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Mutually Assured Destruction

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"What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves."
Martin Amis, Einstein's Monsters

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. What happens if someone gains control of nukes who sees the horrible death of themselves and all their subjects as desirable? Well... Let's just hope that never happens.

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. It can also be seen as a form of the Prisoner's Dilemma: If both sides use their weapons, everybody dies; if neither side uses their weapons, everybody lives; but nobody wants to be the only one to put down their weapons and be defenseless.

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. That particular theory has been put to the test in 1999 when the nuclear powers of India and Pakistan fought a limited shooting war that somehow did not escalate to the use of nukes. Luckily for us. Unluckily, the nukes did not prevent the shooting in the first place.

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.

Compare Mutual Kill and Taking You with Me.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Chainsaw Man takes place in an Alternate History where the Soviet Union continued to exist into the late 90s, prolonging the Cold War as all the major world powers try to get an upper hand on the others through a Lensman Arms Race with Faustian bargains. The reason for this is that Chainsaw Man's Ret-Gone power erased nuclear weapons from existence. After the Gun Devil first appeared and caused widespread destruction before being killed, the pieces of its body were divided among the world powers (and random devils that got lucky) with the threat of them using their share to Resurrect the Villain and sic it on the others. However, the United States ended up using up their share in an attempt to kill Makima, and with Denji killing the Gun Fiend and making the public believe the Gun Devil was dead it's likely that it's been weakened to the point that this strategy is no longer viable. Almost immediately after this, the Horseman of War shows up.

    Comic Books 
  • Discussed in Silent War when The Sentry and Black Bolt face off. Given their respective power levels, and their unwillingness to surrender, the Sentry states that this would be the end result of their fighting at that stage. Black Bolt agrees, and leaves. The next time the Inhumans and the American government face off, Bob refuses to get involved.
  • Judge Dredd shows why this doctrine wouldn't work if one side was led by an insane, jingoistic lunatic convinced that their country's way is the only way: American President Evil Robert L. Booth declared that the entire world was living off America's back and proceed to send American troops to occupy key industrial sites all around the globe. When the UN demanded a cease of operations, Booth gave them an ultimatum: either back off or he'd personally order every city in the world to be nuked. Which he did. Once the ultimatum expired, Booth unleashed all the nuclear arsenal of the USA into the world and was hit with a massive counterattack. The subsequent Atomic Wars reduced the entire planet to a smoldering, radioactive wasteland.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Fallout: Equestria: Fluttershy, as Equestria's Minister of Peace, created the megaspell as a part of the CARE initiative (Communally Assured Reciprocal Existence) with the intention of it being used to augment shields and healing magic. She gave the technology to both sides of the pony/zebra war, 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. But of course, neither side could use them without being annihilated by the other side, forcing them to fight a traditional war. When the zebras were on the cusp of defeat, they used their megaspells, Equestria responded with their own, and that was the end. Since the zebras believed that they would never survive surrender, they had nothing to lose by just going all-in.
    Steelhooves: In a world where not everyone is sane, it is the height of insanity to believe you could create a weapon so devastating, so horrible, that no one would dare use it.
  • The Mountain and the Wolf: Tyrion thinks the arrival of the Red Priests will solve their problem since they can just kill the Wolf with their magic. The Red Priest has to tell him that doing so will turn the killer over to Chaos, and the last thing they want is a sorcerer leading the invasion. Not that it's entirely foolproof, since the Wolf is seen to use an Anti-Magic collar when gearing up for what he hopes will be a great battle.
  • Played with on an intergalactic scale in Sonic X: Dark Chaos. Neither Maledict nor Allysion wants 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 M.A.N.E., an uneasy standoff had been 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.'

