U.S. keeps nukes for all the wrong reasons

Just more than seven years ago the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War. Seven years after the First World War ended was 1925. In that year, Adolf Hitler was about seven years from seizing power in Germany, and Europeans of the 1920s looked mainly back to the last war, certain that a second round would be avoided at all costs. The world after 1918 never really got around to taking serious steps to avoid another war on the same terms as the one they’d just survived. The lack of vision in 1925 is striking — as it is today, seven years after the Cold War’s end.
The most dangerous aspect of our lack of vision for a post-Cold War world is the current justification of strategic nuclear arms. These are the weapons that once threatened to rain from the sky in a Soviet first strike, destroying every city, town and military base in America and Western Europe. America’s nuclear strategy relied on enough of its arsenal surviving the holocaust to destroy every city, town and military base in the USSR and Eastern Europe. The Pentagon counted on the threat of “mutually assured destruction” to deter the Soviets from launching the first attack. Inasmuch as the Kremlin never started a nuclear war, deterrence didn’t fail. But it didn’t work either.
The Soviets, we now know, never bought mutually assured destruction. Unlike their American counterparts, Kremlin strategists planned on winning a nuclear war. The only element of deterrence that worked was the U.S. commitment to “first use,” in which NATO would respond to a conventional Soviet invasion of Europe with atomic weapons. This practice arose because of a perceived imbalance of conventional arms. Only nukes, it was thought, could stop the mighty Red Army from taking Paris. But President George Bush renounced first use in 1991. Current nuclear policy, then, is based only on the form of deterrence that never worked in the first place.
After the Cold War, a full-scale nuclear attack is extremely unlikely. Only Russia, France and England possess the numbers of both weapons and missiles necessary to take out the United States. All of the three are friends, even nominal allies. There’s simply no one to deter. Other threats do, however, exist. One stems from the new fact of American military superiority. This nation currently deploys the best armed forces in the world. Deterring America from military action increasingly requires threatening nuclear first use, as we did to stop the Red Army. China, for example, could declare that any conventional U.S. interference to stop an attack on Taiwan will cause a nuclear response.
A more immediate threat is that the Timothy McVeighs of the world will acquire nuclear weapons. It’s increasingly likely that an American city will be destroyed by enterprising terrorists. If Denver gets nuked, what will the military do? We can’t launch a counter-attack against domestic terrorists. If foreign agents, say Libyans, triggered the bomb, we will face the decision whether to vaporize Tripoli, exacting revenge at the price of murdering a few million innocent civilians. America’s outdated nuclear strategy is as dangerous a lack of vision as any held by the nations of 1925. Only luck or a new policy can keep history from judging us as harshly as we do Europe midway between Armistice and Hitler.