WASHINGTON (July 31, 2019)—Last night during the Democratic Party presidential debate in Detroit, candidates discussed whether the United States should adopt a policy that states it will not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
While many believe the United States only maintains nuclear weapons to deter other countries from using their nuclear weapons, U.S. policy also allows it to use nuclear weapons first in a non-nuclear conflict with another nuclear-armed country. The president has sole authority to decide whether to launch such an attack.
The candidates had different opinions on this policy, but nationwide there is strong public support for the idea that the United States should not start a nuclear war.
Indeed, in the state where the debate took place, two-thirds of those polled in a recent survey said that the United States should not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, including more than a third who say the United States should never use them. Only one in five Michiganders think there are circumstances in which it would be acceptable for the United States to use nuclear weapons first.
The survey, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that residents of key primary states hold similar views. For example, 73 percent of New Hampshire residents agreed that the United States should not use nuclear weapons first, including 18 percent who believe the United States should never use them. Meanwhile, 57 percent of the Iowans surveyed said the United States should not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, including 31 percent who stated the United States should never use them.
Nationally, a 2016 poll found that 67 percent of Americans supported the idea that the United States should not use nuclear weapons first, including 17 percent who said the United States should never use them.
“Policies permitting the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with another nuclear-armed nation and granting the president sole authority to launch nuclear weapons are dangerous,” says Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. “If the United States crossed the nuclear threshold and started a nuclear war, that would open up our country to a retaliatory attack. That fact that one person can decide to use these weapons makes it even more dangerous.
“These policies are left over from the Cold War, and it is past time to change them,” he added. “Doing so would increase U.S. security and protect the rest of the world at the same time.”
For more information about a no-first-use policy, see this UCS fact sheet.