Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have come to the conclusion we don't need nuclear weapons anymore and ought to focus on reduction of stockpiles as quickly as possible. The problem according to Yale Professor Paul Bracken is that the other countries that have nuclear weapons view them very differently.

That's not to say that any of them plans to start a nuclear war anytime soon but that possession of the bomb forces their adversaries and their friends to change their calculations. And there is another profound difference since the days of duck and cover: Previously, all decisions involving mushroom clouds ran through Washington and Moscow. Today there are nuclear triggers in Islamabad and New Delhi, Pyongyang and Beijing, in Tel Aviv and maybe someday soon Tehran.

So how do we need to think about nuclear weapons in what Professor Bracken calls the second nuclear age? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, why we need an X Prize for everything. But first Paul Bracken's new book. It's titled "The Second Nuclear Age," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in today.

PAUL BRACKEN: Good to be here.

CONAN: And late in his life, the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that the only use for nuclear weapons is deterrence. And what else could they possibly be useful for?

BRACKEN: They could be useful for many things, and we can get ideas for how they were useful back in the first nuclear age, that is to say the Cold War. But we can also find differences, which we're going to discover, unfortunately, going into a second nuclear age.

Let me just give a couple of examples. One is for communication and bargaining, to signal to the enemy that if he takes certain actions, we'll take other actions which will make the situation much more dangerous. In fact, the most important single lesson of the Cold War when it comes to nuclear weapon is that you don't have to fire a nuclear weapon to make it useful.

Let me give an example from the second nuclear age. Suppose Iran were to get nuclear weapons, or we could take Pakistan, which already has a large number of nuclear weapons. There's a tactic called launch on warning in which you promise to launch your missiles at the other side if you see his missiles or airplanes on your radar screens, that is before they hit you.

To announce that even in peacetime has very politically disturbing effects, and it's yet another example of, quote, "using nuclear weapons."

CONAN: And somebody might have that policy, Pakistan for example, because, well, their weapons aren't in deep, hardened nuclear silos. They don't have submarines that are safe out at sea that could retaliate even after a nuclear strike.

BRACKEN: That's exactly right, and one difference between the Cold War and what I call the second nuclear age is that the number of nuclear weapons is much smaller now for these countries. The U.S. and the Soviet Union built frankly insane numbers of nuclear weapons, into the tens of thousands. But you're looking at Pakistan today, which has about 100, 120. India might have 80. Israel might have 150, 200, something like that.

So the smaller number of nuclear weapons makes tactics like launch on warning and other measures to convince the other side that they better back down all that much more important because you may not be able to survive an attack. They may take out your weapons.

CONAN: Even in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which we've all been thinking about as the anniversary passes, there were sort of well-established routines. The United States knew what the Soviet Union would do if we did this. They knew what we would do if they did that. These kinds of communications didn't just arise, they developed over years.

You say the Berlin Crisis back in 1948 was critical in establishing some of those. But the fact is those kinds of understandings don't exist elsewhere.

BRACKEN: No, this is really a critical point, and it was true in the first nuclear age that the early part of it, the late '40s and early 1950s, were by far the most dangerous because conventions about how far you could go were not established. We're in exactly the same situation today, but it's different because we don't have just two nuclear powers, we have Pakistan, India, North Korea, China, et cetera, and so each side is sort of discovering these things along the way, just as the superpowers did in the early part of the Cold War.

But another difference I would point out is that the superpowers were extremely conservative on anything that came to do with nuclear weapons, not liberal conservative but conservative in the sense that don't take too many risks, do not rock the boat. It's not at all clear that if you look at a nuclear Iran and Israel or Pakistan and India or this semi-insane regime in North Korea that they'll be anything like as conservative as the superpowers.

CONAN: There is also the fact that you say during that first nuclear age, the Cold War, both Washington and Moscow played what you describe as head games with each other and that maybe this was not a great idea, maybe it was a dumb idea, but it's likely that people with nuclear weapons today will also play head games.

BRACKEN: That's right, every president in the Cold War, from Harry Truman all the way to George Bush, played head games. Now what is a nuclear head game? This is the creation of an illusory perception in your enemies' minds that you'll take certain actions if they do certain things.

So let me just give a concrete example: When the United States bombed Vietnam for the first time in 1964, President Johnson had B-47 bombers with nuclear weapons aboard launched as he went on television to announce the bombing of North Vietnam just to create fear in the Soviet minds so they better not overreact.

