Does the Noncombatant Immunity Norm Have Stopping Power? A Debate

Our 2015 survey experiment—reported in the 2017 International Security article “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran”—asked a representative sample of Americans to choose between continuing a ground invasion of Iran that would kill an estimated 20,000 U.S. soldiers or launching a nuclear attack on an Iranian city that would kill an estimated 100,000 civilians.1 Fifty-six percent of the respondents preferred the nuclear strike. When a different set of subjects instead read that the air strike would use conventional weapons, but still kill 100,000 Iranians, 67 percent preferred it over the ground invasion. These findings led us to conclude that “when provoked, and in conditions where saving U.S. soldiers is at stake, the majority of Americans do not consider the first use of nuclear weapons a taboo and their commitment to noncombatant immunity is shallow.”

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