Sandia LabNews

Survey shows public concerned over national security, still supports nuclear arsenal

UNM institute samples opinion on post-Cold War nuclear security

The world is a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War, and the US needs nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defenses to maintain its security. Further, while the stockpile should be smaller, funding should be allocated to maintain the quality of the deterrent.

This is a sampling of opinion derived from Volume I of the nationwide survey "Mass and Elite Views on Nuclear Security: US National Security Surveys 1993-1999," compiled by the Institute for Public Policy at the University of New Mexico. Full text may be viewed on the Web here. (Use your browser’s "back" key to return.) Volume I deals with surveys of the general public; Volume II, yet to be published, is based on opinions voiced by specialists in national security issues. Sandia sponsors the surveys.

"When we began these surveys nearly eight years ago, it was apparent that we were entering a period of major change and uncertainty in our nuclear weapons responsibilities," recalls Roger Hagengruber, who then headed the National Security Sector and now is Senior VP for Nuclear Security and Arms Control. "Nuclear testing was halted, as was all new nuclear weapons development. We had increasing and encouraging relationships with the former Soviet Union. In this environment, we felt it would be valuable to us in thinking of our future responsibilities to sample evolving public attitudes about risks, especially in the areas that touch our mission.

"This was the genesis of the public opinion poll. We have now had the unprecedented opportunity to watch what our ultimate customers (the public) think about questions that bear on our missions and their expectations. Their insights help us to create a vision of what it will mean to render ‘exceptional service in the national interest’ in the 21st century."

The IPP series of studies is believed to be the most comprehensive over-time measurement and analysis of attitudes about nuclear security since the end of the Cold War. Four surveys have been completed and analyzed, with more than 11,000 participants to date. These show that, in the aggregate, the American public exhibits greater understanding of nuclear security and greater stability in their views about nuclear weapons issues than many experts and policy makers might expect. (However, 63 percent believed mistakenly that the US currently has a defensive system for shooting down long-range ballistic missiles that have been launched against the United States.)

The study indicates that the American public does not perceive the post-Cold War security environment to be safer or more benign than that which existed during the Cold War. Analysts suspect that, even though the old Soviet Union is no more, the unpredictability of today’s international relationships, the rise of ethnic conflicts, the growing spread of weapons of mass destruction, the perceived increasing likelihood of terrorism involving mass casualty weapons, and the expected growth in Chinese capabilities are all combining to make a security environment that looks dangerous to the public.

A small majority of respondents (53 percent) agreed with the statement, "Unless it is directly attacked, the US should use military force only when it is authorized by the United Nations."

In the eyes of the general public, China has replaced Russia as the primary state-level nuclear threat to the US. Looking to the future, the public expects China to be a rising threat to the US as compared with Russia. A classic quandary emerged from two questions concerning the postulated elimination of nuclear weapons. Some 69 percent agreed with the statement, "If all nuclear weapons were eliminated, the world would be safer because wars would be less likely to destroy civilization." But 84 percent conceded that "Eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide cannot be achieved, because knowledge about them is too widespread, and the US cannot prevent others from acquiring them."

A majority of respondents favored a smaller nuclear stockpile. It was agreed that nuclear deterrence is justifiable, and prevents large conflicts like World Wars I and II. There is also a belief that possession of nuclear weapons maintains US status in the world community.

"When we began this project in 1993, we expected to measure a decline in the perceived value of the US nuclear arsenal," says the IPP’s Kerry Herron. "Instead, our evidence shows that the importance the general public attaches to US nuclear weapons capabilities is growing, and that valuation also is reflected in public willingness to invest more, not less, in nuclear security."

Herron says it’s important that public valuation of nuclear weapons not be confused with preferences for numbers of nuclear weapons. "None of our data indicates that the public wants more nuclear weapons or that they don’t support further reductions to levels of 1,500 to 2,000," he says. "It’s important to consider the context of the question, which was what minimum level of US nuclear weapons the respondent would support in the context of mutual and verifiable reductions with Russia. Eight out of ten respondents would prefer the US to have fewer nuclear weapons, but this does not mean zero, even in the context of mutual and verifiable reductions."

Last modified: August 28, 2000