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Old 12-17-2006, 05:07 AM
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By Daniel Ellsberg

“It has never been true that nuclear war is ‘unthinkable.’ It has been thought and the thought has been put into effect.” E.P. Thompson refers here, in the brilliant and moving essay that opens this volume, to the deliberate destruction of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. What he does not mention is that the Americans who conceived and ordered this project, like those who prepared it and carried it out and the great majority of the public who learned of it after the event, regarded the effects of the first nuclear war as marvelously successful. Such thoughts get thought again, and acted on.

The notion common to nearly all Americans that “no nuclear weapons have been used since Nagasaki” is mistaken. It is not the case that U.S. nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years—we have over 30,000 of them now, after dismantling many thousands of obsolete ones—unused and unusable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets. Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, U.S. nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.

By Harry Truman’s own telling, it was just seven months after Nagasaki that he so used the Bomb in the “postwar” world. As he recalled, the effect was immediately as successful as on the first occasion, with no need this time to pull the trigger. The issue was, as it happens, Russian influence in northern Iran, where the Soviets were prolonging their wartime occupation and supporting separatist regimes in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, in pursuit of Russian oil leases in that area comparable to those of the British in the south. One version of Truman’s account was revealed to Time by Senator Henry Jackson in January 1980, the week, by no coincidence, that the Carter Doctrine was announced. Time gave the story the heading, “Good Old Days for the Middle East”: In a little-known episode of nuclear diplomacy that Jackson said he had heard from Harry Truman, the President summoned Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko to the White House. Truman told Gromyko that Soviet troops should evacuate Iran within 48 hours—or the U.S. would use the new superbomb that it alone possessed. “We’re going to drop it on you,” Jackson quoted Truman as saying. They moved in 24 hours. Truman’s memory may be faulty in this recounting; Barry Blechman, who believes it was, reports at least seven public or private occasions when Truman discussed what he called his “ultimatum” over Iran, the earliest of these in 1960, but there are inconsistencies and a lack of any supporting evidence. This is not the case with any other of the episodes to be discussed below, for which this anecdote is, in the form Truman presented it, nevertheless archetypal.

The most recent of these, thirty-five years later, brings us back to the very same region and adversary. When outgoing Secretary of Defense Harold Bloom told interviewers in January 1981, and President Ronald Reagan reiterated in February—using the same words—that what will keep Russia out of northern Iran and other parts of the Middle East in the 1980s is “the risk of World War III,” the threat-strategy each was at the same time describing and implementing was somewhat more complex than that which Truman recollected, but not by much. And there is no lack, this time, of corroborating elucidations of the nuclear component to the policy. A year earlier, in the weeks before and after Carter’s State of the Union message announcing his “doctrine” for the Middle East, the White House almost jammed Washington talk shows and major front pages with authorized leaks, backgrounders, and official spokesmen all carrying the message that the president’s commitment to use “any means necessary, including military force” against a further Soviet move into the Persian Gulf region was, at its heart, a threat of possible initiation of tactical nuclear warfare by the United States.

Just after the president’s speech, Richard Burt of the New York Times (now a high Reagan official), was shown a secret Pentagon study, “the most extensive military study of the region ever done by the government,” which lay behind the president’s warning. It concluded, as he summarized it, “that the American forces could not stop a Soviet thrust into northern Iran and that the United States should therefore consider using ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons in any conflict there” (New York Times, February 2, 1980). Even before the president spoke, this same conclusion was reflected in the White House backgrounders give to Los Angeles Times reporters Jack Nelson and Robert Toth. Heralding the president’s message, “White House and other senior officials dealing with national security” told them that “if the Soviet Union carried its expansionism into Iran or Pakistan, the United States would have little choice but to oppose it militarily.” These officials went on to say what the president, speaking to the public a few days later, did not put into words: such a war with the Soviet Union “would almost certainly become a nuclear war” (Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1980). This information was the lead front-page story, under the headline “Russia vs. Iran: U.S. Ponders Unthinkable.” The same story reprinted next day in the San Francisco Chronicle bore the headline, “Doomsday Talk in Washington.”

