Mutual Assured Destruction, often abbreviated as MAD, is a strategic doctrine rooted in the logic of deterrence during the Cold War era, especially between the United States and the Soviet Union. This doctrine is based on the concept of full-scale nuclear capability, where the certainty of absolute destruction of both parties in a nuclear conflict, due to their equal capacity, effectively prevents the conflict from initiating in the first place.
MAD is predicated on the possession of a secure second-strike capability. That is, even if a country were to face a surprise “first strike” from an adversary, it would retain enough of its nuclear arsenal to launch a devastating retaliatory “second strike.” The knowledge that neither side could prevent such retaliation from destroying their own cities and population creates a stalemate, with the risk of initiating conflict too high for either side to bear.
The principle behind MAD is that it deters an adversary from launching a pre-emptive strike, knowing that retaliation is guaranteed. It relies on a balance of power and the assumption that neither side will act irrationally. If both parties have enough weapons to assure the destruction of the other, then the likely outcome of a nuclear war is mutual annihilation. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of both parties to avoid starting such a war.
MAD was a central part of the Cold War strategy and shaped international relations during the second half of the 20th century. Critics argue that it created an arms race and increased the number of nuclear weapons in the world to dangerous levels. Others, however, believe that it maintained peace, as the stakes were too high for either the USA or USSR to risk a nuclear war.
However, MAD also implies an uncomfortable ethical dilemma. It is predicated on the threat of massive civilian casualties on both sides, should a nuclear war occur. Further, it depends on the rationality of leaders who might be under enormous stress in a crisis. Despite these moral and practical concerns, MAD has been a significant influence on nuclear strategy and disarmament debates, underscoring the complexity of achieving long-lasting peace in a nuclear-capable world.