In our life with nuclear danger, loaded as it is with uncertainty, there is occasional illumination in cases of crisis or conflict. The Gulf War was such a case, and there is a lot to be learned from it.

No nuclear weapons exploded in the Gulf War. In the most obvious sense they were not used, as indeed they have not been used since Nagasaki. This simple fact may be the most important one. Consider how great an event it would have been if tactical nuclear warheads had been exploded by anyone-say a dozen from the very large number that Americans could have used, or a few from the smaller set owned by the Israelis or even one by the command of Saddam Hussein. In three quite different ways such events would have changed both the future of the Middle East and the future of nuclear danger-and not for the better.

In that large sense the Gulf War has preserved the most hopeful single inheritance that we have from the first half-century of nuclear fission-the tradition of the nonuse of these weapons since 1945. The Gulf War has in fact reinforced that tradition, and in ways more remarkable than the simple fact that no nuclear weapon was exploded.

That weapons are not exploded does not of itself exhaust the more subtle question of whether they are used. Weapons-and not only nuclear weapons-can also play a role merely by their existence or possible existence. The very existence of the Roman legions was a powerful force for both the internal peace and the external safety of the empire. Somewhat more subtly the British, and later the Americans, developed a substantial strategy and practice based on the peacekeeping value of the fleet-in-being. It has been more difficult to develop a general theory of this sort for nuclear weapons: the weapon is so grossly destructive that it is-in a quite special way-implausible as an instrument of peacekeeping.

There is indeed a general tempering effect in the very existence of the enormous arsenals of the two superpowers, most visible in their wariness of direct conflict with each other. Any such conflict could become nuclear, and this possibility creates what I have called existential deterrence. But this phenomenon is not at all the same as keeping the peace in the manner of Roman legions or British squadrons. There is more similarity, perhaps, in the few instances in which the availability of nuclear weapons on one side has been used to discourage some particularly unpleasant action by an opponent. There was just a whiff of this kind of threat in the American conduct of the gulf crisis, and it deserves attention.


What President Bush did with the nuclear weapon was to use it to warn Saddam Hussein against what he called "unconscionable acts" like "the use of chemical or biological weapons." His most clear-cut warning was part of a letter he wrote to Saddam on January 5, 1991, which Secretary of State James Baker delivered a week later at his Geneva meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Formally, that letter was rejected and handed back. The contents were published at once in the American press, and it takes a very dim view of the wits of a very crafty man to suppose that Saddam was never aware of the letter's message.

The president did not say that "unconscionable acts" would produce an American nuclear attack, but he used words that were clearly designed not to exclude the possibility. In response to such acts, he said, "the American people would demand the strongest possible response," and "you and your country will pay a terrible price."

At a press conference on February 5, 1991, the president clarified his purpose. He was asked whether if Saddam were to use chemical weapons, the United States might "in turn use weapons of mass destruction." He avoided a direct answer by saying: "I think it's better never to say what you may be considering." The president said he was leaving the matter there because he wanted Saddam to "think very carefully" about launching a chemical attack and "because I would like to have every possible chance that he decides not to do this."

Saddam never did use chemical weapons, and it is unlikely that Mr. Bush regrets his veiled but powerful warning. Yet the president never said flatly that he would use the bomb, and one may doubt, as I do most strongly, that he would have let the use of gas by Saddam be the trigger to such an enormous choice.

The evidence available does not tell us how close the Iraqis came to the use of gas, and we have even less of a basis for estimating the effects of any such use. These uncertainties do not constitute an argument against the president's warning. It is easy to understand and, indeed, to respect the president's motive: in the short run any threat might seem desirable if it would help to moderate the behavior of a man as obviously vicious as Saddam Hussein.

Moreover there is a difference between an open-ended warning and a specific bomb threat. It is true that there can be embarrassment for a president who sounds casual about a nuclear threat. That happened to Truman in the Korean War and to Eisenhower, much less severely, in the crisis with China over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. But Mr. Bush was careful in what he did and did not say, and his threat did not stir public concern. As we shall see, there are reasons to wish that there had been no such threat at all. But the immediate point is that this threat, limited to the case of an Iraqi chemical attack, was the only use, in any sense, of nuclear weapons in the gulf.