  • Discussed in Don't Breathe when, immediately after Alex and Rocky discover the horrifying truth about what the blind man they were planning to try to rob actually has stored in his basementnote , Alex wants to call the cops, but Rocky points out that, due to how they themselves only came to the house in the first place to rob the blind man, getting the police involved could just as easily end with them both losing the money they've already managed to snake away from the blind man and getting arrested themselves for their attempted burglary. And at the end of the film, this trope plays out in that Rocky and the blind man both choose to not call the cops on each other due to there being too much risk of the cops finding out about each other's own respective crimes if they try to get each other arrested.
  • Dr. Strangelove is based around this concept, and it's weaknesses. One rogue general in the US Air Force launches a surprise nuclear attack without authorization. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is convinced that following up with a full-scale strike would wipe out the USSR quickly enough that American losses would be acceptable. As it turns out, though, the USSR had already built a Doomsday Device capable of wiping out all life on earth, to be detonated in the case of an attack, they just neglected to tell anyone about it.
  • Discussed in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1. A government mouthpiece warns the rebels that everybody must stop the war immediately because otherwise nobody would be left to claim victory. A military leader of the rebels explains that during the previous war, they restrained from using all their weapons because of the same reason.
  • 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 Soldier. Renegade Russian KGB operatives pose as terrorists and plant an atomic bomb in the Middle Eastern oilfields. If the US doesn't force the Israelis off the West Bank, they will irradiate the world's oil supply. In response, the Soldier's force take over an ICBM silo and threaten to launch on Moscow if the KGB doesn't cancel the operation.
  • This ironically is the peace solution at the end of the 2017 Korean thriller Steel Rain. North Korea agrees to hand over half their nuclear weapons to South Korea, so neither side can risk war without destroying themselves.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: This is how the fateful events of Judgment Day itself occurs: when Skynet becomes self-aware its creators panic and try to shut it down. Instead of launching everything at its native United States, Skynet attacks Russia, with the nuclear retaliation resulting in that scene, the one scientists praised for how frightening and realistic it was.
  • Visually deconstructed in the climax of WarGames. The rogue AI Joshua, having mistaken a simulation for reality and set NORAD on an irreversible World War III scenario, was just programmed by the heroes to play Tic-Tac-Toe against itself repeatedly until it "learned" that a win was impossible for either player. Joshua then played out every nuclear scenario it was loaded with and determined that every single one resulted in mutual assured destruction, and thus was a "lose" for both sides, just like the Tic-Tac-Toe game. This led to the AI having a Heel Realization, relinquishing control of NORAD's nukes before it could launch them.
    Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
  • West Side Story (2021) adds the theme of mutually assured destruction to the story. When Riff buys a gun for the rumble, he explains that they need a gun because the Sharks will bring a gun since they think the Jets are bringing one. The black market dealer then namedrops the trope, though the term wasn't actually coined until about five years after the story takes place. The film is also set in the late 1950s when the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation was at its height. Valentina's shop has a fallout shelter sign, and Anita says to Tony "You want to start World War III?" when he dances with Maria.
  • X-Men: First Class has Sebastian Shaw causing the Cuban Missile Crisis exactly to make the United States and the Soviet Union attack each other, wiping out the human population and leaving room for the Mutants to rule.

