Mutually Assured Destruction

DEFCON illustrates how devastating this theory could be in practice.

"And he yelled, 'My Blue-Gooer is working just fine!
And I'm here to say that if Yooks can goo Zooks,
you'd better forget it. 'Cause Zooks can goo Yooks!'"

Mexican Standoff meets Lensman Arms Race meets Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the doctrine that nuclear weapons, if deployed against another nuclear power, should be deployed en masse with the objective of completely destroying the other country's capacity to retaliate, and vice versa. In other words, if either the USA or the USSR ever used nuclear weapons against the other, it would be assured that neither the USA nor the USSR would exist anymore. Naturally this assumes both countries have a large enough stockpile to accomplish this - and they did.

The goal of a MAD strategy is counter-intuitive: it is not to win a nuclear war, but actually to prevent one. The theory goes that if each side knows that there is no way it can survive a nuclear war, it will get too scared to start one. Unless one or more of the superpowers decides on Taking You with Me or is ruled by an Omnicidal Maniac, the idea is that knowing that "the only winning move is not to play" will keep either side from escalating matters to the point that mutual destruction becomes inevitable.

Related to this is the Game of Chicken, also known as the hawk-dove game or snow-drift game. It is an influential model of conflict for two players in game theory. The principle of the game is that while each player prefers not to yield to the other, the worst possible outcome occurs when both players do not yield.

Needless to say, this theory made people on all sides of the Cold War very nervous. Indeed, before the end of the cold war, most academics thought the acronym "MAD" was appropriate - the strategy seemed insane. It may come up in hypothetical World War III scenarios or works set in the late-era (1980s) of the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, MAD has lost its value as the focus shifts to combating terrorists who do not have access to a large stockpile of nuclear weapons.

One of the theories for why the Cold War ended as peacefully as it did is that belief in this doctrine prevented the US and USSR from fighting any war directly against each other, for fear it would escalate to nuclear weapons and destroy both powers. Instead, it became a war of ideologies and economics, and according to the victors, the US eventually out-converted and out-spent the Soviets, who then collapsed under the weight of their own system.

Where there is no parity between the two nuclear belligerents, The Moscow Criterion is used. This was developed by the British, who could not build and fire the same number of rockets as the Sovs and who did not trust the Americans to launch their own missiles to back up a MAD doctrine - instead, the aim is to have the ability to slaughter as many of the enemy civilians as possible, thus attaching a prohibitively high human cost to a nuclear release by the more heavily-armed power.


Fan Fiction
  • The backstory of Fallout: Equestria was that the megaspell was created and given to both sides to invoke this scenario and end the pony/zebra war. However, when the zebras believed they were doomed to lose the war anyway, they decided to go the "Taking You with Me" route and both sides ended up flinging them off.
    • The truth is a little more complicated. Equestria's Minister of Peace created the megaspell as a part of the CARE initiative (Communually Assured Reciprocal Existence) with the intention of it being used to augment shields and healing magic. She gave the technology to both sides, hoping that if neither side would kill the other, both would give up on the war. It took both sides about four seconds to weaponize it instead.
  • Played with on an intergalactic scale in Sonic X: Dark Chaos. Neither Maledict nor Allysion want the Eternal War to flare up again; when the Demon and Angel militaries collide, whole galaxies are exterminated and torn apart. But when the Metarex war distracts the Demons, Allysion realizes she can gain a massive advantage over her enemy by invading the Milky Way first. Her surprise attack quickly turns the entire Milky Way Galaxy into a hellish wasteland as the Demons and Angels go into open conflict.
  • In MANE, an uneasy standoff had held between Equestria and the USR for a decade because both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other utterly. The title is also a pun on this trope: M.A.N.E stands for 'Mutually Assured Nuclear Extinction.'

  • Visually deconstructed in WarGames, when Joshua plays out every possible nuclear strike scenario.
  • Dr. Strangelove is based around this, because the Russians have a doomsday device raring to go if they get hit with a nuke. One rogue general in the US air force sends nuclear bombers at Russia, because Ripper, like Turgidson, thinks it can be averted with a pre-emptive strike since the United States has a five-to-one missile superiority. The film notes that the reason this trope was not successfully invoked was because the Russians constructed their doomsday device before revealing its existence, thus * A negating any use it had as a deterrent in the meantime and instead guaranteeing their destruction if the Americans set it off out of ignorance (as General Ripper proceeded to do).
  • In the middle of the film Ice Station Zebra, this Trope is discussed ("a wonderful acronym, if there ever was one!") as part of the rapid-fire Info Dump that explains why the film's MacGuffin (a surveillance satellite that went down near the titular polar station and which contains on film the precise locations of all the nuclear silos on Russia and North America) is so important: such information would surely allow the enemy to devise a "survivable" battle strategy for an all-out nuclear assault.

