This Sunday, Pope Francis will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only locations in history to have suffered nuclear attacks. About 300,000 people were killed, mostly civilians, by the intense blasts, fire, and radiation — a human tragedy on an epic scale. The Pope, making his first trip to Japan, will meet with survivors and is expected to call for a global ban on nuclear weapons. He would do well to have another card up his sleeve: no first use.
Pope Francis has been moving the church and its one billion believers away from its support for nuclear deterrence and toward opposition to the “very possession” of the bomb. In Nagasaki, the historic center of Japan’s Catholic community, the Pope plans to call for “the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” This is a big deal that should be welcomed by the international community. But it is not a goal that Japan is likely to take on.
Related: Trump, Nukes, and No First Use
Given Japan’s catastrophic experience with the bomb, it may come as a surprise that its government offers only tepid support for nuclear disarmament. Tokyo does not support the most prominent path to get to zero, the 2017 UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. Why? In large part because the United States opposes this treaty, and Japan believes it needs Washington and its nuclear arsenal for its defense — the so-called “nuclear umbrella.” Those under the nuclear umbrella have learned not to bite the hand that holds it.
Even so, Tokyo may be more open to a complimentary measure that would allow it to support a practical and necessary step to disarmament without threatening the U.S. arsenal: a global prohibition on the first use of nuclear weapons. This is also opposed by Japan’s government, yet opposition to this issue should be easier to overcome.
Tokyo is apparently worried that prohibiting the first use of U.S. nuclear weapons would somehow undermine Washington’s ability to prevent military attacks against Japan. Not so. If Japan were attacked with conventional (or biological) weapons, the United States would presumably come to its defense with conventional weapons (not nuclear). And in the highly unlikely event that Japan were attacked with nuclear weapons, then the U.S. could respond with nuclear—but that would be second use, not first.
The prospect of the United States using the bomb first to defend Tokyo against a conventional attack is essentially zero. Doing so would make Washington the atomic aggressor and open itself up to a retaliatory nuclear attack. It would also put Japan in the middle of a nuclear war. By opposing no first use, Japan is protecting an option that is simply not going to happen.
To understand why, some historical context might be useful. After President Harry Truman ordered the first atomic bombs dropped on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, the destruction was so total and indiscriminate that he vowed to treat the bomb “differently.”
“You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon,” Truman told his advisors in 1948. “It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So, we have got to treat it differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.” [Italics mine]
To ensure that his successors would follow this wise counsel, Truman took the bomb out of the hands of the military. Unlike rifles and cannons “and ordinary things like that,” Truman placed the bomb firmly under presidential control. These were now the “president’s weapons” and would be used only when the president said so.
It worked. Seventy-four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no president has found a use for nuclear weapons (other than hinting they might use them) and the bomb has never been detonated in anger again. Not in a military stalemate like the Korean War, a superpower standoff like the Cuban Missile Crisis, a major defeat like the Vietnam War, nor (short-term) victories like the Iraq Wars. The longer the world goes without using the bomb the more unthinkable it becomes. The bomb has become the weapon of last resort, usable only to prevent its use by others.
As President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1957, “You just can’t have this kind of war. There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
Fast forward to January 2017. Just before Donald Trump assumed office, then-Vice President Joe Biden spoke for himself and President Barack Obama: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense.”
Today, the United States has a de facto no first use policy. As House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, told me recently, “I don’t think there is any rational reason why we would use nuclear weapons first.” That is why Rep. Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, have sponsored legislation to prohibit the first use of nuclear weapons.
It is one of the great paradoxes of U.S. nuclear history that no sane president will use the bomb but none have yet chosen to formalize no first use as official policy.
President Obama tried. In the last year of his administration, he pulled together an interagency team to consider the issue. But Obama’s personal support was overwhelmed by caution from his own cabinet members (Defense, State and Energy) and from allies, particularly Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Abe reportedly communicated his opposition personally to Obama because he feared no first use could increase the chances of conventional conflict with China or North Korea. (Jon Wolfsthal, who was part of Obama’s internal deliberations, told me that the administration did not reject no first use but, rather, ran out of time to make an informed decision.)
Now we have a president who arguably is irrational enough to use nuclear weapons and the United States has no policy to prevent it. President Donald Trump has the absolute authority to order the launch of U.S. nuclear weapons unilaterally, without the approval of his advisors or Congress. And as the pressure of impeachment mounts, we can only hope that Trump does not seek to distract attention with the bomb, as President Richard Nixon did under similar circumstances. Sen. Alan Cranston and others worried back then about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”
So, Pope Francis, when you are in Japan rightly calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, please also ask for Japan to support no first use. It is long past time for Tokyo to support this policy which will make nuclear war less likely and thus help prevent a repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one needs to tell Japan how important that goal is.