The cheapest debating trick in the nuclear weapons/arms control business is the well-crafted rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are asked not to seek answers, but to advance preferred outcomes. Hardy perennials include, “Can’t we do better than…?” The best rhetorical questions frame a public policy argument advantageously, untie purse string, help gain approval for a treaty or executive agreement, and place opponents on the defensive. As an added bonus, rhetorical questions require detailed rebuttals, but not detailed back-up or justification. As governance in the United States continues to give way to greater polarization and political posturing, the stock price of rhetorical questions will continue to rise.

One technique for dealing with rhetorical questions is to pre-empt them. In his 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, “Assuring Strategic Stability in an Era of Détente,” Paul Nitze led with, “Is nuclear war unthinkable? Would it mean the end of Civilization as we know it?” He then offered pointed rebuttals. Pre-emption is a great debating counter to rhetorical questions.

The most memorable rhetorical question relating to the Bomb may well be President Ronald Reagan’s humdinger, used to introduce the Strategic Defense Initiative: “Would it not be better to save lives rather than avenge them?” Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, employed this variation: “Is a strategy that amounts to a suicidal response sufficiently credible to deter all Soviet attacks?” Reagan and Weinberger were borrowing from President Richard M. Nixon’s 1970 State of the World message, in which he asked:

Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans?

The pursuit of missile defenses will always be accompanied by rhetorical questions. No one remembers Weinberger’s or Nixon’s formulation. When it comes to rhetorical questions, less is more and pithy is better. Here are a few more, courtesy of my shoeboxes:

“What is the sense of developing a weapon that can destroy a city twice over?” — Henry Kissinger, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy


“If they must be small, why not none at all? If they must be used, why not use large ones?” – Bernard Brodie on low-yield nuclear weapons, in Strategy and the Missile Age

Do any others come to mind?