[The United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II in 1945 — the only example in history of a first use, or any use, of nuclear weapons in warfare. Almost every president since Harry S. Truman has made it clear that nuclear weapons would be used only as a last resort, so the pledge would have largely ratified unwritten policy.]
By David E. Sanger and William J. Broad
President Obama at a wreath-laying ceremony with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
of Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in May.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama, who has weighed ruling out a first use of a nuclear weapon in a conflict, appears likely to abandon the proposal after top national security advisers argued that it could undermine allies and embolden Russia and China, according to several senior administration officials.
Mr. Obama considers a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons as critical to his legacy. But he has been chagrined to hear critics, including some former senior aides, argue that the administration’s second-term nuclear modernization plans, costing up to $1 trillion in coming decades, undermine commitments he made in 2009.
For months, arms control advocates have argued for a series of steps to advance the pledge he made to pursue “a world without nuclear weapons.” An unequivocal no-first-use pledge would have been the boldest of those measures. They contend that as a practical matter no American president would use a nuclear weapon when so many other options are available.
Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry said in a recent interview, “It’s the right time,” noting that the pledge would formalize what has been America’s unspoken policy for decades.
But in the end, Mr. Obama seems to have sided with his current advisers, who warned in meetings culminating this summer that a no-first-use declaration would rattle allies like Japan and South Korea. Those nations are concerned about discussion of an American pullback from Asia prompted by comments made by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry also expressed concern that new moves by Russia and China, from the Baltic to the South China Sea, made it the wrong time to issue the declaration, according to senior aides in the Defense and State Departments. Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz, whose department oversees the nuclear arsenal, joined in the objections, administration officials confirmed.
The New York Times interviewed more than a half-dozen administration officials involved in or briefed on the nuclear debate. All insisted on anonymity to describe internal administration deliberations on nuclear strategy.
The United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II in 1945 — the only example in history of a first use, or any use, of nuclear weapons in warfare. Almost every president since Harry S. Truman has made it clear that nuclear weapons would be used only as a last resort, so the pledge would have largely ratified unwritten policy.
Administration officials confirmed that the question of changing the policy on first use had come up repeatedly this summer as a way for Mr. Obama to show that his commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in American strategy — and thus the risk of nuclear exchanges — was more than rhetorical.
But the arguments in front of the president himself were relatively brief, officials said, apparently because so many senior aides objected. Mr. Carter argued that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, could interpret a promise of no first use as a sign of American weakness, even though that was not the intent.
The defense secretary’s position was supported by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Moniz, two architects of the Iran nuclear deal, who cautioned that such a declaration could unnerve American allies already fearful that America’s nuclear umbrella cannot be relied upon. Mr. Trump talked explicitly in interviews about withdrawing military forces from Asia unless Tokyo and Seoul paid more for their presence, and said in March that he was willing to see them build their own nuclear arsenals rather than depend on Washington.
According to one senior administration official, Mr. Kerry told Mr. Obama that a no-first-use pledge would also weaken the nuclear deterrent while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea.
Mr. Obama and his national security team have rejected a second option: “de-alerting” nuclear missiles ready to fire on short notice. The fear is that in a crisis, “re-alerting” the weapons could escalate a conflict.
Earlier, Mr. Obama and his aides also decided against eliminating one element of the “triad” of land-, air- and submarine-launched weapons. The idea was to remove the missiles based in silos across the American West, which are considered outdated and vulnerable to a first strike. But the Pentagon argued strongly that the ground-based missiles were the part of the system with which they had the most assured communications, and that it was too risky to get rid of them.
In the past year, arms control advocates, including some of Mr. Obama’s former aides, have argued that Mr. Obama still has time to repair his reputation as an atomic visionary.
“Let Obama be Obama,” Andrew C. Weber, an assistant secretary of defense for atomic programs from 2009 to 2014, said in an interview.
Mr. Weber strongly opposes the White House’s recent approval of a nuclear cruise missile. “The defense complex is doing a full-court press, so things are going to be very hard to change,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s favorite nuclear strategist in his first term, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James E. Cartwright, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article last month with Bruce G. Blair of Princeton University, a former Minuteman launch officer, that “nuclear weapons today no longer serve any purpose beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries.”
“Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history,” they concluded.
Mr. Obama made the eventual elimination of nuclear arms a centerpiece of his 2008 presidential campaign. In contrast, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has said little this year about her nuclear plans, and Mr. Trump has argued for a major military buildup.
Once Mr. Obama took office, his ambitions were frustrated. While he achieved a major arms control treaty, New Start, in 2010 — driven through the Senate by Mr. Kerry — it came at a price: He won Republican votes by agreeing to a sweeping plan to modernize the American nuclear arsenal and build a new generation of weapon carriers, including bombers, missiles and submarines.
In 2013, some of Mr. Obama’s former national security officials criticized the plan, saying his original vision was in danger of being turned on its head. The doubters included Philip E. Coyle III and Steve Fetter, who had recently left White House posts.
One study estimated the modernization cost at $1 trillion over three decades.
The Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, released an analysis showing that Mr. Obama had dismantled fewer nuclear warheads than any other post-Cold War president.
Inside the White House, Mr. Obama asked for new ideas to advance his agenda before leaving office. In May, he went to Hiroshima — the first American president to do so — and reaffirmed his vision of a nonnuclear world.
“We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear,” he said at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime. But persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.”
Ten days later, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, outlined possible efforts in a speech to the Arms Control Association, a private group in Washington. His list included putting more nuclear material under tight security, reaffirming a global ban on nuclear testing and revisiting the administration’s plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal. It was an agenda sure to please his audience, but one that would largely fall to the next administration to execute.
The president, Mr. Rhodes said, “will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.” That review included the no-first-use pledge.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Carter argued that a ban on first use would be unwise. If North Korea used biological weapons against the South, he and other Pentagon officials said, the United States might need the option of threatening a nuclear response. Mr. Kerry argued that Japan would be unnerved by any diminution of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps be tempted to obtain their own weapons. The same argument, he said, applied to South Korea.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Carter have not taken public positions in large part because they do not want to appear to influence Mr. Obama as he makes a decision.
Had Mr. Obama issued the no-first-use declaration, officials conceded, the next president could have rejected it. In an interview this year, Mr. Trump bristled at the idea, saying he would never want to weaken America’s leverage. Mrs. Clinton has not spoken on the issue during her campaign.
But a no-first-use policy would have been hard for either to undo. Military experts say the next president would hesitate to reverse such a decision since the quick reversal would confuse allies and possibly fray important coalitions.