No. 15
• http://www.learnworld.org/
• email: gc.dd@learnworld.org
• date: 26 Sept 2001.

PAPER [2001.09.26; rev. 2001.10.04]

Bruce Larkin on Nuclear Weapons and the “war on terrorism.”

Nuclear Weapons and GW Bush’s ‘War on Terrorism’

Bruce D. Larkin, Professor of Politics, University of California at Santa Cruz.

In the wake of the 9.11 attacks, GW Bush sounded the tocsin of ‘war’. Will it be–reliably–a war without nuclear weapons?



Even before an anguished America could do so, GW Bush pledged ‘war’ against these terrorists, their terrorist masters, those who harboured them and their masters, those who financed them and their masters, ‘war’ against terrorism itself.

Terrorists are unlikely nuclear targets. So plain judgment would have it. And so, especially as reason began to set in, Americans and others alike turned from literal ‘war’ to metaphorical war, [1] and from massive revenge to focused, directed, force, guided by information from carefully pooled sources, and applied with due care for innocents.

Still, when nuclear powers rattle the swords of war, and pound their pikes on the ground, they cannot escape the question "would they use them?"

Let’s begin by introducing some language from the arcane world of nuclear policy.

Governing Use

Three useful maxims, each situated in debate about the management and use of nuclear arsenals, reflect different attitudes about nuclear weapons in time of crisis. The notion of a "high threshold against use" implies a presumption of non-use, and that the burden of demonstration falls on advocates of use. By contrast, the prescription of "deliberate ambiguity" and Thomas Schelling’s notion of "the threat that leaves something to chance" keep open the door to use, seeking advantage in the threat without obliging the Power to declare nuclear intent. And holding that "the only proper mission for nuclear weapons is deterrence of their use by others" resists other missions, such as retaliation for a chemical or biological weapon attack.

So on the one hand we have a presumption of non-use, a high threshold against use, and confinement of use to the single mission of nuclear deterrence.

On the other hand we see the existential threat in possessing nuclear weapons, deliberate ambiguation of intent, and claims that there are specialized missions–deep penetration, retaliation against chemical and biological attack, desperate resistance against a conventional enemy–for which use of nuclear weapons should be given serious thought.

How does GW Bush’s war bear on this controversy?

"Every Necessary Weapon of War"

The United States, GW Bush told a joint session of Congress on 20 September, "will direct every resource at our command … and every necessary weapon of war–to the disruption and defeat of the global terror network." [2] Was this a nuclear threat?

In times past such an indirection has been interpreted as just such a threat. And so a New York Times correspondent reports that a "senior administration official" was asked if nuclear weapons were included, and was told "I would not interpret it that way." [3]

Five days earlier Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had avoided answering an interviewer’s questions whether use of tactical nuclear weapons had been ruled out. [4] Japan’s Kyodo news service, citing this, reported from Washington that unnamed ‘diplomatic sources’ said on 18 September that

The Defense Department has recommended to President George W. Bush the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a military option to retaliate for last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States … [5]

but Fox News elicited a specific denial from Secretary Rumsfeld who said that "[w]e’ve not given consideration nor discussion to that particular issue." [6]

What If They Had Used Nuclear Weapons?

Many commentators have pointed out that an even more horrendous disaster would have befallen New York if the attackers had detonated a nuclear device. The attack invited comparison to nuclear attack. The Cold War turned on expecting, and deterring, a nuclear attack. And Dick Cheney, commenting on protection of the president and vice-president in circumstances of perceived danger, recalled that it was Cold War procedures which were all that was in place:

I’ve been involved in a number of programs that were aimed at ensuring presidential succession. We did a lot of planning during the Cold War, Tim, with respect to the possibility of a nuclear incident. [7]

Of course, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were devoid of some of the worst consequences of attack using nuclear weapons: instant flash and heat, radiation, the blast wave, coating of nearby areas with irradiated flotsam, the cratering of a population and its social systems.

What About Use Against BW and CW Programs?

GW Bush’s ‘war’, we are led to understand, will proceed in two phases, first against the network which committed the attacks, then against ‘terrorism’ more widely understood. There are advocates for carrying the war to Iraq. If Iraq, or any other country declining to join Washington’s war on terrorism, were to use or threaten to use bacteriological or chemical weapons, would the United States resort to nuclear weapons?

