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Jennifer Erickson
"Reputation, Public Opinion, and U.S. Nuclear Non-Use in the Cold War"
Monday, April 15, 2019, 03:30pm - 05:00pm
Mershon Center for International Security Studies
1501 Neil Ave.
Columbus, Ohio 43201

Jennifer Erickson

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Jennifer L. Erickson is an associate professor of political science and international studies at Boston College. Her research interests include conventional and nuclear weapons, sanctions and arms embargoes, and the laws and norms of war.

Her book, Dangerous Trade: Conventional Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Reputation (Columbia, 2015), explains states' commitment to and compliance with new humanitarian arms export initiatives and is winner of the APSA Foreign Policy Section's 2017 Best Book Award. Her current book project explores the historical and contemporary cases of new weapons technologies and the creation of new laws and norms of war.

Currently, Erickson is also a faculty affiliate at MIT’s Security Studies Program. Previously, she has held fellowships or affiliations at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, Dickey Center at Dartmouth College, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), and  Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB).

She holds a B.A. in political science from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate classes on international relations theory, global governance, globalization and national security, and EU foreign affairs.


By 1953, U.S. policymakers lamented that a “nuclear taboo” limited their military options. Since then, many scholars argue, the use of nuclear weapons has become unthinkable. Yet deterrence and U.S. security policy are predicated on perceptions of U.S. willingness to use nuclear weapons in response to dire security emergencies.

In this paper, I reexamine these tensions in the nuclear taboo and argue that U.S. leaders’ concern for social reputation and global public backlash contributed to their reluctance to use nuclear weapons in the Cold War. Whatever their own normative beliefs, leaders worried about the reputational fallout from violating norms they perceived – rightly or wrongly – others to subscribe.

U.S. leaders have both taken seriously the nuclear option and sought to avoid public condemnation for being perceived as aggressive, irresponsible, or racist for initiating nuclear use in Asia. This argument taps into pressures for conformity with nuclear and other norms and is related to but distinct from purely normative explanations.

As a result, “reputation talk” is different than “taboo talk” and cannot serve as evidence to support a nuclear taboo. Moreover, if U.S. public aversion to the bomb is eroding as some recent studies suggest, this suggests that U.S. leaders may no longer face what they once saw as one powerful constraint on their nuclear decision-making.


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