Nuclear non-use since 1945

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Political Science


One of the most interesting puzzles in international politics of the last seventy years is not so much an event as a non-event. The use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan at the end of the Second World War suggested that nuclear weapons would become a permanent fixture in interstate war. However, the world has had the good fortune of never witnessing another similar event. The existing explanations for nuclear non-use have been heavily influenced by research on the United Sates, and scholars must do more to test or expand the generalizability of these explanations. Therefore, this study examines Israel’s nuclear decision-making in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The research finds that although Israeli leaders did perceive a growing pattern of nuclear non-use, Israeli society had not fully socialized the non-use norm by 1973, and they resisted the nuclear option for primarily material concerns relating to the inherent uncertainty of the long-term consequences of nuclear use. Because the research of Tannenwald, among others, has shown the importance of the nuclear taboo in the United States, and cases of mutual nuclear deterrence have been widely accepted, this conclusion suggests that the existence of nuclear weapons does not guarantee either nuclear deterrence or the nuclear taboo. Instead, the implications of nuclear weapons on the actions of a state are determined by the particular norms that dominate the nuclear question in each state.