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Keeping Mum about ‘No First Use’

In response to:

The Poor Man's Atomic Bomb from the April 12, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Dr. Daniel Kevles’s interesting review of Jonathan Tucker’s book on chemical weapons, War of Nerves [NYR, April 12], contains one extremely important error. He writes that during World War II “the United States and Britain adapted a two-pronged policy for chemical warfare that foreshadowed their later strategy for nuclear weapons—a no-first-strike commitment coupled with strong deterrence.” The United States never established a “no first strike”—or “no first use”—policy for nuclear weapons use, and has not to this day. US nuclear weapon targeting policies were never publicly stated, but the early post– World War II policies were reported in the publications of the US historian David Allan Rosenberg, and the US “SIOP” nuclear war plan—the Single Integrated Operations Plan—promulgated in 1962 was not “no first strike.” The first NATO guidelines for nuclear weapons use, the nuclear annex to MC-14/2 promulgated in 1957, was explicitly first use, and of course its execution depended entirely on US nuclear weapons. Of all the nuclear weapon states, only China has publicly stated a “no first use” policy. In 1982 the USSR also declared a “no first use” policy, although few strategic analysts considered it a serious initiative, and post-Soviet disclosures indicated that Warsaw Pact military plans never changed. In the mid-1990s, the Russian government retracted the Soviet no-first-use declaration.

Dr. Kevles also writes that President Kennedy’s administration was “aware that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was by then formidable….” It may have been “formidable,” primarily in its ability at that time to attack NATO Western Europe, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal during the years of the Kennedy administration was overshadowed by that of the US by a ratio of 17 to 1.

In regard to chemical weapons, Dr. Kevles misunderstood General Abrams’s 1974 statement that “our forces are not equipped in that fashion” in regard to certain chemical defenses for US troops. The remark did not refer to “sophisticated defenses against poison gas such as gas masks and antidotes for nerve agents.” Gas masks and antidotes are unsophisticated defenses and they were fully available to US military forces for decades prior to 1974. General Abrams’s remark referred to fully contained air filtering systems against chemical agents with which Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) were equipped. Soldiers inside the Soviet vehicles therefore did not have to wear masks, should they have to operate under gas attack. This would improve their combat performance. US tanks and APCs did not have such built-in air filter systems. The armored combat vehicles that the USSR supplied to Syria and Egypt were similarly equipped because air filters were fitted to all Soviet production models.

Milton Leitenberg

Senior Research Scholar

Center for International and Security Studies

School of Public Policy

University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland

Daniel J. Kevles replies:

Milton Leitenberg’s letter raises several points that warrant clarification. True enough, during the cold war, despite repeated urgings from many policymakers, the United States refrained from publicly declaring an explicit no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons comparable to that of President Franklin Roosevelt’s for chemical weapons. But neither did it declare a first-use policy. It left the Soviets in a state of uncertainty as to its strategic intentions while emphasizing its reliance on deterrence—that is, the prevention of a nuclear war by the maintenance of a strong nuclear arsenal. In the secret SIOP-62, the United States did include the option of a first nuclear strike, but only in the face of an imminent and unequivocal threat of nuclear attack by the Soviets.1 In general, US secret strategic war plans have not contemplated that option as a matter of normal military operations.

As with FDR’s attitude toward chemical weapons, every US president during the cold war made no secret of his abhorrence of nuclear war and none viewed the first-strike option with any enthusiasm. When Robert McNamara was secretary of defense, he privately obtained a no-first-use pledge from Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.2 While at the time the United States’ nuclear arsenal was, as Leitenberg notes, vastly superior to that of the Soviets, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations estimated the Soviet arsenal as formidable enough to devastate the United States.

I am grateful to be corrected on the point of General Creighton Abrams’s testimony, which I misunderstood from reading Tucker’s presentation of it.

  1. 1

    Gregg Herken, Counsels of War (expanded edition, Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 127, 165.

  2. 2

    Herken, Counsels of War, pp. 161, 171.

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