CONAN: He knew the Russians would see that on their radar screens. The American people didn't see it.

BRACKEN: Exactly right. He never told the American people about this. It was only discovered years later. The same sorts of nuclear weapons will be played in the second nuclear age, I argue, and I base that on the fact that they already are.

CONAN: What do you mean they already are?

BRACKEN: A couple of years ago when Hosni Mubarak was still in charge of Egypt, Israel, which is moving some good portion of their nuclear forces to sea aboard submarines, that is putting nuclear weapons aboard submarines, sailed one of these submarines through the Suez Canal.

Now, this was a major signal to Iran by Egypt, again under Mubarak, that they were not - they were on the West's side when it came to containing Iran's nuclear program. Clearly that's not going to go on now. There's many other examples I give, and they are detailed in the book, about the way Pakistan is using its command and control system for nuclear weapons to play a head game with the Indians and the United States.

And it's something of a sort of a forgotten skill, looking at these nuclear head games in the United States because the Cold War was so long ago.

CONAN: And yes, the most important thing about nuclear weapons is that you don't have to fire one to use it, but as you think about these things, isn't talking about the possibility of the uses of nuclear weapons making it more likely that they will be used?

BRACKEN: Yeah, that's a good question, and let's just put it as starkly as possible. Does thinking about these things make it worse? And when I asked myself when I was writing this book, the honest answer I came up with was yeah, it does. But I think it's so important to look at these things in order to make sure that they don't get out of control that it's worth taking that risk.

The same debate, the same moral, ethical debate, came up in the Cold War, and my reading of the Cold War was that many of the sort of thinking about these questions that was done actually led to the conventions between the two superpowers, which lowered the risk of a confrontation between them. So overall, on balance, I think it was a good thing to do.

CONAN: And there were criticisms then, that saying these things out loud would make it more likely that nuclear war might erupt.

BRACKEN: That's right, and I don't think there's any escaping this. It's no good for me to deny that it could lead to giving ideas to the other side. But I'll tell you, any reading of the Cold War will show anyone who wants to discover these tactics - launch on warning, going on alert - it's hard for me to believe the North Koreans and the Pakistanis won't think of it. Indeed, they already have.

Pakistan has - or excuse me, North Korea just a couple of years ago tested big missile salvos keyed to the launch of a shuttle flight out of Florida. And this was a classic example of what the U.S. did with the Soviets of trying to demonstrate that we could get off a salvo of missiles before theirs would even touch down.

Why do we do this? To keep them off-balance. So - but it's really important, and the whole argument of the book is that we have stopped thinking about these things. We think of nuclear weapons only in terms of nonproliferation and disarmament, something I completely support, but it doesn't exhaust the subject, and that's what my book focuses on.

CONAN: The book is "The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics." The author, Paul Bracken of Yale University, 800-989-8255. Email How should we think about nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age? Let's start with Dean(ph), and Dean's on the line with us from Meridian in Idaho.

DEAN: Yes, I really support the book and what it's trying to show us and tell us for the 21st century. I do believe strongly that we are, as a globe, from a global standpoint, who's in charge and who takes the leadership role in looking to find out where all these weapons are and accountability for where they are in these countries, in the Mideast, that could have transported these weapons around, and it's been a long time, for instance, since we've had accountability on nuclear weapons and not just only the superpowers but also those little countries that could very well get them inside their borders.

And so I'm concerned about that today. I think the use of nuclear weapons as a first-strike capability, maybe the superpowers still have a little bit of that in play because they, you know, negotiated how many weapons that they could have. But I'm more concerned about these small countries and accountability and who has any control over that because it seems like today, Iran tomorrow could fire a rocket and do a test on a rocket, and we wouldn't find out about it until after they'd done it. So...

CONAN: Well Professor Bracken one of the - excuse me, I just wanted to get a response. One of the arguments you make in the book is yes indeed, the dangers lie in the regions, not so much with the major powers.

BRACKEN: Yes, I agree with that very much, and frankly it's hard for me to conceive of a scenario where the U.S. and Russia or China and India go full-bore in a nuclear war with each other. But boy is that not true, boy can I imagine if Iran gets nuclear weapons, and Israel already has them, you could have a quote, "Cuban Missile Crisis" between the two of them, and nobody's really exploring what that's like. Same for North Korea, same with India and Pakistan.