The much larger fact is that the bomb was not used in the ordinary sense of the word, and that this nonuse had general American approval before, during and after the war. During the crisis the amount of debate on the possible use of nuclear weapons was limited, and both its participants and its outcome are interesting. It was, in the main, an argument among conservatives. Let us confine ourselves to one example on each side.

Speaking for the use of tactical weapons was Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, and against it the Republican whip, Newt Gingrich of Georgia. They spoke in January, with the air war already begun and the ground war imminent. Congressman Burton's argument was simple-that if the alternative was bloody ground warfare, tactical nuclear weapons should be used to save American lives. Not so, said Congressman Gingrich, and he gave powerful general reasons for his view: if the United States should "establish a pattern out there that it is legitimate to use those kinds of weapons, our children and grandchildren are going to rue the day." On a more immediate note, he added: "We would not want to live in a world in which we had sent a signal to every country on the planet to get nuclear weapons as fast as we can." To top off his argument, Congressman Gingrich denied his colleague's premise that the conventional ground war was going to be bloody and protracted for Americans: "If you look at the quality of our weapons today, we can do an amazing amount of damage with a conventional weapon."

As we now know, Congressman Gingrich was right on his last point; he was well informed on defense questions and had before him the record of three weeks of highly successful action in the air. But it is important to recognize the power of his wider argument: for the sake of later generations we must do our best to keep these weapons unused. That is not an argument that could be overturned easily by a close count of casualties.

The president's associates showed themselves somewhat less careful, and they sometimes disagreed with one another. The most notable of these disagreements was that between some Pentagon officials and John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, who at one point found it prudent to give assurance that there was no likelihood of resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Nameless Pentagon sources then rebuked him for the military error of telling the enemy what we were not going to do. Mr. Sununu probably was right in his judgment of what Americans wanted to hear. But the reaction from the Pentagon reminds us that for a number of defense experts, in and out of uniform, there is still a strong appeal in the notion that the bomb should have its own minatory weight whenever that can help.

One cannot weigh these conflicting forces with any precision, but my own guess is that the weight of the bomb as a general threat-which I here distinguish from the president's use of it as a reinforcing deterrent to the opponent's use of other mass-destruction weapons-was very low in this crisis, at least in part because John Sununu was right about the American people's basic preference. Our wisest defense experts have understood for a long time that the threat of initiating nuclear warfare has been declining in military value.

In the final analysis of strategy, politics and morals we are better off keeping this weapon unused except in deterrence of-and considered response to-a genuinely parallel ferocity by others. That is also the real direction of our thinking as a nation since 1945. Certainly the men in the field responsible for planning and executing Desert Storm were not attracted by tactical nuclear weapons. They correctly found it better to rely on systems that they knew their commander in chief would let them use. As far as we can tell, their plans for response even to chemical warfare did not include the bomb, and my own judgment is that what they did-and did not-propose to do is a better guide to the future than the president's carefully imprecise threat. I do not believe that chemical attacks are best answered by nuclear warheads, or chemical threats by nuclear threats. These two kinds of weapons are at quite different levels, both of horror and of military effectiveness.

In his strong and immediate desire to do all he could to keep Saddam from the use of chemical weapons, President Bush missed an excellent opportunity to make it clear that in reality, and as a matter of basic national policy, the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in this crisis. A public declaration of this kind would not have changed existing U.S. policy but only reinforced it.

Since 1978 it has been the official policy of the United States not to initiate nuclear warfare against any state that has signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and has not allied itself to another nuclear weapon state. Iraq fits that description (although Iraq's nuclear behavior does not). But my point is not that President Bush should have been guided by a little-known but sensible policy announced in the Carter administration by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. My point is that had the president publicly rejected any such first use of nuclear weapons, at a moment of high international attention when American forces were being asked to face conventional combat, he would have greatly strengthened the worldwide cause of avoiding nuclear war and won honor for leadership around the world-especially at home.


In the end the ground battle was even more one-sided than Congressman Gingrich-or anyone else-predicted. This happy result is one element in the broad demonstration throughout the war that conventional means of warfare, in the hands of expert commanders and well-trained forces, can now have a wholly new level of speed and power on the battlefield. Especially in the pinpoint accuracy of the most advanced systems, conventional weapons displayed a capacity for discrimination that no system dependent on nuclear explosions could ever hope to reach-not only because of the side effects of even low-yield nuclear weapons, but still more because of the enormous psychological shock of any nuclear attack.

