The Just War Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

Although nuclear weapons receive far less attention today than during the Cold War, the weapons—and the dangers and ethical problems they pose—remain with us. The nuclear weapons currently held by the nine nuclear powers number almost 10,000. Of these, over 3,900 are deployed with operational military forces. Almost 2,000 nuclear weapons are on high alert and thus can be used at relatively short notice.[1] This status quo is a dangerous and deeply unjust situation. The proper response to this situation is to renew global efforts to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals dramatically and one day even eliminate them altogether.

Nuclear weapons and the proper response to them can be analyzed from many different perspectives, including either pacifism or realpolitik, but I will look at this issue from the standpoint of Just War Theory. Just War Theory is a school of political philosophy that offers principles for 1) when waging war is justified and 2) how, if war is justified, that war can be waged in a just, morally appropriate manner.[2] The main principle of Just War Theory that I will focus on falls into the second category of principles, related to how war can be justly waged. This is the principle of discrimination: discrimination between combatants and noncombatants in wartime. This central principle of Just War Theory is one that nuclear weapons clearly violate.

The principle of discrimination holds that in wartime military forces should, when using violence, discriminate between those citizens of an opposing nation who qualify as combatants and those who qualify as noncombatants. Combatants include active military personnel of the opposing nation, who are trained and authorized by their government to use lethal violence and are able and prepared to do so. As such, combatants may be reciprocally regarded as legitimate targets of lethal violence in wartime.

Noncombatants, who are a much larger class of people, include civilians, as well as military personnel who have in some way been rendered incapable of fighting (for example, military personnel who have been taken captive and become prisoners of war). People who fall into the category of noncombatants, even though they may be citizens of an opposing nation, are not legitimate targets of lethal violence.

Granted, the line that divides combatants and noncombatants can be difficult to draw—this is a point made by the political philosopher Michael Walzer, one of the preeminent living Just War theorists.[3] Some citizens of an opposing nation may technically be civilians but still belong to military reserves or militias that act as auxiliaries to regular military forces. Other citizens work in industries that produce weapons and thereby contribute, at least indirectly, to violence. Students of Just War can reasonably argue over these sometimes difficult distinctions.

Nevertheless, and again to echo Walzer, at least some enemy citizens will always fall into categories that place them clearly outside the realm of combatants: those whom advanced age, illness, or disability have made ineligible for military service; people engaged in work such as producing food, clothing, or other necessities that (while they might be used by military personnel) are not inherently of a military nature; and above all, children (both inside and outside the womb). Further, I would argue that other classes of people who might serve in military capacities but perform clearly nonviolent functions—doctors and nurses, clergy—also fall into the protected category of civilians.

Nuclear weapons do not discriminate between these categories of combatants and noncombatants. Their massive destructive power would kill all classes of people, even those clearly in the noncombatant category, in a population against which nuclear weapons are used. Such an outcome is clear if one considers a few basic facts about current nuclear arsenals.

The explosive power of nuclear weapons is generally measured in kilotons of dynamite—that is, in thousands of tons of dynamite. Many existing nuclear warheads, including a large number of warheads in the arsenals of Russia and the United States, the two largest nuclear powers, have yields of 100 kilotons—that is, 100,000 tons of dynamite—or more. Of the United States’ deployed nuclear warheads, more than three-quarters have explosive yields of 100 kilotons or more.[4]

To put this in perspective, consider that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields in the range of 15-20 kilotons. Thus, many nuclear weapons currently held by the United States and Russia are at least five times as powerful as the nuclear weapons that devastated those two cities. If a relatively small nuclear weapon of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki variety, let alone one of the 100 kiloton weapons, were used against a populated area, the results would be indiscriminate and deadly.

To kill everyone in a city—men, women, and children—without distinction cannot be considered consistent with the principle of discrimination. It would be considered an atrocity; an act of mass murder. Even if such weapons were used against a military target, such as a military base or a concentration of troops, if that target were located within or close to a civilian population center, huge numbers of civilians would be killed. Thus, nuclear weapons with yields in the tens, let alone hundreds, of kilotons cannot be used in a way consistent with the Just War principle of discrimination. To use even a limited number of weapons of such destructive power would be profoundly immoral.

