Trump closer to nuclear war as nukes
become weapons to use, not just deter

In new policy, U.S. might answer cyber attack with
nuclear attack; more bombs, of ‘low yield,’ wanted

WALL news and commentary

The Trump Administration edges closer to nuclear war. This observation stems from a nuclear posture review, which the Pentagon has been preparing since early last year.

For a new administration to request a nuclear posture review, or strategy memo, is nothing novel, but this one makes a significant shift. Barack Obama, wishing for “a world without nuclear weapons,” forswore the use of nuclear weapons, except in response to an attack with nuclear weapons or other forms of mass destruction, like a huge biological attack.

The new review, however, would lower the bar. According to a leaked draft, it would sanction nuclear retaliation for such non-nuclear intrusions as a large-scale cyber attack. Nuclear weapons would not have to be used in such a circumstance but might.

Reduction of the arsenal was an accepted trend, even under the Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. But the review does not bring up nuclear arms reduction at all. In fact, it approves the development of a lot more atomic bombs, so-called low-yield bombs, potentially for battle.

* * * * *

“Supplements to enhance deterrence,” the document euphemistically terms the desired mass-killing devices. Claiming that Russia, China, and North Korea are bolstering their arsenals, it would double the nuclear arms budget, in a new arms race.

It denies that battlefield nukes lower the threshold for use. Rather it claims that they raise it — by convincing adversaries that we would answer a nuclear attack in kind, as though they don't know that — and thus make war less likely. (But war seems more likely when we enhance both our reasons and weapons for war.)

The Department of Defense was expected to submit its official version to the White House in February. Meanwhile, a draft was obtained and published by Huffington Post, the online news and opinion site (1/11/18).

How low are those “low-yield” bombs? Huffington's Ashley Feinberg wrote that “official language around nuclear weapons is slippery and euphemistic. ‘Low-yield’ suggests a softer sort of weaponry … until you realize that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were technically ‘low-yield’ weapons.”

She quoted Alexandra Bell, a former senior adviser at the Department of State, now with the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation: “We have 4,000 nuclear weapons in our active stockpile, which is more than enough to destroy the world many times over. So I don't think it makes a convincing case that we somehow lack capabilities.”

Earlier. The New York Times reported increased talk of “preventive” war in the White House (8/20/17). Then came the news that Trump leaned toward developing “tactical” nukes and letting military commanders determine their use . (See on this web site,, 9/14/17,
Do modern weapons render Congress obsolete — or more needed than ever?)

George P. Shultz, secretary of state under Reagan, lately warned the Senate Armed Services Committee against the notion of “usable” nukes (1/25/18). “You go to a small one, then you go to a bigger one. … A big nuclear exchange can wipe out the world.” He has advocated abolishing nuclear arms.

Bombing would ‘escalate out of control’

Nearer to Doomsday

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, of Chicago, has advanced the symbolic Doomsday Clock 30 seconds toward midnight (1/25/18). It is now two minutes to midnight, i.e. to extreme global catastrophe. It got that close just once before, in 1953, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. began testing hydrogen bombs. The “clock” moves, forward or back, once a year.

Two concepts in the nuclear policy review — both the lowered threshold and battlefield nukes — drew thumbs down from Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College, a professor of national security affairs. As a guest on the public radio show “Left, Right, and Center” from KCRW, Santa Monica, CA (1/19/18), he said:

“I don't think it's a good idea to threaten nuclear use for any reason other than to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States.”

Since the Reagan Administration's end, he said, some have pushed the primacy of nuclear weapons for almost any military purpose. They would build more nukes and find ways to use them. Scorning the urge to “conventionalize” nukes, Nichols would reduce stockpiles and find better conventional answers to strategic problems.

The moderator, Josh Barro, asked about “tactical weapons.” Can you have nuclear weapons for a small attack, rather than a general war? Nichols expected any such action to “escalate out of control.”

Warning against giving a president the option of nuclear use in a crisis, he noted two misconceptions: (1) that using a nuke could ever be a military necessity rather than a political act; (2) that a few smaller, bunker-busting, or “usable” nuclear weapons would not do the vast damage of a big nuclear bomb.

* * * * *

Rich Lowry of National Review, while mute on the matter of response to a cyber attack, favored developing low-yield nuclear weapons. He thought it unlikely that they would be used.

But if we're going to get into a situation with North Korea or potentially Iran down the line, where we are deterring a nuclear power, part of deterrence is having believably usable weapons in a crisis, and a low-yield nuclear weapon — if some extreme circumstance arises where you have to take a deep bunker out in North Korea in a crisis — is more appropriate than some city-busting, enormous bomb.

So I think this would be just an extension of the deterrent regime we have been living with since the advent of the atomic weapon.

* * * * *

“I think this is madness, because this is not what we've been living with,” responded Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

This is now in this nuclear posture review an administration calling for possible use of nuclear weapons — usable nuclear weapons that will lower the threshold for launching a nuclear conflict… .

The administration is breaking with long-standing bipartisan consensus in favor of reducing nuclear arsenals, limiting the scenarios in which they might be used.

She placed those so-called small or low-yield nukes at the strength level of the two bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in 1945 on orders of President Harry S. Truman).
Her objective: “mutual, verifiable de-escalation moving to … abolition of nuclear weapons, at a minimum taking the 2,000 Russian-U.S. nukes off hair-trigger alert.

“We saw in Hawaii just a few days ago the real danger of misperception, an accident, a false alarm.”

The trillion-dollar program of so-called modernization (started by Obama and continued by Trump) “puts us in greater risk than a policy of reducing the role of nukes in our military strategy and going along with the majority of countries in the world that approved a treaty calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Trump contradictory on nuclear issues

Donald Trump has contradicted himself on the matter of nuclear weapons and their use — sometimes in the same statement.

In an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, Trump said, “Nuclear [use] should be off the table” and also, “I'm not taking any cards off the table” (3/30/16}. And the next day on Fox News: A-bombing Europe was “a horrible thought,” but he would not take it “off the table” (3/31/16}.

Similarly, during a presidential debate, he said, “I would certainly not do first strike,” and in the same comment, “I can't take anything off the table” (9/26/16).

In an interview with The New York Times, he called “nuclear and proliferation” the world's biggest problem (3/27/16). Yet when asked if he would object to Japan and South Korea having such weapons, he said that if North Korea had them, it might very well be better if Japan did too.

Two days later, on CNN: “No, no, not proliferation. I hate nuclear more than any” (3/27/16). At the same time, “Wouldn't you rather have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?” Trump later denied saying Japan should have nuclear weapons. Japan, of course, was the only nation in modern times attacking the U.S. and the only nation ever suffering a nuclear attack.

In a meeting at the Pentagon halfway into his first presidential year, Trump was reported to have shocked officials by proposing nearly a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal (July 2017). Military leaders did not take it as an order, and Trump later denied making such a proposal. It would have meant violation of arms treaties.

During the campaign, in a foreign policy speech in Washington, DC, he declared, “I believe in an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia … . The cycle of hostility must end” (4/27/16). Nevertheless, U.S. and Russian nuclear-armed missiles remain aimed at each other on high alert. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, ending the cold war. Yet Russia and America are still ready to nuke each other within a few minutes.

How the ensuing war would end most life on earth and had to be prevented was the main theme of a lecture by and interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian physician and antinuclear activist, in August 2016 in San Francisco. (See “Dr. Caldicott in S.F. lecture & interview” on our web site,,)

Can a president alone dictate nuclear war?

The retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) — who warned in October that Trump, with his threats to other nations, was leading the country on “the path to World War III” — conducted a hearing of his Foreign Relations Committee, 11/14/17, on the authority and procedures for launching nuclear bombs. It was the first congressional hearing on that matter since 1976.

The gist of it was that one lone man in our supposed democracy had the power to start a war that could destroy civilization. Three witnesses testified before the Senate committee and all agreed that the president had the ultimate power to use nuclear weapons.

Peter D. Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, said the president had, at a time of crisis, “a very limited time window to make a decision, and I think we [witnesses] all believe that the system would carry out the order that he gave. The electorate, on Election Day, chose him to make that decision.” (So when pro-Trump voters went to the polls, each was thinking, “He's the one I want to decide whether or not to start a nuclear war!”)

* * * * *

Who has the authority to employ nuclear weapons? … The president does,” said Brian McKeon, who held three national security positions in the White House and the Defense Department under Obama and was former counsel for the Democratic members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

As commander in chief of the armed forces under the Constitution [Article II], he is the sole authority within the executive branch for such a decision. … That is as it should be in a republic. …” (Some republics let a council or committee decide, rather than one man. India relies on the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority; Pakistan, the Defense Committee of the Cabinet plus the prime minister, according to Wikipedia.)

McKeon expected the president to consult first with the National Security Council; his other advisers, civilian and military; and, “if time and circumstances permit,” with leaders of key allies.

Who has the authority to take the country to war? … Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war … and several other powers with regard to supporting and regulating the armed forces.” McKeon added, when questioned, that “the president possesses the constitutional authority to defend against sudden attack or to preempt an imminent attack. But Article 2 does not give him carte blanche to take the country to war.” (A presidential “preemptive” or first strike takes the country to war. By no means does the Constitution sanction such an act.)

* * * * *

C. Robert Kehler, retired Air Force general and former head of the Strategic Command, said the decision to use nuclear weapons was up to the president alone, not Congress. (Untrue, if it takes the country to war.)

