Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Dec. 2010. The United States of America still has a policy of using nuclear weapons first in certain circumstances. A reasons for not using nuclear weapons first are stronger today than ever, as more countries acquire them.

[I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Betsy Kingsbury in the reprinting of this article.]

Reprinted from Patriot Ledger, Quincy, MA, Dec. 7. 1987

U.S. needs policy of not using nuclear weapons first

by Paul Emile Anders

Governor Dukakis said on Nov. 23 that he wouldn't rule out using nuclear weapons first. Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, however, has asserted that our conventional forces are adequate to deter nonnuclear attack.

Why then, should Dukakis and various other presidential candidates support a first-use policy? President Reagan himself, talking to high school students from Edenton, N.C. , in 1986, said in response to a question about nuclear weapons, "We know we're not going to shoot the first one."

Although using nuclear weapons first in certain situations is traditional U.S. policy, it generally comes as news to the electorate. About 80 percent of Americans mistakenly think that it is U.S. policy not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. In fact, despite Reagan's statement, U.S. policy is to use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances to counter non-nuclear aggression in Europe and elsewhere. This policy could lead to a general nuclear war.

A policy of no first use came to popular attention in 1982, when the self- styled gang of four, McGeorge Bundy, former special assistant for National Security Affairs to presidents Kennedy and Johnson; George Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union; Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense; and Gerard Smith, former chief of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, proposed that no first use be seriously considered.

Opponents claim a policy of no first use would change one that has prevented a major war for 40 years; that it would stimulate an arms race in non-nuclear weapons: that it would allow the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies to calculate the possibility of a successful conventional attack in Europe and perhaps attempt it; and that it would encourage countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella to develop their own nuclear weapons.

When the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, the Truman administration refused to pledge no first use. As a deterrent to war, nuclear weapons seemed relatively safe and much cheaper than conventional ones. Now the two nuclear superpowers eye each other like hostile bees, capable of stinging just once and then dying. A properly implemented NATO policy of no first use could help prevent nuclear war in Europe. We would still have a strong nuclear force to respond to nuclear attack.

Our present battle plans, based on the possibility of using nuclear weapons first, increase the danger that we might escalate a conventional conflict into a nuclear war. In a crisis the president will feel pressure to implement established policy, particularly if he must make a quick decision. Moreover, under its first-use policy, NATO employs forward-based tactical nuclear weapons which might be destroyed by a conventional Warsaw Pact attack. This fosters a "use'em or lose'em" attitude that increases the risk of nuclear escalation.

Our first-use policy is unnecessary. The assumption that NATO conventional forces couldn't match those of the Warsaw Pact is a myth that has been refuted often. NATO actually has enough conventional defensive forces to repel non-nuclear attack and, in fact, has many advantages over the Warsaw Pact in weapons, tactics, and organization. And unlike the Warsaw Pact, in a conflict NATO countries can count on each other.

A policy of no first use would probably help our relations with other nations. It should diminish Soviet fears that we are preparing to win a nuclear war and encourage non-nuclear countries to remain so. Most nations would welcome a policy of no first use. In fact, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the first use of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union and China have already declared they will not use nuclear weapons first.

Our Third World intervention is probably a major reason why our government rejects a policy of no first use. From Korea to Central America, time after time, the United States has considered using or threatened to use nuclear weapons. We don't threaten a nuclear barrage whenever we send in the Marines, but a non-nuclear nation can feel intimidated by our apparent willingness to consider using nuclear weapons.

More important, we can intervene, knowing that our first-use policy helps to scare off the Soviets, who have not chosen to risk a nuclear war by really challenging us in places like Vietnam. A no-first use policy would tend to reduce our nuclear threats in Third World hot spots. Such threats can lead to games of nuclear roulette like the Cuban missile crisis.

With a first-use policy, the United States could start a nuclear war. What most Americans think is our policy, should be. On this question they are way ahead of some of the presidential candidates. The majority assumes that common sense guides their leaders on this life or death issue. Let's hope that it will.


[This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. See Terms of Use for more information.]

When the article above was written, Paul Emile Anders was a researcher at Council for a Livable World in Boston. He is now the director of the Ancient Studies Institute in Cambridge, MA.