Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

Is Using Nuclear Weapons Still Taboo?

By Nina Tannenwald

01 Jul 2022 · 8 min read

Editor's Note

Fear of nuclear war between the US and Russia has returned. But this Foreign Policy essay makes a worrying argument : That we are not fearful enough, and that deterrence may fail as a result.

In March 1990, the New Yorker published a cartoon by Jack Ziegler that captured the optimism at the end of the Cold War. The cartoon shows an executive sitting at his desk as a worker enters the office carrying a large bomb with fins. “Bring that H-bomb over here, will you, Tom, and just slip it into my ‘out’ box,” the executive says. “Sure thing, boss!” the worker responds.

The image of putting nuclear bombs “in the outbox” was emblematic of the hope many had that a new era of cooperation between the United States and the former Soviet Union was emerging. The fear of a nuclear war breaking out between the world’s two superpowers receded, and many hoped that nuclear weapons, although they would still exist, would no longer be central to international politics. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, declared in June 1991 that “the risk of a global nuclear war has practically disappeared.”

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