Americans hate nuclear weapons, and those who think about them. This I know from a professional lifetime as one who thinks about nuclear weapons, strategy, and warfare.
Philosophically, weapons of mass destruction are antithetical to the ethos of democratic societies deriving their legitimacy from the people, where government exists to serve the people, where the most precious jewel is the lives of the people. Nuclear weapons, that threaten mass destruction of the people, is so noxious in our society that almost no one wants to think about them—and very few do.
In contrast, totalitarian and authoritarian states are proud of their nuclear firepower and celebrate nuclear weapons. Russia, China, and North Korea parade nuclear missiles in their streets. They broadcast TV documentaries about winning nuclear wars, almost always against the United States.
Military dictatorships and societies ruled by iron-fisted elites, where the dictators or their ideology is the most precious jewel, where the people are considered expendable—such societies love nuclear weapons. Even their peoples love The Bomb. They never seem to tire of nuclear missile parades and civil defense drills.
Refusing to think about nuclear weapons and warfare will not make the threat go away. Pretending to abolish nuclear weapons through arms control, as the West has been trying to do since 1945, is just another way of not thinking.
We should have learned by now nuclear weapons are here to stay, a permanent fact of international life. The bad guys do not want to ban their bomb. They will encourage us to ban our bombs, but keep theirs.
Pretending that nuclear strategy is Strangelovian, an evil necessity to be tolerated among a small group of bespectacled weirdos like myself—but not central to national security and real statesmanship—is yet another way of not thinking.
In fact, nuclear weapons are the most formidable military technology existing in the modern world. They are the most powerful piece on the geopolitical chess board.
Nuclear weapons are central to, and the foundation of, our national security.
Colin S. Gray correctly observed, during the height of the Cold War, that nuclear weapons are so important they overshadow everything in war, peace, and diplomacy. Gray understood then, as we must now, that nuclear weapons are so powerful they shape the mental geography of international relations, and influence war, diplomacy, and peace—merely by existing.
Thus, since 1945, every war fought involving a nuclear-armed power or their allies has been a nuclear war. All diplomacy involving nuclear-armed powers or their allies has been nuclear diplomacy. Since 1945, when there has been peace, it has been nuclear peace.
Since 1945, the greatest U.S. victories and greatest U.S. defeats have been nuclear victories, and nuclear defeats:
Nuclear victory looks like the 200,000 casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But also like Japan surrendering on the deck of the USS Missouri, sparing over 1,000,000 casualties expected from invading their home islands, and ending World War II.
Nuclear victory looks like President Dwight Eisenhower threatening to use the U.S. advantage in tactical nuclear weapons to end the Korean War with an Armistice.
Nuclear victory looks like President John F. Kennedy, armed with a 5-to-1 advantage in ICBMs, going eyeball to eyeball with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, forcing the USSR into a humiliating retreat during the Cuban missile crisis.
Nuclear defeat looks like President Nixon’s retreat from South Vietnam. According to presidential advisor Rodger Swearingen, President Lyndon Johnson was afraid to invade, occupy, and liberate North Vietnam—the only way to win the conflict—fearing a nuclear war with China.
Nuclear victory looks like deterring a Soviet invasion of Western Europe—despite the USSR’s vast numerical advantages in tanks, aircraft, artillery, and troops—and keeping the peace for 45 years.
Nuclear victory looks like winning the Cold War with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the USSR without a thermonuclear World War III, defeating the most powerful totalitarian empire in history—peacefully.
Nuclear defeat looks like Russia annexing the Crimea without firing a shot and torturing Ukraine for three years to undermine NATO. Under President Clinton’s Bucharest Agreement, Ukraine surrendered hundreds of nuclear weapons on its territory to Moscow, in exchange for security guarantees from Washington and London, that have proven worthless.
Nuclear defeat looks like President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and eight years of appeasement of Iranian aggression against U.S. allies in the Middle East.
Nuclear defeat will look like a North Korean electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that blacks-out America and ends our civilization. Or terrorists nuking a city. Or Russian or China rolling the dice on a nuclear first strike.
These or other nuclear nightmares are more likely to happen if we do not think—and act.
Vice Admiral Robert Monroe has called for reviving the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency to resume serious work on understanding and mitigating nuclear weapon effects.
The Congressional EMP Commission has called for hardening the U.S. electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures against EMP and cyber-attack.
President Trump wants to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, and served in the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.
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