Mutually Assured Destruction: When Not to Play

Mutually assured destruction is a military mental model with powerful applications in life and business. It refers to a situation where two parties are in a stalemate, and neither can make a move without causing their own destruction. Here’s why this happens and how we can avoid putting ourselves in situations where playing means losing.

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
— Professor Falken in the 1983 Movie War Games


The History of Mutually Assured Destruction

On the day in 1945 that Robert A Lewis, copilot of the B-29 Superfortress dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he wrote six agonizingly poignant words in his log book: “My God, what have we done?”

What exactly had he done? His question is more complex than it seems.

If we look at that act in the literal sense, Lewis had just dropped ‘Little Boy’, the first of two atomic bombs which killed an estimated 129,000+ people. An accurate figure of the death toll is impossible to establish. This act was ordered by President Truman at the end of World War 2, to end the invasion of Japan and create ‘peace.’

Less than a week after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan surrendered and World War 2 ended a short time later.

Nuclear fission was first discovered in 1938, and scientists soon theorized that the development of atomic bombs was plausible. After hearing of Nazi plans to develop nuclear weapons, the US began its own research projects.

The Manhattan Project was set up and researchers developed two types of atomic bomb. When Japan refused to surrender, the decision was made to use the new weapon on two major cities. It achieved the desired effect and the war was finally over.

In his declaration to the Japanese people upon the topic of surrender, Emperor Hirohito stated:

The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Controversy is still prevalent (and doubtless always will be) as to the justification of the bombing. Many scholars debate if it caused or prevented more deaths. However, the big question is not ‘what have we done?’ but ‘what will we do?’ Dropping the first atomic bomb did not just open a macabre Pandora’s box, it also forced humanity to see the possibility that we will destroy ourselves and this entire planet in the process of settling disputes between nations.

As of 2016, 174,000 survivors of the bombing are still alive, living with the physical, psychological, and social consequences. The after effects spread far beyond Japan- indeed the ripples of the first use of nuclear weapons affect us all, even if not in an obvious way.

We have a strange tendency to forget that we are all – every human on earth – in this together. As it stands — for now, Elon — Earth is the only planet we have to live on. We can segregate it by national borders, but these are man-made ideas, not physical separations. This is where the concept of mutually assured destruction comes in. It happens to be one of the few instances where we can all agree on something: we must not wipe ourselves out and destroy our planet.

Why The Concept of Mutually Assured Destruction Matters

The concept of mutually assured destruction was first described by Wilkie Collins, a 19th century English author. In a letter written at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, over 70 years before the first atomic bomb dropped, Collins wrote:

I am, like the rest of my countrymen, heartily on the German side in the War. But what is to be said of the progress of humanity? Here are the nations still ready to slaughter each other, at the command of one miserable wretch whose interest is to set them fighting! Is this the nineteenth century? or the ninth? Are we before the time of Christ or after? I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence – the discovery one of these days, of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation, and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace.

It seems that Collins was very much ahead of his time.

Alfred Nobel (founder of the Nobel Prize and the inventor of dynamite) recognized this too, saying:

The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.

For most of human history, combat was hand to hand. People fought face to face, using swords, knives, bayonets, clubs, and other handheld weapons.

Humans have always fought each other with a viciousness largely unique to our species. Archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of genocides as far back as 5000 BC. As our intelligence and technology has advanced, so has our capacity to kill each other in large numbers.

Warren Buffett pointed this out in a CNN interview.

You know, thousands of years ago we had psychotics and we had religious fanatics and we had megalomaniacs. But about the most they could do was throw a stone at somebody if they wished evil on them. Today, since 1945, the ability to inflict evil, or harm, on other people in huge numbers has grown exponentially.

Nuclear weapons are the culmination of this progress towards methods of wiping out huge numbers of people with minimal effort.

After the US dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan, other countries raced to develop their own. The USSR had hydrogen bombs within 8 years. Both developed their technology to the point where either of them had the ability to basically decimate the entire world if the leaders chose to. It goes without saying that a nation had never held that type of power before.

By the 1960s, the concept of mutually assured destruction (hereafter referred to as MAD) was crystallized. Both the US and the USSR could bring about the end of humanity (including themselves), but neither wanted to. This lead to a stalemate, essentially stating ‘I won’t if you don’t.’ For either to attack would mean their own destruction, defeating the purpose of war. Ironically enough, the concept of MAD has led to relative peace between countries with nuclear capabilities. Tension is still prevalent, as each must keep up with the developments of the other to ensure continued equality.

During the Cold War, MAD was probably responsible for the lack of serious conflict between the US and USSR. The US kept a fleet of airplanes airborne non-stop, ready to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR at a moment’s’ notice, should they strike first. Even if the USSR tried to destroy the entire US, they would still be able to retaliate using airplanes. However, airplanes were logistically and financially difficult to sustain and the US began to look for alternatives. Ballistic missile submarines were adopted as a solution. Submarines are also operated by the UK, France, China, India, and Russia. While world peace is certainly a long way off, this nuclear fleet provides a semblance of global stability.

