How Our Government Has Used Nuclear Weapons since 1945

by John M Repp

The possible use of nuclear weapons is back in the news after Vladimir Putin made veiled threats that if any nation tries to stop his aggression in Ukraine, he will use nuclear weapons. Putin knows he has not done anything worse than the United States has done over the past seventy-seven years. However, he threatened publicly, while American presidents have threatened using diplomatic channels.

Most people think President Truman used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender. But Truman already knew the Japanese were ready to surrender because the U.S. government had learned to read their communications. Actually, Truman dropped the two atomic bombs the United States had constructed to show the Soviet Union what we could do. He used them to improve America’s negotiating position after the war.

Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the man who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that our government had been lying to us about the Vietnam War. What is not as well known is that from 1959 until 1971, Ellsberg was a nuclear war planner. In the 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg claimed the United States had used nuclear weapons the way a bank robber uses a gun: as a threat to get what they want.

The threat worked for Eisenhower. During the Korean War, Eisenhower communicated to China, through a diplomatic channel, that he would use an atomic weapon in North Korea unless China pulled back and agreed to an armistice to end the conflict. By using a diplomatic back-channel, the American people did not know such a threat had been made. The scheme worked.

Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice-president. In 1968, he ran for president saying he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg wrote that Nixon threatened North Vietnam with a nuclear strike thirteen times to try to end that war. Unfortunately, his threats did not work, and the war was prolonged for five more years.

According to Ellsberg, there is a reason the United States produces so many more nuclear weapons than would be needed as a deterrent. The reason is to prevent a nuclear-armed enemy from any possible retaliation. Ellsberg says first-use threat has been, and continues to be, a keystone of American foreign policy. We have all heard our presidents use the phrase, “all options are on the table.” Every single U.S. president since 1945 has refused to enact a formal “no-first-use” policy.

The majority of the world’s nations want nuclear weapons abolished, and on January 22, 2021 the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was ratified. Most Americans know nothing about this treaty. To nations that do not possess nuclear weapons, i.e. the majority of the nations on the planet, these weapons are seen as profoundly immoral and a threat to all humanity and the natural world.

We can see the high monetary cost of nuclear weapons to American taxpayers by looking at the costs just to Whatcom County, Washington. Whatcom County could pay for 526 public housing units for one year if the portion of our federal taxes that went to nuclear weapons modernization went instead into public housing. We could make a dent in the scandalous situation of the homeless we all see on our streets today. Even though American nuclear weapons policy and the monetary cost of it remain “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” for most of our citizens, it touches each of us deeply