A New Film’s Hidden Message: “Oppenheimer,” Escalation Dominance and Inadvertent Nuclear War


Introduction: The new film about Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer raises counter-intuitive questions about nuclear weapons as instruments of peace.[1] Despite serious misgivings about the bomb he had created (“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”), Oppenheimer clung to the ironic hope that humankind had devised a weapon too terrible to be used. Later, when the Soviets joined the “nuclear club” in 1949, further hopes for peace were generated among strategists concerning “mutual deterrence.” But as the following argument clarifies: (1) these subsequent hopes were not logically or historically supportable; (2) the assumption of rational decision-making in nuclear matters could not be reliable in all cases, and (3) inevitable searches by a nuclear superpower for primacy, superiority or hegemony could generate “atomic war” by accident, miscalculation or inadvertence.

“We are mad, not only as individuals, but as nations also.”

Seneca, Letters (95)

Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648,[2] world politics has been decentralized or anarchic (no central global authority).[3]  In essence, this means that every nation-state’s security – but especially the security of nuclear world powers – must rely upon the complex dynamics of a military threat system. It also means, more precisely, a challenging reliance on alliance formation, military retaliation,  military preemption[4] and credible nuclear deterrence. 

It is a perilous reliance. To best ensure credible deterrence postures, which are indispensable to national security in “balance-of-power” world politics, all pertinent states must display a willingness to acquire “escalation dominance” or supremacy during competitive risk-taking. In our increasingly unpredictable nuclear age, however, this core obligation could produce assorted forms of inadvertent nuclear war.[5] Significantly, at the start of the  nuclear age, Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project colleagues did not have to consider this prospect with any real urgency. There was, after all, only one nuclear power in 1945, and that power – the United States – no longer had any atomic bombs.

Nonetheless, the number of nuclear powers did expand after 1949 (Russia was the world’s second nuclear state) and it quickly became clear that an inadvertent nuclear war could reflect rational decision-making processes by adversarial nation-states. It follows, among other things, that even determinedly rational state enemies could produce unwanted decisional outcomes. The animating security problem here would not be one of irrationality or madness[6] (madness is prospectively more problematic than irrationality, because it would display no determinable order of national preferences), but the injurious total of entirely rational choices.

There issues were not likely well understood back in 1945, even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Watchers of “Oppenheimer” ought to inquire, therefore, if there is any remediating place for science-based prediction within such many-sided calculations? Now we ought to ask: Are the odds of any specifically nuclear conflict meaningfully calculable? Unassailably, the correct answer here is “no” because valid probability judgments in logic and mathematics must always be based upon the discernible frequency of relevant past events. Though plainly a good thing, there has never been a nuclear war. Hence, any calculation of nuclear conflict odds must of necessity prove baseless.

More questions arise. In these Manifestly exigent matters, what are the existential policy implications for America’s national security policy? How should a present or future American president proceed in a world far more complex than it was after World War II?[7] In protecting the United States from a deliberate nuclear attack, American strategists must wittingly accept certain conspicuous assumptions of enemy rationality. But any such obligatory acceptance remains a double-edged sword, especially if one or more “players” is not actually rational. Philosophically, 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers set the stage for Oppenheimer’s dilemma in Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without the other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”

The Oppenheimer movie raises key questions; it does not answer them. Even if assumptions of rationality were reasonable and well-founded, there would remain various attendant dangers of an unintentional nuclear war. Such potentially existential dangers could be produced by enemy hacking operations, computer malfunction (an accidental nuclear war) or by decision-making miscalculation (whether by the enemy, by the US or by both/all parties.) Additionally, in the especially portentous third scenario, damaging synergies could arise that would prove difficult or impossible to manage or reverse. Such “force-multiplying” interactions could surface all at once (as a so-called “bolt from the blue”) or in more-or-less fathomable increments.

         Also needed will be continuous linguistic clarifications. Since 1945, the historic “balance of power” has been transformed, at least in part, into a “balance of terror.” To a largely unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for escalation dominance by all sides to any nuclear conflict would enlarge the risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. As these existential risks could be indecipherable, the challenges of nuclear war avoidance would actually be greater than might first appear.

 These oft-underestimated risks include prospects of nuclear war by accident hacking interference and/or decisional miscalculation. The “solution” here would not be to “wish-away” the inevitable search for escalation dominance (any such wish would be contrary to the “logic” of Westphalian or anarchic world politics),[8] but to manage all prospectively nuclear crises at their lowest possible levels of destructiveness. Wherever feasible, it would be best to avoid such crises altogether and maintain reliable “circuit breakers” against strategic hacking and technical malfunction. But for authentic nuclear war avoidance objectives, a more tangible strategy than hope will be required.

