No First Use vs. First Strike

John Isaacs
Oct 4, 2016 · 3 min read

Donald Trump confused the nuclear doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons and a first nuclear strike at his debate with Hillary Clinton on September 26. But that distinction is lost on most people.

On Monday evening, NBC anchor Lester Holt asked: “On nuclear war, President Obama considered changing the policy on first use. Do you support that?”

Trump’s somewhat confused response: “I would certainly not do first strike [emphasis added]. I think once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”

That response could be interpreted as indicating that if President, he would not strike another country first with nuclear weapons but he would nonetheless leave that option on the table.

No first use is a pledge or policy by a country not to use nuclear weapons against another country unless first attacked by another country using nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, the U.S. refused to pledge no first use, and still declines to adopt that policy. If under a hypothetical Cold War scenario, the Soviet Union had sent troops pouring across the Fulda Gap in Europe, the U.S., with an inferior conventional force, would have been free to respond with a nuclear attack against the invading Soviet forces or the Soviet Union itself whether or not Russia used nuclear weapons first.

If the U.S. adopted a policy of no first use today, and the mythical European Duchy of Grand Fenwick from the 1959 film “Mouse that Roared” attacked the United States using aircraft, tanks and ground forces, the U.S. would respond with conventional, non-nuclear weapons and rule out use of nuclear weapons first.

The Obama Administration has reportedly rejected proposals to change that policy.

A nuclear first strike, on the other hand, entails a preemptive out-of-the-blue launching of nuclear weapons against an adversary. The concept is that a country acting first by launching its intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear-equipped bombers could overwhelm another country, leaving it able to retaliate only in a weakened form with much of its own nuclear weapons, leadership and military forces destroyed.

For example, Fred Kaplan wrote about a 1961 plan by the Kennedy Administration to consider launching a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union if Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev followed through on his threat to take over West Berlin. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined the U.S. could not defend West Berlin with conventional weapons alone and that nuclear war was the alternative to surrender.

Of course either the first use of nuclear weapons or a first strike are equally destructive and likely devastating for both the attacking country and the attacked. The entire world could suffer immense physical and economic destruction as a result of the nuclear blast, the spread of radiological fallout around the globe, and perhaps the advent of an agricultural disaster such as a nuclear winter.

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry said, “During my period as Secretary of Defense, I never confronted a situation, or could even imagine a situation, in which I would recommend that the President make a first strike with nuclear weapons — understanding that such an action, whatever the provocation, would likely bring about the end of civilization.”

Bottom line: whether a country uses nuclear weapons first to respond to a conventional attack or conducts an out-of-the-blue nuclear attack, we could see an end to most life on Earth.

John Isaacs

Written by

Senior Fellow, Council for a Livable World. Working on nuclear issues since 1978.