Survey: Most Americans don’t know much about nuclear weapons. But they want to know more.

By Dina Smeltz, Sharon K. Weiner | August 23, 2023

For younger generations, the recent rollout of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer film might raise existential issues surrounding nuclear weapons. In fact, the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons seems more realistic now than it has for decades. Besides Russia’s nuclear threats throughout the war against Ukraine, China’s nuclear build-up raises concerns about a potential arms race with the United States and potentially other countries in Asia. In this context, the United States is undergoing an extensive—and expensive—nuclear modernization process, which may well force nuclear issues back onto the front pages for the American public.

But how ready are Americans to reengage with nuclear issues?  A recent joint Chicago Council-Carnegie Corporation survey among the American public shows that Americans are fairly mixed in their views about nuclear weapons. A limited percentage of Americans say they are familiar with US nuclear weapons policy, their costs, their effects, and other issues related to the US nuclear weapons arsenal. But regardless of their age, most Americans today do not consider themselves familiar with nuclear issues.

A complex array of nuclear beliefs. Many Americans—especially younger and non-white Americans—don’t think nuclear weapons make a difference to US national security or say they don’t know enough to give an opinion. Moreover, relatively few Americans are interested in flexing their agency or getting more involved in making US nuclear policy beyond voting for a candidate who shares their views on nuclear policy.

On the one hand, Americans lean toward positive assessments of US nuclear policy. A majority believe nuclear weapons are either very or somewhat effective at preventing conflict between the United States and other countries (63 percent). Almost half (46 percent) are at least somewhat confident that the US missile defense system will protect them in the event of a nuclear war. And Americans who say they are familiar with nuclear deterrence (40 percent of the overall sample) overwhelmingly think it has been effective at preventing a nuclear attack on the United States (88 percent of those familiar with deterrence).

On the other hand, just under half the public think nuclear weapons make the United States safer (47 percent).  When combined, almost as many say that nuclear weapons don’t make a difference (24 percent) in making the country safer or that they don’t know enough about nuclear weapons to express a view (19 percent). On this question, there are significant differences between age groups, racial groups, and partisan affiliations. Only among Americans over the age of 45 does a majority say that the US nuclear arsenal makes the country safer (55 percent); a plurality of younger Americans say they don’t make a difference. White Americans are more likely than other racial groups to say nuclear weapons make the country safer, largely because Hispanic and African Americans are more likely to say they do not know enough to express a view. And Republicans (61 percent) are more convinced than Democrats (45 percent) that nuclear weapons make the United States safer.

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While lacking familiarity about US nuclear weapons policy, a majority (60 percent) of the US public also say they are interested in learning more.  When they are asked in an open-ended question to specify what they would like to learn more about, the responses fall into three broad categories: basic questions about how nuclear weapons operate (24 percent), the effects of nuclear weapons when they are deployed (22 percent), and more details about US nuclear weapons policy (18 percent). An additional 42 percent of people who want to know more did not offer a specific response about what topics or issues they would like to explore.

Where Americans go for information about nuclear weapons. Television is the most popular source for nuclear weapons information for those 30 and over. Social media plays that role for Gen Z, a finding that tracks with where these groups go for most of their news in general. Very few turn to government for more information. Across all age demographics, 9 percent or fewer say they turn most often to the US government for information about nuclear weapons policy. Very few turn to academics or activists to get information about nuclear issues.

Who are the most trusted sources of information on nuclear issues?  Government is once again toward the bottom of the list. Six in 10 respondents say they distrust Congress for information about nuclear issues (63 percent). Party identification and age demographics don’t make a difference; many people are skeptical of information about nuclear weapons from Congress.

While trusted more than Congress, the president (56 percent distrust), elicits more partisan division, with 76 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats skeptical of the president as a source of information, likely a reflection of a Democratic president in the Oval Office now.  However, there is more partisan agreement around discomfort with the issue of sole authority.  Sixty-two percent of Americans report being somewhat or very uncomfortable with the US president having the sole authority to launch a nuclear strike.

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Even though few citizens turn to them for nuclear weapons information, the highest marks on trust go to academics, with 58 percent of respondents saying they place a great deal or fair amount of trust in academics as a source of information on nuclear issues. A close second is the military—56 percent place some or a great deal of trust with the military on nuclear issues.