The revelation in Time of Senator Jackson’s old conversation with Truman, appearing on newsstands the day before the president’s speech, was part of this same chorus. It was particularly well suited to administration purposes—evident in the unusual publicity given to threats usually kept highly secret—of legitimizing and gaining public acceptance for the president’s own policy. The Truman anecdote displayed a precedent of nuclear threats against the Russians, involving Iran (or really, in both cases, the transcendent issue of Middle East oil), invoking just the image of feisty, now-popular Harry Truman (re-elected against all odds, now enshrined in history after the lowest ratings in popular support until Jimmy Carter) that he president sought to associate with his own shift to a new Cold War: above all, a precedent of success.

But there was still another reason to evoke the memory of Harry Truman in this context. For all the talk and posturing, for all the military analyses, plans and recommendations, even the deployments, the question remained: Could the Russians, could anyone, come to believe that the president of the Untied States, if challenged, might really carry out such threats, accepting the prospects at best—if the war, improbably, stayed regionally limited—of annihilating the local population along with the troops? Indeed, was he not bound to the contrary—as at least tacit “no first-use” commitment, never to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a crisis or non-nuclear conflict?

It was the official function of William Dyess, assistant secretary of state for public information, to interpret the president’s meaning to the public in the week following the speech, and to address to particular just these questions. In an arresting exchange on television (Newsmakers, NBC Television, February 3, 1980) one day after Burt’s leak of the Pentagon study, Dyess answered the second question crisply and correctly, and the first as well:

Q: In nuclear war are we committed not to make the first strike?

Dyess: No sir.

Q: We could conceivably make an offensive...

Dyess: We make no comment on that whatsoever, but the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration in their calculus.

But the Soviets, better than most, know a good deal more than this about past uses and near-uses of U.S. nuclear weapons. What Dyess might have mentioned (but almost surely does not know) is that in the thirty-six years since Hiroshima, every president from Truman to Reagan, with the possible exception of Ford, has felt compelled to consider or direct serious preparations for possible imminent U.S. initiation of tactical or strategic
nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing, intense, non-nuclear conflict or crisis. The Soviets know this because they were made to know it—often by explicit threats from the Oval Office, even when White House considerations of use of nuclear weapons was secret from other audiences—since they or their allies or client states were the intended targets of these preparations and warnings. Moreover, the Soviets will recall that the U.S. Strategic Air Command was established in early 1946 with the function of delivering nuclear attacks upon Russia when so directed, at a time when it was publicly proclaimed by the president and high military that the Soviet Union was not expected to possess operational nuclear weapon systems for a decade or longer. SAC’s only mission in that initial period—which included the formation of NATO—was to threaten or carry out a U.S. first strike: not at all to deer or retaliate for a nuclear attack on the United States or anywhere else.

It is not the Russians but the rest of us who need to learn these hidden realities of the nuclear dimension to U.S. foreign policy. As important background fro the essays that follow and for much else, here, briefly listed, are most of the actual nuclear crises that can now be documented from memoirs or other public sources (in most cases after long periods of secrecy; footnotes indicate the most accessible references):

• Truman’s deployment of B-29s, officially described as “atomic-capable,” to bases in Britain and Germany at the outset of the Berlin Blockade, June 1948.1

• Truman’s press conference warning that nuclear weapons were under
consideration, the day after marines were surrounded by Chinese Communist
troops at the Chosin Reservoir, Korea, November 30, 1950.2

• Eisenhower’s secret nuclear threats against china, to force and maintain a
settlement in Korea, 1953.3

• Secretary of State Dulles’ secret offer to Prime Minister Bidault of three tactical nuclear weapons in 1954 to relieve the French troops besieged by the Indochinese at Dienbienphu.4

• Eisenhower’s secret directive to t he Joint Chiefs during the “Lebanon Crisis” in 1958 to prepare to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to prevent an Iraqi move into the oilfields of Kuwait.5

• Eisenhower’s secret directive to the Joint Chiefs in 1958 to plan to use nuclear weapons, imminently, against China if the Chinese Communists should attempt to invade the island of Quemoy, occupied by Chiang’s troops, a few miles offshore mainland China.6

• The Berlin crisis, 1961.7

• The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962.8

• Numerous “shows of nuclear force” involving demonstrative deployments or alerts—deliberately visible to adversaries and intended as a “nuclear signal”—of forces with a designated role in U.S. plans for strategic nuclear war.9

• Much public discussion, in newspapers and in the Senate, of (true) reports that the White House had been advised of the possible necessity of nuclear weapons to defend marines surrounded at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968.10

