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The Prisoner's Dilemma Revisited

Mathematician John Von Neumann, co-originator of game theory, famously urged presidents Truman and Eisenhower to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia before the Soviets could amass a large nuclear arsenal themselves. His infamous quote, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today…” reflected his assessment of standoffs in the Prisoner’s Dilemma two-sided, zero-sum game. The results of game theory experiments at the Rand Corporation indicated that when both sides have the capacity to destroy each other, they will not refrain from doing so forever. One side will “defect’ from the agreement and use its power to destroy the other. Von Neumann wanted the U.S. to be the side to defect and launch a “preemptive” attack on Russia. Ominously, he was a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, but both presidents refused to follow his advice.

Von Neumann’s arguments came at a time when the United States had substantial nuclear superiority over the Soviets, who had only recently exploded their first atomic bomb and were nearing development of the hydrogen bomb, which the United States already had. We are at a similar stage in our relationship with North Korea as we were with the Soviets back then. Kim Jong Un has viable nuclear weapons and is developing short and long range missile delivery capabilities.

Although Von Neumann’s so-called “proof” that someone would eventually use their nuclear weapons has not come true—yet—we are at one of the most dangerous times with regard to the use of nuclear weapons since the days when Von Neumann uttered his famous opinion. In response to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action then that option is on the table.” In other words, a preemptive war is again a possibility.

Retired Army Major Mike Lyons, a senior fellow for the Truman National Security Project, has predicted that the attack “would not focus on just military targets—there would be civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands as well.” If the North Koreans  responded by targeting Seoul or Tokyo using their nuclear weapons, we would be compelled to retaliate with ours.

With brinkmanship on the rise, Monday's U.S. boycott of a U.N. conference on developing a nuclear weapons ban treaty is dismaying. United States UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley cited the belief that such a treaty is not “realistic,” given that North Korea will not abide by it. This argument is a spurious one. Our possession of nuclear weapons has not deterred North Korea from developing their own, and nothing in the proposed treaty would immediately eliminate the weapons we now possess. The truth is that Donald Trump has no intention of allowing limitation of our nuclear weapons. As he said, "Let it be an arms race."

The United States has both a practical and moral obligation to join the U.N. discussion of banning nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons ban would affirm the commitment of the world to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free planet. America should be leading, not opposing such a goal. It would curtail nuclear proliferation by reducing the stockpiles and spread of weapons world-wide—a situation in which people even more dangerous than Kim Jong Un can get their hands on such weapons. Believing that we and others can possess nuclear weapons and continue to not use them is a dangerous test of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”


Read Casey Dorman’s cold war thriller, Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Deadliest Game, available from Amazon





Reader Comments (1)

Very scarey.

March 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTricia Knoll

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