Spotlight

The Bomb and the State of the Union

February 07, 2013

By Jonathan Fox - Since 1949, nuclear issues have been mentioned in nearly every State of the Union (SOTU) address, usually only in general terms. Domestic concerns often trump international concerns, as reflected in a historic review of these annual speeches.  Issues more salient to the daily lives of American citizens and to the legislative agenda than the threat of nuclear weapons generally receive the most attention.  There are, nonetheless, a few notable exceptions.

Harry Truman's 1953 State of the Union address was devoted almost entirely to the subject of nuclear danger.  In 1953 nuclear weapons' technology was rapidly advancing, the Cold War was in full swing, Soviets had acquired atomic bombs and the United States had recently tested the first thermonuclear weapon. President Truman's final address to Congress took time to discuss these developments and called for controls over the spread of nuclear weapons, "We in this Government realized, even before the first successful atomic explosion, that this new force spelled terrible danger for all mankind unless it were brought under international control."

The bomb also figured prominently in John F. Kennedy's 1963 address. His administration was marked by a great many atmospheric nuclear tests and concerted efforts to negotiate a Test Ban Treaty. His last State of the Union address was delivered less than five months after the Cuban missile crisis, and the spectre of a nuclear exchange remained fresh in Americans' minds:

"The world was not meant to be a prison in which man awaits his execution. Nor has mankind survived the tests and trials of thousands of years to surrender everything-including its existence--now. This Nation has the will and the faith to make a supreme effort to break the log jam on disarmament and nuclear tests--and we will persist until we prevail, until the rule of law has replaced the ever dangerous use of force."

Jimmy Carter's 1978 address was the first to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, "We want actual reductions in strategic arms as a major step toward the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth." His final address, delivered in 1981, contains the highest number of references to nuclear danger in all of the SOTU remarks surveyed. He focuses on the global consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons, "Nuclear proliferation would raise the spectre of the use of nuclear explosives in crucial, unstable regions of the world endangering not only our security and that of our Allies, but that of the whole world."

Carter is not the only President to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In 1984 Ronald Reagan also endorsed abolishment: "The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?"

Recent statements on nuclear danger have focused on Iran and North Korea. Perhaps the most noteworthy of President Barack Obama's references in his 2012 State of the Union was:  "Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." 

If Iran is seen moving closer to towards a nuclear weapon or North Korea follows up on its threat to carry out another nuclear test, the subject of nuclear danger is likely to figure more prominently in the upcoming February 12th State of the Union.  Negative developments in either Iran or North Korea could push national security to the forefront, making it more likely that President Obama will devote less time to a wider, idealistic vision, expressed in his 2009 Prague speech, for a world free of nuclear weapons.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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