My Turn: The madness of the nuclear first-use option

  • President Harry S. Truman reads to newsmen his announcement of the Japanese surrender, officially signaling the war's end, during a White House ceremony on Aug. 14, 1945. At the right of the President are Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and Admiral William D. Leahy, presidential chief of staff. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/15/2019 12:15:07 AM

It seems Mike Moffett (Monitor Opinion, Feb. 11, “ ‘No first use’ policy increases likelihood of war”) not only needs some historical refreshment, he also ignores the legal and moral dimensions of nuclear weapons use and the problems of our first-use option as opposed to a wiser no-first-use policy.

Some history: Moffett says that “first use” ended World War II. That was hardly the principal cause of Japan’s surrender.

Most historians now attribute the end to the Soviet entry on Aug. 8. That immoral and illegal first use was also unnecessary. I’ve made the case in this paper many times, but I’ll merely quote Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander): “Japan was ready to surrender, and there was no need to use that awful thing.” Virtually all the top military leaders agreed.

But apart from its illegal and immoral despicability “common to Dark Age barbarians” (as Adm. William Leahy put it), that first use alienated our Soviet ally and started a long and dangerous Cold War.

What Moffett doesn’t say is that the first-use option, while not necessitating first use, does require preparation and willingness to do it. In a time of crisis, Nation X, knowing that Enemy Y has the first-use option and fearing imminent first use from Y, may pre-empt with the strike first – better to use ’em than lose ’em. This is equally dangerous with nukes kept on “hair trigger” alert, which first-use nuke nations do (but not the no-first-use nations: India, China and North Korea). It’s a recipe for an accidental nuclear launch.

We’ve long held first use, even during the 1980s when the Soviets (and China) espoused a no-first-use policy. It was a main driver of the dangerous and often nearly catastrophic super power arms race. There were hundreds of nuclear accidents and near misses, some after the Cold War ended, as we now know from Eric Schlosser’s shocking 2014 book, Command and Control. By pure luck we survived decades of military inattention to nuclear safety and our (still ongoing) deference to the “we’re falling behind” cries of the dollar-seeking military-industrial-complex. (We are the world’s No.1 arms merchant, with many undemocratic customers.) For some frighteningly close calls see my review of Schlosser’s book: bit.ly/2SCQUO5.

First use has also been used by every president since Harry Truman as a threat to force concessions, as Daniel Ellsberg (nuke adviser to the Pentagon and several presidents in the 1960s and ’70s) has pointed out, with many examples in his recent Doomsday Machine.

Moffett also says Ronald Reagan showed “wisdom” by retaining the first-use option. Eventually Reagan wised up, but not until Mikhail Gorbachev (Nobel Peace Prize, 1990) came along in the mid-1980s. Earlier Reagan had little understanding of nukes. In fact he and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, were both insisting that a nuclear war was survivable and winnable.

By 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev, at their first summit, nearly agreed to the abolition of all nukes. But Reagan’s “Star Wars” (a proposed anti-ballistic missile system then outlawed by treaty and thought to be “pie in the sky”) killed the deal. But in 1987 we fortunately got the INF Treaty destroying 3,000 medium-range missiles – a treaty the United States is threatening to leave.

Moffett said our local leftists should “leave defense policy to national security and military experts.”

Surely Moffett knows that many such experts are today advocating exactly what the “local leftists” are – urging our state Legislature to urge Congress and the president to adopt no first use and halt funds for new low-yield nukes. They include: Gen. Lee Butler (Air Force), commander of Strategic Air Command (1984-1991) and first of the Strategic Command (1991-1994); Gen. James Cartwright (USMC), commander of the Strategic Command (2004-07) and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2007-2011); Secretary of State George Shultz (under Reagan); and Secretary of Defense William Perry (under Bill Clinton).

There are moral problems with nukes and even with nuclear deterrence of any form. Even deterrence (with no first use) requires the preparation for possible use and a willingness to use nukes “if necessary.” As such, all nuclear deterrence runs the risk of nuclear war and the killing of millions of innocent human beings or worse, given the possibility of nuclear winter. As science knows, but apparently not the Pentagon, even a small nuclear exchange – for example, India versus Pakistan, each firing 50 low-yield weapons – could bring on a 10-year nuclear winter and global famine killing over a billion people (2014 study by Physicians for Social Responsibility). Such a risk is morally unacceptable – a concern central to creating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 – now with 189 parties and as important as ever.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (Art. 6) requires a swift end to the nuclear arms race and the bringing to conclusion a treaty for “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” In 1996 the World Court rendered an opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons, saying: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict.”

Meeting our treaty obligations will be a very long and difficult journey. But we must recover the progress that slowed soon after the end of the Cold War and recently threatens to stop – or worse.

In the meantime, the United States can encourage the non-proliferation treaty’s many non-nuke parties to show that the United States is still serious about its treaty obligations. We N.H. folks – as many other states are doing – can and should take the small but positive steps to support our state government to urge Congress and the president to adopt a no-first-use pledge, and to decline funding for any new costly and “more usable” low-yield nukes.

(Ray Perkins Jr. of Concord is professor of philosophy, emeritus, at Plymouth State University and vice chairman of the Bertrand Russell Society board of directors.)




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