So the risks, the dangers have really shifted to the regions, it seems to me. And then there's still - you know, nuclear weapons are there among the major powers, but I don't particularly worry about it compared to the regions. That's the big shift.

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Bracken, the book again "The Second Nuclear Age." More of your calls in just a moment. How do we need to think about nuclear weapons in this second nuclear age? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about what Paul Bracken calls the second nuclear age, what changed after the Cold War and why the U.S. needs to rethink its approach to nuclear weapons. Paul Bracken's new book is titled, appropriately, "The Second Nuclear Age."

One of the ways countries develop strategies in this new world is through war games. You can read about some of the games Bracken's participated in and why he found them both insightful and troubling in an excerpt at our website, that's at

Call and tell us, how do we need to think about nuclear weapons now? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's get another caller in, this is Grant, and Grant's on the line from Sacramento.

GRANT: Thank you, Neal, for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GRANT: Yes, I'd like to ask the question, sort of a basic one: How do we begin to think more about nuclear disarmament, that great goal of a world free of nuclear weapons which President Obama has promised several times in his campaign? It's certainly a goal of many leaders and former leaders from all political perspectives. And de-legitimizing the political use of nuclear weapons seems to be a beginning step. And could we please begin with disarming here (technical difficulties) including the new nuclear weapons that are currently being constructed? And what's the possibility of our president now leading the world towards finally abolishing these terrible weapons?

CONAN: And Professor Bracken - as you know - this is more than a campaign promise by Barack Obama; but a pledge of the United States, under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Go ahead, please.

BRACKEN: Yeah, let me put it this way- that the United States has supported anti-nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War, and before, with an intensity that is rare in American policy on any subject. These anti-nuclear policies have been more forceful than anything in American history; more so than the Monroe Doctrine, more than a liberal international regime, even more than containment.

The problem is, they just didn't work. They did not convince Pakistan, North Korea, China, Russia; they did not convince Israel. So the United States still advocates this sort of view that we should get rid of nuclear weapons, something I personally support - I wish all countries would disarm - but I think we have to recognize that it's not going to happen anytime soon.

And we need to think about what it's like to manage in this world because we're not able to eliminate the bomb altogether. That would be preferable. But we're going to have to get to a management of these crises, which will have transcendent impacts, and I think we're also going to have to face up to the question somebody might actually use these things.

Back in the Cold War, it's my view that there was never a time when either side seriously considered a calculated strike on the other. All of them had plans - and you could find colonels and one-star generals who thought about these things - but at the top of the government, both sides backed down. That's not going to be the true in the case of North Korea. It's not going to be true in South Asia with Pakistan and India, nor is it going to be the true in the Middle East.

Look at the Israeli nuclear program. The way I would describe it is that it's gradually coming out of the closet. For many years we didn't believe Israel had nuclear weapons. But now they're signaling every which way because they want to make Iran and other countries back down. So while it's very - it's better to prevent the kind of things I'm talking about, sometimes it's like a hurricane and you better prepare for managing it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gavin(ph) in Sacramento: How realistic is it that the Western powers can contain the formula for nuclear weapons in the information age, when schematics and mechanics are able to be transmitted or hacked? In other words, put in the context of Iran, even if there should be an attack to deny Iran the possibility of building a nuclear weapon in the next few years, still the ability, the knowledge of how to do it, that will still be out there.

BRACKEN: Yes, the physics are out there, and as Albert Einstein said, there are atoms in all countries. What's different today from 10, 20 years ago is that the applied physics is also there. I've looked into this. Pakistan, today, is the fastest growing nuclear power in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan manufactured bicycles, but they actually had to import the chains for the bicycles, because the engineering industry couldn't support it.

Now, this is no longer true. Mohamed ElBaradei has talked about this - the Nobel Prize winner, and former head of the IAEA - that the technological sophistication of more countries; they have engineering industries that can not only figure out how to build the bomb, but to do it in a practical engineering sense. And that's why the situation's getting more dangerous, compared to the '70s and '80s.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mike; and Mike, on the line, with us from Spokane in Washington.

MIKE: Hi there, thank you for taking my call. I am Iranian-American. And right now, the situation between Iran and United States - and rest of the Western world - it is really a concern for many, many people. And one of the comments, you know, I have, is Iran is trying to provide some sort of security against, you know, this hegemony of, you know, superpowers. And we see what's happening in Pakistan. In Pakistan, if they didn't have nuclear capability, United States probably would have invaded Pakistan, too. And also, they seek North Korea. They have, you know, nuclear capability, and nobody's even, you know, thinking of invading them.

