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A gun at your head

Milan Rai explains how nuclear weapons work in the real world

ImageNuclear weapons have been used since 9 August 1945. They have been used ‘in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.’

These are the words, over 30 years ago, of analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon insider who leaked the US government’s top secret internal history of the Vietnam War, the ‘Pentagon Papers’.

Back in 1981, Ellsberg challenged the widespread idea that nuclear weapons had not been used since Nagasaki: ‘It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years... unused and unusable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets. Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.’

Surveying a number of occasions when the US government had either issued nuclear threats to its enemies, or contemplated the use of nuclear weapons, Ellsberg emphasised: ‘every president from Truman to Reagan, with the possible exception of Ford, has felt compelled to consider or direct serious preparations for possible imminent US initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing, intense, non-nuclear conflict or crisis.’

Vietnam 1954
One extraordinary example was the offer of atomic assistance by then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles to then French foreign secretary Georges Bidault. In 1954, the French were failing in their attempt to re-conquer Vietnam after the Second World War.

According to Bidault, in two separate face-to-face meetings Dulles offered France US nuclear bombs. (France did not develop its own nuclear arsenal until 1960.) One offer focused on bombing Chinese territory near the border, in order to halt Chinese supplies to the Vietminh, the Vietnamese resistance. The other proposal was to drop several atomic bombs on Vietminh forces surrounding the French base at Dien Bien Phu.

Bidault refused both offers, and elite French forces were overrun at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, marking the humiliating end of French colonialism in Indochina.

In his memoirs, Bidault recounted the explanation he gave Dulles for his refusal: ‘If those bombs are dropped near Dien Bien Phu, our side will suffer as much as the enemy. If we drop them on the supply line from China, we will be risking a world war. In either case, far from being helped, the Dien Bien Phu garrison will be worse off than before.’

While some historians have cast doubt on Bidault’s account of this meeting, French-American journalist Ted Morgan points out that several other French officials were notified of the offer at the time, and there was a witness to the Dulles-Bidault exchange, the French ambassador to Switzerland, Jean Chauvel.

Vietnam again
Ellsberg also referred to two other cases involving Vietnam: the secret request in 1968 by the US commander in Vietnam, general William Westmoreland, to use tactical nuclear weapons to relieve the siege of the US base at Khe Sanh (which threatened to become another Dien Bien Phu); and the secret threat of nuclear escalation, personally conveyed to the North Vietnamese leadership by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, in 1969.

The Westmoreland proposal followed a 1 February 1968 cable from the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, general Earle Wheeler, who asked Westmoreland ‘whether tactical nuclear weapons should be used if the situation in Khe Sanh should become that desperate’. Westmoreland responded that they were not needed immediately, but if the siege worsened: ‘I visualize that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents would be active candidates for employment.’ Somehow the US press got wind of this contingency planning (Westmoreland set up a study group in Saigon to analyse the nuclear option) and US president Lyndon Johnson halted all work in this area.

As for the Kissinger threats, US president Richard Nixon told officials that he was inspired by the precedent set by president Dwight D Eisenhower, who he had served as vice-president.

US decision-makers had actively considered the possible use of nuclear weapons in Korea throughout the war. On 31 March 1953, the US national security council pondered the nuclear option again. According to the declassified minutes of the meeting, president Eisenhower opened the discussion: ‘Admittedly, he said, there were not many good tactical targets, but he felt it would be worth the cost if, through use of atomic weapons, we could (1) achieve a substantial victory over the Communist forces and (2) get to a line at the waist of Korea.’

The main problem, in his view was that: ‘we could not blind ourselves to the effects of such a move on our allies, which would be very serious since they feel that they will be the battleground in an atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.’

The top secret minutes continue: ‘Nevertheless, the President and Secretary Dulles were in complete agreement that somehow or other the tabu which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed. While Secretary Dulles admitted that in the present state of world opinion we could not use an A-bomb, we should make every effort now to dissipate this feeling.’

“We will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons.”

