New guidelines for the use of U.S. nuclear weapons were signed by the president in November 1997. These guidelines, which are contained in a four-page Presidential Decision Directive (PDD), have not been released to the public. Aspects of the guidelines, however, were leaked to the press and confirmed by administration officials. What is known about the new guidelines include the following:

  • they were developed entirely in secret without any public, or even Congressional, discussion;
  • they replace guidelines developed in 1981 during the Reagan presidency;
  • they provide that the U.S. will continue to rely on nuclear arms as the cornerstone of its national security for the indefinite future;
  • they no longer include a plan to fight and “win” a protracted nuclear war;
  • they reserve the right for the U.S. to be the first to use nuclear weapons;
  • they retain the option of massive retaliation to a nuclear attack, including by launch on warning;
  • they give the Pentagon increased flexibility to deter or retaliate against smaller states that might use chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. or its allies;
  • they provide for the U.S. to maintain a triad of nuclear forces consisting of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarine-based missiles;
  • they call for the U.S. to retain options to use nuclear weapons against Russia; and
  • they provide for increasing the number of sites to be targeted in China.

On the positive side, the new guidelines have eliminated the foolish and hopeless idea that it was possible to fight and win a nuclear war. This is an idea that has been thoroughly discredited, even by President Reagan who stated publicly that “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” It must also be considered positive that, due to the leak, we now know something about these guidelines, and can respond to what has been released. The negative aspects of these guidelines, however, are substantial. The fact that they were developed without involvement from the public and Congress is in the best tradition of a totalitarian state. On an issue of such major public importance as strategy for using nuclear weapons, it is reprehensible that no attempt would be made to solicit public or Congressional views.

By indicating that the U.S. will continue to rely for the indefinite future on nuclear weapons for its national security, the U.S. is demonstrating its hypocrisy in relation to its promise in 1995, when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely, to pursue “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons….” Further, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that there was an obligation to “bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects….” Indefinite reliance upon these genocidal instruments is not consistent with their ultimate elimination, nor with the obligation to conclude negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament.

In China there was strong criticism of the new U.S. policy which increases U.S. targeting of China. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stated, “Now that the Cold War is already over, the international situation has eased a lot. The United States still possesses a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. It stubbornly sticks to its policy of nuclear deterrence. It goes against the trends of peace, cooperation and development in our world.”

The new guidelines reflect the continuation of U.S. policy to rely upon nuclear weapons as a central instrument of national security. These guidelines have not changed our policies of threatened first use or massive retaliation, which at their core are policies of nuclear genocide. First use, when coupled with launch on warning, commits us to risky, hair-trigger deployment of our nuclear arsenal with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The Presidential Decision Directive demonstrates a lack of commitment to the elimination of our nuclear arsenal, as called for by international agreements and international law. The new guidelines will undoubtedly be heavily criticized by the international community, particularly by many of the other 185 parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty when they meet in Geneva in April and May 1998.

It would be appropriate for President Clinton to release in full the four-page Presidential Decision Directive so that the U.S. public can fully consider and debate the policy. U.S. citizens have a right to informed consent on decisions and policies that affect their security and well-being, as this policy surely does. The public and Congress should be involved in the process of determining whether or not the new policy is consistent with basic U.S. values as well as our obligations under international law and the new geopolitical reality brought on by the end of the Cold War. In the same vein, the public should be provided with targeting information for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This information would allow U.S. citizens to be aware of what populations are being threatened with mass murder in our names.

While it may be appropriate and desirable for the President to keep details of his personal life from public view, the same cannot be said for policies related to nuclear arsenals that affect the life and future of every U.S. citizen as well as every other person in the world.