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The Nuclear Taboo


  • Page extent: 472 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.86 kg
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521818865)

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

$119.99 (C)

Why have nuclear weapons not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? Nina Tannenwald disputes the conventional answer of 'deterrence' in favour of what she calls a nuclear taboo - a widespread inhibition on using nuclear weapons - which has arisen in global politics. Drawing on newly released archival sources, Tannenwald traces the rise of the nuclear taboo, the forces that produced it, and its influence, particularly on US leaders. She analyzes four critical instances where US leaders considered using nuclear weapons (Japan 1945, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War 1991) and examines how the nuclear taboo has repeatedly dissuaded US and other world leaders from resorting to these 'ultimate weapons'. Through a systematic analysis, Tannenwald challenges conventional conceptions of deterrence and offers a compelling argument on the moral bases of nuclear restraint as well as an important insight into how nuclear war can be avoided in the future.


1. Introduction: the tradition of nuclear non-use; 2. Explaining non-use; 3. Hiroshima and the origins of the nuclear taboo; 4. The Korean War: the emerging taboo; 5. The rise of the nuclear taboo, 1953–1960; 6. Nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War; 7. Institutionalizing the taboo, 1960–1989; 8. The 1991 Gulf War; 9. The taboo in the post-Cold War world; 10. Conclusion: the prospects for the nuclear taboo.

Prize Winner

Winner, 2008 Lepgold Book Prize, Georgetown University


“At a time when the actual use of nuclear weapons is being contemplated as ‘mini-nukes’ or ‘bunker-busters,’ Nina Tannenwald’s book is a timely reminder of humanity’s visceral recoiling from the use of the world’s most destructive weapon.”
Jayantha Dhanapala, Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the USA

The Nuclear Taboo is a compelling account of the role of moral restraint in international politics. Tannenwald explains how the habit of non-use has become expected and required behavior, reminding us that there was nothing inevitable about it. She traces the historical trajectory and effect of the taboo on international power politics. She also raises perhaps the most important war-related issue of our time: will the nuclear taboo be broken in light of new technologies and new threats? Read this book and find out how beliefs about right and wrong conduct have shaped the choices of policy makers and the expectations of the public. No explanation of international politics in the nuclear age will be complete without it.”
Joel H. Rosenthal, President, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

“Nina Tannenwald has written a powerful and provocative book examining the influence of ethical norms on U.S. leaders’ nuclear weapons decisions. Her thesis that a nuclear taboo has taken hold will be widely read and hotly debated in both university classrooms and inside defense ministries in all nuclear nations.”
Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University

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