My Turn: Nuclear ‘first use’ hearing requires our attention

  • Anti-nuclear war demonstrators wear masks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 14. AP

For the Monitor
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On Nov. 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., held a historic hearing at the request of Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on the president’s authority to initiate a nuclear attack, i.e. a “first use” of nuclear weapons (as opposed to a retaliatory response to an enemy’s first use). This was the first such hearing on this important issue in 40 years – and perhaps more important than ever given the crazed impetuosity of our current president.

It’s understandable that recent proliferation of national news regarding sexual assault and taxes would result in barely a mention of the Senate hearing in the mainstream media – including our own Concord Monitor. But I feel obligated to say a few words. We are, after all, talking about a near-certain path to Armageddon.

The committee invited three experts on nuclear command and control: a retired Air Force general and former head of the U.S. Strategic Command; a former under secretary for the Department of Defense; and a political science professor from Duke University. They each gave a short overview of our nuclear weapons command and control, and answered questions from committee members.

The guests recognized the seriousness of the matter and the need for new thinking about nuclear safety, but stopped short of endorsing a “no first use” policy such as the one in Markey’s bill (S. 200), which would require the president to first get congressional approval for any nuclear first use.

Much of the discussion focused on presidential authority for first-use in the case of “imminent attack.” Most agreed that the president is so authorized, provided the “imminent” attack is genuinely imminent. If it’s not, the president’s order would be illegal, and its execution could legally be refused by the needed military technicians.

A point that the experts agreed on was that in the case of a hostile country (North Korea, for example) with a known capability of an intercontinental nuclear attack, that capability would not by itself count as an imminent attack worthy of nuclear response. But that seems to be just the sort of situation in which Donald Trump has threatened nuclear “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Sadly, the experts failed to mention the many cases of apparently imminent nuclear attack confirmed (by radar and computer) – some since the end of the Cold War – but, at literally the last minute, they turned out not to be incoming enemy missiles. (The launch-on-warning window for verifying imminent attack is usually less than 15 minutes.)

This point was astutely pointed by Sen. Jeff Merkley. It’s the main reason why first-use policy is unreasonably risky. But it’s also risky because a nuclear enemy may take it as a sign of intent and preparation to execute a first strike. And this can cause the sort of existential fear that says, “They must be readying a first strike – we better hit them first.”

Our own Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked some good questions and seemed open to serious consideration of abolishing the “first-use” policy, as did several others.

Markey, at the end of the hearing, expressed appreciation to the committee, guests and the chairman for the attention rightly given to such an important but neglected matter. But he also suggested that much of the public would feel some disappointment: “I don’t think assurances I’ve heard here today will be satisfying to the American people.”

I felt some disappointment, too.

There was no mention of the incomparably important Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with its binding agreement on the nuclear powers to end the nuclear arms race and abolish nuclear weapons. To the contrary, all three experts agreed that national and nuclear safety requires “modernization” of our entire nuclear infrastructure. And (unsurprisingly) there was not a word about the new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons (approved at the U.N. by 122 nations), now open for ratification.

There was no mention of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition – Art. 2 (4) – on the use, or threat, of force against another sovereign state. With all the committee palaver on presidential nuclear authority and the rules of law, one might have thought that Trump’s “fire and fury” threat would have come up.

There was no mention of the original Cold War rationale for a U.S. first use policy. It was based on the alleged Warsaw Pact conventional weapon superiority, which might cause NATO to lose a conventional fight, hence the need to introduce tactical nukes to avoid a NATO defeat. The doctrine known as “flexible response” was once sarcastically described by one of President Johnson’s deputy assistant secretaries of defense: “(The doctrine is) to fight with conventional arms until we’re losing, then fight with nuclear tacticals until we are losing, and then to blow up the world.”

It’s interesting that the Soviets had no declared first use policy after 1982, nor did the Russians until the mid-1990s when Boris Yeltzin dropped it mainly because of NATO’s superior strength and creep eastward. China still officially espouses “no first use” as does India.

Interestingly, although our media don’t mention it, North Korea now (since May 2016) espouses a “no first use” policy.

(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.)