The best books on nuclear weapons’ implications for international politics

Who am I?

It’s common to talk about why you love the subject you research. I have no love for nuclear weapons. They are, however, central to understanding international politics since 1945. The nuclear age is one of inconsistencies. Nuclear weapons drive many crises but may make major wars between nuclear states less likely. They generate reassurance and anxiety among allies in almost equal measure. The books in this list all grapple with the nuclear shadow’s shape and scale. Most combine an analytical framework with historical study, but all are attuned to theory and strategy. As for me, I’m an associate professor at Virginia Tech, where I research and teach on international relations. 


I wrote...

Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents

By Paul C. Avey,

Book cover of Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents

What is my book about?

Why do states without nuclear weapons confront nuclear-armed opponents? A simple answer is that no one expects the weapons to be used. But why not? Tempting Fate shows nonnuclear states can shape the costs and benefits of nuclear use. Nonnuclear state strategies include limiting fighting, holding chemical or biological weapons in reserve, seeking outside support, and/or leveraging norms. The greater the danger the nonnuclear state poses the more it will struggle to exploit nuclear inhibitions. Powerful nonnuclear states rarely fight wars against nuclear opponents. The book examines Chinese, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Soviet decision-making in confrontations with nuclear opponents. Nonnuclear states challenge, resist, and even win limited victories. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tragically shows wars between nuclear and nonnuclear states remain a global concern. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963

Paul C. Avey Why did I love this book?

It’s hard to overstate just how influential Marc Trachtenberg’s A Constructed Peace, and really all of his writing, has been on my thinking. I constantly return to its pages and find fresh insights each time. I’m drawn in by the writing style, but the substance is even more impressive. The book—examining British, French, Soviet, West German, and U.S. policy—was what first opened my eyes to the centrality of Germany and debates on nuclear control in the origins and evolution of the Cold War. U.S. efforts to offset the Soviet challenge and reduce the U.S. continental commitment by reviving West Germany and then essentially providing it with nuclear weapons contributed to some of the Cold War’s most dangerous crises.

By Marc Trachtenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Constructed Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Aiming to unravel events leading to the Cold War, this book argues against the theory that it was a simple two-sided conflict between America and Russia. The author contends that the German question, especially in the nuclear field, was largely responsible, and a relatively stable peace took shape only when these issues were resolved. The book should be of interest to students of the Cold War, those concerned with the problem of war and peace, and in particular with the question of how a stable international order can be constructed.


Book cover of The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power And World Order

Paul C. Avey Why did I love this book?

I struggled to balance recent books that explore nuclear politics with the benefit of decades of history and earlier foundational books. Picking only one from the latter category may be a mistake. Thomas Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict, Robert Jervis’s Theory of the Nuclear Revolution, and many others deserve mention. I included Absolute Weapon because it was the earliest attempt to explore what nuclear weapons meant for international politics. It is best remembered for Brodie’s contention that victory in nuclear war is meaningless, and so the central purpose of nuclear weapons is deterrence. Yet Brodie grapples—at times suggesting divergent answers—with many enduring questions: the requirements for deterrence, the prospects for meaningful superiority, and the potential for superiority (to say nothing of monopoly) to offer political advantages or spur aggression. 

By Bernard Brodie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Absolute Weapon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is the 214 pg 1st Edition of the privately owned hardcover by Frederick Dunn, Bernard Brodie, Arnold Wolfers, Percy Corbett and William Fox as edited by Bernard Brodie from Harcourt, Brace and Co., and copyrighted 1946. Contents of the book include the Intro entitled The Common Problem and 3 Parts entitled: Part I: The Weapon: War in the Atomic Age and Implications for Military Policy; Part II: Political Consequences: The Atomic Bomb in Soviet-American Relations and Effect on International Organization; and Part III: International Control of Atomic Weapons. The book has no dust cover. The khaki colored boards has…


Book cover of The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945

Paul C. Avey Why did I love this book?

The United States launched two nuclear strikes immediately after inventing the weapons. Since then, no country has used nuclear weapons in a conflict. The Nuclear Taboo is the most important book we have on the role that norms surrounding nuclear weapons play in constraining nuclear use. Tannenwald traces the subtle shifts from a norm of use to one in which the thought of nuclear strikes is seen as appalling. The story moves across governments, non-governmental experts and activists, and the public as each grappled with nuclear weapons and one another. I go back to it again and again to learn more about norms, U.S. decision-making from World War II to the Gulf War, and grassroots and elite efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons.

By Nina Tannenwald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nuclear Taboo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why have nuclear weapons not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? Nina Tannenwald disputes the conventional answer of 'deterrence' in favour of what she calls a nuclear taboo - a widespread inhibition on using nuclear weapons - which has arisen in global politics. Drawing on newly released archival sources, Tannenwald traces the rise of the nuclear taboo, the forces that produced it, and its influence, particularly on US leaders. She analyzes four critical instances where US leaders considered using nuclear weapons (Japan 1945, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War 1991) and examines how the…


Book cover of Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict

Paul C. Avey Why did I love this book?

A lot of work on nuclear politics focuses on the policies and strategies of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. This book goes beyond that. The scope of Narang’s Nuclear Strategy is immense. It’s really two books in one. The first tells me why states adopt the nuclear posture—the doctrine and number of weapons—that they do. It’s a one-stop shop for learning about the origins and evolution of nuclear policy in China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa. Then I read on and find Narang goes further. The second book shows me the consequences of those decisions for conflict. The lessons of the book travel, and I find myself applying the nuclear posture categories that Narang identifies when thinking about nuclear developments today. 

By Vipin Narang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The world is in a second nuclear age in which regional powers play an increasingly prominent role. These states have small nuclear arsenals, often face multiple active conflicts, and sometimes have weak institutions. How do these nuclear states--and potential future ones--manage their nuclear forces and influence international conflict? Examining the reasoning and deterrence consequences of regional power nuclear strategies, this book demonstrates that these strategies matter greatly to international stability and it provides new insights into conflict dynamics across important areas of the world such as the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. Vipin Narang identifies the diversity of…


Book cover of The Revolution that Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War

Paul C. Avey Why did I love this book?

I got this book for the incisive presentation and critique of the nuclear revolution thesis. I stayed for the original theory and detailed history. The chapters on the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations provided me with a new understanding of that era. For the nuclear revolution, the superpower behavior of the late Cold War was either irrational or driven by domestic pathologies. Green shows that there was a cold strategic logic and domestic political awareness behind U.S. policy. American leaders tailored arms control in ways that allowed them to continue competing and indeed gain an advantage against the Soviet Union.

By Brendan Rittenhouse Green,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Revolution that Failed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of nuclear weapons is dominated by a single theory - that of the nuclear revolution, or mutual assured destruction (MAD). Although such theorists largely perceive nuclear competition as irrational and destined for eventual stalemate, the nuclear arms race between superpowers during the second half of the Cold War is a glaring anomaly that flies in the face of this logic. In this detailed historical account, Brendan Green presents an alternate theoretical explanation for how the United States navigated nuclear stalemate during the Cold War. Motivated by the theoretical and empirical puzzles of the Cold War arms race, Green…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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