Ira Chernus  



The Pentagon has put out the word that the U.S. might use nuclear weapons in a preventive war against Iraq. That’s not a new idea. Nuclear threats and talk of preventive nuclear strikes have been with us since the early days of the cold war. Now, as then, threatening words will probably do us more harm than good, even if they are never translated into action.

In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower committed the U.S. government to a first-strike nuclear policy. He told his advisors, "Ultimately some President might have to decide that it was his duty to strike the first blow against the USSR … You try to shoot your enemy before he shoots you."

Thanks to recent leaks from Pentagon sources, we know how little has changed in nearly half a century. The blueprint for a war with Iraq includes contingency plans like Ike's for using nuclear weapons. Those leaks to the media were probably no accident. As CBS News recently reported, the war plan is based on military strategist Harlan Ullman’s theory of "shock and awe" or "muscular containment": scare your enemies with such an awesome show of rapid, overwhelming force that they give up without a fight.

Eisenhower also used nuclear threats as psychological weapons. When Communist China shelled Taiwan’s outposts on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1955, Eisenhower said openly that the U.S. might respond with nuclear weapons, "just like you would use a bullet." Privately, he left little doubt that he really would use nukes and risk World War III. As he once told the British ambassador in Washington, "He would rather be atomized than communized."

Now the Bush administration has combined the two pieces of Ike’s strategy: prepare for preventive nuclear strikes, but make the preparations public, in order to wage psychological war against Iraq]. Considering the results Eisenhower reaped from his policies, the idea of combining the two gives little comfort.

Ike’s talk of using nukes in China sparked outrage that did incalculable damage to U.S. prestige and diplomatic interests around the globe. In Europe, growing concern about U.S. "warmongering" threatened a rift in the NATO alliance in the 1950, just as it does today.

Trying to recoup from his public relations disaster, Eisenhower promised to negotiate a disarmament deal with the Soviets. But the effort collapsed in 1960, after the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane and captured pilot Gary Powers. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reaped a propaganda coup by playing the role of aggrieved victim -- a role Saddam Hussein is cultivating with some success now.

Eisenhower understood the risk he took by allowing the U-2 to fly over Soviet airspace. But he had no choice, he said. His policy of preventive attack was useless if he could not see what his enemy was doing.

Everyone in the Kremlin knew that the U.S. could indeed launch a preventive attack, and there was little the Soviets could do in response. This made Khrushchev look like a fool at home. At the Paris summit meeting in 1960, he had to put on a dramatic "tough guy" show to save his political power. So he had no choice but to stalk out of the summit and make Eisenhower look the fool.

The U-2 fiasco ended the world’s hopes for disarmament. It left Eisenhower and the U.S. suspect in the world’s eyes. Who could believe words of peace from a nation caught spying and preparing for war? Khrushchev had to go on proving his toughness when John F. Kennedy replaced Ike in the White House. Kennedy, fearing that he would look young and weak, took the toughest stance he could in return. That duel of public images led straight to the brink of war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

No one can say what the Bush administration’s talk of preventive war with nuclear weapons will bring. The Eisenhower administration learned, painfully, just how unpredictable and uncontrollable the world is.

But it seems a safe bet that the Bush administration 's "muscular containment" will breed muscular resistance, as it did in the 1950s. Other nations and will feel compelled to take a tougher stance toward the U.S. Global tensions will increase.

Nuclear bluster will make it hard for the world to take seriously Washington’s claim that it wants world peace. Sympathy for the U.S. cause will continue to dwindle. The strains between the U.S. and NATO allies will grow. Another attack on our soil might yield a lot less shock and awe than it did on September 11, 2001.

Words are serious actions. When threats of preventive nuclear attack are launched, the words can cause future damage that far outweighs anything gained by a policy of "shock and awe."