Should the United States reject the “first use” of nuclear weapons? That question was put to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their first debate. Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich asks us to take their answers seriously in his latest insightful essay at TomDispatch.com, which I urge you to read here in full.
Trump was asked to respond first, and his rambling answer, I thought, showed the evidence of someone who had crammed for a test. He was desperate to show he knew something – anything – about America’s nuclear forces (here some may recall how Trump obviously knew little about America’s nuclear triad during the Republican primary debates). So Trump rambled on about obsolete B-52s flown by the sons and grandsons of previous pilots, a non sequitur since the B-52 has been continuously upgraded with new engines, advanced avionics, the latest in high-tech weaponry, and despite their age they’re still more than capable of doing the job. But somebody must have told Trump to use the B-52’s age as a talking point, and he was determined to get it in.
As confused and incoherent as Trump’s reply was (read more about this at TomDispatch.com), at least he tried to grapple with the issue. Trump did reject First Strike. He did refer to the terror of nuclear war, even as he got lost in other talking points about North Korea, Iran, and allegations about how weak on national security Obama is.
By comparison, Clinton’s response was classic Hillary. Avoid and evade. Try to be all things to all voters. Bloviate, in other words, as Warren G. Harding did in 1920. In essence, Hillary ducked the question. She refused to address the issue of first use of nuclear weapons; indeed, she didn’t address nuclear strategy and policy at all. Instead, she drew a contrast between her experience and predictability versus Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability. Her message was clear: I’m not talking about nuclear weapons or policy, except to say you shouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes.
Who won on this question? Bacevich is right to say neither candidate won, but it’s clear who lost: the American people. And the world.
It’s shameful that this country hasn’t rejected the first use of nuclear weapons. It’s also shameful that instead of working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. is actually planning to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade that arsenal. For what possible strategic purpose, one must ask? America’s current nuclear deterrent is the most powerful and survivable in the world. No other country comes close. There’s no rational reason to invest more money in nuclear weapons, unless you count the jobs and money related to building new nuclear submarines, weaponry, bombs, and all the other infrastructure related to America’s nuclear triad of Trident submarines, land-based bombers, and fixed missile silos.
Neither Trump nor Hillary addressed this issue. Trump was simply ignorant. Hillary was simply disingenuous. Which candidate was worse? When you’re talking about nuclear genocidal death, it surely does matter. Ignorance is not bliss, nor is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.
Next time, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, let’s have some rigor, some honesty, and some wisdom on the issue of nuclear weapons. Not only America deserves it – the world does.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.