We must not conclude from the gulf, however, that all future wars will be quick and easy. A war in which both sides were equipped and skilled, as only one side was this time, could be a dreadful affair for all concerned. Nonetheless it is a legacy from this war that the immediate priority for defense ministries in all kinds of countries will be the improvement of their conventional capabilities. It is these capabilities and not those of nuclear warheads that have won new renown.

The first discernible impact of this new renown is on the procurement priorities of the U.S. Department of Defense. In the hard choices of the American budget process it is conventional and not nuclear systems that have gained from the Gulf War. Obviously there is debate about the specific meaning of specific performances. Thus partisans of the Strategic Defense Initiative have been trying to claim that the Patriot missile proves their point, but so far they have not been persuasive. We do not even know for sure how much the Patriot actually reduced the physical damage done by Iraqi Scuds. But such debates do not change the larger verdict: when used with skill, modern conventional weapons can be highly effective.

I am not advocating an intensified conventional arms race, and still less an intensified competition in conventional arms sales. There are excellent reasons for cooperative moderation, based on a reduced estimate of danger and a new awareness of the costs of these competitions. But it is helpful, in limiting the role of nuclear weapons in American budgets, that our merely conventional systems performed so well in the gulf. Probably there are even better things to do with some of the billions we now spend on defense, but it remains true that there will always be a defense budget and that it is helpful for the balance within that budget to shift toward conventional forces.

The American level of investment in nuclear weaponry is not the only one to have been adversely affected by the Gulf War. There has been a still sharper, if still unfinished, result in Iraq. Because of a conviction strongly shared by President Bush and the American people, the destruction of Iraqi installations related to nuclear weapons became a specific American military objective of high priority. The president undoubtedly had this objective in mind from very early in the crisis: the Saddam Hussein so starkly revealed on August 2, 1990, was not at all the sort of opponent whose pursuit of nuclear weapons would be a matter of indifference. When Mr. Bush learned from the polls that the American public shared his view, he turned his spotlight publicly on the danger of Saddam-with-a-bomb, and he may have stretched the evidence then available in presenting the possibility of an Iraqi bomb as both real and imminent. Now it seems clear that the Iraqi dictator had more fissionable material at his disposal than the U.S. ever suspected. I think it was wrong at the time to exaggerate the imminence and magnitude of the danger, but entirely right to put Saddam's nuclear weapons enterprise on the target lists. And I think what was right is much larger than what was wrong.

When war came, the Iraqi nuclear weapons enterprise was indeed repeatedly bombed, and prevention of an Iraqi bomb became a durable war aim, one roundly endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. With this mandate the American government has insisted on obtaining fully adequate evidence that the Iraqis are out of the nuclear weapons race. That process has been slower and harder than expected, involving several marginally successful trips to Iraq by a U.N. inspection team. Saddam's nuclear ambition, combined with his addiction to trickery, led him to a posture of pretended cooperation that was intended to conceal a continuing effort to get something, however crude and imperfect, that would make a bang.

Since it would be a failure of the most obvious and avoidable kind to allow this trickery to succeed, it seems predictable that the allies, led by President Bush, will do whatever is necessary to bring the Iraqi pursuit of nuclear weapons to an end. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the victorious advance was halted before full control of Iraqi territory was achieved. If greater control is required for a satisfactory end to Saddam's sneaky nuclear adventure, I believe it can be imposed with international support. If that is done, this will be an important result of the Gulf War. It will become the very first case in which an existing effort to "have the bomb" has been decisively blocked by clear-cut and internationally approved military and political action. The nearest precedent also involves Iraq: the preemptive attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor executed by Israeli aircraft in June 1981.


