I have been reading about mutual assured destruction and deterrence theory on Wikipedia, and it got me thinking. What would it take for some of the countries in the world to actually destroy one another, if deterrence theory theoretically prevents this?

The world is set in the present, but one (imaginary) country is threatening other countries. They are mean and want to rule the world. They are hungry for power, so they would prefer to attack larger countries. They have plenty of nuclear power to do so if they weren't being threatened back.

I would like a method that is completely intentional (no misfires or miscommunication). This is important because my imaginary country is very evil.

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    $\begingroup$ Evil is not suicidal. The meme of MAD is that if you launch at us, we will launch at you and both of us will die. If the Evil fellows want to live to see their evil plans bear fruit, they will have to act accordingly and avoid using weapons that would trigger a nuclear response from their enemies. Subversion comes to mind. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ It won't be a rule the world scenario for the winners, but rather inherit a world in the throes of radiation, mutations, nuclear winter etc. It is one of the reasons MAD works, the winners inherit an unlivable world. An untraceable biological agent might make more sense. $\endgroup$
    – tls
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 5:59
  • $\begingroup$ Unless you are doing it purely for effect, keep in mind that pure evil generally doesn't exist. All the "evil" leaders of history -- Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, ... -- did what they did not for evil, but rather to further a purpose that they believed in. We can argue that they were mistaken, misguided or whatnot in what they were trying to achieve and the means by which they tried to achieve their goal, but they weren't outright evil. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling I fully agree that they weren't doing it for evil's sake. However, I don't think it's as clear-cut that they did for "a purpose that they believed in." Unless you count "personal power" as such a purpose, any proclaimed purpose may (or may not) have been PR/propaganda. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Angew But that's my point; even "for personal power" is a goal. It may not be a societally laudable goal, but it is a goal, which "to be evil" all by itself isn't really. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 12:38

8 Answers 8


Hard to call it an answer...but create a multinational corporation, fund it (but hide the funding) and have it create arms in each nation it wants to attack. Launch the nuclear attacks using the corporation so they seem to be coming from 'rogue' elements instead of the evil nation itself. Fits in the subversion category Oldcat comments on...idea is simple, make the attack extremely hard to trace back to you and instead to some faceless entity.

Other option is to reach a nuclear arsenal 'first strike' state like America has where you could theoretically nuke every last site that could retaliate back on you at once.

Tons of risk in either case...if it's traced back to your evil empire, it's quite likely that another nation will respond in kind. Possible that wild accusations alone would make a nation that has been struck with nuclear weaponry strike the evil nation anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ I really like the concept behind having a multinational corporation, but I'd probably change it where the evil nation frames another nation. Same blame-game concept though. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 2:28

One country would have to want to destroy the other more than they wanted to be destroyed, or feel fairly certain that the other country was going to destroy them.

The first case could happen, for example, to an extremist nation that was losing a conventional war. Instead of losing, it could be seen as favorable to lay waste to the other country with nuclear weapons. If the other country retaliated, MAD would happen. Alternately, such a country could be seeking to 'destroy the infidel' without regards to its own integrity. I could see a group like IS carrying out such an attack.

The second could happen if the country felt certain that the other country had already either nuked it or launched a nuke at it. Such an attack, even if truly committed by a third party intent on starting a war, could lead to retaliation and MAD.

  • $\begingroup$ hinting at the last sentance cough cough terminator cough $\endgroup$
    – The Man
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ The extremist nation wouldn't have to be losing a war, or even in an actual war. The MAD theory is predicated on the idea that the people controlling the weapons are rational, and wish to continue to live. Now suppose we have a country in which the leaders are fanatically religious, have no appreciation of science (but control weapons development scientists & engineers through threats), and sincerely believe that their god(s) want them to destroy the infidels... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:30

The weakness of MAD is that using it is by definition a suicide, so as long as your enemy does not believe your actions threaten their existence the threshold to unleash the nuclear weapons is quite high. During the Cold War this showed in a large number of proxy wars in what was usually called the third world. In general the concept is to have a clear idea what are the triggers for the other side and then do something else. Bonus points if your idea is related to reality.

In practice, if you want the evil guys to lose you can model their leader after early Hitler. He started with reoccupying Rhineland which basically everyone agreed was justified even if potentially a dangerous sign. Then unification of Austria, which nobody could oppose too much as the Austrians had historically been considered Germans. Then Sudetenland which Hitler was able to get away with because the borders created after the war were still kind of artificial and because nobody else wanted war. Which as I mentioned is the weak point of MAD.

