By Jonathan Power*
In the Cold War days, some of us used to say, “Better red than dead”—to rebuff those who believed in “role-the-dice” nuclear deterrence as a way of political life that gave them security. Now those of us who are frightened that Vladimir Putin could start a nuclear war over Ukraine should coin a new phrase. How about: “Better alive than going to the grave with Vladimir Putin”?
Admittedly that doesn’t have the same snappy ring, but you get my point.
At the UN, President Donald Trump (aka Fire and Fury) once threatened to “totally” destroy North Korea if the US was forced to defend itself and its troops in South Korea.
In riposte, Senator Bob Corker, the former chair of the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and at one time an important backer of Trump, the candidate, said that Trump could set the nation “on the path to World War 3”.
If Donald Trump felt unconstrained to use them, he wouldn’t have been the first president to think the unthinkable. It’s the same sort of argument that President Harry Truman used in his public pronouncements to justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In order to protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who were fighting their way from the south of Japan to Tokyo, the bombs had to be used, he argued. In fact, we now know from well-regarded historians that this was not the most important argument that persuaded Truman to give the order to bomb. It was the fear that the US wartime ally, the Soviet Union, invading from the north, would get to Tokyo first if the US didn’t immediately intimidate Japan to surrender.
In August 1945, 85% of Americans told pollsters they approved of Truman’s decision. Support for that decision has declined over the years. A poll in 2015 said that only 46% thought it was justified, but even that is a lot. Hence the false idea that Americans consider the further use of nuclear weapons a taboo.
John Hersey’s popular book that sold millions of copies, “Hiroshima”, did much to build up the sense of taboo, but over time it wasn’t sufficient. All Americans are not inoculated against future use.
At the time of the Korean War in 1953-55, Truman again nearly used nuclear weapons to halt the Chinese coming to the aid of the communist North, but was dissuaded by Winston Churchill, the British prime minister.
Advisors to President John F. Kennedy including his (later pacifist-inclined) secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, considered their use against the Soviet Union during the Cuban crisis of 1962 and were mentally prepared in extremis to use them.
During the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, thought seriously about using nuclear weapons against the North. Georgi Arbatov, an advisor to the Soviet president, Leonard Brezhnev, confided to me that there had been two or three occasions when the generals had argued to Brezhnev that they should be considered for use in a first strike against America.
A sophisticated poll by YouGov in 2015 examined how America would react if Iran was caught violating an agreement that sharply reduced world sanctions in return for Iran giving up its nuclear research program.
YouGov asked its sample what they would think if Iran attacked an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf killing over 2,000 military personnel and then the US retaliated with airstrikes and a ground invasion. A 56 % majority of those polled agreed that if Iran did not then surrender a nuclear strike was permissible. Even women did not think differently. The taboo on using nuclear weapons is no longer all-encompassing.
I would surmise, even though I have no polling evidence, that an overwhelming majority of the world would not accept the use by Russia or the US of nuclear weapons in any circumstances. In Europe, I doubt if more than 5%.
But in America, it is another matter. According to a survey carried out in the US and analysed at length in Harvard University’s “International Security” some 50% of American adults believe that their use against North Korea would be justified, especially if it saved the lives of 20,000 American soldiers. (Which is less than the 30,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea today).
Harvard professor, Stephen Pinker, disagrees. He doesn’t agree that a majority of Americans would approve a nuclear strike. In his widely acclaimed book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, he argues that for Americans “the only acceptable wars are surgical routs achieved with remote-control technology”. There has been in recent years, he argues, an “expansion of prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, taboos and conceptions of human rights.”
We don’t have such a detailed and careful poll of American attitudes to a possible Russian nuclear strike in reply to current NATO activity—providing sophisticated and highly effective anti-tank weapons and other munitions to Ukraine to resist the Russian invaders. Putin has warned the West that in some circumstances—if Russia itself felt threatened—he would order their use.
If there was a Russian nuclear attack, it would probably be, to begin with, the use of a small battlefield nuclear weapon—as little as 20% the size of Hiroshima’s, killing a “mere” 10,000 people. Still, it might be enough to provoke the US to retaliate with a similar weapon to supposedly deter the further use of them by Russia. (The US has plenty of these stored on European soil.)
The nuclear strategists have warned us about this use, leading to, step by step, incremental escalation, tit for tat, which at a certain point reaches the point of “use them or lose them”. Very senior military men, including General Colin Powell, the former chief of the US military, have pointed out that once nuclear weapons are used it will be extraordinarily difficult to halt an escalation which could end with the use of the mightiest nuclear-tipped rockets. I’m sure there is similar reserve in the higher ranks of the Russian military and political class. Mikhail Gorbachev, when president of the Soviet Union, dismissed their use.
Still, as Truman and Trump have shown there are politicians who believe in their use and feel confident, they can press the button if necessary.
I can’t guess at what goes on in Putin’s mind. Maybe he is in that club of ruthless, amoral, leaders or whether, like Nikita Khrushchev, the former premier of the Soviet Union, who threatened their use during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he has moral doubts and would pull back at the last possible moment. Khrushchev had played a kind of Russian roulette with the US, and this was one of the major reasons his colleagues in the Politiburo (cabinet) later deposed him. They did not want to see the civilised world incinerated.
As for regular church-goer Joe Biden, I can’t imagine he would go against the teaching of the Catholic Church and use “nukes”. He knows the Pope, whom he reveres, has spoken out both against the use of violence in the Ukraine war and against nuclear weapons. Biden, if he considered the nuclear option, would wonder if God would send him to roast in hell. Of course, most modern-day Christians don’t much believe in hell fire—but you never know. I hope and trust he never has to confront such a decision.
*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com