On the "uselessness" of nuclear weapons

On the “uselessness” of nuclear weapons

One common view in nuclear disarmament studies is that nuclear weapons are useless because they can never be used. Colin Powell is one of many voices for disarmament who have expressed this view that they have no purpose because no one dare use them. [1] In this view, the policy of mutual assured destruction is merely an absurd trap from which the superpowers must extricate themselves. But if this were all there was to it, we would have to ask why they continue to exist. Nuclear weapons are a colossal expenditure of national wealth, lives and the natural environment, so it would be better to look for rational rather than irrational reasons for their continual existence. We have to ask what makes them so worthwhile to the nations that sacrificed so much to get them and now cling to them so stubbornly. If they really did have no advantages, surely we would have eliminated them by now. Perhaps the conventional wisdom is missing something.
In the 1991 documentary film, The Truth of Christmas Island, a high ranking officer in Britain’s nuclear program described the thinking that was behind the decision to test hydrogen bombs in the Pacific in the late 1950s:

The government had made a decision many years before in its secret committee that Britain had to be a nuclear power or otherwise we were right out of world politics. That was not to be tolerated for a moment. And then suddenly it was realized that an international ban on testing... was about to come into force in perhaps a year’s time and we would be left outside, so Britain would immediately become a second rate power. In no way were we ready to do a test in a year’s time. [2]
-Air Vice-Marshall Richard Oulton, Task Force Commander 1955-57

Similar comments can be found elsewhere in the historical records of other nuclear powers. Possession of nuclear weapons brings much more than just symbolic status. French leaders have also spoken frequently of the glory of having la force de la frappe (the power to strike). Elsewhere, when asked to make a commitment to never strike first, nuclear powers prefer to remain coy because ambiguity is key. As the old hair dye television commercial used to say, “Keep them guessing.” The value of the weapons would be diminished if a state were to announce to potential adversaries that they wouldn’t be used in certain situations. After spending so much national treasure and destroying lives and the natural environment just to make the bombs, states have no intention of lowering their strategic value. Besides, even if a state promised to never launch a first strike, the promise would be very easy to break. The world that followed would be too shattered to hold a war crimes tribunal.
In truth, planners envision many disastrous scenarios in which a first strike might be the only way to preserve national sovereignty. Tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, for example, are meant to be used at the discretion of field commanders in some instances, as is the case in Pakistan presently. [3]
A nation might be depleted of all means of defense, near defeat, facing imminent ruin and occupation. It might be under threat of an ambiguously worded threat of “mass destruction” which does not necessarily imply a nuclear strike. When backed into such a corner, what government would refrain from using, or threatening to use, every weapon at its disposal? The ability to threaten is useful in itself, but a nation can’t threaten to use a weapon if it doesn’t possess it or if it has promised to not use it in certain circumstance–unless of course it breaks the promise, which could be done quite easily. The term “non-explosive use of nuclear weapons” has been coined to refer to all the ways nations use nuclear weapons while they remain ostensibly unused.
The French have been very talkative on this point whenever they discuss their country’s possession of la frappe. When President Hollande was asked in February 2016, during a state visit to French Polynesia, whether the state should apologize to the victims of the fallout and admit that nuclear testing was a mistake, he balked as if the question were absurd, and bluntly said, no, that’s how we got la frappe, la dissuasion. [4] In French politics, it is beyond the pale to question the value of this achievement. They thank the French veterans and Polynesians for their sacrifice, made with uninformed consent, and have recognized that there were “effects,” but that is as far as it goes.
Two quotations by recent French presidents make it clear that deterrence does not mean only deterring an opponent from a nuclear first strike:

On the topic, President Sarkozy said: My first duty as head of state and of the military is to assure that in all circumstances France, its territory, its people, and its republican institutions, are secure. And in all circumstances, our national independence and our autonomy of decision-making must be preserved. Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate guarantee of this. Taking measure of this reality is the heavy responsibility of every president of the republic. (March 21, 2008) [5]

President Chirac declared:

It is the responsibility of the head of state to appreciate always the extent of our vital interests. The uncertainty of this limit is consubstantial with the doctrine of deterrence… It is up to the president of the republic to appreciate the profound potential consequences of an aggression, a menace or an unacceptable blackmail threatening our interests. This analysis could, in an applicable case, lead to an understanding that a threat to our vital interests exists. (January 19, 2006) [6]

North Korea has also stated a similar stance on the use of its nuclear weapons. Reuters and Russia Today translated and interpreted Kim Jong-un’s statement incorrectly as saying “the North will adhere to the principles of nuclear non-proliferation and would never attack first.” Further down in the report the policy was clarified as something a little different: “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our Republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.” [7] In other words, their policy retains the same ambiguity as that of other nuclear powers. They will not necessarily wait to be struck by a nuclear bomb before launching their own. They will use a nuclear weapon when their “sovereignty is encroached upon.” The difference is crucial. Being the victim of a first nuclear strike would be a fact, an event which no one could dispute, but having “sovereignty encroached upon” by forces equipped with nuclear weapons would be a subjective feeling and matter of interpretation. The nuclear powers all retain the right to make this judgment for themselves and strike pre-emptively. When the promise of no first use is discussed, it can best be understood as a wishful preference, as the nuclear powers never make an unambiguous commitment to it.
In August 2016, US President Obama floated the idea of committing to “no first use,” but he received little support within his own administration and from allies that are protected by the American nuclear umbrella. President Bush’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review stated three scenarios in which the US would respond with a first nuclear strike: when attacked by weapons of mass destruction of any type, to penetrate hardened underground targets that couldn’t be destroyed by conventional weapons, and in the event of “surprising military developments.” [8] It is plausible that all nations in possession of nuclear weapons have similar policies, whether they are explicitly stated or not. Half the motivation for wanting the weapons in the first place is to be able to wield these threats.
In Empire and Nuclear Weapons, an article written in 2007 about his new book, Joseph Gerson described how American officials have defined nuclear deterrence in a similarly broad fashion over the years. His description of the five established uses of nuclear weapons is paraphrased below:

1. Battlefield use, with the term “battlefield” meant to include the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The long-held consensus among scholars has been that these first atomic bombings were not necessary to end the war against Japan, and that they were designed to serve a second function of the U.S. nuclear arsenal…

2. Dictate the parameters of the global (dis)order by implicitly terrorizing U.S. enemies and allies.

3. Threaten opponents with first strike nuclear attacks in order to terrorize them into negotiating on terms acceptable to the United States or... to ensure that desperate governments do not defend themselves with chemical or biological weapons. Once the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club, the U.S. arsenal began to play a fourth role...

4. Complement U.S. conventional forces, to make them, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, “meaningful instruments of military and political power.” Implicit and explicit U.S. nuclear threats were repeatedly used to intimidate those who might consider intervening militarily to assist those we are determined to attack.

5. Deterrence, which is popularly understood to mean preventing a surprise first strike nuclear attack against the United States by guaranteeing “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Pentagon leaders have testified that this understanding of deterrence has never been U.S. policy. In contrast, they have defined deterrence as including function number 2 above, as preventing other nations from taking “courses of action” that are inimical to U.S. interests. This could include decisions related to allocation of scarce resources like oil and water, defending access to markets, or preventing non-nuclear attacks against U.S. allies and clients. [9]

