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“It’s better to forget physics”: The Idea of the Tactical Nuclear Weapon in the Early Cold War

Abstract

The American physicist John Wheeler once told his colleague Richard Feynman that, in case of war, “it’s better to forget physics and tell the admirals and generals how to do tactical and strategic this-and-that.” This article explores the history of this-and-that distinctions between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in the early Cold War. The idea of tactical nuclear weapons was intertwined with the work of a small group of defense intellectuals on limited nuclear war who explicitly framed the idea of tactical nuclear weapons as “arbitrary” and “illogical,” but nonetheless crucial to the continued survival of the Free World, as they understood it. I follow several strains of this complex history to show how a subset of these theorists viewed the new category of tactical nuclear weapons as an antidote to declining civilization and the embodiment of an anti-rationalist and anti-empiricist way of making knowledge about the world.

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Christian Ruhl coordinates the research theme on “The Future of the Global Order” at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s global affairs institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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Ruhl, C.P. “It’s better to forget physics”: The Idea of the Tactical Nuclear Weapon in the Early Cold War. Phys. Perspect. 22, 26–51 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00016-020-00251-3

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Keywords

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Cold War
  • rationalism
  • defense
  • strategy
  • foreign policy