The choice by United States leaders to not use nuclear weapons in conflict—we haven't dropped a nuke since 1945—may have more to do with public attitude than with militaristic decisions, according to Stanford political science professor Scott Sagan.
Sagan, who studied public opinion about the bomb and discussed his findings as Friday’s Ethics at Noon lecture, was looking for an answer to the question of why the US has not even used nuclear weapons in wars against non-nuclear states that couldn’t retaliate.
His research found a 1945 poll of Americans that showed 90 per cent of the respondents expressing support for using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with 22 per cent of them expressing a desire to wipe Japan out completely with no opportunity to surrender.
But by 2009 the number of Americans who supported using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had dropped to 61 per cent, according to a Quinnipac poll.
The traditional argument against using nuclear weapons is that we don’t want to set a precedent. However, another argument is that there is a taboo against using nukes for which there is a moral obligation and ethical opprobrium if violated.
Sagan quoted several U.S. officials during the 1991 Gulf War. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcraft said in his memoirs, “No one advanced the notion of using nuclear weapons and the president rejected it even in retaliation for chemical and biological attacks. John Sununu, Chief of Staff for President George H. W. Bush, said, 'We just don’t do things like that.'”
Sagan said, “Taboos are less fragile than traditions. If a taboo is broken it creates revulsion.” He described experiments that he and his staff conduced by polling people who were given several scenarios with variations to determine what factors are significant.
They found that if the people were told that nuclear and conventional weapons were equally effective 81 percent of them would use conventional weapons. But in a scenario in which nuclear weapons were deemed more effective, a higher percentage of respondents advocated using them. In another scenario involving an unprovoked attack on a cruise ship, 72 percent of those polled approved using nukes to retaliate.
Another poll indicated that only five percent of Americans would call the use of nuclear weapons “disgusting” but 40 percent would use that word to describe a neighbor who eats dog meat.
Sagan plans to publish his findings and wants to do follow up research on the views of an “elite” population such as the Council on Foreign Relations.
A member of the audience asked about attitudes in Iran. Sagan said that polls there follow the government’s propaganda advocating a nationalistic sentiment for nuclear power. He said he has evidence of that in his wallet and passed around a 50,000 rial banknote. It has a photo of the ayotallah on one side and a nuclear symbol on the reverse side.
Colonel Charlie Miller in the audience said the “U.S. Army has zero nukes in inventory. We gave them up in 1992.”
Sagan concluded by replying to a member of the audience that he “doesn’t think use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”