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Gambling On History: President Trump’s Pentagon Says Nuclear Weapons Save Lives

It’s a dubious public relations pitch

Bikini Atoll
A 1946 nuclear blast conducted by the U.S. on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific dwarfs Navy ships. (Photo: Library of Congress)

There, buried deep in the Pentagon’s latest argument for spending $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years readying for nuclear war, is the U.S. military’s bottom line: atomic bombs save lives. It’s one of those head-snapping claims that has enough heft to make some sense. But in the quarter century I’ve been reading the nation’s Nuclear Posture Reviews, never has the claim that such bombs and missiles save lives—the Mother Teresa of weapons, if you will—been made so baldly.

“For centuries prior to the era of nuclear deterrence, periodic and catastrophic wars among Great Powers were the norm, waged with ever more destructive weapons and inflicting ever higher casualties and damage to society,” the Nuclear Posture Review claims. “During the first half of the 20th century and just prior to the introduction of U.S. nuclear deterrence, the world suffered 80-100 million fatalities over the relatively short war years of World Wars I and II, averaging over 30,000 fatalities per day.” American nuclear weapons “have made essential contributions to the deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression,” the NPR adds. “The subsequent absence of Great Power conflict has coincided with a dramatic and sustained reduction in the number of lives lost to war globally.”

People have forgotten, but President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came breathtakingly close to eliminating their nations’ nuclear weapons at their 1986 Reykjavik summit.

Granted, there is classified versions of the NPR, but the high-stakes readers of those secret documents don’t need to be swayed by claims of the purported live-saving qualities of the world’s most deadly weapons. Make no mistake: this section of the latest NPR is aimed squarely at the public. And here’s the evidence, in this chart based on data provided by the “DoD Historical Office":

2018 Nuke Posture Review

(Source: 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, page 17)

Critics in the arms control and disarmament communities of this latest Pentagon public relations effort acknowledge nuclear weapons have helped prevent Great Power conflicts. So have the rise of military and economic alliances, better-educated citizenries, and recent population growth that shrinks the percentage of those killed in wars as a share of total population. It’s impossible to know the individual impacts of such forces on the reduction in war deaths, they say.

Most critically, they maintain, the chart tells only half the story. “If the Pentagon wanted to paint the full risk picture, it would have included a chart in the Nuclear Posture Review showing the resulting world casualties in the event of a nuclear war,” says Kingston Reif, a nuclear-disarmament advocate at the Arms Control Association. That missing element is the chart’s “most dishonest contribution,” adds Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists: “If nuclear weapons were ever used in a war, the fatalities would be so enormous that World War II would look like a walk in the park.”

The Pentagon has generated these Nuclear Posture Reviews, under orders from Congress, since the end of the Cold War (Bill Clinton in 1994; George W. Bush, 2002; Barack Obama, 2010; and Donald Trump in February). Each has a sheen of reasonableness cloaked in deep-war speak. More in sorrow than in anger they gently explain why the nation must maintain a nuclear stockpile capable of destroying the world.

Even as President Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore June 12 in an effort to convince the North Korean dictator to give up his handful of atomic arms, the U.S. maintains that its current arsenal of 6,500 is vital to saving lives.

It all boils down to what kind of gambler you are.

On one side are the traditionalists, who view nuclear weapons as a way to balance terror in the 21st Century pretty much the same way they did in the 20th. Of course, the relevance of “mutually-assured destruction”—we’ll destroy your country if you destroy ours—is of dwindling utility today. That’s because of the growing number of nuclear states. MAD works best as a seesaw, and a teeter-totter doesn’t work well with more than two riders.

It’s also makes less sense in a world where the greatest nuclear threat may be terrorists seizing such weapons from nations whose security may not be weapons-grade. U.S. nuclear policy has always been built upon the fingers of rational actors sitting atop their nuclear buttons. Unfortunately, that becomes less true every day as chances grow of irrational actors eager to press them.

On the other side are those who fear that nearly 75 years of luck has got to run out sometime. Despite the dangers even U.S. nuclear weapons pose, their security leaves something to be desired (remember that 82-year-old nun who broke into one of the nation’s top nuclear-weapons sites?).

If terrorists don’t get their hands on a nuclear weapon, an accident, miscommunication or mistake could lead to their use (as came close to happening during the Cold War itself multiple times). “The use of nuclear weapons is possible even if no one desires such an outcome,” Reif says. “Especially during a grave crisis in which military forces are on high alert, nuclear doctrines emphasize preemption and escalation control, accurate information is hard to get, and events on the ground cannot be controlled.”

The Nuclear Posture Review maintains that the world requires a “fundamental transformation” in political relations among states before nuclear weapons can disappear. Or it could simply require some transformational thinking. People have forgotten, but President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came breathtakingly close to eliminating both nations’ nuclear weapons at their 1986 Reykjavik summit. When an aide tried to convince the 40th president of the impossibility of a nuclear-free world, he countered: “We couldn’t know that nuclear weapons had kept the peace in Europe for forty years, maybe other things had.” In other words, the claim that nuclear weapons have kept the peace, and saved lives, is simply a deduction. And even politicians know (although they are loathe to admit it) that correlation is not causation.

But more than 30 years later, Reykjavik’s promise resembles nothing so much as a passing fancy. Sure, Obama spoke of a nuclear-free world—that’s how he landed an expectant Nobel Peace Prize in 2009—but his vision veered off the rails in 2010 when he agreed to spend billions on a new nuclear triad of subs, bombers and ICBMs to win Senate approval for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. The rhetoric in the NPR is used to justify expensive and unnecessary projects and cutting corners along the line. That narrative will make a lot of defense contractors very rich without giving citizens much to show for the expenditures.

Some defense experts have endorsed Reagan’s call for no nuclear weapons as part of an international, verifiable effort. A decade ago, four national-security heavyweights (former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry, and former senator Sam Nunn) said the dangers of nuclear weapons had eclipsed their value.

But apparently not yet for average Americans. An eyebrow-raising survey last year argued that a solid majority of Americans would support using nuclear weapons in a war to kill millions if it would save the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. Scott Sagan, a political-science professor at Stanford University, and Benjamin Valentino, who teaches government at Dartmouth College, surveyed a representative sample of 780 Americans about the possible use of nuclear weapons in a war against Iran that quickly spiraled out of control.

“The findings demonstrate that, contrary to the nuclear-taboo thesis, a clear majority of Americans would approve of using nuclear weapons first against the civilian population of a nonnuclear-armed adversary, killing 2 million Iranian civilians, if they believed that such use would save the lives of 20,000 U.S. soldiers,” they wrote in last summer’s issue of International Security, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Our experiments suggest that the majority of Americans find a 1:100 risk ratio to be morally acceptable.” That, of course, is less of an argument for keeping nuclear weapons than it is for reducing our reliance on them.

Frankly, it will take American leadership that currently doesn’t exist to wean the public from such attitudes.

This all gets back to the nuclear wager: do you believe that nuclear weapons make the world safer? Or are you more concerned that they are a horrible accident, unprecedented in human history, waiting to happen? Just what kind of bettor are you? And are you willing to bet your life that you hold the winning hand?

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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