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What's New About Putin's Nuclear Threats? Just that the US is on the Receiving End

Putin’s nuclear threats are infuriating and frightening. And as Russia increasingly suffers battlefield defeats, they’re liable to get more serious and frequent. Their explicitness is also widely thought to be something new in the atomic age. But there is nothing new about nuclear saber-rattling; what’s novel for most Americans is Putin’s attempts at nuclear coercion, directing atomic threats toward us rather than the far more common circumstance, in which we have directed them at other countries.  

It is one thing tor the United States or any other country to threaten nuclear retaliation in the hope of preventing an attack (deterrence), quite another to be on the receiving end of nuclear threats intended to bend us to another’s will—coercion, not deterrence. But even nuclear coercion isn’t as new as it might seem. Putin’s nuclear threats are not a dramatic break from previous norms of international nuclear threat-making. We’ve used them many times in the past.

Many historians believe that the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were directed less at Japan than at the Soviet Union, intended to impress upon Stalin the existence of a new and intimidating US weapon. It has also been claimed—although never confirmed—that the earliest explicit nuclear threat was issued by President Truman in 1946 to induce Stalin to withdraw from Iran.

The first public US nuclear threat was issued in November, 1950, when, after Chinese troops had entered the Korean Peninsula and were rapidly pushing back UN (which is to say, US) forces, Truman announced at a press conference that he would take “whatever steps are necessary” to prevent Communist expansion in Korea. When a reporter asked, “will that include the atomic bomb?” Truman replied, “that includes every weapon that we have.” Atomic bombs were not used, although on Christmas Eve, 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur proposed a list of 34 potential nuclear targets, to be struck in Korea, Manchuria, and other parts of China.

President Eisenhower looked seriously at a 1954 French request that he use nuclear weapons in the ultimately unsuccessful defense of Dien Bien Phu, which was besieged by communist Viet Minh forces. It isn’t known whether the Viet Minh were aware that a nuclear option had been under consideration. An explicit nuclear crisis unfolded, also in 1954, when the mainland Chinese government began shelling the Taiwanese-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu. President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, and Secretary of State Dulles responded by threatening possible use of nuclear weapons, dispatching nuclear-armed B-36 bombers to Guam and evaluating possible targets on the Chinese mainland. Although that situation was shortly defused, the American nuclear saber-rattling appears to have induced Mao’s government to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. A similar crisis occurred once again in 1958, when China resumed artillery bombardment of Quemoy, and the US responded with another undeniable nuclear threat, this time deploying nuclear-armed B-47 bombers to Guam.

It is well known that President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev each issued coercive nuclear threats during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1969, just before initiating a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, President Nixon ordered nuclear forces to be conspicuously placed on higher alert level, hoping to pressure the Soviets and North Vietnamese to agree to terms favorable to the US. This was combined with the so-called “madman theory,” which involved conveying to the North Vietnamese that Nixon had become so unbalanced that he might use nuclear weapons unless they capitulated to his terms. They didn’t.

In October 1973, at the height of the Yom Kippur War, President Nixon placed US nuclear forces on DEFCON 3—the highest peacetime status—when intelligence reports indicated that the USSR was shipping nuclear weapons to Egypt, for possible use against Israel. The alert lasted only one day because the Soviets, alarmed, redirected the naval vessel in question, which may or may not have actually been carrying nuclear weapons. Prior to that, when Israeli defenses were crumbling in response to the initial surprise attack by combined Arab armies, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had secured approval from Prime Minister Golda Meir to arm 13 Jericho missiles and eight F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft with nuclear weapons. Ironically, this nuclear threat appears to have been primarily aimed not at Israel’s opponents, but at its primary ally, the United States. If so, it was successful: the US initiated a massive emergency airlift of weapons and spare parts, which turned the tide without any nuclear detonations on either side.

Operation Desert Storm generated yet another nuclear threat, this time from the US toward Iraq. President George H. W. Bush’s then-Secretary of State James Baker subsequently explained that when he had communicated with Saddam Hussein’s government, he intentionally left the impression that Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons, or destruction of Kuwaiti oilfields, would result in a nuclear response.

During the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, the Strategic Command under President Bill Clinton examined various nuclear options and we once again issued explicit threats, the details of which have not been released. At one point in 2006, President George W. Bush was asked if he would consider using nuclear weapons against Iran if that country developed nuclear weapons. He responded that “all options are on the table,” which, although somewhat veiled, was clearly a threat that if our demands were not met, we would consider attacking Iran pre-emptively.

Naked nuclear threats that sounded like schoolyard boasts and taunts were exchanged in 2017 between North Korea’s Kim Jung-un and President Donald Trump. Kim threatened that a “nuclear launch button is always on my table,” to which Trump countered that his “button” is “much bigger” and “more powerful” than Kim’s. Kim threatened “ashes and flames.” Trump countered with “fire and fury.” Despite Trump’s claim that any further nuclear weapons development on the part of North Korea would not be tolerated, that is precisely what has happened.

It is mostly reassuring that in private communication with the Russian government, the Biden Administration has evidently been seeking to reduce the likelihood of nuclear disaster by making what appears to be a range of non-nuclear threats. But make no mistake: it is simply not true that Putin’s nuclear threats, despicable as they are, constitute a qualitative change when it comes to efforts at atomic intimidation. The real difference is that this time, we’re on the receiving end.