Some might defend the maintenance of current nuclear arsenals, including both the elaborate military preparations and procedures for using them and the high level of readiness at which so many of them are kept, by arguing they serve a deterrent purpose. This is the classic rationale for nuclear weapons: by possessing nuclear weapons and threatening retaliation in kind to a nuclear attack, the nuclear powers keep themselves safe from aggression. Some will even argue that the nuclear arsenals possessed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War prevented those superpowers from going to war with conventional weapons—nuclear weapons, so the argument goes, “kept the peace.”

This argument implicitly assumes that nations can possess nuclear weapons and threaten their use without ever actually using them, with all the catastrophic and immoral consequences involved. This rationale is flawed, however, for two reasons. As long as nuclear weapons are operational, and particularly as long as they are on high-alert and available for quick and ready use, a very real and serious risk exists that they will actually be used. They might not be used as the result of a carefully calculated, pre-meditated decision. They might, however, be used either because a confrontation between nuclear powers flares up into military conflict and eventually becomes a nuclear exchange, as part of a back-and-forth pattern of rapid escalation, or because of sheer accident.

There are historical and contemporary examples of incidents between nuclear powers that had or could have the potential to escalate to more serious, even nuclear, conflict. The classic Cold War example is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In that case, the Soviets were in the process of installing nuclear weapons in Cuba and the United States almost responded with military action against Cuba, which could in turn have triggered an initially small-scale, limited Soviet use of nuclear weapons. That initial use might well have expanded to a much larger nuclear exchange.

That was over 50 years ago, but similar situations could arise today. There are contemporary examples of incidents between nuclear powers that had the potential to escalate to more serious, even nuclear, conflict. Russia and the United States’ relationship has degenerated in recent years to a state similar to the Cold War era, and military conflict between the two nations could flare up in—to take just two examples—Ukraine or Syria.

In Ukraine, the US military currently maintains a “Joint Multinational Training Group” with the purpose of training Ukrainian armed forces.[5] Yet Ukraine is still engaged in low-simmering civil war with eastern separatists backed by Russia—if the civil war should expand or if Russian forces launch a general invasion of Ukraine, then US forces could come into direct conflict with Russian ones.

Russian and American involvement in the Syrian civil war could also become a flashpoint for nuclear power conflict. In the fall of 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet, with the Turks claiming the Russian jet crossed the border into Turkey. Russia responded by stationing anti-aircraft missiles in Syria; these missiles can be fired some distance into Turkey.[6] The prospects of a Russian-Turkish confrontation is an alarming one given that (1) Turkey is an American ally and NATO member—and thus a Russian attack on Turkey could oblige the United States to respond; and (2) the United States may have nuclear weapons stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.[7]

Further, Russian-American relations over the past few very tense years have been troubled by numerous confrontations or stand-offs between the military forces of each side. In 2016, Russian planes flew dangerously close to the United States destroyer Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, and many such incidents have occurred over the past two years.[8]

The other way nuclear weapons might be used is purely as the result of an accident: political or military commanders might incorrectly perceive that another nation has launched a nuclear attack and might end up retaliating in response to what is actually a false alarm. History suggests how real this danger is:

• In 1960, the US military received a warning that a Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States was in progress. In such a situation, American nuclear retaliation was a possibility. However, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System in Greenland had made a mistake and identified as an incoming Soviet missile attack what was actually the moon rising over Norway.

• A parallel situation occurred almost 20 years later. In 1979, the American military received another warning of a Soviet attack and took some initial steps to respond. American missiles were put on alert and crews were sent to bombers. Again, however, it was all a false alarm. A technician had been running a computer program that simulated a war game for training purposes and the game was mistaken for the real thing.

• A similar incident occurred on the Russian side after the Cold War. In 1995, Russian authorities detected what they thought might well be an American nuclear missile launch targeted at Russia and then-president Boris Yeltsin was alerted. The actual cause of the alarm was a weather rocket launched in Norway. The Norwegians had notified the Russians of the rocket launch beforehand, but somehow information had not gotten to correct people in Russia or had otherwise been overlooked, and for a moment the weather rocket threatened to trigger a nuclear exchange.[9]

Such mistakes and near-misses are inevitable when you have fallible people and fallible technology in charge of extraordinarily dangerous weapons. As long as nuclear weapons are operational and on high alert, the danger exists that someday another one of these false alarms will take place and the weapons are actually used before someone figures out what is really happening.

