Thanks to decades’ worth of cultural pressure on the international stage, most nations view the use of nuclear weapons in war as a reprehensible act. Today’s nuclear nations, by and large, ascribe to a model of deterrence: Put simply, our nukes stop them from using their nukes. Although posturing can get quite a bit more complicated than that, mutually assured destruction remains the primary mode of prevention when it comes to nuclear war. In the minds of many, a single nuclear strike is conceptually synonymous with a global nuclear war, simply because we’ve spent so long operating under the assumption that the response to one nuke is more nukes.
But that mindset wasn’t always the prevailing one in the national security community. For a time, the tactical use of nuclear weapons seemed like a feasible strategy in the event the Cold War turned hot. The idea wasn’t to strike the Soviet Union with a cascade of ICBMs that would wipe the nation off the planet, but rather to utilize small nuclear weapons as a highly effective means of waging war on an otherwise conventional battlefield.