• Nixon’s secret threats of massive escalation, including possible use of nuclear weapons, conveyed to the North Vietnamese by Henry Kissinger, 1969-72.11

• The Carter Doctrine on the Middle East (January 1980) as explained by Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Assistant Secretary of State William Dyess, and other spokesmen,12 reaffirmed, in essence, by President Reagan in 1981.13

Although the current warnings and preparations for nuclear war in the Middle East are the most public threats since the crises over Berlin and Cuba a generation ago, it follows from this listing that there has been no thirty-six-year moratorium upon the active consideration and use of nuclear weapons to support “nuclear diplomacy.” Indeed, many of the recurrent circumstances were remarkably similar to the first use at Hiroshima.

In none of these cases, any more than in 1945, was there apprehension among U.S. officials that nuclear war might be initiated by an adversary or needed urgent deterring. In most of them, just as against Japan, the aim was to coerce in urgent circumstances a much weaker opponent that possessed no nuclear weapons at all. In the remaining cases the object—already important in August 1945—was to intimidate the Soviet Union in an otherwise non-nuclear conflict. And even against the Soviets most of these threats were seen as effective, just as the first two bombs were. U.S. marines, who had fought their way out of the Chinese encirclement at the Chosin Reservoir without carrying out Truman’s 1950 warning, were accepted and kept our 1953 armistice terms in Korea; in 1958, they ceased abruptly their daily shelling of Quemoy. The Russians backed down over Berlin in 1961 and again, spectacularly, in Cuba the next year.

Whether the nuclear component of U.S. threats to escalate the level of hostilities was actually critical to the behavior of opponents is not the issue here. (That question is still hotly controversial for the 1945 case itself.) What matters, if we are to understand this record, is that presidents believed that past and current threats had succeeded: this was why, as they understood it, they or their predecessors had not been forced to carry them out, and why they and their successors kept making such
threats, and buying more and more first-use and first-strike nuclear weapon systems to maintain and increase the credibility and effectiveness of threats they expected to make in the future. It is why, after all, each president has refused to make a “no first-use” commitment, even when the Soviet Union has proposed such a commitment bilaterally.

The objection to these tactics is not that such threats cannot possibly “work.” However, it is important to observe that most of these known incidents—and all of the apparently successful ones (except Khe Sanh)—occurred under earlier conditions of American strategic nuclear superiority so overwhelming as to amount to monopoly. Thus, in mid-1961, the year of the projected “missile gap” favoring the Russians, the United States had within range of Russia about 1000 tactical bombers and 2000 intercontinental bombers, 40 ICBMs, 48 Polaris missiles, and another 100 intermediate range missiles based in Europe. The Soviets had at that time some 190 intercontinental bombers and exactly four ICBMs: four “soft,” nonalert, liquid-fueled ICBMs at one site at Plesetsk that was vulnerable to a small attack with conventional weapons.

When Kennedy urged the American people to prepare fall-out shelters during the Berlin crisis that year, it was not for a nuclear war that would be started by the Soviets. Nor was it to avert Soviet superiority, nor to deter a Soviet nuclear first strike, that Kennedy fixed on the figure of 1000 missiles as the projected size of the Minuteman force in November of that year, well after the intelligence community had concurred on the conclusive estimate that the Soviet possessed less than ten ICBMs.

Continue to read the complete pdf-file:


• Daniel Ellsberg is one of our nation's most renowned and respected whistleblowers. A former official in the Defense and State Departments, he released the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971. For more info, click here.

• Read Daniel Ellsberg's essay “The Next War," from the Oct. 2006 issue of Harper's here. In this essay, Ellsberg speaks directly to current insiders, encouraging them to leak documents that could prevent the impending attack on Iran.

• In December 2006 Daniel Ellsberg received the Right Livelihood Award (“the alternative Nobel Prize”) in Stockholm, Sweden. The Award recognized Daniel for “putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk.” In an op-ed article published in “Dagens Nyheter,” Sweden’s leading newspaper, he described the nuclear plans developed for Iran and made reference to his Call to Mutiny.

• Daniel Ellsberg appeared on The Colbert Report on 9/21. Watch it here.

• A transcript of Daniel's speech at the 9/7 “World Can't Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime” rally in San Francisco is available here.


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