So for Iran, I think, you know, if I was in their shoes, I would, you know, see this - you know, more as a safety and security. And my comment - you know, in addition to what I've said - if I was, you know, internationally with Iranians, I would, you know, challenge them in the safety of this - you know, nuclear issue. And so that's my - you know, I want to see what you think about this.

CONAN: All right, thank you very much, Mike. And I'm not sure about the invasion of Pakistan but - well, Professor Bracken, you can certainly understand his point of view; that from Iran's point of view, a nuclear weapon might be a very powerful deterrent against the kind of bullying that he's talking about.

BRACKEN: I think that's exactly right, leaving aside whether we would invade Pakistan. But I would agree that the anti-nuclear policies of the United States - the nonproliferation treaty, and other mechanisms - are viewed in many parts of the world, as a way to make - if they were to go into effect and be bought by these countries, it would make the world safe for conventional, strong-arm tactics by the United States.

Now, I'm not blaming the United States here. I'm simply pointing out an obvious reality. Take the case of North Korea. All right, does anybody think that North Korea would be getting anything like the international humanitarian assistance from China, and the United States, if they didn't have the bomb? If this isn't an example of using the bomb, I don't know what is. On Iran, we would treat Iran very differently with nuclear weapons, compared to an Iran that didn't have nuclear weapons. And it's one of the major motivating factors; that these countries want to get the bomb because it offsets, in their minds, the overwhelming convention military superiority of the United States - something they cannot possibly hope to compete on. Therefore, they're attracted to nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Indeed, it's sort of interesting - back in the Cold War, the United States couldn't - or didn't choose to - compete with Soviet ground forces in Europe, and - well, the nuclear bomb provided a capability to deter Soviet attack without, well, putting many, many American divisions in Germany.

BRACKEN: Yeah, this is something which is now widely forgotten in histories of the Cold War; is that the U.S. fought the Cold War on the cheap. People think that this - Cold War was this all-out, militarily intense arms race. We all - the maximum size of the Army, in the Cold War, was only 20 divisions. It was really, quite small. How could we get away with this? Because we relied on nuclear deterrence. And so we're - we did, in the Cold War, exactly what the caller indicates Iran is doing today.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Marr(ph), Marr is with us from Monterrey in California.

MARR: Yes. Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARR: I was just wondering why does - and I mean this point has been brought up many times before - why does the world keep turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear program; and the fact that they're not - they hadn't joined the nonproliferation treaty. And they keep vilifying Iran, which really has not attacked anybody before, while, you know, Israel has a history of violence and not abiding by U.N. solutions? And why - the previous caller said this could be a deterrent against the bullying of Israel towards other Middle Eastern countries. I mean they can roam around and strike wherever they like right now because they're the only ones who has a nuclear capability.

CONAN: Professor Bracken.

BRACKEN: Well, I think nuclear weapons in the Middle East, if Iran gets it, would be a game changer for many of the reasons that the questioner points out. The revelations, the fact that Israel and her nuclear force is gradually coming out of the closet, is just something - it's a trend you see over the years. So while in the past there will be very little attention on Israel nuclear forces, now there's getting to be a lot more.

Let me just point out one obvious thing. The German government is selling six submarines, has already sold - two or three of them are in the water in the Mediterranean - to Israel as she shifts her nuclear forces to sea. This isn't getting anything like the attention that it deserves, because it's going to dramatically increase the geographic footprint, the size and noticeability, of Israel's nuclear deterrent.

Most of what Israel had to do with her nuclear forces in the past was simply hide them from U.S. and Soviet and Russian satellites so that they didn't get into the headlines, causing all kinds of problems of a political nature. That's going to be a lot more difficult to do.

CONAN: You write in the book that there's this fiction that's built into the nonproliferation treaty. Fictions include that the United States and Russia will go down to zero. Fictions include India, Pakistan and Israel don't have any nuclear weapons, or North Korea, for that matter. And you say - you argue - this is a fiction we should maintain.

BRACKEN: Well, what I - the term I used is, it's a useful fiction. One of the biggest sources of stability in the Cold War were useful fictions, that there were only two nuclear powers, when in fact it was France and Britain and also on China. It was still good to pretend, for the purposes of stability, that this wasn't the case, that there were two decision-making centers.

