U.S. public opinion on nuclear war

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Seven decades after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, most Americans in a Stanford study were willing to consider use of a nuclear weapon against civilians under some circumstances. Image credit: andipantz / Getty Images

This Stanford news release describes research by CISAC's Scott Sagan on American public opinion toward the use of nuclear weapons during wartime. He found that views on nuclear weapons usage has not fundamentally changed since 1945, and many people would support the use of such weapons to kill millions of civilians if the U.S. found itself in a similar wartime situation. Sagan and his co-author used a survey experiment to recreate the situation that the United States faced in 1945 in the Hiroshima nuclear bombing with a hypothetical American war with Iran today.

The results showed little support for the so-called “nuclear taboo” thesis, or that the principle of “noncombatant immunity” – civilian protection from such weapons – has become a deeply held norm in America. The conclusions are stark and disturbing, Sagan said.

“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,” wrote Sagan and his co-author, Benjamin Valentino, a Dartmouth College professor of government.