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Brandishing Nukes–A Self-Defeating Policy

by Ira Chernus on Feb 3, 2003

Ira Chernus

The Pentagon has put out the word that the United States might use nuclear weapons in a preventive war against Iraq. That’s not a new idea. Nuclear threats and talk of preventive nuclear strikes have been with us since the early days of the Cold War. Now, as then, threatening words will probably do more harm than good, even if they are never translated into action.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower committed the U.S. government to a first-strike nuclear policy. He told his advisers, “Ultimately some President might have to decide that it was his duty to strike the first blow against the USSR. You try to shoot your enemy before he shoots you.”

Thanks to information from the Pentagon, we know how little has changed in nearly half a century. The blueprint for a war with Iraq includes contingency plans like Eisenhower’s for using nuclear weapons. As CBS News recently reported, the war plan is based on military strategist Harlan Ullman’s theory of “shock and awe” or “muscular containment”: scare your enemies with such an awesome show of rapid, overwhelming force that they give up without a fight.

Eisenhower also used nuclear threats as psychological weapons. When Communist China shelled Taiwan’s outposts on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1955, Eisenhower said openly that the United States might respond with nuclear weapons, “as you would use a bullet.” Privately, he left little doubt that he really would use nukes and risk World War III. As he once told the British ambassador in Washington, he “would rather be atomized than communized.”

Now the Bush administration has combined the two pieces of Eisenhower’s strategy: prepare for preventive nuclear strikes, but make the preparations public, in order to wage psychological war against Iraq. But considering the results Eisenhower reaped from his policies, the idea of combining the two gives little comfort.

Eisenhower’s talk of using atomic weapons in China sparked outrage that did incalculable damage to U.S. prestige and diplomatic interests around the globe. In Europe, growing concern about U.S. “warmongering” threatened a rift in the NATO alliance in the 1950s, just as it does today.

Trying to recoup from such public-relations setbacks, Eisenhower promised to negotiate a disarmament deal with the Soviets. But the effort collapsed in 1960, after the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane and captured pilot Gary Powers. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, reaped a propaganda coup by playing the role of aggrieved victim ? a role Saddam Hussein is cultivating with some success now.

Eisenhower understood the risk he took by allowing a U-2 to fly over Soviet airspace. But he had no choice, he said. His policy of preventive attack was useless if he could not see what his enemy was doing.

Everyone in the Kremlin knew that the United States could indeed launch a preventive attack, and there was little the Soviets could do in response. This weakened Khrushchev at home. At the Paris summit meeting in 1960, he knew he had to put on a dramatic “tough guy” show to save his political power. So he had no choice but to stalk out of the summit and make Eisenhower look the fool.

The U-2 fiasco ended the world’s hopes for disarmament in that era. It left Eisenhower and the United States suspect in the world’s eyes. Who could believe words of peace from a nation caught spying and preparing for war?Ý Khrushchev had to go on proving his toughness when President Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower. Kennedy, fearing that he would look young and weak, took the toughest stance he could. That duel of public images led straight to the brink of war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

No one can say yet what the Bush administration’s talk of preventive war with nuclear weapons will bring. The Eisenhower administration learned, painfully, just how unpredictable and uncontrollable the world is.

But it seems a safe bet that the Bush administration’s “muscular containment” will breed muscular resistance, as Eisenhower’s tough talk did in the 1950s. Other nations will feel compelled to take a harder stance toward the United States. Global tensions will increase.

Nuclear bluster will make it hard for the world to take seriously Washington’s claim that it wants world peace. Sympathy for the American cause will continue to dwindle. The strains between the United States and NATO allies will grow.Ý Another attack on our soil might yield a lot less shock and awe than it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

Words must be taken seriously. When threats of preventive nuclear attack are launched, the words can cause future damage that far outweighs anything gained by a policy of “shock and awe.”


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.