This question matters because there is declared US policy on nuclear use against BW and CW, and because in GHW Bush’s Gulf War the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons against Iraq if Iraq employed BW or CW. BW or CW use, or threatened use, would place nuclear weapons on the table.


A. The Gulf War [1990-1991]

How was this done in 1991? John Pike’s survey of Coalition threats notes suggestive language by US, Israeli, and British officials implying (through phrases such as Yitzhak Shamir’s that Iraq if it attacked Israel "will be harmed in a most serious way") nuclear retaliation. Defense Secretary Cheney had stated that "[i]t should be clear to Saddam Hussein that we have a wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force and extract a very high price should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons on United States forces.” [8] And Pike quotes a CIA report of a 1995 interview with Saddam Hussain’s defector son-in-law, Husayn Kamil Hasan al-Majid, "that the Iraqi command became convinced that the United States would use tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against the coalition." [9]

But did the United States do more than exploit deliberate ambiguity? Five years after the Gulf War Cheney told CNN that

We never got close to the point where we should have used nuclear weapons, although I think it would have been seriously considered if, in fact, he used his weapons of mass destruction against our forces.

If Iraq used chemical or biological weapons, then the U.S. would consider all options including nuclear weapons .

Retired General Charles Horner, who had commanded Coalition air forces, told a gathering of Desert Storm veterans, discussing Cheney’s remarks, that

I know of no effort to plan or the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf War, and I would have been the guy to do that …

I do know that while we possess nuclear weapons, we left with the Iraqis some ambiguity as to whether they would be used if the Iraqis chose to use weapons of mass destruction.

and asked the role of nuclear weapons in the future, General Horner replied that

any sane person would realize that nuclear weapons have no utility in the world today other than to deter Russia. [10]

Although the evidence suggests that the United States did not expect its threats to be called, and may have taken no specific measures to ready nuclear weapons or commit to their use, we cannot conclude what the United States would have done had Iraq used BW or CW.

B. Doctrine

Since 1992 US nuclear planners have instantiated the idea that the United States maintain an option to use nuclear weapons against ‘weapons of mass destruction’, with the implication that non-nuclear-weapon states, especially the so-called ‘rogue states’, would be the targets. [11] This mission was given more attention as the Cold War receded and pressure grew to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads.

For example, in 1996 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff issued policy guidance on the use of nuclear weapons in joint theater operations, which states that

Enemy combat forces and facilities that may be likely targets for nuclear strikes are:

• WMD and their delivery systems, as well as associated command and control, production, and logistical support units …

• Nonstate actors (facilities and operation centers) that possess WMD [12]

In November 1997 President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive codifying US nuclear policy, a text which stands as the most authoritative statement of policy today. The text remains secret, but the Washington Post published a report summarizing principal points. [13] On retaliation against BW and CW it reported that

The idea of targeting non-nuclear states with U.S. nuclear weapons or planning for U.S. nuclear strikes in retaliation for poison gas and germ weapons attacks has become increasingly controversial since 1995. At that time, the United States and the four other major nuclear powers -- Britain, China, Russia and France -- formally pledged not to use nuclear arms or threaten their use against countries that are not trying to develop or acquire nuclear arms.

Bell said Clinton’s nuclear targeting directive reflects "much greater sensitivity to the threats" posed by chemical and biological attacks since the previous directive was issued. But he added that it only reiterates what senior administration officials already have said about the issue during the past year -- namely, that if any nation uses weapons of mass destruction against the United States, it may "forfeit" its protection from U.S. nuclear attack under the 1995 pledge.

Nothing in the 1995 ‘negative security guarantees’ suggests the possibility of ‘forfeit’, or provides an exception in the case of chemical or biological weapons, a point pressed strongly on the Administration by arms control advocates. [14]


C. From Which We May Conclude …

Even in the absence of GW Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’, US policy incorporates the option to use nuclear weapons against ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and their associated delivery systems and facilities, whether those are in the hands of a State or a ‘nonstate actor’.

While warning that "The employment of nuclear weapons is restricted to situations where military gain is commensurate with political objectives and the law of armed conflict," the 1996 Doctrine for Joint Theatre Nuclear Operations insists that "The purpose of US nuclear forces is to help deter the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)"–not limited to deterrence of nuclear attack–and that "the law of armed conflict … does not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons … " This is language on which any advocates of using nuclear weapons in GW Bush’s war would rely.

