Tag Archives: Ngram

Thank G-d for G–gle

In the late 1940s and early 1950s policy makers in the United States faced a dilemma. On the one hand, there were many reasons that a military strategy of employing nuclear weapons was not acceptable in the long term, including the possibility of nuclear retaliation from the Soviets. On the other hand, complete nuclear disarmament would have meant giving up the military advantage of being able to inflict large-scale destruction at a time when the Soviet Union posed an ever-greater conventional and nuclear threat. Unless the international community could cooperate to eliminate nuclear weapons, the United States would have to find a military justification for possessing nuclear weapons, but it would have to be a justification that could preclude their detonation. Deterrence provided the solution.

Today we take for granted that ‘nuclear deterrence’ can stand alone as a phrase in a one-page policy document and there can be a reasonable expectation that decision makers will understand that it refers to the manipulation of nuclear threats to ensure that the costs to an adversary of military aggression will outweigh the benefits. Yet, when Bernard Brodie first proposed the ideas that are routinely accepted today as the foundation of deterrence theory, whether and how nuclear deterrence would work was not at all clear. The idea that the US would produce an entire category of weapons for the sole purpose of preventing rather than waging war was considered strange to the point of being absurd—especially given the astronomical social, environmental and military costs that would be associated with a policy failure resulting in all-out nuclear war. At the time, Brodie was as likely to be met with confusion, skepticism or outright rejection as acceptance.[1]

Although deterring crime or aggression is a human behavior that transcends epochs,[2] ‘deterrence’ as an overarching military strategy is a product of the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that developed hand in hand with nuclear technology. It has become such a dependable feature of US national security culture that it seems natural, but there could come a time when deterrence becomes strange again to the point of seeming absurd.

This is a claim that I make repeatedly in my work, but showing evidence of its truth has proven difficult…until now. Thank G-d for g–gle. Below are two Google Ngrams. The first shows that the terms “deterrence” (in blue) and “nuclear age” (in red) both appear in written English with enough frequency to be significant in the early 1950’s (the US tested its first thermonuclear weapon in 1952).


Although there is a lot more variation in the use of the word deterrence than in the term nuclear age, they both show peaks during the tensest periods of the Cold War (the early 60’s and late 80’s).

The second Ngram image maps the frequency of deterrence (in blue) vs. deter (in red). Deterrence is an end; it is something we achieve, where as “deter” is a means; it is something we do. The use of the word “deter” declines gradually across most of the 19th century, while “deterrence” appears for the first time in the 20th century, spiking at the height of the Cold War.


I dug into the data a little to see what kinds of texts contain these words. “Deter” appears frequently in religious texts–apparently, in the 19th century there were a lot of people making a concerted effort to deter sinners and in the early 20th century that became less of a concern. “Deterrence” first appearances in legal texts in conjunction with the term punishment. I tried to locate the very first use of the word deterrence in a text about atomic bombs. What I found was that Google occasionally mistakes other words for the word deterrence. For instance, in The Absolute Weapon, published in 1946, Arnold Wolfers uses the term “determent,” by which he means what we call “deterrence” today. Goolge also makes mistakes attributing years to texts. On more than one occasion, when I actually laid my eyes on the text itself the copyright dated it much later than what was listed in Google. I am still working on getting a hard copy of a RAND paper from 1946 that uses the term “deterrence” repeatedly, but I suspect that it may be a false lead. Unearthing the answer will require actually visiting a library or going into a archive rather than sitting back and playing arm-chair historian (aka political scientist). Nevertheless, Ngram is an amazing tool for aggregate analysis and demonstrates how contingent deterrence is–not only as a military strategy, but as an idea.

[1] Bernard Brodie first articulated these ideas as early as autumn 1945. His oft-quoted formulation dates from 1946 when he wrote: “Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them,” which is taken from Frederick Dunn, Bernard Brodie, Arnold Wolfers, Percy E. Corbett, and William T. R. Fox, eds. The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946) 76; see also Bernard Brodie, “The Development of Nuclear Strategy,” International Security 4 (1978): 65. For an intellectual history of the ideas and biographies of the individuals who developed them see: Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 1991; Steiner, Barry H. Bernard Brodie and the Foundations of American Nuclear Strategy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.Robert Ayson, Thomas Schelling and the Nuclear Age: Strategy as Social Science (London: F. Cass, 2004); Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sharon. The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

[2] The standard claim to the transcendental status of ‘deterrence’ cites the axiom ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ (If you want peace, prepare for war) attributed to a Roman military writer circa 390 B.C. However, military deterrence as we understand it today is an empirical reality particular to our modern technological environment. Michael Quinlan, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Kindle edition, location 336 of 2422, 13%. See also George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby, Deterrence: Its Past and Future (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press), 2010.