Michael KreponNo First Use

Quotes of the week:

“We are come to make a choice between the quick and the dead.” — Bernard Baruch before the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, June 14, 1946.

“To be quick in pulling the nuclear trigger is to be dead.” — MK


Archival research by Michael Beschloss has revealed that in 1968, General William Westmoreland, the beleaguered commander of U.S. troops in South Vietnam, requested that plans be drawn up for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to relieve his besieged troops at Khe Sanh. In other words, Dien Bien Phu all over again — with the same result.

“Westy’s” request was quickly quashed by presidential advisor Walt Rostow, who alerted his boss. LBJ said, in effect, “Hell, no.” In just eight years since the end of the Eisenhower administration, the view that tactical nuclear weapons should be considered as just another ordnance to make up for shortfalls in manpower and to curtail military budgets for conventional warfare went from normative to no way.

Ike helped the norm of non battlefield use when faced with a similar request to relieve French troops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. When push came to shove, Ike decided against bailing France out of a doomed colonial war by using tactical nuclear weapons because he didn’t want the United States to get bogged down in brushfire wars in out of the way places without allies. Ike also chose restraint because he didn’t want to spark World War III against Russia and China. Dien Bien Phu was overrun by the Viet Minh later that year. French forces left after a fig leaf of a diplomatic settlement, to be replaced by U.S. forces, which left under the fig leaf of another diplomatic settlement two decades later.

Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh are less important in the annals of warfare than in their significance for the calculus of first use and no first use of nuclear weapons. Both were important markers in the long, endless debate over the military utility of nuclear weapons. This debate is never settled, but postponement of first use, replicated over time, has been consequential. Day by day, month by month, and year by year, the norm of non battlefield use has taken hold. Nonetheless, it is still contested, at least indirectly, by those who seek new low-yield options. And it will be contested in deliberations over the next Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu. The norm of non-battlefield use could still be broken at any time in regions like the Korean Peninsula and the subcontinent where warfare could occur, whether by design or miscalculation.

Campaigns to support the adoption of No First Use doctrines help reinforce the norm of non-battlefield use, supplementing the succession of decisions like those by Ike and LBJ over a prolonged passage of time. Formal adoption of No First Use declarations will continue to face long odds in countries like the United States, Russia and Pakistan where nuclear strategists believe that deterrence depends on the threat of crossing this threshold first.

Talking or arguing anyone out of a belief system is very hard. Overriding this belief system from the top down is another option, but national leaders are usually hesitant to buck doctrinal beliefs. Changes in belief tend to be experiential, and we can’t afford the experience of taking stock after the consequences of first and subsequent use. For the time being, extending the norm of No First Use depends on prudential decision making during nuclear-tinged crises. This, in turn, rests on the hope that national leaders will be able to recognize the difference between ephemeral advantage and far more damaging, longer term consequences.


  1. Bill (History)

    Good points on no first use. What Beschloss found has been in the declassified record at the LBJ Library for years. The only new thing is the code word. Nina Tannenwald wrote up the major elements of the story, including LBJ’s rejection of nuclear options for Khe Sanh, in her book, The Nuclear Taboo, published over ten years ago. I hope Beschloss gives her proper credit in his book.

    • Krepon (History)

      Many thanks for the fine print.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    In addition to first use of tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional war, there is also the issue of first strike using nuclear weapons against an opponent’s nuclear weapons. The purpose of a first strike is to blunt or eliminate an opponent’s ability to launch a nuclear strike. In a severe crisis or major war, there can be concerns about strategic stability, if either side can gain a significant advantage from a nuclear first strike, and fears that the other side may strike first.

    Even in peace time, both Russia and the United States appear poised to launch a nuclear counterstrike, simply upon early warning (perhaps erroneous warning) that the other side has already launched a first strike. I have yet to see a convincing study that this risk of erroneous nuclear exchange is either zero, or so close to zero, that we need not worry about it.

  3. John (History)

    MK seems to give too much credit to Ike: “Ike also chose restraint because he didn’t want to spark World War III against Russia and China.”

    In fact, Ike approved a NSC decision in sprig of 1953 that planned use of tactical Nukes in Korea if the China and N. Korea did not agree to a military Armistice agreement soon.

  4. robgoldston (History)

    I am thinking that NFU has a steep hill to climb, especially with our allies & patners under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Also how about France or England… or Russia? Could we get international consensus around “NFU unless a state or its allies are under existential threat.”

  5. John (History)

    It is to be noted that China has been supporting NFU for a long time. As for the US, we can no longer afford to tie our policy on the interest of our allies when our leaders already considered the FU against NK. It is an immediate security issue for the American people.

    Instead praying for a wise decision by our leaders, a better solution would be for the Congress to adopt the NFU policy, as already proposed in H.R.4837 – No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act. There are 73 cosponsors already. Check whether your Rep. is on the list.