The American public is not likely to oppose public officials’ judgement in utilizing nuclear weapons according to research conducted by professors at Dartmouth and Stanford universities.
Benjamin Valentino, an associate government professor at Dartmouth, spoke Thursday about research on public opinion of nuclear weapons conducted in collaboration with Daryl Press and Scott Sagan at the fall speaker series hosted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
“If we find ourselves in some situation where people think nuclear weapons are deemed more effective in the future, it’s unlikely that public opinion will hold our leaders back from using them,” Valentino said.
The research was conducted through surveys which gave people two scenarios to decipher, Valentino said. In one scenario people were given a news article detailing the advantages and disadvantages of destroying a rural weapons lab controlled by a terrorist organization before the event occurred. The researchers kept all the scenarios the same while only varying key factors such as casualty rate and military effectiveness, Valentino said.
“When nuclear weapons and conventional weapons are equal, only about 20 percent are in favor of using nuclear weapons,” Valentino said.
“When nuclear weapons were deemed twice as effective as conventional weapons, a full 77 percent supported [utilizing the nuclear option],” Valentino said. In this scenario “a majority of individuals approved of using nuclear weapons even when it killed 25,000 people compared to 500 people [with the non-nuclear option],” Valentino said.
In the second scenario, people were asked to read an article where an executive decision was made to utilize nuclear weapons to destroy a terrorist weapons cache in Syria without knowing the comparable cost-benefits of a non-nuclear option, Valentino said. The casualty levels and effectiveness of both options were kept equal, he said.
“When people read this retrospective story, they approved of it just as much as when we used conventional weapons,” Valentino said.
Public affairs graduate student Carmen Gaddis said she was surprised by these results.
“I thought this particular speech was really fascinating and horrifying at the same time,” Gaddis said. “I was particularly struck by how weak the taboo motivating deterrent was.”
Rather than the moral or ethical implications, as Valentino expected, opinions toward shying away from nuclear weapons were driven by the desire to not encourage use of nuclear weapons against the United States.
“When people are asked to pick, the vast majority of people who say that they don’t want to use nuclear weapons say it’s because they don’t want to set a precedent,” Valentino said.
Those surveyed via Internet in seven experiments containing 18 groups of 150 people were selected from six million individuals in an Internet survey provider’s database to provide an accurate representation of the U.S. population, Valentino said.
In addition to the two scenarios, the researchers also measured the disgust of the American people in three varying situations to see if nuclear weapons usage was taboo.
In the survey, 4.07 percent of respondents said they were disgusted by the usage of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagaski, while 39.93 percent said they would be disgusted if they found out their neighbors were eating dogs.
Public affairs graduate student Izzah Akram said she was surprised by this but could see why the usage of nuclear weapons would be less shocking to the public.
“I guess because of my personal beliefs — I’m very anti-nuclear weapon — it was surprising for me, but I guess you can rationalize it,” said Akram. “In the case of finding that your neighbor is eating a dog, it’s immediately in front of your eyes. It affects your daily life in a greater way than your government nuking some sort of foreign enemy.”