In his memoirs, Eisenhower wrote: ‘To keep the attack from becoming costly, it was clear that we would have to use atomic weapons’, and he ‘let the Communist authorities understand that, in the absence of satisfactory progress, we intended to move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons, and would no longer be responsible for confining hostilities to the Korean Peninsula’. It was generally understood in the US diplomatic and military establishment that it was this threat of escalation that led to the Chinese agreeing to a truce.

(Six months after the ceasefire was declared in mid-1953, the joint chiefs of staff and the state department jointly urged the use of nuclear weapons on Korea and China if ‘the Communists renew[ed] hostilities’.)

Coming back to Vietnam, Nixon told his own chief of staff, HR Haldeman: ‘I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.’ In August 1969, Kissinger told the North Vietnamese that if by 1 November 1969 there had been no ceasefire by the Vietnamese resistance: ‘we will be compelled – with great reluctance – to take measures of the greatest consequences.’ Two nuclear bombs would be dropped on North Vietnam.

Nixon secretly raised US nuclear forces to their highest level of alertness, DEF CON 1, for 29 days. However, the scale of popular opposition to the war, especially the 15 October Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in Washington DC, convinced Nixon that he could not go through with the nuclear threat, because of the risk of ‘internal physical turmoil’ in the US.

What these and other examples show is that the US military and civilian leadership has had a much more aggressive attitude towards using nuclear weapons than is generally realised.

Non-use, first use
These examples also show that there have been significant barriers to actually detonating such weapons. Fear of escalation, of world opinion and of domestic public opinion seem to have been major factors in restraining nuclear attacks.

US scholar Nina Tannenwald’s work, The Nuclear Taboo (Cambridge University Press, 2007), focuses on these factors, and on internal moral barriers within decision-making circles. Tannenwald argues that these internal moral concerns – within decision-makers themselves – have strengthened over the years, and now amount to a virtual taboo on using nuclear weapons, making the first use of US nuclear weapons, in her view, effectively ‘unthinkable’.

Of course, official nuclear doctrine in the United States, as in the UK, permits the first use of nuclear weapons – even against non-nuclear weapon states.

According to the Obama administration’s 2010 ‘Nuclear Posture Review’: ‘there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional [emphasis added] or CBW [chemical or biological warfare] attack against the United States or its allies and partners’.

In Britain, the coalition government’s official position is: ‘we deliberately maintain some ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent.... we will not rule in or out the first use of nuclear weapons’.

Both governments have been committed to first use of nuclear weapons since at least 1967, when the NATO military alliance first adopted ‘flexible response’: ‘a flexible and balanced range of appropriate responses, conventional and nuclear, to all levels of aggression or threats of aggression’. Strictly speaking, this permitted nuclear ‘responses’ to conventional ‘threats’. It is extraordinary that this first-use doctrine, which has been NATO and therefore British policy ever since, remains still virtually unknown to the British public.

As we’ve pointed out before (PN 2559-60), British nuclear policy does not centre on the defence of Britain’s homeland, but on the defence of Britain’s ‘vital interests’.

The ministry of defence (MoD) policy re-stated its long-standing policy in December 2012: ‘the UK’s nuclear weapons are not designed for military use during conflict but instead to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means’.

In November 1993, the then defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind explained that because it would not always be credible to threaten an enemy with an all-out attack with several 100-kiloton warheads, the British government was developing the option of a lower-yield, single-warhead Trident missile attack.

In September 1994, the respected journal Jane’s International Defence Review spelled out what these single-warhead or ‘tactical’ Tridents might be used for. At one end of the spectrum, they could be used in a Gulf War-type conflict, ‘to reply to enemy nuclear strikes’ on British forces. In a similar setting, they could be used to ‘reply’ to chemical or biological attacks.

‘Thirdly, they could be used in a demonstrative role: ie aimed at a non-critical, possibly uninhabited area, with the message that if the country concerned pursued its present course of action, nuclear weapons will be aimed at a high-priority target.’

The fourth possible role for Tactical Trident was ‘the punitive role’: ‘where a country has committed an act, despite specific warnings that to do so would incur a nuclear strike.’