The reason this is a losing strategy is because it is a dead end. You get away with it once on some relatively minor issue and then everybody is seriously thinking that they'd might have to pull the trigger if "that crazy person" doesn't stop. And stopping will be very hard with your confidence sky high and everybody telling you what a great leader you are. And since nobody wants to trigger a war, they'll avoid anything provocative, or with other words are looking weak and clueless.

If you want the bad guys to win model the leader after Bismarck. Everybody knew Prussian militarism and Bismarck were dangerous and must be contained. It didn't do them any good. For example in your scenario typical leader would see themselves surrounded by enemies and act accordingly. Pseudo-Bismarck would realize that divisions such as allies and enemies are largely meaningless as they depend on the situation and the situation is influenced by your own actions. In the correct situation your steadfast enemy would end up neutral or even be on your side. Typical leader would act tough against enemies to avoid being taken advantage of and the enemies would close ranks against him. Pseudo-Bismarck would have no need to act tough and would freely engage with anyone willing to talk with him in order to keep the politics fluid and complex. Read exploitable. Typical leaders react to unexpected events by playing it safe, doing the expected, and avoiding mistakes. Pseudo-Bismarck expects the unexpected to happen, can predict what other leaders will do in response, and always has several goals he can push forward in the opening created by his potential opponents being committed on a strategy he can predict.

I could go on, but somehow I doubt you want the evil empire to win and need more detail on this alternative. Pseudo-Bismarck would not let the world go MAD, pseudo-Hitler would almost guarantee that world will go MAD. Although having a player like that dominate the scene does create chaos when he is removed. You could give the evil country a previous leader who raised it where it is now thru such diplomatic maneuvers and a current leader who tries to play the same games but fails with catastrophic consequences.

World war one was largely created because politicians were playing political games and made a web of commitments so complex nobody could control the situation. Bismarck, or anyone with any sense, would have simply reinterpreted any agreement that potentially triggers a war of that magnitude and instead negotiated a peaceful settlement that just happened to be in his advantage, but unfortunately most leaders react to complex situations by following what is expected of them so that they do not end held personally responsible for the mess. And that means following the agreements and letting the chain reaction propagate. This would be a feasible way to go MAD, I think.

  1. Simply give your nasty country something which their leaders think will allow them to survive the counter-strike, such as a missile shield (prevent the missiles arriving in the first place) or a load of very well-stocked bunkers.

    It wouldn't work for exactly the reasons that @tls cites - Nuclear Winter etc, they'd be left living on a cinder - but all that you need is for the leaders of the Bad Country to think that it'll work.

    For example, the leaders of the Bad Country have executed half their scientists and all the rest are afraid to stand up to them. Nobody wants to say "no" to a dictator.

  2. You could also consider a launch authorised not by the country's leaders, but by someone else in the chain of command. Maybe they're suicidal and they've decided to go out with a bang!

    See also:

    Almost Everything In "Dr Strangelove" Was True, Eric Schlosser, The New Yorker, 17 Jan 2014

    With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse.


    Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. ... Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.


    A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached.

  3. The movie Crimson Tide (about a nuclear submarine) contains an interesting scenario: the sub receives orders to launch its nukes against a Russian nuclear silo which has been taken over by terrorists and is preparing its own missiles for launch (the movie is silent on why the Russians can't just bomb their own base with conventional weapons, but presumably there's a reason in there somewhere).

    Bad People taking control of nuclear weapons - and perhaps triggering a counter-strike - has all kinds of fictional potential. Crazy People even more so. Many (most?) of the Bond movies are based on this premise.

    Or just make your Bad Country's leaders Crazy as well as Bad: problem solved! :)

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "they think they will survive", I was going so suggest that, too :). $\endgroup$
    – Layna
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ You could also try to smuggle your nuclear bombs into other countries via secret operations and detonate them there without anyone knowing it was you... And if the others still find out, they are going to retaliate - and voila: MAD $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 13:54

It is a dilemma. It suppose actors will act in a rational matter. A rational actor will not use nuclear weapons unless he is 100% sure this will destroy his enemy. Since it's not possible, he know there will be a counter-attack and that the enemy will just throw everything at him. And there is also the environmental risk of using a lot of nuclear warheads in a short amount of time.

But actors are not always rational.

  • Urgency/lack of time to decide on a plan, lack of information, the feeling that the other actors are unpredictable (that is very common) emotions and other factors will play against the protagonists. One might consider a preemptive strike against the enemy even if he is not sure it will destroy all possible threats of retaliation. It might at least give him an advantage.

