Rational Security

Why America Reserves the Right to Nuke You First

And why it shouldn't.

National Archives
National Archives

In 1945, Harry Truman ordered the first atomic bombing of another country; today, Barack Obama reserves the right to mount the world’s next nuclear strike — as have all American presidents since Truman. It is very odd that senior U.S. foreign policy officials, who have devoted most of the past seven decades to trying to control the spread of nuclear weapons, still want Washington to be able to use them first in a pinch. Even President Obama, a supporter of the abolition of all nuclear weapons, wants to be able to fire the first nuclear shot. No wonder North Korea, Iran, and others view efforts to get them to renounce their proliferation programs with much skepticism.

To be sure, the American ardor for atomic weapons has cooled since the famous Fortune magazine survey of December 1945, in which 22 percent of the public expressed the view that far more than "just" two nukes should have been dropped on Japan. Yet even as enthusiasm for inflicting massive destruction on others waned, there was still considerable fascination with these weapons in government and the military. Indeed, the idea of waging preventive nuclear war on Soviet Russia or communist China — that is, hitting them before they had nukes of their own — was closely considered for years, finally being rejected by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.

This was the same year, however, that he articulated a doctrine of "massive retaliation" for any sort of act of aggression. Thus an incursion by some aggressor’s conventional forces was now theoretically subject to a nuclear riposte. The idea was that this threat would keep the peace around the world. It didn’t. Instead, a spate of irregular wars and acts of terrorism arose and, as Thomas Schelling put it in his classic Arms and Influence, the massive retaliation policy "was in decline almost from its enunciation."

Still, a version of massive retaliation lived on into the 1960s in the minds of NATO strategists who were concerned that Russian numerical superiority in tanks and warplanes was too great to match. And even after Western forces were beefed up, making conventional defense possible, the nuclear option was kept on the table in the form of an attractive euphemism, "flexible response." This meant that NATO would try to defend without resort to nukes, but would use them if it had to. Every "Reforger" exercise that began with conventional defense ended with the call for nuclear strikes.

Even as the Cold War was winding down and the Red Army was crumbling, the United States and its NATO allies grimly held on to the option of nuclear first use. Now it was only thought of as a last resort, but it was still on the books. And it remains a policy alternative today for NATO, though the current U.S. nuclear posture limits the right to first use by targeting only those nations who have not signed on or adhered to the various strictures imposed by the Nonproliferation Treaty — which still leaves considerable room for first use.

For all the American intransigence about adopting no first use as policy, the concept has been embraced elsewhere. Next year Beijing will observe 50 years of its declared policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. India has also taken this position as, less credibly, has North Korea. Russia long held to a no first use policy, but renounced it 20 years ago when the country was in a state of freefall after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A decade ago Moscow clarified that it would only reserve the right to first use of nuclear weapons in the face of a massive conventional invasion of Russia. The bottom line is that the United States would be in very good company if a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons were declared.

Ironically, the country most staunchly opposed to renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons, the United States, would be the greatest beneficiary of such a policy. If a behavioral firewall existed between more traditional military operations and nuclear war — that is, if forces in the field, at sea, and in the air didn’t have to worry about an atomic attack — then incomparable American strategic advantages would truly be locked in. U.S. naval mastery of the world’s ocean commons is close to unparalleled in all history — as is the Air Force’s dominant position among world powers. It is extremely difficult to conceive of a situation in which American ground forces, deployed even to the most distant theater of war, would be mortally imperiled by the maneuvers of some opposing conventional force.

One of the biggest objections to adopting a no first use doctrine is that one’s enemies might cheat and strike first. This simply begs the question of why they wouldn’t mount a nuclear Pearl Harbor whatever the declaratory policy, no first use or not. And the answer is the same: Retaliatory threats (mutual assured destruction) remain a very powerful deterrent. No first use, however, reinforces the firewall between conventional and nuclear war, by formalizing this posture as a matter of policy and ethics.

And it does so in much the same way that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has operated. Since it went into effect in 1997, the CWC has been embraced by almost every nation (there are some 190 signatories at present) and has been a driving force in the destruction of nearly three-fourths of the world’s chemical weapons stocks. Similarly, an American embrace of a doctrine of no first use of nukes could breathe fresh life into both arms reduction and nonproliferation efforts. And to those who worry about a nuclear power declaring, but not really making, reductions, a no first use policy, though it may spur decreases, need not reduce arsenals to dangerously low levels. Thus, what Charles DeGaulle once called an "arm-tearing-off" capability could be retained as long as needed, for deterrence.

This point about a no first use doctrine impelling sizeable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals has one other major benefit: The fewer nukes there are, the less likely it is that any of them will fall into the hands of a terrorist network. There has never been a "nuclear Napoleon," due to the problem of mutual assured destruction, but if there ever is one he will come from a network. Unlike a nation with its fixed geography and population centers, a globally dispersed network is virtually impossible to target for retaliatory nuclear strikes. So if, say, al Qaeda, were to have even a handful of nukes, its coercive power would be enormous, upending seven decades of strategic thought about the utility of these weapons.

Better, then, that the world’s leading power should set the tone now by renouncing first use of nuclear weapons, and following this declaration up with revitalized efforts to reduce existing stocks and prevent any further proliferation of perhaps the very worst weaponry ever conjured by the mind of man.

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