Gerson points out that these five functions did not necessarily always succeed because history provides many examples of nations and revolutionary movements that called the bluff. To cite a few examples, China was “lost” to communism in the late 1940s, the North Vietnamese held out until the Americans left in 1975, and Cuba, the USSR and Angola resisted American power in Southern Africa for a quarter century. Yet in other cases, listed in Gerson’s article, nuclear threats were implicit or explicit in America’s actions on the world stage, and they advanced the political agenda. The full spectrum of American military power, ultimately backed up by nuclear weapons, succeeded in imposing the American military, economic and political order. The usefulness of nuclear weapons is implicit and clearly understood by all nations that possess them, and, of course, by those that don’t.
Unfortunately, much of the Western discourse on nuclear disarmament has lost sight of these reasons that the most powerful nations have for refusing to give up their arsenals. Long ago in 1986, Joseph Gerson wrote, “Few disarmament and arms-control activists or leaders have understood the relationship between the nuclear arms race and the global ambitions of the U.S. Similarly, efforts to halt and restrain U.S. intervention in the third world have too often proceeded in ignorance of the nuclear ramifications of ‘conventional’ conflicts in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, or Africa.” [10]
This misunderstanding seems just as prevalent today. Many activists think the reason might be bureaucratic inertia, entrenched financial interests of those who make and work with the bombs, or it might be that states are just trapped in an absurd game in which making a first strike is unthinkable but deterring one is essential. Many of the people who write about disarmament know everything about nuclear arsenals and disarmament agreements, but they are often somewhat oblivious to the wider context of international relations or uncritical of the way global power has been exercised over the last seventy years.
The Nuclear Security Summit hosted by US President Obama (April 2016) illustrated how the disarmament movement itself has been colonized by the Western consensus and the tropes of mainstream media punditry. Russia chose not to participate, and Western commentators unanimously chastised Russia for this absence and its recent “aggressive” behavior in Syria, Crimea and Ukraine. No effort was made to reflect more deeply on why Russia saw nothing to gain from participating. Despite America’s long and well-documented record of flouting international law in numerous CIA-managed coups and regime change operations, people who are apparently deeply committed to disarmament can now focus only on Russian aggression. Is this willful neglect or ignorance? If it is the latter, it requires considerable effort to maintain.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea are ambiguous cases under international law, but the outrage over these actions seems to stem from the fact that this time a large power other than the United States, France, Israel or the UK decided it had vital interests to protect. Russia defended its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by pointing to the American meddling in the internal affairs Ukraine to overthrow an elected head of a sovereign nation. The 2014 revolution in Ukraine involved nationalist and fascist elements, and it drove the country into economic chaos, worsening corruption and ethnic divisions. Russia had genuine concerns about stopping the spread of the chaos toward Russian minorities in Ukraine, and preventing a flow of refugees into Russia, so though their actions were legally dubious, their hand was forced, probably intentionally, by America’s illegal meddling in the Maidan revolt and overthrow of the head of state without a constitutionally required impeachment. Thus, if one is going to invoke international law when pointing to Russia’s reaction, one must note that the Ukrainian government is illegitimate and there was illegal interference by a foreign power in the Maidan revolt. As NATO did in Kosovo in 1999, Russia invoked the “right to protect” and it must be noted that in the end Russia’s actions brought stability. In contrast to the consequences of the American attempt to overthrow the government of Syria, there hasn’t been a flow of refugees from Crimea making dangerous sea journeys across the Black Sea in the hope of getting to Turkey, Bulgaria or Romania then onward to Western Europe. Nonetheless, the vilification of Russia in Western media has been out of all proportion. If we really wanted to know where the present state of international lawlessness came from, there are other places besides Russia we could look for ultimate causes.
The downside for Russia in its reaction to the Ukraine crisis was that it suffered illegally imposed economic sanctions, expulsion from the G8, and branding as a global pariah. There is also speculation that the decline in world oil prices was a deliberate manipulation to inflict economic pain on Russia. [11] The timing of the drop was certainly curious. Western and Saudi oil interests suffered for this as well, but it seems like there may have been a choice made to pay a sacrifice in order to inflict more pain on a rival. The Ukraine problem was preceded by the great game being played for Syria and pipelines through the region, but I’ll leave that topic aside. [12] These points are made here just to illustrate how absurd it would be to ignore this intense superpower conflict in discussions of nuclear disarmament.
The disarmament movement in the West, however, is showing signs that it is oblivious to international affairs. It has developed a Western bias in which it has begun to disregard the views of other nuclear powers, which means, ironically, that it has lost its impartiality and begun to work against its own stated purposes. In this isolated bubble of opinion, little consideration is given to the way nuclear weapons are folded within the deployment of conventional military and economic power.
Apparently, we should expect Russia and China to participate in disarmament talks without addressing their concerns about how their counterpart outspends all other nations on military, maintains a global empire of military bases, and arbitrarily imposes economic sanctions on other nations as if it were a law unto itself. The Americans are disingenuously stumped as to what could possibly be stopping Russia from coming to the table to discuss arms reductions. A recent editorial by the editor of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had some blistering critiques of the American plan to spend $1 trillion on nuclear arsenal upgrades that will upset the balance of power between the US and other nations, but the author couldn’t help casting blame on Russia for its absence from the Nuclear Security Summit and recent “bad behavior”:

Deteriorated relations between the United States and Russia make for a terribly risky world security situation. As badly as the Russians are behaving in Ukraine and Syria, Washington simply must continue to reach out. [13]

Yes, it would be such a grand, magnanimous gesture for innocent and benevolent Washington to turn the other cheek and “reach out.” The same theme reappeared in another article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists later in the same month. In this one, the author, Fiona Hill, from the American think tank The Brookings Institution wrote:

Russia has assets it can use, but its… modernization is still underway. So, in an “asymmetric” struggle with the United States, Putin and Russia have to be innovative, catch the West off guard, and fight dirty... Putin makes it clear that Russia will act on multiple fronts at the same time and do things that Western leaders would not contemplate–including the threat of crossing the nuclear threshold and breaking the post-World War II taboo against using a battlefield nuclear weapon... Putin wants to intimidate Western leaders and their publics, but his big mission is to get Russia a seat at the table with the West, on Russia’s terms, which he declares is on “equal” terms with the United States… The ultimate problem for the United States and the West is how to handle these demands, at a juncture when Putin has seemed set on bombing his way to that table, with interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and negotiating terms at gunpoint. Putin’s behavior is completely unacceptable to Western leaders. But they cannot simply reject the idea of dealing with Russia in international affairs. There are common crises that the West and Russia need to solve together, like planning the future of the Middle East beyond Syria, stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, countering transnational terrorism, adapting to climate change, and responding to pandemic disease. The best way to ensure that Putin will act as a spoiler on these and other issues is to try to isolate Russia. [14]

