Stepping back from the abyss of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Americans and Russians took away separate lessons.
To JFK's inner circle, the lesson was: Never again can we tread so close to the brink of Armageddon. To the Soviets, the lesson was: Never again will we leave ourselves in a position where we have to back down before U.S. superiority in a nuclear face-off. After 1962, Moscow began a 20-year buildup of nuclear weapons that gave the Soviet Union an arsenal as awesome as that of the United States.
This weekend's leak of the Pentagon Nuclear Posture Review, wherein U.S. strategic planners discuss building small new atomic weapons for use against North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, may provide a similar spur to the spread of nuclear weapons.
"One of the most sensitive portions of the report," says The New York Times, "is a secret discussion of contingencies in which America might need to use its 'nuclear strike capabilities.'" Among these are "an Iraqi attack on Israel ... a North Korean attack on South Korea or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan."
The Pentagon has not ruled out the preemptive use of nuclear weapons -- on non-nuclear nations. And while all nations have war plans that are never implemented, this secret document raises grave questions about U.S. policy and the mindset of Pentagon planners.
Why would we use nuclear weapons on Iraq in retaliation for an attack on Israel, when Israel has its own nuclear weapons? Under what conceivable circumstances would we use atomic weapons on Syria? Does the United States claim a right of first use of atomic weapons against any "rogue state" that develops a weapon of mass destruction? If so, where does the president get the authority to launch such wars? Or was this document leaked to intimidate the "Axis of Evil"? Is it perhaps a product of the Office of Strategic Influence, the now-defunct disinformation agency of the Pentagon?
While a North Korean attack on the South would imperil U.S. troops on the DMZ, this is not 1950. Why should we fight the South's war, with atomic weapons, when the South's population is twice that of the North and its economy is 30 times as large? Would it not make more sense to get U.S. forces out of South Korea and sell Seoul the weapons she needs to conduct her own defense?
And if, as the Nuclear Posture Review argues, we must be prepared to use atomic weapons on China, to defend Taiwan, why did we abrogate our mutual security treaty with Taiwan? And how can the president commit us to war to defend Taiwan, when six previous presidents have said that Taiwan is "part of China"?
Again, where is the Congress of the United States?
During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons were used primarily to deter Moscow from attacking America or Western Europe. But when Khrushchev sent his tanks into Budapest, Eisenhower did not even break diplomatic relations. Nor did JFK when Khrushchev built the Wall. Nor did LBJ, when Brezhnev crushed the Prague Spring. Nor did Reagan, when Moscow ordered Solidarity smashed. Nor did Bush, when Gorbachev sent Spesnatz troops into the Baltic republics.
Yet, this Pentagon document lists Russia as a potential target of U.S. nuclear strikes. But, with the Soviet empire history and the Soviet Union dissolved, what could justify using atomic weapons on a Russia that retains thousands of atomic weapons of her own?
None of this is to suggest that the use of nuclear weapons is never to be contemplated. We have them because, in extremis, we may have to use them. If, for example, the United States suddenly discovered that Saddam Hussein was about to fire a weapon of mass destruction at U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, the president might have to act with dispatch to eradicate such a threat.
But a primary goal of U.S. statesmen should be never to have any weapon of mass destruction used against America, her forces or her friends. What is the best policy to achieve that goal?
As the technology for poison gas dates to Ypres in 1917, and for atomic weapons to Hiroshima in 1945, rogue nations may one day acquire such weapons. China already has them, and North Korea may. But again, what is the best way to prevent their use against us?
Is it for the United States to threaten atomic strikes against non-nuclear rogue states? Will that threat intimidate them -- or cause them to accelerate their efforts to acquire the bomb?
Or is the way to make America secure to pull out of regions where we are hated and let the rogues and radicals settle their own murderous tribal, religious and territorial quarrels themselves?