North Korea’s May 7 declaration that it would not be first to use nuclear weapons was met with official derision instead of relief and applause. Not one report of the announcement I could find noted that the United States has never made such a no-first-use pledge. None of three dozen news accounts even mentioned that North Korea hasn’t got one usable nuclear warhead. The New York Times did admit, “US and South Korean officials doubted that North Korea has developed a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile that would deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States.”
Nuclear “first use” means either a nuclear sneak attack or the escalation from conventional mass destruction to the use of nuclear warheads, and presidents have threatened it as many as 15 times. In the build-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf bombing, US officials including then Def. Sec. Dick Cheney and Sec. of State James Baker publicly and repeatedly hinted that the US might use nuclear weapons. In the midst of the bombardment, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas both explicitly promoted nuclear war on Iraq.
In April 1996, President Bill Clinton’s deputy Defense Secretary Herald Smith publicly threatened to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear Libya — which was a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — for allegedly building a secret weapons plant. When Clinton’s Defense Secretary William J. Perry was questioned about this threat he repeated it, saying, “[W]e would not forswear that possibility.” (The Nonproliferation Treaty forbids a nuclear attack on other state parties.)
In “Presidential Policy Directive 60” (PD 60) of Nov. 1997, Clinton made public the nuclear first use intentions of his war planners. US H-bombs were now being aimed at nations identified by the State Department to be “rogues.” PD 60 alarmingly lowered the threshold against nuclear attack possibilities. The Clinton doctrine “would allow the US to launch nuclear weapons in response to the use of chemical or biological weapons,” the Los Angeles and New York Times reported. (Arguing that we need H-bombs to deter chemical attacks is like saying we need nuclear reactors to boil water.) Throwing deterrence policy under the bus, Clinton then “ordered that the military … reserve the right to use nuclear arms first, even before the detonation of an enemy warhead.”
Clinton’s order was an imperious rebuke to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) — the nation’s highest scientific advisory group — which recommended six months earlier, on June 18, 1997, that the US, “declare that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in war or crisis.” In April 1998, Clinton’s US Embassy reps in Moscow coldly refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, saying, “…we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us.”
Again, in January and February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declined to explicitly exclude nuclear weapons as an option in a war on Iraq, saying US policy was not to rule anything out, Wade Boese of the Arms Control Association reported. Additionally, Def. Sec. Donald Rumsfeld said at a Feb. 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that official policy dictated that the US, “…not foreclose the possible use of nuclear weapons if attacked.”
Putting an end to these ultimate bomb scares would bring US action in line with Presidential speechifying which has regularly denounced “nuclear terrorism.” An international agreement on “non-nuclear immunity,” adopted by five nuclear-armed states May 11, 1995, has not quelled charges of hypocrisy made against them. The pact is full of exceptions – e.g., PD 60 — and is nonbinding. Only China has made this unequivocal pledge: “At no time and under no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons and [China] undertakes unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries and nuclear-free zones.” India has made a similar no-first-use promise.
A formal US renunciation of first use would let cooler heads prevail by ending the debate over so-called “threshold” use of the Bomb. It would also end the blatant public duplicity of proclaiming that nuclear weapons are only for deterrence while preparing for attacks “before the detonation of an enemy warhead.”
Pledging “no first use” would save billions of dollars in research, development and production, as well as the cost of maintaining first-strike systems: B61 H-bombs, Trident submarine warheads, Cruise and land-based missile warheads.
Significantly, nuclear war planners who have used their first-strike “master card” believe they were successful — the way a robber can get a bag of cash using a loaded gun but without pulling the trigger. They want to keep their ghastly “ace” up their sleeve, and they have manufactured a heavy stigma against formally renouncing nuclear first use, since to do so might further call into question the official “winning” reasons for having tested radiation bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The US should embrace China’s unambiguous language and promise never to use nuclear weapons first or against non-nuclear states. If President Obama wants to ease world tensions without apologizing for Hiroshima when he visits the iconic city, he could replace Clinton’s presidential directive with his own, declaring that the US will never again be the first to go nuclear.