  • The Butter Battle Book features two cultures (the Zooks and the Yooks), seperated by a wall and, competing in an arms race to destroy the other side; however, each new Zook weapon (ranging from giant slingshots to bipedal mechs armed with chemical goo) turns back due to the Yooks developing the same weapon or a counter-weapon. Eventually, each side creates an apocalyptic bomb called the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo", and the story ends with with the generals of both sides on the wall poised to drop their bombs, waiting to see who will do it first.
  • One such deterrent is devised in Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound. Before that, this was far from the case, as the Race has better anti-missile technology than the major human powers and could be reasonably expected to intercept a large number of human nukes. Additionally, since the Race's larger Empire was unreachable, the destruction of their colonists on Earth would not cripple the Empire but would doom humanity. Throughout the Colonization books, Fleetlord Atvar is musing launching an all-out nuclear strike against all Tosevite territories in order to prevent them from spreading out into the galaxy, knowing that this would likely result in the planet becoming uninhabitable. One of the purposes of the Admiral Peary is to place a nuclear launch platform in orbit of Home, the Race's homeworld in Tau Ceti, a clear case of Gunboat Diplomacy: either the Race deals with humans on equal turms, or both Earth and large areas of Home will be destroyed. When the first ever FTL-capablestarship, the Commodore Perry, arrives to show that humans have the ultimate first-strike capability, the Race manages to device a MAD-like counter. Should humans launch a FTL strike against the three Race worlds, the Race will launch their STL starships on a collision course with Earth. An impact of even one ship traveling at 50% of the speed of light is likely to cause an extinction-level event.
  • The titular One Man Armies of Mistborn: The Original Trilogy produce a similar effect: If one Great House sends its Mistborn to assassinate members of another House, the second House will send its Mistborn right back.
  • The final campaigns of the Final War in the Bolo series amounted to this. The Melconians and the Concordat decided to Exterminatus every planet held by the other side at about the same time. Both sides succeeded. In the end, all that was left were scattered remnants of the surviving warfleets desperately searching for a planet that's still capable of supporting life so they can start over. As the scattered remnants of the Concordat were slightly larger, humanity technically won.
  • The Salgari novel Le Meraviglie del Duemila is set on an Earth where every country has access to what basically amounted to nukes (it was written in 1907, so Salgari couldn't know about the concept), and, as it's a chemical explosive, every single country could potentially destroy the world, or at least wipe off the map their enemy. Quite sensibly, all countries went to the diplomatic table and resolved peacefully territorial and diplomatic disputes and other treaties to make sure nobody would go to war. And given everyone knows there is the will to use it (as it's actually used, when one of the offshore jails for the criminally violent madmen is taken over by the inmates), it works.

Live Action TV
  • In Doctor Who it initially looked like the Time War was a case, with both the Daleks and the Time Lords wiping each other out and the only survivors being the Doctor and the Daleks that keep popping up when they're supposed to be extinct. Then the Master turned out to be alive, and then the Time Lord Council came out of hiding, then it looked like the Doctor had pushed the button that almost wiped out both races, then it turned out the Doctor merely thought he had and actually hid Gallifrey in some kind of pocket dimension...
  • "Series/Community"
    • One episode had Professor Duncan abuse Chang by using his restraining order to torment the guy. By the end of the episode, it is shown that Chang has gotten his own restraining order on Duncan, who then states the name of the trope.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series
    • One episode had two planets who tried to avoid MAD by simulating a nuclear war and having the people who died in the simulation shuffle into suicide booths, but leaving the infrastructure and environment intact. Which managed to keep the conflict going for over a century. Then the simulation had the Enterprise destroyed by a stray missile and Kirk quite vehemently refused to abide by their stupid rules. The leaders were certain that they would nuke each other to oblivion now that the rules were broken, but the Enterprise left before the conflict could be resolved fully.
    • The Doomsday Machine was speculated to have been intended as the ultimate deterrent, "a weapon built primarily as a bluff. It's never meant to be used. So strong, it could destroy both sides in a war." But then someone actually used it. However, many Expanded Universe materials suggest that it was actually built as a weapon against the Borg.
  • In Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars John Crichton threatens to destroy the universe with the Wormhole Weapon both sides of the Peacekeeper/Scarran war have been chasing him for if they do not stop fighting this instant.
    John: "Wormhole weapons do not make peace. Wormhole weapons...don't even make war. They make total destruction. Annihilation. Armageddon."

  • The Tom Lehrer song "We Will All Go Together When We Go" is a bleak look at the enormous scale of devastation a nuclear war would bring set to a jaunty tune.
    Oh we will all char together when we char.
    And let there be no moaning of the bar.
    Just sing out a te deum when you see that I.C.B.M.
    And the party will be "come as you are!"

Newspaper Comics

  • Invoked with the "Ruiner" table in Ruiner Pinball, as avoiding nuclear war is not an option.

Tabletop Games
  • Twilight Struggle, being a game about the Cold War, uses the threat of this as a Nonstandard Game Over. If the DEFCON scale reaches 1, then the player responsible for playing the card that started the sequence loses immediately.
  • The use of Exterminatus in Warhammer 40,000. Whatever threat was on the planet is probably dead, but now the Imperium is down a planet in a time where resources are scarce enough as it is.

Video Games
  • DEFCON is essentially a Mutually-Assured Destruction Simulator, directly inspired by the War Games example above.
  • MAD: Global Thermonuclear Warfare, a little-known game by the Small Rockets (a now-defunct department of Criterion Games) that predates the above-mentioned DEFCON is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker discusses this and whether it works or not. Coldman intends to use the titular Peace Walker to prove that nuclear deterrence works (specifically that no man wants to go down in history as the great annihilator) by launching a nuclear strike.
  • The backstory of Wasteland has nuclear exchanges devastating the planet because of this trope.
  • Wasteland 2 expands upon a group introduced in the previous game, the Servants of the Mushroom Cloud, by explaining that they believe in M.A.D. as a religious doctrine. They serve as the law enforcement of the "Canyon of Titan", holding the peace by threatening to detonate a live Titan II warhead if any raider groups attempt to take over. On a smaller scale, their "MAD Monks" offer protection to travelers through the canyon by threatening to detonate a dirty bomb (with a sizable radius) if confronted with aggressive raiders. A possible option in the game is disarming the monks' warhead; chaos erupts in the canyon if this is done, suggesting that the doctrine was keeping some semblance of order there.
  • The Fallout series of games (which are spiritual successors of the above-mentioned Wasteland games) are based in the post-apocalyptic world created by the mutual destruction of a nuclear war between China and the United States.

Western Animation