The Key Components of Mutually Assured Destruction

There are several key components of the doctrine of MAD:

  • Both sides in a combat must have the capacity to completely destroy the other. Any inequality in their power has the potential to tip the balance. The US and USSR have since developed more nuclear technology – guided missile systems, and weapons sprinkled around the globe in submarines. Neither side can have sufficient nuclear shelters to protect substantial numbers of people in the event of an attack. If one side can cause a degree of destruction which would prevent a counterattack, the concept of MAD is not applicable.
  • Both sides must have a genuine reason and motivation to believe that the other would be willing to destroy them. Any doubt in this area is dangerous.
  • Both sides must be able to detect attacks with perfect accuracy. This necessitates the ability to know when a nuclear attack has occurred, without any errors. If one side uses stealth detonation (such as bombs smuggled into a country), MAD is not assured.
  • Both sides must know exactly where a threat originates from. One serious problem is the border between China and Russia, both of which have nuclear weapons. Parts of China actually protrude into Russia, which could lead to complications as one could make it appear as if an attack originated from the other.
  • Both sides must act rationally (in short, all those with power must be able to act like adults and take the concept of MAD seriously.) A rogue leader with a great deal of power and a disregard for human life beyond their own would have the potential to start a nuclear war. A chilling fact is that this came close to happening during the Cuban Missile Crisis when a lone submarine commander attempted to detonate a nuclear missile. That single act of insanity might have easily meant that you could not be reading this right now. Carl Sagan sums this up: “The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist-deep in gasoline, one with three matches and the other with five…every thinking person fears nuclear war and every technological state plans for it. Everyone knows it is madness and every nation has an excuse.”

As that list shows, the concept is somewhat fragile and requires constant vigilance and innovation to maintain. There is also the ever prevalent risk of accidental or terrorist detonation.

The Potential Consequences of Mutually Assured Destruction

Thankfully, we do not have a clear picture of the potential consequences of MAD playing out. We do have an idea of what they would be – a nuclear apocalypse. Although the concept of a nuclear apocalypse has become almost comical due to its prevalence in science fiction, it is important to understand that it remains a very real possibility.

Should a nuclear war break out, it is believed that the result would be the collapse of human civilization, as much or all of the planet becomes unsuitable for life, cities are erased and technology becomes unusable.

Any people who manage to survive the initial blast(s), would have a poor chance of long-term survival due to firestorms, a possible nuclear winter and the effects of radiation. Combine that with a famine and lack of law enforcement or medical care for survivors- the outlook would be bleak, to say the least. Substantial numbers of people could survive a global world war, although it is unlikely that we would be able to overcome the secondary impact. In any case, what would human life be without any economic or political structure or any of the other important concepts we take for granted?

Once again, it is difficult yet important to take this concept seriously as it seems so unrealistic. When we take into account the fact that at least 15,000 nuclear weapons are held worldwide, the chances are higher than we imagine.

In Bomb Steve Sheinkin writes:

“Consider this. A study published in Scientific American in 2010 looked at the probable impact of a “small” nuclear war, one where India and Pakistan each dropped fifty atomic bombs. The scientists concluded that the explosions would ignite massive firestorms, sending enormous amounts of dust and smoke into the atmosphere. This would block some of the sun’s light from reaching the earth, making the planet colder and darker – for about ten years. Farming would collapse, and people all over the globe would starve to death. And that’s if only half of one percent of all the atomic bombs on earth were used.

In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you are in it.”


The mental model of mutually assured destruction can be particularly useful outside of warfare.

Consider two mafia members who can’t tell on one another. Our when companies obtain a large patent portfolio but don’t pursue legal action against competitors with large patent portfolios.


Ask yourself, “Where are we competing where everyone is effectively the same?” and “What would happen if we got into a heated price war … could we destroy our competitor? Would they destroy us?” Ideally, you can avoid these situations but if you can’t you should, at least, be aware of them.

You can learn a lot just from identifying the situations where you’re in a version of mutually assured destruction. For the model to work as a thinking tool you don’t have to go as far as destruction. You can think in terms of ability for competitors to cause you pain or for you to cause them pain.


One of the ways we understand trust is through mutually assured destruction.

Consider two businesses engaged in tax fraud together. Either could rat the other out, knowing full well they would then be turned over.

The list goes on and on.

In the end, while you should try to avoid situations of mutually assured destruction, they can promote good behavior between parties. However, it only takes one party in a situation to start a massive chain reaction with usually catastrophic outcomes.

Mutually assured destruction is part of the Farnam Street latticework of mental models.