By Brown Pulliam
Life Member of the Bedford Democratic Town Committee
Delegate to the 2017 Democratic State Convention
The writers of our Constitution were well aware of examples in history of disastrous wars that had begun at the command of one person. Therefore they made sure that a vote of both houses of the Congress would be necessary before the United States could declare a state of war.
The advent of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles raised the fear that if we were to suffer a surprise attack using such weapons, there would be no time to convene Congress to authorize a counter-strike before the initial attack had eliminated our capacity to do so. Thus some decades ago, Congress gave to the president the authority to launch a nuclear attack, not only in reply to such an attack but even to launch a first strike using nuclear weapons!
Early this year, our Senator Markey introduced a bill (S200) to restore to the Congress its constitutional responsibility to decide whether or not the USA would commence hostilities using nuclear weapons. The bill still leaves to the President the decision to respond to a nuclear attack with our own nuclear weapons, and it does not restrict the President from starting a war with conventional weapons. It just removes the President’s finger from the nuclear first strike button.
This Spring, looking forward to the convening of the Democratic State Convention in early June, our Bedford Democratic Town Committee voted unanimously to have its delegation bring to the Convention a petition, wherein the State Convention would ask all members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to support the Markey bill, or the House of Representatives version, (HR669), introduced by Rep. Lieu of California. This was done, but scheduling difficulties at the convention prevented it (and many other resolutions) from being voted upon and all these were referred to the Democratic State Committee for future action.
A few days later the Bedford Town Committee met, and because of the uncertainty concerning any eventual action by the State Committee, those present voted unanimously to send a similar petition to our own Congressman Seth Moulton. This was done by Co-Chairperson Shawn Hanegan, who received a reply from Moulton that, in my opinion, had a number of strange aspects. Shawn had made it clear in his email that the enclosed petition was being sent by the Bedford Democratic Town Committee, but Moulton’s reply never acknowledged that it was anything more than a personal email from Hanegan.
Congressman Moulton begins: “Dear Shawn, Thank you for contacting me about H.R. 669, which would prohibit the United States from deploying a first-use nuclear strike without a Congressional declaration of war. As a veteran, I take the horrors of war especially seriously, and I understand just how consequential our nuclear policy is.” We should hope he does!
“This bill would prevent the President from authorizing a nuclear first strike without a prior declaration of war by Congress. It would give Congress more power over nuclear policy at a time when President Trump has called for an “arms race,” expressed willingness to use a nuclear weapon against terrorist groups, and supported proliferation in non-nuclear states.” One would assume these to be valid points in favor of the bill.
“Our national security is of the utmost importance to me, and I do not take President Trump’s statements lightly. However, retaining a degree of nuclear ambiguity helps to deter nuclear war, as potential aggressors such as Russia, China, and North Korea must contemplate the reality that if they attack us or our allies, these nations risk possible US nuclear retaliation. A no first use policy would degrade deterrence by eliminating that ambiguity for US adversaries. While I would not advocate for the actual exercise of first use, the deterrent value it provides gives us power and leverage, which enhances our national security and the security of our allies.”
This is where Dr. Strangelove comes in. Neither S200/HR669 nor the Petition in support of that bill by the Bedford Democratic Town Committee, calls for a “no-first-use policy”. The bills would require Congress to vote a Declaration of War before the President would be allowed to order a first nuclear strike.
I interpret Moulton’s previous paragraph to refer to the possibility that upon an attack against us or our allies with conventional weapons, that we might choose to reply with a nuclear first use. How he expects that this kind of ambiguity “helps to deter nuclear war” I cannot understand. Moulton’s words also seem to be saying that we should accept, as a fringe benefit of possessing overwhelming nuclear superiority, the geopolitical leverage that would come with keeping people guessing as to whether we are the kind of monsters who would actually initiate a nuclear war.
Seth Moulton, on the occasion of becoming an officer in the Marine Corps and when he was sworn in as a Congressman, swore an oath to defend the Constitution of our country. These oaths should compel him to help return the decision regarding a first-strike of any kind to The Congress, as stipulated by Article 1, Section 8, clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution.
I was pleased to learn that in the middle of September the Democratic State Committee recognized the importance of the Markey bill by approving the Bedford petition, along with most of the other resolutions that had been tabled, so I would hope Rep. Moulton and all other Massachusetts members of Congress will take at least this small step toward reducing the risk of a nuclear disaster.