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Muskets and Nukes: the Patterns of Proliferation

March 16, 2003|Jared Diamond | Jared Diamond is a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at UCLA. His book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Ever since bows and arrows came on the scene 15,000 years ago, the spread of military technology has shaped the nature of conflicts. Some new technologies rapidly became commonplace; others failed to spread or were successfully banned. The historical lessons to be learned from weapons proliferation are useful to reflect on as we figure out how to deal with North Korea.

Let's start by considering an episode in New Zealand history known as the Musket Wars. New Zealand's original inhabitants, a Polynesian people known as the Maori, possessed stone and wooden weapons but lacked guns. Maori tribes were chronically embroiled in fierce warfare with one another. But that warfare did not produce mass slaughters because all tribes were equally matched in their weapons, which were useful only for fighting at close quarters.

Those limitations began to change as European traders started arriving in New Zealand in the early 19th century. Until 1815, the Napoleonic Wars meant that Europeans needed all the weapons they produced. But after Napoleon's surrender, a surplus of guns became available for other purposes, such as selling to Maoris.

By 1818, the Nga Puhi tribe at the north end of New Zealand, where the first European trading stations had been set up, had acquired enough muskets to start using them in battle. This began a period of carnage that lasted until 1835. Intertribal musket wars killed about one-quarter of the Maori population -- more people than New Zealand would lose to trench warfare and poison gas in World War I.

At first, tribes with guns used them to settle accounts with neighboring traditional enemies who had the misfortune still to be gunless. Then, as the Maoris realized the power of their new weapons, gun-possessing tribes began traveling up to 1,000 miles to attack tribes with which they had no quarrel, just to show off power and capture slaves. Tribes without guns desperately tried to acquire them, because their survival was now dependent on firepower. Some tribes got the weapons, mounted successful defenses and went on to become attackers themselves. Other tribes were either wiped out or enslaved.

Then something strange happened. As guns spread, casualties declined. Eventually, when all surviving tribes were armed, there were no more easy victories, and Maori warfare, though still chronic, settled back down to something like its previous level.

The Musket Wars illustrate the potential instability of a situation in which a potent new technology is unevenly distributed. The wars began when only a few tribes had guns, and they ended when all had them. If nukes follow a similar course, North Korea's going nuclear could trigger a desperate scramble by other countries to acquire the weapons in self-defense.

But history also tells us that the spread of military technology isn't inevitable. Some innovations didn't proliferate; they remained restricted or were abandoned. A prime recent example is nuclear weapons themselves. They have been developed and openly tested by only five world powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France) and two regional powers (India and Pakistan). Only one other regional power (Israel) is believed to have built them secretly and to possess them today. To the pleasant surprise of those of us old enough to remember the Cold War, nuclear weapons have never been used since their debut in August 1945.

There have been other cases in which new weapons failed to become widespread. During World War I, the German army introduced poisonous chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases. In each case, the allies first expressed moral revulsion, then hastened to deploy the same gas themselves. After the war, by mutual agreement, poison gas was banned. Its sole subsequent use was by Iraq, with devastating effect, against Iran and against its own Kurdish minority. A naval arms race was interrupted by the Washington Treaty of 1922, when the countries with the largest navies agreed to limit the size and number of their battleships and aircraft carriers. They maintained that agreement until a new naval arms race broke out in the 1930s. Highly destructive, soft-nosed dum dum bullets, which expand on contact, were used only briefly before being banned and have not been reintroduced. Japan, which acquired guns in 1543 and by 1600 had more and better firearms than any other country, subsequently renounced guns unilaterally for some time thereafter.

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