The Missile Defense Problem

Until 11 September, GW Bush’s principal aim in foreign and defense policy was to promote "National Missile Defense" [NMD] and its cousin "Theater Missile Defense" [TMD] while arguing the need for US independence from constraining treaties in arms control and environmental policy. Critics argued that NMD was a scheme that would not work against a threat that did not exist. Political stalwarts and public intellectuals warned that the real danger from ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in malevolent hands lay in weapons smuggled across the border. [15]

In the immediate aftermath of the attack–but certainly not forever–critical fault-finding has been suspended. But the Cheney-Rumsfeld group understand that 9.11 will be adduced as a reason to shift monies from NMD/TMD to measures addressing possible terrorist attacks. GW Bush has jumped on the rhetorical bandwagon for ‘homeland defense’–a pre-9.11 invention designed to make NMD palatable, but with a subtext of vulnerability–creating an Office of Homeland Defense. And by comments such as this the White House tries to build a buffer against criticism of its fixation on NMD:

MR. RUSSERT: What about the debate over missile defense? Many Democrats are saying this now proves that our focus should be on terrorism and counterterrorism and preparedness, and that the primary threat is not something the missile defense could take care of.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I just fundamentally disagree. I mean, there’s no question but what there’s a threat on the terrorist front, and we’ve got to deal with that. We’ve been work it. We’ll continue to work it. But there are also-this does not, in any way, diminish the threat with respect to ballistic missiles down the road. A ballistic missile equipped with a weapon of mass destruction, a nuke, for example, a nuclear weapon would be far more devastating than what we just went through. If one of those was to hit one of our cities or to hit a major base overseas where US forces are deployed, the casualty list would be higher. The consequences would be even greater than the terrible tragedy we’ve just been through.

MR. RUSSERT: So we can afford this war on terrorism and a missile defense system?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I don’t see, Tim, how anybody can argue that we cannot afford to defend America, and we’re going to have to defend it against conventional threats. We’re going to have to defend it against ballistic missile threats. We’re going to have to defend it against the threat of terrorism. And I think for public officials to argue because we got hit with a terrorist assault, we should ignore the ballistic missile threat out there strikes me as irresponsible. [16]

so insisting that there is a ballistic missile threat "out there" and that NMD is a prudent and appropriate precaution.

In practice, during the week of 16 September Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrestled with the politics of criticizing NMD during a period of ‘unity’ and ‘non-partisanship’. Republican leadership gained a victory of sorts when Levin agreed that a cut of $1.3 billion from the Administration’s request for missile defence funding should be restored. Similarly, a move by the Democrats to require that any action violating the ABM Treaty be referred first to Congress had to be removed from a defense spending bill. [17] So one effect of 9.11 is to diminish, at least in the short term, very probably for longer, the capacity of the Democratic Senate to stand up against NMD. To the extent that NMD and proposed abandonment of the ABM Treaty threaten the structure of codified restraint and non-proliferation which has been built stone on stone since the early 1960s, effects of 9.11 on global nuclear stability could be profound. It would appear to be in that prospect, rather than in any likelihood of actual use of nuclear weapons in GW Bush’s war as it is now envisaged, that 9.11 bears on nuclear matters. But what would GW Bush do if a US force, inserted into Afghanistan or Iraq, faced defeat by its opponent?


[Click on note number to return to text.]

Note 1. Michael Walzer argues that the word may be “unobjectionable so long as those who use it understand what a metaphor is.” The New York Times, 21 September 2001.

Note 2. Text, The New York Times, 21 September 2001.

Note 3. Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, 21 September 2001.

Note 4. Kyodo, 20 September 2001, referring to interview on ABC Television’s ‘This Week’ program, 16 September 2001. [Japan Times Online, 20 September 2001].

Note 5. Kyodo, 20 September 2001, above.

Note 6. Asked by Tony Snow “Secretary Rumsfeld, let's get your reaction first to the reports to the reports in the Japanese press that we are considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons? For those not familiar with the jargon, those are smaller grade nuclear weapons that can be used on tactical targets rather than strategic targets such as large cities.” http://www.defenselink.mil/ news/Sep2001/ t09212001_t0921fox.html [Seen 22 September 2001.]

