The entire mutually-assured destruction (MAD) concept is based on game theory and mutual belief.

Suppose we have two states (A and B) with massive nuclear arsenals which together suffice to plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust. If State A believes State B will retaliate massively to a nuclear strike, State A is disincentivized from using nuclear weapons, and vice-versa. It is a deterrence strategy to prevent nuclear war from starting. Per this doctrine, it is thus in the interest of all parties involved to give the appearance (publicly) that they would retaliate massively to a nuclear strike.

However, it is not clear why actually adhering to this retaliation policy in the event of a nuclear strike is in the interest of the targeted party.

Let us consider a thought experiment where State A has already launched a massive nuclear barrage at State B. State B is thus doomed. State B's destruction is, at that point, a fait accompli. There is no victory to be had for State B as it will likely cease to exist as a functioning state. Its leadership (presumably hiding in bunkers somewhere safe) has a limited amount of time to decide on retaliatory action.

At that point, it is not clear why it is in State B's interest to retaliate. The leadership and elites of State B may be better served by not retaliating or if anything retaliating in a very limited manner. This could facilitate their survival in the post-nuclear war, for instance. It could be in the interest of the limited surviving population of State B, as one major country (State B) being subject to nuclear devastation would have a lesser impact on the global economy, supply lines and climate than two major countries (State A and State B) being subject to nuclear devastation. Perhaps most importantly, the possibility of human extinction could be significantly mitigated if the target state refuses to retaliate. Surely the weight of human extinction would be a reason not to strike back.

Conversely, the benefits of actually retaliating are unclear. As far as I can tell, retaliation accomplishes little for State B, which, again, is already doomed. It just seems to fulfill the primal human desire for "revenge" or "retaliation" but lacks any sound logical or strategic basis.

Are there potential benefits to retaliating that my analysis misses?

If not, then could this potentially undermine the MAD doctrine?

Have such questions been studied before?


11 Answers 11


Because if there is any too much doubt that the targeted country will retaliate, then the aggressor may very well try their luck. Making the whole situation a lot more unstable, and dangerous, than your moral objections' starting condition, a stable MAD.

There are plenty of human, and animal, analogs of "dont-f..k-with-me" which are successful at keeping the peace because one side pre-expresses an "irrational" intent to react hyper-aggressively, even suicidally so, when attacked. Look no further than the cute and cuddly honeybee.

Second, the notion that a nuclear war would mean human extinction, while it certainly has entered popular belief through the nuclear winter theory - first postulated at a time when there were 10x more nukes - is rather unproven.

That it would mean mass deaths at billion+ scale is a lot more credible.

Last, the way this question is framed seems to absolve the initial aggressor state of any ecological damage of its own. Their "massive strike" asked about would just as likely move the needle quite a bit towards nuclear winter scenarios, making this a shared guilt, rather than solely the retaliating state's karmic burden.

Keep also mind that the people releasing the counterstrike will also know that their families and friends will be among the victims of the strike - this is especially true of people in missile silos and subs, seeing as a first strike will spew radiation all over those places and home harbors.

So all in all, you start with a documented intent to retaliate, drill people exhaustively to carry it out, with the knowledge that this vow of retaliation is key to keeping the peace. Then, as per this question, you expect that all to be thrown out the door, and meekly submit, just when your country has been mortally wounded by what is, after all, a horrible, genocidal, attack using prohibited-use weapons by its enemy???.

I wouldn't bet on that as the attacker and that is precisely the point.

Absent a "massive strike", smaller strikes will quite likely be answered with a somewhat bigger retaliatory counterstrike, playing a game of tit-for-tat ratcheting until all hell breaks lose or one side desists.

And, no, decision matrices are not a good way to reason about this. Else the attacker could do the math and launch, secure that game theory has their back.

p.s. Handing over final say to computers is a really bad idea (saying that as a programmer myself).

