August 6, 1945. The day the United States became the first and only country to use a nuclear weapon. We detonated a second just 3 days later on August 9. Two cities were flattened, and more than 200,000 people were killed using 2 nuclear weapons.
Today, the U.S. has around 4,500 of those weapons in the military stockpile. And despite nuclear weapons being irrelevant to 21st century security needs, current U.S. nuclear policy leaves the option of nuclear weapon use on the table “in extreme circumstances” to defend “vital interests,” an ambiguous policy that could permit nuclear weapon use in retaliation for a conventional, biological, or chemical attack on the U.S. or its allies.
Leaving the door open to a nuclear first strike is an outdated strategy. That is why we are calling on President Obama to announce the adoption of a “no-first-use” policy -- stating that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear weapon use by adversaries against the U.S. and its allies. In other words, the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.
This is not new territory for nuclear weapons countries: China and India both have declared no-first-use policies. If the U.S. adopts no-first-use, it would be the biggest change to U.S. nuclear strategy in 50 years. Or, as Vice President Joe Biden might put it, a Big F’in Deal.
Why is that? Glad you asked!
A no-first-use policy makes us dramatically safer by decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, giving the president more space to avoid using nuclear weapons. There is no plausible circumstance in which the current option of nuclear first use would be in the national security interest of the United States or its allies. Any use of nuclear weapons -- whether one or 1,000 -- would serve only to destroy, to kill thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians, and could damage the environment for over a decade. Nuclear first use would also ensure the destruction of the U.S. by nuclear forces launched in retaliation and risk international political isolation.
Nuclear weapons are dangerous, outdated relics of the Cold War that have no relevance in combating current day threats such as cyber warfare and terrorism by non-state actors. Advances in U.S. conventional forces are more than enough to retaliate against realistic threats to national security, including those by state and non-state actors. U.S. national security strategy should reflect that.
It provides a dramatic first step in making nuclear weapons irrelevant on the international stage.
It will serve to exert political pressure on other nuclear weapons countries -- Russia, France, Pakistan, the UK -- to adopt their own no-first-use policies, reinforcing the principle that nuclear wars can never be won and must never be fought.
It would cement President Obama’s nuclear legacy and live up to the Prague vision he laid out seven years ago to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.
In short, the adoption of a no-first-use policy would make the world safer, strengthen strategic and crisis stability, and give the president more space to avoid using nuclear weapons.