Perhaps Kyodo was recycling Carter M. Yang’s ABC News article, “Preparing for War: Pentagon Readies ‘Range of Options’ For Retaliation,” of 14 September. Yang attributes to an unnamed DoD official that GW Bush will have “a whole range of options” for retaliation, and then goes on to ascribe to “military and national security experts” a number of options, including the use of one or more tactical nuclear weapons. But he does not say that DoD officials spoke of using nuclear weapons. ABC News.com, 14 September 2001. http://more.abcnews.go.com/sections/ us/dailynews/ wtc_military_options010914.html

Note 7. NBC News, Interview with Vice-President Dick Cheney, 16 September 2001.

Note 8. William Arkin, "US Nukes in the Gulf," The Nation, 31 December 1990, page 834, cited by John Pike, “Nuclear Threats During the Gulf War.” 19 February 1998. Federation of American Scientists e-Prints. http://www.fas.org/irp/ eprint/ds-threats.htm.

In another article Arkin supplies other quotes from Cheney and Bush. William Arkin, “Week Seventeen: The Mobilizer,” Stars and Stripes, n.d. http://www.thestarsandstripes.com/arkin/secret/week17.shtml [Seen 26 September 2001]:

Throughout the fall of 1990, U.S. officials oft repeated their public warning that the American response to an Iraq chemical attack would be most severe. Cheney was most explicit at the end of October: “The U.S. military has a wide range of capabilities that could be brought to bear against Iraq, should Saddam Hussein be foolish enough to try to use chemical weapons on American forces,” he said. “I wouldn't want to specify beyond that.”

“I am going to preserve all options,” President Bush said in a CNN interview on Nov. 16.

Note 9. John Pike, “Nuclear Threats During the Gulf War.” 19 February 1998. Federation of American Scientists e-Prints. http://www.fas.org/ irp/eprint/ds-threats.htm

Note 10. Master Sgt. David P. Masko, Air Force News Service, “Desert Storm Weapons,” 25 March 1996. http://www.af.mil/news/ Mar1996/n19960325_960270.html.

And Arkin, in “Week Seventeen: The Mobilizer,” above, quotes James Baker that GHW Bush and his senior aides had decided against a nuclear response to CW use:

Discussions were being held between the decision-makers at the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon over the deterrence policy with regard to an Iraqi chemical attack. Not wanting to make an explicit nuclear threat, the administration opted instead to leave the use question open. Secretary of State James Baker called the policy “calculated ambiguity,” leaving the “impression that the use of chemical or biological agents by Iraq could invite tactical nuclear retaliation.”

Calculated because at least President Bush, Scowcroft and Baker agreed that nuclear weapons would not be used under any circumstance. According to Baker’s account in his memoir The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), the president privately decided in December that U.S. forces would not retaliate with nuclear weapons even if the Iraqis used chemical munitions. “There was obviously no reason to inform the Iraqis of this,” Baker says.

Note 11. On refinement of the notion of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ and the ongoing sequence of plans and assertions among US nuclear planners, see Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Futures: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and US Nuclear Strategy,” British American Security Information Council, March 1998. http://www.basicint.org/ wmddoc.htm [BASIC].

Note 12. Doctrine for Joint Theater Nuclear Operations, 9 February 1996, Joint Pub 3-12.1, pp. III-6 - III-7. US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The preface states: “The guidance in this publication is authoritative ” http://www.basicint.org/ jp3_12_1.pdf [BASIC]

Note 13. R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, 7 December 1997, reporting an interview with Robert G. Bell, a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Defense Policy at the National Security Council.

Note 14. See letter of 26 January 1998 to President Clinton from the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers: http://www.clw.org/ pub/clw/coalition/pddltr.htm

Note 15. Despite the examples of the Aum Shinrikyo, which made sarin inside Japan, and Timothy McVeigh, who assembled a fertilizer bomb in mid-America, critics did not dwell on the dangers of existing chemicals or the explosive power of everyday fuels and fertilizers. But their inability to warn of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks does not diminish the force of their comments on NMD.

Note 16. NBC News, “Meet the Press,” 16 September 2001. Tim Russert interviewing Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Note 17. The New York Times, 22 September 2001.

Revision history: «TX.015=2001.09.26.Bush+NWs.html»

26 September 2001: draft posted.

4 October 2001: full text posted, with adjustment and extension of text on the Gulf War, and fn 8 and 10.