Pentagon study: ‘Irrational’ Nuclear Policy a Deterrent

I stumbled upon this interesting article and just had to share it. On March 1, 1998 CNN reported the following:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States should maintain the threat of nuclear retaliation with an “irrational and vindictive” streak to intimidate would-be attackers such as Iraq, according to an internal military study made public Sunday.

The study, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” was written by the Defense Department’s Strategic Command, a multiservice organization responsible for the nation’s strategic nuclear arsenal. It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by an arms control group and published Sunday in a report on U.S. strategies for deterring attacks by antagonistic nations using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

“Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S. may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed,” the 1995 Strategic Command study says.

The British-American Security Information Council, a London-based think tank, cited the STRATCOM document in its report as an example of the Pentagon’s push to maintain a mission for its nuclear arsenal long after the Soviet threat disappeared.

The report portrays the command as fighting and winning an internal bureaucratic battle against liberal Clinton administration officials who lean in favor of dramatic nuclear weapons reductions.

Citing a range of formerly classified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the report shows how the United States shifted its nuclear deterrent strategy from the defunct Soviet Union to so-called rogue states: Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and the like.

Idea dates back to early 1960s

In its study, the Strategic Command uses Cold War language in defending the relevance of nuclear weapons in deterring such potential adversaries.

“The fact that some elements (of the U.S. government) may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers,” its report said. “That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”

The idea of projecting an aura of irrationality was not original to STRATCOM. It dates at least as far back as the early 1960s, when Harvard professor Thomas Schelling was writing his ground-breaking works on game theory and nuclear bargaining.

“It is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be inalienably and manifestly rational in decision and motivation,” Schelling wrote. These were ideas later adopted by Henry Kissinger and President Nixon in using coercive air strikes on North Vietnam as a way of forcing Hanoi to the bargaining table in the latter stages of the Vietnam War.

In 1997, two years after STRATCOM advanced its latter-day version of this theory, President Clinton approved a directive on U.S. nuclear policy that upheld the “negative security assurance” that the United States will refrain from first-use of nuclear weapons against signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a list that includes Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Effects on Non-Proliferation Treaty

The policy, however, includes exceptions that presidential adviser Robert Bell said have been “refined” in recent years. They would allow responding with nuclear weapons to attacks by nuclear-capable states, countries that are not in good standing under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or states allied with nuclear powers.

Iraq, which the United States regards as violating international atomic weapons restrictions, could be one such exception.

Arms control advocates are concerned that signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty who possess no nuclear weapons will abandon the pact if they see the existing nuclear powers preserving their nuclear arsenals and finding missions for their weapons — particularly if those missions include scenarios that involve attacks on them.

Bell, President Clinton’s senior adviser on nuclear weapons and arms control matters, disputed that argument in an interview Friday.

“I don’t think there’s a disconnect in principle between some level of general planning at STRATCOM and the negative security assurance and our goals relative to the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Bell said.

Treaty signatories are more worried about their neighbors than the United States, Bell said, and they support the nuclear weapons reductions the treaty imposes on nuclear-armed states.

Of the 1995 Strategic Command document, Bell said, “That sounds like an internal STRATCOM paper which certainly does not rise to the level of national policy.”


No matter how you spin this, it’s extremely worrisome that our leaders would play these kinds of “mind games” with nuclear weapons!


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