NATO's Nuclear Weapons: The Rationale for 'No First Use'

By Mendelsohn, Jack | Arms Control Today, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

NATO's Nuclear Weapons: The Rationale for 'No First Use'


Mendelsohn, Jack, Arms Control Today


"As NATO's primary arsenal nation, the United States should be the one to take the lead in urging a revision of NATO's nuclear posture."

The 19 nations of NATO have an opportunity to bring their outdated nuclear weapons first-use policy into alignment with the alliance's stated objectives and commitments. Although NATO has sought to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it maintains its 30-year-old policy of "flexible response," which allows the alliance to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict, including in reply to an attack with conventional weapons.

During its 50th anniversary summit in Washington in April, the alliance did agree to begin a process to review arms control and disarmament options in light of the "reduced salience" of nuclear weapons. NATO members, through the North Atlantic Council, are now working on proposals that will be considered at a NATO ministerial meeting at the end of this year. While strong U.S. resistance to even a review of NATO nuclear policy bodes ill for a move away from nuclear first use, the stage has at least been set for a new debate. By pledging not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict, NATO could reduce the political acceptability and military attractiveness of nuclear weapons, strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime, enhance the credibility of its deterrence policy and help to ease some of the tensions in the NATO-Russian relationship.

The Evolution of Doctrine

The readiness of NATO to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict has been evident from the beginning of the alliance. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, drafted in early 1949 before the Soviet Union had tested a nuclear weapon, commits the allies to come to the defense of all members in the event of an attack. This commitment was understood by both the Americans and the Europeans to be a nuclear guarantee for the alliance, which, in the late 1940s and 1950s, faced what was perceived to be a hostile Soviet Union with an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces. At that critical moment, the alliance was both obligated and prepared to consider the massive use of nuclear weapons to respond to major conventional aggression.

In the early 1950s, political pressure in the United States to reduce its defense budget, and allied reluctance to spend the money to build up their own militaries, further encouraged a policy of threatening to use nuclear weapons against countervalue targets (such as cities and other "soft" targets) on a large scale and early in the event of a conflict in Europe. In December 1954, NATO agreed to integrate tactical nuclear weapons into its own defensive strategy, and by the end of 1960 there were 2,500 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Western Europe. In December 1956, NATO adopted a Military Committee document (MC-14/2) that formalized the alliance's emphasis on nuclear weapons as the key component of its defensive strategy. The credibility of this doctrine of "massive retaliation" was already strained, however, by the time of its formal adoption by NATO.

The launch of Sputnik in August 1957 dramatically demonstrated the growth of Moscow's ability to threaten the U.S. homeland and called into question U.S. willingness to respond to a conventional attack in Europe with the full strength of its nuclear arsenal. The strategic significance of this development was not lost on NATO's European members. For example, in 1958 Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who four years earlier had stated that NATO nuclear weapons would necessarily be used against conventional attacks, was asking whether, "in the event of minor Russian aggression with conventional forces," it was realistic to expect "the West would use its nuclear deterrent as weapons against the cities of Russia and receive in return Russian retaliation which would put the United Kingdom and the U.

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NATO's Nuclear Weapons: The Rationale for 'No First Use'
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