The Non-Proliferation Treaty, Joe Biden and the Nuclear Taboo

“…the most hopeful single inheritance that we have from the first half of nuclear fission – the tradition of the non-use of the weapons since 1945.”

– McGeorge Bundy, 1991

Preliminary reports indicate that President Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review still reserves the right of the United States to use nuclear weapons first. Biden’s 2022 NPR continues decades of defense policy that allows the U.S. to use nuclear weapons in response to an assault by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, WMD’s. Or, when defeat of our conventional forces poses an existential threat to the U.S. or our allies.

Though the 2022 NPR maintains the decades’ long theory that nuclear weapons deter WMD and nuclear attacks, it does contradict the campaign statements of Candidate Biden who promised to reduce the role nuclear weapons  in our national security strategy. Biden also proffered that he could see no role for a  U.S. nuclear first strike.

President Biden would take other steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. As he said in 2017, Biden believes the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.

The decades’ long aspiration for a “No First Use’ or “Sole Use” U.S.nuclear policy sought by arms control advocates again succumbs.

To be sure, “use”, “sole use”, “no first use”, or “no use” of nuclear weapons have persisted through U.S. administrations since August 1945 after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Realizing that war planners had scheduled at least one more atomic bombing, President Truman restricted authority to order nuclear attacks to the president alone. Then he canceled a third atomic bombing on Tokyo.

“(nuclear weapons) it is so terribly  destructive, destructive beyond anything you have ever heard of . You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon… It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not military uses.” Harry Truman

Even more revolting for Truman must have been The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey 1946 that determined “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.”

Truman (to 1952) resisted Pentagon plans to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, Manchuria and China during the Korean War. Eisenhower (to 1953) frustrated with a growing taboo against nuclear weapons refused his military commanders permission to  use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China. The Korean War concluded without a nuclear attack.

Each U.S. president  has administered a nuclear arsenal costing trillions of dollars with the horrific power to kill billions of people, and destroy the Earth. Some said they might use nuclear weapons, like Eisenhower in Berlin, or could use them like Kennedy in Cuba, or would  use them like Nixon ‘feigning’ a madman in Viet Nam.

Most U.S. presidents have said they hoped never to use nuclear weapons, that a nuclear war could never be won, and should never be fought. But none has said they would never use nuclear weapons, or ever use nuclear weapons first.  Rather, all presidents say we must maintain our nuclear deterrence, that “nuclear options are still on the table”, that the U.S.  supports  “strategic ambiguity”, and that we will use nuclear weapons first if we need to.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT was agreed in 1968, at the height of the Viet Nam and Cold Wars. The NPT has 191 signatory states, was extended indefinitely in 1995, and is reviewed every five years. The next review, the tenth, occurs this August, 2022, at the United Nations in New York City. Representatives of the Biden Administration should expect tough questioning from NPT member states: “Why doesn’t the Biden Nuclear Posture Review adopt  No First Use, or even Sole Use of nuclear weapons? Why are other NPT members abiding by the treaty when the Biden NPR plans to rebuild its nuclear arsenal costing a trillion dollars? Why has the Biden NPR reserved the right to nuclear bomb other non -nuclear members of the NPT?

The great majority of NPT members regard the intent and letter of the treaty to be the “total elimination” of nuclear weapons. Even the P-5 countries, the five nuclear armed signatories to the NPT have agreed Article VI of the NPT to abandon their nuclear weapons at some future date, but not now.

The last NPT Review Conference in 2015  ended in contentious failure. Non-nuclear weapons states expressed disillusionment with the progress P-5 members had made to reduce their nuclear arsenals.  A “weapons of mass destruction free zone” could not be agreed for the Middle East. And non- nuclear weapon states doubted the future prospect of  nuclear non-proliferation.

The NPT is the landmark nuclear weapons treaty, being the only multi-lateral treaty between nuclear armed states. But it is not inviolable. Like the nuclear taboo it must not be taken for granted, but rather strengthened and advanced. Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review risks damaging the NPT by failing to adopt even a modicum of restraint of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Biden Administration could avoid another disastrous failure at the NPT Review Conference in August by reversing its own Nuclear Posture Review.

At the very least announce the United States would not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear nation that is a signatory to the NPT.

In foreswearing a nuclear attack on non- nuclear nations Biden could strengthen one of the pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  He will do nothing to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal as he is pledged to do under the Treaty’s Article VI. But he can affirm that international arms control is the only path leading out from the current nuclear weapons abyss.