  • 4
    I'm sure the logic in the first statement is a big part of the real answer, but in a purely game theory context, it makes the same mistake as Roko's basilisk. Once the other country has already launched, nothing you do will make them less likely to have made that decision in the past. Causality doesn't work in that direction.
    – Nick S
    Jan 22 at 1:04
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    @NickS: MAD doesn’t deny that after an attack, the rational move might be to not retaliate. It argues that to deter an attack beforehand, you must convince other actors that attacks will receive retaliation — and exactly because the retaliation will be (at the later stage) arguably irrational, you construct a system in advance that commits you to the later retaliation (maybe electronically/mechanically, a Dr Strangelove-style doomsday machine, but at least socially/culturally, as in most real-world militaries). The rational action now is (it argues) to commit to irrational action later. Jan 22 at 20:44
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    Honey Badgers approve this answer.
    – paulj
    Jan 22 at 20:54
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    I'd also add that the attacker would reasonably bet that if there were a retaliation by the attacked nation, it would be an immediate response - attempting to hold a grudge over a "Previously small nuclear exchange" ignores that the nuclear attacks likely reduced the retaliatory stockpile. As a result of that, if an attacked nation is going to retaliate at all, it has to be before the first attack finishes, and with all weaponry that would be diminished otherwise towards a retaliatory nature. Jan 23 at 1:12
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    This is a very minor point, but honeybee attacks aren't suicidal per se, because most of the time stinging is fairly safe for them. Stinging mammals is fatal because our skin is thicker and the barbs get stuck, yeah. But against the far more common threats they encounter that are more on their scale, like wasps or spiders, their stingers don't get stuck. The barbs just make the stings more damaging when the bee pulls the stinger out.
    – Idran
    Jan 23 at 15:05

Some people deserve to die

You might not agree, but certainly a large number of people think this way. Where the draw the line is a very personal choice, but there's still a line. Example. This person abducted and killed four girls, aged from 4 to 7, in his car before dismembering them and molesting their corpses. He also engaged in cannibalism, preserved body parts as trophies, and taunted the families of his victims. Do you think he deserves to die? Do you think he deserves to die even if you must die with him?

Some people will recognize that answering the latter question with 'yes' is drastic, but feel like they should do it anyway. Remember, you're dealing with someone who is willing to kill you. Given that they are willing to kill you, should you be willing to kill him/her? What if they've already wounded you? Maybe you'll say "I don't care", but then the world ends up being repopulated by the children of people you consider despicable, so not everyone might consider that an improvement.

Here's another example. The question-asker originally wrote that the Russians deserve to die, so in the event of a Russian nuclear strike, he/she would probably approve of retaliating. Here's Russian state television host Dmitry Kiselyov saying something similar. “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” If you take him at face value, then in the event of a NATO nuclear strike, he will also approve retaliation.

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    If you want to kill serial killers with nuclear weapons without killing everyone around them, your best bet is probably to beat them to death with it.
    – barbecue
    Jan 22 at 22:37
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    While you're right some people do think that way, the analogy to nuclear retaliation is you'd kill everyone in the serial killer's town in retaliation whether they had anything to do with it or not. A country is not a person, a country is not an individual. A country is made of people, but it is not the people. The country's decisions are not the decisions of the people of that country. Individuals do not bear responsibility for the decisions of their leaders, leaders they may not support and may not even have a say in who they are.
    – Schwern
    Jan 23 at 19:55
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    From the link, it was the Russian state television host Dmitry Kiselyov rather than Putin who said "Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?" That said, this statement epitomizes MAD. Why do we need a world if America/Russia/China/France/Britain/India/Pakistan/Israel/Iran is not in it? You kill my country and I'll kill yours, ten times over. Jan 25 at 6:56
  1. Imperfect information. Every cog in the machine has only limited visibility. A scenario where the impending complete eradication of a country is fact and retaliation means the complete eradication of the world, and these facts are known to the decision makers as facts, seems implausible.

  2. Nukes are both strong and weak. 1000 Nukes can kill 1000 cities or 1000 military installations. Larger cities need more than 1 nuke. The only way to 100% destroy a large country with nukes is by inducing a nuclear winter and killing everyone outside of that country too. Otherwise there will be a significant number of survivors, just not necessarily an effective military force.

  3. Revenge is a genetic/biological/sociological concept. Humans as well as many other animals are programmed to use self destructive revenge at times, which forms a believable deterrent.

  4. Implementing a doomsday mechanism that is less susceptible to conscientious objectors and humanitarians is a more effective deterrent.*

*Only works if you let people know that the deterrent exists, and don't wait for the Party Congress on Monday.

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    Larger cities need more than 1 nuke - see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba#/media/… Also surviving a nuclear attack is one thing. What comes after that - where will a survivor find food, water, heat?
    – Allure
    Jan 22 at 0:45
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    @Allure With its mass of 27 t the Tsar bomb I think can only be delivered with Falcon Heavy in these days that SpaceX unlikely to offer for such a mission. Maybe Delta IV Heavy would pull out. Or otherwise it needs a large heavy bomber to be delivered that interceptor aircraft of other side will not leave without attention. For some reason people think Satan could lift it. No, it cannot.
    – Stančikas
    Jan 22 at 15:38
  • @Stančikas I mean it was dropped in 1961 but a heavy bomber already. So I'm not so sure 60 years of technological progress would have made it more complicated to lift such a load. Also what about trojans, decoys, destroying the interceptors first etc. It's good that it's difficult but difficult does not mean impossible.
    – haxor789
    Jan 23 at 10:30

Someone's gotta do it

In your example, State A is extremely dangerous to the world order. It has killed millions if not billions of people, with full knowledge that it would lead to the destruction of its own country and people. This is not a rational act under any circumstances, and it can be presumed that the country is under the control of some sort of madman with no internal mechanism to overrule him.

