote two books about nukes in the mid-sixties, he surely got my attention.

Soon, it became clear that there is no research--let alone compelling research--to support this forehead-slapping claim, only Mr. Tepperman's simplistic conclusions. Exhibit number one: He finds we need not fear nukes because they have not been used since 1945. But in 1945, they were used to wipe out two cities, and those who now seek to get their hands on them are much more fanatical and impulsive than the superpowers that monopolized them in the past.

Moreover, while the US and Russia neutralized each other's nukes-- because of the threat of retaliation--terrorists have no such concerns. They are willing to commit suicide to carry out their mission and, hence, hardly fear retaliation. Furthermore, they would be delighted if the nation whose city they destroyed went and took out, say, Tehran. As they see it, such an attack would serve to mobilize the Muslim world for the ultimate jihad.

The point I just made concerns the future, which I grant is unpredictable (but about which we would rather be safe than sorry). However, Mr. Tepperman fully reveals the depths of his "research" when he writes, "There's never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that posses them." I guess he has never heard about India and Pakistan.

I stopped reading after Mr. Tepperman--ignoring the terrorists-- declared that we are safe because heads of states are rational actors. Anybody who calls Hitler rational and who thinks it is was rational for the Japanese Emperor and his generals to believe that they could knock out the United States simply does not understand what rational means.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at the George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). Contact him at