William J. Perry
Former Secretary of Defense
August 9, 2017
On August 8th, President Trump appeared to threaten first use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. This is a dangerous departure from historical precedent. The policy and practice of the United States on threats to use nuclear weapons has been consistent for many decades, and for presidents of both political parties.
Historically, the threat to use nuclear weapons has always been tied to deterrence or extended deterrence; unofficial U.S. policy is that the use of nuclear weapons would only be in response to the first use of nuclear weapons against the United States or an ally covered by our extended deterrence.
We do not make empty threats, because empty threats weaken our credibility, and weaken the strength of threats that we do intend to carry out. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “speak softly but carry a big stick.”
During the early Cold War, the more shrill the language used by Premier Khrushchev against the United States, the more tempered was the response of President Eisenhower. Just as in those tense times, today’s crisis also calls for measured language.