Delicate Balance of Terror
We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle,
each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.
With its title engraved in the granite pedestal, Brian Dailey’s sculpture The Delicate Balance of Terror brings dramatic visualization to the phrases and ideas on which it plays.
As a rhetorical device, “balance of terror” is principally a Cold War reference to the nuclear arms race between the Unites States and the Soviet Union and the tenuous peace built on the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. The two human skulls in Dailey’s sculpture symbolize a face off between the two superpowers in this equation, each lit up by atomic explosions. Skewered on opposite ends of a polished black shaft set at the apex of a conical tombstone, the deftly balanced skulls further invoke the title of what is largely considered a magnum opus of nuclear strategy, the mathematician Albert Wohlstetter’s 1958 article “The Delicate Balance of Terror.”
Although clearly a product of its times, “The Delicate Balance of Terror” is still considered a seminal and significant treatise for its explicit exposure of flaws in the strategic thinking of the post World War II era that an ability to simply retaliate will maintain a stability between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Wohlstetter asked: “Is deterrence a necessary consequence of both sides having a nuclear delivery capability, and is all-out war nearly obsolete? Is mutual extinction the only outcome of a general war?” This notion of an atomic stalemate—frequently expressed by references to Oppenheimer's two-scorpions-in-a-bottle simile—was the prevailing perspective of the time.
Just as Wohlstetter’s unique civilian background as a mathematician allowed him to offer a new perspective to the debate on nuclear strategy, Dailey’s unique background has allowed him to bring a new perspective to the artistic iconography of nuclear discourse. Indeed, for the artist, his creative practice is a vehicle through which he continues to process his engagement with and ideas about nuclear discourse. In Dailey’s sculpture, the artist provokes the viewer to ponder some of the consequential issues he was compelled to consider in his own career. His decision to use real human skulls—rather than manufactured facsimiles—was grounded in the need to express what he felt were very real issues at stake in the delicate balance of terror we continue to live with today.