President’s Message: The Nuclear Guns of August

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August.1)Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Dell, 1962). Today, the United States and other nuclear-armed states are not addressing the harder alternative of whether nuclear weapons provide for real security. The harder alternative, I argue,  is to work toward elimination of these weapons at the same time as the security concerns of all states are being met. If leaders of states feel insecure, those with nuclear arms will insist on maintaining or even modernizing these weapons, and many of those without nuclear arms will insist on having nuclear deterrence commitments from nuclear-armed states. Therefore, security concerns must be addressed as a leading priority if there is to be any hope of nuclear abolition.

Among the many merits of Tuchman’s book is her trenchant analysis of the entangled military and political alliances that avalanched toward the armed clashes at the start of the First World War in August 1914. The German army under the Schlieffen Plan had to mobilize within a couple of weeks and launch its attack through neutral Belgium into France and win swift victory; otherwise, Germany would get bogged down in a two-front war in France and Russia. But this plan did not go like clockwork. As we know from history, years of trench warfare resulted in millions of soldiers killed. The war’s death toll of military and civilians from multiple causes (including pandemic influenza) was more than 16 million.

The danger today is that alliance commitments could drag the United States into an even more costly nuclear war. While the United States must support its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in East Asia (including Japan and South Korea), it must be wary of overreliance on nuclear weapons for providing security. This is an extremely difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the United States needs to reassure these allies that they have serious, reliable extended deterrence commitments. “Extended” means that the United States extends deterrence beyond its territory and will commit to retaliating in response to an armed attack on an ally’s territory. Such deterrence involves conventional and nuclear forces as well as diplomatic efforts.

NATO allies have been concerned about the security implications of Russia’s incursion into Crimea and its influence over the continuing political and military crisis in Ukraine. Do nuclear weapons have a role in reassuring these allies? A resolute yes has come from an August 17th op-ed in the Washington Post by Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller.2)Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller, “NATO-based nuclear weapons are an advantage in a dangerous world,” Washington Post, August 17, 2014. (The first two gentlemen served as national security advisers in the Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations while the third author was a senior official in charge of developing nuclear policy for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.) Not only do these experienced former national security officials give an emphatic affirmation to the United States recommitting to nuclear deterrence in NATO (as if that were seriously in doubt), but they underscore the perceived need for keeping “the modest number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe.” The United States is the only nuclear-armed state to deploy nuclear weapons in other states’ territories.

The authors pose three arguments from opponents and then attempt to knock them down. First, the critics allegedly posit that NATO-based nuclear weapons “have no military value.” To rebut, Scowcroft et al. state that because NATO’s supreme allied commander says that these weapons have military value, this is evidence enough. While by definition of his rank he is an authority, he alone cannot determine whether or not these weapons have military value. This is at least a debatable point. Scowcroft et al. instead want to emphasize that the weapons are “fundamentally, political weapons.” That is, these forward deployed arms are “a visible symbol to friend and potential foe of the U.S. commitment to defend NATO with all of the military power it possesses.” But would the United States go so far as to threaten Russia with nuclear use? The authors do not pursue this line of questioning. Perhaps they realize that this threat could lead to a commitment trap in which the United States would risk losing credibility because it would not want to cross the nuclear threshold, but Russian President Vladimir Putin could call the U.S. bluff.3)For more on the commitment trap as applied to the riskiness of nuclear threats against chemical and biological weapons, see Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap,” International Security, Spring 2000, pp. 85-115.

The United States can still demonstrate resolve and commitment to allies with its strategic nuclear weapons based on U.S. soil and on submarines under the surfaces of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Moreover, the United States can show further support by working with European allies to make them more resilient against disruptions of energy supplies such as oil and natural gas from Russia. By implementing policies to reduce and eventually eliminate dependencies on Russian energy supplies, these countries will strengthen their energy security and have further options to apply economic and diplomatic pressure, if necessary, on Russia. These measures are not explicitly mentioned in the op-ed.

Rather, Scowcroft et al. argue that Russia has been modernizing its nuclear forces because these weapons “clearly matter to Russian leadership, and as a result, our allies insist that the U.S. nuclear commitment to NATO cannot be called into question.” But of course, these weapons are valuable to Russia due to the relative weakness of its conventional military. While Scowcroft et al. raise an important concern about continued modernization of nuclear weapons, this argument does not lead to the necessity of deployment of U.S. nuclear bombs in European states.

