People wrongly assume nuclear weapons “deter” attacks on us. Let’s help people let go of the “deterrence” assumption.

The general public, politicians and mainstream media all WRONGLY ASSUME that nuclear weapons “deter” attacks on the U.S.  This wrong assumption is nearly unanimous.  It is a HUGE BARRIER to moving them to reduce and abolish nuclear weapons.  In order to make progress toward peace, we absolutely must help the public, politicians and media LET GO OF the “deterrence” assumption.

The “deterrence” assumption locks people into insisting that we must continue having nuclear weapons.  The “deterrence” assumption PREVENTS THEM FROM HEARING our messages about reducing and abolishing them.


The people who are working to abolish nuclear weapons do recognize many flaws in this assumption.  The “deterrence” theory is mistaken in several ways:  because of psychology, technical reasons, and so forth.  But we can’t get any traction with our rational arguments.  People are not open to hearing our rational arguments because the “deterrence” assumption is so strongly rooted in the public’s unconsciousness.

Very few persons in the general public – or the government or media – are open to considering that the “deterrence” theory is mistaken.  We in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons – or even reduce their dangers through any kind of public policy or legislation or budgets – immediately are dismissed as being unrealistic, because nearly everybody assumes we need all of the nuclear weapons and more of them in order to be a “deterrent.”

In order to make progress toward peace, we must strategize how to confront the “deterrence” myth head-on, and we must strategize how to reach out to the general public (and the media and the Congress and Executive Branch agencies) with compelling reasons why the “deterrence” theory is not valid.  We must develop strategies and “talking points” to debunk “deterrence” in order to open up people’s mental space to consider reducing and abolishing nuclear weapons.

Let’s start in these two ways:

#1:  The general public assumes that we must always keep nuclear weapons on alert as the best “deterrence” against attack by other nations.  What strategies and “talking points” could open up the general public’s mental space to loosen their status quo knee-jerk assumption that “deterrence” is a valid theory – and to open up the general public’s mental space for considering the five “Back from the Brink” proposals as practical to consider adopting?  (For information about the “Back from the Brink” campaign, see

#2:  Everybody has deeply held values that can guide their thinking about issues related to public policy.  We want people to draw upon their best values to move them to oppose nuclear weapons.  What strategies could we use to help us connect with people so they will see that some of their deeply held values should lead them to oppose nuclear weapons?


Generally, the movement to reduce and abolish nuclear weapons relies heavily on facts.  We tend to throw a lot of information at people and want them to believe our facts and rationally use them to change their thinking and change public policy.

Actually, big scary issues such as nuclear weapons are not grounded as much in facts as on fears (and, of course, the lobbying by the military-industrial complex, but going after that would require different strategies than what I’m proposing here).  We need to strategize how to go after people’s emotions – especially fear, but not limited to that – so people will OPEN UP EMOTIONAL SPACE SO THEY CAN CONSIDER the factual information that we provide.  Unless we help people open up emotional space, their fears and other feelings will be barriers blocking them from hearing our factual information.


For decades the Cold War and fear of the USSR and “the communist menace” and “Red China, etc., kept the American public, media and politicians locked into a nuclear arms race.  When the Cold War ended, the military-industrial complex provided “Islamic terrorists” as the new boogie-man to justify excessive military spending.  The public got tired of that, so now BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES are elevating Russia and China as new reasons to promote nuclear weapons and excessive militarism.  Fear and the “deterrence” assumption continue to drive the militaristic mania.

The ”deterrence” assumption is based on fear that we would be attacked if we don’t have nuclear weapons.  Let’s strategize how to reduce people’s fears (fears of Russia, of China, of terrorists with nukes, etc.).

A week ago during Olympia’s Thursday bannering & sign-holding, I was holding a sign saying, “Diplomacy not war.”  A passerby said diplomacy is OK, but we need nuclear weapons to enforce what the U.S. government wants when diplomacy fails to achieve what the government wants.  We talked for about ten minutes, and – instead of throwing facts at him – I tried to raise issues in other ways that he might be able to hear.

