You are on page 1of 8

Adam Smith

17.42, David Art

World War II and Nuclear Weapons

If by 1933 Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States had

nuclear second-strike counter-value capabilities, how would the causes and progression

of World War II been effected? This paper gives some discussion on that question, and

offers some hypotheses on its answer. At the conclusion, we will find that the list of

requisite conditions under which war would have been averted is long, but that based on

historical analysis, it is likely that those conditions would have been fulfilled.

Throughout this paper, the sequence of conditions and events which really did occur will

be referred to as the “previous situation,” while the newly postulated world will be

referred to as the “new situation.”

In order to think about the changes that would occur given the new situation, this

paper details a differential analysis. That is, instead of analyzing the situation tabla rosa,

the differences in the inputs between the previous and new situation will be analyzed to

produce an expected difference in the outputs.

The assumption is made that Germany was led by a rational and deterrable

government and populace.1 This assumption will be addressed more explicitly later in the


The most obvious difference in outputs is that Germany would not have been able

to invade any of the new nuclear powers, including France, because of mutually assured

destruction (MAD). The question remaining, then, is whether or not Germany would

have been able to invade non-nuclear countries such as Austria or Poland. The answer to

The same assumption is made about all of the other countries as well, but Germany is the questionable
case. More conditions for deterrence are given in Van Evera lecture notes, “Weapons of Mass Destruction
and World Politics”

Smith 1
this question lies in which side has the largest will to attack or defend these non-nuclear

states.2 Each side will now be discussed.

Previous Situation New Situation

Balance of power
Balance of power Russia: Maintain boarder
Reasons to Oppose
Russia: Maintain boarder buffer (Poland)
German Expansion
buffer (Poland) Prevent spread of nuclear
Capacity to Oppose
Low High
German Expansion
Table 1. Summary of Allied motivations and capabilities

Allied Motivations & Capabilities

In the previous situation, Britain was largely isolationist. Its military forces were

depleted through much of the 1930s and the leadership had disillusions about the strength

of its air force,3 leading to an even weaker military.4 Thus, Britain appeased Germany

after Germany’s seize of significant territories between 1936 and 1939. Possible

explanations for this appeasement include reluctance to go to war, military overstretch,

and a belief that Germany was appeasable.5 It turned out that they were wrong, however;

Germany broke its agreements and proceeded to take over more lands.

In the new situation, however, Britain has significant nuclear capabilities. Flat of

the curve dynamics then suggest, on first order analysis, that Britain has the maximum

amount of destructive power possible. The ability to expend this power without
Since deterrence relies on a creditable threat and we assume that deterrence is proportional to the will to
defend this implies the assumption that the deterring state demonstrates its will to the opponent.
Van Evera, Lecture Notes, “Origins of the Second World War”
That is, if a military over-estimates its strength and has a constant strength target, in reality it will be
weaker than it would be without that misperception.

Smith 2
significant manpower or resources eliminates reluctance to go to war and military

overstretch as factors contributing to British isolationism and appeasement.

This causal link between nuclear capability and a forward posture in the

international arena not only makes sense theoretically, but is demonstrated in empirical

analysis of the cold war. During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union

each became very involved in foreign affairs and the balance of power across the world.6

The same effects in the new situation would also occur within France. Even

though it was heavily absorbed in domestic struggles,7 the advent of nuclear weapons

would make its former un-preparedness less significant.

The Soviet Union would likely have a similar response to the British and French,

but with increased sensitivity to Polish independence because of its border with Poland.

In the previous situation the United States’ international posture was very

isolationist because of domestic political forces, including its great depression in the late

1930s and its bitter memory of the First World War. Equipped with nuclear weapons and

thus given the ultimate security guarantee, the isolationists might have even become more

predominant in domestic politics. The United States probably would not get involved

unless the balance of power in Europe was becoming significantly unipolar.

One interest that the United States would have as an international player, and that

the other Allies would likely share, would be to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to

other countries. If Germany invaded non-nuclear countries in Europe, and if the Allies

appeased it, this would send the message to other non-nuclear powers that they can only

be secure if they acquire nuclear weapons. We saw this same effect during the Cold War

Perhaps too involved; after Vietnam, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, and general fears of
nuclear holocaust, each side began to become more objective (détente).
Van Evera, Lecture Notes, “Origins of the Second World War”

Smith 3
and continue to see it today; the United States has offered security guarantees to countries

like present day Germany and Japan in order to convince them not to have nuclear

weapons programs.

What logical reasons for opposing German expansion can the Allies use in order

to pose a credible threat and deter Germany from expanding? To summarize, the Soviets

would like to maintain a buffer between it and Germany, so an over-throw of Poland or

Romania would be unacceptable. In addition, the allies would like to maintain a balance

of power in Europe. Finally, all of the Allies have a further interest in preventing

Germany from expanding because of their desire to keep nuclear capabilities from

spreading to other countries.

It is important to note that the only new reason to stop German expansionism is

the desire to prevent the spread of nuclear capabilities. The rest of the reasons were

present in the previous situation; nuclear capabilities simply make it easier for the Allies

to exert the force necessary to turn these reasons into credible threats.

