On March 9 and 10, the Los Angeles Times published some of the classified portions of the US Nuclear Posture Review presented to Congress on January 8. The two most important revelations from this document were: American plans for the possible use of nuclear weapons against a list of seven potential adversaries in the event of military conflict, and, closely related, proposals for the development of a new class of smaller nuclear weapons that would be “useable” against military targets with minimum civilian “collateral damage”.

The notion of “useable” nuclear weapons is not recent, but like the Undead in an Anne Rice novel, just keeps resurfacing each generation when everyone thought it discredited. In the ’50’s and ’60’s, it was “battlefield” nuclear weapons. Two problems, their guidance systems were imprecise and they weren’t small enough to avoid getting your own guys.

Then in the ’70’s there was the so-called “neutron bomb” (actually a mini – H-bomb), which NATO was going to deploy until forced to stop by public opinion (primarily German, this battle put the Green Party there on the map).

Under Reagan, it was “escalation dominance”, in which “tactical” nukes were part of an overall strategy of strategic nuclear warfighting. Reagan’s confident public pronouncements that the US could “prevail” in a nuclear war gave birth to a massive new peace movement (those were the days when we got 100, 000 marching across the Burrard bridge).

The point is that the twin notions of first – use and nuclear warfighting have been part of US doctrine since the beginning of the nuclear age (the Pentagon’s own documents now declassified in the National Security Archive prove this beyond any doubt).

After the Cold War ended, most analysts assumed (especially given such dramatic battle proven advances in “smart” conventional weapons) that Clinton would move away from existing nuclear doctrine and abandon reliance on nuclear weapons. But after the fiasco over policy about gays in the military, and Clinton’s inability to keep his pants zipped, he never again took on the military on any issue and nuclear policy treaded water for eight years.

Now the old gang is back, every retread from the Reagan, the Ford, and yea, even the Nixon Administration, and they are nuclear True Believers one and all. They’ve been certain that nuclear weapons are an essential political as well as military currency for the US since they were weaned.

Ominously, this time around the technology will soon catch up with the concept, and, with a bit more testing, real nuclear warfighting will become “feasible” to the sort of people who populate the Bush Administration. So goodbye to the dream of nuclear disarmament, and hello to the ghost of General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during much of the ’50’s and early’60’s. He once said to a reporter re: the Middle East and Vietnam that the President should “just nuke the gooks and ragheads”, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis he’s on tape as virtually calling Kennedy a coward to his face for not invading Cuba (which we now know would have triggered nuclear use). The Undead have returned to Washington once more, and are clearly in charge again.
*Michael D. Wallace is Professor of Political Science and Faculty Fellow at the Simons Centre for Peace and Disarmament at the University of British Columbia.