Power to the People vs. Power to the Bomb: Alternatives to Nuclear Domination

Airman First Class Gabriel Henry preps a B-1 bomber for takeoff at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., June 17, 2014. Is there any alternative view of power to show us a way out from under the nuclear shadow? (Photo: Eric Ginnard / The New York Times)Airman First Class Gabriel Henry preps a B-1 bomber for takeoff at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota, June 17, 2014. Is there any alternative view of power to show us a way out from under the nuclear shadow? (Photo: Eric Ginnard / The New York Times)

Even before the first atomic bomb exploded, the United States government had a single, simple principle to guide it through the nuclear age: domination. We would prevent other nations from getting the bomb.

Franklin D. Roosevelt established that principle when he decided not to tell the Soviet Union anything, and not to tell his closest ally, Britain, everything that Americans knew about the bomb. Harry Truman gave classic expression to that principle when he crowed about his power over the Soviets: “I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys.”

Of course, Truman didn’t have the hammer long. The Soviets soon had the bomb, and other nations followed. So the basic principle had to have a corollary: If we could not be the world’s sole nuclear power, we would be the strongest.

Every president since has followed the same principle in shaping nuclear policy. Some, like FDR and Obama, did it quietly. Some, like Truman, did it more noisily. Donald Trump may turn out to be the noisiest nuclear warrior of all in the White House. As a candidate, he threatened that he might use nukes in the Middle East and in Europe. He has loudly voiced his insistence that Iran and North Korea must cease their nuclear programs.

All presidents, and all those who have helped them shape nuclear policy, have agreed on the basic meaning of “nuclear power”: The bomb must give us the power to dominate as much of the world as possible and to make sure that no other nation can dominate us. (The other meaning of “nuclear power” — the electricity that comes from nuclear-powered generators — is merely an ancillary “benefit” of the science that created the bomb.)

Beneath this way of thinking lies a fundamental premise: The world is divided…

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