Mutual Assured Destruction

American History(ML), Mini Lessons

Mutual Assured Destruction

Watch: CSAH: The Cold War and a Cold War

The Cold War and a Cold War from Certell on Vimeo.[/cs_text]

There is no doubt that madness plays a big role in the Game of Thrones. From the “Mad King” to Euron Greyjoy, Joffrey, and many others, there are plenty of people with loose screws floating about!

But MAD is something different. On December 2, 1942, the world changed. Enrico Fermi created the first nuclear chain reaction under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. The first bomb detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 confirmed the new era, and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated it to the world.

The United States hoped to preserve a nuclear monopoly as long as possible, but by August 1949, the Soviets had detonated their own bomb, and the race was on!

Watch: CSAH: It’s Called Sputnik!

CSAH: It’s Called Sputnik! from Certell on Vimeo.


The strategy of both East and West evolved over time, but the most stable theory of how to preserve the planet rested on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The idea of MAD is that if both sides know that no matter what they do, an escalating war would result in self-destruction, then neither would take the first shot.

To this end, defensive weapons were prohibited, multi-warhead missiles were limited, and the nuclearization of space was prohibited.

With the ending of the Cold War, things have gotten more complicated. Rather than two main players, there are many, and the number is growing. While a two player game is complicated, a multiplayer nuclear game is exponentially so. India, Pakistan, France, Israel, the UK, China and North Korea all have nuclear weapons. South Africa has the capability. And Iran and other states are keenly interested in joining the nuclear club. This is why current tensions with North Korea are so challenging, and why most strategists believe it is important to stop new countries from developing nuclear weapons.

Whether applying reason to a situation like this makes sense or not, depends in part on what you believe about the opposite party. One of the blessings for the writers of Game of Thrones is that they can portray one side as absolute evil, without motive except death and destruction for the others. Is the Night King rational? What are his goals, and why does he have them? These would be important questions in the real world. We’ll see if they play a role in the show.

In our world, however, the rationality of the actors is a major issue. While Communism is responsible for more human suffering and death than any other “system,” it was based – at least in theory, on a rational system. Today, many of the actors are considered less rational. Is deterrence or mutual assured destruction understandable in the mind of a Jihadist? Would terrorists accept a negotiated settlement? Is Kim Jong Un sane? What about his generals? How one responds to their threats depends on the answer to these questions.

In the Game of Thrones, it will be interesting to see if the Night King develops a back story and personality, as well as demonstrates motives more complicated than trying to kill everyone. In our world, things are definitely complicated, and likely to get more so!


1. How does one negotiate with enemies? What difference does it make when you have the ability to destroy them, but at the cost of your own life and future?

2. How do you live with others who view the world very differently? What if their values are incompatible with yours, and their goal is your total destruction?