New post-cold-war guidelines for the targeting of American nuclear weapons were issued by President Clinton last month in a presidential decision directive. The Washington Post, which broke the story, said the document was at least a year in preparation by the White House, State and Defense Departments, and the CIA.
"In time of peace, prepare for war," goes the old dictum. But what kind of war to prepare for has been a stressful subject for both superpowers since the dawn of the nuclear age.
In 1946, when America enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, Premier Joseph Stalin said, "Atomic bombs are meant to frighten those with weak nerves, but they cannot decide the outcome of war." After Stalin's death in 1953, bitter ideological battles broke out when reformers such as Georgi Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, laying the groundwork for disarmament and coexistence, took the position that the Soviet Union could be destroyed in a nuclear war.
Mutually assured destruction has been the general assumption among military planners on both sides, but the number of warheads and their targeting continue to rest on the possibility of a protracted nuclear exchange that would leave both countries a wasteland.
The Eisenhower administration, responding to Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe, announced that a conventional attack might trigger a nuclear response. That was when the word "brinksmanship," associated with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was born.
As the cold war began to wind down, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, at their 1985 Geneva summit, agreed "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." That, in effect, contradicted the Reagan directive of 1981, requiring that US forces must prevail even under the conditions of a long war.
IT has taken 12 years since the Geneva summit to produce a presidential decision directive that permits arms reductions and retargeting based on the premise of the unwinnable nuclear war, and also deals with the new threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of so-called "rogue states."
That issue arose during the Gulf War, when President Bush wrote Saddam Hussein, implicitly threatening a nuclear response to any use of chemical or biological weapons against American forces. But in 1995, the United States joined Britain, China, Russia, and France in a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear countries.
The new directive is being very closely held because it deals with sensitive subjects such as nuclear targeting in currently friendly countries like Russia and China. And because it contains guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear powers like Iraq.
But what is clear is that the four-page document reflects a shift of emphasis from planning for a nuclear war to deterrence of a nuclear war and also establishes the conditions under which nuclear weapons could be employed against a nonnuclear state launching chemical or biological attacks.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.