(Mis)Understanding Nukes

Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling directed at NATO while it continues its war against Ukraine has brought nuclear weapons back into public consciousness. Tom Nichols, author of the Death of Expertise, recounts in an Atlantic essay that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons illiteracy has grown. Then Nichols inadvertently provides a lesson on just how pervasive misinformation on the subject is by proceeding to misinform the public. He states, “By treaty, Washington and Moscow have limited themselves to 1,550 [nuclear] warheads apiece. The basic idea is that these numbers deny either side the ability to take out the other’s arsenal in a first strike, while still preserving the ability to destroy at least 150 urban centers in each country. This, in the world of nuclear weapons, is progress.” That is completely wrong.

Americans should know that our government does not target urban centers as such with any weapon, let alone nuclear weapons—and this has been true for decades. The Kennedy administration explicitly proffered a “no-cities” approach. Each subsequent administration has done the same, including, for example, President Nixon’s “Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons,” President Carter’s Presidential Directive-59, up to the most recent 2020 Nuclear Employment Strategy.

Intentionally targeting noncombatants runs afoul of the laws of war, which our Pentagon abides by, and brings scandal and scorn upon itself when it errs. Instead, the United States practices counterforce targeting— that is, targeting the adversary’s military and military-supporting capabilities. Abiding by the laws of war is not only moral and ethical because it seeks to protect the politically innocent and minimize harm to them, it also increases the credibility of our deterrent. This is because the United States seeks to deter adversaries from attacking U.S. vital interests and precipitating a large-scale war by holding at risk the adversaries’ means of continued escalation. If deterrence fails, the United States has sought to maintain a spectrum of tailored options that will give U.S. decision-makers maximum options to increase their chances of terminating the conflict at the lowest levels of damage feasible and on terms most favorable to the United States.

While Americans have enjoyed the relative global peace for nearly 40 years—generally unaware of the size and scope of nuclear dangers to the homeland except for the occasional news snippet about North Korea’s latest nuclear or missile test, or Iran’s threats to get the bomb—commentators and prominent former officials have, like Nichols did here, confused the public about U.S. deterrent strategy. Even the most senior U.S. defense officials are not immune, with Clinton-era Secretary of Defense William Perry recently writing that one U.S. submarine carries enough nuclear weapons “to place two thermonuclear warheads on each of Russia’s fifty largest cities,” even though they do no such thing.

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