  • The Butter Battle Book features two cultures (the Yooks and the Zooks), separated by a wall and, competing in an arms race to destroy the other side; however, each new Yook weapon (ranging from giant slingshots to bipedal mechs armed with chemical goo) turns back due to the Zooks 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 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 about 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 terms, 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 an 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 on anyone who acts out too much, as it actually happens on page,note  it works.
  • This ultimately is what ends the forty-plus-year-long war between the Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars in David Drake's RCN series: Both nations were on the verge of total economic collapse and continuing the war would likely take the rest of human space with them due to their importance in the galactic economy.
  • Animorphs: Crayak and Ellimist, two Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who would likely destroy the entire universe and themselves along with it if they ever fought openly. This forces them to engage in Proxy Wars with such groups as the Yeerks and the Animorphs.
  • A key part of The Cardinal of the Kremlin is a defense system that threatens to destabilize the world by ending this - if one side can shoot down the other's nukes, then the destruction is no longer mutually assured. The US ends up developing the ability to target incoming nukes, while the USSR develops a laser that could theoretically destroy a nuke if it hit one. They spend the entire book trying to steal each other's breakthrough on the system while trying to protect their own.
  • Discussed in The Hunger Games. In Mockingjay, Katniss learns that District 13 has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but has never used them against the Capitol, which also has them. In fact, this is the reason why the Capitol elected to leave District 13 alone for 75 years because a cold war is preferable to a nuclear war that may risk the extinction of humanity.
  • Luo Ji's ultimate solution in The Dark Forest is to create this state of affairs between Earth and the Trisolarans, in order to bring about a non-apocalyptic end to hostilities: if the approaching invasion fleet doesn't back down, he'll make the locations of both Earth and the Trisolaran system obvious to outside alien races, who thanks to the horrifying calculus of interstellar game theory, will respond to this target with obliteration. It doesn't work in the long run, with Death's End bringing with it the destruction of the entire Solar System, but points for trying.
  • This concept is basically what makes the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four so utterly horrible. There's three big superpowers that are all at war with each other but they have a gentleman's agreement to not seriously try to conquer or destroy each other: war is a great excuse to waste resources, keep the standard of living down and control the population through My Country, Right or Wrong. The leaders of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia can't take their sadistic tendencies out on each others' peoples, so they take it out on their own people instead.
  • Comes up with regard to a couple of the titular blades in the Book of Swords.
    • Farslayer: If thrown with a target in mind, Farslayer will vanish and reappear impaled through the chosen target's heart. Where it will stay, ready for anyone nearby to pick up. And "the person who just killed my friend/lover/relative", even if the person holding the sword has no idea who that person actually is, is an entirely legitimate target for the blade's magic. Stories are told of entire Feuding Families wiping each other out by sending Farslayer back and forth.
    • Soulcutter: When drawn, the blade projects an aura of such absolute despair and apathy that anyone within miles of the drawn Sword can do nothing but lie down and wait to die. The thing is, the bearer of the Sword is not immune to this effect, so drawing the Sword is essentially a suicide attack and it's more common for the bearer to use the threat of drawing it as a bargaining chip.
  • Wulfrik: Comes upon occasion with regards to Wulfrik's curse (to Walk the Earth, getting into fights with what/whoever it is the Chaos gods want dead, or suffer nightmares and eventually have their souls ripped apart by daemons for eternity): If he isn't killed in battle but with magic, the curse will transfer to the killer instead. No amount of torture will cause Viglundr's sorcerers to even consider it, and it's the reason Zarnath has to manipulate Wulfrik into getting himself killed instead of doing it with his magic (which, of course, leads to his death via Self-Fulfilling Prophecy).
  • The Coming Race is about a utopian underground society powered by vril. The invention of vril-based weapons ended all war because they're so powerful that a child could wipe out millions of enemy combatants in minutes. It also ended crime, because people can defend themselves so easily. The government can no longer impose its will on the people by force, so people live in loose societies that they move between at will, and the government's purpose is to attend to practical matters rather than enforce laws.

    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...
  • 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
  • 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."
  • In the The Greatest American Hero episode "Spoilsport," Bill Maxwell, an FBI agent, tells Ralph about a last-ditch program: Spoilsport. In case of a nuclear war where the U.S. is losing, 10 nuclear missiles are held back and fired by computer the following day, so as the Soviets are digging themselves out of the rubble, the last of the missiles hit, giving the U.S. the "win." The episode revolves around a General Ripper taking control of the missiles and launching one intended to start a nuclear exchange.
  • In the final Quatermass series, the eponymous British scientist is not happy about his planned Moonbase being used to launch nuclear missiles for a proposed Dead Man deterrence strategy — the idea being that if an aggressor nuked Britain, missiles would launch from the Moon and wipe out the attacker three days later.
  • In Season 7 of Supernatural Dean invokes this trope by name when Sam questions their alliance with the demon, Meg. With their closest allies all dead or in Castiel's case, insane, they are out of options. The way Dean sees it, they are dead without each other.
  • The Boys: In "Barbary Coast" when Starlight brings up the Flight 37 video, Homelander tells her exactly what he’ll do if she releases this-destroy the White House, Pentagon, all US communications infrastructure, New York City, Des Moines and Maeve's home town. He assures her that he'll really do it, daring Starlight to release this. She backs down.
  • Blackadder: In "Goodbyeee", Captain Blackadder describes the causes of World War I in these terms.
    Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two super-blocs developed: us, the French, and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.
    Baldrick: But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it?
    Blackadder: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
    George: What was that, sir?
    Blackadder: It was bollocks.

