Nuclear blackmail is considered most effective when the person making the threat is not rational and is willing to commit suicide. (See game theory). The prevention of these threats by irrational actors is the stated purpose behind the National Missile Defense program undertaken by President George W. Bush of the United States.
It is generally regarded as ineffective against a rational opponent who has or is an ally of someone who has assured destruction capability. If both states have nuclear weapons, the form of nuclear blackmail becomes a threat of escalation. In this situation if the opponent refuses to respond, then one's choices are either surrender or suicide. During the Cold War, the explicit threat of nuclear warfare to force an opponent to perform an action was rare in that most nations were allies of either the Soviet Union or the United States.
The United States issued several nuclear threats against the People's Republic of China in the 1950s to force the evacuation of outlying islands and the cessation of attacks against Quemoy and Matsu, part of Republic of China.
Recently declassified documents from the National Archives (UK) indicate that the United Kingdom threatened China with nuclear retaliation in 1961 in the case of a military reclamation of Hong Kong by China. This threat was backed up by the United States.
The unwillingness of the Soviet Union to respond to these threats on China's behalf was one of the major factors in the Chinese decision to develop an independent nuclear arsenal.
In the 1973 Egypt-Israel war, Israel perpetrated nuclear blackmail against the United States. Israel threatened to use nuclear weapons against Egypt if the U.S. did not resupply Israel with conventional weapons. The U.S. capitulated, and Israel was able to reverse the outcome of the war.
Nuclear blackmail, typically by a supervillain rather than a state, has been frequently employed as a plot device in spy fiction and action films. Since such a scheme appeared in the film Thunderball, the trope has been particularly associated with the James Bond series. The notion of a supervillain threatening world leaders with a nuclear device has since become a cliché, and has been parodied in Charles K. Feldman's Casino Royale, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Simpsons episode "You Only Move Twice", and other espionage spoofs.