The inherent danger posed by nuclear weapons to world peace has
sometimes taken a more acute form when an actual threat to use them has
been made or implied. The list of such
instances now extends over half a century, from the Korean War or even earlier
to the Iraq War, but there is still controversy over their extent and gravity.
Sometimes the seriousness of the “nuclear threat” may be exaggerated in order
to claim success (e.g. Korea, 1953).. On the other hand it may be characterised
as mere “bluff”, minimising the resulting risk of nuclear war (e.g. Taiwan
has been argued that
over the decades a “nuclear taboo” developed which made the actual use of such
weapons unthinkable. However some participants in these events have revealed
that the world came much to nuclear war than was generally admitted (e.g. Cuba,
1962). Some episodes have led to the conclusion that the threat, whether bluff
or not, successfully deterred the adversary (e.g. Middle East, 1973). The
record of these threats has been used by
new nuclear powers from China (1963) onwards to justify the acquisition of such
weapons in order to deter “nuclear blackmail.” The need to make such threats
credible has also encouraged the development of more first-use and first-strike
nuclear weapons by the major powers to prevent pre-emptive strikes.
Finally, although the classic
nuclear threats belong to the height of the Cold War, the use of nuclear weapons was being
threatened again after 2001 as necessary to counter alleged “rogue states” and
“international terrorists”. For example. the US Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, revised in 2005, states
that the United States "must be prepared to use nuclear weapons if necessary" against terrorists seeking to gain use of weapons
of mass destruction and against those states "that support their efforts".
1945: US-Japan (Pacific
War). This threat is unique both
because it led to the actual use of nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
and because it was not meant to be understood at the time. In the Potsdam Declaration
(26 July 1945),
the US, Britain and the Soviet Union warned Japan that the alternative to
surrender would be “prompt and utter destruction”. By this time President
Truman was aware that the atom bomb was ready for use but had not told his
Soviet ally. On the previous day Truman ordered his Secretary of War to prepare
to use the bomb within the next two weeks.
He noted in his diary that “we shall issue a warning statement asking
the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we
will have given them the chance.” .
1946: US-USSR (Iranian
early 1946, rising tension over the Soviet
presence in northern Iran led to strong US protests which resulted in the
withdrawal of Russian troops. Although
President Truman said at the time
that “Russia (must be) faced with an iron fist”, there is no evidence in the
archives of a nuclear ultimatum. While leading US nuclear strategist Albert
Wohlstetter later described the threat as “realistic”, other analysts have
argued that the ultimatum was a “myth” (Bundy, pp. 232-233).
1950-53: US-China/North Korea (Korean War). This has been described by US strategic planner
Paul Nitze as “an atomic war even though no atomic weapons were used”. An early
statement by Truman, after China’s intervention, that there was “active
consideration” of their use caused alarm among US allies. Fears were eased as
the war settled into a stalemate but the use of nuclear weapons was actively
considered again in 1953 to end the deadlock in negotiations. President
Eisenhower would later claim that “the
threat of atomic war” had persuaded China to agree to an armistice. One careful
study concludes that “however elliptical the threat conveyed to China, there is
no evidence that it was a bluff” ( Betts, p.47).
According to recent
research “the president was much more
willing to use nuclear compellant force than many have supposed” (Jackson,
p.52). Though Chinese leaders claimed publicly that nuclear weapons were no
more than a “paper tiger”, Beijing’s decision to build the atom bomb dates from
1955 and 1958: US-China (Taiwan Straits crises). When China began bombing the
Kuomintang-controlled Offshore Islands. the US considered the use of nuclear
weapons among a range of options. In March 1955 Eisenhower said that there was
“no reason” why such weapons should not be used “just exactly as you would use
a bullet”. China moved to ease the crisis by proposing talks with the US but
these proved fruitless.
In summer 1958 China resumed the bombing, in part to
embarrass the Soviet Union which was seeking détente with the US. Washington
again seriously considered resort to nuclear weapons and shipped nuclear
artillery to Taiwan: a Department of State analysis concluded that it had come
“perilously close” to using them (Foreign Relations of the United States, vol.
XIX, p.267). Chang believes Eisenhower
“brought the country to the ‘nuclear brink’” (p.201).