               There will be more to examine than would ever have been considered plausible by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Some existential conflict risks to the United States will be related to this country’s various alliance arrangements. Accordingly, US defense policy planners should bring to more explicit attention recently-changed ties between Israel and certain Sunni Arab states, and also threats (both explicit and implicit) from Shiite Iran.

How, these planners should inquire, will the Trump-era “Abraham Accords”[9] and America’s defeat in Afghanistan materially affect these threats? Have the Accords given Israel any compelling reason for greater security confidence, or do they only enhance peace where there were never any tangible adversaries? Have the Abraham Accords effectively ignored the Palestinian problem and simply hardened the Middle East Sunni-Shia dualism, thus making Iran an even-greater threat to Israel? Do the agreements represent a net security loss for Israel? Most importantly, what specifically nuclear risks are involved?

Israeli-American security issues are interrelated. In many complicated ways, Israel’s nuclear posture and strategy will have serious consequences for US security. Israel has no current regional nuclear adversaries, but the steady approach of a nuclear Iran could still encourage rapid nuclearization among such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Also, following the turnover of Afghanistan to Taliban and other Islamist forces, non-Arab Pakistan will likely become a more direct adversary of the United States and Israel.[10] Not to be forgotten, the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the large-scale Mumbai (India) attack in 2008.

There is more to consider here than could ever have occurred to early nuclear thinkers, even J. Robert Oppenheimer. Pakistan is an already-nuclear Islamic state with substantial ties to China. Pakistan, like Israel, is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is very difficult.” For nuclear planners, it’s a good time to augment the hidden lessons of “Oppenheimer” with the conspicuous lessons of Clausewitz,

           On September 1, 2021, Israel officially moved into the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility.  Taking over from European Command (EUCOM), Jerusalem likely sees its emerging role as defending U.S. interests, primarily by countering Iran within CENTCOM’s designated sphere of authority. This countervailing power would be directed at Iran-backed anti-Israel insurgents (especially Hezbollah and Houthi) and at a steadily expanding Iranian nuclearization.

 Regarding the second objective, Israel should consider whether there could ever be an auspicious place for nuclear threats against its still non-nuclear Shiite adversary in Tehran. In part, at least, the “answers” here would depend upon Jerusalem’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the “bomb in the basement”) into recognizable postures of “deliberate nuclear disclosure.” Though all such considerations would concern matters that are without any historical precedent, Israel has no logical alternative to launching more expressly deductive analytic investigations.[11]

What is the probabilistic difference between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and one that would be unintentional or inadvertent? Though rarely discussed among informed publics, without carefully considering this core distinction little of use could be said about the likelihood of any future nuclear conflict. At the least, any such lack of consideration would be imprudent.

               Inevitably, details will be determinative. Because there has never been a nuclear war(Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t “count”),[12] figuring relevant probabilities would  become an overwhelming task.  In logic and mathematics, nuclear strategists should be reminded, true probabilities must derive from the frequency of pertinent past events. In turn, calculating such odds will require very capable estimations of enemy rationality and decisional inadvertence.

               There is more here than could ever have been anticipated back in 1945. Capable analysts will have to devise optimal strategies for calculating and averting a nuclear war in any form. This unprecedented task’s difficulty will vary, among other things, according to (1) presumed enemy intention; (2) presumed plausibility of accident or hacking intrusion; and/or (3) presumed plausibility of decisional miscalculation. When taken together as conjoined categories of a nuclear war threat, these three component risks of unintentional nuclear war would best be described as inadvertent.

               Now there will be still more to consider than what challenged J. Robert Oppenheimer after the War. Any particular instance of an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. Not every case of inadvertent nuclear war would be the result of accident. The core conceptual distinctions here will have to be studied and kept continuously in mind by all those striving to ensure nuclear war avoidance.

               Additional warnings obtain. The problem of escalation dominance should never be approached by American security policy-makers as a narrowly political or tactical issue. Rather, informed by suitably in-depth historical understanding and by carefully refined analytic capacities, US military planners should prepare themselves to deal with a large variety of overlapping explanatory factors. At times, the intersections under study could be more than merely additive. They could be synergistic. By definition, the “whole” of any such injurious effect would be greater than the sum of its “parts. Going forward, focused attention on all plausible synergies should become a primary analytic objective of nuclear war avoidance.

               From the standpoint of specific geographic problem areas, there is also North Korea. For the United States, the North Korean nuclear threat should be kept in consistently plain sight. In dealing with ever-growing nuclear war risks involving North Korea, no single concept could be more vitally important than synergy. Unless such interactions are reliably and correctly evaluated, an American president could sometime underestimate the total impact of any considered nuclear engagement. The flesh and blood consequences of such underestimations would likely defy analytic imaginations and post-war decisional justifications.