  • The Tom Lehrer song "We Will All Go Together When We Go", from An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, 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!"
  • Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero", one of many, many, jaunty '80s tunes about nuclear war:
    Party at ground zero
    A "B" movie starring you
    And the world will turn to flowing
    Pink vapor stew
  • Dead Hand by Ferry is about the Dead Hand system, and features cheery lyrics such as the following:
    Turn up the volume, execute the protocol
    You know it’s M.A.D. and it’s all about to blow
    What an unfortunate way to end this show
    I shed a tear as you vanish in the snow
  • Daniel Amos mentioned the possibility of nuclear armageddon in three separate songs on their 1984 album Vox Humana. "It's Sick" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man" just mention the bomb in passing, while "Dance Stop" is all about the masses dancing while the bombs fall.
    Contortionists are caught up in the camera’s eye
    The music explodes and the bodies fly
    They're rating it a ten before they drop and die
    “WELL IT HAD A GOOD BEAT!” was their very last cry
  • Flanders and Swann used a calculation highlighting the insanity of M.A.D. - dividing the estimated destructive capability of the world's nuclear arsenals by the number of people then living - as the basis of their song, "Twenty Tons of T.N.T."
    Ends the tale that has no sequel
    Twenty tons of TNT.
    Now in death are all men equal
    Twenty tons of TNT.
    Teach me how to love my neighbour,
    Do to him as he to me;
    Share the fruits of all our labour
    Twenty tons of TNT.
  • Sonata Arctica's "Destruction Preventer" is about how starting a nuclear war will lead to destruction.
    Heat in the center, destruction preventer
    If you release one, you release them all
    You can't defend Her, kneel down and surrender
    Your end is at hand, if they blow.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Illustrated in one 1986 Calvin and Hobbes Sunday comic allegorically (the strip did start during the Cold War after all). Calvin and Hobbes are playing war with dart guns, stating that if the other is hit by a dart, they're dead. The game starts and both instantly hit the other with a dart.
    Calvin: Kind of a stupid game, isn't it?

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

    Tabletop Games 
  • A variation on this is why the Last War in Eberron isn't still going. The destruction of Cyre in a magical cataclysm of unknown origin prompted most of the national leaders to run some quick mental maths and realise that 1) if it was some kind of "natural" disaster it might be a result of the excessive war magic being used, and therefore to continue to fight might provoke it to happen to them next, and 2) if it was of artificial origin, since they knew they didn't do it, any of the others or some other group could be responsible, and thus it would be best to avoid risking provoking anyone else by prolonging the war. As such, peace reigns not because total destruction is assured, but because nobody wants to see whether it is or not. Word of God from setting creator Keith Baker is that definitive evidence as to the source of the Mourning would most likely lead to Khorvaire going right back to open warfare.
  • Several examples in Magic: The Gathering:
    • In Kaldheim we have the Doomskar sorcery, which kills everything on the field; normally this would be a 5-mana card to play, but it can be Foretold to knock its price down to 3 mana in exchange for 2 mana and being unable to play it until your next turn.
    • In Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, we have Farewell, which gives you the choice of what to exile: creatures, artifacts, enchantments, graveyards, or any combination of the above.
  • Twilight Struggle, being a game about the Cold War, uses the threat of this as a Non-Standard Game Over. If the DEFCON scale reaches 1, then the player responsible for playing the card that started the sequence loses immediately.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The use of Exterminatus is a case of this. 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.
    • Similarly, this is the reason for the Space Cold War between the Imperium and the Tau Empire. If a full-scale war ever broke out, the Imperium would undoubtedly win because it's simply several orders of magnitude larger. The problem is that the Tau are just big enough that the local Imperial forces couldn't do the job themselves: they'd have to bring forces in from elsewhere in the galaxy to be sure of victory, at a time when the Imperium is at best barely holding its ground in multiple wars on multiple fronts as it is.