Fiona Hill seems to be unfamiliar with the history described above in Empire and Nuclear Weapons. All states that possess nuclear weapons have used them to implicitly or explicitly threaten to break taboos. Putin is not the first to cross this line. To possess nuclear weapons is to threaten to use them, and opponents have no way to know for sure if any taboos or thresholds exist. Fiona Hill seems to possess a crystal ball that sees into Putin’s mind, which allows her know with certainty that Russia “will do things that Western leaders would not contemplate.” She doesn’t say might or may or could. She knows somehow. Unlike the supposedly benevolent governments of other nations, Russia is described as “fighting dirty,” “intimidating,” and “threatening to cross the nuclear threshold,” as if these actions are not standard strategy for all nuclear powers. Furthermore, she states, with utmost obliviousness to the hypocrisy of the accusation coming from an American, that Russia has been “bombing their way to the table” and “negotiating terms at gunpoint.” She also seems to scoff at the idea that Russia or any other nation should expect to be treated on equal terms because it is just assumed that the global order has a hierarchy in which America is supreme.
This sort of commentary is standard and unsurprising in sources such as the Brookings Institution, but it is appalling to see it in a journal dedicated to international dialog and the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Has The Bulletin become just another Washington think tank and mouthpiece for the State Department? If the discourse of the disarmament movement is to be based on willful ignorance of history and international relations, we are entering a period when there will be multiple nation-based disarmament movements functioning as national echo chamber propaganda tools that cancel each other out in their pursuit of global dialog and cooperation. Disarmament activists have to start asking questions about the sources of funding and support that have gained influence over groups that were once believed to be neutral and above national biases.
Another flaw in the disarmament discourse is that there is a false understanding that nuclear deterrence is just an infrastructure, a financial interest, or a bureaucratic remnant of a bygone era, no longer relevant to the present era. On the contrary, nuclear deterrence needs to be understood for what it really is. Nuclear weapons are not useless. They are still the ultimate tool, among many, for influencing the behavior of adversaries and allies. They still confer the status of major power. The word deterrence actually conceals what is really going on: dissuasion, persuasion, environmental contamination, nuclear energy proliferation, private profit, threats, intimidation and terror, but as long as these wider meanings are not addressed, nothing will be done to deter or dissuade nuclear powers from wanting to retain their status as “first rate” powers in world politics. The allure of possessing la frappe has remained unchanged since those words spoken by the British task force commander in 1957. The prospect of being “right out of world politics” is not to be tolerated for a moment.  

A partial list of nuclear blackmail, from:
Joseph Gerson, “Empire and Nuclear Weapons,” Commondreams, December 5, 2007.

Truman threatens Soviets regarding Northern Iran.
Truman sends SAC bombers to intimidate Yugoslavia following the downing of U.S. aircraft over Yugoslavia.
Truman threatens Soviets in response to Berlin blockade.
Truman threatens Chinese when U.S. Marines were surrounded at Chosin Reservoir in Korea.
Truman approves military request to attack Manchuria with nuclear weapons if significant numbers of new Chinese forces join the war.
Eisenhower threatens China to force an end to Korean War on terms acceptable to the United States.
Eisenhower’s Secretary of State Dulles offers French three tactical nuclear weapons to break the siege at Dienbienphu, Vietnam. Supported by Nixon’s public trial balloons.
Eisenhower used nuclear armed SAC bombers to reinforce CIA-backed coup in Guatemala.
Bulganin threatens London and Paris with nuclear attacks, demanding withdrawal following their invasion of Egypt.
Eisenhower counters by threatening the U.S.S.R. while also demanding British and French retreat from Egypt.
Eisenhower orders Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare to use nuclear weapons against Iraq, if necessary to prevent extension of revolution into Kuwait.
Eisenhower orders Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare to use nuclear weapons against China if they invade the island of Quemoy.
Kennedy threatens Soviets during Berlin Crisis.
Cuban Missile Crisis.
Johnson threatens Soviets during Middle East War.
Johnson’s public threats against Vietnam are linked to possible use of nuclear weapons to break siege at Khe Shan.
Brezhnev threatens China during border war.
Nixon’s “November Ultimatum” against Vietnam.
Nixon signals U.S. preparations to fight nuclear war during Black September War in Jordan.
Israeli Government threatens use of nuclear weapons during the “October War.”
Kissinger threatens Soviet Union during the last hours of the “October War” in the Middle East.
Nixon pledges to South Vietnamese President Thieu that he will respond with nuclear attacks or the bombing of North Vietnam’s dikes if it violated the provisions of the Paris Peace Accords.
Sec. of Defense Schlesinger threatens North Korea with nuclear retaliation should it attack South Korea in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Carter Doctrine announced.
Reagan reaffirms the Carter Doctrine.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatens to eliminate Buenos Aires during the Falklands War.
Pakistan threatens India during confrontation over Kashmir.
Bush threatens Iraq during the “Gulf War.”
Clinton threatens North Korea.
Clinton’s confrontation with North Korea.
China threatens “Los Angeles” during confrontation over Taiwan. Clinton responds by sending two nuclear-capable aircraft carrier fleets through the Taiwan Strait.
Clinton threatens Libya with nuclear attack to prevent completion of underground chemical weapons production complex.
Clinton threatens Iraq with nuclear attack.
India and Pakistan threaten and prepare nuclear threats during the Kargil War.
U.S. forces placed on a DEFCON alert in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld refuses to rule out using tactical nuclear weapons against Afghan caves possibly sheltering Osama Bin Laden.
Bush communicates an implied threat to counter any Iraqi use of chemical weapons to defend Iraqi troops with chemical or biological weapons with a U.S. nuclear attack.
French Prime Minister Chirac threatens first strike nuclear attacks against nations that practice terrorism against France.
2006 &
“All options are on the table”: U.S. threats to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure made by President Bush and presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton.