In real-life terms, if Russia destroyed the United States and the U.S. did not retaliate, would anyone take their word that their bloodlust was sated? No; the remaining Western states would drop their own nukes, and commit their own military forces to its destruction. In fact, many of those countries would be immediately at war with Russia because of their NATO obligations. There would be a scramble as both sides attempt to recover the unused nukes from the corpse of America to turn against each other.

The U.S. refusal to retaliate wouldn't save lives. It would just draw out the process and pass off the moral guilt to their friends. Better to finish the job yourself.

  • I think you mean "under control".
    – Barmar
    Jan 22 at 22:20
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    Correct. Why would a madman with nukes stop after one country, especially if it worked so well with no retaliation. Soon the next country will stand before the choice to retaliate when they get attacked. Jan 23 at 8:50

Countries possessing nuclear weapons run drills that may train military responsible for firing the weapons to do so for does not matter which reasons. Soldiers unwilling or unable will be relieved from these duties.

If already really nothing else, some may just expect the afterlife, religion unfortunately is sometimes fused with the war machine. Or, more likely, that human as biological species may survive (maybe some tribes in the jungle or the far north that do not use much of the civilization). Or that all humanity is not worth existing.

Due that it is risky to assume that the enemy will not strike back.

  • Expectations of an afterlife or other religious considerations might well be a good point in some cases. But I'm not so sure about the drills, I think the question is more about if the leaders of the victim country will choose to strike back, not if their troops will follow up on the order. Anyway, counter-strike in the extreme case will likely be rather large, and probably still significant even if some missile crew were to reject their orders.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 22 at 9:25
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    It is very difficult to predict how a single specific individual (say President) in would behave. When summarizing decisions as made by multiple people, likely you would get some statistical distribution with all outcomes non zero probability.
    – Stančikas
    Jan 22 at 9:43

"being subject to nuclear devastation would have a lesser impact on the global economy, supply lines and climate than two major countries (State A and State B) being subject to nuclear devastation. Perhaps most importantly, the possibility of human extinction could be significantly mitigated if the target state refuses to retaliate. Surely the weight of human extinction would be a reason not to strike back."

The problem is that you likely don't have this "overview" kind of perspective of humanity as one giant species. If you had, State A wouldn't have tried to wipe out another country in the first place. Instead your stuck in a subjective perspective, where your own end is quite literally also the end of your world which for all intents and purposes is this world. So there is no "life goes on" (at least not for you).

Though while that technically also applies to your natural death and people don't usually go on a rampage when the doctor tells them their date of death. A) because it's still uncertain, B) because they are likely not capable of doing that, but mostly C) because there is no culprit and nothing they could do about it, also D) people around them will live on their memory will be preserved in whom they met what they did, what they build etc.

None of this would apply in this scenario, A) doom will be certain B) you are capable of doing something about it, C) there is a clear culprit, D) nothing will remain of you.

It's no longer about you it's just your decision to punish or pardon your murderer.

Though to individualize that scenario doesn't quite cut it either because it's not just your murderer but also a whole lot of other people not involved in that struggle or how much influence do you think you'd have on the pushing of the metaphorical button?

It's not even scorched earth, as that would also be "if I can't have it, nobody will", but it's a tactic to stop the advancement of an enemy by making an advance more costly due to removing the ability to live of the land and looted resources. While in this case you scorch the earth just out of spite, with no tactical benefit. Again with State A giving "good reason" to do so.

Some really twisted people might even argue with a twisted sense of pity, in terms of mercy killing based on the fact off how fucked up this would make those left behind, though that's always a very morally dubious argument.

However despite being essentially stupid and just spiteful to actually do, it's essential to pretend to do it in the concept of MAD.

So if the use of nukes leads to a massive retaliation and if that leads to MAD then you don't use nukes, right? ..., right?

