John Arquilla writes: In 1945, Harry Truman ordered the first atomic bombing of another country; today, Barack Obama reserves the right to mount the world’s next nuclear strike — as have all American presidents since Truman. It is very odd that senior U.S. foreign policy officials, who have devoted most of the past seven decades to trying to control the spread of nuclear weapons, still want Washington to be able to use them first in a pinch. Even President Obama, a supporter of the abolition of all nuclear weapons, wants to be able to fire the first nuclear shot. No wonder North Korea, Iran, and others view efforts to get them to renounce their proliferation programs with much skepticism.
To be sure, the American ardor for atomic weapons has cooled since the famous Fortune magazine survey of December 1945, in which 22 percent of the public expressed the view that far more than “just” two nukes should have been dropped on Japan. Yet even as enthusiasm for inflicting massive destruction on others waned, there was still considerable fascination with these weapons in government and the military. Indeed, the idea of waging preventive nuclear war on Soviet Russia or communist China — that is, hitting them before they had nukes of their own — was closely considered for years, finally being rejected by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.
This was the same year, however, that he articulated a doctrine of “massive retaliation” for any sort of act of aggression. Thus an incursion by some aggressor’s conventional forces was now theoretically subject to a nuclear riposte. The idea was that this threat would keep the peace around the world. It didn’t. Instead, a spate of irregular wars and acts of terrorism arose and, as Thomas Schelling put it in his classic Arms and Influence, the massive retaliation policy “was in decline almost from its enunciation.” [Continue reading…]