The dangers of use as the result of either escalating confrontations or accidents are powerful arguments against the status quo of maintaining large, ready-to-use nuclear arsenals for deterrent purposes. I think there is also another argument to be made, on purely moral, principled grounds.

As I have argued, almost any actual use of nuclear weapons would violate the Just War principle of discrimination between combatants and noncombatants and is therefore unjust. I would go a step further, though, and say that not only using but threatening to use such weapons—as when nuclear weapons are used a deterrents—is also a violation of the discrimination principle and unjust.

Simply put, to intend and plan to do something unjust is also unjust. If I intend to murder someone, carefully plan the methods of the murder, and keep the means of murder close at hand and ready for use but never actually carry out the murder—perhaps because the appropriate circumstances never arise—I may not be guilty of murder in a legal sense, but I am hardly innocent of wrong-doing, either. In the same way, planning to kill indiscriminately with nuclear weapons is certainly different from actually doing so; but this does not mean it is a just practice. If we condemn nuclear weapons’ use as a violation of the discrimination principle, the intention to use nuclear weapons must also be condemned, because the intention to commit an unjustifiable act cannot be justifiable.

This situation is the position of nuclear-armed nations engaged in deterrence: they have put in place a very precise and efficient system of mass killing, ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice, and made it clear that they will use it under certain circumstances. The fact that such circumstances might never arise does not absolve those responsible of guilt.

I would add that this situation should be of particular concern to those who care about the honor of the armed forces and men and women who serve in it. Current nuclear strategy requires huge numbers of military personnel—the crews of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines, those responsible for land-based nuclear missiles—to be trained and prepared to kill indiscriminately on a massive scale. That is a morally toxic obligation to put on members of the military, to require them to kill civilians should their superiors order them to do so. If we truly wish to “support our troops,” this is a situation that needs to be ended.

For all these reasons, the nuclear status quo must be ended. This will require the world’s nuclear powers both to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in national arsenals and to reduce nuclear weapons’ level of readiness by, for example, removing warheads from missiles or otherwise disassembling nuclear weapons so they cannot be used at a moment’s notice.[10]

All nine nuclear powers should be involved in these disarmament efforts but the lead must be taken by the two largest nuclear powers, Russia and the United States. These two nations have the most work to do as far as reducing the size and readiness of their nuclear arsenals, and I doubt other nuclear powers will be willing to engage in reductions of their own unless they see Russia and the United States already making significant steps toward disarmament.

Precise disarmament agreements and the steps necessary to verify that all the nuclear powers are abiding by such agreements will have to be worked out among the nuclear powers through careful negotiation. These negotiations will be the work of policymakers but the work of lobbying, of raising awareness, and of building a global movement in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons or even just the most destructive high-yield nuclear weapons is work for all of us. Let us raise our voices about the need to end this dangerous, immoral situation and to reduce and, I hope, one day abolish nuclear weapons.

Note: For more on this topic, see Jason Jones, John Whitehead, and Aimee Murphy, “Towards the Abolition of Strategic Nuclear Weapons: A Just War Analysis of Total War,” Life Matters Journal and I Am Whole Life, August 6, 2016,

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, accessed May 10, 2016,

[2] For a brief summary of Just War Theory principles, see Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005), 285.

[3] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 144-146.

[4] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2016,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, no. 3 (2016), 126,; Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2016,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, no. 2 (2016), 64,

[5] “Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine,” United States Army Europe, accessed May 10, 2016,

[6] BBC, “Turkey’s Downing of Russian Warplane: What We Know,” December 1, 2015,; Interfax, “Russian S-400 Systems May Stay in Syria for a While: Federation Council,” March 15, 2016,​

[7] Die Welt, “Reports: US Nuclear ‘Upgrades’ in Europe,” September 23, 2015,

[8] Phil Stewart, “Russia Jets Make ‘Simulated Attack’ Passes near U.S. Destroyer: U.S.,” Reuters, April 15, 2016,

[9] These incidents are described in Louis Menand, “Nukes of Hazard,” New Yorker, September 30, 2013,

[10] These two approaches to disarmament are described in Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 69-70.

© 2016 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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