Well the whole concept that bigger bombs make you safer is insane to begin with... The thing is what if one side uses nukes? Do you go all in and jeopardize all of humanity for one city or one army? I mean you could and your doctrine says you should but also that would be borderline stupid. But what if you don't do it? Does that make nukes ok now? Do you drop another bomb on another city or army to "get even"? Do you massively retaliate conventionally to the point where the enemy uses more "tactical" nukes in self-defense? How do you prevent that from being a precedent for the use of nukes? Like 1 is fine? Tit for tat? Only on military targets? Take out their means of retaliation? Just strike first and strike hard? A different non-military reaction?

Either way MAD does not prevent anything, if someone is willing to play a nuclear game of chicken mad is basically the option of just jumping over the edge, while not doing so sets you back to square -1 as you're not back to square 1 but even worse than before. Though despite humanity being worse off than before, a specific State A or B might still see that as advantageous to have dealt damage without consequences.

Also even if B is willing to go all in and communicates that intent, so is building a doomsday device that cannot be stopped by himself if set in motion by an attack by A. This would basically have the effect of most deterrents, at first it would deter an attack by A and after that it would trigger A's desire to defuse that doomsday device by all means necessary as one mishap on either A's or B's side could trigger the end of A and likely the end of the world as we know it. So B is quite literally sitting on a time bomb and it becomes paramount for A to either get rid of B or the bomb or both.

And the outlook that MAD isn't actually mutually assured destruction but that we would JUST makes this planet a lot less habitable for years/decades or centuries to come isn't really reassuring either...

So there are really no "good" options here, we will see it when it happens and that hopefully never will happen...


President Muffley: But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

Ambassador Desadeski: There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a Doomsday Gap.

Muffley: This is preposterous. I've never approved of anything like that.

Desadeski: Our source was the New York Times.

Muffley: Dr. Strangelove, do we have anything like that in the works?

Dr. Strangelove: Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project by the Bland Corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious.

Muffley: Then you mean it is possible for them to have built such a thing?

Strangelove: Mr. President, the technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.

Muffley: But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

General Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.

Desadeski’s fear of a “Doomsday Gap”, meant as a parody of contemporary concern about a Missile Gap, is unfounded: control of the Doomsday device is pointless if the the device is designed to beyond human control. All that is required is that someone build one.

And of course, in the event, when the Soviet Union realized it could not keep up with the the Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race, they attempted to restructure (перестройка, peristoika) the situation, an attempt the regime did not survive. The country lost its empire and promptly disintegrated. Its fragments, with the exception of the Baltic states and the Ukraine, are today petty principalities, able to threaten only each other.

I think, though, that the script (by Terry Southern and director Stanley Kubrick) gave a good explication of why it was necessary to create an retaliatory mechanism that feels (to the opponent) inevitable. Of course, once the balloon goes up, it hardly matters (militarily) whether any of the preparations are effective.


Humans can be incredibly petty, and they're generally not nice people.

If you follow tech news, you're bound to come across stories along the lines: company fires admin staff, admin staff retaliate by causing chaos on their former employer's systems. See this random example.

Rationally, this is a very bad course of action since it heaps charges for the damages one caused on top of the problem of having no job. However, given a large enough sample of humans, you're bound to find individuals who engage in this sort of conduct.

As for the question of responding to a nuke, imagine the public reception of the nuked country's leader when they publicly declare: let's take one for the team, and not risk human extinction.

I'd put my money - which is of limited use in such a scenario anyway - on human pettiness. The public of said hypothetically-nuked country will demand to nuke the aggressor in turn.


I'd argue this is an aspect of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Every nation/state's primary responsibility is to protect the lives and property of its own citizens. Or failing that, to bring justice upon those who harmed its citizens.

Of course the destruction of Earth's life-carrying capacity (via any damage, but in this case we are talking about too many nuclear bombs being dropped for the planet's atmosphere to safely absorb) will also hurt that nation's citizens. However, that's a global problem, responsibility for which is shared by all parties. An individual state's incentive is to use as much of that resource as they can, lest a competing state gets to use it instead.

As Ecologist Garret Hardin put it (using an example of overgrazing a communal field)

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons


In the movie "Apocalypses Now" based on a book by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"; there is a line:

Horror, if it's not an ally it is an enemy to be feared.

The threat of nukes is a tool just as is ignoring those threats. It's a tool to get the other side to give up for fear of nuclear war. It's also a tool to avoid conventional war all together. Knowing which if left vague is the danger.



If the leaders of a democracy have risen to power based on sabre rattling and the promise that they will stand up to enforce their culture's concept of the ideal World order, anything other than launching a massive retaliatory attack would be a betrayal: even if restraint would improve their own chance of survival.

It's the electorate's fault for having chosen them, and the constitution's fault for allowing them to be chosen.

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