               In any complex strategic risk assessments regarding North Korean military nuclear intentions, the concept ofsynergy should warrant evident pride of place.[13] The only conceivable argument for an American president choosing to ignore the ascertainable effects of synergy is that associated US defense policy considerations would appear “too complex” for analysis. To be sure, when fundamental US national security issues are at stake,[14] any such viscerally dismissive argument would be unacceptable.

               Looking ahead, there is little reason to believe that the inherently corrosive dynamics of nuclear deterrence will remain stable. In principle, perhaps, a breakdown of these dynamics can still be avoided, but only if dedicated decision-makers could first understand that nuclear decision-making will not always reflect rational judgments. Among other things, J. Robert Oppenheimer was not yet able to sort out potential differences between deliberate and inadvertent nuclear war. Though relevant, Seneca’s much earlier and more generic worries about madness still overlooked that even fully rational, reasonable, sane and well-intentioned adversaries could unwittingly find themselves in “atomic war.” Summing up the hidden lessons of “Oppenheimer,” America’s World War II atomic bombings of Japan did hasten the end of a vast convulsive conflict and it did constrain various post-war Soviet aggressions, but they did not offer new reasons to expect a generalized peace.

[1]In a lecture on “Atomic Explosives” delivered before the George Westinghouse Centennial Forum on May 16, 1946, Oppenheimer concluded: “My own view is that the development of atomic weapons can make, if wisely handled, the problem of preventing war not more hopeless, but more hopeful than it would otherwise have been….”

[2]  On this core foundation of world politics and international law, see: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[3] In his 17th century classic, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes this problem as one of “no common power.” Jurisprudentially, Hobbes clarifies that where there is no common power, there is no law.” See, by this author:  Louis René Beres, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2023/05/12/legal-order-in-world-politics-a-hobbesian-dilemma/

[4] The precise origins of anticipatory self-defense lie in customary international law, in the Caroline. This incident concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this landmark case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain appropriately defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require any prior military attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[5] It is always a mistake for analysts and politicians to assume that a nuclear war between states must reflect deliberate and rational decision-making choices. Plausibly, the greatest current risks of a nuclear war in such places as Ukraine (Russia), India and Pakistan and North Korea are risks of inadvertence.

[6] See Seneca, 1st Century AD: “We are mad, not only individuals, but nations also. We restrain manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war, and the so-called glory of killing whole peoples? …. Man, the gentlest of animals, is not ashamed to glory in blood-shedding, and to wage war when even the beasts are living in peace together.” (Letters, 95).

[7] A corollary question asks: “What are the normative expectations of codified and customary international law.  International law includes rules of customary as well as codified nature. Article 38(1)(b) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice describes international custom as “evidence of a general practice accepted as law.”  59 Stat.  1031, T.S. No. 993 (June 26, 1945).  The norms of customary international law bind all states irrespective of whether a State has ratified the pertinent codifying instrument or convention.  International law compartmentalizes apparently identical rights and obligations arising both out of customary law and treaty law.  “Even if two norms belonging to two sources of international law appear identical in content, and even if the states in question are bound by these rules both on the level of treaty-law and on that of customary international law, these norms retain a separate existence.”  See Military and Paramilitary Activities (Nicaragua v. U.S.), 1986 I.C.J. Rep.  14, para. 178 (June 27).

[8] The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence includes illustrious advocates of global unity, interrelatedness or “oneness.” Most notable among them are Voltaire and Goethe. We need only recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide and Goethe’s oft-repeated comment linking belligerent nationalism to the declining stages of civilization. One may also note Samuel Johnson’s expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen’s plain comment that “The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.” Similarly, straightforward sentiments are discoverable in writings of the American Transcendentalists (especially Emerson and Thoreau) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human. Let scholars also recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The unifying point of all such cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is not “merely” injurious, it is also de facto “unpatriotic.” 

[9]See:  https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/  Also to be considered as complementary in this connection is the Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).

[10]See by this writer, Louis René Beres, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/09/12/can-israeli-nuclear-threats-protect-against-non-nuclear-attacks/#_ftn

[11] “Whenever the new Muses present themselves,” says Spanish existentialist philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, “the masses bristle.” See Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art (1925) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948, 1968), p.7.

[12] The atomic attacks on Japan in August 1945 represented nuclear weapons use in a conventional war.

[13] See earlier, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): Louis René Beres, https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[14] In this connection, it ought to be remembered that such issues would be grounded in authoritative international law and that international law is always a part of US national law. In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (Edwards, J. concurring) (dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985) (“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.