Carnegie Mellon University
June 26, 2024

Could “No Nukes!” Be A Historical Artifact?

A new study finds Americans are more supportive of nuclear use by their government and foreign countries than you would expect (and maybe hope)

By Stacy Kish

Nuclear weapons have been a contentious topic for decades — from the number of weapons in the stockpile to when it is appropriate to use this elemental force. Joshua Schwartz, assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy & Technology, took the pulse of the American public on this issue in 2021 and detailed his findings in an article published in the journal International Security

“There is a strong assumption among policymakers dating back to the Cold War that there is a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons by the greater public, and the reaction to nuclear use internationally would be particularly severe,” said Schwartz. “I find that this is not actually true, and the public constraints against nuclear use are weaker than we might hope.”

Does the public support the use of nuclear weapons?

Unlike other studies, Schwartz explores not only how people would respond to the use of nuclear weapons by their own country, but also the use of these weapons by an ally or a foreign, non-allied country. Previous studies suggest that political and military elites are vexed by this question, especially when it comes to how the United States would be viewed by the international community. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles worried during the early days of the Cold War, nuclear use “would surely cost us our allies” and “we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned.”

Traditionally, nuclear norm optimists hold that the desire to use nuclear weapons is low due to the strong moral objections against this type of violence. Conversely, nuclear norm pessimists believe that most citizens would support the use of nuclear weapons if the strike offered a military advantage or saved the lives of soldiers in the field. Their position does not equate the use of these weapons with a moral violation.

Survey findings

In 2021, Schwartz conducted four experiments — three surveyed people in the United States and one surveyed people in India. In the study, Schwartz argued the general public is more likely to support the use of violence by “in-group” countries, but only certain countries will be viewed in this way. For example, countries that are formal allies of the United States, such as France, will be perceived as part of the in-group because of shared interests, ideologies and identities. Conversely, some countries, such as Russia and Pakistan, will be viewed as out-groups that threaten the security of an individual’s in-group.

Contrary to the expectations of prominent policymakers, Schwartz found that there was no statistically significant difference in public approval for the use of nuclear weapons by an individual’s own country and foreign countries that are part of the in-group. However, the level of support declines when the weapons are being used by a foreign country that is part of the out-group.

Schwartz chose India, a nuclear, non-Western country, as a counterpoint to his findings from the United States. He found that the Indian public also supported their country’s use of nuclear weapons and did not disapprove of a nuclear strike by the United States more than a strike by the Indian government.

Public opinion and its impact on policymakers

According to Schwartz, policymakers are often influenced by public opinion. The findings from this study suggest that policymakers have their work cut out for them.

“[Policymakers] shouldn’t count on the public to restrain them from using nuclear weapons,” said Schwartz. “Therefore, they should be more cautious about threatening nuclear use or escalating international crises in ways that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.”

Schwartz believes these results suggest future work should drill into this question in greater detail. This may include evaluating the shift in long-held beliefs by the public to explore how attitudes towards nuclear use have evolved in the country in the past 70 years. Additionally, future studies could explore how public perception varies if a vivid description of the ramifications of nuclear weapon use is included in the study.