1961-62: Soviet Union-US-Soviet
Union (Berlin and Cuban crises). The prospect of
nuclear war was raised publicly by both superpowers in the inter-related crises
over Berlin and Cuba. Both originated in attempts by Soviet Premier Khrushchev
to shift the cold war balance (which he perceived to be tipping in Washington’s
favour), first by threatening to abrogate the post-war understanding on Berlin,
and then by placing nuclear weaponry in Cuba. Khrushchev was also concerned by the recent deployment in Turkey of US Jupiter
missiles, which were capable of reaching western parts of the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev sought to call the
US nuclear bluff, warning that a conflict would
bring “untold calamities”. Determined to
maintain credibility, the Kennedy administration asserted its readiness to use
nuclear weapons in both crises, in spite of internal misgivings. A range of
options was considered during the Berlin crisis up to and including “General
Nuclear War”. Kennedy later estimated
that the odds of nuclear conflict during the Cuban crisis had been “somewhere
between one in three and even”.
1969: Soviet Union - China
(Sino-Soviet border). Following an
escalation of this dispute, with a major clash on Chenbao Island in March
initiated by China, the Soviet Union began to hint openly that it might use
nuclear weapons. Communist parties in the West were warned of a possible attack
on China’s nuclear facilities. The US was also sounded out but responded
negatively. China agreed to negotiations, but the Soviet threat triggered a
mass civil defence programme and probably speeded up development of China’s
1969: US-Vietnam (Vietnam war). In
October 1969, President
Nixon ordered a worldwide US nuclear alert, hoping this would pressurise the
Soviet Union to induce North Vietnam to accept a compromise settlement. Signals
had already been sent to Hanoi warning that Nixon would “take measures of great
consequence and force.” Nixon’s move, which reflected his “madman theory” that
an adversary might fear the worse from an apparently irrational enemy, was a
bluff, although there had been discussion in Washington of a limited nuclear
strike in North Vietnam.
1973: US - Soviet Union (Yom Kippur
war). In October 1973, when Israel continued
fighting in Sinai and ignored a
UN ceasefire, Soviet President Brezhnev proposed a joint US-Soviet
peace-keeping force and warned that otherwise he would consider unilateral intervention.
The White House responded by imposing a worldwide alert (known as DefCon3),
telling the Soviet Union that unilateral action would produce “incalculable
consequences”. Moscow did not go ahead,
and US policy-makers believed that the implied threat of nuclear war -- even if
only a bluff had paid off.
1980: US - Soviet Union (Invasion
of Afghanistan). The Carter Doctrine
announced by President Carter warned that any further expansion by the Soviet
Union into the Gulf area, and particularly Iran, would be met “by any means necessary,
including military force.”
The nuclear threat, though not explicit, was raised in official and media
commentaries. A year later President Reagan claimed that the Soviet Union had
been deterred by the risk of World War III.
This episode also contributed to the belief that the nuclear threat
could be an effective diplomatic weapon.
1990-1: US/Israel - Iraq ( Gulf War). Following
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir warned that
Iraq would be “harmed in a most serious way” if it attacked Israel. Airforce
Commander Avihu Ben-Nun warned Iraq to “think about” the consequences of a
“nuclear counter-response”. Ben-Nun later concluded that Saddam Hussein had
been deterred from using chemical weapons against Israel because he “feared our
2001-3 US/Britain -- Iraq (Weapons of Mass Destruction):
US strategic planning in the run-up to the Iraq war,
envisaging the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, was leaked to the
media. The Pentagon’s “Nuclear Posture Review” concluded after 9/11 called for
plans to attack WMD facilities. The 1995 “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear
Operations” had already envisaged nuclear targeting against so-called “rogue
states” such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. The British 1998 “Strategic
Defence Review” had also concluded that Britain’s nuclear arsenal should be
based on the need “to deter any threat to our vital interests.” Defence
Secretary Geoff Hoon now warned that
states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we
would be willing to use our nuclear weapons” (20 March 2002).
In conclusion, we may note that the actual or potential acquisition
of nuclear weapons by "new" nuclear states is generally seen as a threat by existing nuclear states, who nevertheless claim
that their own nuclear weapons are a legitimate form of deterrence.
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Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. Washington DC, 1987.
Blechman, Barry M. &
Hart, Douglas M., “The Political Utility of Nuclear Weapons: The 1973 Middle
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M Lynn-Jones et al., pp. 323-347. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.
Bundy, McGeorge, Danger
and Survival. New York, 1988.
Chang, Gordon H., “To
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Jackson, Michael Gordon,
“Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953-1968,” Presidential
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