Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the theory that if one nuclear-armed superpower attacks another nuclear superpower, both countries will use their nuclear weapons against each other, destroying both powers—and possibly all human civilization. The theory further argues that nuclear-armed superpowers avoid direct conflict out of fear of unwinnable nuclear war. During the Cold War, this led the Americans and Soviets to fight using proxy conflicts.

Mutually assured destruction during the Cold War

The term “mutually assured destruction” was first used in the 1960s during the Cold War to refer to the United States and the Soviet Union’s ability to destroy each other and the world with their massive stocks of nuclear weapons.  

American and Soviet Nuclear Weapons Stocks (1945 - 1985)

The nuclear triad: Having nuclear or atomic weapons is not enough for MAD. A superpower has to be able to deliver enough weapons into the interior of countries to ensure destruction. The Americans and Soviets had both developed this ability by the 1960s. Referred to as the “nuclear triad,” both superpowers could quickly deliver thousands of nuclear warheads using planes (long-range, high-altitude bombers), nuclear-tipped missiles fired from land, and nuclear-tipped missiles fired from ships and submarines. 

the United States (had a nuclear triad)


the Soviet Union (had a nuclear triad)

the United Kingdom (had a nuclear triad)

France (had a nuclear triad)

China (no nuclear triad)

Israel (no nuclear triad)

Countries with Nuclear Weapons (1945 - 1975)