Nuclear weapons have cast a powerful if mysterious shadow over international politics. One the one hand, they are capable of wreaking unspeakable, catastrophic destruction. On the other hand, they have not been used in conflict since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Many believe the power of nuclear deterrence has been an important reason there has not been a great power war in almost eight decades.
Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the brightest minds from a variety of academic disciplines have been drawn to questions surrounding nuclear weapons. Think tanks and research centers like the RAND Corporationand Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs attracted scholars from the natural sciences and engineering, the social sciences, and even the humanities. Nuclear strategists – the so-called “Wizards of Armageddon” – were viewed exemplary scholar-practitioners, whose ivory tower research contributed to important policy debates over nuclear strategy and arms control. When the Cold War ended peacefully, however, academic interest in nuclear weapons faded.
As Scott Sagan points out in the introduction to the H-Diplo/International Security Studies Forum roundtable, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons,” we are in the earliest days of a renaissance in academic research in nuclear studies. Much of this interest has emerged, no doubt, from the complex and contested policy questions surrounding nuclear issues in recent years. From worries over Iran’s nascent weapons program to President Obama’s Prague speech calling for eventual disarmament, nuclear issues have risen to the top of the global policy agenda. The Carnegie, MacArthur, and Stanton Foundations, among others, are providing generous support to a new generation of nuclear scholars.