Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy on nuclear weapons has hinged on the commitment to use them as a deterrent to threats to American interests, wherever and whenever they arise.
We’re 21 days away from electing the next leader of the free world.
So of course, we’re hard at work digging through policy papers, studying past speeches, trying to understand the respective candidates’ tax policies, comparing and contrasting their views on trade, learning how they’ll handle foreign affairs.
Well, um, no, we’re not doing that.
Once again, we’re witnessing something more like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show than a contest for the most powerful elected office on Earth.
It’s not for complete lack of effort, though.
For as much grief as debate moderators get for their perceived shortcomings, Lester Holt actually posed a pretty compelling question during the first debate, on September 26, 2016.
Here’s what the NBC News anchor wanted to know:
Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here on the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy?
It’s a question that opens up still further questions, as historian Andrew Bacevich notes, including ones about the U.S. nuclear triad (the ability to strike via manned bombers and land-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), whether modernizing the triad is even necessary, and if the logic of “nuclear deterrence” is still relevant.
Trump’s answer was a characteristically meandering trip, but he did say, “I would certainly not do first strike. Once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over.”
Whether Trump understood Holt’s question and its context is open to debate.
He may also have been trying to counter the Clinton campaign’s depiction of him as a Gen. Jack D. Ripper-type loose cannon liable to launch a global nuclear war.
For her part, Hillary Clinton delivered a characteristically organized point-by-point response, heavy on facts and language that make the Council on Foreign Relations swoon.
Though she never directly answered the question, it’s a safe assumption that Clinton lines up with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, allies in Europe and Asia, and other members of the Establishment.
And that’s to say she likely opposes a policy change that Obama reportedly is weighing during his final months in the White House: a “No-First-Use” declaration regarding nuclear weapons.
As The Wall Street Journal reported on August 12, 2016, “The possibility of a ‘No-First-Use’ declaration — which would see the United States explicitly rule out a first strike with a nuclear weapon in any conflict — met resistance at a National Security Council meeting in July, where the Obama administration reviewed possible nuclear disarmament initiatives it could roll out before the end of the president’s term.”
Such a declaration would reverse a strategic posture that’s endured since the end of World War II, through the Cold War, and into the era of U.S. unipolar dominance.
That posture is all about confronting evil without reservation, hesitation, or negotiation. Attempts to vary from that norm have been met with revulsion from inside-the-Beltway types for more than 50 years.
There’s a significant segment of Americans who would tell you that John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he wanted to innovate away from prevailing Cold War logic toward a more inclusive view of global affairs.
In a famous speech at American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy envisioned not “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war” but a “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time.”
There’s incredible irony in these words, delivered about seven months after the Kennedy administration navigated the potential nuclear minefield that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For decades, the story’s been told that the president, his brother, and others among the “best and the brightest” went “toe to toe” with the Russians and made them blink, that we prevailed in the face of a stunning, intolerable provocation, getting as close as we’ve ever come to nuclear war in the process.
What we “know” of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a myth — a dangerous myth that’s helped shape American foreign policy disasters such as Vietnam, other proxy wars in Asia and Central America, and current fiascoes in the Middle East.
Far from the heroic portrayals advanced by Robert F. Kennedy in his book Thirteen Days and by courtiers such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sheldon M. Stern shows in his book The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis.”
Stern, in his role as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, was the first scholar to review recordings made using a secret taping system installed by President Kennedy.
The most critical conclusions we can draw from Stern’s studies of these tapes is that the introduction of missiles into Cuba by the Soviet Union did nothing to alter the strategic balance, that we did indeed “negotiate” and “trade” with a hostile aggressor, and that the decision to confront Khrushchev was all about domestic politics.
Those domestic considerations revolved around Kennedy’s standing in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Berlin Crisis. Khrushchev opted to put nuclear missiles on Cuba to counter the threat posed by U.S. missiles in Turkey in particular. The Soviet leader was also hoping to drive the United States from Berlin.
The mythological victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis laid the foundation for a Cold War strategy of confrontation wherever in the world U.S. credibility was challenged.
As Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic notes:
This esoteric strategizing — this misplaced obsession with credibility, this dangerously expansive concept of what constitutes security — which has afflicted both Democratic and Republican administrations, and both liberals and conservatives, is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discernment based on power, interest, and circumstance. It’s a stance toward the world that can easily doom the United States to military commitments and interventions in strategically insignificant places over intrinsically trivial issues. It’s a stance that can engender a foreign policy approximating paranoia in an obdurately chaotic world abounding in states, personalities, and ideologies that are unsavory and uncongenial — but not necessarily mortally hazardous.
We’re always at war now. And it’s all because we bought a stylized, sanitized, mythologized version of what was probably the most dangerous crisis in the history of mankind.
And “No-First-Use” is going to get shouted down before the idea ever gets out from inside the Beltway.
Timothy B. Lee of Vox has “27 Charts That Will Change How You Think About the American Economy.”
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily