No First Use, The Best Bad Idea is an editorial piece written by Tim Clark and shared with The Ugly Writers under the theme The Best Bad Idea for the month of January
No First Use, The Best Bad Idea
World War II ended and over eighty million people had died. Some areas were so thoroughly destroyed that it is impossible to know with any certainty how many people had been killed. Tanks roared through Europe and Africa grinding villages to dust, smashing cities into ruins. Armies battled across Asia supported by the guns of battleships, bombers and artillery, cities were smashed, nothing but rubble and ash.
Eventually, atomic weapons ended the war.
When it was over the world was stunned at the complete destruction. It wasn’t only the 225,000 people who had died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though this has been viewed as overly conservative, it was the estimated 500,000 German civilians who died as a result of allied bombing. It was shocking to see the devastation wrought by a modern war machine.
National leaders formed the United Nations in an effort to avoid future conflict, certainly the world would be a better place without it.
But, they all went home and prepared. Building bigger, better bombs, long range missiles, more powerful nuclear weapons, faster tanks, planes and ships, a more lethal army than had ever been seen. It was as if they had learned nothing.
They managed, and to date are still managing, to avoid any conflict between the “superpowers.” But they have fought proxy wars all over the globe, and still engage in minor conflicts at an almost unbelievable rate. And it won’t be long until something happens, and we drive off the edge of that bridge. Or one of the rising, frustrated powers develop enough weaponry to challenge the status quo. And there goes the carefully choreographed exchange of hostilities.
Even with all of the cautiously calibrated controls there have been times when atomic weapons were given serious consideration.
General McArthur requested the deployment of 34 atomic bombs during the Korean War. He had a target list and was fully prepared. Eventually, President Truman replaced General McArthur with a more moderate re Matthew Ridgeway, and he was given nine atomic bombs and the authority to use them as he saw fit. The death toll would have been awful. Truman, it is rumored, at one point considered the deployment to stem the tide and avert Russian intervention. Cooler heads prevailed. I think we can all be grateful.
After World War II France decided to reestablish her colony in Indochina. It turned into a long war of shadows. Viet Minh forces would attack when conditions were favorable and disappear into the jungle. It was a maddening series of ambushes, booby traps and losses. To break the disturbing pattern of chase, ambush and loss the French command decided to make a stand in the Dien Bien Phu valley.
Vietnamese forces surrounded the stronghold. Using the mountains and hills surrounding the outpost they made it impossible for the airplanes to land. Isolated, surrounded and with no hope of rescue the French fought bravely and died horribly. In the end, the defeat was the final straw that broke their colonial ambitions.
America, though, worried about the absurd theory of communist dominos falling across Asia, Oceania and all the way to the Hawaiian Islands want the French to keep fighting, and dying in the name of democracy. To this end they offered, allegedly to “loan” two atomic bombs to the French. There are people, well placed people, who claim this never happened, but considering all the energy and abandon the US poured into the quagmire of the defense of a country (South Vietnam) that didn’t even exist until after the fall of Dien Bien Phu and the peace treaty between France and Vietnam, it isn’t difficult to believe.
America soon found itself embroiled in a land war against lightly armed, elusive units of North Vietnamese infantry. “We couldn’t run and we couldn’t hide, and they could do either so well it seemed as if they were doing both at the same time,” wrote Micheal Herr in his landmark book “Dispatches” describing his year as a journalist in Vietnam. It was frustrating and expensive and inconclusive.
In 1968 General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), decided to assemble his own Dien Bien Phu, reasoning, much as the French had 15 years earlier, that if he offered an appealing enough target he could draw the reluctant enemy into a large land battle and destroy them completely. The Marine Combat Base of Khe Sanh was born.
Six months later, surrounded and supplied exclusively by air, unable to mount a significant combat patrol outside the perimeter, the marines relied on air power to provide security. Twenty four thousand airstrikes dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs during the “battle.” The math breaks it down to over 5 tons for every NVA soldier.
