What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants
By Gunnar Westberg
TFF Board member
“Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants”
Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino
International Security, August 2017
This is a summary and a few reflections upon reading a very comprehensive academic study recently published in International Security. See it’s full text here.
The nuclear taboo is no longer strong
In this extensive and scholarly report of 67 pages the authors report on several opinion polls they have conducted in order to learn about the attitudes of Americans to the use of nuclear weapons compared to conventional weapons.
They also review the field extensively comparing with other studies.
Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Americans strongly supported the use of nuclear weapons in that situation. The approval rate decreased to a large degree over the years.
However, when questions were asked regarding the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a contemporary conflict, such as that between USA and Iran, the attitude to the use of nuclear weapons was still surprisingly positive. The “nuclear taboo” is no longer strong.
An attack with nuclear weapons on a major city is accepted by a not much lower percentage of respondents than is a conventional attack.
A clear majority of Americans would approve of using nuclear weapons against the civilian population of an adversary that does not possess nuclear weapons.
It was seen as acceptable by the respondents to kill 2 million civilian Iranian if they believed that such a nuclear strike would save the lives of 20,000 U.S. soldiers fighting in Iran.
About 60% of the American people support this opinion.
In contrast, a 2010 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that 57 per cent of the public agreed that “the U.S. should only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack by another nation” and that 20 per cent agreed that “the U.S. should never use nuclear weapons under any circumstances”.
The principle of “non-combatant immunity”, a central principle in international humanitarian law, requires that the military activities should avoid as far as possible damage to the civilian population, compared to the combatant soldiers.
This principle had no strong support by the public opinion in these studies.
It was found that women support nuclear weapons use and violations of noncombatant immunity no less (and in some cases more) than male respondents.
The authors were not surprised by the finding that most Americans place a higher value on the life of an American soldier than the life of a foreign noncombatant.
What was surprising, however, was the radical extent to which they adhered to that preference.
The experiments suggest that the majority of Americans find a 1:100 risk ratio to be morally acceptable.
It should be strongly emphasized that no comparable study has been found for any other population in any other country. It is not known if attitudes in other countries differ from those in the USA.
The Abstract of the study
Numerous polls demonstrate that U.S. public approval of President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has declined significantly since 1945.
Many scholars and political figures argue that this decline constitutes compelling evidence of the emergence of a “nuclear taboo” or that the principle of noncombatant immunity has become a deeply held norm.
An original survey experiment, recreating the situation that the United States faced in 1945 using a hypothetical U.S. war with Iran today, provides little support for the nuclear taboo thesis.
In addition, it suggests that the U.S. public’s support for the principle of noncombatant immunity is shallow and easily overcome by the pressures of war.
When considering the use of nuclear weapons, the majority of Americans prioritize protecting U.S. troops and achieving American war aims, even when doing so would result in the deliberate killing of millions of foreign noncombatants.
A number of individual-level traits – Republican Party identification, older age, and approval of the death penalty for convicted murderers – significantly increase support for using nuclear weapons against Iran.
Women are no less willing (and, in some scenarios, more willing) than men to support nuclear weapons use.
These findings highlight the limited extent to which the U.S. public has accepted the principles of just war doctrine and suggest that public opinion is unlikely to be a serious constraint on any president contemplating the use of nuclear weapons in the crucible of war.