Herbert York Interview (1982): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Nuclear Arms Race: Conversation with Herbert York, Director, Program in Science, Technology, and Public Affairs, Professor of Physics, U.C. San Diego; with John Holdren; 4/26/82 by Harry Kreisler

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No-First-Use Policy

One of the fruits of the Peace Movement here has been some new thinking from people in the establishment with regard to our policy in Europe. I have in mind, in particular, the Foreign Affairs article calling for a "no first use" doctrine. Would you comment on that article, or at least the overall position? What about the criticisms of people like Secretary Haig, who say that if we undertook such a doctrine, we could undermine our political position vis-à-vis the Soviets in Europe?

With respect to the article itself, someone asked Mac Bundy, "When did you all change your mind on this?" And he noted that some of them had held this view for a long time and that, indeed, others had just recently arrived at that view. So that the notion of "no first use" has been around for a long time, and it has had some substantial backing for quite a while. I support it. I don't remember exactly when I first decided that it was a good idea but it was around twenty years ago. And, of course, I still think so. I thought it was great that these four people had decided to go public on that particular issue, and that it attracted the kind of attention that it did.

So, returning to the substance of the idea, I think it is a good idea. Given the current context of national sovereignty, 160-odd states with very little law governing their relationships and no law enforcement, I see little possibility of getting rid of strategic weapons, or of moving substantially away from a policy of strategic deterrence. On the other hand, I do think it is practical, given enough will and given enough public support, to make very substantial moves towards nuclear moderation, towards nuclear disarmament, with respect to almost all other nuclear issues. And "no first use" is one of these other nuclear issues.

Some people criticize "no first use" on the basis that it would just be a statement in the wind, which could be reversed, just by deciding to reverse it and in no time at all. That's probably true the day after it's first enunciated, but I believe it is possible to turn a no-first-use pledge into something that's genuinely concrete over a period of time. For example, one ought to accompany such a pledge by a series of developments and plans for deployment which move us away from those deployments of weapons which are most useful in connection with first use, such as nuclear artillery, for example, and towards those which have higher survivability and, therefore, are not so ... don't have first use or early use built into the system itself. So one way to make a no-first-use pledge concrete is to change the deployments and to change the nuclear technology in a direction that's consistent, that's genuinely consistent with a genuine no-first-use policy.

Other things which could be done are regional nuclear-free zones. You eliminate weapons from those places where, again, you either have to use them or lose them early on. And that would mean close to the inter-German border, for example. Another way to make it concrete would be to have some kind of agreement not to allow large-scale exercises in which the use of nuclear weapons is assumed. If you did all of those things, eventually a no-first-use policy would, in fact, become something concrete. It would not be possible just to reverse that whim on short notice.

HOLDREN: Herb, I have a couple of questions that arise out of that general topic. The first is a very fundamental one, and it has to do with whether the public on the whole even recognizes today that the United States has a first-use policy with respect to nuclear weapons in Europe. It has been my impression that most members of the public think, because it seems the right thing to do, that the United States has a no-first-use policy, when, in fact, our policy for more than twenty years has been to use nuclear weapons first in Europe to stop a nuclear attack.

That is correctly stated. Our policy has two parts to it. The first, and in a way, the most universally approved part of the policy in the national defense establishment is to reserve the right to go to first use, to keep that possibility alive, to gain from time and to let that weigh in on the side of deterrence. Then, of course, as you said, American policy does include the possibility that we will, indeed, use them first. And the war plans are never very clearly stated in this regard, but they do seem to involve the notion that if early on our defense is collapsing, we will turn to the use of nuclear weapons in order to reverse that situation. I think the policy is to reserve them for use in extremist [situations], but nevertheless, to indeed plan for use under those circumstances.

Your first point is an interesting one and, I think, needs emphasis. And that is, the public doesn't realize this. One of the reasons they don't realize it is that many American hawks talk as if it were true, and complain about it -- in fact, imply that we do have a no-first-use policy and that's that. But, as you say, we've never had a no-first-use policy. We've had this policy of deliberately reserving the right to use weapons, and essentially a plan for using them first under certain extreme circumstances.

HOLDREN: The related issue that comes back to the question that Harry asked a moment ago is the underlying rationale for this first-use policy, having to do with the idea that the Russians have such overwhelming conventional superiority in Europe that one could not contemplate a successful defense without nuclear weapons.


HOLDREN: My own view of that picture is that it's a good deal more ambiguous than the notion that the Russians enjoy overwhelming superiority. It all depends on how one counts which weapons and troops. What is your view on that matter?

Let me start by turning back. This policy -- whether said in precisely these same words or not is beside the point -- but this general line of policy, to reserve the right, and, in fact, to plan for the use under certain circumstances, goes all the way back to approximately 1949, a year in which the Soviets first exploded an atomic bomb of their own, and the year in which the People's Republic of China was founded. In the next year after that, the Korean War broke out. The notion of the Sino-Soviet hordes and the notion of the monolithic Sino-Soviet bloc, with more than a billion people, was in the air. That was what was in the minds of people in Washington and other Western capitals when we first moved in this direction of deploying nuclear weapons in Europe and using nuclear weapons for what amounted to tactical purposes rather than strictly strategic purposes.

When the Sino-Soviet bloc dissolved ten years later, these policies were never reversed. And that's archetypical in a sense, that there are frequently events that ratchet the arms race up, and when those events either evaporate or even become reversed, somehow it never ratchets back. So what people forget these days is that the notion of defending Europe with nuclear weapons goes all the way back to this notion of a monolithic Sino-Soviet bloc with an enormous supply of manpower. The way this was stated in the fifties was in terms of massive retaliation. The policy of massive retaliation came out of the Korean War: the determination of President Eisenhower and most everyone else as well, that we would not be trapped by the Russians, by the Soviets, into fighting another war on their territory and on their terms, particularly another war in Asia. That if they challenged us again, anywhere in the world, we would go to the source of the challenge itself -- Moscow and Peking.

So that this notion of defending Europe with nuclear weapons is very closely tied with the notion of massive retaliation, which was also a first-use policy. Massive retaliation is a deliberate first-use policy and a clear one. Those were tied to those events of the very late forties and the early fifties. And then when those events changed and when certain elements evaporated, such as I said, the monolithic Sino-Soviet block evaporated, there was no reversal in the policies that grew out of them.

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