    Video Games 
  • Various Civilization games invoke this. Using one nuclear weapon in Civilization will get those who are not at war with you to declare war. Earlier games would also take the AI's nuclear arsenal vs. the players into account when making one-sided deals. Civ 6 ramped it up by making Nukes a bit more life-like by making radiation last for decades of in-game time and lethal to any units in the area (previous games had radiation represented by pollution which would destroy only productivity of the affected tile until a worker could clear it and rebuild the damaged improvement). The mechanics also allowed the attacked player to keep his entire arsenal in play, provided he built a Nuclear Trifecta, thus allowing him to attack the player who used weapons on him sometime later. Between the universal lethality and the destruction, both empires would be quickly reduced in capacity in the end game.
  • The M.A.D. tank from Command & Conquer: Red Alert is a suicide unit that can destroy anything that isn't infantry in three shots- including itself.
  • DEFCON is essentially a Mutually-Assured Destruction Simulator, directly inspired by the War Games example above.
  • In Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance, this is used as a threat in Chapter 11: Celestia has a Weapon of Mass Destruction, Armageddon, that can obliterate a large chunk of the Netherworlds and has a high chance of killing Void Dark. Christo, not wanting his newfound demonic allies to be compromised or for there to be destruction and death on such a huge scale, threatens to tell Void Dark where Celestia is and thus enable an equally destructive counterattack if the weapon is fired. This gets the higher-ups of Celestia to back off.
  • The Fallout series of games (which are Spiritual Successors of the Wasteland games) are based in the post-apocalyptic world created by the mutual destruction of a nuclear war between Red China and the United States. While the initial conflict was purely between China and America, virtually every country was involved with one side or the other to a heavy degree which escalated China's Suicidal Cosmic Temper Tantrum into a global thermonuclear war that bathed the entire planet in atomic fire. Ironically, despite being the main target America came out of it better than everyone else (even taking into account the fact that 99% of its population was wiped out) as much of the planet was rendered entirely uninhabitable, with the series taking the A World Half Full approach.
  • Final Fantasy X-2: The Elder God Sin generally left the nation of Bevelle alone because Project Vegnagun, the one being that could permanently destroy Sin in a straight fight (or at least fight it on its own level for eternity), was hidden underneath the foundations of Bevelle. Meanwhile, the theocracy running Bevelle couldn't use Vegnagun to conquer the world - or do anything with it, really - because Vegnagun was born insane and willing to nuke everything if it ever woke up. Eventually, even the theocracy forgot about Vegnagun because its mere existence was enough to put up a restraining order against an elder god.
  • Invoked in HighFleet; the player begins with a handful of nuclear warheads with the warning that once you use one, there's no going back. It turns out to be more Schmuck Bait than anything, as you don't have nearly enough to ensure the mutual part of things but your enemies won't push the Big Red Button if you don't. In the words of SsethTzeentach, "You can start the nuclear war, but they're going to finish it."
  • Mass Effect: this is the main reason given in the codex for why meteor drops aren't more common in warfare. By towing in a decent-sized asteroid and attaching a few fusion torches to it, just about anyone with a medium-sized (or above) warship can easily create a WMD capable of wiping out all life on a planet. The flip side is that with every power in the galaxy being capable of it, they all know that doing it against just about anyone else would see the same thing happen to them. So it's rarely used. The krogan did it during the Krogan Rebellions, and indeed did render several worlds totally uninhabitable, but all that did was confirm that they had crossed an In-Universe Moral Event Horizon, which then justified the turians hitting back with their own banned WMD: a self-replicating bioweapon. Notably, the unrepentant batarian murderer and slaver Charn in the Bring Down the Sky DLC is horrified when he learns that his boss, Balak, intends to drop a meteor on the human colony of Terra Nova, as him doing so would force the Council races to retaliate in kind, very possibly to the point of exterminating the entire batarian race.
    • Note that meteor drops can be stopped (either by shutting off/destroying the thrusters or by destroying the ship before it can tow in any asteroids), particularly if the defender has total space superiority. It's simply disproportionately difficult to do so unless the disparity in forces in capabilities is truly massive. In Mass Effect 3, Garrus casually suggests dropping a few planet-killing meteors on Geth-held Rannoch, and no one treats this suggestion as impossible even though the Geth held space superiority at the time and were winning the space battle against the Quarians. The only problem is that the Quarians spent the last three centuries trying to reclaim Rannoch as their homeworld, and nuking it with meteors would destroy any hope of making it habitable again.
    • Subverted in the lawless Terminus systems, where small states ("small" meaning "only controls one or a few planets") apparently use meteor drops against each other fairly often. They call that 20% of the galaxy the "third galaxy" for a reason.
  • 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:
    • 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 fake nuclear strike, in the hopes that the receiving side will refuse to counterattack and destroy humanity. Turns out that a strong, charismatic leader in the wrong place at the wrong time can induce a "follow the crowd" effect, which causes cowards to become instant patriots who will sacrifice the world out of spite, and cannot be easily reversed by the leader changing his opinion. Whoops.
    • In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Skull Face's Evil Plan is to abuse this to keep his Villain World intact. By using the vocal chord parasites to destroy global communications, international alliances, and intermingling cultures, and then selling nuclear weapons to terrorists and unstable dictators around the world, he would balkanize the entire planet and put each country on equal terms. The evil part is that it would take isolationism to its logical extreme; every country would be run by military cults, while any hope of making a life in or getting help from another country would sooner result in a bloodbath.
  • This comes up as part of the Arcade ending for The Terminator in Mortal Kombat 11. While attempting to use the Hourglass to find a future where Skynet wins the Robot War, it discovers that in any timeline where the war starts, both humans and machines are rendered extinct at the end. Since its programming was to find the best possible outcome for Skynet, not to win the war, the Terminator instead sets the future as one where the two sides live in peace, erasing the war entirely.
  • The New Order Last Days Of Europe: Only natural, since there is a Cold War with the powers changed utterly. It's a good part of what keeps the game from becoming paint-the-map conquest: Invade a nuclear power a bit too much, the nukes fly, and the playthrough ends there barring post-apocalyptic events. Ergo, any changes will need to be made slowly, through ways economical and political, if you want to make things better (or worse)... Interestingly, one downside to the M.A.D. policy that some other works merely mention is explored fully here: Some people might like the fail-state. In this case, Burgundy, lead by an even-nastier-than-usual Heinrich Himmler. He has decided the only way to purge the untermensch in a proper, thorough manner is to scour the world clean with nuclear fire and let the Aryans live through it, and thus he eagerly throws metaphorical matches and gasoline everywhere in an effort to set it all alight.
  • In Prismata, the war between humans and AI eventually reaches a cease-fire because of this.
  • 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.