Previous Situation New Situation

Domestic security fears
Victim narrative
Victim narrative
Reasons to Expand Great depression
Great depression
Militarism in leadership
Militarism in leadership
Relative Ease of
High Low
Table 2. Summary of German motivations and capabilities

Germany Motivations & Capabilities

Smith 4
In this section, we will evaluate changes in the circumstances affecting German


In light of German second-strike counter-value capabilities, the encirclement

argument which fueled militarism and expansionism in the previous situation makes less

sense.8 If any country (nuclear power or not) invaded Germany, then Germany could

retaliate with their nuclear arsenal and inflict unacceptable damage on the invader’s


Furthermore, Hitler’s theory of “avalanche” (commonly known as band-

wagoning) does not sense in the new situation. In the previous situation, Hitler believed

that he could use threats and an iron fist to coerce the Allies to appease him. While this

worked in the non-nuclear world,9 in the new situation the Allies can more easily deter

him. This lowering of the cost barrier associated with deterring Hitler makes the Allies

more likely to balance than bandwagon.

As a result of the effects discussed so far in this section, it could be expected that

public support for expansionism would decline. The German population, however,

believed the false stories about the origins of the First World War, leading us to conclude

that the population largely accepts whatever doctrine or beliefs that the government

wishes to purvey. One could imagine a Germany in which scholars who point out that

expansionism tactics no longer work is alienated, just like those who made similar

observations for different reasons were in the previous situation. Therefore, while this

shift in public support might happen to some degree, it is not likely to be significant.

The argument did not make sense in the first place, so we say that it makes less sense instead of no sense.
At least in the beginning (Munich agreement)

Smith 5
Engagement Dynamics

We have seen a single new motivating factor on the side of the Allies, but more

importantly we have observed an increase in Allied ability to execute on both old and

new motivations. Additionally, we have seen a decrease in reasonableness in German

expansionism reasoning. The changes on both sides should make the situation less war-

prone, but are the changes sufficient to prevent war?

To answer this question we must turn to German reasoning processes, and again

apply differential analysis to what is known about the previous situation. Since nuclear

weapons are not invented until sometime in the 1920s, the causes of German

expansionism before then will be unchanged. Therefore, a large part of the

neoconservative and war-cult literature published between 1890 and 193010 will still be

around in the new situation. German myth-making about the causes of the First World

War11 are also likely to be unchanged. Given this victim narrative and the great

depression in 1929-1939, it is still likely that Hitler and the Nazi party would have been

elected into power. In fact, Hitler’s campaigning pre-1933 would have probably included

attacks against the socialists for not building and/or launching first-strike counter-force

and counter-value nuclear attacks against other countries during the window of nuclear

ramp-up.1213 As can be seen from a quick review of Hitler’s background,14 it is very

probable that Hitler would have still been a “superhawk,”15 even in light of absolute

German domestic security. Hitler wanted to expand Germany’s borders, but it is also

See Van Evera, Lecture Notes, “Origins of the Second World War”
The “Weimar-era (1920’s) German schools and scholars” lied about the war to the German public. Ibid.
If the window existed, Hitler could attack the socialists for not taking advantage of it. If it did not exist,
Hitler could attack the socialists for not creating it by faster escalation.
We assume that if the Allies listened to this propaganda, they would not become frightened and jump
through any windows they might have by waging preventive war.
A good biography is Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler
I am forever indebted to Stephen Van Evera for this descriptive term.

Smith 6
clear that he would not have done so if he knew for certain that Germany would be

destroyed if he did.

Could the Allies make threats credible enough to deter Hitler? The only hope is

that they would explain to Hitler their reasons for objecting to German expansion, and

then use some show of force to demonstrate their resolve, such as deploying troops in

non-nuclear countries bordering Germany. The likely result would be a cold war of sorts,

in which the bipolar world consists of Germany on one side and the Allied powers on the

other. For example, Hitler might test the credibility of the Allies by starting a

conventional brush fire war in a part of Africa that isn’t very strategically important to the

Allies. Knowing the end of the movie, historians would hope that the Allies would then

contain Germany. At first glance, it seems unlikely that this would have happened;

fighting a conventional war would be expensive, and the forward posture afforded by

nuclear weapons would no longer be justified. On the other hand, the raised stakes (i.e.

that homeland security can be easily threatened if a credible threat is not made) might

make the costs of containment more justifiable.

A look to post-WWII American thinking yields some insights; namely, that

although American military spending sharply declined following World War II, when the

communist threat was perceived shortly thereafter the U.S. began to take containment

seriously. Without further analysis, we can only say that the Allies would follow the

same action and attempt to contain Germany, even if it requires conventional efforts.

The Cold War went through significant instabilities in the balance of power

between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the armament and capabilities ramp-up (for

example, the Cuban Missile Crisis). Luckily, since Hitler doesn’t take power in the new

Smith 7
situation until after second-strike counter-value capabilities exist, the time of large

instabilities will be avoided during his reign.

Even if the Allies tried to contain Germany, and even though Hitler takes power

when windows of opportunity no longer exist, would he have settled for a reign with no

large-scale war to expand German boarders? My contention is that he was not crazy

enough to commit the suicide of launching such a war. First, Hitler thought of himself as

a “political thinker and setter of goals, a ‘programmatician,’ as he himself put it;”16 by

most counts he was not suicidal. Second, a comparison between Germany and the Soviet

Union, both ruled by violent dictators, would suggest that Germany would not invoke a

nuclear war.

The line of reasoning from induction of nuclear weapons to an output of no

nuclear weapons is a long one, and a lot of assumptions were made along the way.

Would the Allies make clear statements about their will to deter Germany from

expansion? Would the Allies engage in a costly containment strategy? Would Hitler

back down even if they did? There are compelling arguments, presented here, which

conclude that World War II would have never happened; that the world would have

jumped into a Cold War followed by some conclusion which looks like the present day.17

Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler
This analysis reminds us that political science is a very hard science, largely because experiments cannot
be performed. I am indebted to Stephen Van Evera for this profound scientific idea.

Smith 8