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The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-Use

  • Nina Tannenwald


We have recently witnessed the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare. The non-use of nuclear weapons since then remains the single most important phenomenon of the nuclear age. Yet we still lack a full understanding of how this tradition arose and is maintained and of its prospects for the future. The widely cited explanation is deterrence, but this account is either wrong or incomplete. Although an element of sheer luck no doubt has played a part in this fortuitous outcome, this article argues that a normative element must be taken into account in explaining why nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. A normative prohibition on nuclear use has developed in the global system, which, although not (yet) a fully robust norm, has stigmatized nuclear weapons as unacceptable weapons of mass destruction. Without this normative stigma, there might have been more “use.” This article examines this phenomenon in the context of the nuclear experience of the United States.

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