Interesting article in Slate: Letter of Last Resort An insightful, but humorous response: The letter is a stroke of genius Actually, I think the reason MAD worked is that a first strike is unthinkable regardless of whether the other side retaliates. You can't separate military strategy from a nation's economic and social strategies. Launching a first strike on the US during the cold war would have destroyed world's economy, not to mention global weather patterns that would eventually bring at least some of the radiation back to the USSR. As isolated as the USSR might have been, destroying the world economy would have made things in the USSR worse; not better. The US might have been better able to withstand a first strike on the USSR since the USSR wasn't as significant to the world economy as the US was. The after effects would have still been worse for the US than the stand off that existed. And there's still those darned weather patterns. I think the response to the article effectively captures the fact that the retaliation question is irrelevant. It's the fallout from the first strike that deters either side except in the most extreme conditions where their own country is on the verge of non-existence (having been successfully invaded by conventional forces, etc). The more appropriate letter would give directions on how the submarine commander should respond if his own government has fallen to foreign forces that now control a nation still filled with living residents. Launching a first stike under those conditions would present a lot tougher dilemma than how to respond if the other side had already completely annihilated the entire population of your country.