On the other hand, it is also clear that without the trigger of Saddam's attack on Kuwait, neither the United States nor the U.N. Security Council would have taken effective action against an Iraqi bomb. In that sense the threat of such a bomb became a matter of direct concern and a target of opportunity, more by accident than by deliberate choice. We need to think about the meaning of this accident. What does it tell us about the interest we should have, and the action we should take, in other cases where a government we deeply mistrust may be coming close to possession of nuclear weapons? I am not at all suggesting that we should make war on every country in this position, or even that we should imitate the Israeli preemptive attack of 1981. What I am suggesting is that ending the danger of Iraqi nuclear weapons is so obviously right that we should strongly support our government in what I hope will be a strengthened effort to make the possession of these weapons more difficult for such competitors with Saddam as Kim Il Sung of North Korea and Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya. The ways and means of such efforts are complex and even murky, but their justification is simple and clear: it is not good for the world that such men should have the bomb.

It does not undermine this conclusion, though it may moderate its force, for us to ask ourselves a few more questions about the Gulf War. Are we sure that its outcome would have been catastrophically different if in fact Saddam had obtained his nuclear weapon before he went after Kuwait? Would that nuclear force-in-being have given him a free hand in the conventional aggression to which, as it turned out, the United States and its coalition partners made such a devastating conventional reply? Would we have been deterred, in short, by Saddam's bomb? Or would we have decided that we must not let him have this cheap victory, that he could still be induced to refrain from nuclear warfare and that, all things considered, it was more dangerous to stand back than to stand up to him?

No one can know the answers to these questions. But it is a necessary legacy of this crisis that we should think about them, if only because there is no reason for any serene confidence that we shall never have to face a leader of this kind with a bomb in his control.

One question that may illuminate this matter is whether we believe that any such tyrant would ever dare to use his weapon against an opponent like the gulf coalition. Or would that be an act so likely to produce a massive reply in kind that it would amount to self-destruction on a thermonuclear scale? We know enough about rulers of this kind to conclude that they would at least consider this question. It is not self-evident that all is lost when such a ruler gets the bomb. Still it is quite clear from the unpleasant work of thinking about this situation that the world will be better off if it does not arise. The relatively near miss that we have had in the case of Iraq should give a healthy stimulus to the worldwide cause of nonproliferation.


In this wider perspective there is another inheritance from the Gulf War that has relevance: the astonishing role that has been played-and is still being played-by the U.N. Security Council. It is a role that no one can yet claim to understand fully; the principal participants are still learning as they go, and each new resolution has been more astonishing than the one before. Hardest of all, both for participating officials and outside observers, may be the question of the relative weight of the national and international elements in this process.

For many years there has been an understandable skepticism about the role of the Security Council as a force distinct from the interacting behavior of its member states and especially its permanent members. Now there may be a weight to the whole process of the gulf resolutions that goes beyond the sum of the weights of the governments supporting them. That said, there remains the veto power of the permanent members and their proven willingness to use it. Nonetheless there is a demonstrated cause for hope in the cooperative performance at the United Nations, and it is not wrong to think that we may get help from that body on the wider and inescapably multinational question of nuclear danger. The Security Council tried and failed to deal with this question some 45 years ago, but we need no longer take that failure as the last word on the subject.

Coming back to the danger in the immediate area of the Gulf War, we must ask whether this one case can lead to wider choices for nuclear restraint in the region. Obviously much depends on the way the matter is handled and still more on the eventual political situation of Iraq. But it is clear already that an Iraq that accepts and understands its necessary absence from the list of nuclear weapon states will make its own significant contribution to the stability of its region, as both Japan and Germany have done in their regions for a long time. The three cases are not at all identical, notably in the absence of any present prospect that in Iraq there will be a long symbiosis of foreign occupation with an emerging constitutional society. Nonetheless the German and Japanese cases are not irrelevant, and the intensity of the economic interdependence of Iraq with other countries, including the United States, leaves much room for continuing constructive interaction between Baghdad and countries it will need as friends.


The new prestige of conventional weapons and the restraint of the nuclear ambitions of Iraq will be helpful in moderating nuclear danger, but they do not of themselves tell us that the Gulf War represents a decisive turning point. To see how thorny the question will continue to be in the Middle East, we have only to remind ourselves that the Gulf War did not come close to engaging the one set of nuclear weapons that exists today under the ownership and command of a Middle Eastern power-the nuclear arsenal of Israel.