Westmoreland asked for, and received, authorization to move nuclear weapons to Vietnam in case the situation at Khe Sanh deteriorated and the base was in immediate danger of being overrun. President Johnson, who never really had any faith in the Generals who were running the war, and perhaps fearing the public relations disaster the use of these weapons would inspire, stepped in and ordered the “devices” returned to the mainland.
These are just two incidences of a minor war against a small country that threatened to end the uneasy nuclear peace that has been maintained since the end of the World War II. We can’t know for sure, how close they came to using them. Moreover, we won’t know for sure how many times between then and now the US government had considered their use in on of the countless, un-winnable wars they have participated in until the documents become declassified. And we will probably never know about Soviet, or Russian intentions. They are much better at keeping secrets.
Admittedly, they didn’t use the weapons, and I think we can all be grateful for that, and they planned to, or would have used them against enemy soldiers.
Nuclear weapons, though, aren’t really designed as a battlefield weapon. They are weapons designed for a more cost effective destruction of population centers and the people in the them. If we can melt a few vital industries and important transportation routes so much the better. The whole point, though is destroying the enemies will to fight.
This is nothing new. During the Early Middle Ages it became common practice to make war against peasants, farm, villages, softer targets, It was called Chevauchee and it was much less difficult than besieging castles, which could take a year or more. Originally it was designed to bring the local lord from behind his walls and force battle, or starve him by eliminating his food supplies and workers. Even when it wasn’t official policy armies living off the land wasn’t nearly so benevolent as it sounds. Living off the land normally involved living off the supplies laid in by small farms and villages. Easy pray for a band of armed, organized men.
Dresden and Hamburg were virtually destroyed by bombing raids during WWII. People died by the thousands. It was the industry and transportation that bought the bombers but it was the non-combatants that paid the ultimate price. Dresden was a gathering point for refugees fleeing the fighting on the Eastern Front. From the frying pan into the fire.
Attacking civilians is nothing new. History is filled with cities reduced to rubble, populations decimated and the few survivors sold into slavery. Nuclear weapons have changed everything.
Until quite recently it was assumed humanity had evolved to a point that they would not accept the immolation of thousands of civilians to achieve military objectives. That may not be the case. In a paper published by Scott Sagan, a political science professor and senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and his co-author, Benjamin Valentino, a Dartmouth College professor of government used the proposed incident of an Iranian attack on an American warship in retaliation for sanctions imposed by a US government. According to the study 60% of those surveyed would support using nuclear weapons, potentially killing 2 million civilians including women and children to prevent an invasion and the potential death of 20,000 US soldiers.
In the event of such a limited exchange the results would be catastrophic. The dust from the explosions and the smoke from the resulting fires would rise into the atmosphere and circle the globe, blocking the sun rays, and reducing the temperature resulting in reduced harvests, and famine. The death toll would be awful. While the baseline number of nuclear explosions to initiate nuclear winter is unknown (thank God, for that) the prevailing belief among people who study these things is it wouldn’t take very many.
All of this leads to only one conclusion. Nuclear weapons are unusable. While we can’t expect nations to voluntarily disarm they need to make it clear they will not be the first to use them. It’s called the NFU, and it is a small step toward sanity. So far China is the only nation that has guaranteed no first use, India has said it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, unless it suffers from a biological or chemical attack.
It is a widely held belief Russia, or the US, would respond with crippling retaliation to a limited first strike. Thirty percent of the population of the largest 100 cities would be killed instantly. Roughly 21 million Americans. Nobody can really believe that would be the end. There would be bombers and submarine based missiles, cruise missiles, nothing would be off limits, that’s the way wars go, as long as there are weapons left and people to use them against it’s still open season.
No first use is an imperfect, squishy sort of half step, but it’s a start. It brings the world closer to Further it gives the opportunity for further negotiations. Walking back from the brink of destruction seems the wisest course, it has become obvious there is no alternative.