February 1, 2017

The First-Strike Nuclear Option–From JFK to Trump

jfk trump

The Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962 was almost as much about Berlin as it was Cuba. There’s a fair amount in the narrative of my new book The Tunnels about the crisis, and how JFK handled it, as it almost overlapped with his (and Dean Rusk’s) attempt to kill the landmark NBC special on an escape tunnel under the Wall.

I have never been a Kennedy fan boy (any of them) but not a hater, either. And I must say, as much as I have been exposed to the missile crisis, going back to living through it as a kid, that in perusing all of the transcripts of meetings related to it for the book my admiration for JFK grew a good deal. He was, indeed, often the “coolest man in the room,” as I write.  And in the excerpt below you will see how he prevented a march toward possible nuclear war in one key meeting.

But first:  This brings to mind the key, if to many not-very-well-understood, fact that America still has a “first-use” policy on the use of nuclear weapons.  That is, it is our official stance that we will attack with nuclear weapons if need be in response to a “conventional” attack or even threat.  As I write this, the U.S., under new President Trump, has just put Iran “on notice” about any future provocations.  This invites the question, “or what”?   Since Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and we do, you might see where this is heading.

I have studied and written about the arms race and our first use  (and “first-use”) of nuclear weapons against Japan since the early 1980s when I was editor of Nuclear Times.    I’ve written two books about this since (one with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America, and Atomic Cover-up) and hundreds of articles.    It’s important to understand that the U.S. has maintained its first-use policy to this day even as everything president and most other sane beings vow that these weapons are “too horrible to use.”  Yet we still have the first-strike policy, and  thousands of warheads, despite occasional calls for a “no-first-use” policy.

Every president, indeed nearly every top U.S. official and most in the media, have always defended the “first-strike” bombing of civilian centers in Japan.  A line against using the weapons has been drawn–in the sand.  Indeed, various polls have shown that many, perhaps most, Americans back a first-strike under many conditions.

I have spent half a lifetime warning about this. And Donald Trump now has the nuclear codes–and a bullying, hair-trigger, temperament.  With all due respect to all of the other very important issues raised by #Resistance protesters:  this one dwarfs them all, and there’s so little to do about it now.  Even if Trump is driven from office, his successor will have the same codes and power, if perhaps a cooler head.   So read the excerpt below and imagine Trump in that room in place of JFK.   From The Tunnels:

By nightfall on October 18 President Kennedy thought his executive committee, or ExComm, had reached a consensus on blockading Cuba without firing a shot in anger, but the next day this began to unravel. An early morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who still strongly advocated a preemptive U.S. strike, tested JFK’s resolve. McGeorge Bundy had shifted to that shoot-first position overnight and it seemed that everyone’s emotions were dangerously fluid.

The President continued to play the Berlin card. Any attack on Cuba, he maintained, would give the Soviets “a clear line to take Berlin….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin.” European allies would be livid—they cared passionately about Berlin and their own security but didn’t “give a damn” about Cuba. And if the Soviets moved on Berlin this would leave him “only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative—and begin a nuclear exchange….When we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for three days….” Remember, he added, the “argument for the [Cuba] blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war….”

Rarely have three words—if we can—signified so much.

General Curtis LeMay, the most hot-blooded hawk of all—one of his nicknames was “The Mad Bomber”—opposed a blockade on grounds that it would “lead right into war.” He also called it “weak” and compared it to “the appeasement at Munich.” He wanted a full bombing assault as soon as possible. LeMay addressed Kennedy, “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Kennedy, angry, asked LeMay to repeat that. Then JFK replied with a laugh, “You’re in there with me!”

After the meeting Kennedy, always skeptical of advice from the military, said to an aide, referring to LeMay and his ilk, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

Still, the press and the public were kept in the dark. A Pentagon spokesman stated in response to a media query, “The Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba.”