Did nuclear weapons reduce the death rate from war

I have heard that nuclear weapons reduced the death rate from war because it made war too unprofitable to be worth the effort for the aggressor. So war death rates declined started in the mid 1940s.

Of course this scenario ignores all the times we came close to all out nuclear war (Stalin’s buildup before his likely murder, Kennedy and Cuba, Stanislav Petrov in 1983). Plus they have already been used once in Japan, but that wasn’t all out nuclear war.

I’m not sure if this is a debate or question. Did the nuclear arms race result in war death rates declining? If they did decline starting in the 1940s, couldn’t some other cause have been the motivator like the spread of liberal democracy and wealthy interconnected economies (both of which seem to reduce the desire for war)?

The spread of liberal democracy seems to have been more an event of the 70s and 80s though. And economic globalization also didn’t occur large scale until the 80s and 90s from what I know.

If they did, why didn’t chemical, biological or ICBMs have the same effect?

Or was the long period before that just one more filled with war than usual (1750-1950), so by comparison the wars during the period after seemed smaller? That seems to have been a period (1750-1950) when large scale industrialization, resistance to feudalism and promotion of individual rights started to happen over the western world. And that happened in developing nations not long after with decolonialization. Maybe it is just the fact that when powerful and wealthy nations start dealing with those issues they have the power to result in large scale wars. When smaller nations like Cambodia or Laos do, they don’t have the power of a Russia or Germany.

As a layman, I would postulate that the increasing mechanization (and now, automation) of war has resulted in the “decline of war death rates” (whatever it is that means).

Does it mean that there are fewer wars than there used to be, or the wars that do happen result in fewer casualties?

Finally, I find it a bit curious to say that nuclear weapons are singlehandedly responsible for the decline of wars, post-1945, when we had just finished the most deadly and destructive war in the history of mankind. Maybe WW2 itself was responsible. “War to end all wars,” and that.

To find the biggest cause of decline in war deaths, you need to consider the biggest cause of those deaths to begin with. Historically, the vast majority of deaths in warfare have been caused by disease and infection, both of which have been significantly reduced by penicillin and other modern antibiotics.

Sure, disease and infection were major causes of death in the past, but the simple fact is that there hasn’t been a conflict between major superpowers since WWII. I’d say that plausibly this could be attributed to nuclear weapons as much as any other factor, since it upped the stakes for any conflict between major powers to unacceptable levels. My guess is that without nuclear weapons there would certainly have been a major conflict between the US and USSR, with much of the rest of the world coming down on one side or the other, had there not been the threat that any conflict between the two would inevitably have gone nuclear at some point.

Such a conflict, even with modern medicine and leaving out atomic weapons would have cost many millions of lives (IMHO)…probably more than WWI or WWII (possibly more than both).


Also note that weapons have become more accurate thus reducing the death rate.

Historically as many or more civilians died in a war as military did. In WWII if you wanted to take out a factory you’d need 20 bombers and carpet bomb the area…often returning again to be sure the job was done.

Now one plane with a few missiles can do the job and take out only the factory and not stuff around it.

Taking into account the Cuban missile crisis and other revealed close calls in the past, I would say that any alleged reduction of the death rate is based on luck. For if we had been unlucky we would not be having this debate.

A couple of factors:

“Limited war” - Since the invention of the atomic bomb, the great powers made a concerted effort to not allow small regional conflicts to explode into another full scale world war.

Technology - Much of American military technology is designed to allow troops to attack targets more accurately from greater "stand off " distances.

Tactics - The destructive power of modern weapons makes earlier tactics of fixed fortifications and massed “human wave” infantry and even armor attacks suicidally impractical. Desert Storm demonstrated how a relatively modern mechanized army could be rendered ineffective through massed air power. So enemies have reverted to small unit guerilla tactics.

Medical care - Since Korea, the introduction of helicoptors, mobile field hospitals (ie MASH units, now called CSH units), and improved trauma care has made it so that a soldier wounded in action has a much higher probability of surviving.

Television / Internet - Modern communication technology now allows wars to be broadcast right into your living room. Massed casualties becomes a lot more politically untenable when you can watch it on the evening news or Youtube.

Sure, but that works both ways. Put an army in the field and that army becomes a huge target for such precision weapons. During WWII it was dangerous driving a tank, but not suicidal. Going up against the US (and presumably the Euros) would be tantamount to suicide for a tanker, since if the enemy sees you that’s probably all she wrote…you are dead meat.

Since WWII this hasn’t been a major problem because it’s all been asymmetrical warfare. If you had two large, well equipped and well trained military’s going toe to toe today then it could be a blood bath. I don’t know how likely it would be that today anyone COULD go toe to toe with, say, the US military (on equal footing), but if it had happened in the 70’s or 80’s then it would have been incredibly destructive, not just to the military units but to everyone even close to where they were engaging. I would guess that Europe would have been devastated, and probably everywhere else in the world as well, including the US, had the Soviets and the US gone at it hammer and thongs…and my guess is that this would have happened without the thread of nuclear deterrence.


Well I think in a way you could say that warefare on the whole has decreased in size and intensity due to atomic weapons, but I think the reality of it is that it has just made the stakes so much higher, and so countries are much more cautious. You have to remember that we are looking at this veiw from our time in history–10 years from now we may have another WW that would clearly be the most destructive in history.

Furthermore the majority of countries that have been warring since WWII do not consist of two major countries that possess nuclear weapons. Its generally just one larger country that would prefer not to use nukes in a lower-key invasion than two substantial, WMD possesing powers dukeing it out.

I disagree. I would say that most of the ‘wars’ since then have been “conflicts between major superpowers”, done via proxy. Korea, Vietnam, Congo war? – all proxy conflicts between the major superpowers.

You could argue that the superpowers have contained these ‘wars’ as regional conflicts, and prevented them from expanding into an all-out World War. And that nuclear weapons is one of the reasons the superpowers have done so.

Um, huh? Doesn’t that scenario take into account those situations? Situations where previously there would have been a war, but there was not?

In my lifetime, there has never been a direct war between nations that both had nuclear arms. Given a lack of nuclear arms, a conventional war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the 1950s would have been a certainty, and how many lives would that have cost?

I don’t know that this could be applied to a global perspective, but it has been argued for years that the use of nuclear weapons on Japan saved not only countless American lives, but also a vast number of Japanese civilians (scant comfort to those caught in the blast of course). But in all seriousness, a conventional invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath of massive proportions.

My dad fought in the Pacific Theater, was in fact expecting to be in the first wave into Japan with an appalling causulty rate of 90% anticipated. To this day, he professes to be thankful that President Truman made the decision to use the bomb instead.

It seems almost obscene to posit that a weapon of mass destruction can actually save lives, but in some cases at least, that seems to have been the case.

No. What supposedly happened with Stalin was he was planning another massive domestic purge combined with a first strike on the west, and he was poisoned with rat poison by his inner circle (beria) resulting in his death in 53 and changing of the leadership in the USSR>

In 1983 a computer glitch told an operator that the US was firing nuclear weapons at the USSR. The guy didn’t retaliate and return fire, but he could have.

So in those instances we came close to nuclear war but it was averted. And the weapons have only been around 70 years so far.

Sure…but the superpowers didn’t confront each other directly. They confronted each other via proxy. That’s sort of the point. Had they confronted each other directly then it would have lead to a major conflict and probably spread to encompassing the world. Instead, you had asymmetric warfare where one superpower confronted the proxy of the other, or vice versa.

That’s exactly what I’m arguing. :slight_smile:


Of course long after the Cuban Missile Crisis we found out that Russian subs armed with nukes were patrolling the area.The sub commanders had the right to fire . We also found out during the Bay of Pigs that some Russians troops had the ability to use battlefield nukes. we are just plain lucky they did not. They had the authority. It seems to suggest that even those we label as evil are not trying to destroy America.

It seems to indicate to me that those we called evil weren’t crazy or insane, which is slightly different. I’m sure if they thought they could get away with destroying the US without taking unacceptable losses (and vice versa) that they would have tried to do so at some point during the Cold War.


“Supposedly”, being the key word there. Nor does planning a course of action mean that it would have happened. I’d expect that the USSR was planning attacks on the US, and vice versa.

No, he could not have. Had he not (correctly) identified it as a false alarm, he needed to bump it up his chain of command. What might have happened then, neither of us can say, but Petrov did not have authority to retaliate.