by Scott McConnell
March 12, 2002
After learning that Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon had developed contingency plans for nuclear first strikes against a series of non-nuclear powers, some of them signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, I began thumbing through George F. Kennan's writings and speeches.
After receiving the 1982 Pacem in Terris Award from the Diocese in Davenport Iowa, Kennan said:
"This habitat, the natural world around us, is, as you know, the house the Lord gave us to live in. It's the house we were intended to live in. It's the house in which man's spiritual struggle was meant to take place and has taken place over the course of the ages. And it's the course in which God's purposes will be fulfilled.
"Now we did not create this habitation. It was not given to us to destroy or exploit for our own pleasure, or in a mad effort to assure the safety of our own generation. It is something placed at our disposal for us to cherish and to pass on with all its beauty and fertility and marvelousness to our children and to future generations – and to those generations yet unborn who have just a much right as we have to the privilege and the enjoyment of this habitat God gave us all to live in. We have no right to deny them either of those things.
"Now all of this, of course, is placed in jeopardy by the very existence of nuclear weapons. And this is a situation to which, as I see it, no Christian can be indifferent."
The context of course was different then. America contemplated the first use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, also a nuclear power, whose forces faced the US along the length of a European frontier separating East and West. And Kennan, former diplomat and designer of the "containment" strategy, was then advocating a demilitarization of our Cold War posture. His worst fears were not realized: the Soviet empire crumbled, nuclear weapons were never used; half a billion people in Russia and Europe were soon free to enjoy the not-always-sweet fruits of liberty.
But his worries were hardly groundless. And the judgement and perspective which suffuse his words now seem, quite regrettably, foreign to those who govern the United States today.
What goes on inside Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon? American soldiers have fought well in Afghanistan, and who would fight courageously wherever they are sent. But how are their missions aided when we learn that the Pentagon is developing scenarios for the first use of nuclear weapons, possibly against China in the Straits, possibly in the Arab-Israeli conflict?
The still anonymous figures behind the Pentagon report give no consideration to the moral threshold that for fifty seven years has helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons, or to the moral questions those weapons have always raised for serious men and women. Without that threshold, nukes would have been exploded many times already. Brezhnev wanted to use them against China; India against Pakistan; at various times, American leaders considered their use against Vietnam. For two weeks in October 1962, a small group of American officials contemplated steps that could have led to full fledged nuclear war against the Soviet Union.
But both in their own options and in their diplomatic demarches to other countries, past American leaders were perfectly clear about the utter seriousness and unfathomable impact of the decision to go nuclear. The abyss was too terrible to cross, to be leapt across only as the last of possible resorts. Even when the United States had an acknowledged "first use" policy in the event of a full scale Soviet conventional assault on Europe NATO might have responded "first" with tactical nuclear weapons the Soviets were given every possible deterrent warning.
The Pentagon now contemplates something quite different: the first use of nuclear weapons against countries which in some cases don't have nuclear weapons themselves, and in others have signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. No foreign or defense ministry in the world fails to perceive this new doctrine as a menacing and potentially destabilizing.
It is not difficult to trace the root of the madness. In the minds of certain American policymakers, the United States has to play, must play a global imperial role. It must be the "benevolent global hegemon" as two of the new doctrine's principle ideologists, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, have put it. It must exert military dominance over the entire world. Why else would it even occur to the Pentagon that the United States ought to fight a nuclear war over China's relationship with Taiwan? What is it about the Arab-Israeli conflict that would conceivably require American nuclear intervention? Are we to threaten the Palestinians with nuclear weapons? The Syrians?
But the United States lacks the manpower to play the global hegemonic role with conventional forces. No country could. Despite conventional military power second to none, and military transport capabilities unmatched by the rest of the world combined, the United States cannot have its forces everywhere at once. So, to make the "hegemon" doctrine more plausible, the Pentagon looks to nukes to fill the gaps.
The result: six months after the World Trade Center attacks – an event which caused people all over the world to rally to the side of the United States, headlines in foreign papers portray President Bush as a madman. In Britain, Tony Blair is more and more depicted as a lapdog because his pro-Bush leanings. The tabloid Daily Mirror reported the announcement of Blair's forthcoming visit to Bush's Texas ranch under the devastating headline "Howdy Poodle." Vice President Cheney, in his trip to the Mideast, will hear reports of seething anger at the United States from rulers of countries whose populations now see, on a nearly continuous basis, televised images of Israel's American made tanks and helicopters smashing Palestinian homes and ambulances.
It's all necessary to fight terrorism, we are told. But the terror has come to the United States because of American intervention abroad, not despite it. This was apparent to the more sane observers of the foreign policy establishment long before September 11.
Writing in the January 1998 Foreign Affairs, Columbia University professor Richard Betts traced the development of new nuclear, chemical and biological threats to the United States. (He didn't consider catastrophic terrorism by hijacked jetliner). What he said could not be more timely: "Because the United States is now the only superpower, American intervention in troubled areas is not so much a way to fend off such [mass destruction] threats as it is what stirs them up." After probing the increased American increased the frictions with Russia and China, and the possibility of war with them, Betts continued,
"The other main danger is the ire of smaller states or religious or cultural groups that see the United States as an evil force blocking their legitimate aspirations. It is hardly likely that Middle Eastern radicals would be hatching schemes like the destruction of the World Trade Center if the United States had not been identified so long as the mainstay of Israel, the shah of Iran, and conservative Arab regimes and the source of a cultural assault on Islam."
This prescient piece was published, remember, four years ago. If Professor Betts said the same thing today, he might be booed off stage while the laptop warriors baited him with taunts of "Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag." But he was completely right.
Americans will not find security in the strategy of perpetual war, taking on one newly minted adversary after another. The Kristol-Kagan-Rumsfeld formula of American domination breeds only new, as yet unforeseen, adversaries: just as bin Ladenism rose from the post Gulf war occupation of Saudi Arabia, so no lasting victory will be won by using nuclear weapons against China, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, or whomever else falls on the Pentagon's list. America's security lies not in becoming a more ruthless hegemon, but a more normal, God-fearing country, whose leadership have at least passing familiarity with the sentiments expressed by George Kennan, cited above. The political leader able to effectively make that case to the American people will be treasured for generations to come.
A contribution of $50 or more will get you a copy of Ronald Radosh's out-of-print classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form