I think useful fictions, if they stabilize international order, are still worth embracing, even though they are fictions. The chance that the U.S., Russia, China, the major powers, are going to disarm as the nonproliferation treaty called for, that's simply not in the cards. But I would say if I were working in, you know, in the White House, I would never say that. I would preserve the useful fiction because it's a good order-keeping device in the world.

CONAN: And the idea that Israel might give up its nuclear weapons, well, or be forced to, there's no way to do that.

BRACKEN: There's no way to do that, and it is facing a potentially nuclear Iran. Can anybody seriously imagine that Israel will choose this time to give up its nuclear weapons? I don't think so.

CONAN: Paul Bracken is our guest. The book, again, "The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Jim, and Jim's on the line with us from Jonesboro in Arkansas.

JIM: Dr. Bracken, years ago in graduate school I read your book on command and control of the strategic nuclear forces. And while we're not talking about states with large, large nuclear inventories, they're nonetheless dangerous. What do we know in terms of the integrity of control over the Indian-Pakistani nuclear forces as well as the Israeli nuclear force? That was an interesting surprise I got just - when you mentioned the Germans sold the Israelis some subs so they're going to have SLBMs now.

CONAN: Cruise missiles, but not ballistic, but yeah.


BRACKEN: No, the question - first of all, what is command and control? This is a military term used to describe how the commanders, the political leaders, communicate to the nuclear forces, what circuits they use. If they give orders, will the orders be carried out in the chaos of a nuclear crisis or even a nuclear war?

The particular case on Pakistan and India is extremely interesting. And Pakistan has announced this elaborate command and control system in the year 2000, and they've actually taken the vocabulary of the Cold War in the United States and claimed to model their system on this. I don't think it's remotely true, and I go into this in great detail in the book.

This is a system which is, in fact, I think, a nuclear head game to convince the West that things are safe. Two U.S. presidents have gone out of their way to assure the American public and the world that Pakistani nuclear weapons are safe. And I would ask: Why have the presidents, two presidents and two parties, said this? They didn't say this about the Soviet nuclear forces. Nobody says it about Israeli forces.

I want to say, the reason they're saying this is because it clearly isn't true. But if you announce the true state and the unsteady nature of the command and control system in Pakistan, you would get the Indians thinking about things that we don't want the Indians to think about. So the whole subject is a kind of - a facade command and control system. I argue in the book that Pakistan has an alternate command and control system which is far more lethal, dangerous and serious.

JIM: Thank you, Dr. Bracken.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: You also point out that as the United States has gone on to this idea that deterrence and containment are the only policies we need regarding nuclear weapons, that the other nuclear powers, all of them that we know about, are in the process of modernizing their forces. The United States, despite our earlier caller, is not.

BRACKEN: Yes. There's nine nuclear weapon states in the world today.

CONAN: That we know of.

BRACKEN: That we know of. And that's - Iran's not in there, OK? Eight of them are modernizing their nuclear forces. They're modernizing in the sense not just of buying missiles, submarines, a diverse menu of warheads - uranium and plutonium bombs, in some instance - but they're also engaging in what I call strategic innovation. What are some new innovations that they can use in a strategic sense to get what they want?

This is exactly what the superpowers did in the 1940s and 1950s. The nature of the innovations is very different because the situations are not comparable. But yes. Now, the United States is putting money into - it says - into modernizing its nuclear forces.

But I would characterize U.S. nuclear strategies here as trying to get arms control through the atrophy and the unusability of our own nuclear forces. It isn't clear to me that getting — modernizing the U.S. nuclear forces is a good thing to do right now because we've sort of forgotten how to even think about it. Let me just point out that if you ask yourself when was the last time the United States fired a test missile from a real silo to see if the thing would take off, you've got to go back to the 1960s.

In 1967 we fired two of these, and both of them failed to launch. Now, we test missiles under like ideal conditions at Vandenberg, but we have not had a serious nuclear exercise in this country in 20 years. A couple of months ago, an 82-year-old nun was able to break into the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons complex because nobody took the guarding of these things even seriously.

CONAN: Paul Bracken joined us from our bureau in New York. His book, again, "The Second Nuclear Age." Paul Bracken, thanks very much for your time.

BRACKEN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.