The American Federation of Scientists estimates that the United States has 6,800 nuclear weapons, about 1,800 of which are deployed and ready to launch.
Yet military strategists acknowledge that 100 nuclear armed missiles, positioned on mobile Trident submarines, would be more than enough to deter any conceivable nuclear attack. What explains this enormous disparity?
In his important new book on the secret history of nuclear strategy (“The Bomb,” 2020), journalist-historian Fred Kaplan explains the disparity in this way:
“In public, over the years, officers and officials have described America’s nuclear policy as second-strike deterrence: if an enemy strikes us with nuclear weapons, we will retaliate in kind; this retaliatory power is what deters the enemy from attacking us. In reality, though, American policy has always been to strike first preemptively, or in response to a conventional invasion of allied territory, or to a biological or large-scale cyber attack: in any case, not just as an answer to a nuclear attack.”
Military and political leaders adopted this first strike or counterforce strategy for three main reasons. First, they do not think that a second strike or deterrence strategy would actually deter aggression. Faced with an attack by a nuclear armed antagonist, a U.S. president would hesitate about assailing enemy cities with thermonuclear weapons because this was would likely commit national, and perhaps planetary, suicide. Thus, a second-strike strategy was not really credible and would not deter aggression by a bold nuclear armed enemy.
Second, U.S. political leaders covet the ability to threaten other countries with nuclear attack. But an effective threat has to be convincing. A convincing nuclear threat can be achieved in two ways.
• Make available a wide spectrum of nuclear weapons ranging from battlefield tactical weapons to region annihilating strategic weapons and everything between. A wide spectrum of this sort enables a highly flexible threat, which can be escalated, and hence is likely to be convincing.
• Enable a preemptive counterforce attack by acquiring sufficient nuclear weaponry to destroy the enemy’s response capacity (and also forget about nuclear winter). Both of these approaches to credibility require abundant nuclear weapons of many different types.
The third motivation for copious nuclear weapons and the counterforce strategy is the banal but nevertheless potent incentive of profits for the military industrial complex.
Daniel Ellsberg, in his frank and searing confessions about his years as a nuclear war planner (“The Doomsday Machine,” 2017), challenges the claim that nuclear weapons were only used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Like a gun pointed at a victim’s head but not fired, U.S. leaders have repeatedly used nuclear weapons to threaten opponents. And sometimes these nuclear threats were effective. Ellsberg lists 25 documented nuclear weapons threats (there were surely many more) including the following.
• In June of 1948 at the start of the Berlin blockade, President Truman threatened the Soviets with atom bomb capable B-29 bombers. Some historians claim this menace was why Moscow did not prevent air supply of Berlin.
• In 1953 President Eisenhower threatened China with nuclear attack if it refused to settle the Korean War. An armistice agreement was subsequently reached.
• On several occasions between 1969 and 1972 President Nixon threatened North Vietnam with nuclear attack unless they stopped fighting. Nixon’s threats, apparently, had little or no effect.
Ellsberg maintains that humanity has created a nuclear Doomsday Machine that, if not fully dismantled, can and eventually will destroy life on Planet Earth. If human society wishes to endure for another century or more, all nuclear weapons must be abolished. Hope springs eternal, and Ellsberg harbors a faint hope that the United States — the principal creator of the Doomsday Machine — will lead this imperative lifesaving process. He advocates two initial steps our government should take towards dismantling the Doomsday Machine.
Step One: adopt a no-first-use policy regarding nuclear weapons.
Step Two: eliminate land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Land-based ICBMs are the most perilous and destabilizing nuclear devices because, in the event of a possible attack, they must be launched on warning to avoid potential destruction. Both of these vital steps can be taken unilaterally and are virtually risk free.
In the penultimate chapter of “The Doomsday Machine,” Ellsberg characterizes our current system in this way:
“[A]ny social system … that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put a trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being … is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.”