The Israeli nuclear arsenal was doubly insulated: the government of Israel, with courageous prudence, refrained from a military reply to the vicious provocation of Saddam's Scud missile attacks; and, beyond that, it is safe to assume that even if there had been an Israeli decision to reply, that reply would not have been nuclear. Behind this double layer of Israeli good sense, the Israeli bomb was kept out of the war. But it remains a reality, and its existence will be a powerful element in any enlarged effort to reduce nuclear danger in the region.

There is no easy solution to this problem of regional arms control. What is clear is that Israel's substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons must not be left off the list of the realities that are critical to any future Middle East peace. It is understandable that the Israeli government has been reticent on this subject; there is a certain tactical good sense in its formal position that it is not a nuclear weapon state and will not be the first to introduce these weapons into the region. It is also understandable (although I think it is wrong) that our own government has chosen to accept this formal Israeli stance. It is absurd, however, to try to talk seriously about the reduction of nuclear danger in the Middle East without taking into account the reality that Israel has a substantial stockpile of nuclear warheads.

The double insulation of the Israeli bomb from the Gulf War was not accidental. It reflects two important realities in Israeli policy. The first is that the Israelis understand and accept that they cannot hope to have a major role in the affairs of the Arab world except as these affairs directly affect the survival of Israel. Thus it was right for them to keep apart from what was in essence an assault by Saddam on the survival of Kuwait and the security of Saudi Arabia. The Israelis knew which side to root for, but they also knew that history would make any visible help from them unhelpful.

The second reality is that the Israelis must give decisive priority to their own survival. For that, and I believe only for that, they have provided themselves with the bomb. If I had been an Israeli decision-maker a generation ago, I think I might well have made the same choice. If the Israeli bomb is intended only as an ultimate deterrent protector for a small and overwhelmingly outnumbered nation-and if there is no reason to suppose that the weapon would ever be used for any less compelling purpose-then the Israeli bomb can become a quite untroubling phenomenon, if indeed there can be peace between Arabs and Israelis. The Israelis themselves have suggested that they would be able to join a nuclear-free zone if there were such a change in their basic relations to their neighbors. While the exact meaning of that suggestion is far from clear, it does reinforce the notion that a real peace would lessen the nuclear threat for all.

Thus we have a third lesson of the Gulf War. It tells us first that if the time and tide are right we can and should deal with a Saddamite nuclear ambition by preventing it. It tells us, second, that it is right in military strategy to prefer sophisticated conventional weapons to nuclear weapons of any kind. It tells us, third, with specific reference to the danger in the Israeli bomb, that the necessary answer is a genuine Arab-Israeli peace. And this third conclusion matches the one most of us have reached about a still larger nuclear danger-the one that exists in the enormous arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. The best way to make those arsenals less dangerous is to recognize the end of the Cold War and go on from there, a process exemplified by recent agreements on conventional forces in Europe and strategic arms reductions.

It can be so in the Middle East as well, and now is the time for a great new effort to obtain a formal peace between Israel and the Arabs. It is the only road to nuclear safety, as indeed it is the only road away from the continuing conflict that has already led four times to open warfare. The Gulf War has not brought us Arab-Israeli peace, but it may have made that peace possible by leaving moderates stronger and immoderates weaker, on all sides.

The efforts for Arab-Israeli peace talks begun by Secretary Baker have not had much substantive success, but it is much too soon to be discouraged. The United States has more cards to play than the president has yet decided to use, and the first cool responses on all sides need not be the last. Similarly the cautious approach to Middle East arms limitations evident in the president's speech of May 29 need not be the last American word. What is missing, on both sets of issues, is the level of direct presidential engagement that marked the American response to Saddam after August 2, 1990. The role of peacemaker is just as presidential as that of commander in chief.

Nuclear danger neither caused nor decided the war in the gulf, but that war affected our nuclear world in some constructive ways. It showed once again that democracies, large or small, need not be unrestrained in resorting to such weapons; it showed that modern conventional systems are today the better investments, at least at the margin; and it showed that possession of nuclear weapons can be put off-limits for a particularly dangerous government, at least when the ground for such action is clear and the power to act sufficient. The Gulf War will command a durable place in the history of nuclear danger.

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  • McGeorge Bundy is chairman of the Carnegie Corporation's Task Force on the Nuclear Threat. This essay is adapted from a spring 1991 Penrose Lecture to the American Philosophical Society.
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