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The long history of nuclear dick-waving via NewStatesman

“White men in ties discussing missile size.”


In her 1987 essay “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”, the US academic Carol Cohn argues that the language of defence strategy – particularly nuclear defence – is overtly sexual. “The history of the atomic bomb project itself is rife with overt images of competitive male sexuality,” she writes.

After attending a Cold War era summer course on nuclear weapons, nuclear strategic doctrine, and arms control – run by “white men in ties discussing missile size” – she discovered the way they spoke about nuclear war was rife with imagery of male sexuality.

Cohn noted phrases like “penetration aids”, getting “more bang for the buck”, “to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff”, “the nicest hole – you’re not going to take the nicest missile you have and put it in a crummy hole”, “the Russians are a little harder than we are”, and India’s first explosion of a nuclear bomb as “losing her virginity”.


Shortly after this essay was published, Robert L O’Connell’s 1989 bookOf Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression tracked the “phallic nature” of contemporary weaponry. “Comparisons of numbers and, in particular, size have assumed an importance that is beyond purely rational explanation,” he writes of the arms race between the US and the Soviets – noting graphics in the Pentagon showing the relative sizes of their weapons compared with Soviet missiles.

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