The “Responsible Nuclear State”: The United States and the Bomb


In light of the revelations that the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons in the event of war between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea, it may be worth revisiting the idea that America represents a “responsible” nuclear power, in opposition to countries like Iran and the DPRK, which supposedly desire or maintain nuclear weapons for more nefarious ends.  An examination of the historical record shows that US nuclear policy can be described as anything but level-headed.

The United States remains the only nation in history to use nuclear weaponry in warfare, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, resulting in the deaths of at least 129,000 people.  While this has often been justified as “necessary” due to a supposed Japanese aversion to surrender, the actual facts of the matter stand in stark contrast with the accepted historical narrative — there being strong evidence that Japan was prepared to surrender prior to the nuclear attacks, and that the Soviet entry into the war against Japan and the rapid defeat of the Kwantung Army was much more decisive in the decision to capitulate.

Having used nuclear arms previously, America has shown the willingness to use them again in multiple situations since then.  A partial listing of such instances was compiled by Michael Parenti in The Sword & The Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race (St. Martin’s Press, 1989, pp.173-4):

Truman threatened the Soviets with the atom bomb when they were slow in withdrawing their troops from Iran immediately after World War II.  In 1950, he publicly warned that nuclear weapons were under consideration in the Korean War.  In 1953 during the same war, Eisenhower made secret nuclear threats against China and North Korea.  In 1954 Secretary of State Dulles actually offered tactical nuclear weapons to the French during their final losing battle in Vietnam, but Paris declined the offer.  Johnson considered nuclear weapons in Vietnam in 1968.  Nixon contemplated using nuclear bombs against North Vietnam on a number of occasions from 1969 to 1972.  In 1973, he also thought of using them when it was feared that the Soviets might intervene in the Middle East.  On two other occasions, anticipating aggression by Moscow against the Chinese during a border dispute and possible Soviet intervention in the 1971 India-Pakistan war, Nixon toyed with the nuclear option.  The “this-might-mean-world-war threat” was applied by Carter in 1980 and reiterated by Reagan in 1981 in response to what both presidents imagined would be a Soviet thrust into northern Iran and other parts of the Middle East. . . .  Not yet mentioned were the two occasions when President Kennedy contemplated using nuclear weapons: during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The Nixon administration in particular took relish in threatening the use of nuclear weapons — in 1969 they ordered bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons to fly toward Soviet airspace for three days in what was called “Operation Giant Lance.”  This was reflective of Nixon’s “madman theory” – that the Soviets would be more likely to back down over their aid to Vietnam if they believed that Nixon was “mad” enough to risk nuclear war over it.  Tapes of Nixon’s conversations give little more comfort, with even Kissinger finding his proposals to launch nuclear strikes on North Vietnam as an alternative to bombing dikes to be too extreme.  Little wonder that the Soviets did not find much humor in Reagan’s infamous “we begin the bombing in 5 minutes” gaffe.

America’s allies fare little better in terms of responsibility.  The United Kingdom, for its part, also considered the prospect of nuclear blackmail against China in the 1960s, when it became apparent that Hong Kong could not be held by conventional means in the event of a war.  There were also claims by the Labour Party that a Polaris-armed submarine had been sent to Ascension Island during the Falklands War, ready to launch a nuclear strike on the Argentine city of Cordoba if it proved necessary, though the Ministry of Defence has always denied this.

Israel has never confirmed or denied that it maintains nuclear weapons, but it is considered a nuclear weapons state by most observers.  Israel has previously come close to taking the “Samson Option,” as the use of nuclear weapons is known, when it threatened to use nuclear weapons at the start of the Yom Kippur War when the Israeli military was in retreat.  It was hoped that “such a drastic step would force the United States to begin an immediate and massive resupply of the Israeli military,” according to Seymour M. Hersh (The Samson Option, Random House, 1991, p.227).  Additionally, Israel had its mobile nuclear missile launchers on stand-by during the Gulf War when Iraqi SCUD missile attacks almost led to Israeli intervention (Ibid. p.318), and may also have played a part in helping apartheid South Africa acquire nuclear weapons.

Insofar as any nuclear state can be “responsible,” it has almost always been socialist states that have aimed to avoid confrontation and move towards nuclear disarmament.  The Soviet Union was committed to a “no-first-use” policy, which was only changed in 1993 by its successor state the Russian Federation (which also eventually took control of the Soviet Union’s entire nuclear arsenal).  No-first-use has also been official policy in China since the 1960s, but repeated attempts to urge the United States to commit to a similar pledge have met with little success.  Contrary to popular belief, Soviet interest in disarmament also preceded Gorbachev — for example, Andropov offered to cut Soviet missile forces in Europe steeply in return for reciprocal US cuts in 1982.  This was the same year that the United States cast the sole dissenting vote against a UN General Assembly resolution in favor of a comprehensive test ban treaty (as opposed to 1981 when a resolution calling for a halt to all test nuclear explosions was opposed by the United Kingdom too) (William Blum, Rogue State, Zed Books, 2003, pp.189, 191).

If much of the world now expresses distrust for US nuclear policy, it can hardly be a surprise, when the United States and its closest allies have acted like “rogue states.”  In view of that fact, it is impossible to dismiss the idea that nuclear weapons are perhaps the best insurance against US imperialism, a lesson that was learned the hard way by Libya.  Therefore, the hope of a world free of nuclear weapons and proliferation is unlikely to be fulfilled as long as the United States continues to believe it is the “policeman of the world.”

Louise Argall is a British writer and activist — follow her on Twitter at @louisesaudade.