Why Nuclear Weapons Became Unsustainable: Modernization Theory, International Norms, and the Environmental Roots of the Nuclear Taboo, 1958-1968

CISAC Conference Room

ABOUT THE TOPIC: Why was nuclear war deemed unwinnable in the United States? Pace conventional wisdom, the truth was not self-evident. The determination that nuclear weapons were useful in a negative sense (deterring conflict), but not a positive sense (pursuing victory), became axiomatic in the Kennedy Years. Standard accounts explaining how a nuclear taboo arose highlight policymakers’ and thought leaders’ moral revulsion toward great loss of human life. This paper looks at studies of post-attack environments to argue that economic and ecological considerations were of equal if not decisive importance. The core question was how to protect and conserve the natural foundations of an advanced industrial state according to the tenets of modernization theory. Economists and ecologists thus clashed because of incompatible methods and political competition. Their collective inability to deliver concrete recommendations for overcoming an all-out thermonuclear attack reinforced a gathering international norm that the possession and use of nuclear weapons merited legal circumscriptions and prohibitions. 

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Jonathan Hunt is a MacArthur Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC for 2013-2014. He was a predoctoral fellow at CISAC for 2012-2013, and received his PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin in December 2013. His dissertation, “Into the Bargain: The Triumph and Tragedy of Nuclear Internationalism during the mid-Cold War, 1958-1970,” examined how decolonization, the meanings of nuclear power, discord in Cold War alliances, and a schism in internationalist thought shaped how a burgeoning international community brought order to the Nuclear Age. Jonathan graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Plan II Honors Liberal Arts; History; and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. In 2011, he was a residential fellow at the George F. Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and, in 2012, at the Security and Sustainability Program of the International Green Cross in Washington, DC. He was also a Dwight D. Eisenhower/Clifford Roberts Graduate Fellow for 2012-2013. He has published in PassportNot Even PastThe Huffington Post, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.