  • Schlock Mercenary: Discussed. When the galaxy was bound by a Portal Network, there was no Mutually Assured Destruction; the wormgates limited the size of ships that could use them, meaning that it was far easier to defend a system than attack. With the invention of the teraport, that limit was removed, edging the galaxy closer to MAD—but the use of Teraport Area Denial prevented the most dangerous uses of the technology. Then "long-guns" were invented, giant cannons that shoot through hyperspace and overwhelm TAD; with proper location data, they can shoot at anywhere in the galaxy from anywhere in the galaxy. The galaxy was well and truly back in a state of MAD since there was no defense. The various galactic leaders insist that while this system is terrifying, that's why it works; no one likes the fail state. Petey points out that eventually they'll find someone who does like the fail state, and then the entire galaxy will die, so they need to find a better solution. Finally, there have been multiple previous epochs of galactic history that were destroyed by failed MAD policies. The very rare surviving species call the long-guns "end-guns" for this reason.
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:Jack and the accidental invention of high-fantasy drop warheads.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 


Video Example(s):


"How did the war start?"

"Goodbyeee". Private Baldrick asks Captain Blackadder in roundabout terms how the Great War began. After a display of anti-German propaganda by George, Blackadder explains that the Entente Powers and the Central Powers were ideally supposed to act as each others' deterrents in what amounted to "mutually assured destruction" (long before the term had actually been coined). Unfortunately, as they say, the problem with MAD is that it only takes one madman to screw it up.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (20 votes)

Example of:

Main / MutuallyAssuredDestruction

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