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Mutually Assured Destruction: History and Significance

Akshay Chavan Mar 2, 2020
The military doctrine of mutual assured destruction was instrumental in maintaining peace during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear weapons loomed large. Historyplex talks about the history of mutual assured destruction, along with its significance in relation to nuclear strategy.

Did You Know?

Alfred Nobel, after whom the Nobel prize was named, was also the inventor of dynamite. He believed that it would reduce wars by creating fear about mutually assured destruction.
Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a doctrine which was unofficially adhered to by both, USA and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. It was important in avoiding a major conflict between the two superpowers, which would have easily killed millions of people thanks to the development of nuclear weapons towards the end of the World War.
Unlike the two World Wars and all the conflicts before them, it was now possible to cause enormous casualties and destruction by simply pressing a button from thousands of miles away.
MAD works on a nuclear arms race between two enemy nations. Each develops more and more advanced nuclear arsenal to compete with the development of the enemy's defenses.
When both nations have nuclear capability, then they avoid attacking each other out of fear of a nuclear retaliation, which will lead to unacceptable casualties or even total destruction of the attacker. Let alone victory, even the survival of the aggressor is at stake. Let us see more about the history and significance of mutual assured destruction.


When the US dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the act ended the Second World War, along with establishing the US as the world's most powerful country. This position was soon challenged when the USSR tested its own nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949, sparking off an arms race between the two superpowers.
In 1952, the US detonated the H-bomb, which was 2,500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb used in World War 2. The Soviet Union followed suit, by testing its own H-bomb the following year. It was soon clear that despite two World Wars, the world was far from being safe.
The military tensions which developed in the Post-World War scenario led to an unwritten doctrine between the US and Soviet Union. This doctrine was to be called 'mutually assured destruction', infamously abbreviated as MAD.
According to this doctrine, since both nations had enough nuclear stockpiles to cause complete destruction of each other, the knowledge of this itself would keep them from attacking each other. Basically, it worked as a deterrence theory, by creating the fear of a catastrophic retaliation by the defending nation.

US B-52 Long-range Bomber

The MAD doctrine worked fairly well in keeping relative peace through the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s, as both, the US and USSR developed capabilities to launch nuclear assaults deep inside each others territory.
This was first made possible by the deployment of long-distance bomber aircraft, capable of carrying nuclear warheads for 5,000 miles, which was impossible till World War 2.
This was followed by developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) systems, which were underground launchers capable of sending nuclear missiles across entire continents into enemy territory. Missiles could also be launched by submerged submarines, which were hard to detect.
Basically, both nations worked hard to keep their defenses updated, so that they could still be a threat to each other, which kept the MAD doctrine working.
MAD was based on the principle that a nuclear attack meant complete destruction, without hope for survival. So it was vital for the two nations not to install defenses against each other's missiles, for keeping the threat of destruction real.
However, USA realized that the Soviet Union had put up Anti-ballistic Missiles (ABM) near its capital Moscow, which went against MAD. So it responded by developing MIRV payloads, that enabled each missile to carry multiple warheads which struck different targets. This would confuse the Soviet ABM defenses which could only defend individual warheads.
The doctrine of mutually assured destruction was effective in reducing tensions between the two superpowers, which resulted in the signing of the SALT treaties between them. These treaties aimed at keeping MAD working by reducing the number of missile shields each country set up.
However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 resulted in the failure of the treaties. The MAD doctrine was effective until 1991, when the USSR disintegrated into several Republics, and its military strength was significantly reduced.


―1945 USA drops A-bombs on Japan to end World War 2
―1949 USSR tests its first nuclear bomb
―1952 USA tests H-bomb, 2,500 times more powerful than Hiroshima
―1953 USSR tests its first H-bomb

―1957 USSR develops Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)
―1958 USA develops its own ICBM
―1960 USA develops ballistic missile submarines
―1961 Nuclear arsenal of both countries enough to cause world destruction
―1962 Cuban Missile Crisis almost ends in a nuclear war
―1966 USSR develops ABM (Anti-ballistic Missiles) to protect Moscow
―1970 USA develops MIRVs, to help ballistic missiles dodge ABMs
―1971 SALT I treaty signed between USA and USSR to limit ABMs
―1972 SALT II signed to control nuclear arsenal
―1979 USSR invades Afghanistan, SALT II rejected by USA
―1991 Collapse of USSR makes MAD unnecessary


The MAD doctrine was vital in reducing the chances of nuclear conflict between the USA and USSR for almost five decades after World War II. Considering that by 1961 both nations had developed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, this definitely helped save millions of lives.
Besides, it gave a chance to the European nations to recover from the effects of the World Wars.

The closest that the two nations got to attacking each other during the Cold War was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US realized that the Soviet Union was setting up nuclear warheads in Cuba, just 60 miles south of the Florida border.
Soon after, USA threatened to launch missiles at the Soviet Union. Tensions reduced between the two countries when the USSR removed the Cuban installation, while USA removed its missiles in Turkey that were aimed at the USSR. This solution was good proof of MAD's effectiveness.
MAD was based on two principles. First, the nuclear arsenals of both nations should be safe after an attack, to launch a retaliation. Secondly, the populations of both nations should be completely vulnerable to such attacks, which works as a deterrence. So, both countries are expected to ignore civil defenses, while protecting their weapon systems.
The US developed its nuclear defenses with a view of protecting NATO troops in Europe from a Soviet invasion, which they believed was likely. The Missile Gap (a growing fear in America during the 1950s that the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal was way ahead of theirs) also led to the Americans increasing government spending on the military.
While MAD was effective in preventing a war between the two superpowers, the threat of assured destruction by which it worked failed to yield results during the US-Vietnam War. Also, it could not stop the Soviet misadventures in Africa and the Middle East.
Critics of MAD point out that it works only in those attacks that can be detected, such as a missile launch, and not in cases where explosives are smuggled close to the intended target. Also, it may be difficult to identify the aggressor nation when an attack takes place close to a border.
More importantly, the threat of assured destruction may not work when dealing with fanatics, as with modern conflicts.
It's clear from the above that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction helped maintain world peace during the Post-World War era. While the threat of a nuclear holocaust no longer evokes the same fear, it has been replaced by the nuclear programs of countries with questionable stability, like Pakistan and North Korea.