Will Americans become more involved? Respondents to our survey said they should be more involved; six in 10 say the American people should be more influential in US nuclear policy. But, somewhat discordantly, most don’t want to be more involved personally, with just 21 percent saying they would like to be more involved. Just shy of 40 percent are comfortable with their current level of involvement in US nuclear policy. A third (34 percent) report they have no desire to get involved in this area. This response rises to 43 percent among those between the ages of 18 and 29.

Some have argued that today’s nuclear weapons debate has become too technical and distant, perhaps making the topic less tangible and accessible for most Americans. The fears surrounding the potential use of nuclear weapons related to the war in Ukraine and the Oppenheimer film clearly have stirred some interest among the general public. But it is unclear how long that interest may last. While a minority, the 21 percent who responded in our survey that they want to be more involved could, if they did so, make a real difference in at least the American nuclear weapons debate. But the varied responses to our survey suggest that today’s Americans struggle, like Oppenheimer did, to reconcile conflicting senses: Nuclear weapons provide some security, but if ever used, they would inflict a terrible cost on the entire world.


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Vernon Brechin
Vernon Brechin
7 months ago

I’ve been noticing that large numbers of American people believe that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile involves fission-based devices, which they refer to as ‘atomic weapons.’ They seem to be unaware that most of the world’s major nuclear weapons power’s primarily have far more powerful thermonuclear weapons in their stockpiles.

Lawrence Lechko
Lawrence Lechko
7 months ago
Reply to  Vernon Brechin

I believe that most americans have no idea about nuclear weapons. When I was very young I knew an individual who was in the army at one of the davy crocket tests. Yes he had a picture. scary as hell. unfortunately, putin just tosses the idea around.

bob slentz
bob slentz
7 months ago
Reply to  Vernon Brechin

I understand the difference between them and also understand a thermonuclear device is a two sstage process, uses an atomic device to get the chain reaction going to produce the fussion necessary for a thermonuclear devie.

Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella
7 months ago

Great article, Yes I hope the younger generation become more involved, It’s up to them after all to change this nuclear standoff and bring the TPNW into reality for all. I like Carl Sagan’s description of MAD and the Cold War. ” Assured mutual destruction is like two implacable enemies standing waist deep in gasoline one with three matches and the other with five a situation that if it wasn’t so sad it would be laughable”.

Ted Seay
7 months ago

Carl Sagan understood nuclear winter.

robert dresdner
robert dresdner
7 months ago

Richard Rhodes in his recent Pulitzer Prize winning book about the making of the bomb claims “the Japanese leadership’s refusal to surrender…needed atomic bombs to end the Pacific War.” This is the issue of the hour, and yet Rhodes sidestepped it completely. The record such as it is shows the bombs were not needed to end the War, further that Truman must have known this since his senior US military knew this and some had advocated the alternative of a demonstration on an uninhabited area as a warning – if even that was necessary – to hurry Japan’s surrender and/or… Read more »

John Yetter
John Yetter
7 months ago

The use of nuclear weapons in WWII was not a rational decision. It was an emotional and political one. Truman knew that, if the war weary American public found out that we had such weapons, that we did not use them, and that we continued moving our soldiers toward Japan causing loss of many soldiers’ lives, the public would not understand, nor forgive, his hesitance to use these weapon. If or when we end up in a general nuclear exchange, it will either be similar emotions, or just a stupid mistake that puts us there.

Sparrows345
Sparrows345
7 months ago

46% think the missile defense system will protect them? That is just plain startling. How did that happen? No one at the Pentagon has anywhere near that sort of confidence. Where do people get this from? Wishful thinking?? We have 44 interceptors, there would be hundreds of warheads splitting off from the main ICBMs, and a whole lot more decoys. The math gets worse from there… figuring in sub and long range bomber launches. Figure 3 interceptors to take out 1 missile each and you’ve lost the country several times over. It’s not even close. Even in perfect test launch… Read more »

Ted Seay
7 months ago

It is no accident that the US government, like those of all the NWS, try to hide the topic from public view.

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