[1] Max Bergmann, “Colin Powell: ‘Nuclear Weapons Are Useless,’”
ThinkProgress, January 27, 2010, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2010/01/27/175869/colin-powell-nuclear-weapons-are-useless/ .

[2] Ross Wilson (director) Paul Murricane (producer), Dispatches: The Truth of Christmas Island, 12:48~ Scottish Television Productions, 1991
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc3_GRMHdlU .

[3] Dilip Hiro, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth: A Nuclear Armageddon in the Making in South Asia,” TomDispatch.com, April 3, 2016, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176123/tomgram%3A_dilip_hiro,_flashpoint_for_the_planet/ .

[4] Le Petit Journal, February 23, 2016, http://www.canalplus.fr/c-emissions/le-petit-journal/pid6515-le-petit-journal.html?vid=1365601 .

[5] “La dissuasion c’est moi dit l’inconnu de province,” Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire, March 23, 2016, http://www.idn-france.org/2016/03/la-dissuasion-cest-moi-dit-linconnu-de-province/ .

[6] Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire.

[7] “North Korea to ‘normalize relations with hostile states,’ won’t launch nuke strike first – Kim,” Russia Today, May 6, 2016, https://www.rt.com/news/342236-north-korea-normalize-relations-nukes/ .

[8] William M. Arkin, “Secret Plan Outlines the Unthinkable,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002. http://articles.latimes.com/2002/mar/10/opinion/op-arkin .

[9] Joseph Gerson, “Empire and Nuclear Weapons,”  Commondreams, December 5, 2007, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2007/12/05/empire-and-nuclear-weapons .

[10] Joseph Gerson, “What is a Deadly Connection?” The Deadly Connection: Nuclear War and U.S. Intervention, ed. Joseph Gerson, (Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1986) p.9. Cited in John Steinbach, “The Bush Administration, U.S. Nuclear War-Fighting Policy & the War On Iraq,” Counterpunch, May 13, 2016, http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/13/the-bush-administration-u-s-nuclear-war-fighting-policy-the-war-on-iraq/ . (Although the article was published in May 2016, it does not refer to any events since the first term of G.W. Bush. It is an updated version of a talk given by John Steinbach at the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship in 2003.)

[11] Eric Draister, “BRICS Under Attack: Western Banks, Governments Launch Full-Spectrum Assault On Russia (Part I),” Mint Press News, April 20, 2016, 
http://www.mintpressnews.com/brics-attack-western-banks-governments-launch-full-spectrum-assault-russia-part/215761/ .

[12] For an in-depth discussion of the roots causes of the Syria conflict and the renewed Cold War, see Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “Why the Arabs don’t want us in Syria,” Politico, February 23, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/why-the-arabs-dont-want-us-in-syria-mideast-conflict-oil-intervention/  .

[13] Rachel Bronson, “‘Command and Control,’ terrifying soon at a theater near you,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 3, 2016, http://thebulletin.org/command-and-control-terrifying-soon-theater-near-you9302 .

[14] Fiona Hill, “Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 13, 2016. http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2016.1170361?platform=hootsuite& .


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