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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Normalizing Nukes

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Speaking of the situation on the Korean peninsula, he predicted that there would be "the greatest slaughter." He later requested 34 nuclear weapons for possible use in connection with the Korean situation. He would later claim that he had considered dropping "30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs" and had suggested laying a "belt of radioactive cobalt" with "an active life of between 60 and 120 years" across the northernmost part of Korea. And no, this was not President "Fire and Fury," nor was it part of the present crisis with "Rocket Man."

The year was 1950, the Korean War was underway, and the person in question was General Douglas MacArthur who, in terms of pure megalomania and self-regard, was surely the Donald Trump of his moment. As it happened, the general was gunning not just for Koreans but for a Democrat by the name of Harry Truman, a president who would, in the end, act as a commander in chief should. In a move deeply unpopular in its moment, he would dismiss his war commander (whom he dubbed "Mr. Prima Donna") only to watch MacArthur come home to a 19-mile New York City ticker-tape parade (and 3,000 tons of dropped paper) seen by more than seven million cheering spectators.

The Korean War was subsequently fought to a draw without atomic weapons, belts of cobalt, or anything else that might, in the end, have led to a global nuclear conflagration, in part because a president was able to corral an over-the-top general. Almost three quarters of a century later, the question, when it comes to that same peninsula and those same weapons, is: Who could corral a president with a yen to use them and the "sole authority" to do so? We're talking here about a man who, in the 2016 election campaign, wondered aloud to MSNBC's Chris Matthews why in the world, when it came to nuclear weapons, we would be "making them" if we weren't planning on using them?

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At this very moment, Congress is exploring what, if anything, can be done to contain such a president, a man who, as a member of his own party suggested, could set the U.S. "on the path to World War III." Few in that body, however, offer much hope of reining in presidential powers in the nuclear realm, which means that the only thing standing between an "unstable" commander in chief and a type of weaponry not used since August 1945 might be the U.S. military itself -- in other words, a crew trained above all to follow the orders of its commander in chief.

This is the context in which to consider TomDispatch regular Michael Klare's chilling look at the urge of both President Trump and key figures in the Pentagon to normalize nuclear weapons as a basic war-fighting tool in the American arsenal. Just imagine what it might mean, given The Donald, for such weaponry to be made ever more -- it's a term that should take your breath away -- "usable." Tom

The Trump Doctrine
Making Nuclear Weapons Usable Again
By Michael T. Klare

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Maybe you thought America's nuclear arsenal, with its thousands of city-busting, potentially civilization-destroying thermonuclear warheads, was plenty big enough to deter any imaginable adversary from attacking the U.S. with nukes of their own. Well, it turns out you were wrong.

The Pentagon has been fretting that the arsenal is insufficiently intimidating. After all -- so the argument goes -- it's filled with old (possibly unreliable) weapons of such catastrophically destructive power that maybe, just maybe, even President Trump might be reluctant to use them if an enemy employed smaller, less catastrophic nukes on some future battlefield. Accordingly, U.S. war planners and weapons manufacturers have set out to make that arsenal more "usable" in order to give the president additional nuclear "options" on any future battlefield. (If you're not already feeling a little tingle of anxiety at this point, you should be.) While it's claimed that this will make such assaults less likely, it's all too easy to imagine how such new armaments and launch plans could actually increase the risk of an early resort to nuclear weaponry in a moment of conflict, followed by calamitous escalation.

That President Trump would be all-in on making the American nuclear arsenal more usable should come as no surprise, given his obvious infatuation with displays of overwhelming military strength. (He was thrilled when, last April, one of his generals ordered, for the first time, the most powerful nonnuclear weapon the U.S. possesses dropped in Afghanistan.) Under existing nuclear doctrine, as imagined by the Obama administration back in 2010, this country was to use nuclear weapons only "in extreme circumstances" to defend the vital interests of the country or of its allies. Prohibited was the possibility of using them as a political instrument to bludgeon weaker countries into line. However, for Donald Trump, a man who has already threatened to unleash on North Korea "fire and fury like the world has never seen," such an approach is proving far too restrictive. He and his advisers, it seems, want nukes that can be employed at any potential level of great-power conflict or brandished as the apocalyptic equivalent of a giant club to intimidate lesser rivals.

Making the U.S. arsenal more usable requires two kinds of changes in nuclear policy: altering existing doctrine to eliminate conceptional restraints on how such weapons may be deployed in wartime and authorizing the development and production of new generations of nuclear munitions capable, among other things, of tactical battlefield strikes. All of this is expected to be incorporated into the administration's first nuclear posture review (NPR), to be released by the end of this year or early in 2018.

Its exact contents won't be known until then -- and even then, the American public will only gain access to the most limited version of a largely classified document. Still, some of the NPR's features are already obvious from comments made by the president and his top generals. And one thing is clear: restraints on the use of such weaponry in the face of a possible weapon of mass destruction of any sort, no matter its level of destructiveness, will be eliminated and the planet's most powerful nuclear arsenal will be made ever more so.

Altering the Nuclear Mindset

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The strategic guidance provided by the administration's new NPR is likely to have far-reaching consequences. As John Wolfsthal, former National Security Council director for arms control and nonproliferation, put it in a recent issue of Arms Control Today, the document will affect "how the United States, its president, and its nuclear capabilities are seen by allies and adversaries alike. More importantly, the review establishes a guide for decisions that underpin the management, maintenance, and modernization of the nuclear arsenal and influences how Congress views and funds the nuclear forces."

With this in mind, consider the guidance provided by that Obama-era nuclear posture review. Released at a moment when the White House was eager to restore America's global prestige in the wake of George W. Bush's widely condemned invasion of Iraq and just six months after the president had won the Nobel Prize for his stated determination to abolish such weaponry, it made nonproliferation the top priority. In the process, it downplayed the utility of nuclear weapons under just about any circumstances on just about any imaginable battlefield. Its principal objective, it claimed, was to reduce "the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security."

As the document pointed out, it had once been American policy to contemplate using nuclear weapons against Soviet tank formations, for example, in a major European conflict (a situation in which the USSR was believed to possess an advantage in conventional, non-nuclear forces). By 2010, of course, those days were long gone, as was the Soviet Union. Washington, as the NPR noted, now possessed an overwhelming advantage in conventional weaponry as well. "Accordingly," it concluded, "the United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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