MAD is a perfect acronym to describe one of the most terrifying concepts mankind has yet devised. It stands for Mutually Assured Destruction, and described the stark realisation of looming anhilation  and the tense balance of power that kept (and keeps) any nuclear power deploying their apocolyptic arsenal against enemies.

Although the nuclear arsenals amassed by the USA and USSR during the Cold War were sufficient to wipeout humanity, there was some safety in numbers. The reassuring flip side to the MAD doctrine was that the sheer destructive capability of nuclear weapons inhibited their use.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn, the three key aspects of MAD were outlined:

• It is a psychological deterrent, depending on calculations for which there is no historical experience

• An unrestrained nuclear exchange between superpowers could destroy civilized life as we know it in days.

• Mutual assured destruction raises enormous inhibitions against employing the weapons.

The concept was first outlined in a speech delivered by Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence. In essence, he claimed that the US would have sufficient warheads to survive an intitial attack and would therefore be able to lay waste to the aggressor. No one would survive.

At this point in time, the USA had a clear lead in the numbers of nuclear warheads in its arsenal – in 1962 the USA had over 26,000 warheads against the Soviet Union’s 3,500. The US arsenal would peak soon after at 31,000 warheads, whilst the USSR’s reserve increased exponentially to reach c. 45,000 in 1985.

The two powers held the same reserve for a brief period in 1977, when their arsenals amounted to 25,000 warheads. The USSR and then Russia would then surge into the lead and the total number of warheads peaked in 1986 at around 69,000.

Both powers then began to reduce their deadly stockpiles in the wake of a series of successful nuclear disarmament treaties and the collapse of the USSR. Starting with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 and progressing through a series of STARTs (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties) the latest agreement (New START) to reduce warhead numbers was agreed in 2010

Today, Russia has just over 10,000 warheads, and the USA has around 5,000. Still more than enough to wipeout humanity, but heading in the right direction.

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