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When Should We Use Our Nuclear Arsenal?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carroll G. Robinson and Michael O. Adams
September 16, 2016

When, if ever, should our nation use its nuclear arsenal? Shouldn’t the next Commander in Chief (president) and her/his advisors have an answer to this question? They should be thinking about such things in advance so that they will have a proactive, rather than reactive answer. Their answer should also be a part of their foreign policy planning, strategy and its implementation.

Here are some other questions to consider:

  • Should the U.S. use nuclear weapons on a pre-emptive basis or only in response to a nuclear attack on our nation?
  • What about an attack on our NATO allies?
  • Should nuclear weapons ever be used to respond to or prevent a conventional military invasion of what Donald Rumsfeld called “Old Europe” by Russia?

Since Hiroshima, whenever a Commander in Chief, the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense have said that “all options are on the table,” in a military context, it has implicitly meant that the use of nuclear weapons was an option. As recently as March 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “all options are on the table” as the U.S. was deciding how to respond to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

In light of the negative media and mainstream foreign policy establishment reaction – both Republicans and Democrats – to the allegation that Donald Trump asked a foreign policy expert three times why the U.S did not use nuclear weapons, are we witnessing an implicit change in our nation’s military policy? Is the use of nuclear weapons no longer an option?

Is the Barry “Goldwaterification” of Donald Trump (think LBJ’s 1964 Daisy commercial against Barry Goldwater) sending a signal to foreign leaders in countries such as North Korea, Russia, China and Iran, as well as, to terrorist groups that the nuclear option is off the table and is no longer a real deterrent option in the U.S. military arsenal?

In his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama indicated that his foreign policy decision making was being guided by our nation’s experience in Vietnam and Iraq.

In his speech, the president said:

“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq and we should have learned it by now. “

The president’s statement raises several interesting questions. Has he rejected the lesson of World War II; The Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Europe and Japan, as well as, the experience of the Korean conflict, all places where America helped rebuild and still has troops stationed to this day? Or is the president implying that those lessons have been superseded by history, circumstances and new experiences?

Foreign policy will be an interesting area in the next administration if the use of nuclear weapons is no longer a military option for the United States and if the experiences of Vietnam and Iraq are the touchstone and guiding principal of future foreign policy decision making.

Let’s all keep our eyes open to see what is to come.

Authors: Robinson and Adams are professors at the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Prepared with the assistance of Brandy N. Smart, graduate research assistant in the BJ-ML School of Public Affairs, eMPA Program Class of 2017.

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