While President Donald Trump boasts about the “tippy top” shape of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has a much more reasonable plan for American nuclear weapons, outlined in her co-sponsored fourteen-word bill that aims to radically alter the conditions under which the United States can use nuclear weapons. The bill (S. 272/H.R. 921) reads simply: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.” The idea—called No First Use (NFU)—has been around since the Cold War, but it has never officially been U.S. policy.
If President Warren were committed to adopting this sensible strategy, she wouldn’t be the first to make the attempt. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama tried—but failed—to incorporate NFU into their Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPR), the document that defines an administration’s official outlook on nuclear weapons. If Warren wants an NFU, she should look to these Democratic presidents’ pasts to learn how to make her lofty goal achievable.
The Clinton Administration: Lacking Civilian Leadership
President Clinton showed an early interest in nuclear reform with his appointment of Les Aspin as Secretary of Defense. Aspin had formerly been the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, where he had championed the cooperative threat reduction program and argued that “a world without nuclear weapons would actually be better.”