The threat of a limited or tactical nuclear war is growing, with no off ramp in sight.

Ukraine’s neighbour, Belarus, for one, would be willing to use the nuclear weapons given to them by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Wagner mercenaries probe the frontier of that nation’s northern neighbours, especially Poland and Lithuania.

Close ally and creature of Putin’s Kremlin, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, recently warned that if provoked by Ukraine or neighbouring NATO countries, “we will not tarry, wait and the rest. We will use the entire arsenal of our weapons for deterrence.”

But then, the aging dictator let the cat out of the bag, saying he didn’t bring in weapons just “to scare someone”.

“These are,” he made plain, “tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones. This is why we will use them immediately once aggression is launched against us.”

For its part, nearly 5,000 miles away – the distance from Washington, D. C. to Minsk, the capital of Belarus – the Atlantic Council released a report indicating that the US and its allies must be ready to deter a two-front war and nuclear attacks in East Asia.

In the same week, the Biden administration approved sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands, while hailing a “new era of partnership” between the US, South Korea and Japan at Camp David – both within range of Pyongyang’s rocket tests.

Nuclear war is back on the table.

You can bet the State Department press release touting the so-called Camp David Principles did not utter a word about the prospect of Japan and South Korea looking down the barrel of a nuclear bomb.

In any case, the Atlantic Council findings are supposed to serve as a wake-up call, as though there is something new under the sun.

This essentially is Washington-speak for “look at me”.

According to the report, “The US and its allies can no longer think about conflicts with the PRC and North Korea in isolation from each other, and they must take urgent action to prepare for the possibility of facing limited nuclear attacks in an East Asia conflict scenario.”

This means one or two things can happen.

The first is the potential for conflict with either China or North Korea to become a simultaneous conflict with both.

The second is the possibility that either one or both adversaries would choose to launch a limited nuclear attack – rather than concede defeat – in a military showdown.

Nuclear war on the continent

Setting aside east Asia (a story for another day), is it even possible that a nuclear war could erupt in Europe, leaving the US unscathed?

The answer is a resounding, yes.

In a meeting with a group of out-of-town newspaper editors, President Ronald Reagan, talking about plans to deploy a new generation of medium-range American-made nuclear missiles destined for Europe, was asked this very question.

“I don’t know honestly,” Reagan said, adding that with each side having equal forces, “I could see where you can have an exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.”

Bingo! There it is.

For his part, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev held similar views, persuaded that nuclear war was not only possible, but “winnable”.

American military doctrine was a mirror image of Soviet doctrine.

It still is.

The lesson is plain.

Tactical nuclear wars can be won, and will be fought.

But, like any other deadly game, there are rules.

And, sometimes, penalties.

“A spot reprisal”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy warned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev the Kremlin would be held responsible.

JFK’s warning was chilling: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

What the president did not know at the time was that the removal of strategic missiles from Cuba – medium-range offensive ballistic missiles with a range of 1,860 miles – did not mean that all Soviet missiles had left the island.

Undetected and remaining behind were nearly one hundred short-range tactical nuclear weapons – the so-called defensive kind that could wipe out a battalion of invading US Marines.

Would this have triggered a general thermonuclear war?

No, probably not.

This was why Kennedy wanted to be sure that US commanders in Europe would not fire their missiles without express order from the President to do so.

He did not want a general nuclear war through miscalculation, a breakdown of communication with his own commanders, or excessive initiative on the part of those commanders to news of the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Had there been, JFK, like Reagan or Brezhnev years later, would probably have responded with tactical nuclear weapons against a Soviet target or surrogate, well beneath the threshold of general thermonuclear war.

This is why Kennedy told his senior national security advisers that he was concerned European commanders might not “realise there is a chance there will be a spot reprisal” and “don’t fire off and think the US is under attack.”

Ironically, this move perfectly captures the Russian doctrine today “of escalate, to de-escalate”.

We’ve been here before.

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