This article, by a former British military officer, was clearly based on briefings from within the MoD. In recent decades, the British military establishment has learned to be more cautious in its explanations.

“Much like showing a gun tucked in a waistband; the US exerted its latent power as a nuclear armed state.”

Broadening ‘use’
Tannenwald has been criticised by, among others, Carol Atkinson, former chief of nuclear target analysis for contingencies at US strategic command (which is in charge of US nuclear forces).

Atkinson, now an academic, points out that: ‘By limiting the concept of “use” to the material realm of detonating a nuclear weapon against one’s enemy, we miss the complete spectrum of how the United States has used its nuclear weapons.’

Atkinson points to the example of the 1991 Gulf War, when, as Tannenwald acknowledges, US leaders issued nuclear threats against Iraq. Atkinson points out that ‘although no nuclear shots were fired in the short war, nuclear weapons were used by the United States to define the rules and scope of the war’. She refers to the nuclear threat, conveyed personally by the US secretary of state James A Baker (and recounted in his memoirs) to Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Baker warned in the strongest terms against the Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons against US forces.

The US judge at the World Court, Stephen M Schwebel, referred to this threat in 1996, in his advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. Schwebel commended the nuclear threat issued by Baker as ‘both lawful and rational’ – in fact, as ‘not only eminently lawful but intensely desirable’.

Schwebel notes that all accounts agree that the US leadership had decided against the explosive use of nuclear weapons against Iraq even in the event of a chemical attack – but the administration had also agreed on the threatened use of nuclear weapons.

Atkinson writes: ‘Focus on whether or not the United States would have fired a nuclear weapon [against Iraq] is an important consideration but it misses the point that the United States achieved its objective to limit the types of weapons that were used by Iraqi forces. Much like showing a gun tucked in a waistband; the US exerted its latent power as a nuclear armed state.’

Atkinson contrasts this with the fate of non-nuclear Iran, which suffered devastating casualties from Iraqi chemical weapons use in the Iran-Iraq war. The Iraqi army, in 1991, were the most experienced military force in the world in the battlefield use of chemical weapons.

Looking Glass
Atkinson draws on a personal experience of US nuclear ‘use’ in the widest sense, from her own time as an intelligence advisor on strategic air command’s nuclear airborne command post.

These aircraft were known as ‘Looking Glass’ because they mirrored the nuclear command, control and communications systems in SAC’s main underground command post. If that underground base had been destroyed, Looking Glass staff were fully trained to assume control of US nuclear forces and wage nuclear war if so ordered.

Atkinson writes: ‘In an intuitive manner, military strategists ?ying the Looking Glass missions were well aware of the theoretical distinction between force, power, and in?uence: when nuclear weapons become instruments of death, they are no longer instruments of in?uence. The strategic planners and mission crews that constituted the strategy and operations of the Looking Glass missions were using nuclear weapons all the time. In addition to their use more overtly in deterrence and overt threats, nuclear weapons were used as latent power. The Looking Glass missions were widely known; battle sta? members frequently gave tours of the unclassi?ed portions of the facilities and mission. It was much like showing the gun that is tucked in a waistband.’

‘Usable’ and ‘useful’
A distinction may be helpful: whether nuclear weapons are ‘usable’ (in terms of detonating them on an enemy target) and whether they are ‘useful’ (in terms of shaping the thinking and the behaviour of the enemy). These are two kinds of nuclear ‘use’.

Tannenwald argues, plausibly, that US nuclear weapons are now almost ‘unusable’, because of the political, moral and other costs of detonation. Atkinson contends, equally plausibly, that nuclear weapons are extremely ‘useful’, because of their continuous ‘latent power’ (affecting all inter-state relationships), and because of their immediate coercive power in crisis situations.

The gun may be shown on the hip, or it may be drawn and pressed against the temple of the opponent in a confrontation. Either way, it can be used to great effect – without the trigger ever needing to be pulled.


This article is part of a series on state nuclear terrorism. 

Milan Rai is a PN co-editor and author of Tactical Trident: The Rifkind Doctrine and the Third World.