By Sam Cohen

March 2002

Predictably, with the revelation of the Administration's Nuclear Posture Review, a new, but hardly different, debate has begun and can be expected to continue for some time, on the role of nuclear weapons; namely, should our policy be based on deterrence or actually using these weapons. Scholars, analysts, and politicians have leaped into the fray. The arguments, pro and con -- more con than pro --have a hauntingly familiar ring. To be sure, times have changed over the last half-century, as the number of nuclear weapon states have increased and promise to increase even further; but what has not changed in any significant way is how most Americans in most walks of life view the Bomb: It frightens them and thereby frightens politicians, including presidents who might preside over their possible use.

Although over a 40 year period I was engaged in various aspects of nuclear weapons, working closely with and frequently against the U.S. Government, looking back over these years I truthfully can say that I never really understood the role of these weapons. (Nor did anyone else, including presidents, for that matter.) This being the case, rather than try to impersonally analyze the newly proposed posture--in terms of weapons, strategy and doctrine--I will bank on some of my own personal experiences to be my guide, and hopefully yours.

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In 1948 I spent a couple of months in Washington working on a committee established by the U.S. Atomic Enegry Commission (AEC) and chartered to evaluate radiological warfare--i.e., using radioactive materials against enemy military personnel far more discriminately than possible with atomic bombs of that vintage. When the study was completed, a conference was arranged where our findings would be presented to a number of ranking officials, the highest ranking being David Lilieiithal--the first chairman of the AEC who previously had achieved great distinction as a prime formulator of U.S. nuclear arms control policy. We convened at the appointed time, except one person was missing--Lilienthal, the highest ranking and most key official. We couldn't start without him and so we had to wait. Finally he arrived, inexcusably late, strode to the head of the table but did not sit down. Instead, he launched into a brief moral tirade against the subject matter, and strode out of the room. That was the end of radiological warfare in the U.S. Why this highly emotional and even rude performance? Quite simple: This scheme was nuclear.

In 1952 I joined a working group in Wiesbaden, Germany headed by the U.S. Air Force whose charter was to lay out requirements for NATO's tactical nuclear arsenal. As the effort progressed, it became clear to me that gaining a low-yield discriminate warhead capability, to minimize harm to German civilians and their infrastructure was of no interest to any of the officers, including the head of the group. After all, they just had finished pulverizing Germany in World War II, so why should they be concerned over repeating this with nuclear weapons? I bowed out of the group and went back home feeling somewhat disgusted. As a result, with this calloused attitude, targetting analyses in the study indicated the need for the largest warhead yields available.

When the West Germans, who as NATO allies would be delivering these weapons, got word of this and the nuclear stockpile we were building up they howled in official protest and even though thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear warheads were deployed to Europe and other places around the road, to all intents and purposes it was clear they never would or, considering the totally unrealistic doctrine for their employment, could be used to meet rational objectives. As of today these weapons are long gone from the U.S. arsenal and by order of President George Bush the Elder have been demolished. Moreover, in 1994 Congress passed legislation forbidding the development and production of low-yield dicriminate battlefield nuclear weapons. In this context, unless this decision is reversed it is little short of ludicrous for the NPR to call for developing new low-yield nuclear weapons. Furthermore, as a result of this legislation, our nuclear warhead development capabilities have been decimated and even were this legislation reversed, a very dubious proposition, it could be years before they could be restored.

In 1961, I went to Gettysburg, PA to brief retired President Dwight Eiserhower on the neutron bomb. He allowed this was a most interesting technical concept but stated unequivocally it had no realistic use. Should we actually employ such weapons, or any other tactical nuclear weapons deployed by the many thousands during his administration, this inexorably would result in all-out thermonuclear war. In the real world, as seen by Eisenhower, this and all other low yield tactical nuclear weapons were of no value.

In 1970, at the order of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who formerly had come all-out for these weapons, the Pentagon embarked on a study to evaluate their utility. I directed this study. Our conclusions, which strongly favored their development, deployment and use, were dispatched to the White House. They were rejected out of hand, by Kissinger no less, even though technology had advanced to a degree where a dramatically new class of very low yield warheads was at hand--if desired. They weren't. They were nuclear. (During this study I visited with Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the matter with him. At one point I asked him what the U.S. would do were the Soviets to militarily destroy NATO Europe in a discriminate surprise nuclear attack. His answer was extremely brief: "Nothing.")

In 1978, I briefed presidential candidate Ronald Reagan on the neutron bomb. He appeared very impressed, indicating that if elected he would order its production and deployment to Europe. (By then, such use outside of NATO was a total political taboo.) Shortly after being elected, Reagan kept his campaign promise and ordered their production and deployment (only to NATO Europe, even though the militarily most logical use would have been elsewhere where we didn't have to directly confront the USSR). He did produce many hundreds of these warheads, except they weren't neutron bombs in the discriminate sense of the word. (One of the two kinds of warheads, to be used in a battlefield missile, had a blast destruction radius about two-thirds that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.) Moreover, NATO Europe's resistance to their deployment was so intense that all of them had to be stored in the U.S. where they had no realistic military value. I publicly criticized the way this matter had been handled, the result being my forced early retirement.

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For all the above personal experiences I view the NPR with a very large grain of salt. The debate over this subject will continue for some time but when all is said and done I suspect we will wind up where we started; namely an inability to use truly discriminate tactical nuclear weapons anywhere on Earth, for the simple reason that we won't have any because we never have really wanted any. Other potentially hostile nations will--as of now Russia and China do and in course of time "evil" nations such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea may very well accumulate such stockpiles. What this portends, I don't know; but in theory this may be highly ominous, unless we pull away from our longstanding policy, since World War II, of policing the world, a policy which has fared very poorly.

Finally, with respect to U.S. use of its strategic nuclear weapons, the only kind we now have, this lacks all rationality --militarily and morally. We claim that our possession of these weapons has deterred nuclear war. Perhaps so, but one must realize that "deterrence" is far more a matter of mind than of fact. (I once posed this issue to my friend Dr. Frank Barnaby, a world renowned nuclear arms control advocate, asking him why, despite the alleged close calls we have had with strategic nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the dreaded event never appened. His answer was very profound: "Just lucky, I guess.")

In summary, perhaps the best the U.S. can do with its present unsatisfactory nuclear posture is to let bad enough alone. And hope we remain lucky. To seriously tamper with this structure risks an acrimonious domestic debate whose outcome, in all probility, will resolve nothing. U.S. nuclear weapons exist and will continue to exist into the foreseeable future. They are a fact. On the other hand, their actual use has been little more than a myth. Let it stay that way rather than devising new postures which emphasize low-yield discriminate nuclear weapons which all of our nuclear history tells us will not succeed in a change for the better.


Sam Cohen, a retired nuclear weapons analyst, invented the neutron bomb.