Scowcroft et al. then argue that NATO’s overwhelming conventional military superiority in the aggregate of all its allies’ conventional forces is a fallacy because it “masks the reality that on NATO’s eastern borders, on a regular basis, Russian forces are numerically superior to those of the alliance.” Moreover, “Russia’s armed forces have improved significantly since their poor performance in [the Republic of] Georgia in 2008.” The authors then state that looking at conventional war-fighting capabilities alone miss the point that “NATO’s principal goal is deterring aggression rather than having to defeat it. And it is here that NATO’s nuclear capabilities provide their greatest value.” Although I have no argument against deterring aggression, they have not proved the point that forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons have done so. Indeed, Russian forces have occupied parts of Ukraine. While Ukraine is not part of NATO, it is still not proven that U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe are essential to block Russia from potentially encroaching on NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Perhaps at best nuclear forces on either side have stalemated each other and that there are still plenty of moves available for less potent, but nonetheless powerful, conventional forces on the geopolitical chessboard.

Finally, they address the opponents’ argument that deep divisions run through NATO allies about the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. While they acknowledge that in 2007 and 2008 domestic politics in several alliance states fed a debate that resulted in several government officials in some European states expressing interest in removal of U.S. nuclear weapons, they argue that the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept (endorsed by all 28 NATO heads of government), demonstrates unity of policy that “We will maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces [and] ensure the broadest participation of Allies in collective defense planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control, and communications arrangements.” Of course, one can read into this statement that “broadest participation” and “peacetime basing” can suggest forward deployment. On the other hand, the statement can be read as purposively ambiguous to iron over differences and achieve consensus among a large group of states. These governments have yet to seriously question nuclear deterrence, but this does not demand forward basing of U.S. nuclear bombs.

Left unwritten in their op-ed are the steps the United States took at the end of the Cold War to remove its nuclear weapons from forward basing in South Korea and near Japan.  Although some scholars and politicians in Japan and South Korea have at times questioned this action, the United States has frequently reassured these allies by flying nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers from the United States to Northeast Asia and emphasizing the continuous deployment of dozens of nuclear-armed submarine launched ballistic missiles in the Pacific Ocean. Japan and South Korea have not built nuclear weapons, and they have not experienced war in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armistice. It would be a mistake for the United States to reintroduce forward-deployed nuclear weapons in and near Japan and South Korea. These allies’ security would not be increased and might actually decrease because of the potential for adverse reactions from China and North Korea.

The urgent required action is for the United States to stop being the only country with nuclear weapons deployed in other countries, and instead it should remove its nuclear bombs from European states. The United States should not give other countries such as China, Russia, or Pakistan the green light to forward deploy in others’ territories. For example, there are concerns that Pakistan could deploy nuclear forces in Saudi Arabia if Saudi rulers make such a request because of their fears of a future nuclear-armed Iran.

In conclusion, ideas in books do matter. President John F. Kennedy during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis drew lessons from The Guns of August. The main lesson he learned was that great powers slipped accidentally into the catastrophic First World War. This sobering lesson in part made him wary of tripping into an accidental war, but he still took risks, for example, by ordering a naval quarantine of Cuba. (He called this action “quarantine” because a blockade is an act of war.) During the quarantine, it was fortunate that a Soviet submarine commander refrained from launching nuclear weapons that were onboard his submarine. This is just one example of how close the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war.

Let us remember that the crisis was largely about the United States’ refusal to accept the presence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba that was within 100 miles of the continental United States. At that time, the United States had deployed nuclear-capable Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union. Both sides backed down from the nuclear brink, and both countries removed their forward deployed nuclear weapons from Cuba and Turkey. Thus, it is ironic that we seem to be headed back to the future when senior former U.S. officials argue for U.S. nuclear bombs based in Europe.


Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, Federation of American Scientists


Notes   [ + ]

1. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Dell, 1962).
2. Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley, and Franklin Miller, “NATO-based nuclear weapons are an advantage in a dangerous world,” Washington Post, August 17, 2014.
3. For more on the commitment trap as applied to the riskiness of nuclear threats against chemical and biological weapons, see Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap,” International Security, Spring 2000, pp. 85-115.