America's nuclear contradiction: The threat of 'first use'

Morton H. Halperin

October 02, 1991|By Morton H. Halperin

DESPITE the well-deserved praise for President Bush's initiative to reduce nuclear arms, two sentences in his address indicate that the U.S. still clings to a mistaken belief that has distorted its defense policy throughout the nuclear age.

This is the belief that, beyond possessing nuclear weapons in order to deter the use of such weapons by other countries, the U.S. must rely on the threat of using them in order to deter conventional attacks.

The key sentences in the Bush address were these: "We will, of course, insure that we preserve an effective air-delivered nuclear capability in Europe. That's essential to NATO's security." This language means that, despite the revolution in world politics, Bush asserts that the U.S. still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in Europe. But against what threats, and from whom? Why does he think weapons of mass destruction are necessary to deal with the danger (if any) of conventional war?

The reliance on nuclear threats to deter conventional attacks lacks any credibility it may have had. It also hinders reductions in U.S. defense spending and inhibits international efforts at nuclear nonproliferation.

It should be beyond dispute that America and its allies can deal with all future security problems -- that they can prevail in any military encounter in Europe or anywhere else -- without using nuclear arms. The Persian Gulf war made it clear that we will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons, no matter how serious the military challenge, and that we need not do so.

As long as our nation clings to the idea that implicit threats of first use of nuclear weapons are essential to its security, we will be unwilling to radically restructure our defense policy.

We must face and overcome the central contradiction of our nuclear policy: The world's most powerful country needs to threaten to use nuclear weapons first in order to meet its security needs, but other nations must forgo them in the interests of international security.

Unless we are prepared to say that we need not rely on such threats, we will be unable to persuade countries with more serious security problems -- Israel, Pakistan, India -- that they can forgo nuclear weapons.

In addition, our Government will be unwilling to support arms control measures such as a ban on nuclear tests, a cutoff in the production of such weapons and no-first-use agreements, which are all essential to an effective nonproliferation policy.

For 40 years, security experts in and out of the government have debated whether this country's interests in Europe, the Persian Gulf and East Asia require threats of first use of nuclear weapons backed up by a worldwide employment of nuclear arms. Whatever was true five years ago, can anyone now doubt that our interests can be defended without relying on such threats?

The nation now has an opportunity to move into the post-nuclear age even as it enters the post-cold war era. After consulting further with out allies and Congress, Bush should announce further policy changes.

He should announce that the U.S. will never initiate the use of nuclear weapons and that our nuclear devices exist only to deter others from getting and using their own.

He should state that our entire greatly reduced stockpile of weapons will be stored in the U.S. or ballistic missile submarines, and can be fired only when the White House sends a code that unlocks the weapons. (Missiles on submarines are the best second-strike weapons, because an adversary cannot target them.) And he should declare that America will no longer test nuclear devices nor produce missile material.

Once the other nuclear powers endorsed these positions, the U.S. should work, through the U.N. Security Council, to require the commitment of all countries to such a regime. Only then will we have seized the moment to rid the planet of the danger of nuclear annihilation.

Morton H. Halperin, author of "Nuclear Fallacy," was deputy assistant secretary of defense for arms control from 1967 through 1969.

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