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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 21, December 1997

US Drops Doctrinal Committment to Winning Protracted Nuclear War

On 7 December, the Washington Post reported that President Clinton had issued a November Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) formally renouncing the official US Cold War commitment to prevailing in a prolonged nuclear exchange. According to the report, the Directive also instructed an end to planning for a protracted nuclear war, while prioritising the pursuit of effective deterrence, if need be through the threat of use of US nuclear weapons. Threatening nuclear use to prevent the use of chemical or biological weapons was reportedly included as a legitimate option. The option of striking first against Russian targets was reportedly retained, while an increase, in time of potential or ongoing conflict, in the number of targets in China was also suggested as a possibility. The Post, however, did not reproduce the text of the PPD - the first presidential directive on military nuclear planning since 1981.

Following the Post article, Robert Bell, Director of Defense Policy for the National Security Council (NSC) spoke by telephone to reporters. Bell confirmed the substance of the report:

"I'm not sure that many people believed there was some credible notion of what it would mean to prevail in a protracted nuclear war. It wasn't clear you had a nation left. ... It would be a mistake to believe that nuclear weapons no longer matter, that they no longer matter to the United States or to this Administration... We are no longer directing the Pentagon to be able to fight and win a protracted nuclear war. That's the main difference... We are not instructing the Pentagon that they don't need to worry about what they would do if there is an all-out nuclear attack on the United States..."

Reports: Clinton Directive changes strategy on nuclear arms, Washington Post, 7 December; Clinton shifts nuclear arms use policy, Reuters, 7 December.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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