Photograph Source: United States Department of Energy – Public Domain
On June 20, the London Guardian ran a curious headline: “Nuclear Weapons: Experts Alarmed by New Pentagon ‘War-Fighting Doctrine.” Last week, a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was briefly available to the public on the Pentagon’s website. Titled “Nuclear Operations,” the report describes nuclear war in such upbeat terms that you will almost look forward to it.
Before it was yanked, the report was captured and is available on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. A Pentagon spokesman told the Guardian that the report had been deleted because of a decision that the publication should be available “for official use only.” Translation: the public got to see the report because somebody in the Pentagon goofed.
According to the Guardian: “Arms control experts say [the report] marks a shift in US military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war.” No, it doesn’t. Although the US has not used nuclear weapons since its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it has come close several times.
General Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander during the Korean War, asked for atomic bombs a mere two weeks into the war. Later, MacArthur asked President Truman for fifty or so atomic bombs to be dropped on the border between North Korea and China to create an impassable cordon unsanitaire.
President Truman wisely said no, but at a November 30, 1950 press conference, Truman had said that the atomic bomb had always been under “active consideration” for use in the war. In July 1950, shortly after North invaded the South, Truman had sent two B-29 bomber groups to the UK and Guam. Once armed with their fissile plutonium cores, which remained in the US until needed, the atomic bombs on board the B-29s could be dropped on the USSR and China. (US tactical nuclear weapons would be stationed in South Korea from 1958 to 1991.)
President John F. Kennedy considered a nuclear first-strike in 1961 when the Soviet Union was threatening to take over West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall kept the crisis from going nuclear.
Probably the only thing that could have made the Vietnam War more of a catastrophe would have been the introduction of nuclear weapons. In 1966, with the war going badly for the US, the Pentagon under President Lyndon B. Johnson conducted a study to gauge whether to use tactical nuclear weapons. The study concluded that nuclear weapons would not turn the tide in favor of the Americans, but might provoke a nuclear response from Russia or China.
President Richard M. Nixon considered dropping the Bomb on a whopping four occasions: in Vietnam, against the Soviet Union in its border dispute with China, and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Pakistan’s 1971 war with India.
The Guardian notes that nuclear doctrine under President George W. Bush “envisaged pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the use of the US nuclear arsenal against all weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear.” This is the only indication the article gives that any president before Trump considered using nukes for anything besides deterrence. Bush also implied during a press conference on April 18, 2006 that he might use nuclear weapons against Iran. Will President Donald Trump?
World-Ending or War-Fighting?
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had asked: why does the US have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them? The question raised fears that a President Trump might have an itchy nuclear trigger finger. Pundits had to remind Trump that nuclear deterrence means that nuclear weapons must never, ever be used.
If we’re only talking about deterrence, the pundits are right. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union held one another’s cities hostage in a balance of nuclear terror. But nuclear weapons can be used not just to deter war, but to fight it. Toward that end, the US has developed tactical nuclear weapons which are short-range and low-yield. In theory, tactical nukes can be used on battlefields in limited wars without ending all life on Earth.
Let’s look at a few tactical nuclear weapons. We’ll start with the colorfully named atomic bazooka the Davy Crockett. (The name may have signified that with one of these babies the eponymous frontiersman would have survived the Alamo.) With a range of 2.5 miles, and firing a 76-pound atomic shell, the Davy Crockett remains the smallest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the US. Hundreds of them were deployed in Western Europe in the 1960s ready to destroy invading Soviet tanks.
The same idea, but on a much larger scale, was the “Atomic Annie” field cannon which could fire a nuclear shell as far away as 20 miles. Like the Davy Crockett, the Atomic Annie suffered the drawback that the nuclear radiation emitted would almost certainly have killed its American crew along with the enemy.
President George W. Bush pushed a scheme (later abandoned) for a new nuclear bunker buster bomb, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. A bunker buster bomb penetrates soil, rock, or concrete to destroy underground or hardened facilities.
President Barack Obama entered office declaring that the US had a “moral responsibility” to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, by his last year as president, the Nobel Peace Prize winner had forgotten that sissy stuff and had unveiled plans to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on nuclear “modernization” focusing on tactical weapons.
Beyond its two sentences about George W. Bush’s nuclear doctrine, a reader of the Guardian story could easily come away with the impression that no president before Trump contemplated using nuclear weapons on the battlefield for war-fighting. A reader who misses those lines could easily come away with the impression that fighting limited nuclear wars is just Trump’s latest crazy idea. It is a crazy idea, but it’s a crazy idea which has been around for decades.