NSA: U.S. Presidents and the Nuclear Taboo

1 December 2017 — National Security Archive

Cold War U.S. Commanders-in-Chief Repeatedly Expressed Aversion to Going Nuclear; Even Eisenhower Changed Thinking

JFK: “Once One Resorts to Nuclear Weapons One Moves into a Whole New World”

During Vietnam, CIA Analysts Worried Nuke Use Would Expose U.S To “Widespread and Fundamental Revulsion That [It] Had Broken the …Taboo”

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 611

 

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Washington, D.C., November 30, 2017 – U.S. presidents sometimes made nuclear threats in the course of Cold War crises and confrontations, but powerful social norms – not just military considerations – inhibited them from initiating the combat use of nuclear weapons, according to declassified documents posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive.

From President Harry S.Truman forward, the record shows, U.S. commanders-in-chief have been sensitive to what is sometimes referred to as the nuclear taboo – the recognition that atomic weapons belong to an entirely different category from conventional armaments and that their use would open up “a whole new world,” in the words of President John F. Kennedy. 

Many other leading figures held similar views, conditioned by an aversion to the horrific effects of nuclear weaponry as well as by the impact of ethical concerns and global public opinion.  However, past experience also indicates that the taboo has not constrained everyone, including military officials who developed plans for the possible first-use (preemptive strikes) of nuclear weapons.  

With growing international concern today over the possible resort to nuclear means in connection with tensions over North Korea’s growing capabilities, it is instructive to look at the record of the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War period to see how U.S. presidents and senior government officials thought about the problem.  Today’s posting of CIA, State Department, and other materials covers the era from the 1940s to the 1990s including events from the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War.

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