If China lost 300 million people in a nuclear war: the other half of the population would survive to ensure victory (quote form Mao Zedong).

Total war: Another possibility

  • A total war is when all the societies are dedicated at only one goal:war. War invade every aspects of life and this is also reflected in how states are waging them. The goal is not to take the capital like it once was but to destroy the enemy at all cost. There was a quote about the last stand of the Third Reich that said that the country would be better to destroy itself than to surrender to the enemy. They poured every man and women and every resources they had. So, possibly as a last resort, they would not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction even if it meant their own destruction. Is that irrational? I don't think so, if your sure to lose anyway.

Possible ways:

  • Waiving self-preservation. The typical reason would be religion ("We will kill the infidels/heretics/unbelievers! If they destroy us too we do not care because we will go to Heaven!"). In practice, even in the most religious countries/movements, most of the people want to stay alive. The most dangerous issue would be a minor, radical branch seizing a nuclear bomb and initiating an exchange that escalates between the countries.

  • Last ditch effort: Country A is advancing in country B, with the declared objective of slaughtering all of country B's population. Country B may consider it safer to start using nukes than to suffer defeat. Even in that case, I would expect a first wave of "limited" nuclear war (targetting army/air/naval bases, infrastructure, etc.), in the expectation that country A will be hurt to retreat but not enough will not retaliate with total atomic war and mutual anhilation. After that first wave, all bets are off.

  • Miscalculation: the most viable. Two ways

    a) Country A things it can win by striking first. It will be even better if the advantage is known to be temporal (let's say, their spies have got the codes to disable country B nuclear weapons, but those codes change each month), because it gives an incentive for not losing that advantage (if the advantage is permanent, only its threat will be almost as effective as the real attack).

    b) Country A things country B is about to get an advantage that allows them to strike first. Think of Cuban Missile Crisis.

    c) Apart from that, the usual fog of war/misconceptions about how different . USA may think that conquering North Korea is just a minor issue, but forgets that China does not want Western armies at its borders, and the conflict escalates. Make that happen with something that is of vital interest to one of the parties, and the probability that such party considers using nuclear bombs skyrockets.


Some other possibilities:

  • Learn someone else's theory and forget the reasoning.

    For example, the leader might just wanted to play Chicken and threaten to use nuclear weapons. They already used some conventional weapons somewhere and made believable plans for when to use nuclear weapons. One day, the leader suddenly dies and didn't leave any clue of what he really wanted to do. At this time, the scenerio that they should use nuclear weapons happened. And Other countries seemed to be planning an invasion (at least they believes so, presumbly not using nuclear weapons). His fanatic followers have no choice but use the nuclear weapons.

    One advantage is, after investigation, they will still think the evil country deserves a nuclear strike.

  • They are in a world "without" nuclear weapons.

    Humanity decided to destroy all nuclear weapons somehow. Then one country had some advanced technology to preserve some nuclear weapons and never let the other countries know. What they don't know is the other countries had this technology, too, and that's probably why they agreed on this treaty.

  • They want to destroy all the advanced technologies.

    They just want to let everything destroyed, everywhere in the world. Maybe they should use weapons with less radiation. People may try to hide in unknown places. They can even warn people in other countries to hide at the beginning. But the power, heavy industries, etc, probably won't survive. And that's all they wanted and probably the point of why they are evil.

  • Alien-like enemy.

    Almost every country agreed that they won't use nuclear weapons. But one country or country-like organization, which everyone else didn't even noticed, suddenly declared they had, or they gained control of huge amount of nuclear weapons and refuse any communication. Other countries agreed they will use nuclear weapons for the same purpose, but underestimated how big it is. Everything just happened before the evil organization declaring they really wanted to use them.


Evilopolis wants to destroy (or conquer) Paniniland.

Pizzaland has some cultural divergence with Paniniland but they are at peace.

Evildoer pay someone to bombard Paninari with mozzarella and tomato. Someone claims to be Pizzaiolo. A war starts between Paninari and Pizzaioli, fomented and financed by Evildoers.

Eventually Pizzaioli throw a calzone ripieno and Paninari retaliate with Pound Whopper. It's a carnage.

Evildoers eat it all, pizza & panini.

(have I read this somewhere? Sounds familiar)

  • $\begingroup$ Could you please comment the negative vote? It's not uncommon that a nation pays another one to make war in its stance... $\endgroup$
    – algiogia
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not the down voter, but the down vote was probably because you didn't add much detail. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ Is it better now? $\endgroup$
    – algiogia
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 12:55

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