Speaking at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event, Biden said that for the “first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of nuclear weapon use if, in fact, things continue on the path they follow”.
Biden has certainly shown himself to be able to speak involuntarily — or “skip off,” to borrow a phrase — but he’s said one version of it not once, not twice, but three times.
“We haven’t faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he repeated at another point.
“We have a guy I know quite well,” he added of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s not kidding when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, grossly underperforming.”
It is valid to ask where these comments come from. Certainly, Putin’s nuclear slashing is on a level not seen in many years, if ever, with Russia threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin is also in a situation he never really was in, with the war in Ukraine going badly and threatening to embarrass him and his country. Biden warns us that we shouldn’t treat this as a bluff.
“There is no example since 1962 that comes close to the concrete threats that Putin made,” said Paul D’Anieri, an expert on Russia-Ukraine relations at the University of California, Riverside. “Similarly, the United States has never expressed anything like the current level of concern that a nuclear weapon might be used.”
But why deploy this kind of speech during a political fundraiser? At the very least, it would risk playing into the idea that this is somehow politics – exactly how, it’s not really clear – rather than a serious warning to the American people.
If we take Biden at face value, however — that the prospect is something he truly fears, and to that extent — it’s worth putting into historical perspective.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was indeed the most serious threat of open nuclear war during the Cold War. But there were many other fears, often due to mistakes or misinterpreted signals.
In 1967, the US military readied nuclear-armed planes for launch after it incorrectly assumed that the Soviet Union had jammed US surveillance radars, according to a 2016 article published by the journal Space Weather. It was later discovered to be the result of a major solar storm instead.
In 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian-Syrian offensive dragged Israel into a possible nuclear response – although exactly what type of response is disputed. While some have said that Israel prepared nuclear missiles to attack, renowned expert Avner Cohen wrote that Israel’s defense minister instead detonated a nuclear warhead over the desert as a show of force.
In 1979 and 1980, there were several false alerts of potential Soviet ballistic missiles aimed at the United States.
1983, the Soviet Union prepares planes equipped with nuclear weapons in East Germany during a NATO exercise. US intelligence released last year said the Soviets had initiated “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons”. In one case, a Soviet squadron was asked to forego the use of an electronic jamming pod due to “an unexpected weight and balance problem”, according to US military intelligence, which feared that doesn’t mean they were loading a new type of weapon.
(It was also the year that Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative – commonly and often derisively referred to as “Star Wars” – an extremely expensive initiative to try to prevent the Soviets from hitting the United States with nuclear weapons.)
And in 1995, even after the end of the Cold War, Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear briefcase for fear of an incoming ballistic missile from Norway that Russia believed was a strike by the Americans. David Hoffman of The Washington Post noted that this was the first time a Russian or Soviet had taken this step.
As George Bass wrote for Retropolis in January, these threats turned out to be less serious than initially thought, if not serious at all. But concern about them has reinforced very real fears of nuclear war, especially with the Soviets.
The war in Ukraine differs from all the others in that, this time, a heavily nuclear-armed country has been pushed back into some sort of corner (albeit by an invasion of its own choosing). And the threats to use nuclear weapons are quite open. D’Anieri noted that in none of these instances “were there serious discussions by serious people that nuclear weapons might be used. In this sense, the current situation is truly unprecedented.
Biden’s motivations for speaking the way he did on Thursday night are difficult to parse. On the one hand, he may have received information that is of particular concern to him at this time. Raising such a concern at a political fundraiser — rather than an official White House event — could be an attempt to make Russia guess how intentional his comments were.
It should be noted, however, that the Department of Defense told Politico on Friday that “we have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture and we have no indication that Russia is preparing to use any imminent manner of nuclear weapons”; the spokesman said the president’s comments simply expressed that the United States takes Putin’s threats seriously.
And it’s also worth noting that Biden has shown a real ability to just say things — things that White House officials then have to backtrack on. (Admittedly, many politicians have found themselves speaking a bit too freely at political fundraisers, where they’re surrounded by people who support them and literally pay money to see them.)
But Biden isn’t just a first-term president; he also has real experience in these matters. Elected to the Senate in the mid-1970s, one of his top priorities early in his term was arms control. He communicated directly with high-ranking Soviet officials, including leading a delegation in 1979 for talks on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT).
And as recently as late 2020, after his election as president, Biden reflected on the very real threats of this era. He cited the “long twilight struggle against Soviet tyranny that could have ended not in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but in nuclear Armageddon”.
The A-word is now back in Biden’s public rhetoric — for the first time, at least in this foreign affairs context, since that 2020 Thanksgiving speech. why it reappeared and how deliberate it was.