The 1982 Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was a very smart strategy that reached out to people in ways ordinary people could understand and agree with, instead of merely arguing facts.  During that era when Reagan was recklessly escalating nuclear danger, before the Freeze Campaign came along, the “doves” were arguing with the “hawks” about how many weapons the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had – and about which kinds of weapons, and how much megatonnage, and how much throw-weight, etc., etc., etc.  They were locked into a numbers game about which nation had the advantage.

The Freeze Campaign came along and – instead of arguing about numbers – said simply STOP!  JUST FREEZE the research, testing, production, deployment.  JUST FREEZE NOW!  The public – which had been confused by the numbers argument – now was able to focus on the basic issue and voted overwhelmingly for Freeze initiatives at local levels.  I worked hard for the Thurston County Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and in less than 1 year we created and organized a campaign that won county-wide with 62.5% of the votes in November 1982.


Now is a time when the nuclear disarmament movement needs fresh and creative strategies to help the public escape from the fear trap – and other status quo traps – so they can become emotionally open to considering whether the U.S. and other nations need fresh ways to deal with nuclear weapons.  Let’s strategize how to engage people’s feelings and how to help them tap into their best values (including religious faith, but also other deeply held values) so they can step off the nuclear weapons treadmill that the war-hawks and the military-industrial complex and the status quo of conventional American politics have trapped them in.


Facts are still important, of course, but on big issues the facts are not sufficient to convince the general public.  In other parts of American political crises we see people ignore the facts and believe baloney.  But even among Americans who think rationally, facts are not sufficient.

The “Spectrum of Allies” model I summarize below is a strategically smart way for us to proceed in useful ways:

You can use this “Spectrum of Allies” model to help you strategize how to expand and strengthen the grassroots movement for whatever issue you are working on (nuclear weapons, climate, reforming our criminal justice system, etc.).  To make progress toward reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons we do NOT need to convert hard-core war-hawks to our bold peace position, but we CERTAINLY CAN move the bulk of Americans with the default “deterrence” assumption to move somewhat toward letting go of that.

People’s positions on issues are not merely “pro” or “con.”  Actually, the population’s positions spread all the way across a very wide spectrum, as shown in this diagram:


Suppose you’re working toward abolishing nuclear weapons.  Too often we fret about how to convert a hard-core war-hawk (shown by the asterisk at the extreme left end of the horizontal line above) into an enthusiastic peace supporter (shown by the asterisk at the extreme right end of the line).  That is not realistic.  And it is not necessary.

Actually, this “Spectrum of Allies” model recognizes that the population is at many different points along the entire spectrum.  We can make significant progress by moving the people at each point on this spectrum just a little bit toward our direction.  Think of a teeter-totter with a number of kids sitting next to each other along the full length of the teeter-totter.  If each kid would move just six inches toward one end, their cumulative weight would tilt the teeter-totter toward that end.

We can do that for whatever issue you are working on.  Identify various positions along the spectrum.  For example, this diagram shows five positions, but you could do this with a different number of positions:

Strongly on the wrong side Somewhat on the wrong side Undecided with mixed feelings Somewhat on the good side Strongly on the good side

For each position on the spectrum, you could devise some strategies to reach out to that specific niche market and move them even slightly toward your direction.


I believe that we could make MUCH MORE PROGRESS toward abolishing nuclear weapons if we were to strategize how to move people away from some underlying assumptions (e.g., the “deterrence” assumption) and how to help people deal with emotions (e.g., fear) that keep them locked into tacit acceptance of the status quo.

Along with working on important specific issues (the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles, etc.), let’s strategize how the other approaches I have suggested above could help us make more progress in converting mainstream public opinion, mainstream media, and mainstream politicians.






About GlenAnderson 1515 Articles
Since the late 1960s Glen Anderson has devoted his life to working as a volunteer for peace, nonviolence, social justice, and progressive political issues. He has worked through many existing organizations and started several. Over the years he has worked especially for such wide-ranging goals as making peace with Vietnam, eliminating nuclear weapons, converting from a military economy to a peacetime economy, abolishing the death penalty, promoting nonviolence at all levels throughout society, and helping people organize and strategize for grassroots movements to solve many kinds of problems. He writes, speaks, and conducts training workshops on a wide variety of topics. Since 1987 he has produced and hosted a one-hour cable TV interview program on many kinds of issues. Since 2017 he has blogged at He lives in Lacey near Olympia WA. You can reach him at (360) 491-9093