Preserving the US empire with nuclear weapons

IssueApril - May 2024
Joseph Gerson delivering his PN Zoom talk. Photo: PN
Feature by Joseph Gerson

“This is a really demanding and frightening subject that we’re dealing with.

Let me begin by saying that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and [Dmitry] Medvedev [deputy chair of Russia’s security council] have been drawing from the US playbook from the beginning of the Ukraine War with their nuclear threats. 

They’re basically, as Noam Chomsky put it, moving to ensure that those who might come to protect those that Russia is determined to attack are at least limited in what they can do. So we have these repeated nuclear threats (some of them we have to take seriously) and that’s really what the United States has done over a period of about 75 years.

I got my first insight into this in 1973. I was in Copenhagen visiting with friends (for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation). We thought that the October War in the Middle East was over, a ceasefire been declared. 

I woke in the morning and they were listening to Armed Forces radio. It stated that US nuclear forces were on alert.

My first thought was to wonder if Nixon was trying to pull a coup d’état in the last stages of the Watergate crisis but, calling my friends, I was assured that that was not the case.

In fact, the secretary of defence at the time had made an order that no significant troop movements were to be made without his authorisation because he did fear that Nixon might actually try a coup.

Over time, what I learned, as documented in the book [Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World], was that Kissinger had basically given the green light to Golda Meir [pronounced gold-er may-eer] to disregard the ceasefire. 

Israeli forces kept moving deeper into the Sinai, toward Cairo. And, worse, the Egyptian Third Army, which was already defeated, was essentially surrounded and denied food and water.

So Sadat faced, if you will, a double crisis, not only having lost the war but facing the destruction of what remained of his army. And so Sadat sent a message saying that, in the morning, he would go to the UN asking for US and Soviet intervention to enforce the ceasefire.

Well, Kissinger had been doing his best to manage the outcome of the war in a way that would really consolidate US unilateral control in the Middle East. The last thing he wanted was for the Soviets to come in and have a share of what followed from the war. 

So he immediately did two things: he put US forces on a nuclear alert to signal the Russians to stay out; and he told Golda, it’s time now to honour the ceasefire.

For me, that has been the model of US nuclear threats that I’ve been working with.

Over 30 nuclear threats

I spent a fair bit of time with Daniel Ellsburg. Dan, as most of you know, is best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of US war planning in Vietnam from 1945 into the late ’60s. But he had earlier been the principal author of US nuclear war fighting policy and doctrine – and then he turned on it.

He helped to explain that, in making US policy, the consistent element was that we had used our nuclear weapons repeatedly, since Nagasaki, in the same way that an armed robber uses a gun when he points it at his victim’s head. 

Whether or not the trigger is pulled, the gun has been used. 

That’s really the pattern that the United States has used in now more than 30 international crises and wars.

“They sent word that if the North Vietnamese didn’t accede to US terms, the US would either use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam or destroy its dam infrastructure”

After Nagasaki, the next use of nuclear weapons in this way came in 1948. During the Second World War, the US had provided weapons and supplies to its ally, the Soviet Union via Iran and there were Soviet troops in Iran. The Soviet troops did not use the end of the war to immediately withdraw. 

And so, in ’48, Truman called the Soviet ambassador into the White House and said that if they didn’t begin the withdrawal within 48 hours, he would use nuclear weapons against the Soviets. The Soviets began pulling out in 24 hours, so you have a model there.

Korea has been almost the site of the most threats. Early on during the Korean War, in 1950, MacArthur was trying to get authorisation to use US nuclear weapons. The idea he had was to bomb all along the border. Maybe it was in ’51 that he made this particular threat, to basically create a radioactive cobalt barrier between China and Korea, which would secure almost all of Korea for the United States.

Truman decided not to do that.

We have a major threat in 1952, ’53. There had been ongoing negotiations for the release of prisoners of war. They were stuck in large measure, not entirely unlike Gaza and and Israel at the moment, over the number that would be released on one side in exchange for the number who would be released by the other side. 

Eisenhower, while running for president, said he had a secret plan to end the war when he came to power. As he wrote, he let it be known that he could use nuclear weapons unless the North Koreans and the Chinese acceded to our demands, which they did.

And that, in turn, provided the model for Richard Nixon. 

In 1968, Nixon was campaigning for the presidency, and he said that he had a secret plan to end the war. None of us believed him, and he won. 

Then, as we can read in HR Haldeman’s memoirs, through a series of diplomatic contacts including via France, they sent word to the North Vietnamese that if they didn’t accede to US terms in negotiating an end to the war, the US would either use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam or destroy its dam infrastructure, destroying the country that way.

The Vietnamese held tight on that, they didn’t just go belly up. 

And, at the same time there were massive, massive demonstrations against the war here in the United States. What we learned later was that Kissinger’s staff were writing that, if the US used nuclear weapons, there would be demonstrations and protests here of just enormous, enormous power and influence that would seriously disrupt the government. 

And we had, in the run-up to Nixon’s deadline, several hundred thousand people demonstrating against the war in Washington, marching past the White House. This was unprecedented at the time.

So, again, we can read in Nixon’s memoirs that when he became aware of these demonstrations, he knew that he really couldn’t follow through on the nuclear threat.

That was an extremely dangerous time that few people knew about, then or now. 

Nixon created a secret nuclear alert that went on for 29 days. They were flying nuclear weapons up along the Russian coast. They put nuclear-armed B-52s wing-to-wing in air force bases in Nebraska so they could be seen by Russian satellites so that they would understand the seriousness of it.

They even deployed nuclear weapons in commercial airports.

Another force that led Nixon to back off was the US military, which concluded that the extended alert was just too dangerous, that they had to end the alert.

So, we have numerous threats during the Cold War.