However, he added, military leaders could refuse to carry out the president's order for a nuclear first strike if they and their legal advisers found it unlawful because the action would be unnecessary or excessive or targeted civilians indiscriminately. (Wouldn't that describe any nuclear bombing? The International Court of Justice thought so, when in 1996 it ruled that use of nuclear weapons would violate international law, particularly rules of humanitarian law.)

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) asked what those military leaders would do next if the president insisted. Kehler replied, “Other than to state their view about the legality of the move, the president retains constitutional authority to order some military action.” (That is not so, unless war has been declared. The president has no constitutional authority to initiate military action. Only Congress has it, in Article I, Section 8. But treaty forbids even Congress from commencing an aggressive war.)

In that hypothetical situation, Kehler would say, “I have a question about this” and “I am not ready to proceed.”

“And then what happens?” asked Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI). “I don't know exactly,” Kehler admitted.

Proposals to prevent such a war

Presidential power to start a nuclear war has nothing to do with law or the Constitution, which grants Congress alone the authority “to declare [i.e. initiate] war.” According to two nuclear weapons academics at (11/22/17):

It results from a series of Cold War era decisions made secretly by the executive branch and the U.S. military.... There are no "checks and balances" on nuclear launch decisions in any formal sense.... If President Trump wants to use one of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. military's arsenal, the chance of anyone stopping him appears to be very low....

The past 50 years of American warfare has shown that presidents and their advisers have been able to come up with "just war" arguments for every military engagement, no matter how stretched in retrospect. Using a nuclear weapon on Pyongyang, for example, could be theoretically justified by arguing that it would be a legitimate military target....

The pair, Alex Wellerstein (nuclear weapons historian, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ) and Avner Cohen (professor of nonproliferation studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, CA) pointed to a “two-man rule” in handling of nuclear weapons — except at the very top of the chain of command. They would set up a system of checks and balances to protect against “the actions of a rash president” and have Congress define what was legal or illegal.

* * * * *

At the hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked what should or could be done. None of the three witnesses had anything to offer.

Corker, despite his earlier protest against Trump’s movement toward world war, would not support legislation to try to prevent such a debacle, lest any change in procedure “reduce our deterrence of adversaries or reassurance of allies.”

(Did he think those allies were reassured by his reluctance to limit Trump’s war-making capacity, as the latter boasts of his nuclear power and threatens to demolish a country not one-twelfth our size if it won’t do his bidding? As for “deterrence,” the International Court of Justice found it unlawful, as part of its 1996 decision. Just as using a nuclear weapon would violate international law, so does threatening to use that weapon, which entails plans to massacre a population.)

* * * * *

In January 2017, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced S. 200 to prohibit a president from using the armed forces “to conduct a first-use nuclear strike” unless a congressional declaration of war has specifically authorized it. Meanwhile Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) introduced an identically worded bill, H.R. 669, in the House of Representatives. Lacking much Republican support, neither bill has progressed in Congress. (See on this site “Don't let the president start a nuclear war!”)

“… Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account,” remarked Senator Markey, a Foreign Relations Committee member, at the hearing.  He commented further:

I don't think we should be trusting the generals to be a check on the president … relying on a group of individuals to be resisting an illegal order when they have all been hired by the president.

There could be plans in place, right now, in the White House, given to the president, to launch a preemptive war against North Korea using American nuclear weapons, without consulting [or] informing Congress. … No one human being should ever have that power.

* * * * *

“How long will Congress remain a bystander regarding war?” That question headed a Washington Post piece by the conservative writer George F. Will (12/10/17). He wrote:

North Korea’s nuclear bellicosity coincides with the incontinent tweeting, rhetorical taunts and other evidence of the frivolity and instability of the 13th president of the nuclear era … .

As a practical matter, President Trump can unleash on North Korea “fire and fury” without seeking the consent of, or even consulting, Congress. This, even if North Korea has neither attacked nor seems about to attack America. …

It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.

* * * * *

“Trump has an apparent long-standing affinity for the impressiveness of nukes,” wrote Garrett M. Graff, journalist and historian, in Politico Magazine (“The Madman and the Bomb,” 8/11/17). And the president “has proved a master of distraction from scandals a plenty.”

Graff imagined a nuclear attack on North Korea to distract attention from the Russia investigation. He would add a second voice — the vice-president, the defense secretary, or a congressional leader — to the nuclear command system. He quoted Joseph Cirincione, head of the antinuclear, San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund:

We have a system that makes the president a nuclear monarch… .

If you decide for whatever reason that you don’t want Congress involved, that you don’t want the body that is supposed to have sole authority in war-making have a say in the war that matters most, well at least have it be two monarchs — have it be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who has to weigh in as well.

There should be an institutional barrier to an insane president launching nuclear war.


By Paul W. Lovinger, Jan. 30, 2018