On September 27, Democrats in the House and the Senate introduced a bill that would prevent the president of the United States from using nuclear weapons in a first strike without a declaration of war from Congress. For many of us — at least those of of us too young to remember much or any of the Cold War — this immediately provokes the question, wait — a president still has unilateral power to nuke if he gets too nervous? This is a good bill, but like so many other good bills, it feels as if it shouldn’t be necessary. Must we really specify that using a nuke counts as war, and that Congress should have a say in such a decision if it’s a first strike? (Obviously, nobody should ever be using nukes, especially not as a first strike, but that’s not something you can get into bills, sadly.)
Though the topic of nuclear weapons occasionally comes up, and usually when it’s time to tremble in fear at North Korea or Iran, the folk-punk band This Bike is a Pipe Bomb put it best when they sing that in terms of fearing nuclear war, "everybody just forgot about it" after about 1991.
It’s bad enough that the executive branch goes to war whenever it pleases now, the thought of using a weapon that involves, as Congressman Ted Lieu said, "a massive, potentially civilization-ending military strike without authorization from Congress" is absurd. It’s absurd with authorization from Congress, obviously. But the idea that the Cold War nightmares portrayed for decades in fiction, from On the Beach to The Day After, somehow doesn’t count as declaring war is completely insane.
During the worst years of the Cold War, or at least the seminar "duck
and cover" ‘50s and ‘60s, some people protested mass civil defense drills
based only on the fact that they encouraged the possibility of surviving a nuclear
war. These people didn’t object to humanity going on, they worried that if nuclear
war was normalized as survivable, if it could be seen as small-scale
(sort of) and not apocalyptic, it would not be fully discouraged. i.e., nukes
could be "on the table" if we were practicing how to live through
them, thereby making their use not, as it should be, entirely unthinkable.
Using nuclear weapons was always on the table, because in foreign policy, everything always is. More alarming, the use of nukes was considered by Harry Truman during the Korean War. And two decades later on one of the Nixon tapes, Secretary of State and beloved war criminal Henry Kissinger can be heard suggesting to his boss that maybe nukes were a bad idea in North Vietnam. When Kissinger is the dove in the room, your foreign policy needs a tune-up.
In the last 25 years, the nuke issue has been much less prominent than it once was. There have been skin-crawlingly close false alarms that could have been worse more recently, however, the don’t have the cultural oomph that they did in decades past. After September 11 and the "end of history" ended, there were some fears that terrorists would get ahold of nukes or some kind of a dirty bomb. This fear sometimes took shape in entertainment, as in the Platonic ideal of mid-aughts entertainment 24, when fictional Los Angeles gets slightly nuked. Mostly, however, it was less of a worry when smaller-scale terrorist attacks were easier to pull off.
Presidents have pushed gently towards disarmament, though Obama — as is his wont — has so far tended to talk the "world without nuclear weapons" talk, but failed to put that into action. You could argue that things have improved since nukes were being seriously considered in war, but the threat of them feels less vital, which could someday lead to unimaginable disaster. And there’s also now the question of whether the technology involved in America’s nuclear arsenal should be updated. To update it is to say that, yes, we need this, or at least the possibility of it. (Though the ancient floppy discs that US missile command depends upon may actually be a good thing, since the one thing that can often stop hackers is archaic tech. And you definitely want to keep hackers away from your ICBMs.)
The presidential election is just as discouraging as expected on this issue. Hillary Clinton is another DC robot — albeit a particularly hawkish one — who would never take anything off the table, especially not militarily. And Donald Trump, who is getting the brunt of the fainting fits over the thought of his hand on the button, has followed status quo policy to a t. He has repeatedly said he would be the last person to use nukes, but he would not "take any of my cards off the table." This horrifies people who think Trump is saying something new about US nuke policy. He’s saying something quite old, just without the political skills to make it sound more delicate.
Though many of the last presidents have been willing to agree to fewer nukes (though still enough to destroy civilization, always), they are never willing to take that dangerous, important step of abolishing them entirely. There is no way to use nukes, or any bombs, really in a safe, dependable manner. Nobody can use a nuke in self-defense.
A first strike is pure barbarism when a return strike would be horrific enough, and should never be permitted. Optimistically, based on several cases where people failed to report a seemingly real missile strike, or during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a Soviet officer failed to authorize the firing of a nuclear warhead, most humans seem to know that that’s a bad button to push, and a bad road to go down.
We can’t depend on that goodness entirely, however. We also can’t forget that the US opened that can of worms the moment it was manufactured, and unleashed it on two cities full of innocent civilians in August, 1945. The taboo and the stigma against this strangely-retro, yet terrifyingly modern weapon must continue. The least we can ask of elected officials is that they pass this bill which says Congress must be able to chime in on a nuclear first strike, because, yes, that counts as declaring war.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.