Reprinted with permission from Greg Mitchell’s newsletter Oppenheimer: From Hiroshima to Hollywood.
Seventy-eight years have now passed since the United States initiated a policy known as “first use” with its atomic attack on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, it was affirmed with a second detonation over the city of Nagasaki. No nuclear attacks have followed since, although many Americans are probably unaware that this first-strike policy very much remains in effect.
And that’s a problem.
The policy signals that any U.S. president has the authority to order a pre-emptive nuclear strike—not merely in retaliation if and when missiles start flying in our direction. Our warheads could be launched in defense of allies, after the onset of a conventional war involving our troops (think: Iraq, 2003) or in response to a bellicose threat posed by a nuclear (e.g., North Korea) or not-yet-nuclear state (e.g., Iran).
Admittedly, it is not easy to make the case for abandoning this policy, at least in this country, and adopting what’s known as “no first use” (NFU). For one thing, few American officials or military leaders (or leading commentators) ever question the only time any country has ever relied on this policy, 78 years ago against Japan. Media coverage tends to strongly endorse those first atomic attacks, so it’s no surprise that polls usually show the majority of Americans also support President Harry S. Truman’s decision. Even Oppenheimer features more dialogue defending than questioning the attacks on Japan.
More than that, one president after another has argued, when asked about the possible use of nuclear weapons during any crisis, that “we won’t take anything off the table” or “we can’t tie one arm behind our back.” This seems sensible to many people. It certainly did back in the heyday of the Cold War, when the policy was mainly aimed at deterring a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
In any case, today, in a vastly changed world, it is profoundly dangerous, although not always in obvious ways.
One risk is rather easy to grasp: Another nuclear nation may “go first,” fearing that the U.S. will not only beat them to the punch, but knock out all of its missile sites. This is the use-them-or-lose-them scenario that drove so much of the superpower arms race from the 1950s to the 1980s, leading to everything from reliance on risky hair-trigger alerts to spending countless billions of dollars to expand nuclear stockpiles to tens of thousands of warheads.
Then there are these rather severe risks a “first use” policy either causes or contributes to:
- While initiating a limited nuclear attack with junior-sized weapons against a state that cannot respond in kind may prove useful in ending a conflict or preventing a wider war, it is almost certain to cause massive and immediate civilian casualties and—even with smaller warheads—spread radioactive fallout over neighboring states. In fact, recent presidents have touted a new generation of “baby nukes” as potentially more usable in a first strike.
- Any first strike on a nuclear power would likely be more extensive and not only vastly increase these tragic effects, but might provoke a highly destructive retaliatory attack on our homeland. Further exchanges would threaten the existence of the entire world.
- Just from a financial standpoint, bolstering first use is extremely expensive. The late Bruce G. Blair, a leading nuclear policy expert, pointed out that adopting NFU would gut “the rationale for retaining the large arsenal of land-based strategic missiles in silos across the Midwest and the tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Those missiles are mainly for first use; they are a risky option for second use because they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack. …[S]hifting to a reliance on submarines and bombers would save about $100 billion over the next three decades. The elimination of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons would save billions more.”
- Money saved could be invested in improving our retaliatory “deterrence” policy (which has worked, so far, for seven decades) by fortifying the protection of our command-and-control and communications centers. This would also help guarantee that civilian, not military, leaders will remain in charge during any nuclear crisis.
- An NFU policy would also decrease the real, and frightening, current dangers of accidental nuclear war. Those land-based missiles that we eliminate? Due to their vulnerability, they are the ones most likely to be launched because of a glitch or a false alert on incoming missiles. Submarines and bombers, on the other hand, can be quickly deployed and remain “fail-safe” until an actual enemy attack can be confirmed. Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association has argued that “a clear U.S. NFU policy would reduce the risk of Russian or Chinese nuclear miscalculation during a crisis by alleviating concerns about a devastating U.S. nuclear first-strike.”
- In almost any scenario, the U.S., which has (by far) the world’s greatest array of conventional weaponry and technology, has all sorts of destructive options to employ without going nuclear. These options also have the benefits of more precise targeting and no danger of spreading radioactive fallout far and wide. This doesn’t even count our other advantages in global alliances, in our numerous military bases and troops abroad, our advanced cyber “weaponry” and our economic clout, as well as the world’s greatest second strike nuclear capability. Our allies would hardly be deprived of the protection of “extended deterrence.”
Some opinion polls show that Americans firmly oppose the idea of the U.S. using nuclear weapons first, as a general matter. Other polls, however, reveal that when they are presented with specific scenarios—such as a war with Iran or North Korea threatening us with a foreign nation’s own warheads—they are far more amenable to this proposition. And then we have the precedent of using two bombs against Japan, and wide endorsement of that action today, at least in the United States.
That is why I have concentrated so much of my writing on exploring American attitudes, from the very start, about the use of the bomb and how an official narrative justifying that use has held sway ever since. (My latest book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, explores how even the first movie about the atomic bomb, from MGM, was heavily revised under pressure from the military and the White House to strictly adhere to this narrative.)
For all of those reasons, the United States should declare that it will never use nuclear weapons first—and will only do so in retaliation. Short of that, Congress should enact provisions so that no president has the sole authority to order a first strike. We should recall that in recent decades, presidents of both parties have been accused of launching missile attacks or sending troops to war zones without the required permission from Congress, followed by no major censure moves against them later—which only emboldens taking the nuclear initiative.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the commanding general in Europe and later president of the United States, opposed the first use of the atomic bomb against Japan, calling it that “awful thing” and urging the U.S. to “avoid shocking world opinion.” Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff, also criticized that first strike as a “barbarous.” First use of far more powerful and destructive nuclear weapons must be strictly avoided today.
No single, fallible person should have the authority to take an action that could lead to millions of deaths—or even the end of civilization.
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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including “Hiroshima in America,” and the recent award-winning The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood – and America – Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and has directed three documentary films since 2021, including two for PBS (plus award-winning “Atomic Cover-up”). He has written widely about the atomic bomb and atomic bombings, and their aftermath, for over forty years. He writes often at Oppenheimer: From Hiroshima to Hollywood.