Why have so many been so shocked by this latest episode of brinkmanship over the threat of a nuclear war with the unhinged dictatorship in North Korea? It is worth remembering that we have had plenty of warning that such a horrific showdown was headed our way. Indeed, 18 years ago, America’s leading authority on nuclear arms strategy explicitly laid out the stark risks that faced us unless we changed our ways.
On the op-ed page of The New York Times on Oct. 28, 1999, Paul H. Nitze, then 92, stirred up the foreign policy beehive by proposing that the United States destroy its stockpile of nuclear warheads and then serve notice on rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons that they must destroy their own growing stockpiles or risk pre-emptive attack on those supplies by conventional American military force.
“The fact is, I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security. I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us. What, for example, would our targets be? It is impossible to conceive of a target that could be hit without large-scale destruction of many innocent people.”
A few days later I had the chance to ask Paul what the reaction had been to his piece.
“Well, I was hissed when I walked into the dining room of the Metropolitan Club yesterday,” he chuckled. “And I got a note from George Kennan that said he had not agreed with anything I have said for 40 years, but he was inclined to agree with this piece.”
In the decades since the end of World War II, Kennan and Nitze had come to represent the bipolar conflicts over what America’s strategy should be to confront the determined efforts of the Soviet Union to extend its empire’s sway.
Kennan had been the godfather of reasoned diplomacy as America’s first weapon against unreasoning despots. Kennan the classic diplomat versus Nitze the go-to guy at State and the Pentagon for Democratic presidents from FDR to Jimmy Carter. Kennan was correct, however, in pointing out that Joseph Stalin was faced the structural fault-line dooming all tyrannical regimes — Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea being today’s most glaring examples. To maintain the total control of their populace, all despots must provide their captive people with some signs of economic prosperity. Yet the burdens of a slave state means that a tremendous subsidy has to come from outside its borders.
Nitze saw more clearly that the Soviet Union could prolong its regime for a long time by looting the economies of its satellites and in that time, develop a new generation of offensive weaponry that would make it an existential threat to all free nations, including ours. Instead of “containment,” the United States must squeeze back, countering with conventional force wherever Soviet aggression threatened while at the same time, leading the race to deterrent-weapons supremacy.
What has been too often ignored is how Nitze came by his progression from nuclear arms advocate to disarmament prophet. Late in 1945, President Harry Truman sent Nitze as the head of the survey team that examined the impact of the massive program of air bombardment of Japan.
With the bluntness that would irritate future presidents, Nitze wrote about the effect of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
Yet in the final years of his life, he was alarmed at the proliferation of nuclear arsenals held by unstable or otherwise uncontrollable nations. When I asked him which countries he would consider pre-emptive conventional attacks against if they refused an American disarmament demand, he first cited Iran and North Korea. But then he added two ostensible U.S. allies — Pakistan and India — whose continuing nuclear threats against each other is one of the excuses offered by presidents for nearly 15 years for our failing efforts to build Afghanistan into a bulwark of stability.
Since then, cloudy strategic vision among policymakers about the true nature of our nuclear arsenal has led us through the decades to now. In the process, two other U.S. presidents have toyed with “red lines” and “no-fly zones” even as they kept an ambivalent finger on the nuclear button. Only, now we have a third commander in chief who may actually have to press it.
And we are surprised? Are we having second thoughts? Paul Nitze would laugh at us.
• James Srodes is a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial World magazines and the author of “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint, 2013).
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